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How Frightened Patriarchal Men Have Tried to Repress Women's Sexuality Through History

Nasty conservative attacks on women would have been well received in the Roman senate, the Greek agora or most halls of religious power in early Europe.

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The Bible also, of course, mandates circumcision for males, which one major Jewish sage, Isaac Ben Yedaya argued was useful in preventing wives from straying to other men. To Ben Yedaya, the absence of a foreskin increases male erotic sensation to the point of sparking premature ejaculation, which leaves the wife unsatisfied, “ashamed and confounded.” This was a good thing, he said, because giving a wife sexual pleasure invites a new host of problems:

She too will court the man who is uncircumcised in the flesh and

lie against his breast with great passion, for he thrusts inside her

a long time because of his foreskin, which is a barrier against

ejaculation in intercourse. Thus she feels pleasure and reaches an

orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and

then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasps him,

holding on to his genitals, and says, “Come back, make love to

me.” This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse

with him, from the sinews of his testicles—sinews of iron—and

from his ejaculation—that of a horse—which he shoots like an

arrow into her womb.

The Greeks thought circumcision was disgusting, but they shared the belief that women’s sexuality was something to be controlled. To Aristotle, women’s bodies were passive receptacles for men to deposit their seed, what Sophocles called a “field to plow.” Since the key function of women was to produce children, Athenians thought it was pointless to educate them or allow them to participate in public life. Instead, they were kept in airless, womb-like inner rooms, interacting only with slaves or family. Indeed, spending too much time with women was potentially toxic to a man’s reputation. A man “under the influence of a woman” was classified along with the old, insane and sick as incompetent to testify in court. Wives were so removed from their husbands that a law had to be passed requiring periodic marital sex. Otherwise, there would have been too few legitimate children.

Women’s rights were not a disputed issue in Greece, but in Rome they sometimes were. In 195 BCE, there was a raging debate over a set of rules, called the Oppian Law, which curbed women’s abilities to own gold, wear flashy clothing and travel around town in carriages. The Oppian Law had been passed decades earlier as a wartime austerity measure, but after the war ended women were unhappy that the restrictions were still on the books. To Cato the Elder, the holder of Rome’s political highest office, the issue was really about male power and the dangers of female sexual license.

A crowd of angry women jeered at Roman senators as they gathered to decide whether the Oppian Law should stay or go. The mob had been growing for two days, swollen by women pouring in from nearby towns. Inside the Senate, Cato scolded his brethren for letting matters get so far out of hand. Men’s liberties were now in danger of being “crushed and trampled on,” he warned. If the Senate allowed the Oppian Law to be repealed, it would be a slippery slope to equality of the sexes, or worse:

Give loose rein to [women’s] uncontrollable nature and to this untamed creature and expect that they will themselves set bounds to their is complete liberty, or rather if you want to speak the truth, complete license they desire...From the moment they become your equals, they will become your masters.

To a Roman man, nothing could be worse than that. Cato’s appeal was passionate, but the Oppian Law was nevertheless repealed. Mark one small victory for women’s rights in Rome. There would be few others.

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