by Jean Roberta
I recently reviewed a scholarly book, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830, by Susan Lanser. As the author shows, “woman + woman” (primary relationships between women) were described during the period under discussion as 1) impossible (especially if they included any activity that could be called “sex”), 2) new and “modern,” despite the general belief that the poet Sappho, from the Island of Lesbos (circa 600 BC) was the original foremother, and 3) a dangerous epidemic that could destroy civilization. This book includes evidence of “the sapphic imaginary,” including much speculation by anxious conservatives about the debauched practises of women who supposedly had too much freedom.
There needs to be a book about the “slut imaginary,” and maybe there is. At various times in my life, most of the people closest to me have accused me of “wanting it all the time,” and even of doing it all the time, presumably with no breaks for eating or sleeping, let alone earning money by holding down a non-sexual job. According to some men (e.g. my late ex-husband), too many women are Biblical demons who have no other function except to tempt men to spill their seed.
Accusations of sluttery are often motivated by political bias other than contempt for women in general. Queen Jezebel in the Old Testament wasn’t necessarily an adulteress or a nymphomaniac. According to the story, she was the foreign wife of a Hebrew king named Ahab, and she brought the worship of “false gods” to her husband’s people. In the centuries since her story was first written down, it has been assumed that such a “pagan” woman would be a slut. Most visual images of her focus on her lush, sinful curves.
Skip ahead to the late 1700s, when Queen Marie Antoinette of France was still known to her enemies as “the Austrian woman,” a foreign invader who married the dauphin of France when she was a teenager. On the eve of revolution, written stories about her “furious womb” (uncontrollable need for sex) circulated widely.
Note that King Charles II, who ruled England from 1660 to 1685, was a famous “libertine.” Historians estimate that he fathered between 12 and 19 children outside of marriage. (He had a wife, but she couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term.) Apparently no one suggested that he was unfit to rule because of his prolific sex life. At the time, more of his Protestant subjects seemed shocked by rumours that the king was a closeted Catholic!
When I was still fairly young and horny, I learned from experience that no one can really do it “all the time.” (I’ve also been accused of writing “all the time” as well as reading “all the time.” If there are only 24 hours in a day, how can time be multiplied?) Males, in particular, have a disadvantage if they want to do it “all the time.” Most guys, no matter how healthy and full of juice, need some reloading time after ejaculating before they can fire again. Girls/women are capable of multiple orgasms, but not for hours at a stretch. Human energy is limited.
The general Western (Christian?) fear of “excessive” sex really seems like fear of the impossible, much like a medieval fear of having one’s crops or general well-being destroyed by a witch’s curse. Nonetheless, I’m sure I wasn’t the only girl whose parents recommended “therapy” of some kind (medical or psychiatric) to eliminate those inappropriate feelings. The only alternative to being a “fallen woman” who presumably wanted it all the time was to be a “nice girl” who was supposed to do it only with her husband, but not to like it.
The flip side of traditional fear and dread of uncontrolled lust (especially in women) is desire for unlimited pleasure. My earliest “porn” stories (as I thought of them) were about some other country – it might have to be on some other planet – where my sexual ability would be admired, not sneered at or punished. I could have high rank (i.e. be an earthier kind of Disney princess), be initiated into sex in some public ceremony, and not lose any status because of it. Au contraire; my “people” would love my sexual generosity.
The surrealistic plots of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novels, Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872) seem like reactions to the Victorian social order, and even though they don’t include any mention of sex, they do include a surprisingly assertive young heroine. In my fantasy story, “Becoming Alice,” she accelerates through puberty by drinking a magic potion (one of the bottles labelled “Drink Me”), and then makes her debut, her presentation to the King and Queen, in a sexual sense. In Wonderland, this is all as it should be. (This story appears in my single-author collection, The Princess and the Outlaw, and in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 13.)
For a brief time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I thought a Sexual Revolution might really be on its way, and it would liberate people in general from undeserved guilt and shame. That revolution never arrived, and I probably won’t see it in my lifetime, which is probably more than halfway over.
In the meanwhile, I can only imagine a world in which sex would never be considered a problem unless 1) it was forced on someone who didn’t or couldn’t give meaningful consent, or 2) it resulted in unwanted consequences (pregnancy, disease), or 3) it interfered with other aspects of life (eating, sleeping, working). Otherwise, an “oversexed” person could be considered an “overachiever,” someone who accomplishes more than the rest of us.