3 min read

What Was Up With Virginia "Sex Ways"?

What Was Up With Virginia "Sex Ways"?
AI visualization of a Virginia Cavalier trying to have his way with a woman in the 17th century. The predatory male sexuality Mary Chesnut observed in the 19th century had its roots in colonial Virginia, and before that rural England. 

This week's video features diarist Mary Chesnut's observations on the predatory behavior of many antebellum Southern men, which she linked to the corrupting influence of slavery, alongside historian David Hackett Fischer's contention that in fact its cultural origins went back to colonial Virginia, before slavery had been widely established – and before that to the Cavaliers of the south and west of England, who behaved in similar ways in the 17th century.

A few weeks ago we looked at how Fischer, in his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America traced violence in the mostly Southern backcountry to the culture of the British borderlands. Another section of Albion's Seed explored the folkways of the Chesapeake region, which as noted above and in the video were predominantly settled by Anglicans from the south and west of England. Notably, slavery had existed longer in South England than in any other part of the country. (New England Puritans came from East Anglia, and the English Quakers of the Delaware Valley largely came from the English Midlands – each with their distinct cultures whose echoes resound even today.)

Each section explores a given region's distinct "speech ways," "building ways," "family ways," "marriage ways," "gender ways," "naming ways," "child ways," "age ways," "order ways," etc., originating in the corresponding region of the mother country from which the settlers came. The "sex ways" of Virginia were particulary spicy and contrasted most vividly with those of New England. As with other aspects of Anglican Virginian culture, Fischer writes that "we find evidence that Virginians held themselves to different standards of behavior according to their rank, gender and standing in society."

Women, especially gentlewomen, were held to the strictest standards of sexual virtue. Men, especially gentlemen, were encouraged by the customs of the country to maintain a predatory attitude toward women. A famous example was the secret diary of William Byrd II, an exceptionally full and graphic record of one planter's very active sex life. In its attitude toward sex, this diary was very different from any diary that was kept in Puritan New England. William Byrd was a sexual predator. Promiscuous activity was a continuing part of his mature life, and in some periods an obsession. With very mixed success, he attempted to seduce relatives, neighbors, casual acquaintances, strangers, prostitutes, the wives of his best friends, and servants both black and white, on whom he often forced himself, much against their wishes.

Take, for example, Byrd's adventures during a visit to London in September 1719:

7 September ... went to see Mrs. S-t-r-d but she was from home ...

8 September ... saw two women, a mother and daughter who stayed about two hours and then came Mrs. Johnson with whom I supped and ate some fricasee of rabbit and about ten went to bed with her and lay all night and rogered her twice ...

9 September ... the two Misses Cornish called on us to go to Southward Fair. We were no sooner there but Sally Cornish was so ill she was forced to go away to her sister and Colonel Cecil and I gallanted them to G-v-n [Covent] Garden

11 September ... I wrote some English till nine and then came Mrs. S-t-r-d. I drank a glass of wine to our good rest and then went to bed and rogered her three times. However, I could not sleep and neglected my prayers. ...

14 ... About eight I went to Mrs. Smith's where I met Mollyand had some oysters for supper and about eleven we went to bed and I rogered her twice...

17 ... about seven I went to Mrs. FitzHerbert's where I ate some boiled pork and drank some ale. About nine I walked away and picked up a girl whom I carried to the bagnio and rogered her twice very well. It rained abundance in the night.

The culture of tidewater Virginia encouraged this behavior in gentlemen. Fischer notes that there were some planters whose sexual activities "made even William Byrd appear a model of restraint."

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