America's frisky forebears

Recently, I've come to see both Puritans and e-books in a whole new light, thanks to historian and author Dorothee E. Kocks and her media-enhanced e-book, "Such Were My Temptations: Bawdy Americans 1760-1830." According to Kocks, the Puritans weren't stuffy and repressed about sex at all. In fact, they were downright exuberant.

Loaded with poetry, prose and art, the e-book depicts this country's founding forefathers and foremothers as quite passionate — just the opposite of how we usually imagine Puritans. It even includes an engraving of Benjamin Franklin and a lady friend having an intimate moment. While graphic in places, the e-book's aim is pleasantly academic rather than pornographic. It's smart, fun and challenges widely held assumptions. "We get a lot of our stereotypes about the Puritans from the Victorian era," said Kocks. "Novels like 'The Scarlet Letter' did a lot to shape our views."

Kocks, who gave a talk last week hosted by Ashland's pleasure boutique, Love Revolution, came to create the e-book after writing a historical novel called "The Glass Harmonica." While doing research for the novel, she came across some erotic pictures in a history text. "I was so astonished at how explicit the erotic art of the time was. I started calling rare-book libraries and asking if they had any smutty stuff. And they did," said Kocks.

She also visited museums, historical archives and private collections.

"I found so much fascinating material about what was really the first sexual revolution in this country. It is wonderful to see the human side of our founding fathers and mothers," said Kocks.

I was surprised that many pictures and literature of the time depict women as sexual equals with their male partners. One part of the e-book describes the idea that in order for a woman to conceive a child, she had to experience a "shudder of delight."

There's also a discussion of how a husband could be excommunicated for sexually neglecting his wife.

Kocks approaches her topic with respect, yet shows sunny delight at finding that these seemingly dull people in heavy black clothes were actually radicals, breaking free from the confines of British rule as they explore both a new world and new ideas about sexuality, love and religion.

Kocks explains that many Puritans thought of sex as spiritual. "They sang songs such as 'Panting for Heaven,' and believed that the connection made during sex was a foretaste of the eventual union with God," she said.

"Such Were My Temptations" is what Kocks calls a 'transmedia ebooklet.' It's a short book, maybe 50 pages, but Kocks packs a lot in. It is available now for the iPad at iTunes, and will soon be available on other tablets such as the Nook Color and Kindle Fire. I rarely find the experience of reading books on a tablet to be as satisfying as an actual book, but this e-book takes advantage of the tablet medium to provide a multimedia experience, a virtual museum tour of sorts. It beautifully mixes text, pictures, video and music, and features a short film of a woman reading one of the popular bawdy poems of the time, as well as music from a glass harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin which was later banned in some towns for being "too sensual."

The text hyperlinks to other history texts, her novel that inspired the e-book, and a Facebook forum. Kocks said that she wanted readers to interact and discuss the e-book because the topic can bring up a lot of questions.

"This is kind of a touchy subject. I think it is important to get to know what these human beings were like," says Kocks. "But then again, it is sort of like talking about your parents' sex life."

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Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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