Asexual, bicurious, fluid, polyamorous, and queer are just a few of the many sexual identities in existence today. While such variety was not available in nineteenth-century America, Kara French’s new book, Against Sex, examines three subsections of society that advocated unconventional sexual identities in the antebellum era: Shakers, Catholic priests and nuns, and followers of the health reformer Sylvester Graham. All contested the status quo sexuality of early American society. As “celibate sexual outsiders” (14), members of these three groups faced ridicule, mockery, and violence for their sexual abstinence. They challenged heteronormative ideals of gender and marriage and offered alternate modes of family life. At odds with a society that deemed heterosexual marriage the be-all and end-all of adult social achievement, these Americans chose an alternate path to gain profound meaning in their lives “by sacrificing sexual expression, they hoped to allow other desires to grow in its place—a...

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