On women and desire

Like many people, you may have been hearing for your entire damn life about the ‘mystery of the female orgasm’. Over and over again, we have been assured, that not only is it mysterious how women orgasm, but why they do.  We toss about at night, unable to sleep, haunted and desperately hoping for ‘seven weird tips to drive her wild’. More recently, a whole army of apps determined to show you how to ‘make’ women come, and sometimes enumerating the ways in which that can be done.  (Twelve apparently.  No more. No less.)

Like the mysterious female orgasm there is the twin scourge of ‘female low libido’ or ‘low sexual desire’, which is apparently common enough that if you google it in London an NHS webpage will pop up to inform you why you’re not feeling it.

Could women be disinterested because of the orgasm gap? And the fact that everyone goes around acting like whether or not women orgasm is a deep and unfathomable secret that could not be solved by paying attention to your partner(s) during sex?  WHO KNOWS.  IT IS SO MYSTERIOUS.

Obviously, there is a lot to unpack here, and like me, you may be sick to death of hearing about the whole goddamn thing, because who isn’t fucking tired of the patriarchy? (I’m weary.  So very weary.)

You might be so tired of this bullshit that it would be tempting to say that the idea of the sexually mysterious woman and her oh-so-secret orgasm is age old.

You would be wrong.

You see, in the medieval period, it was generally assumed that women were DTF.

There are manifold reasons that women were considered to be particularly sexually voracious. Firstly, there’s the fact that then as now, women were considered to be ‘other’.  Much like a basic-ass video game, you see, men were considered to be the default position. If you were going to talk about women, you therefore had to delineate them from men, and you’ve suddenly brought gender into the discussion. The concept of gender was in itself inextricably bound up with the concept of sex, and therefore women the expressly sexed gender.

Moreover, then as now, women were considered to be irrational.  They, unlike men, were considered to be driven more by animalistic concerns and were, therefore way way more into sex. At times, women’s interest in sex was linked explicitly with the animal, and women’s interest in sex even during menstruation meant that they were often likened to mares.

The idea of the over-sexed woman was wide-spread in society and shows up in popular texts and religious works alike.  Jerome, for example, noted that,

…women’s love in general is accused of ever being insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need; it enervates a man’s mind, and engrosses all thought except for the passion which it feeds.*

This belief is echoed as well in the De Cameron, where it’s noted that ‘whereas a single cock is quite sufficient for ten hens, ten men are hard put to satisfy ten women’. [Side note – LOL, cock.]

Subsequent to this, there were essentially two ways to deal with women in literature or art – they were either portrayed as virgins or out to catch some dick.  I’ll let you think for a minute about which of those two subjects was more popular.

Hell, even from a religious standpoint these were the two modes of femininity, and, unless you were a member of royalty, to attain sainthood women either had to be virgins or reformed prostitutes. (Shout out to the prostitute saints – love you girls.)

That women were more interested in sex was also unsurprising, as it was considered that they derived more pleasure from the sexual act as well. The perceived sexual interest and insatiability of women at times even resulted in royal families locking young unmarried daughters away in order to curtail sexual access to others.**

Medical theory took the assumed sexuality of women and ran with it, extrapolating on why it was that women were apparently so sex mad.  They argued that female pleasure during sex was necessary for conception.  Hildegard of Bingen wrote about this concept thusly:

When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.

It was also considered medically necessary for women to orgasm periodically in order to avoid excess build-up of what was termed ‘seminal humor’.  They therefore advised regular (but not excessive) sex between marital partners.  Much to the consternation of the Church (who were not down with onanism/wanking), women without sexual partners were thought to benefit from medical masturbation, and doctors looked to tracts from late classical authors like Galen who encouraged midwives to apply hot poultices to sexually frustrated women’s genitals.  This, it was believed would ‘cause [women] to experience orgasm, which would release the retained seed.’***

The dark side to the idea that women needed to be orgasming in order to experience conception was the belief that women who were raped, therefore, couldn’t become pregnant. This is the medieval correlate to the idea that ‘women’s bodies have a way of shutting that whole thing down’.  These ideas helped for rape to be normalised as something that powerful men could treat themselves to, as we’ve discussed before.

So then, in the medieval period women were considered to be a) more interested in sex, and b) more able to enjoy sex than men were.  Now, conversely, we believe the exact opposite thing to be true. Why is this so?

The link here is that women are considered guilty – no matter the era – of the level of sexual interest that is at odds with societal expectation.  In the medieval period women are considered lustful and sex driven because the Church considered sex to be wrong. In the modern era – where sex is considered much less taboo, and is often celebrated – women are told that we are not interested in and cannot derive pleasure from the sexual act. Men always have the sexual drive that leads to societal status, and women are then defined in opposition to that expectation.

The point of this rant? Be however sexual you want to be, and don’t worry that you are abnormal because of what you are told is the prevailing level of sexual interest.  You’re fine and can exist somewhere between trying to enchant dick to come to your house, and not being interested at all.  However, if you are more interested in cake than sex, that is cool too, and if you have a good dick spell you want to share – hit me up.  There’s room for everybody.

*Joyce E. Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, (eds.) Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, (New York: Garland, 1996), p. 86.
** James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 428.
*** Jacqueline Murray, “Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages,” in The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, p. 201.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on women in the medieval period see:
On constructing the “ideal” woman
Talking medieval women on History Hack
On Women and Work
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
On the Ideal Form of Women
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa

For more on medieval sex, see:
On sex with demons
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
Doing it Right – A Short Introduction to Medieval Sex for Nerd Nite
Talking sex in the medieval period on Holly Randall Unfiltered
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
On the plague, sex, and rebellion
No beastiality was never OK, you absolute rabid weirdo
On courtly love and pickup artists
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
The Medieval Podcast – Medieval Sexuality with Eleanor Janega
On the Objectification of Sex
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Dildos and Penance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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