On sexualising the “other”

Friends, we are as ever living in a society that spends a lot of time and energy attempting to uphold what it sees as “normal”. Normality, after all, doesn’t police itself, or even hold up as a concept without strenuous effort from the people invested in it. What we’re thinking about today is that in our society over time if something isn’t “normal” it is probably also sexual. Because sexual stuff is bad and therefore Not Normal and what we in the overthinking stuff game tend to refer to as “other”.

The other can vary from society and society and place to place, but here in Europe and in the areas that Europeans subjugated there is an underlying default, and that is a white straight dude. This was certainly true in medieval Europe, where, as you may have noticed men bossed everyone the fuck around and decided that they were defo the norm.

They decided this because, as I mentioned before, they all had giant boners for Aristotle, and he had told them that men were the default – as opposed to women – and like, slaves. Oh and also dudes who were not members of a city state? [1] I’m serious. He was that much of a douche. (This concludes the required Aristotle bashing for this article. Thank you for your patience.)

The other thing that helped medieval people to dictate that men were normal and women weren’t was the Bible. You remember ya boi Adam? He was first, innit? So like that proves that God meant dudes to be the normal kind of human. Women, famously were just made because Adam got lonely – and thus began the idea that women exist entirely to entertain men and take care of their emotional needs. Ahahahaha. Ha. (I’m not unpacking that today, but prove me wrong.)

creation
God creating Adam, and then Adam The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1390.

Now, medieval people didn’t necessarily think that the bible was literally true. They loved a good allegory as much as the next person, but the Adam and Eve story shows us that within the Jewish and Christian mindsets the default human is a man and women are an afterthought “other”.

Now here’s where the sex comes in. The thing that medieval Christian societies thought was good was not having sex. Obviously, as this blog and my entire career (LOL) are testament to, that didn’t mean that people didn’t have sex. Obviously they were getting down, and making dildos, and hitting on their lord’s wife, and basically just going for it. Clearly. However, that didn’t mean it was like, considered a good thing to be doing with your time. Nah, people were having sex in spite of the religious norms of the time, which were kinda a thing.

So if sex is an bad thing, and God didn’t want you to have it, then surely (surely!) God’s OG type of human, men, would be better at resisting it and less interested in it. Because women were the other sort of human – they were the sexual type of human. After all, it was women who couldn’t even resist a goddamn apple when some snake started spitting game. How were them meant to resist sex when they enjoyed sex more than men and were just too stupid to consider their impending moral destruction?

Now women were an OG medieval other, but they weren’t the only othered group, and of course were also half of some of the other groups that were singled out and sexualised. (It’s called intersectionality.) Lepers, for example, were a prominent othered group in the medieval period and came in for a lot of weird sexualisation. Leprosy for those wondering is a bacterial disease which causes skin lesions that can cause permanent damage to the skin, limbs, eyes and even nerves – and it was common in the medieval period. At the time, Lepers also often lost extremities, not because of the disease itself, but because the lesions that causes left sufferers more susceptible to any number of infections. This was of course a major issue, not just because of the distress it caused people, but because losing one’s digits made it impossible to work a field, or to do the intensive labor that the majority of people were involved in.

Anyway people were pretty freaked out by lepers. Firstly, because they were worried they would catch leprosy through contagion. (Technically that is possible, but only if you are in close and continuous contact with the droplets from someone with leprosy’s nose or mouth. Just so you know.) The other issues was that people thought lepers became morally compromised as well as bodily once they were stricken with the disease. The monk Humbert of Romans reported that you had to be careful when ministering to lepers because they…

“…. abuse the discipline which God grants them, so that the conditions of their illness lead them to commit many sins. they abandon themselves to lust and filthy behavior, which I prefer not to report. They give themselves up to all of this and also to other evils even worse…”[2]

So yeah, lepers be fucking.

lepers
” “Oh no! The pervy lepers be coming!” –  The guy on the left, probably.  “Lepra mutilans”  from the Miroir Historial, Paris, Bibliotheque de I’Arsenal

Heretics also got the same treatment in the medieval period, most notably the Good Men and Women of Languedoc, who the Church called Cathars. The Good Men were opposed to procreative sex because – long theological discussion short – they felt that everything in the physical world was related to an evil demiurge (think if the devil had created the world). Therefore, to bring more people into this evil world was sinful. Because of this belief, rumors began to spread that Good Men had sex that would not lead to procreation, i.e. sodomy, instead of the church approved married PIV that we all know and love.

Eventually this built into even weirder accusations of satanic cat orgies and … you know what? Imma let the English cleric Walter Map tell you:

“About the first watch of the night … the groups [of Good Men] sit waiting in silence in their respective synagogues, and a black cat of marvellous size climbs down a rope which hangs in their midst. On seeing it, they put out the lights. They do not sing hymns or repeat them distinctly, but hum them through clenched teeth and pantingly feel their way toward the place where they saw their lord. When they have found him they kiss him, each the more humbly as he is the more inflamed with frenzy – some the feet, more under the tail, most the private parts. And, as if drawing license for lasciviousness from the place of foulness, each seizes the man or woman next to them, and they commingle as long as each is able to prolong the wantonness.”[3]

cathar.png
The devil appearing in the form of a black cat to St Dominico of Calerueja. Presumably St Dominico was able to stop an orgy from breaking out. The Hague, KB, 72 A 24, fol. 313v

This accusation had enough traction that it would be rolled out over and over again – sometimes against the Waldensian heretics, and against the Knights Templar as well. Basically if you wanted to violently massacre a bunch of people you could just break out the old satanic cat orgy story and have at it. Fun!

The point is that medieval society write large thought about sex as naughty. Therefore, when presented with a group of people that they thought deviated from the norm, they decided that those people were weird sex fiends, which justified oppressing said group.

Now I am not sure if you have noticed this, but our society retains what you could call a, um, complicated relationship with sex. Like medieval people we are definitely having a lot of it, and also using it to sell stuff like hamburgers and cars, and well, pretty much anything. But we are notably super weird about it. We still tend to think people shouldn’t have too much sex with too many people, for example, or that it shouldn’t necessarily be talked about in public. We also still tend to relate to it as a thing that is for making babies even though that is not the reason that most people have sex most of the time.

Because of our tense relationship with sex we do the same thing that medieval people did – we use it to “prove” that a particular group of people should be othered and treated poorly.

One of the most obvious examples of this is the hypersexualisation of black women that is an essential component to misogynoir. This has a long-standing history that basically dates back to the moment that white people decided they were going to go all in on the chattel slavery thing. As Prof Herbert Samuel notes…

“…going back to the mid-1500s or so and continuing on to slavery within the United States and even further than that, black men and women were said to be animalistic in their sexual desires, particularly black men. That black women were very easy and responded enthusiastically towards any sexual advance that anyone would want to approach them.”

Because black women are perceived as “naturally” sexual by white society it helped to justify the way that their bodies were treated as a commodity and could be used by white men with impunity. This hypersexualisation is still massively prevalent in our society now, and according to the National Organization for Women this means that in the United States 60% of black girls experience sexual violence before they hit 18. Think about that.

And it’s not just men who do this. Research shows that white women are just as likely to sexualise and dehumanise their black peers. It’s a major component of the way that we allow our society to continue to overlook the needs of an othered group, and it needs to stop.

Of course we also have an analogous population to the medieval lepers now as well – people with HIV and AIDS. Part of the reason that America, for example, was slow to act on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was because it was seen as “only” effecting gay men who surely had it coming because of their promiscuous sexual behaviour. This idea – that promiscuity was the reason that a person contracted HIV – was so entrenched that as João Florêncio has pointed out even in 1987 the state of Oregon in America was releasing PSAs stating that “sex with multiple partners is how people like you get AIDS.” I wish I was kidding.

Even if we take HIV and AIDS out of the conversation, our society continuously dwells on what is considered to be the deviant sexual behaviour of gay men who are accused of being insatiable sexual aggressors. This idea leads to the real world harm, for example of the gay panic defense, wherein a man who assaults a gay man can claim to have been defending himself after a gay man expressed sexual interest in him. This defense strategy is still legal in 44 American states. A bill meant to criminalise it naturally died in the house last year.

A final and hugely marginalised group that we continuously sexualise is trans people, and trans women in particular. As a matter of course, calls to prevent trans women from sharing spaces with cis women focus on the idea that trans women are necessarily sexual aggressors attempting to infiltrate those spaces to assault cis women. This is the basis behind the bathroom panic and a major point that TERFs (That’s trans exclusionary radical feminists, who are garbage and largely funded by right wing think tanks, just so you know.) like to bang on about. Never mind that these theoretical assaults pretty much don’t exist. They might because trans women are weird and therefore sexual. Better absolutely subjugate an entire group of women who already face one of the highest murder rates in the world. That number spikes, of course, if we are talking about black trans women. Because everything is garbage and that is how intersectionality works.

So as you and many other scholars may have noticed, this is all hella depressing. Why are we talking about it? Well, it’s necessary for us as a society to reflect on the way we wield sexuality as a weapon and use it as an excuse to harm people that we perceive as different. We like to think of ourselves as more advanced that medieval people. It has been five hundred years or so, so it would nice to think that we’ve come a long way from our ancestors’ worst tendencies. Trouble is we haven’t necessarily done that – we’ve just shifted who we do it to.

If we want to create a just world, we need to unpack the ways in which our society justifies the current status quo. If your first reaction to something that you think of as unfamiliar is to think of it as sexual – either a potential victim or aggressor – then that is on you to figure out.

People are out here trying to live their lives. That is the only thing that is “normal”. Stop sexualising people just because you’re too basic to be familiar with them.

 

 

 

[1] J. M. Rist, “Aristotle: The Value of Man and the Origin of Morality”, Candian Journal of Pholosophy, 4:1 (1974), 1-2.
[2] M Goodrich (ed.), The Other Middle Ages. Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1998), pp. 146-147.
[3] Check out Jeffrey Burton Russell’s excellent section on this in, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca NY: Cornel University Press, 1972), p. 124.


For more on sex in the medieval period see:

On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
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 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.

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