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Professor Researches Sexual Boundaries in Early Modern America


Doron Ben-Atar, Ph.D., says his scholarship tends to challenge reigning interpretations.
Photo by Angie Chen

Doron Ben-Atar, Ph.D., professor of history in Fordham College at Lincoln Center, has a special interest in transgression.

As a teacher, scholar and playwright, Ben-Atar said he likes crossing boundaries to engender new ideas. In his teaching, he routinely assigns provocative materials that he hopes will jolt students into seeing things from a new perspective.

“I am a historian drawn to challenging reigning interpretations,” said Ben-Atar, who teaches a course on sexuality in America and who specializes in early American history. “My goal is not to offer students answers or conclusions, but to allow them to see different possible forms of narration. History is great because it allows you to do so.”

In a new work-in-progress for Yale University Press, The Beast with Two Backs: Sexual Transgression in Early New England, Ben Atar and co-author Richard Brown, Ph.D., of the University of Connecticut, are analyzing the punishment of bestiality in the early America.

Ben-Atar and Brown each stumbled upon seemingly isolated incidents of prosecution for bestiality in the late 1700s. Both incidents occurred within three years of each other, 60 miles apart, and involved similar perpetrators and outcomes. In 1796, John Farrell of Hampshire County, Mass., was convicted of “a venereal affair with a certain Brute animal.” In 1799, Gideon Washburn of Litchfield County, Conn., was convicted of having sex with two mares and a cow.

What stood out for the researchers were that both perpetrators were octogenarians, and both were sentenced to death by public hanging.

Bestiality, Ben-Atar said, occurs among a small percentage of people in all societies—especially farming communities and sexually conservative cultures—and especially among adolescents. But no one had been executed for bestiality since the witch trial hysteria nearly 140 years earlier; and never had the accused been in his eighties.

“At the time, the decision to execute was a very radical decision,” Ben-Atar said. “Whatever elite and vernacular prohibitions dominated Americans’ beliefs about bestiality, in actual practice they treated bestial acts as venial transgressions.

“So we wondered what was going on here,” he said.

Part of what was happening, said Ben-Atar, was a struggle over identity among the new Americans, who were caught between Old World alliances and their fresh status, and whose rulers were insecure. In a nation new to consensus-building, there was bitter political strife between Federalists (supporters of the British Empire) and Jeffersonians (pro-France and the French Revolution).

Additionally, in the religious arena, a “restorationist” Puritanism in small New England counties, such as Litchfield and Hampshire, had begun to take root. This Second Great Awakening clashed bitterly with the more cosmopolitan Protestantism and Enlightenment ideals taking root, Ben-Atar said.

While attempts were underway in some cities and states to curb the use of the death penalty for sexual crimes such as sodomy, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut kept the statute.

“The country had no strong sense of identity, so regional, family and religious identities far surpassed loyalties to the abstraction called the United States of America,” Ben-Atar said.

Such themes and alliances played themselves out in the trials of these men—particularly in the Washburn trial. At 83 years old, Washburn was reported to be suffering from dementia. Yet his attorneys’ attempts to have him declared unfit for trial were scorned by an overzealous chief justice, Jesse Root, who remanded Washburn for his “vile drudgery of sin and Satan.”

Similar rhetoric of being “seduced by instigation of the Devil” was leveled against Farrell, whose death sentence was eventually pardoned by Gov. Sam Adams. (Washburn, mercifully, died of a stroke days before his execution.)

“In times of anxiety, sexual repression jumps to the forefront of society,” Ben-Atar said. “We don’t know much of what people did (sexually), but (through history) we do know how society reacts to certain transgressions.”

Ben-Atar pointed to similar phenomena. During the McCarthy Communist “witch hunt” of the 1950s, he said, prosecutions against homosexuals were at a peak even though homosexuality was not particularly on the rise. Then in the 1980s, there was a nationwide day care sexual abuse hysteria that led to wrongful convictions of teachers.

Throughout U.S. history, there has been a Janus-faced sexual identity that makes it one of the most permissive—and yet most puritanical—sexual cultures.

In fact, said Ben-Atar, students are often surprised when he reveals the nation’s shifting historical attitudes toward abortion. “Many of them are surprised that, in the 19th century, abortion was quite common and practitioners regularly advertised their services in newspapers,” he said.

As the cases of Washburn and Farrell demonstrate, cultural and societal attitudes toward what sexual transgression is, and is not, are constantly in flux.

“Our relationship with sexuality is one of the most telling things about society and its secrets—then and now,” Ben-Atar said.

In addition to his current work, he wrote and published Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Making of America (Yale University Press, 2004), which undermines the idea of American intellectual property as “something taken from us” by other nations. Instead, the book exposes it as “something that we often take from developing nations and claim as our own,” he said.

He is also the co-author of the memoir, What Time and Sadness Spared: Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust (University of Virginia Press, 2006), and two plays: Behave Yourself Quietly (2007) andPeace Warriors (2009).

“I like to draw from multiple disciplines,” said Ben-Atar, “and employ a variety of writing genres.”

– Janet Sassi


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