Sex & Relationships

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.

The sexual revolution was not sparked by a single incident and no particular group can claim credit (or blame) for carrying it forward. But all of us agree that it has indeed taken place and that American society has been transformed. A good gauge of the scope of the sexual revolution comes from its opponents. If it’s not Rick Santorum, it’s another conservative leader decrying the threat to our way of life posed by the loosening of traditional codes of sexual behavior.

But the opposition to the sexual revolution goes much further than sex. For at least the past half-century, conservatives have cast a much wider net, lumping together feminism, sexual and reproductive freedom, abortion rights, and even equal pay with the potential downfall of America. That broad-based attack is not unusual. While researching my book, I discovered many historical public debates almost identical to the ones going on today. Since the dawn of humankind, men have not only feared women’s sexuality, they have also, to a surprising extent, measured their power in terms of how effectively they could suppress the rights of women on a variety of fronts. The recent comment of the Fox News guest Rev. Jesse Lee Petersen, that “Wherever women are taking over, evil reigns,” would have been well received in the Roman senate, the Greek agora, or most halls of religious power in Europe.

At the beginning ... 

In primitive societies, men regarded women with the same dread they felt toward the natural world. Early humankind was at perennial war with nature, the forces of which were lethal as well as incomprehensible. The core of the natural world was the female womb, from which newborn human life emerged in a gush of blood. It was not until about 9000 BCE that the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy was confirmed. Until then, sex and childbirth were too far separated in time for people to make the connection, and women spent much of their short lives either pregnant or lactating. Children seemed to just appear in the womb. Even more incomprehensibly, and perhaps horrifyingly, was the blood that periodically flowed from women’s bodies. Blood was dangerous to lose, yet women bled for days at a time with no injury, and no one knew why. The one clear fact was that menstrual blood came from women and from the same place where human life begins. 

The first sexual prohibitions were likely Paleolithic taboos against intercourse with women during their periods. Perhaps the sudden appearance of menstrual blood reminded men that, despite their physical strength, they could not generate life on their own. Most likely, the rejection of women while their blood flowed was a precaution to appease the threatening divine presence men felt when confronted with the unknown.

As time passed, men’s fear of women evolved into outright hostility, with the result that menstruating women were regarded as equal parts dangerous and filthy. The belief was amplified in later centuries, but no one took menstrual fear further into the realm of obsession than the Hebrews. The Torah decrees that women and everything they touch are unclean during their periods. The contamination extends to things touched by people who are themselves touched by menstruating women. For example, if a man “lies” with a woman during her period and later sleeps on another bed, that bed becomes "unclean" and must be destroyed.

Over the centuries, menstrual blood came to be regarded as mystical, and found its way into recipes for sex potions. Mothers saved their daughters’ first menstrual flows to later mix into aphrodisiacs to spark desire in their sons-in-law. In 15th-century Venice, a lower-class girl used a mixture of her own menstrual blood, a rooster heart, wine, and flour to make a young aristocratic man “insane” with love for her. She was put to death; the young man was viewed by the court as an unwitting victim. As late as 1878, the British Medical Journal questioned whether or not a ham could turn rancid at the touch of a menstruating woman.

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 license...it 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.

Rome's highest priestesses were known as the Vestal Virgins. They were “vestal” because they served the goddess Vesta, and “virgins” in that their untouched bodies were seen as essential to the safety of Roman society. No one else in Rome was expected to stay a virgin, but a single sexual detour by a Vestal was thought to bring pestilence, losses in war and divine displeasure. On several occasions, when no one could figure out why some calamity had befallen Rome, Vestals were accused of no longer being virgins. For that crime, they were buried alive in a tiny room and covered up without a trace.

The Vestal Virgins lasted for 1,000 years, until they were outlawed by a Christian emperor, but the move to Christianity signaled no shift away from the tradition of controlling women’s sexuality. To the Christian fathers such as Tertullian, women were the “doorway to the devil,” creatures whose burning sexual desires needed to be carefully husbanded for everyone’s safety. This belief only amplified over the years, especially during the fever dream that was the witch-hunting craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, when about 60,000 women and girls were accused of joining with the devil to harm crops, kill children and spread disease. Sex was always involved in these persecutions, either through accusations that the witches had bizarre carnal relations with the devil or his minions, or through molestations of the women during the trials. (Seems like the search for “devil’s marks” often took court investigators below the waist.) The explanation was simple: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust,” said a priest/prosecutor, “which is in women insatiable.” Said another witch hunter: “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.”

Witches were hunted down and killed for another reason, too: they were thought to neuter men. The vast literature of witch hunting is filled with nightmares of castration and lost virility. Most famously, witches were said to collect the penises they severed and keep them hidden while the afflicted men wandered the earth looking for their lost members. It was of “common report,” a popular legal guide assured the reader, that witches kept their penis collections in birds’ nests, where they wiggled by themselves and ate oats and corn. Perhaps inadvertently revealing too much, the churchman who wrote the book added that in one case the “big” penis in the nest belonged to a priest.

The witch trials were over by the 18th century, but the urge to control female sexuality persisted. Quack science emerged as another justification for repression. As the spread of syphilis and other STDs became increasingly unmanageable, “good” girls were thought to be less likely to pass on venereal diseases than the “bad” ones. In any case, men were innocent victims. “[M]en contact this evil from women that are infected,” according to one medical source, “because in the [sex] act...the Womb being heated, vapors are raised from the malignant humors in the womb, which are suck’t in by the man’s Yard.” In this way, held another authority, “the Pocky Steams of the diseased woman do often evidently imprint their malignity on the genitals of the healthy play-fellows.”

That is why nearly all official measures against venereal disease were directed exclusively against women. In the 19th century, many European governments legalized prostitution, but only to the extent of subjecting real or suspected prostitutes to punishing medical inspections, often called “instrument rapes,” which probably resulted in the transmission of a variety of harmful infections. One French woman described the process in detail:

It is awful work; the attitude they push us into first is so disgusting and so painful, and then those monstrous instruments—often they use several. They seem to tear the passage open first with their hands, and examine us, and then they thrust in instruments, and they pull them out and push them in, and they turn and twist them about; and if you cry out they stifle you....

In Vienna, all single women with active sex lives were seen by police as potential prostitutes, and some were put on the list of prostitutes after they showed interest in undercover agents who flirted with them on the street.

Opposition to the laws galvanized early feminist movements, especially in England, including the beloved Florence Nightingale, religious zealots, muckraking journalists and civil libertarians. The English laws were finally repealed in 1885, but only after a 20-year legislative battle. In the United States, prostitution was legalized when St. Louis passed a “Social Evil Ordinance” in 1870, patterned after European prostitution laws, but it was repealed after 100,000 people signed a petition against it. Those ushering the massive document into the Missouri legislature were flanked by young girls in white gowns.

American anti-pornography laws also took abortion and birth control information out of circulation. The 1873 Comstock Act, zealously enforced by the Olympian busybody Anthony Comstock, outlawed the transport not only of “lewd” and “lascivious” materials, but also anything used for “prevention of contraception or procuring of abortion.” One pamphlet, called “Words in Pearl,” which counseled married couples on birth control, was ruled so obscene the jury was not allowed to see it. The judge held that even medical advice given by a doctor could be illegal if it was mailed.

Fortunately, Comstock is gone, birth control is still widely available and the right to choose still stands. It’s no surprise that women (at least those in the US and Europe) have it much better now than ever before. The question is what to make out of the current backward rush toward the “good old days” when, for example, a husband could never be accused of raping his wife. Are the proponents of the hundreds of bills affecting women’s health and sexuality just crackpots? Or are they following deeply held, legitimate beliefs that the freedom of women to direct their own sexual lives destabilizes society?

There is no doubt that the beliefs of Anthony Comstock or Sen. Rick Santorum, for that matter, can be genuine. Judging by the examples above, they also can lay claim to historical precedent. But the fact that something was done before does not make it legitimate. The "good old days" never existed. In fact, it is the fear-driven desire of men to control female sexuality and reproduction that should be corralled by the law, not reproductive choices.

 

Eric Berkowitz is the author of Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire (Counterpoint).