News & Ideas

Let's Talk About Sex!

Photographs from the papers of Tala Brandeis

Birds do it, bees do it, and Americans have been fighting about it for centuries.

From Florida to the Great Lakes, European colonists enforced their dominion by policing chastity, monogamy, and fecundity. Laws regulating sexual behavior, and categorizing the offspring that often resulted from it, long predated the United States. Many such statues lasted for centuries; some endure still. Since the 1960s, as historian Robert Self RI ’08 has demonstrated, issues rooted in marriage, sexuality, and family have remade American politics and public policy. Battles over sexual rights (and wrongs) continue to ripple through our national discourse. 

Self, like others who have worked on this topic, did a lot of his research at the Schlesinger Library. Our collections richly document generations of pitched and earnest battle over issues ranging from contraception, to abortion, to pornography, to sexual identity. Individuals and organizations whose records we hold staked out well-reasoned, passionately argued, and adamantly opposed positions on issues of intimate politics. The papers of reproductive rights pioneer Bill Baird can be read alongside the collection of anti-abortion physician and organizer Mildred Jefferson. The antipornography thought and activism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon can be considered alongside the contrary efforts of a growing number of sex-positive individuals and organizations, from the records of the sex-worker rights group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) to the papers of adult industry pioneers Candida Royalle, Gloria Leonard, and Veronica Hart. 

Schlesinger’s ability to support fresh scholarship in these hot-button areas of study recently increased by an order of magnitude, thanks to our acquisition of collections assembled by the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. Faced with the kinds of cost increases that sometimes threaten the long-term survival of community archives, the CSC—a vibrant organization dedicated to documenting the work, lives, and thought of sexual minorities and sexuality activists in the Bay Area—chose Harvard as the permanent repository of the materials it had collected over decades. Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library partnered with Houghton and Widener Libraries to bring this enormous trove of material (manuscripts, rare books, printed ephemera, film, audio recordings, and three-dimensional objects) to Cambridge. After the CSC collections are processed, Schlesinger researchers will be able to study the papers of the trans activists Patrick Califia and Tala Brandeis; the records of Good Vibrations, one of the first woman-owned stores selling sex products primarily to a female market; and the papers of pornographic actress and sex educator Nina Hartley, and sexual freedom advocate and bisexual activist Margo Rila. As we continue to skirmish over wedding cakes and bathrooms, pronouns and politics, birds and bees, collections like these have the power to catalyze new ways of understanding the past and the present and, just maybe, to help us to envision a more harmonious and inclusive future.

News & Ideas