Puritanism bleg

Why does Puritanism go in and out of style? What explains the Victorian era? Was it the rise of the middle class? How about the loosening of sexual mores in the 20th century? What has caused the recent revival of Puritanism?

Can the 20th century be explained as a sort of liberation of women from a double standard? Books like The Scarlet Letter suggested that women suffered much more than men when sex was viewed as shameful. Hence free sex was seen (by some) as a way to liberate women. That is the idea that seemed to be “in the air” when I was young.

In the 21st century, it seems like the argument is reversed. Now the double standard argument is used in favor of Puritanism, as (it is assumed) the power imbalance in our society means that free sex opens the door for powerful sexual predators (men) to take advantage of the less powerful (women, children.) Unlike in the Victorian era, however, the emphasis is on shaming men, not women.

1900s and 2000s—empower women

1800s and 2000s—shame, shame, shame

I’d guess others have written on this. Is this the consensus view?



26 Responses to “Puritanism bleg”

  1. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    16. April 2021 at 00:09

    My amateur explanation: women naturally tend to be naturally more sexually ‘conservative’ than sexual liberation ideology expected. We discovered as a society that some (not all, but some) of the old constraints were instinctive rather than repressive norms. Women by and large really don’t like casual sex as much as men, and their libidos are very different from ours. People in the 70s weren’t so aware of that because norms had always been the ‘limiting factor,’ but we’ve discovered since then (well, not everyone is willing to admit it yet) that even without repressive sexual norms, much of traditional sexual behavior (as opposed to free love) will persist because it’s partly inborn, so we’ll tend to regress away from ‘free love’ toward a somewhat more ‘chivalrous’ mean.

  2. Gravatar of David S David S
    16. April 2021 at 02:49


    I’m puzzled by your line of inquiry here. I don’t see a resurgence of Puritanism in this country. Granted, I don’t share your experience of the 1970’s, although I’ve seen some movies from that period (ah, a golden age….).

    If you’re conflating the Me Too movement/liberal wokeness/cancel culture with a return to some strait-laced era of repressed sexuality, then I think you’re reaching a bit. Me Too is directed against vermin like Harvey Weinstein and Andrew Cuomo. And, if Matt Gaetz considers himself a victim of cancel culture because he’s a pill popping pedophile, then he can complain about that to the jury.

    No religious or cultural force can undo the liberalization of the United States. Too many people like it, and too many people make money off it. Joe Biden may not like legal weed, but state legislatures are happy to tax its production. In a few months the beaches of SoCal will be full of the same type of young people that were there in the Beach Boys era.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. April 2021 at 08:12

    David, I think you are approaching this in the wrong way. A societal trend can have good and bad aspects. That doesn’t mean the good aspects are not a part of the broader cultural change. I think the Me Too movement is mostly good, but at the same time I suspect it’s part of a cultural change that includes some things that I don’t like.

    Maybe the term ‘puritanism’ is wrong, as it does have a sort of negative connotation. Think about the cultural change since the 1970s in purely descriptive terms. Why didn’t people care when one of the Rolling Stones was dating a 13 year old? Why would they care today?

  4. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    16. April 2021 at 09:09

    @Mark Z

    I agree, turns out women are not the same as men when it comes to sexual eagerness. There are some plausible evolutionary reasons for this. But in the late 60s and 70s when the ‘sexual revolution’ happened they thought the cultural taboos of thousands of years were done.

    The pendulum was too puritanical before, then it swung to too licentious, and now it’s finding what I feel will be a reasonable middle ground.

  5. Gravatar of bb bb
    16. April 2021 at 10:37

    I’m with David. Don’t think puritanical view on sex and the me too movement fall on the same axis. To me, puritanical would lie on an axis that measures views on things like pre-marital sex, homosexuality, openly discussing sex, film, music… It’s more of liberty access to me.
    The Me Too movement falls on a different axis for me. On this axis, I would include views on things like sexual assault, harassment, exploiting minors, gamer gate, revenge porn… I can see where what you call cancel culture might fall on this axis.

  6. Gravatar of David S David S
    16. April 2021 at 13:48

    I did overreact to the term “Puritanism” because it conveys more extreme approaches to the regulation of human behavior. I gather that you’re after something more subtle in trying to identify potential trends in American culture. Our mutual challenge is that cultural norms feel more fragmented because communication is nearly instantaneous nowadays.
    (Oh God, I’m sounding like Marshall McLuhan)

    Also, The difference between the 90’s and 2020’s is possibly more profound than the shift between the 60’s/70’s and now. People like me on the left carried water for Clinton and cast Monica Lewinsky into the trash. Now, I want to believe that the punishment for a Clinton-figure would be harsher. (I’m leaving an opening here for someone else to invoke a more recent president)

    A negative aspect to something like the Me Too movement is that it creates another rallying point for bad actors who seek to shift the discourse to something along the lines of “all men are canceled.”
    Me Too is about not chasing your secretary around your desk and getting away with it.

    I like bb’s axis analogy. Richard Pryor would find a way to operate in today’s cultural environment—by skewering everyone.

  7. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    16. April 2021 at 16:59

    David and bb, Ezra Klein wrote an article a while ago that I think illustrates that current movements are not wholly distinct from puritanism: https://www.vox.com/2014/10/13/6966847/yes-means-yes-is-a-terrible-bill-and-i-completely-support-it. Klein says that he wants men to be afraid of engaging in casual but consensual sex to be afraid, that he’s alright with some of them suffering negative consequences from this because it is in someway connected with sexual assault and harassment and whatnot.

    There’s not much to offer but anecdotes on such a hard to quantify topic, but I think people are wrong who insist that all of this is just about nonconsensual sexual behavior. I don’t think it is. It’s not hard to find feminists complaining about ‘hook up culture’ or disdaining men for seeking consensual but casual sex as misogynists, etc., to say nothing of the consensus attitudes toward prostitution and pornography.

    And yeah msgkings I think you’re right that evolution has shaped sexual differences. I don’t really care how licentious or prudish people are, I don’t believe in sexual morality beyond the principle of mutual consent. People with differing sexual norms should view each other the way people with differing dietary preferences do. I’ll never understand people who like beets but I don’t think they’re bad people for it.

  8. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    16. April 2021 at 17:54

    Puritan morality was explicitly framed as defending women. And if you look at something we’d now regard as retrograde like Birth of a Nation, that’s explicitly about defending (white) “womanhood”. So the present is not as different from the past as you might think. You would need to read some actual proponents of Victorian morality rather than just its critics.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. April 2021 at 20:00

    Everyone, Maybe it’s a generational thing. I see all sorts of things in the media suggesting that X or Y are “inappropriate” and I often just sort of shake my head in puzzlement.

    I’d add that I’m a film buff, and in recent films the attitude toward sex seems much more puritanical than during the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe that’s just films and not reality. I don’t know.

    You also see this in the art world. At one time it was cultural conservatives that criticized certain types of erotic art (Mapplethorpe, etc.), now it’s often those on the left (or both).

    I’m open to the possibility that positive changes like the “Me Too” movement are completely unrelated to this new puritanism. Logically that’s quite possible. But I suspect they are related at some level. We see this all the time. Positive changes in our attitude toward smoking and drinking often go hand in hand with negative changes, such excessive regulation. Thus I’m glad they cracked down on drunk drivers, but I also think raising the drinking age to 21 was silly. Both may have reflected the same underlying forces.

    TGGP, It was about defending women as a class, but that meant (in their view) that you had to be really punitive toward women that were seen as being “loose”. When there was prostitution, it was the women who were locked up, right?

  10. Gravatar of bb bb
    17. April 2021 at 14:58

    It may just be what you are exposed to at this point in your life. First of all, film has definitely gotten more PG, but that is because they need to make films that are profitable in the US and oversees. They have expanded into markets that are more puritanical than the US.
    Gen Z is anything but puritan. If you spend some time on TikTok, which is actually very creative and cool, you will see that young woman are very comfortable with their sexuality. Their music is more provocative than it was when I was growing up in the 80s. My generation had NWA which was shocking back then. 2Live Crew was provocative in the 90. This generation has WAP.
    The drinking age was changed in most places in the 80s so that’s not new. My kids first experimented with drugs (pot) and alcohol at roughly the same age as I did. However, moderation seems to be cooler than it used to be, but I wouldn’t equate that to puritanism. They are way more accepting of different lifestyles. And the definition of non-deviant sex has expanded. I won’t get into details, but there is a new type of oral sex that was not imaginable during either one of our times.
    Cancel culture has nothing to do with puritanism.
    I’ll add that this generation is more responsible than previous generations on almost every metric.
    Liberal, tolerant, but more responsible does not equate to puritanism for me.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. April 2021 at 08:28

    bb, Yes, the drinking age was raised in the 1980s, but restrictions on drinking (and smoking) continue to increase every year. The “three martini lunch” is now heavily frowned upon.

    Pot legalization is a counterexample, but I was thinking mostly about sex.

    I agree that the younger generation has a lot of good qualities—in many ways they are better people. Change is always a mixed bag. But I would hate to have grown up in the 21st century. I wouldn’t want to miss out on the freedom to roam around that we had as kids.

  12. Gravatar of Student Student
    19. April 2021 at 04:30

    It seems as though, dee down, most people know sexual relations are meant for committed relationships. People experience more meaningful relationships and better sex (according to I would suggest the majority of studies on sexual fulfillment). We teach our children this because we want them to have a stable family life and deep intimacy with someone who will dedicate their lives to caring for the other (insurance).

    Likewise, we all know we lust for strange. We often don’t remain fully monogamous. At times in the past, men got away with behaving like dogs. There was a double standard. Women responded to this double standard by also behaving like dogs. Sex became a regular old bodily function… like taking a dump. It’s needs not any kind of committed relationship.

    This freed from any kind of social pressure to couple, we get to now, where the average person has 5-15 sexual partners in their lifetimes and sex is severed from coupling, marriage, and procreation completely. There are more children out of wedlock, less fulfillment in marriage, single parents… Women are no less exploited (it happens to men too but porn, trafficking and such… it’s predominantly women (young women) that are exploited. There is probably more, not less, sexual assault. Men, completely freed, from their responsibility to women and their children in sexual relationships, have an incentive to act even more like dogs.

    And we have to back door concepts of consent as the morality measure, and end up in this situation where you need signed contract listing all the sexual acts you consent to engage in, or the person has to ask can I touch, can I kiss you, can I tough you genitals, etc., all the wrapping wrapper your member in synthetic polymers so you don’t catch diseases… how fulfilling….

    We are trying to make a square peg fit into a round whole. Sex is meant for deep, long lasting, intimate personal relationships, such that the human race can propagate.

    What is the backlash – a reaction to the devastation free sex has brought with its benefits. This one will never be solved. Sex outside of committed relationships is just going to be messy.

  13. Gravatar of bb bb
    19. April 2021 at 06:32

    in response to:
    “bb, Yes, the drinking age was raised in the 1980s, but restrictions on drinking (and smoking) continue to increase every year. The “three martini lunch” is now heavily frowned upon.”
    Very true. There seems to be a steady march against unhealthy and unsafe activities. You can add diet to this as well. Not sure if this counts as puritanism, but it’s puritan adjacent because there is a fair amount of shaming.

    “Pot legalization is a counterexample, but I was thinking mostly about sex.”
    Pot legalization is fantastic, and I don’t use. I think you are completely off on sex. First of all, LGBTQ people people would definitely disagree with you. I think young women today are more confident and more comfortable with their sexuality than previous generations – again WAP.
    I think young men have become less predatory about sex, to include being less competitive. When I was younger, there was always a competition over who was more successful getting sexual partners. There definitely seems to be less of that.
    Young people seem to have less sex, which is concerning, but I see no evidence that it is driven by puritanism.
    BTW: The consent thing is way overstated. People concerned about needing a contract for consent are probably not dating. The only difference between now and 20 years ago is that the threshold for “too impaired to give consent” has lowered a bit.

    “I agree that the younger generation has a lot of good qualities—in many ways they are better people. Change is always a mixed bag. But I would hate to have grown up in the 21st century. I wouldn’t want to miss out on the freedom to roam around that we had as kids.”
    I agree, but my kids do not. My gut says you and I are right on this one.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. April 2021 at 10:34

    Student, You said:

    “Sex outside of committed relationships is just going to be messy.”

    Yes, but both outside and inside.

    BB, It’s such a complex subject that you and I can focus on different aspects of society, and come to different conclusions.

  15. Gravatar of JHE JHE
    19. April 2021 at 14:20

    “I wouldn’t want to miss out on the freedom to roam around that we had as kids.”

    I wouldn’t take that too far. As a millennial, my parents were very laissez-faire and never really stopped my sister or I from doing too much. That’s just an anecdotal, but so are a lot of the stories used to argue for the lack of freedom.

    More substantively, I think you have to give some credit to technology (and social development) for changing the environment in a good way. My dad (a boomer) often gripes about how as a nerdy teenager in the suburbs there was not all that much he found interesting. He read Lord of the Rings. He was in chess club (and various other nerdy activities that aren’t coming to mind). But, in general, he couldn’t stand or at best had no interest in most of the available activities.

    By contrast, the internet, video games, and the rise of tabletop gaming meant that I (even more dorky and socially maladroit than my dad) had tons of suitable options for mental/intellectual stimulation.

    Now, you can say that the lack of options was actually a good thing for my dad’s development and that might be right. But I still think that ability to roam virtual realms is a major poositive development.

  16. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    19. April 2021 at 19:04


    “I agree, but my kids do not. My gut says you and I are right on this one.”

    You’re right, and your kids are right. They are growing up in a different time, all their cohort are experiencing the same kind of lives. They don’t ‘miss’ what you did growing up, and you don’t understand why they are fine with their way of doing it.

  17. Gravatar of Student Student
    20. April 2021 at 05:33

    We are becoming Puritan in all aspects except weed and casual sex. Everything else is Karen/ken stuff. And the police have become pirates. It’s very weird, I will give you that. And honestly, if I couldn’t roam as I did as a kid, I would have gone nuts.

  18. Gravatar of Student Student
    20. April 2021 at 05:41

    Blessed are the meek… and I recall commenting on this before. Meek comes from the Greek for a well strained battle horse. Meek is not weak. The meek exhibits self control. Setting aside Christianity… stoicism fits just as well here.

  19. Gravatar of Student Student
    20. April 2021 at 05:42

    *well trained. My typos are becoming quite terrible.

  20. Gravatar of Student Student
    20. April 2021 at 07:56

    One more comment… tell me; is it better for you to have wonton random sex, or to build a deep, intimate, long lasting relationship with a spouse who has your back when the world turns against you? I long for a wife. A real life long wife. Wife for life. One that I would die for, no questions asked.

    You tell me what’s better for us (and our children), financially, mentally, physically.

    To me the answer is obvious.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. April 2021 at 08:19

    msgkings, I agree, and would add that this is why I find claims that people are getting happier or less happy to be pretty meaningless. How could we ever compare the two situations?

    Student, Even casual sex seems to be declining.

  22. Gravatar of Student Student
    20. April 2021 at 09:34

    But why is it declining? Look at tinder and study it. The surprise is that like 90% of the people women chase the top 10% of the men. Women it seems are more about the top dogs. Maybe they makes sense, idk.

    Either way, women chase a minority of men. The top men are dogs, cuz they can be. The bottom 90% can’t get a stable mate. No one is happy.

    Sex is on the decline because coupling is on the decline. The paradox of online apps, is that it makes it worse, rather than better.

  23. Gravatar of rinat rinat
    23. April 2021 at 06:02

    What do you propose: whore houses on every corner, teenagers on tiktok and bigo earning a living shaking their asses and tits on live video, and a society that drugs itself with stimulant’s.

    Is that your conception of the good life?

    You use the term puritan so loosely. Surely, the 1920’s jazz clubs were not “puritan”. Thomas Jefferson banging his slaves was not “puritan”. Choosing to read books, instead of spending your life snorting cocaine, is not “puritan”.

    Like most radical liberals, you engage in hyperbole to gaslight and emotionalize a particular issue.

    If you and the other radicals would stop the hyperbole, especially when it comes to race and gender, the nation would not be so divided. Indeed, just recently, despite saving a woman’s life from a disgusting, immensely fat, drugged up lunatic, a white officer instead get’s lambasted by your radical party for saving a life.

    And your conception of what is “puritan” is not anything related to religious “puritanism”. Just because something is slightly conservative, doesn’t make it “puritan”.

  24. Gravatar of ankh ankh
    23. April 2021 at 12:51

    We have the same problem in Thailand.
    The blacks spend their life sitting on the street corner in Nana. When the police arrest them for possession of cocaine or Crystal they cry about “racism” like they do in the U.S.A.. But we don’t care about their crying. We just laugh at them and throw them in jail, which is precisely what Americans should do. If they want to be thugs, then let them rot in the cell. Maybe one day they will smarten up and read a book, instead of selling crack.

    In regards to puritanism, I do think America could loosen up a bit. Americans take things too seriously, and have very little fun in their life. Of course sex is okay, but the line must be drawn somewhere. legalizing drugs and prostitution, for example, will destroy your country. Gangs will not go away if you legalize those activities. They will only get worse. Their chemists will just produce something more dangerous, and more addictive, then what is supplied at the local markets. And once people get used to having sex with 18 year olds at the whore house, they will begin to look for younger on the black market. In Thailand, the men call the young one’s “dessert”, and it’s usually provided by the gangs to the politicians and businessmen during their annual meetings.

  25. Gravatar of Dog Dog
    24. April 2021 at 22:51

    Puritanism has been on the rise in the male gay community for decades.. The man-boy love organization, for example, which fought to lower the age of same-sex consent, used to boast a large membership with celebrities, meetings and all. It now exists as just a web page, damned by most everyone.

    The celebratory “sex positive” outlook on promiscuity was the widespread dogma, and took a huge hit with AIDS, tho medical issues does not fully explain its fall and failure to recover (was/is stigma now if you have lots safe sex).

    When PrEP drugs, which will all but stop in advance the chance of someone getting AIDs, first came out, the head of of a major gay organization opposed their widespread use because he feared a huge increase in promiscuity. .. He changed his mind after he calmed down and reflected more on the epidemiological advantages.

    Much of the growth of puritan thought and action in the gay community is believed to be caused by the desire for so many to integrate and be regarded as normal by the larger society – the perverted behaviors of the past are shunned now so as not to offend and therefore help normalization… But I think the opposition to dogs celebrating use of PrEP indicates the puritan stain, er, strain, is more than just that..

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. April 2021 at 08:17

    Dog, Interesting. That suggests that this involves something more than changes in male/female relations.

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