How 1600s inheritance laws shape 2017 sexual morés

I am not using the word “puritanical” in a slang sense. I’m actually looking at the 1600s inheritance laws of the Puritans for this post. I included key history points about the Puritans here.

When I originally brought up our cultural inheritance from the Puritans, I intuitively knew that we had inherited a belief that “sex is just for procreation, and it shouldn’t be pleasant.” But this is a gross oversimplification of the Puritan view on sex.

Remember these key things I said were important?

  • God orders the universe, and social hierarchy is ordained by God and predestined. (This means that poor people are destined to be poor, and rich people are destined to be rich.)
  • The social hierarchy was this: Fathers were more important than Sons. Men were more important than Women. Everyone else was sorted by wealth.
  • Their social, political and economic structure was based on land ownership, and a young man’s inheritance of land from his father was the point at which he met his majority and adult autonomy.
  • Due to this, there were a LOT of rules and laws about inheritance of property and making sure that property rights were passed down in an orderly and timely fashion.

What is the number one way to disrupt the orderly process of inheritance? SEX.

If mama had sex outside of her marriage, she was messing up the proper flow of wealth, and thus messing with the callings of her children, and possibly even disrupting the preordained hierarchy of God.

If a man had sex with a single woman, he was charged with fornication – slap on the wrist. If a married man had sex with a single woman, it was still a charge of fornication.  Even the single woman got off on a light fornication charge in these cases.  BUT if she got pregnant she was fully responsible for her bastard child, and charges of abortion or infanticide were death-penalty worthy.

If a man had sex with a married woman not his wife, that was an adultery charge, and punishable up to execution. There are no recorded cases of a man being executed, though exile was common. If a married woman had sex with a man who wasn’t her husband, it was an adultery charge… and yes, death penalties were just fine for her.

Look at all of these little data points. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether sex is enjoyable or interesting or natural. It isn’t really about procreation. It’s about inheritance.

Which means that in the Puritan mind, sex was:

  1. For the conception of sons
  2. Conceived within the marriage – no concerns about paternity
  3. SPECIFICALLY for the purpose of orderly inheritance proceedings


What does that have to do with us 2017?

I’m going to use the same pattern that I’ve already outlined here to tackle this one.

The Unacknowledged History

In the opening line of this post, I had to clarify that I was talking about the real, actual Puritans, and not using the word as a slang term. For the modern reader, the word “puritanical” means “prudish” or “uptight” – particularly about sex. This makes my original assumption about puritans and sex really clear. They were killjoys.

But in reality, it was all about wealth and the proper process of passing it from father to son. The rules had more to do with the preservation of the strict social hierarchy than it did about sex, really.  But the austerity of puritan culture does have a ripple effect of an overemphasis on modesty.

The US culture is marked by a sensationalism and a tittering, adolescent sense of naughtiness about sexual content. And all of the “icky” parts of sex – STDs, pornography, birth control, rape, sexuality, etc. are all shoved under the collective mattress for us to masturbate to when we’re alone.

How Do we Project This History onto Others?

I’ll get more into this in the virgin/whore dichotomy post, but there is a constant push-pull for women to both be pure and be sexy objects for the male gaze. And a constant judgement about women in other cultures in light of this.

Image result for burka bikini cartoon

There are two really good ways to prevent and reduce the number of abortions that happen: Sexual Education, and long-term Birth Control.  These two things are cost-effective, easy to implement, and they work at preventing abortions, as well as preventing STDs and improving socioeconomic levels of the areas implemented.   However, because both of those things (1) Admit that people are going to have sex and (2) implicitly condone sex outside of marriage, those are not the approved manner in which we will, as a nation reduce abortions.

Why not? Well, if we have sex outside of marriage, we should have consequences, and be unmarriagable. People should not know that it’s possible to have sex without consequences, really. If we have sex and don’t create a son to inherit our fortune, then we clearly have failed society.

Oh, and asexual people, child-free couples, poly people, transgender people — not one of those contributes to the proper creation of sons.

 Surprise! It’s Fate!

How does this sneak up on us as a culture?  Beyond the ongoing debates about the general rights of people to have sex for fun (LGBTQ, reproductive rights, birth control access), there are more insidious ways this sneaks up on us.

The biggest one I see is tied to the hierarchy of society and the structure that Puritans had in place that women were below their husbands in the pecking order – roughly on par with servants, but held to higher moral standards.  Women passed inherited property directly to their husbands upon marriage.  Women were useful as “helpmeets” and in churning out baby boys.  They should be quiet, prim, moderate, humble, modest and deferential. Any woman who has gotten personality and perceptive feedback in a performance review knows that we are still held to this standard subconsciously.

I also believe that rape culture is a subconscious offshoot of this squelching of sexual potency and anger. It is the hierarchical inherited idea that women are “inferior, pliable and even disposable” that plants the seeds that consent isn’t necessary.  The colonial mindset of raping native women, raping slaves, raping anyone too low on the ladder to call a man out for it is all simmering there in our collective subconscious sewer.


But Wait, There’s more.

The whole nature of women was a philosophical quandary for the Puritans. Check out the virgin/whore dichotomy on that chick.

The witch trials are probably the most famous instance of Puritans and women in history. What about that?

Oh, and that pesky social hierarchy thing. That, too.

4 thoughts on “How 1600s inheritance laws shape 2017 sexual morés

  1. Pingback: A Puritanical Legacy | Alicia K. Anderson

  2. Pingback: The unhealed wound of the Witch Trials (and how we could heal it) | Alicia K. Anderson

  3. Pingback: Women Were a Puritanical Philosophical Quandary | Alicia K. Anderson

  4. Pingback: The Living Tension of the Ordained Hierarchy | Alicia K. Anderson

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