Sex is bad and work is good?
May 1, 2008 3:38 PM   Subscribe

Our bodies are shameful because the Puritans told us so: Yea or Nay?

A friend of mine and I got into a row on the influence of Puritan beliefs on American culture, particularly in the areas of sex and work ethic.

Now, neither of us are experts in a) Puritans or b) sociology, and our discussion basically became a giant ball of, "Gee, we don't know." Basically, we were arguing this:

a. Do Puritan beliefs have an influence on current American culture?
b. How much of an influence does it have, relative to other cultures that have exerted their influence?
c. Why?

Extra credit: What about Britain? Surely some Puritans must've remained there, to subtly influence the culture as well. Is Britain more sexually conservative and pro-work than its neighbors?

I'd love to hear all your ideas!
posted by reebear to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I think there is some inherent instinctual body shame in mammals. Consider the common house cat, which instinctually buries it's feces (perhaps as a mechanism to protect against disease, or to prevent tracking from larger predators). It seems rather likely that such an instinctual impulse in our rear brain could be interpreted as shame or revulsion in our forebrain.

On the other hand, America is undoubtedly more church-going than Britain is. Some of this is almost certainly attributable to our historical ancestry. A rather in-depth editorial on this subject can be found here. The author attributes the differences to the structure of the American multitude of churches to the rigid Establishment of the CoE.

Also, it's pretty clear that American's are more conservative in their religious beliefs than British people are. For example, a 2004 Gallup poll found that Americans are much more likely to be against equal rights for homosexuals than Canadians or British people.

Do these facts point to a strict Puritanical influence? It's difficult to say for sure, and it's historically dangerous to try to find "sole source" causes for current phenomenon.
posted by muddgirl at 3:52 PM on May 1, 2008

As someone not born here (but previously exposed - like most of the world - to lots of American cultural influence), I'm still astonished at the 'Puritanical' attitudes of many (or most) Americans. This is especially true in the weird conflicts that Americans have about sex and sexuality and things like extra-marital affairs, as well as all sorts of issues relating to patriotism, work, religion, and so on. From what I know of American history, there's a distinct line one can follow from Puritan beliefs to many distinctly American beliefs of the modern day.

I suppose one can look at America as a tree with many branches grafted on, but with its trunk still soundly Puritan.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:52 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

In response to muddgirl, I would say that even in other highly church-going countries in Europe (Romania, for instance) the culture seems much more open to sex / sexuality and much less apt to view sex and nudity as "shameful."

Additionally, I know very few Americans who go to church or are even religious. But they do seem to share that Puritanical sensibility in some way.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2008

I think we can begin by blaming the puritans, then the Victorians, and then back to the protestant churches.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2008

The "we saw that we were naked, so we covered ourselves" story is a lot older than Puritanism. (Not saying that story is the origin of body shame, only illustrating that such a thing is much older than Puritans.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:56 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

The relationship between (capital-P) Puritanism and sexuality in America is a pretty complex one -- I don't think your question can actually be answered with a simple "yay" or "nay." Which is not to say that American attitudes about sex aren't pretty crazy and hypocritical (the incredible sexualization of youth in popular culture that exists side-by-side with the [small-p] puritanism of abstinence education, to mention just one example), but rather that it can't be reduced to just one factor.
posted by scody at 3:58 PM on May 1, 2008

I think we can begin by blaming the puritans, then the Victorians, and then back to the protestant churches.

And then back to those silly Catholics; then back to patriarchal, hunter-gatherer notions of body-property; then back to the beginning of society in general.

I think the question should be, "Why do Americans continue with attitudes that other cultures consider to be outdated?"
posted by muddgirl at 3:59 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer:
a. Do Puritan beliefs have an influence on current American culture?
I really don't think so. For one thing, many of the original settlers weren't Puritans, and many areas of early settlement were pretty much Puritan-free zones. Puritans were largely limited to New England. The southern and middle colonies had very few Puritans at all. Also, Puritans weren't all that puritanical, when it came to sex, alcohol and things like that. They were very puritanical about things like theater and residual Catholic practices, which are not notable sites of American puritanicalness. We've got issues with porn, not with Christmas.

I think that you could argue that America's puritanicalness owes more to the rise of the middle-class in the 19th century and to the central role that certain middle-class Protestant values have played in American life ever since then. That's really when you saw a big emphasis on sexual morality, abstaining from alcohol, the centrality of the work ethic, etc.
posted by craichead at 4:00 PM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Following on from craichead, you might be interested to read up on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by renowned German sociologist, Max Weber.

But as others have noted, the mortification of the flesh goes back a long, long way within Christianity, protestant puritanism being just one of a number of its manifestations. The Stylites, for example, were amongst the very earliest Christians, practicing a very austere form of ascetic denial of the flesh.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:11 PM on May 1, 2008

Attitudes to sex and nudity don't need puritans. Try going to a beach in India for real covering up of people. Hinduism seems to be very strong on this.

American attitudes to sex are odd, but so are everyone else's. Try dating in a few different countries to encounter a myriad of attitudes. I was really surprised to see how in the US strip bars are more common and a more common part of many men's lives than in Australia, Sweden or Germany (other places I've lived). Swedes would see nothing wrong with taking their kit off and going for a swim, but a strip bar would be looked on as far more sleazy than Americans would see it.

Also, a lot of American protestantism doesn't just come from Britain. German, Dutch, Scottish and Swedish protestants had a large influence. The Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch - i.e. German) is just on example of this.

The 'protestant work ethic' exists in these Northern European places. But there is is a similar chinese work ethic that has nothing to do with fire breaching preachers from cold Northern European countries.

Is America affected by the Puritans - sure, but they only put a spin on innate customs that occur in many places in one way or another.

If you had to pick the biggest difference between Americans and Europeans it would be travel, holidays and knowledge of the rest of the world. Europeans are chronic travellers and know about the world. Americans, despite being well off, travel far, far less. Europeans tend to speak more than one language, Americans don't.
posted by sien at 4:13 PM on May 1, 2008

(that America is somehow unique in its continuation of attitudes considered by other cultures to be outdated).

(It's 100 degrees outside, but don't put the bus windows down, because we'll all die if wind blows across our backs!)

I can state for a fact that Ethiopians still believe this.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:29 PM on May 1, 2008

I was going to say "nay." But I think there is something to this; however, what's left today is just the hateful, vicious attitudes toward others, and not so much the actual puritanical behavior (it's not apparently the stereotype altogether). Here's another perspective. Here's the current funding for sex ed program perspective.I was going to say "nay." But I think there is something to this; however, what's left today is just the hateful, vicious attitudes toward others, and not so much the actual puritanical behavior (it's not apparently the stereotype altogether). Here's another perspective. Here's the current funding for sex ed program perspective.

I think they do influence us today. But just as it's about the most common stereotype imaginable to think of the horny Puritan rapist guy forcing himself on a young woman, then condemning her for tempting him to do it -- that's really what I think survives today. It's a system that seems to reward brutal creeps and that allows people to "get away" with saying really bad stuff. I think we're making a lot of progress in the right direction. We still have a long way to go.

This is a world where a single mother with an advanced degree and excellent job such as myself can be called a "whore," a "slut," and run up one side and down the other - including that I should "burn in hell for not having an abortion" and "burn in hell for having a baby (out of wedlock)." Yes, that was the same paragraph written by the same guy who never even bothered to graduate from high school, and who was writing about a baby he never laid eyes on and had no relation to whatsoever. He calls himself a "liberal" too. He says just about anything. I think that's what Puritanism is good for.
posted by ASterling at 4:33 PM on May 1, 2008

Americans, despite being well off, travel far, far less.

A lot more of us are less well off than you might think - and it's a long, long way to anywhere from here. Add to that our "generous" 2 week yearly vacations, and no, we don't go many places.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:41 PM on May 1, 2008 [5 favorites]

That question isn't a good substitute for the AskMe question above, since it assumes an untrue fact (that America is somehow unique in its continuation of attitudes considered by other cultures to be outdated). (It's 100 degrees outside, but don't put the bus windows down, because we'll all die if wind blows across our backs!)

Actually, my question does not assume that fact at all. Please scroll up and re-read it. America holds attitudes that other cultures consider to be old-fashioned or outdated. Also, other cultures hold attitudes that Americans consider to be old-fashioned or outdated. These statements are not contradictory.

I will be more clear. The question could be "Why do Americans believe things about sex that British people don't?" Our Puritan heritage might be part of it. General Protestant revivalism in the 19th century is another factor, a revivalism that didn't really see it's match in Britain, due to the stature of the CoE.
posted by muddgirl at 4:48 PM on May 1, 2008

It's on my list but I haven't read it yet: Founding Faith by Steve Waldman probably has answers for your questions.
posted by Rash at 5:00 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: Well, for more Puritan fun reading, I'll point to this post I made about them a few years back (my, how time flies). The section in the Wikipedia entry (first link in that post) titled "The Puritan Spirit in the United States" directly addresses your question, though not in much depth.

I don't see there can be anything like an objective, quantifiable answer to any of your questions. The clearest thing you could possibly demonstrate was socially important contemporary conservative religious figures being explicitly influenced by specific Puritan philosophical writings. I can't help you there, I have no idea if such a thing might be there to be found (although I wouldn't be astonished).

I think you could construct a valid argument that cultural conservatism is something that waxes and wanes in culture and that while a particular resurgence (say the 50's, the 80's, the 00's) may pay lip service to the "cultural traditions" of the past, it is equally creating the current climate from whole cloth in response to cultural pressures (WWI-II era, the 60s counterculture movement and Vietnam, 9/11 and the decline of American dominance, respectively, for instance - note I'm not particularly arguing or invested in any of these constructions, but none of them seem particularly more full of holes to me than blaming it on Puritans). I can't track down a citation at the moment but I recall a lot of talk going around a while ago arguing that, aside from specific enclaves in New England, America was a lot less religious in colonial times than it is now.

Finally, suppressing sexuality and glorifying work strikes me as pretty basic social engineering. You have only to look at the history of communist societies to see that religious adherence is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for this dynamic to develop
posted by nanojath at 5:20 PM on May 1, 2008

I think it stems from this:

More specifically, if you look at the histories of the American churches, they are all about cracking down on people and animal urges.
posted by gjc at 5:27 PM on May 1, 2008

The United States' relative lack of permissiveness is NOT tied to Puritanism.

Exhibit A: Massachusetts. The land where North American Puritanism took root is now the only state that lets homosexuals marry. If Puritan ethics were the root of American conservatism, wouldn't you expect the region that nutured American Puritanism (Greater Boston) to have the strongest adherence? "Banned in Boston" stopped meaning anything 60 years ago.

Exhibit B: The church of Puritanism, the dour, Calvinist Congregationalist Church is now part of the UCC, the most liberal denomination after the UUs. I dare you to find a UCC church that isn't displaying a rainbow flag somewhere.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:40 PM on May 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Americans, despite being well off, travel far, far less.

Is there any actual evidence of this? I'd buy that Americans travel to fewer foreign countries than Europeans, but it doesn't take a transoceanic flight and spending thousands of dollars to get to a foreign country if you live in Europe. I'd be surprised to learn, however, that Americans take fewer trips within the US than Europeans do within a similarly sized area.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:55 PM on May 1, 2008

That's not off base, Mayor Curley, but two points in response. First, Dee Xtrovert referred to a pervasive puritanism about sex among Americans. If you buy that-- which you don't have to-- then we're talking about something a bit more deeply felt, or a bit more subconsciously felt, then our views on homosexuality.

Also-- and this cuts against craichead's point-- even if Puritans were a minority of Americans and even if their influence has waned in New England, they could still have exerted a disproportionate effect at the time-- one that is still manifested in other parts of the country. White people have disproportionately influenced the world in the past few centuries. New Yorkers (and Bostonians) disproportionately influence the US.

So I disagree with the view presented in this thread that it's implausible that Puritans still influence Americans.

As sien and others points out, Puritans didn't invent the idea that the body is shameful. Plenty of earlier Christian cultures, and non-Christian cultures, have independently arrived at that viewpoint.
posted by ibmcginty at 7:09 PM on May 1, 2008

Most of what we consider small-p "puritanical" came from the Victorians, not the Puritans. Although the Puritans did sue each other a hell of a lot, so that's one influence they continue to have on us.
posted by goatdog at 7:28 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd posit that the idea of sex as shameful comes from the fact that bad things can happen when people have sex indiscriminately. Too many babies, too many diseases, too much cheating leading to too many fights, etc. So it was (pre-birth control) in the best interest of societies to keep a lid on it. Some were better at it than others.
posted by gjc at 7:31 PM on May 1, 2008

I agree with the thrust of muddgirl's argument, but in some respects -- especially sexual -- Britons are much more prudish than in the US, particularly when it comes to sex shops (mostly banned), porn cinemas (virtually non-existent), porn (hardcore is illegal) and strip joints (still frowned upon and fairly controversial).

That said, while Britain is more sexually conservative than its neighbours (or thinks of itself as being so), and definitely more pro-work* -- I don't think either thing is down to Puritans. The Victorians had a lot to do with the sex (although they were far more sexual than their reputation suggests), and the Protestant Ethic has a lot to do with the work, especially in Scotland.

* Though I want to be careful about this as well. It's very possible that there's more a culture of presenteeism rather than actual work going on. The French have a controversial 35-hour work-week limit, we opted out of the EU's proposed 45-hour max. In the US the same thing seems to lead to a ludicrous (to us) 2-week vacation. We generally have 5-6 weeks, the continent has more. Yet other nations are much better at producing actual outputs than we are. Go figure.
posted by bonaldi at 7:43 PM on May 1, 2008

Having been raised by what you could call modern-day Puritans, I would say there is a lot of truth to the bit about the Great Awakening; there are also indicators that Canada has a more puritanical bent than many other countries. (Note the writings of LM Montgomery, Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood all remind us of puritanical roots, and in the case of the latter authors, the cultural remnants of those roots.)

Many fundamentalist versions of Christianity are easily traceable to, say, Oliver Cromwell, or at the very least to John Calvin and John Knox. The French Huguenots were early settlers in lower New York. While the East Coast may now be a bastion of liberalism, I think that more strict theological views -- and cultural norms -- are widely held in other parts of the US that were settled later.

I would hesitate to try and pin down an extent to which Puritans have affected modern American culture, but you could definitely say they had an influence that still resonates.
posted by brina at 7:54 PM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: even if Puritans were a minority of Americans and even if their influence has waned in New England, they could still have exerted a disproportionate effect at the time-- one that is still manifested in other parts of the country.

But it's definitely not the big-P Puritans, because craichead has it: they weren't sexually very 'puritanical.' Their sexual mores would be somewhat shocking to those of us raised on the myths of the prim grim Pilgrims. They were, first and foremost, late medieval Europeans, and they carried on that way. They were serious about civil law on marriage, but didn't condemn the human interest in sex in and of itself.

Those who say that present-day American puritanism is a result of the nineteenth-century religious revival, itself a result of the creation of a middle class facilitated by the Industrial Revolution, are right.

The fact that we think of it as "Puritanism" I'd attribute to some Colonial Revivalist thinking, but that's taking a flyer on the idea. I haven't looked into when the term "puritanical" was first being applied to social behavior to imply prudery.
posted by Miko at 8:27 PM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

My link to the quote wasn't clear. What I was trying to say was that yes, the New England Puritan groups were disproportionately influential because Boston became a center of learning, transhipping, and publishing so very early on. But their influence in the area of sex wasn't the thing that gave rise to what we call "puritanical." Their influence was huge compared to their small numbers, but didn't include much of that.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on May 1, 2008

Those who say that present-day American puritanism is a result of the nineteenth-century religious revival, itself a result of the creation of a middle class facilitated by the Industrial Revolution, are right.

But also, it's important to mention, to the extent that attitudes towards libertinism are inherited from the colonial period, they're the product of Protestantism rather than Puritanism specifically. If you look at the legislative records of the government of New Amsterdam, for instance, about a third of the laws being passed were intended to curb public drinking, restrict taverns, and so on--even though the Dutch were not at all Puritan. So brina has it right, I think.

Although I'd say the Great Awakening is something of a red herring. Rather, it's the cycle of religious revivals that constantly re-establishes the moral code. So after the New Lights of the Great Awakening get too lax, you get the Methodists, and so on down to the Pentecostals.
posted by nasreddin at 3:18 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So many interesting questions here -- puritan attitudes to sex, puritan attitudes to work, puritan influences on modern culture -- that it's difficult to know where to begin.

First, the idea of sex as bad or shameful. There is, of course, a long tradition in Western Christianity (going back to Augustine) of seeing sexual desire as shameful and disordered (a symptom of human sinfulness in a fallen world), and the early Puritans share in this tradition to some extent. But there were other factors propelling the Puritans towards a more positive view of sex. Like other Protestants, the Puritans were very much opposed to the Roman Catholic position on clerical celibacy. They argued that the union of man and wife was part of the natural order of things, and that the rule of celibacy imposed on priests, monks and nuns was against that natural order. They argued that there was nothing wrong with sex as long as it was contained within marriage, and nothing wrong with the natural bodily appetites as long as they were not allowed to develop into gluttony or self-indulgence. The English Puritan William Gouge's famous treatise Of Domesticall Duties (1622), on the relationship between husband and wife, has a long section on 'man's natural affection to himself' based on a text from Ephesians: 'So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies: he that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hateth his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it.'

So why is it popularly assumed that Puritans were anti-sex? Well, as I've already said, Puritans believed in a natural order of things, a natural hierarchy or system of relationships running through the social order (husband/wife, master/servant, parent/child). This made them very hostile to anything they perceived as 'disorder', such as adultery or fornication. They believed in the need for a moral reformation to reform and regulate society in the way that the Protestant Reformation had already reformed the church, and wherever they could, they tried to set up legal institutions like the famous Consistory Court of Geneva to enforce this moral reformation. The result was that Puritans became associated, in the collective consciousness, with opposition to sex, booze and having fun. So the answer to your question is yes, Puritans were sexually conservative -- but their conservatism arises not from sexual repression, not from a belief that bodies are bad and sex is shameful. but from an almost utopian belief in the reshaping of society.

And the long-term effects? It's very easy, perhaps too easy, to see a puritan strain running through modern American society. (I was in Washington at the time of the Clinton impeachment vote, and I was fascinated by the tone of high moral seriousness with which the whole affair was being discussed in the media .. whereas in Britain, a Prime Minister getting caught with his pants down would be a subject for lewd mirth.) In general, however, I tend to be fairly sceptical of the idea of a 'puritan gene' in American culture. There is a long tradition of American historians trying to isolate the special factor that makes America different from the rest of the world, and many of these historians (most famously Perry Miller in The New England Mind) have singled out Puritanism as the key to American exceptionalism. Perhaps it's just because I'm English and view the whole thing with more detachment, but I'm less than convinced by these arguments. My own view is that the period 1850 to 1950 is really the crucial period in the formation of modernity, and that what we're living through at the moment, at least in Britain, is the gradual breakup of the Victorian consensus.
posted by verstegan at 3:59 AM on May 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Note to metafilter: There are two places known as Canada and Mexico. See if you can find them on a map. (Hint: not in Europe).

God, that's rude. Look, the U.S. is a big country. For someone living in, say, South Carolina, it's over 700 miles to Canada and more than 1,000 miles to Mexico. Show me where that obtains in Western Europe.

So I don't think it's all that odd for large swaths of America to miss out on the "cosmopolitan experience" of foreign travel that apparently leads to de-puritanizing.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:39 AM on May 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

In our defense I would first of all like to point out the enormous bilingual hispanic-american population. That said, there is pretty much no place I can go north of the Rio Grande all the way up to the Arctic Circle where I will encounter people who don't speak my language, unlike in Europe. (Please don't start in on language imperialism. In an immigrant nation like America you've got to have a common language. I'd happily have grown up speaking Greek like my mother, or French, or German or Cherokee, but English seems to have won out on that front.) Perhaps that sounds parochial, but as a practical matter, Americans simply don't need a second language. I'm not saying it's not good to have a second language, simply that, over here, honey everybody speaks English (pretty much). Also, when you say "Americans don't travel" I think you mean we don't travel to other countries. Perhaps this is because our country occupies most of an entire continent? How many countries have you been to? Personally, I've been to 15 different states, each one of which is the size of a European country. Sounds like travelling to me. This kind of critical (not to say ill-informed) harping on our language and travel habits is such knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
posted by nax at 9:28 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Currently reading Edward Gibbons' excellent Christianity and the Fall of Rome. He writes about the first Christians (who mostly had been Jews three seconds before baptism) maintaining their long standing Mosaic abhorrence of pagan ritual and celebration. Christians embraced a pride and a sense of high piety by disdaining the daily things that the Roman civilization continued on with around them. Part of that was the bacchanals and such, involving drunkeness and fornication. So, I would say that abhorrence of sex and such things is extremely deep rooted in the ability of Christianity to provide a strong identity and sense of 'difference' to its earliest adherents and has stuck around to this day. As to why it remains in America as opposed to Europe...I would guess that the majority of immigrants to this country were likely to be the poor and uneducated who still embraced the teachings of the church more passionately then the middle classes of Europe and they brought that sense of piety with them.
posted by spicynuts at 10:19 AM on May 2, 2008

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