We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…Haven’t We?
Originally published in Maria's Second Helpings on Mar 2016
We in the modern era did not invent the female orgasm.
We didn’t invent sex, either.
I bet you’re thinking, “Duh.” Because, well, duh. But when people learn that I’m a professor of medieval history, they say the darnedest things. And when I tell them I’m also a romance novelist, it’s even crazier.
May I give you examples?
Not long ago, I was at a party, chatting with a psychiatrist whose specialty was college-age adults. I told her I was teaching a course on women’s sexuality in the European Middle Ages. She said, “But what is there to teach?” Carefully, I said, “I’m not sure what you mean.” She replied: “I thought they didn’t have sex back then.”
This from a psychiatrist of 18- to 22-year-olds.
Historian or not, one thing I’m totally comfortable asserting about humanity now and historically is that the urge to mate is hardwired into the species—because if it weren’t…um…we wouldn’t be here. Take young adults, and you multiply that urge by ten thousand.
What she meant—she hurriedly explained—was that in the Middle Ages, “the Church” said sex was bad, so people didn’t have much of it—and even then, only boring sex because everybody was religiously brainwashed. And women had no power, so they didn’t have pleasure…and so forth.
I actually hear this often. So I gently explain that in the Middle Ages people did have lots of sex: sex in beds, sex on floors, sex in fields, and on castle ramparts, in alleyways, in vehicles, and pretty much everywhere people have sex today (except airplanes, natch). They had good sex and bad sex, married sex, unmarried sex, and adulterous sex; sex for love, sex for lust, sex for power, sex for violence, and sex for making babies. And, although the historical record is thin on female-authored accounts of female pleasure, there’s enough evidence to prove that women had orgasms. Some medieval scientists even believed that a female orgasm was essential for conception. This theory was based on a male-centric model of anatomy: A man must have an orgasm to procreate, so a woman must, too.
When medievals applied this theory to rape, some came to a horrifying conclusion: A woman who conceived from rape must have experienced pleasure while being raped. But medieval medical scholars seriously doubted that. So when politicians today use terms like “legitimate rape” while speaking of unwanted pregnancy, they’re behind even the medieval times.
The wisdom of some medieval scholars notwithstanding, women have for centuries been actively discouraged from seeking sexual pleasure. For instance, a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case confirmed a popular notion among eugenics experts that a woman who was believed to enjoy sex too much could be declared “feebleminded” and forcibly sterilized so as not to pass this nasty trait along to daughters.
I often wonder why our culture eagerly embraces crazy ideas about women’s sexuality. One reason is the weight of history. It’s only been a few decades since women (and some men) began writing history that includes the experiences of women. It takes time and effort for old, damaging misinformation to die. Yet, when pressed to shave their budgets, public universities discard women’s and gender studies programs, claiming they don’t contribute to “job preparation” for graduates.
Which brings me to my second example: Not long ago, standing in the registration line at a hotel for a professional conference of authors of romance fiction, a well-spoken, youngish businessman asked me why the lobby was packed with women. When I told him, he asked, “Is it true that romance authors are sexually frustrated single women living out their fantasies by writing novels?”
I glanced around at all the professional authors who earn impressive incomes in an often-brutal publishing industry, and answered, “No.”
If a kind of warped fantasy about women and sex persists in our culture despite our best efforts, it’s in part because women’s history is so poorly known. In early nineteenth-century Britain, in which my romance novels are set, when a woman married, her legal identity was subsumed into her husband’s. He gained control of her property, income, children, and body. It took activists a couple more centuries or so to end this virtual enslavement by changing the laws that governed marriage.
Lately, when a woman tells me she won’t vote because “politicians are all corrupt,” I say a silent prayer of thanks to the women of history who fought for my right to vote, my right to orgasm, and my right to have legal autonomy. Then I say a prayer for that non-voter that someday she’ll pick up a women’s history book and learn.