“Americans love sex scandals, and nothing better tells the story of American than sex scandals.” So begins David Rosen’s Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming. Sensational title aside, Rosen charts the hidden history of America from the erotic shenanigans of the Puritans to the erotic shenanigans of Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, and Ted Haggard. Rosen does a magnificent job of placing sex scandals into a historical context. Each era derived specific things from the sex scandals. These sex scandals found use as either cautionary tales or political fodder or entertainment.
Rosen remains even-handed on a topic that has potential to become prurient, sensational, and politically damaging. He keeps his political affinities close to his vest, but he also is not afraid to call out a moral hypocrite. Since the book covers hundreds of years, the figures profiled receive an abbreviated treatment. Pocahontas, John Smith, Lord Cornbury, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ward Beecher, Warren G. Harding, Fatty Arbuckle, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and many, many others receive due treatment.
The book only has one shortcoming. David Rosen adapted the book from a series of essays. For the most part, the book reads smoothly. On occasion, the essays contain repetitious passages. But this is a small quibble to an otherwise wonderful book.
The book caters to those curious to learn more about this secret aspect of American history. Historians whitewash history for a variety of reasons. In the public arena, the discipline of history becomes diluted under the dubious standards of “family friendly entertainment.” The subject matter in Sex Scandal America would elicit giggles from a high school classroom. The best history books make us uncomfortable. Rosen does a public service by integrating this universal aspect of human existence, namely sexuality, into a well-researched, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining history book.