What did the Puritans think of sex? Was it all just like The Scarlet Letter? Actually, the sex lives of the Puritans were more progressive than you might think. As long as sex was happening between two married straight people, the Puritans, in fact, thought that sex was literally a gift from God. That might not sound super-progressive in the 21st century, but as historian Richard Godbeer puts it, “It’s an important and radical departure from traditional Catholic teaching, which then saw sex, even within marriage, as morally tainted, as almost a necessary evil.”
But sex in puritan New England was also all about procreation, with any “non-procreative” acts outlawed. So Puritan sex beliefs centered on two straight people trying to make babies. But within that limited realm, the Puritans thought sex should be enjoyable and loving. Read on for some more interesting facts about the sex lives and beliefs of Puritans.
Wearing ‘Scarlet Letters’ Was, In Fact, a Thing
While Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may not be a totally historically accurate book (it was written in 1850, after all), convicted Puritan adulterers did, in the words of one historian, “forever display the nature of their crime upon their person.” The 1658 law reads like this (historical “misspellings” corrected for clarity):
“Wear two capital letters, namely A D, cut out in cloth and sewed on their uppermost garments on their arm or back; and if at any time they shall be taken without the said letters while they are in the government so worn, to be forthwith taken and publicly whipped.”
While the initial legislation didn’t specify the color of the letters, one known court case specified that the letters be red. In addition to the public shame, the law specified that the adulterer be “severely punished by whipping” twice.
Married Sex Was Meant to Be ‘Exuberant’
As long as it was between a married man and woman, the Puritans actually thought sex was pretty great. Lelan Ryken, author of Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, says that “Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant.” There are a ton of quotes from prominent Puritans expressing the joy of sex. One anonymous Puritan said married sex is like “two musical instruments rightly fitted” that “make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well-tuned consort.”
Clergyman William Gouge (pictured) referred to married sex as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage” and said married couples should have sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” Puritan writer Alexander Niccholes in 1615 said that in marriage “thou not only unitest unto thyself a friend and comfort for society, but also a companion for pleasure.”
Premarital Sex Was Severely Punished
Historical documents from the Plymouth Colony show that a couple having premarital sex – or “incontinency before their marriage” as the Puritans grossly put it – was worthy of harsh punishment. One couple, Thomas and Joane Pynson, was caught in 1640, but it’s unclear how. They may have gotten pregnant only a few months after getting married, which was a common telltale sign. Their punishment? “Thom to be whipt at the post, and Joane his wife to sit in the stocks.”
Bestiality Would Get You Hanged (and the Animal Slaughtered)
The Puritans took what the Bible said about bestiality very seriously. In fact, the only person put to death for a sex-related crime in the Plymouth Colony was a teenager named Thomas Graunger, who was hanged in 1642 after admitting to “buggery” with “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” What does Leviticus 20:15 say about the crime? “And if a man shall lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.” So that’s exactly what the Puritans did, making Thomas suffer the further indignity of pointing out which of the animals he had relations with. How else would they know which ones to slaughter and bury in a pit?
Premarital Sex Was Extremely Common
Premarital sex was “extremely common” in Puritan Massachusetts, according to Rachel Fleming, author of Those Loose Ladies: An Examination of Scandalous Puritan Women in Massachusetts From 1635 to 1700. Fleming says that in Middlesex County, for example, one in every two hundred births were conceived out of wedlock. Once charged, a lot of the couples confessed and were then whipped and fined. Most couples, in fact, were given a choice between the two punishments. Fleming also notes that men and women in these situations, surprisingly enough, were punished similarly and considered to be “equally at fault for the sin.”
Men Who Refused to Have Sex with Their Wives Were Disciplined
Religious writer Stephen Prothero points out that the Puritans actually disciplined men who weren’t having sex with their wives often enough. Prothero relates a story from 1640 of a man named James Mattock, who was excommunicated from his church in Boston because he (among other offenses) “denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife” for two long, lonely years (he was supposedly “taking revenge upon himself for his abusing her before marriage”).
There’s also a case from 1665 where John Williams of Plymouth Colony had to go to court because he was accused of “his sequestration of himself from the marriage bed” and “refusing to perform marriage duty towards [his wife Elizabeth] according to the law of God and man.” Williams, it turns out, was actually actively trying to escape the relationship; he accused his wife several times of being unfaithful. A jury eventually ruled in Elizabeth’s favor, declaring the accusations to be false and forcing John to give her one-third of his estate and pay for her living expenses.
Coitus Interruptus Was a ‘Hideous Sin’
Birth control, believe it or not, was contemporaneous with the Puritans, but they wanted nothing to do with it. At a time when some Europeans were using sheepgut condoms and even Iroquois squaws had birchbark diaphragms, the Puritans were opposed to all forms of birth control, even coitus interruptus(also known as “pulling out”). Why? The Bible, of course. Specifically Genesis 38’s mention of Onan “spilling” his seed on the ground.
Onanism was considered a “hideous sin” to the Puritans; the Lord killed Onan over it, so it must be pretty bad, right? The Puritans could do nothing but pray, as Samuel Sewall did in his diary after his fourteenth child was born: “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” (She did, using a natural birth control technique known as “reaching menopause.”)
Homosexuality Was ‘The Most Abominable Unnatural Sin’
Those convicted of homosexual offenses in the early Puritan colonies were put to death, since being gay (or committing “unnatural acts”) was considered “far more abominable than adultery … the most abominable unnatural sin.” Or at least that was the idea: in reality, there was only one recorded instance of a homosexual being sentenced to die by the Puritans, and scholars think his openly atheistic views were more likely to blame. Homosexuality was more often punished by “lighter” sentences such as being “burned on the shoulder,” getting publicly whipped, or being banished from the colony.
Oddly enough, female homosexuality was only a capital crime from 1655-1665 in New Haven; all other Puritan legal codes meant to punish homosexuality by death applied only to men. Scholars say the Puritans’ literal interpretation of the Bible is likely to thank.
Regular Orgasms Promoted Good Health (For Married Couples)
According to Else L. Hambleton in Sex and Sexuality in Early America, Puritans believed that within the confines of marriage, regular orgasms “promoted good health” and a “mutual orgasm,” in fact, was necessary for conception. Conversely, they thought “too much sexual activity could be debilitating and shorten life.” Puritan medical texts recommended, to help married couples achieve orgasm (and thus conception), “good food, wine, a relaxed atmosphere, and foreplay.” It wasn’t about pleasure for pleasure’s sake: Puritans thought “the only legitimate object of marital sexual activity was procreation.”
Wearing Disguises for “Lascivious Purposes” Was Illegal
A strange piece of Puritanical legislation appeared in 1645, outlawing the wearing of “visors [masks] and strange apparel to lascivious ends and purposes.” So there must have been a problem with Eyes Wide Shut-style sex parties in Plymouth? Apparently, something like that was going on. The legislation explains that “some abuses have formerly broken out amongst us by disguising.” The law must have worked, as one historian notes, because “no case of disguises being worn by masked lovers appears in the court records.”
Masturbation and Oral Sex Were “Crimes Against God”
Historian Aine Collier writes that the Puritans considered fellatio and male masturbation “crimes against God” because they “wasted the seed.” Cunnilingus and female masturbation was also off-limits as “non-reproductive sexual activities.” Like the prohibition against coitus interruptus as a form of birth control, any form of sex that didn’t end with the “seed” in its right place was against the law. The Puritans called these laws “Buggery Laws,” which comes from the French slang word bougres, meaning “heretical.”
Puritans Practiced a Primitive Form of Sexting
There is at least one known “unusual case” of something akin to sexting – or writing dirty/erotic letters or notes, for you non-Millennials – in the history of Puritan society. In 1675, Nathaniel Hall, a married guy, not only used “uncivil words and carriages towards Elizabeth Berry” in person, but he also gave “writings to the said Elizabeth Berry to entice her.” Hall had to choose between a “five pound fine or to be publicly whipped.” No word on whether or not Elizabeth Berry wanted the attention. Hall was undoubtedly in the wrong, and likely screwed up his marriage, but you have to admit that he was a pioneer in his methods, at least among the Puritans (historian and expert on all things Puritan Lisa M. Lauria mentions no other similar cases).
Women Were Accused of Sexual Offenses More Often Than Men
Historian Anna Neuzil with the University of Virginia says that “women were accused of sexual offenses more often and more readily than men” in the Plymouth Colony, where there was a “double standard of sexual morality.” How bad was it? There are literally no cases of married guys being accused of adultery in the court records. This is a big deal, because, as Neuzil notes, “adultery was viewed as an offense not only against marriage, but against the social structure of the community as well.” There’s no way men weren’t instigating things. Neuzil says “illicit sexual intercourse, especially by married men, was most certainly a common occurrence” but men were accused of “fornication, a less serious offence.” That’s messed up.
Even Joking About Bestiality Would Get You Banished
The Puritans aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor, but regardless of the veracity of that claim, there’s at least one recorded case that shows that the Puritan town of New Haven did not like jokes about bestiality. A dog belonging to a man named Nicholas Bayly was caught trying to “copulate with a sow,” according to historian David Hackett Fischer. Bayly’s neighbors thought the dog should be killed for the “unnatural” act. Bayly’s wife (known only as Mrs. Bayly in the account) made a joke about it, saying of the dog, “If he had not a bitch, he must have something.” Mrs. Bayly is no Sarah Silverman, sure, but what happened next was ridiculous: “Merely for making light of bestiality, the Baylys were banished from the town.”