by Alyssa Goldstein
In the 1600s, a man named James Mattock was expelled from the First Church of Boston. His crime? It wasn’t using lewd language or smiling on the Sabbath or anything else that we might think the Puritans had disapproved of. Rather, James Mattock had refused to have sex with his wife for two years. Though Mattock’s community clearly saw his self-deprivation as improper, it is quite possible that they had his wife’s suffering in mind when they decided to shun him. The Puritans believed that sexual desire was a normal and natural part of human life for both men and women (as long as it was heterosexual and confined to marriage), but that women wanted and needed sex more than men. A man could choose to give up sex with relatively little trouble, but for a woman to be so deprived would be much more difficult for her.
Yet today, the idea that men are more interested in sex than women is so pervasive that it seems almost unremarkable. Whether it’s because of hormone levels or “human nature,” men just need to have sex, masturbate, and look at porn in a way that simply isn’t necessary for women, according to popular assumptions (and if a woman does find it necessary, there’s probably something wrong with her). Women must be convinced, persuaded, even forced into “giving it up,” because the prospect of sex just isn’t that appealing on its own, say popular stereotypes. Sex for women is usually a somewhat distasteful but necessary act that must be performed to win approval, financial support, or to maintain a stable relationship. And since women are not slaves to their desires like men, they are responsible for ensuring that they aren’t “taken advantage of.”
The idea that men are naturally more interested in sex than women is ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine that people ever believed differently. And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day. In one ancient Greek myth, Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They ask the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had once transformed into a woman, to settle the debate. He answers, “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and and nine parts to the woman.” Later, women were considered to be temptresses who inherited their treachery from Eve. Their sexual passion was seen as a sign of their inferior morality, reason and intellect, and justified tight control by husbands and fathers. Men, who were not so consumed with lust and who had superior abilities of self-control, were the gender more naturally suited to holding positions of power and influence.
Early 20th-century physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis may have been the first to document the ideological change that had recently taken place. In his 1903 work Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he cites a laundry list of ancient and modern historical sources ranging from Europe to Greece, the Middle East to China, all of nearly the same mind about women’s greater sexual desire. In the 1600s, for instance, Francisco Plazzonus deduced that childbirth would hardly be worthwhile for women if the pleasure they derived from sex was not far greater than that of men’s. Montaigne, Ellis notes, considered women to be “incomparably more apt and more ardent in love than men are, and that in this matter they always know far more than men can teach them, for ‘it is a discipline that is born in their veins.’” The idea of women’s passionlessness had not yet fully taken hold in Ellis’ own time, either. Ellis’ contemporary, the Austrian gynecologist Enoch Heinrich Kisch, went so far as to state that “The sexual impulse is so powerful in women that at certain periods of life its primitive force dominates her whole nature.”
Yet the times were clearly changing. In 1891, H. Fehling tried to debunk the common wisdom: “It is an altogether false idea that a young woman has just as strong an impulse to the opposite sex as a young man…. The appearance of the sexual side in the love of a young girl is pathological.” In 1896, Bernhard Windscheid postulated, “In the normal woman, especially of the higher social classes, the sexual instinct is acquired, not inborn; when it is inborn, or awakes by itself, there is abnormality. Since women do not know this instinct before marriage, they do not miss it when they have no occasion in life to learn it.”
So what happened?
Of course, ideas about gender and sexuality are not the same everywhere, and within every place and era there are always debates and differing views. The story of how this stereotype became reversed is not a simple one to trace, nor did it happen evenly and all at once. Historian Nancy Cott points to the rise of evangelical Protestantism as the catalyst of this change, at least in New England. Protestant ministers whose congregations were increasingly made up mainly of middle-class white women probably saw the wisdom in portraying their congregants as moral beings who were especially suited to answering the call of religion, rather than as besmirched seductresses whose fate was sealed in Eden. Women both welcomed this portrayal and helped to construct it. It was their avenue to a certain level of equality with men, and even superiority. Through the gospel, Christian women were “exalted above human nature, raised to that of angels,” as the 1809 book The Female Friend, or The Duties of Christian Virgins put it. The emphasis on sexual purity in the book’s title is telling. If women were to be the new symbols of Protestant religious devotion, they would have to sacrifice the acknowledgement of their sexual desires. Though even the Puritans had believed that it was perfectly acceptable for both men and women to desire sexual pleasure within the confines of marriage, women could now admit to desiring sex in order to bond with their husbands or fulfill their “maternal urges.” As Cott put it, “Passionlessness was on the other side of the coin which paid, so to speak, for women’s admission to moral equality.”
By positioning themselves as naturally chaste and virtuous, Protestant women could make the case for themselves as worthy moral and intellectual equals. They could carve out a space for themselves to participate in political life as social reformers advocating for moral causes like charity for the poor and prohibition. And in an era when men could legally rape their wives (an era which did not end in the US until 1993), womens’ supposed passionlessness provided at least some limited grounds for them to abstain from unwanted sex with their husbands. Yet these benefits were available for only a certain subset of women. As John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman point out, “The idea of innate female virtue, or of sexual passionlessness, applied primarily to native-born, middle class women; working-class, immigrant, and black women continued to be seen as sexually passionate, and thus sexually available.” (Think back to Windscheid’s claim that women, but especially affluent women, were naturally born without sex drives.) Middle-class white women could emphasize their similarities with men of their race and class, and thus access some of their privilege, by embracing an ideology that posited fundamental sexual differences between themselves and those other women.
Yet if women could raise themselves up to the level of angels by being passionless, then they had so much further to fall if they did give in to their desires. As D’Emilio and Freedman explain, “In the past, as long as she repented, the woman who once sinned–like the male transgressor–could be reintegrated into the community. Now, however, because women allegedly occupied a higher moral plane than man, her fall was so great that it tainted her for life.” These “fallen women” were barred from their families and communities, and often had to work as prostitutes to support themselves.
Women’s supposed greater sex drive was an argument for their inferiority, but once the assumption became reversed, no one argued that men’s lustfulness was a sign of a fundamental irrationality that should preclude them from business and politics. Rather than a handicap, a large sexual appetite was positive once it came to be seen as a characteristic of men. Women, being passionless, supposedly lacked the drive and ambition to succeed. Much like sex, the public realm of work was dirty and distasteful, hardly suitable to women’s delicate sensibilities. Since their instincts were maternal rather than sexual, they were best suited to staying virtuously at home with the children. Black women and poor women, on the other hand, were firmly shut out from the dainty flower role. They were still seen as suitable for both work and for satisfying white men’s sexual urges that were no longer appropriate for their wives.
But perhaps the longest-lasting consequence of the rise of the passionless woman was the ushering in of a sneakier type of sexism–whose evidence we see in any number of fast-food and beer commercials that portray men as a bunch of dim-witted five-year-olds in the bodies of adults. Women are smarter, more responsible, more caring and upstanding; not like men, whose instincts are base and appetites carnal. Since men are utterly unfit for helping to raise their own children (as they are little more than children themselves), that job must fall to women. Since men are too incompetent to do housework, their stolid, levelheaded wives must do it. Since men are unable to restrain themselves, women must keep their skirts long, stay away from alcohol, refrain from flirting. For women, the failure to have appeared passionless enough means that they are now the ones responsible if they are raped. “The purity of women is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man’s sensual nature surge,” as one nineteenth-century reformer put it, and this attitude still persists today.
Even when gender roles change, sexism has a remarkable ability to adapt–and historical amnesia enables this ability. The association of men with lust is as much an artifact of recent times as the association of girls with pink and boys with blue (less than 100 years ago, this system of gendered color-coding was also reversed). Yet even with all this switching-around, some things have stayed suspiciously the same. When women were sexual, their proper place was in the home as caregivers and mothers. When women became passionless, their proper place was still in the home as caregivers and mothers. Isn’t it funny how that works? Gender roles gain their power from the fact that they appear natural and eternal. By looking to the past, we can draw aside this veil and see these categories for what they are–made by people, and able to be changed by people.