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IU Southeast faculty member Kelly Ryan's new book explores sexuality in early America

Apr. 2, 2014

When many Americans see Miley Cyrus twerking on an awards show or read about a celebrity cheating scandal in the news, they tend to long for the “good old days,” when sexuality was tame and families stayed together. 

“Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700-1830"

But one aspect of IU Southeast faculty member Kelly Ryan’s new book, “Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700-1830,” proves that conflicting views on sexuality and sexual defiance are nothing new.

“A lot of people think of early Americans as puritanical and that they didn't do things that were bad,” Ryan said. “What my book shows is that these are really myths. Americans engaged in extramarital and premarital relationships as people do today, but with greater consequences.”

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Faculty and staff using a valid IU email address can enter to win a copy of Ryan’s book, a $55 value.

It has been more than 10 years since Ryan, associate professor of history at IU Southeast, began working on her dissertation, which explored sexual behavior in early America.

Now that initial work, along with years of additional research, is the subject of her first published book.

Released by Oxford University Press, “Regulating Passion” explores laws and religious practices established during the colonial era that were aimed at defining groups -- such as single women, African Americans and Native Americans -- as criminals due to perceived sexual practices, while defining others as chaste.

The book also explores the decline of direct sexual regulation during this time period and efforts by persecuted groups to resist those ideas and to establish their own code of sexual conduct. 

“Basically, the book charts how sexuality changes over time in Massachusetts in particular,” Ryan said. “It tries to investigate the ways sexual regulation and sexual mores changed, and how people resisted efforts to stymie their sexual expressions.”

Ryan’s research for the book was extensive, an aspect John Gilbert McCurdy, author of “Citizen Bachelors,” points out in his review on the Oxford University Press website.

“Based on detailed archival research, ‘Regulating Passion’ sparks with fascinating stories of youthful fornicators, defiant Native Americans and nervous founding fathers,” McCurdy wrote.

Ryan spent hours combing through print literature, documentary sources and dusty court records through the Massachusetts Archives.

Kelly Ryan

Kelly Ryan

Those records featured recognizance papers and court testimony that detailed alleged sexual crimes and gave Ryan an opportunity to hear directly from people of that time.

“There are so many neat stories in this book; Massachusetts was pretty good at their record keeping,” she said.

In addition to publishing her first book, Ryan is sharing her experience of years of researching the material with her students at IU Southeast.  

“My research has been so vital to teaching in the classroom,” she said. “I can literally give my students an example of the kinds of problems they will encounter doing their research and examples of what I did to solve it. I really look forward to sharing my findings with my students.” 

Ryan’s enthusiasm in the classroom is clearly translating to her students: She has won numerous teaching awards at IU Southeast, including three trustee teaching awards.

She’s now busy working on a second project that explores violence in early America, particularly against married women, African Americans and indigent servants.

Ryan will give a talk on her book at 6 p.m. April 16 at Carnegie Center in New Albany, Ind. Her book is available on Oxford University Press’ website.

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