A Brief History of Female Sexuality – Part 1

By | January 9, 2017

Sexuality is a “condition” that is characterized and distinguished by sex and passion. It is, again, according to American Heritage Dictionary, “the quality of possessing a sexual character or potency.”

I really like that one. Potency. That means power.

Where “sex” is an act that has a beginning and end, “sexuality” is a quality, a sexual character and power. It has no beginning and end, no more than your personality does or your sense of aesthetics does. Sexuality is essential to your nature. It is you. It is your vitality. It is a wonderful thing.

Of course, the two – sex and sexuality – are related, and very often delightfully intertwined. However, I would argue that while it is possible to be sexual without having sex it is pretty close to impossible to truly enjoy sex without being in touch with your own sexuality. Which, in and of itself, is a pretty good reason to want to embrace your sexuality.

Too many women in the 21st century are divorced from their sexuality even as they participate in sexual acts. They may be having sexual intercourse with their partner or partners multiple times and reaching multiple orgasms but what they are engaged in is about as meaningful and deeply satisfying as riding an exercise bike. As a result, they come away from sex acts with a sense of “what’s the big deal?” or that felt good for the moment. Or, worse, they feel degraded and/or diminished; reduced to an object. For many of them, a good session at the gym would be more fulfilling – and might even provide a more satisfying release.

My dear, let me be very clear – that is not the way it is supposed to be.

Sex without sexuality is too often demeaning, it reduces the sexual act to little more than a heaving, grunting, often-sloppy and sweaty physical endeavor. It is not called the “beast with two backs” for nothing. If all you’re focused on is the “beast” part, the physical act, you cannot possibly be truly engaged in your own sexuality. Your sexuality is not engaged. And, when your sexuality is not engaged, you are removed from the power of the act.

However, with your genuine sexuality engaged, there is nothing you cannot do alone or with a partner that is not uplifting, satisfying and consistent with the person your are – whether that’s a twenty year old college student or a fifty-two year old church volunteer. With your sexuality engaged, that heaving, humping beast with two backs is an explosion of wonderful passion.

In short, it is and can be exotic and mind blowing. And when sex is emotionally deep and erotic, you and your partner are truly bonded together – rather than being the sexual equivalent of opposing and competing wrestlers, with you invariably being the one pinned down for the count, you are in control. You can be more or less dominant and be thrilled by either because no matter how you behave in a sexual encounter, it is true to who you are; it is true to your sense of your sexuality.

Unfortunately, history has rarely embraced this uplifting view of female sexuality. It has long viewed male and female sexuality as opposing forces, in opposition and in competition to one another. Not as it should be.

In ancient China, men who engaged in masturbation risked a complete loss of vital yang essence. As such, it was strictly forbidden. Women did not risk the same loss of their vital essence. The rules about female masturbation were much more specific and focused on a particular concern; women were free to masturbate as much as they liked, as they possessed an unlimited yin, however, they were warned against masturbating with foreign objects which could injure the womb and internal sexual organs.

Because women were understood to have an inexhaustible yin essence, they could keep on having orgasms long after their male partners had been reduced to shrunken, limp lumps of flesh snoring alongside them, while female sexuality was expressed in multiple ways. In addition to masturbation, lesbian relations were encouraged. Male homosexuality was forbidden, however as such behavior was thought to result in a complete loss of yang essence. In this Chinese understanding, sexual relationships between men could only result in the net loss of the yang without any possibility of regaining it, which was possible with heterosexual relationships.

Although a bit at odds with our modern sensibility, at least sexuality in ancient China was deeply rooted to a sense of essential essences. Sex was never just a physical act. Sexuality had everything to do with something basic in the nature of what it meant to be a man or a woman. Therefore, any sexual act was understood in the context of their fundamental essences – yin and yang.

For this reason, prostitution was very much accepted in ancient China. Men seemed to think that engaging with prostitutes gave them the opportunity to gain additional yin from them, more than from “normal” women. Men could “gain” some of that essence from women. In particular, the belief was that a woman who had sex with many men began to acquire some of the yang essence from her customers, yang essence that could then be “shared.” Consequently, it was possible for a man to gain more yang from a sexual encounter with a prostitute than he lost and more than he could gain from relations with his wife who, presumably, only had sexual relations with him.

This somewhat balanced the understanding of what essential male and female sexuality meant and began to change during the Ch’in Dynasty (221 b.c.e to 24 c.e.) when the role and place of women shifted from one of sexual energy to one of more familiar modern gender roles.

When the Ch’in Dynasty shifted from the Taoist culture that had predominated China to a Confusianist culture, women’s roles and the understanding of sexuality and sexual behavior then shifted dramatically. No longer was sexuality and behavior determined by essential nature, by the yin and the yang. Instead, there was a more “traditional” – patriarchal cultural dynamic. The dynamic many of us are currently familiar with. Women were not just possessing of a different essence than men but they were considered inferior to men. Physical relations between men and women were found mostly in marriage and were only to take place in the bedroom. At the conclusion of such “contact,” all physical contact was to end – there was to be no contact even between husband and wife.

In a way that is only too familiar to those of us in Western Civilization, sex itself came to be considered sinful and tolerated solely for the process of procreation.

Even at the conclusion of the Ch’in Dynasty, when the Han Dynasty embraced a return to a Taoist worldview, new perspectives on sexuality and sex had taken hold. Taoism had become a more structured and organized religion, with its own churches and priests. So too, sexuality and sexual behavior had become more rigidly structured. Sexual behavior was formalized, even finding expression in written texts. Two of the most famous of these texts were The Handbook of the Plain Girl and The Art of the Bedchamber.

In both, a “Yellow Emperor” sought to live a long, healthy life and to attain some degree or form of immortality through sex. In order to accomplish his lofty goal he needed to become an expert at techniques that would prolong his orgasm and allow his sexual partner to orgasm several times. By doing so, he would maximize the amount of her yin essence that he would gain from their encounter while minimizing his own loss of yang essence.

While concerns about yin and yang are foreign to our understanding, one valuable insight we can gain from these perspectives is that sexuality was considered essential to who we are and that sexual mores change. This Eastern view is consistent with our understanding that one is a dynamic, constant sexuality fluidity and the other is defined by the times and circumstances of sexual behavior and roles. During times when the two were balanced, there was a sensible and satisfying cultural norm that blends sex and sexuality.

Unfortunately, there have been too many other times when the two were in conflict. This back and forth seems to have defined much of Western culture and history, as well as the role of women and sex in our society. And, as frustrating as it is to find ourselves at the dawn of the 21st century still sorting out the power and need for sexual awareness and the ability to embrace sexuality. Fortunately, we are in a better place than women have been through most of history. We still have a long way to go for women to feel comfortable and confident with their sexuality and know the difference between sex and sexuality.

In Medieval times people’s fears focused on three things: the Devil, Jews, and women. The fear of women was completely tied into the perceived threat of female sexuality. In the “dark, moist heat” of women’s sexuality, men became prostrate with fear and trembling, a fear and trembling that have continued to the beginning of the twentieth century and, in far too many places across the globe, to the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Ironically, texts from the time display an astonishing detail of female anatomy and function. Men seemed to get the physical component right but when it came to understanding and embracing a woman’s essence, they fell far short. And these were not mere “common” men. As seems to be the case over and over again, the hysteria that punished women for being women came from the very minds and men who were capable of understanding physicality. The condemnation of doctors, “physics” and ministers might seem astonishing to us now – the stuff of witch hunts and fiction – but it continues to inform our sensibilities.

The times taught that female sexuality was a serpent that was secretly guided into the heart. Goethe, writing about syphilis, used similar imagery when he demonized the disease as a beast and warning of “a serpent which lurks in the loveliest of gardens and strikes us at our pleasures”.

In this poetic turn, Goethe captured the true “horror” of female sexuality and gets at the heart of men’s fear – it ensnares men in that “loveliest” of gardens, striking them at their “pleasures,” when they are most vulnerable.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, when more “rational” thinking took over, the female disorders of nymphomania, masturbation, moral insanity, hysteria and neurasthenia were almost universally believed to be a serious threat to health and life and civilization. Most “experts” presumed these dire maladies were the inevitable result of reading inappropriate novels or playing romantic music.

Novels and music?!

As irrational as this might seem, there are still large, mainstream religious institutions which separate boys and girls, prohibit music and dancing, and discourage any contact with modern culture.

Are we so very different than those who lived in the Victorian age?

Then, there were instances of mass hysteria much like the Salem witch episodes in which women were taken with something called “menstrual madness” and insanity, diseases which required an immediate response and often a very radical “cure.” Menstrual madness was often “cured” by laparotomy and bilateral “normal ovariotomy.” This is the removal of normal ovaries known as “Battey’s Operation”.

One professor of psychology, Charcot, gave public demonstrations of hysteria in women in the 1870′s that emphasized his belief that most mental disease in women resulted from abnormalities or excitation of the female external genitalia. Or, to put it bluntly, he masturbated these women in public!

Now, these public demonstrations may strike you a bit pornographic because… well, according to our standards today, they were!You could be sure that these “clinical tutorials” were very well attended by scores of men who were only too pleased to witness – in the most graphic detail – the demonic role of the vulva and clitoris in the causation of hysterical attacks in Charcot’s young and, not incidentally, attractive patients.

The Internet does not deliver anything any more graphic or pornographic.

In an historical note, one of Charcot’s pupils was none other than Sigmund Freud, who attended these demonstrations at the La Salpêtrière for five months, repeated this fashionable view in his writings and lectures while also stressing the effect of the mind on gynecological and mental disease.

There is reasonable evidence that Freud modified his case histories – excluding the realities of deviant sexuality and sexual abuse and replacing them with sexual fantasies which would be much more acceptable to the Viennese upper middle class who were his audience.

I trust you are beginning to recognize a pattern here. There is a very clear thematic trend in the history of female sex and sexuality.

During Victorian times, when much of our “modern” understanding of women’s sexuality found its voice, women were taught not to enjoy sexual activity. They were taught to actively repress their passions. They were actually taught – in so many words – that their enjoyment of sex existed in direct proportion to the moral decline of society.

With that kind of burden, it is not surprising that few women felt any sexual desire and satisfaction. How could a woman embrace her lover in full joy when, in the back – or front – of her mind she held the belief, a belief imposed upon her by her teachers, her clergy and her family, that by doing so she was contributing to the destruction of all that was good in the world.

Talk about a surefire way to inhibit pleasure and orgasm!

For the Victorian woman, sex had one purpose and one purpose alone – to procreate. Ugh! Makes it sound like an unpleasant chore, doesn’t it? It followed from this that a girl or woman’s worth prior to marriage (the only social structure in which this procreation could take place) had worth only if she remained chaste and pure.

Once married, she could expect to be engaged by her husband in conjugal acts only when “necessary.”

Let’s pause for a moment just to parse the profoundly disturbing truths in that last observation. The first, of course, is that sex was reduced to an act that was engaged in only when “necessary” – presumably for the relief and release of the husband and to further the goal of procreation. The second, however, is more subtle and even more damaging. “She could expect to be engaged by her husband…” In regards to sex acts, and her sexuality, the woman was to be passive. She was nothing more than the recipient of someone else’s sexual wants, needs and demands – for purposes that she did not demand. She had no control over, no rights to, and indeed, was meant to remain ignorant and disapproving of her own sexuality.

It is impossible to examine the nineteenth-century medical attitude to female sexuality and come away with the feeling that it was anything but cruel and heartless. We would be kind to call it ignorant. But it was too malicious to be merely ignorant. It was damaging and malevolent. With professionals, gynecologists and psychiatrists, leading the charge, the medical professions designed treatments designed to “cure” those serious contemporary disorders, masturbation and nymphomania.

The gynecologist, Isaac Baker Brown (1811-1873), and the distinguished endocrinologist, Charles Brown-Séquard (1817-1894) advocated clitoridectomy to prevent the progression to masturbatory melancholia, paralysis, blindness and even death! A rational person might think that these professionals would have been tarred and feathered for their cruel views.

A rational person would have been wrong.

Society as a whole embraced their horrific view of women.

Before becoming self-righteous in our judgments, however, we must ask ourselves, Have we changed so much? Compare the perspective and behavior of those Victorians to our modern world where this same operation is still being forced upon women and girls in Asia and Africa and certain religious communities throughout the world!

Look at our own communities where young girls and women are made to feel ashamed and “dirty” for having sexual thoughts and desires.

Still, things are much better than our Victorian past, when the medical contempt for normal female sexual development was reflected in public and literary attitudes. Consider that there existed virtually no novel or opera in the last half of the 19th century where the heroine with “a past” managed to survive to the end.

The Victorian woman was reduced to simply a vessel. Oh, she was a highly-valued and a necessary “vessel”. After all, sex was necessary to further the biological imperative. (Imagine someone using a line like that in a bar! “Hello, my dear, would you consider furthering the biological imperative?” My guess is that someone using that line wouldn’t be getting laid that night!)

Any sexual desire that a Victorian woman experienced was, by definition, contradictory to her virtue. According to The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America (1974) by John S. Haller Jr., and Robin M. Haller, sexual promiscuity was an “ominous indication of national decay,” and not a sign of women’s liberation at that time.

This was the dominant perspective during Victorian times. As bad as it was, Victorian times were not Medieval times. Even against this bleak backdrop, there were other points of view being expressed. Many early “love manuals” actually emphasized sex for pleasure also. These manuals took the position that there could be equality in the marriage bed. An early indication that for sexuality to flourish, there has to be an acknowledgement of the equal needs and value of the partners in the sex act. There has to be respect and value on the needs, wants and desires of each partner.

These manuals took the revolutionary position that a women’s interest in sex depended upon her ability to seek satisfaction along with her partner. Sex could be an enjoyable act separate from its procreative imperative alone.

Joy of joys!

Of course, even these enlightened views were tempered by the presumption that indulging in sex too frequently was likely not a healthy thing and indicative of moral shortcomings.

So, there were other, “quieter voices” that spoke out in favor of greater sexual expression and enjoyment. Unfortunately, the dominant view took the more powerful grip on the culture’s defining morals. During the 1840′s there was a greater emphasis on the health aspects of “conjugal discourse” and less on the enjoyment aspects. There was a tendency to advocate for even less frequency in sex than earlier years. William Acton wrote in his text, Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1888), that women experienced “no need for sex.”

No need for sex!? Certainly the idiocy of his position would have been disputed on its face.

Of course it wasn’t. Not only was it not disputed but it was actually applauded by others, including women. Acton’s belief that women were apathetic to the notion of sex in marriage had a great ally in Mary Wood Allen, M.D., Superintendent of the Purity Department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She held that “the most genuine love between a husband and a wife existed in the lofty sphere of platonic embrace.”

Thanks for nothing, Mary! I guess her idea of a successful marriage was a husband and wife having a “sleepover” together, perhaps going so far as to hold hands and gaze warmly at one another as the night deepened around them.

As if to prove that when it comes to silly ideas no degree of extremism is impossible, other manuals of the time embraced the idea of marital continence, which referred to the ” voluntary and entire absence from sexual indulgence in any form.”

People who took this position pointed their boney, self-righteous fingers at women who deigned to seek sexual satisfaction and accused them of not leading “God-filled lives.” We have evolved remarkably since then. We tend only to call them names like “slut” or “nymphomaniac.”

Thankfully, there were also sensible voices shouting to be heard. Sometimes, the arguments seemed to build on the foundation that women did not desire sexual satisfaction, as the argument of Elizabeth Blackwell, a physician who believed that female’s lack of sexual lust came from a fear of injury in childbirth. Implicit in her belief was that women lacked sexual desire or lust. So too when she noted that women were passive because men would be rushed to perform quickly, leaving them without gratification.

At least her observations hold true in one fundamental aspect – women have consistently blunted their sexuality and sexual desires in order to maximize the “gratification” of men.

There were enlightened voices crying out. Not everyone was blind to the truth of women’s sexuality. There were physicians who argued that a women’s capacity for sexual gratification was at times more intense and prolonged than the males. These physicians viewed ignorance as the root of the problem women had with sexuality. They argued that women’s lack of sensible sexual education had taught them to believe that any sexual feeling was “indecent and immoral.” As a result, women had become a race of sexless creatures, little more than “married nuns,” who experienced no pleasurable feeling during sex.