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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thou Shalt Not...Seed-Spill?

Colonial law books governing the morality of sex are vast to say the least. Early Puritan leaders were instrumental in establishing a codified system of laws that governed sexual morality, and provided a guideline of what was considered "acceptable" and what was considered "immoral." Along with these laws were the specific punishments that accompanied a particular "immoral" act. For example, bestiality and homosexuality were punishable by death. In fact, the first recorded execution in Massachusetts is that of a young man that was charged with "carnal lust" with animals.

One of the interesting laws that governed sexual practice in colonial America was that of "seed-spilling." In Massachusetts, the practice of masturbation was severely condemned by the clergy. The law was inspired by the Biblical precedent in Genesis 38:9, which states, "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, least he should give seed to his brother." The subsequent verse then mentions god's wrath and how Onan lost his life for such a practice.

Citizens of the various colonies were encouraged to report the practice of "seed-spilling" --which included a number of different sex acts but primarily dealt with masturbation -- wherever such cases were discovered. The initial punishment in Massachusetts for such a crime was death, following the Biblical precedent. The punishment was changed, however, in the latter parts of the 17th century to be "Four hours in the stocks."

The reason I bring up this law is because it illustrates an important aspect of American colonial society. Sexual deviance, though common in America throughout the colonial period, carried a strong religious condemnation that was very real for many people. Just look at the case of Joseph Moody. In the William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, historian Brian Carroll discusses how religious beliefs regarding sex impacted colonial society. In Moody's diary are written the following entries:

Thurs. [July] 19 [1722 ]. This morning I got up pretty late. I defiled myself, though wide awake. Where will my unbridled lust lead me? I have promised myself now for a year and a half that I would seek after God, but now I am perhaps farther away from him than ever before.

Mon. [April] 13 [1724 ]. Pretty Cold; wind from N. W. to S. fine weather. . . . I dined with the doctor and schoolmaster Abbott. Then with the doctor I called on Captain and Ensign Allen. I stayed up with my love not without pleasure, but I indulged my desire too freely, and at night the semen flowed from me abundantly.
The overwhelming sense of guilt that plagued Moody's soul gives us valuable insight into the moral mindset of colonial America. Even if sexual promiscuity was a common occurrence (and it most certainly was in colonial America), there were others who felt deeply about god's moral judgments that awaited them in the life to come.

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