In September 1620, a ship embarked from the western coast of England. The vessel was transporting goods to be sold in America. The Mayflower was branded onto the pages of American history forever. There were 102 passengers on board. Forty of them were what we call Puritans, though they called themselves “saints.”
Their goal? To set up a new church in the new world. The Puritans wanted to establish a theocratic state, one where the civil government served the end of their religious motivations.
“[The goal] is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord; the comfort and increase of the body of Christ, whereof we are members; that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our Salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.”
More than 200 were arrested and nearly 50 killed in these two years alone — almost exclusively women.
Surprisingly, the Puritans weren’t as anti-sex as some Christian sects of the time. They didn’t demand lifelong celibacy, even among the clergy. Sex was fine as long as it was between a man and woman who shared their “conjugal love” in marriage’s “conjugal union.”
They didn’t merely allow sex between married couples — they encouraged it. It was your duty to have sex with your partner if married. This sexual entitlement in consummated relationships is still with us today.
But there was a curious double standard in their ideas about sex crimes:
- Fornicators paid fines or were whipped.
- Adulterers and sodomizers were put to death regardless of whether the act was heterosexual or homosexual.
What was the difference between a fornicator and an adulterer? It all boiled down to their sex. Fornication was a crime men committed. Adultery was a crime women committed. A man who cheated on his wife was guilty of fornication. A woman who cheated on her husband was guilty of adultery.
The Puritans were willing to forgive a man’s sexual transgressions. A woman enjoying sex outside of marriage was unthinkable — a crime punishable by death. This strain of sexist double standards is alive and well in Evangelical movements today.
Freedom: Trouble in Paradise
England had long stopped punishing these kinds of sex crimes. Fornication was no longer a crime. Puritans came to America to enforce their strict religion through the state’s power. The Puritans were merely one small Christian sect among many.
While most Protestants escaped Europe to experience liberty, the Puritans had escaped a world they believed to be rife with sexual deviancy. They wanted to create a world where they could control sex with an iron fist. Soon, their paradise was overtaken by people with relaxed sexual attitudes.
Brothels cropped up in Philadelphia and New York. The later Puritans despised the awakening of secularism and the Enlightenment values of the day. Thomas Jefferson had a massive library that contained erotic literature. The American Founding Fathers enjoyed erotica.
The twin evils of secularism and sex went together like PornHub and lubricant to religious extremists. Secularism meant devious sex and child corruption, just as it does among religious circles today.
The harsh reality of being faced with the world’s sexual appetites presented a massive problem to the puritanical mindset — the problem that free people would choose to enjoy themselves as they wished.
A Christian Nation?
The Revolutionary War came and went, and puritanical values remained among a small group of devoutly religious people until the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s. This was a period of religious revival when different sects set aside theological differences to unify against “sin and evil.”
They gathered in town halls and conducted vibrant, frenzied spectacles, like Evangelical churches today. By the 1840s, the idea that “America is a Christian nation” took root in extremist sects. They increasingly felt their religious beliefs should supersede the secular values of our Constitution.
Ironically, these Evangelicals were much more zealous than their predecessors were. They preached chastity, whereas the Puritans did not.
This led to the Tariff Act of 1842, when the federal government banned “indecent and obscene” materials from being imported. Anti-masturbation underwear was invented to keep people from touching their genitals.
The chastity belts of the Middle Ages were mere myths. Chastity belts were conceived in the 1800s.
One device was designed to rip out your pubic hair if you tried. Something tells me many sexual masochists enjoyed these contraptions.
By 1860, rubber condoms, spermicides, and other contraceptives had been invented. That’s when Religious extremists abandoned the biblical idea that life begins at first breath (Genesis 2:7), declaring life begins at fertilization.
Women suddenly had control over their sex lives, and the religious extremists were very pissed off.
Society for the Suppression of Vice
In response to women’s newfound sexual liberties, the Comstock Act was passed in 1873. This little gem banned condoms outright. Using the Post Office to enforce its bidding, the Comstock act federally banned everything considered “obscene” — mainly condoms.
The law explicitly banned “instruments pertaining to contraception…even if written by a physician.” This battle between religion and medicine has been going on ever since. It was illegal even to have pamphlets, pictures, drawings, or advertisements of any material deemed obscene. Sex education materials were federally banned, making selling, shipping, or transporting them illegal.
The law took its name from Anthony Comstock, who was the chair of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which is something that sounds straight out of 1984.
Comstock was born in 1844, during the height of the Second Great Awakening, and he constantly lamented the “sin and wickedness” he saw all around him in the world.
Comstock’s religious control would remain with America for nearly 100 years.
A Century of Religious Control
By 1919, states started passing their own laws to ban birth control as more and more men tried to control women’s sexuality. It wouldn’t be until the United States Vs. One Package case in 1936 that the Comstock Act would be overturned federally — almost fifty years later.
Upset about the verdict, states began rapidly passing anti-contraception laws. Condoms were banned in states all over America. Birth control devices were deemed “obscene” and criminalized.
It took decades for the Supreme Court to strike these laws down one by one as unconstitutional. Especially in the 1960s, many laws were deemed invasions of privacy and antithetical to American liberty.
It wouldn’t be until 1970 that the final remnants of the Comstock Act would be struck from federal law—ninety-eight years later. In 1972, the final state-level Comstock Laws would finally be overturned with Eisenstadt V. Baird.
Roe Vs. Wade: A New Chapter
So far, we’ve covered 350 years of sexual control without mentioning abortion one time. The period has spanned from 1620 to 1972.
That’s 350 years of religion telling people how they can and cannot have sex. Everything from condom use to sodomy, from sex education to pornography, was banned for a century — until Roe.
In 1973, after the Supreme Court struck down the last vestiges of anti-contraception laws, Roe Vs. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court.
The court cited the 1965 case Griswold V. Connecticut in deciding Roe V. Wade. Griswold V. Connecticut established that while not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, privacy is a right Americans are entitled to. Griswold V. Connecticut said privacy was implied in the Constitution, outlawing state bans on contraception.
Using this, Roe V. Wade judged two things:
- A woman’s healthcare decisions were her own private matter. This is incredibly important.
- That the court could not support the idea that life begins at fertilization dreamed up during the Second Great Awakening. The court proclaimed women have an absolute right to an abortion in the first trimester, and the states can moderately regulate abortion after that point.
Subsequent years would see the Fourth Great Awakening, another era of religious fervor in response to Roe V. Wade. Anger had been bubbling since the 1960s as Comstock laws were successively struck down and sexual liberty became commonplace.
Evangelicals have been upset about abortion ever since.
Research published by Pew in 2022 found Evangelicals are still driving anti-abortion sentiment:
- 77% of white Evangelicals think abortion should be illegal in all or almost all cases and 21% think it should be legal in all or almost all cases.
- 54% of Protestants believe abortion should be illegal in all or almost all cases while 44% believe it should be legal in all or almost all cases.
- Of Catholics, 43% believe it should be illegal and 55% believe it should be legal in all or almost all cases. Then there are men…
- 42% of men believe abortion should be illegal and 56% think it should be legal in most or all cases. And women?
- 37% believe it should be illegal and 62% think it should be legal in most or all cases.
But Roe V. Wade is much more than just abortion.
Roe V. Wade and the preceding judgments of the time did much more than legalizing abortion. They rendered a person’s sex life and sexual health a private matter that wasn’t to be controlled by anyone else’s religious views.
It would be fifty years before Donald Trump nominated extremely right-wing judges favorable to the Evangelicals’ pursuits.
Here’s the thing: abortion is just one component in a much larger conservative narrative about sex and women’s roles in society.
They can’t be untangled.
- If it was truly about saving babies, why did the Evangelicals fight so vehemently to keep condoms illegal for nearly 100 years?
- If it was truly about saving babies, why did they fight for decades to keep gay marriage from being legalized, spending hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars to keep gay marriage illegal? Gay people seldom have abortions.
- If it’s truly about saving babies, why fight so vehemently hard to also ban birth control, which, ironically, prevents abortion.
- If it’s truly about saving babies, why pass laws that ban electronic devices that can access pornography?
- If it’s truly about saving babies, why talk about banning contraception again? Why does Brett Kavanaugh call former Justice Byron White’s comments on the laws of the 1960s and 1970s “persuasive” if Justice Byron White dissented against Roe and supported keeping anti-gay, anti-sodomy laws on the books?
None of these laws have to do with fetuses or fertilized eggs. They all have to do with controlling people’s sex lives.
Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett declared during their hearings that Griswold was a reasonable judgment by the court, but all three said that Roe was “settled law,” too, and now, suddenly, they plan to overturn Roe.
So what does that mean for Griswold? And which other sexual rights and Supreme Court protections are on the chopping block?
I’m tempted to worry about all of them.
Thanks for reading. This story was written by Joe Duncan. He can be found on Medium and on Twitter. Sign up for his Substack publication, The Science of Sex, which explores the world of human sexuality through the lens of science.
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