On women having sex with themselves

This week I have extremely been back on my bullshit talking about and thinking about medieval dildos, as ones does. Real fans of the blog, of course will remember that I have written about dildos before, but this week over on the We’re Not So Different Podcast Luke and I were having a bit of a chat about them as well. One of the things I mentioned there was the fact that dildos have a specific place in the medieval mind because of the way that medical and religious writers thought about sex. Then I opened twitter this morning, because I am a masochist, and saw an honest to god neo-Nazi talking about dildos in the exact same way. Behold:


So that is a lot to unpack, but there are two distinct things going on here that Mr. Nazi has carried over from the classical and medieval view of sex, which is why I am interested in him at all. The first is the idea that if women do not orgasm they become troublesome. To be fair, this is a concern for both men and women in the medieval period. After all, the reason why sex work was legal in medieval Europe was the on-going and constant worry that undersexed men would react violently. This is because sex was seen as a way for people to release excess humors in general. Sperm, which both men and women were conceptualised as having under the classical and in the medieval period dominant, two-seed theory of generation, could build up if not released and turn toxic.

This toxicity in women was linked to a condition referred to as prefocatio matricis or a “suffocation” of the womb. The twelfth-century women’s medical manual, the Trotula noted this malady as occurring in “those women who do not use men, especially…widows who were accustomed to carnal commerce. It regularly comes upon virgins, too, when they reach the age of marriage and are not able to use men”. The symptoms of the condition included what we would see as mental health issues like “upset” but also physical problems like “loss of appetite … syncope [fainting]…” as well as the loss of the use of the voice, contraction of nostrils and lips, and teeth grinding.[1] In other words, if women don’t get a good dicking down on a regular basis they do be acting crazy. Cool.

From the Decretum Gratiani with the commentary of Bartolomeo da Brescia, Italy 1340-1345 (Lyon, BM, Ms 5128, fol. 100r)

Similarly, the eleventh-century physician Constantine the African (d. c. 1099) noted that women’s wombs were suffocated by an “abundance of sperm or its corruption. It occurs when women are deprived of union with a man: the sperm increases, becomes corrupt and begins to resemble a poison. … the sperm accumulates and there is born from it a smoke which rises to the diaphragm [and so] … suffocation occur.”[2] The best cure for the disease was for women to find an acceptable sexual outlet through marriage, have a bunch of sex and put both their sperm and womb to its intended purpose of making babies.

It should be noted here that while I am talking about the medieval conception of horny women being impossible to deal with, classical medicine also agreed with this take. Suffocation of the womb was also advocated by people like Galen (129-c.216), who liked the wombs of women with retained semen to rabid dogs or poisonous scorpions.[3] Similarly, this view was held by the Hippocratic physicians who believed that suffocated uteruses could even cause death if not treated.[4] So while this is wild, it isn’t like medieval people made it up out of nowhere. As per usual, this medical theory was strongly rooted in the classical medical tradition, which apparently Nazis still believe in. The only difference is that the Nazis now think it leads to women “wanting rights for marganalised communities” and “not being Nazis”. Which is … bad. I guess.

The second thing that is medieval about this take is your Nazi there’s idea that when women have sex with themselves they use dildos to do it. This hinges on the idea that the only way for women to really orgasm, and indeed the only way for them to have satisfying sex, is for them to have something penis shaped involved. So even when a man is not involved in a woman having sex, the way that she would have sex resembles normative sex, and still is one hundred percent focused on dicks.

From Bibliothèques Municipales d’Angers Ms 372

Medieval writers, both medical and religious, who were often notably dudes, also believed this to be true. Thirteenth-century medical writer Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), for example, described women having solo sex in order to be less cranky thusly:  “… if they do not have a man, they feel in their minds intercourse with a man and often imagine men’s private parts, and often rub themselves strongly with their fingers or with other instruments until, the vessels having been relaxed through the heart of rubbing and coitus, the spermatic humor exits … and then their groins are rendered temperate and then they become more chaste.”[5]

Similarly, homeboy Burchard of Worms (c. 950-1050), whose dildo obsession I have written about before, said in his Decretum that priests should ask the women who come to confession if they “[h]ave…done what certain women are accustomed to do, that is, to make some sort of device or implement in the shape of the male member, of the size to match your desire, and… [if they] have… fornicated with yourself with the aforementioned device or some other device?”[6] Solo sex, in Burchard’s very holy mind, is just a mimicry of penis in vagina sex, and therefore requires implements in order to happen.

Comparing both of these dude’s ideas about women’s private sexual behavior, I guess you would say that Albertus comes closer to what most women would argue is the more common option. He gets that solo sex for women is usually external. However, he is certain that even if this is the practice, women still be meditating on that D to make the magic happen. There is no other way for women to achieve satisfaction other than imagining penises. Sorry, but this is the only option. Meanwhile Burchard’s idea lines up directly with the Nazi who is like, “Yeah no, has to be penetration and a fake dick. That is sex. Women have no concept of any sort of sexual satisfaction outside of what men do to them and therefore fake having a man around when they have sex alone.”

Anyway, suffice to say that if Buchard or the Nazi in question had ever had sex with a woman they might be very surprised to learn that this is not, in fact, how most women relate to solo sex, or indeed sex more generally. It is to be hoped that the rest of us have moved on a bit since the eleventh century, but here we are.

[1] Monica H. Green (ed. and trans.), The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), p. 71.
[2] Quoted in, Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), p. 174.
[3] Christopher A. Faraone, “Magical and Medical Approaches to the Wandering Womb in the Ancient Greek World.” Classical Antiquity 30, no. 1 (2011): 8.
[4] Ibid., 3-4.
[5] De Animalibus, bk. IX, tr. I, ch. 1, 7, following Joan Cadden’s translation, in, “Western medicine and natural philosophy”, in, The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality: , ed. Vern L Bullough and James Brundage, (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 59.
[6] Patrologia Latina, 140.971D-927A.

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

For more on medieval sex, see:
On sex with demons
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
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 Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
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!
On women and desire

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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