Society has a certain image of the Old West. Though we look back and picture cowboys wandering the wild frontier, guns on both hips, we tend not to wonder what sex was like in the American West. There appears to be good reason for that, as Wild West sex facts are more scarce than you would imagine. Even in a time when prostitution was a staple in almost every town and city, people still didn’t talk openly about what they liked to do in the bedroom. This surely owes, in part, to the puritanical nature of American settlers.
Gender Roles Were Fluid and Homosexuality Was No Big Thing
If that’s how you view the Old West, you might be shocked to know how cowboys really viewed homosexuality. Wild West society didn’t necessarily label people homosexual or heterosexual, but rather allowed each person to be who they need to be in any given moment. In an interview (“Homos on the Range: How gay was the West?”), University of Colorado at Boulder History Department Chairman Peter Boag, who wrote the book Same Sex Affairs, said, “people engaged in same sex activities weren’t seen as homosexual.”
When women weren’t present in large communities, say a mining camp full of men for example, some men would fill the role of women sexually and domestically, and normal gender roles were challenged. In effect, men in the Old West got it where they could.
Prostitution Was as American as Apple Pie
Prostitution was also indicative of socioeconomic classes in Old West society. Most prostitutes were young (30 or younger), largely uneducated and, in many cases, illiterate. Some were immigrants, and pricing was based not only on looks but also nationality and ethnicity. Like the anonymous, easily replaced miners and railroad workers of the American frontier, prostitutes filled a social and economic function necessitated by capitalism, but, as individuals, were largely irrelevant and forgotten.
Birth Control Involved Ingesting Poison
Abortifacients contained poisonous ingredients, often from plant sources, that would kill unwanted pregnancy upon arrival. For prostitutes, pregnancy was a major hazard – not only could it kill your career, it might kill you; many women on the frontier died during childbirth. Women were often left with the choice of either dying during childbirth or poisoning themselves to kill an unwanted fetus.
Oral Sex Was Too French for Cowboys
Cross Dressing Went Both Ways
During a talk on sexuality and gender issues of the American West at the University of Wyoming, Boag stated, “what I was unprepared for when I started uncovering all these female to male cross dressers, I also started to uncover hundreds of stories of men who dressed as women.”
Privacy During Sex? Think Again
Writing on the development of privacy, and sex as a private practice, in Europe, author Brian M. Watson explains that, during the Reformation, figures such as Martin Luther created a sanctity of privacy surrounding the act of sex, something previously nonexistent. In the United States, sexual privacy – and privacy in general – was afforded by class. Money meant privacy, and most in the Wild West didn’t have any money.
So then what happened in those one room houses? You did what they had to do to get off.
The Slang Was Vastly Different Than Today’s Vernacular
Some other terms on the list include “g’hal” (a rowdy woman), “get the wrong pig by the tail” (pick the wrong person for some purpose – “When she asked to peg me, I knew I got the wrong pig by the tail.”), and “rat trap” (the frame on a woman’s dress or skirts).
Sex Education Didn’t Do Much Educating
Sexual Assault Was Rampant
This horrifying article makes the case that, although rape culture is more widely discussed in the 21st century than it was in the Wild West, the culture of silence that effected raped and assaulted women in the 19th century is still alive and well.
According to author and women’s crisis worker Nancy Williams, “In the last 150 years, we’ve gone from the steam engine to the jet engine, from horses to Lear jets and from outhouses to gold-plated indoor plumbing, yet the progress women have made in defending against sexual assault really hasn’t matched the pace of technology.”