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Riotous Flesh

Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America

Riotous Flesh

Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America

Nineteenth-century America saw numerous campaigns against masturbation, which was said to cause illness, insanity, and even death. Riotous Flesh explores women’s leadership of those movements, with a specific focus on their rhetorical, social, and political effects, showing how a desire to transform the politics of sex created unexpected alliances between groups that otherwise had very different goals.

As April R. Haynes shows, the crusade against female masturbation was rooted in a generally shared agreement on some major points: that girls and women were as susceptible to masturbation as boys and men; that “self-abuse” was rooted in a lack of sexual information; and that sex education could empower women and girls to master their own bodies. Yet the groups who made this education their goal ranged widely, from “ultra” utopians and nascent feminists to black abolitionists. Riotous Flesh explains how and why diverse women came together to popularize, then institutionalize, the condemnation of masturbation, well before the advent of sexology or the professionalization of medicine.

248 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Women's Studies


“Haynes’ magnificent Riotous Flesh shows that in 19th-century America—despite the taboo of female sexuality—it was a concern with women’s bodies that lay at the heart of anti-masturbation campaigns. . . . Turning to the history of physiology, it puts women centre stage as it explores how, why and to what effect diverse female reformers, abolitionists and educators spoke publicly about the solitary vice. Riotous Flesh is a treasure trove of historical insight.”

Times Higher Education

Riotous Flesh sets a new standard for how to study together black and white female reformers while ultimately recognizing how their ideas, tactics, and the resulting consequences necessarily diverged. Haynes has produced a work of lasting influence that is distinguished for its novel and exacting research, brilliant analysis, sharp and engaging prose, and a keenly perceptive eye for historiographic debate.”

James Broussard Prize Committee, SHEAR

“Haynes has written one of those rare books that provokes me to reinterpret much of what I once understood about antebellum sexual reform. And by thoroughly integrating race into her analysis of sex and gender, Riotous Flesh makes for a compelling and courageous rewrite of nineteenth-century reform. It is also replete with memorable stories dug laboriously out of the archives and honed into well-placed narrative diamonds.”

Stephen Nissenbaum | author of Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America

“Haynes’s book is a rare treat: an important contribution to the interwoven histories of white and black women, antislavery reform, medicine, and sexuality that is well-researched, clearly-argued, and beautifully written. It will greatly enrich scholars’ and students’ conversation about the possibilities of imagining a feminist sexuality in particular contexts of power. And although one struggles—with a nod to her topic—to exercise appropriate restraint, it is worth acknowledging that reading, and engaging, with Riotous Flesh is also great fun.”

Lori D. Ginzberg | author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

“Haynes’s compelling argument will change the way scholars think, write, and teach about the moral reform movement, antislavery movement, and female sexuality in the nineteenth century. The book is deeply original, persuasive, and rich, and readers will discover something new with each encounter. Riotous Flesh is a revelation.”

Carol Faulkner | author of Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America

“Haynes is a discerning researcher, a brilliant interpreter of historical evidence, and a gifted writer. Focusing on a topic still often taboo, Riotous Flesh brings together the histories of sexuality, medicalization, and race in the United States and presents a multifaceted and intricate history that is dazzlingly fresh and revelatory. Riotous Flesh will change not only the way we think about black and white women’s sexuality but how we understand the political culture of nineteenth-century America.”

Elizabeth Reis | author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex

"Riotous Flesh is deeply researched. . .It is a learned interrogation of the history of the body and its role in antebellum reform politics and a must-read for historians of women, gender, sexuality, and race in the United States."

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

Table of Contents


1. The Gender of Solitary Vice

2. Licentiousness in All Its Forms

3. Making the Conversation General

4. A Philosophy of Amative Indulgence

5. Flesh and Bones




Society for Historians of the Early American Republic: SHEAR Book Award

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