But Tennessee Technological University history professor Larry Whiteaker's latest book explores a time when moral reform societies in New York City pushed the reluctant public into facing and discussing all types of immorality, prostitution and seduction -- all in an effort to purge the community of those very elements.
"Seduction, Prostitution, and Moral Reform in New York, 1830-1860," published late last year by Garland Publishing Inc., follows the successes, failures and lasting influences of moral reform societies on their community. Their efforts to reclaim "sinners" and prevent immorality made a significant impact on the city, and in some ways, the nation.
The formation of the New York Magdalen Society marked the beginning of a crusade against sexual deviance. In 1831, the society published its first report charging widespread sexual deviation, primarily rampant prostitution, existed in the city. The society had two goals -- awaken the public to the problem and "reclaim prostitutes from their deviant way of life."
During the next two decades, the crusade produced four reform societies, three magazines touting purity to thousands of readers, missionaries exhorting repentance and rehabilitation asylums for penitent prostitutes. But reformers met public criticism at every turn.
"Men and women with the best of intentions stood up to tremendous hostility and personal attacks," said Whiteaker. "The women received the worst treatment because their character and values were questioned.
"It's not difficult to draw a parallel between the treatment of past moral reformers and today's reformers," Whiteaker explained. "For example, today's feminists suffer attacks on their character, personal practices and morals when they make a strong push for change."
Reformers considered prostitution the most grievous of sins because women embodied piety and moral purity. Although men were accused of being the "seducers" and laws were even enacted to punish them, men were never held to the moral standard expected of women.
"The double standard is very much alive today," observed Whiteaker. "We accept men 'sowing wild oats' or expect 'boys to be boys,' but we attach a stigma to women who behave in the same manner."
In one sense, those who tried to prevent sexual immorality failed. By the 1850's, prostitution was the city's second most lucrative enterprise, ranking just behind the garment industry. But the reformers' legacy lies in many places.
They gave the nation a middle-class moral code that defined respectability and guided parents in raising their children. Their ideal code emphasized inner control and a type of morality that flourished in rural communities and small towns reached by reformers and their literature.Finally, moral reformers became guardians of the unprotected. They provided jobs, food, shelter and vocational training for women and children who would have been indigent, untrained, unemployed and possibly community burdens. Addressing problems of the poor and outcast became the reformers' greatest contribution to their society.