On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject

This week in the godforsaken wasteland that is Twitter where I hang out for some reason (?), the public has been treated to the absolute gift that is a bunch of dudes insisting that women, in their experience do not like sex. No, they do not see this as linked to their person, and it is as fucking hilarious as you are imagining. WITNESS:

Brad

Or how about your boy Scott?

Scott

These responses came as a woman sensibly pushed back against the Alyssa Milano’s proposed Sex Strike (I know.) to protest the new and draconian abortion bills in Alabama and Georgia. (That is a whole other mess for a whole other day, because there is already so much to unpack here.)

Now you and I can see that these dudes are out here straight telling on themselves, but they simply do not see it that way. Why is that? Well aside from being world-class douche nozzles, I would make the argument that there is a historical and philosophical basis for this particular way of seeing things, as wild as it is.

To understand it, we need to go even further back than the medieval period (though I promise we will get there too) and hit up our boy Aristotle, who as many important historians have noted, was an absolute prick about women. To Aristotle, men were to be understood as inherently superior to women. Free women were superior to slaves, sure, but there was a specific hierarchy to the world which was men > women > slaves. (And who really cares about gender if they’re not free, amiright?)

Women were inferior because they were to be understood, more or less, as inverted versions of the perfect male. Obviously, Aristotle understands that women are necessary and an important part of society – hell he even advocates that women’s happiness should be treated as equal to that of men’s – but inherently for Aristotle the default player is a dude. Women are then defined in comparison to this inherently correct and superior male. This is true of almost every ancient Greek philosopher or thinker, including Aristotle’s own teacher Plato, and as Bonnard has noted, even if these dudes were slightly more chill on the misogyny front, they were still debating women compared to men – both physically and mentally.

Added to this, men were not only the correct sort of human, but they are also the active in comparison to women. This is certainly true during sex, where Aristotle explains that the male is the active partner and the female is the passive one. His idea was that men produce active sperm which then gestate in inactive women.[1] For Aristotle sex was therefore something that men did to women, and hey presto maybe you’ll get a baby. Women didn’t necessarily experience orgasm either, according to Aristotle because – get ready for some problematic racist shit – only light skinned women could climax. (I know. I know, ok?)

The Romans, who were extremely into just doing whatever their Hellenic counterparts did later and with more slaves, tended to agree with this. As the historian Paul Veyne has noted, Romans, even in their Christian iteration tended to agree that “to be active was to be male, whatever the sex of the compliant partner. To take one’s pleasure was virile, to accept it was servile.”[2] Women, therefore were accepting and servile in sex.

greek art
Just being servile, I guess?

As fucked up as all of this is, medieval period were huge fans of classical thought and the Church fathers. Aristotelian texts were absolutely central to the medieval university. Therefore if you were a medieval philosopher, you were trained into accepting Aristotelian and Platonian concepts of the world, not necessarily uncritically, but certainly reverently. Because Aristotle is, you know, important. So medieval concepts of sex went from there. As a result philosophers like my boy Tommy Quine Quine, aka Thomas Aquinas to all you boring losers, arguably the most influential thinker of the medieval period, agreed with Aristotle and stated that “in the venereal act the woman is passive and is by way of matter, whereas the man is by way of agent”.[3]

Even the amazing polymath Hildegard of Bingen, who this blog stans, accepted this conception of women as passive during sex with men. To her way of thinking, during hetero-sex a woman “[is] like a threshing-floor pounded by his many strokes and brought to heat while the grains are threshed inside her.”[4]

active
Caution, threshing in process. (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 5209, Fol. 107 r.)

Our patriarchal society has absolutely eaten this bullshit TF up. We are still fighting the idea that men are do-ers – logical, active, the “natural” commanders of the illogical, passive woman upon who they act in sex and life more largely. How can a passive woman actively like anything anyway when she isn’t even active, let alone during sex – an activity that is all about men “getting” or “making” women pregnant?

And that assumption – that sex is about “getting” someone pregnant is at the heart of this. If you asked either Scott or Brad what sex was, I am almost certain they would come at you with some nonsense about how penis in vagina sex was the only kind of sex that “counted” or is “real”, which is a great way to make people with vulvas not the most enthusiastic about having sex, is all I am saying. So the Brads and Scotts of the world are just parroting the assumption that men do sex in order to pass on their active genes, and women have it happen to them. Men are the subject in the question of sex, and women are the objects that they act upon.

What is interesting here is that whereas Scott and Brad agree with their medieval counterparts on women’s role during sex, they differ extensively on the concept of women’s enjoyment of it. Obviously, as I will never stop talking to you about, in the medieval period women were considered to be the horny ones, whereas this whole wrong-headed Sex Strike, Brad, and Scott are here to tell you that women simply aren’t interested in sex and can give it up just like that. How does something of that magnitude change?

The link here is the concept of “logic”. For medieval people, and Aquinas in particular, sex for pleasure is considered illogical, if not downright sinful. Simply put, you really ought to only be having sex with your spouse with the intention that you should get pregnant. There was an understanding that this wasn’t always possible – which is where the concept of the conjugal debt (wherein a spouse “owes” their other spouse sex if their request for it is reasonable), or where the acceptance of sex work comes into play. By and large, however, if you are being logical in the medieval period, as a good Christian, you would abstain from sex altogether if possible, and in any case where you weren’t trying to have babies with your spouse otherwise.

illogical
A lady being hella illogical. (Bodleian MS Douce 195, fol. 118.)

As a part of this, you should also be attempting to limit the pleasure that you are feeling so that things don’t get too wild and out of control and you accidentally start doing sodomy (aka sex just for pleasure that can’t get anyone pregnant). That is the most logical way to have sex – penises in vaginas, ejaculating, with a woman orgasming so that she can conceive (which medieval people saw as necessary), and out of there as quickly and efficiently as possible.

If that is logical and the correct way to have sex, of course, that meant that women – as illogical beings – wanted the opposite of it. So medieval women are horny, want a bunch more sex than dudes do, and will do all kinds of crazy stuff that won’t even get them pregnant! The scandal!

Our understanding of sex now has changed, to an extent. Our society still tends to treat sex which leads to pregnancy as the only “real” sex and the “reason” that people have sex, which is, of course utter nonsense. The great majority of all sex had by everyone is just to have a fun and nice time. And we have sort of picked up on that a bit. We have come around to understanding that sex is maybe kinda really fun sometimes? This acceptance of sex as a good time has morphed into the current cultural moment of sex positivity. Because of this recalibration, we increasingly relate to sex as something that is pleasurable, which I would argue is a good thing.

However, there is also a negative side to our expectations within the concept of sex positivity. Yes we now see sex as something “natural” and enjoyable,  but that has also meant is that we tend to think that if sex is fun, and if the “real” way to have sex is by putting penises in vaginas, then logically you should be wanting to have just a ton of penis in vagina sex. Go to town with it. That’s what logical men do.

Enter Brad and Scott.

This whole understanding of gender and sex is, I would argue, a total fucking disaster for several reasons.

First off, our insistence on relating to sex as a “logical” biological function that we sort of retrofit afterwards for pleasure feeds into walking sex disasters like Brad and Scott. If you think that sex has to be linked to fertility, even if you are trying to have it for fun then of course, people with penises are going to be a bit more interested in sex.  It’s not just Brad and Scott’s basic asses – it’s everyone who relates to sex as a biological thing rather than an activity that people might enjoy doing together.

Piled on top of this are the varying expectations we have of pleasure within this idiom. Clearly the idea that women might not enjoy sex is super harmful. It lets Brad and Scott, et al. off the hook for checking in with the women they have sex with and seeing what they might like. If women don’t enjoy PIV because they are so illogical, why even bother? You can move on safely the minute you are having sex knowing that they are never going to have a good time anyway. Cue a bunch of terrible sex for women. Yay.

The flip side of this, however, is equally damaging for men (which, let’s be real is always true under the patriarchy). It’s assumed that men are just always up for sex. They are supposed to always take pleasure in it and to just love penetrative sex which always always does it for them. Moreover, to be masculine you need to be actively pursuing lots of active manly sex where you penetrate people. This means a lot of dudes are out having by the script sex that doesn’t really do it for them either, but they aren’t allowed to admit that lest they be seen as less than manly.

This is a fucking nightmare for everyone.

So what is the answer to this absolute garbage fest? Well first off, we need to deconstruct our gendered approaches to, well, everything. The assumption that any activity is necessarily more logical because of a quirk of biology, and that a particular group enjoys that activity more as a result is absolutely bonkers. This is as true of the medieval approach to sex which sees women as always up for it as it is of our current one that casts men in this role.

Secondly, I would argue that we all need to work on being a bit more sex critical, as opposed to sex positive. It’s OK to unpack the reasons why you might want to have sex, or why you might enjoy one kind of sex as opposed to another. It’s OK to have sex when you are just sorta meh about it, provided it’s your decision to do so. If you have sex and you did not orgasm, or didn’t care that much generally, there’s nothing wrong with you. You aren’t illogical or wrong. You’re a person doing an activity. The way you relate to it doesn’t have any bearing on who you are as a person. And – this is absolutely critical – your experience within any sex you have is valid. You are not an object to someone else’s subject, you are integral. Anyone who would treat another person’s experience as fixed and immutable about any activity – let alone sex – is a dickhead who should be ignored.

This brings me to my third, and possibly most important point, of all this, which I cannot stress enough – NO ONE fuck Brad or Scott. They’ve been poisoned by history and are crap in the sack.

That’s an important start for all of us.

[1] Paul Veyne, “Homosexuality in Ancient Rome”, in Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times (Basil Blackwell, 1985), p. 29.

[2] Wolfgang Gerlach, Das Problem des “weiblichen Samens” in der antiken und mittelalterlichen Medizin. Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften xxx/4-5: 186.

[3] Summa Theologiae II-II, 154, 1 

[4] See, Margret Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (Wipf and Stock, 2006), p. 104.


For more on sex in the medieval period see:

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 Incels and Courtly Love

On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’

On Courtly Love, Sexual Coercion, and Killing Your Idols

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, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s