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Posted: September 24th, 2023

How did sex within the “reproductive matrix,” as described by D’Emilio and Freedman

PROMPT: How did sex within the “reproductive matrix,” as described by
D’Emilio and Freedman, shape the meaning and experience of individual
lives in the colonial and/or antebellum United States?
SPECIFICATIONS: Be sure to paraphrase and quote directly from at
least one assigned chapter of D’Emilio and Freedman’s book
Intimate Matters (Introduction, chapters 1-2, 5, and 7), from Bruce
Burgett’s Keywordessay on “Sex,” and from the articles by Elizabeth
Reis and Jessica Millward. (You are free to use and cite any material
assigned in this class, but it is not necessary to include other material.)
Citations should be parenthetical, and must include both the last name
of the author and the specific page numbers or paragraph numbers
that correspond to the information cited.
Make sure you are making a clear and persuasive argument! Your
answer to this prompt question will be your argument, but it should be
as sharp and specific as possible – and it must be clearly stated at the
beginning of your response. You’ll then provide relevant evidence from
the four readings specified, and weave that evidence together to support
and elaborate on your argument.
Remember, this is a short paper! The strongest papers will have a clear
argument, a dense array of appropriate evidence, and strong
paraphrasing and direct quotation of that evidence within well-written
prose. Please see the rubric provided for my general grading criteria.
Link to download Intimate Matters by D’Emilio and Freedman:
Burgett’s Keyword essay on sex:
Reis and Millward’s articles will be attached in the email as a pdf. GSS 1160 Fall 2023 Response Paper #1 Grading Rubric

How did sex within the “reproductive matrix,” as described by D’Emilio and Freedman, shape the meaning and experience of individual lives in the colonial and antebellum United States?
As the sources specified for this response paper discuss, the meaning and experience of sex in the colonial and antebellum United States was profoundly shaped by the prevailing “reproductive matrix” that structured society, politics and the economy during that era. Within this system, as D’Emilio and Freedman explain in their seminal work Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, marriage and reproduction served as the primary organizing principles around which individual lives, especially for women, were structured (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988). This reproductive matrix confined sex largely to the institution of marriage and viewed it primarily as a means for procreation rather than pleasure, which in turn narrowly defined appropriate gender roles and sexuality.
As Burgett’s (2007/2020) keyword essay on “Sex” notes, the meaning and experience of sex has significantly evolved over time, influenced by various social, cultural, political and economic shifts. In the colonial and antebellum period, the reproductive matrix dominated, emphasizing women’s roles as wives and mothers through which their identities, social standing and economic security were established (Reis, 2005, p. 123). D’Emilio and Freedman (1988) explain that for women especially, “marriage defined a woman’s place in the world and gave shape to her life course” (p. 3). Their primary function was to marry, bear children and manage the household. Men’s lives also centered significantly around marriage for purposes of establishing a family household and inheriting property to pass down between generations (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988, p. 5).
Within this context, as Millward (2013) discusses, sex was confined predominantly to marriage and viewed chiefly as a means for procreation rather than pleasure. This restricted framework shaped narrow understandings of sexuality and enforced strict gender roles. For women in particular, it severely limited individual autonomy and experience, with their identities centered almost entirely around their marital and maternal duties (Reis, 2005). As D’Emilio and Freedman (1988) note, premarital sex could have dire social and even legal consequences, emphasizing the reproductive matrix’s control over appropriate expressions of sexuality (p. 5).
The reproductive matrix’s dominance meant that sex outside of marriage was socially proscribed, as evidenced by the prosecution of cases of fornication and adultery in colonial courts (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988, p. 4). This underscores how the system enforced conformity to its priorities of channeling sex into legally sanctioned marital unions for purposes of reproduction. It also policed gender roles, with women expected to remain chaste until marriage to confirm their virtue as wives and mothers (Reis, 2005). As Millward (2013) discusses, even within marriage a woman’s sexuality was largely defined in terms of her duty to bear children. Pleasure or agency in sexual matters had little place in the prevailing social order.
The reproductive matrix’s strict confinement of sex to marriage and narrow framing of it as a procreative rather than pleasurable act profoundly shaped individual experience, especially for women. It enforced rigid gender roles that largely defined women through their marital and maternal functions while severely limiting their autonomy and understanding of sexuality (Reis, 2005). For both women and men, it prioritized societal and familial needs of establishing households and continuing family lines over individual fulfillment or exploration outside prescribed social scripts (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988). The system also policed any transgressions of its priorities through legal prosecution and social condemnation (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988; Millward, 2013).
In summary, as the specified sources make clear, the “reproductive matrix” that dominated the colonial and antebellum periods in America profoundly structured the meaning and lived experience of sex and individual lives, especially for women (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988). It confined sex largely to marriage and reproduction, enforced rigid gender roles, and prioritized familial duty over individual autonomy or pleasure. This restrictive framework provides important context for understanding sexuality, gender norms and social control during that era in United States history. The reproductive matrix powerfully illustrates how economic, political and cultural systems can shape the most intimate aspects of individual experience.

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