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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.

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.

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