Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

Sex among the Rabble

An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830

Clare A. Lyons

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3004-8 ($65.95)
Paper: 978-0-8078-5675-8 ($26.95)

Copyright 2006
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • James Broussard Best First Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (2007)

Placing sexual culture at the center of power relations in Revolutionary-era Philadelphia, Clare A. Lyons uncovers a world where runaway wives challenged their husbands' patriarchal rights and where serial and casual sexual relationships were commonplace. By reading popular representations of sex against actual behavior, Lyons reveals the clash of meanings given to sex and illuminates struggles to recast sexuality in order to eliminate its subversive potential.

Sexuality became the vehicle for exploring currents of liberty, freedom, and individualism in the politics of everyday life among groups of early Americans typically excluded from formal systems of governance—women, African Americans, and poor classes of whites. Lyons shows that men and women created a vibrant urban pleasure culture, including the eroticization of print culture, as eighteenth-century readers became fascinated with stories of bastardy, prostitution, seduction, and adultery. In the post-Revolutionary reaction, white middle-class men asserted their authority, Lyons argues, by creating a gender system that simultaneously allowed them the liberty of their passions, constrained middle-class women with virtue, and projected licentiousness onto lower-class whites and African Americans.

Lyons's analysis shows how class and racial divisions fostered new constructions of sexuality that served as a foundation for gender. This gendering of sexuality in the new nation was integral to reconstituting social hierarchies and subordinating women and African Americans in the wake of the Revolution.

About the Author

Clare A. Lyons is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland.


Lyons has given us a book that has awaited its author for many decades—about sex and the city. The book … brims over with a brilliant fusion of social, cultural, and intellectual history, and builds a major thesis—the creation of ‘the modern American sexual system’—on an indefatigable exploration of almanacs, poor relief records, court cases, and a host of other sources. … More than ever, readers will see how governing sexual relations is one of the most potent weapons of those who would control the city.

--Gary B. Nash

Lyons’s provocative study illuminates a surprising post-Revolutionary world of sexual license in which the old rules have broken down and new individualist behaviors arisen in their place. But the heyday of the lusty woman … was to be short-lived, subdued by the reassertion of sexual order through a redefinition of normative female sexuality.

--Kathleen M. Brown

Historians have long believed that as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, the western world’s ideas about sex changed dramatically. As to sexual behavior, however, we have remained largely in the dark. Using the records of the early republic’s biggest city, Lyons charts the demise of a vibrant ‘culture of pleasure’—in practice as well as in theory. … Required reading for anyone who wants to understand the foundations of modern sexuality.

--Suzanne D. Lebsock

Social history of the highest quality.

--Early American Literature

[A] bold, wide-ranging, and deeply researched book. . . . Refreshingly, it places at the center of analysis the issues of desire and pleasure. . . . The heroes of this book are lusty women shaping their own destinies, satisfying their desires, and pursuing sexual pleasure. . . . Placing provocative interpretations on the table, [it] succeeds admirably.

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Masters the unstable terrain of sexualities and power relations, and gives readers a new, compelling, and politically significant way to understand the transformations underway in the age of revolutions.

--Journal of the Early Republic

An impressive scholarly accomplishment. . . . So engaging and intriguing that, after four hundred pages, the reader wants more.


Summarizing this book does not do justice to its rich detail, attention to race and class, effort to link culture and practice, and fine writing. The amount and quality of information is staggering. . . . With abounding detail it unearths valuable material.

--William and Mary Quarterly

Important and comprehensive . . . likely to become the major point of reference for anyone studying sexual practices and gender politics during the founding of the American republic.

--Eighteenth-Century Life

Lyons skillfully crafts a book exploring the evolution of power in colonial and early American Philadelphia. . . . [Sex Among the Rabble] includes both a convincing thesis and compelling stories.

--Teaching History

This fascinating and well-written book describes the making of a 'vibrant pleasure culture' in Philadelphia. . . . Lyons tells a rich story, one full of surprises. . . . An intriguing book that merits a wide audience.

--American Historical Review


--Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography