Victorians

♀ Nine Parts

Photograph by  Asterio Tecson .

Photograph by Asterio Tecson.

Every February is Sex Month at my church. Scott Barger, my pastor preaches about sex every Sunday in February because—along with money, which he preaches about every January—sex both forms a core component of our existence and produces frequent strife in marriage. These series rarely fail to entertain and instruct, and this past Sunday (the first of the month) did not disappoint—except in one respect. I noticed throughout the sermon that Scott kept referencing stereotypes about women that erased their sexual desire from the picture.

You’ve probably heard the sort of thing I mean: “Men, I know you’re wondering if this means your wife has to have sex with you.” Or, conversely, “If a woman has to get sloppy drunk to want to hook up, sex must be more than just a fun activity.” These tropes are pretty common in our culture: men want to have sex much more frequently than women, and women never enjoy sex for the activity itself or the good physical sensations it produces. To be fair, I think Scott was just being a little mentally careless, making statements from his own perspective instead of a more universal one. Usually he is quite an egalitarian fellow; he has in the past asked women on stage to talk about female sexuality during Sex Month, and I’ve heard him say that in the majority of counseling sessions he’s had with married people the wife wants sex more frequently than the husband, not vice versa.

The notion dies hard in our culture, though, that women want intimacy as opposed to sex, that sex is something women “give up” in exchange for deeper relationship rather than something they participate in gladly, and that sex within marriage is a chore they grudgingly perform only when they must.

But the image of women as essentially asexual is actually a fairly new idea. In the Middle Ages, women were thought to be so overly sexual as to be virtually incapable of controlling themselves and to therefore require strict discipline in order protect society from the pernicious effects of their libidos. In contrast to the assumptions of today, when we consider men the oversexed ones who pressure and coerce women into premature sexual intimacy, the Church of the Dark Ages taught that men were holy and spiritual, while women were earthly and carnal. Men who wanted to live righteously had to guard against the lure of the vile temptress that was all womankind. Sound familiar, in a backward kind of way?

You can imagine how the story of The Fall, in Genesis 3, would inform this belief, casting the woman in the role of the weak-willed original sinner who then tempts the man into sinning along with her. Referencing the Creation/Fall Story has always worked to a nearly magical degree in persuading credulous laity with a flawed hermeneutic—or, as in the Dark Ages, a nonexistent hermeneutic—that a particular assertion must be true at a fundamental, unshakeable level. If it says so in Genesis 3, then women must at their core be hopelessly driven by their own sinful passions.[1]

The millenia-old but still-prevalent practice of female genital mutilation justifies itself with this same appeal to the essentially corrupting, uncontrollable female sexuality, carrying it even further by asserting that female sexual desire poses such a danger to society that it must be literally cut out of each individual woman. While some attribute the practice to Islam, in reality it not only reaches further back in history but runs counter to Mohammed’s actual teachings:

The journalist Geraldine Brooks points out in Nine Parts of Desire, her study of women in Islam, that “the lessening of women’s sexual pleasure directly contradicts the teaching of Mohammed.” Islam held, and still holds, according to Brooks, that “almighty God created sexual desires in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” (Wolf, Naomi, Promiscuities. Random House, Inc., New York, New York, 1997, p. 189)

Of course, it’s easy to see how denying female sexual desire benefits patriarchal societies, possibly explaining the ascension of the phenomenon. To begin with, it reinforces the implicit or explicit concept of women as second-class humans, lacking one of the fundamental components of humanity. It also makes women passive, not active, removing their agency, which poses a terrible threat to patriarchy. The disparity between male and female sexual desire serves to excuse men’s sexual infidelity—since they possess such virtually undeniable sexual urges—while demonizing infidelity in women, who, lacking the excuse of overwhelming desire can thus be assumed to engage in adultery purely from faithlessness or a desire to cause grief to their husbands. Most importantly, acknowledging female desire opens the door for women to control their own sexuality, and women must be permitted no control over any aspect of their own beings if men are to continue as uncontested rulers.

In some ways, we are still shaking off the effects of the Victorian era, when the erasure of female sexual desire reached its zenith.[2] So subconsciously determined were medical professionals of the day to avoid any acknowledgement of female sexuality that they not only invented a medical condition—hysteria—to explain the symptoms of sexual deprivation but also performed what in hindsight was obviously doctor-prescribed and doctor-administered masturbation.[3] Not coincidentally, the sexual mores of the time waxed prudish beyond the dreams of all but the most conservative today, and as a result the United States in particular retains sexual ethics that blend prurience and shame to a bizarre and fascinating degree.

Last week I described how slut shaming condemns women for exhibiting nearly any amount of sexuality or sexual agency outside of marriage. I think this concept of women as asexual at least partially explains the origins and persistence of slut-shaming attitudes. Many of our current social scripts assume women’s sexual desire to be low or absent and cast women in a responsive, reactive role within sexual relationships. Consider, for example, how strongly the social convention of men as the initiators of romantic relationships lingers. We still view sexual roles through the lens of this erroneous belief, and we don’t know how to categorize a woman who subverts expectations by displaying control over her own sexuality without labeling her promiscuous.

Toward the end of his sermon on Sunday, Scott told the story of how he learned the term “walk of shame” in college. It naturally involved a woman, her hair and clothes in disarray, passing late at night by a group of men, who assumed that she had just come from a sexual assignation. I say “naturally” because you almost never hear this expression used about a man. Male sexual desire is seen as normal; female sexual desire, on the other hand, is aberrant, and therefore shameful. An unmarried woman who has had sex should feel ashamed because she has done what is unnatural to her—without the justification of obliging a husband who rightfully expects sexual satisfaction.

For the record, modern research continues to find more and more conclusively that women have plenty of sexual desire. Women want sex—not just for the warm fuzzy emotions involved, but for the actual experience itself. Why shouldn’t they? God created them from the same material as men, and breathed the same life into them. To return to one of Scott’s illustrations from Sunday, maybe the reason husbands proverbially experience so much difficulty arousing their wives has nothing to do with an absence of female desire. If wives see sex as a chore, maybe their husbands just aren’t doing it right.




  1. The modern reversal of this particular belief suggests strongly that we may want to loosen our grip on some of the other dogma whose best apology we find in references to the first few chapters of Genesis or appeals to “nature”.  ↩

  2. This is probably a good place to acknowledge how reductive and unsourced are the historical references in this post. I swear I’m not making any of this up, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve made any factual errors. Please contact me.  ↩

  3. The uncomfortable nature of this practice shortly led to the invention of the vibrator. No joke.  ↩

♀ The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

This is the fifth post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

Because most of my friends and family do not identify as feminists, I occasionally have conversations about gender-normative behavior or gender stereotypes. I’m sure you know the kind I mean—statements like “Women shouldn’t be in positions of power because they’re too emotional, not rational”, “Women are more nurturing, so that’s why it makes sense for them to be the primary caregivers”, “Women are more monogamous than men because [insert evolution-based rationale here]”, or even “Men and women don’t like the same movies because girls like gooey romantic movies and men only like action!” I try not to be that person who constantly corrects people when they make anti-feminist remarks, but in appropriate settings, I say what I think.

People find stereotypes seductive and hard to ignore because stereotypes nearly always have a bit of truth at their core. To take one example from above, women probably do, as a group, tend to prefer romances or dramas—essentially, relationship-based movies—more than men. But even when the kernel of truth is obvious to nearly everyone, most people still make the mistake of assuming it represents a characteristic innate to that particular gender, ignoring the possibility that cultural norms and expectations drive that particular behavior.

In chapter 5 of The Feminine Mystique, “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud”, Betty Friedan attributes this very mistake to the titular psychologist. Despite his many insights, she contends that Freud’s theories about sexual differences essentialized cultural norms. In turn, gender traditionalists of the 1940s used a distilled version of Freudianism to reinforce the standards of their day, as women felt unqualified to argue with the findings of a revered scientist.

Friedan acknowledges Freud’s gifts and accomplishments, but he was a product of his day, and he reflected the beliefs and cultural expectations thereof. For example, although he married a strong, capable woman, he infantilized her and did not consider her his intellectual equal. Friedan quotes from one of his letters to Martha:


“You are far too soft, and this is something I have got to correct, for what one of us does will also be charged to the other’s account. You are my precious little woman, and even if you make a mistake, you are none the less so… But you know all this, my sweet child….” (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 110)


Freud expected that women would be happiest and most well-adjusted if they resigned themselves to relative inactivity, being content to serve their husbands or fathers and bear children. If they harbored ambitions outside this role, they would develop neuroses and require therapy. In the Victorian era, this was actually true. Women had little opportunity to shed socially-imposed functions, so any desire to deviate led to frustration. Freud made the mistake of universalizing this fact, attributing female frustration at such limitations to the inherent nature of women and labeling this frustration “penis envy”. (118)

Freud’s theory of penis envy is probably too nuanced to discuss thoroughly in this venue, but here is a somewhat reductive summary: The first time a young girl sees a penis, she realizes its superiority to her own anatomy and desires to have a penis for herself. Whenever, then, a woman behaves as one would expect a man to behave, or displays the ambitions of a man, this subconscious desire for a penis is at the root of that behavior. Friedan quotes from Freud’s lecture “The Psychology of Women”:


“That the girl recognizes the fact that she lacks a penis does not mean that she accepts it absence lightly. On the contrary, she clings for a long time to the desire to get something like it, and believes in that possibility for an extraordinary number of years; and even at a time when her knowlege of reality has long since led her to abandon the fulfillment of this desire as being quite unattainable, analysis proves that it still persists in the unconscious, and retains a considerable charge of energy. The desire after all to obtain the penis for which she so much longs may even contribute to the motives that impel a grown-up woman to come to analysis, and what she quite reasonably expects to get from analysis, such as the capacity to pursue an intellectual career, can often be recognized as a sublimated modification of this repressed wish.” (115)


We now know that Freud had it backwards. Women have ambition because growth is a human need, and they felt envy—conscious or subconscious—toward men because society in both Freud’s and Friedan’s day prevented them from fulfilling this need. Penis envy, if it exists, is the result, not the cause, of women being treated as inferior and having their needs subjugated to men. If women had penises (that is, if they were men), they could do as men do: learn, grow, accomplish, change the world.


Victorian culture gave women many reasons to envy men: the same conditions, in fact, that the feminists fought against.[1] If a woman who was denied the freedom, the status and the pleasures that men enjoyed wished secretly that she could have these things, in the shorthand of the dream, she might wish herself a man and see herself with that one thing which made men unequivocally different—the penis. (117)


Freud knew his limits (to an extent) and believed that after his death his adherents would critique his work, discarding anything that did not hold up to scrutiny. Actually, the opposite occurred, in the short term. Freud’s followers grew more rigid and dogmatic, conforming observation to theory, not vice versa. (120) Thus, while science began to demonstrate that females were in no way inferior to males except by the measure of physical strength, Freudians, now pervading mainstream thought, continued to find women unsuited to a life of equality with men. (118) Reducing Freud’s theories to a few bullet points, the culture of the day codified penis envy into a prescription rather than a description:


It was as if Freud’s Victorian image of woman became more real than the twentieth-century women to whom it was applied. Freud’s theory of femininity was seized in America with such literalness that women today were considered no different than Victorian women. The real injustices life held for women a century ago, were dismissed as mere rationalizations of penis envy. And the real opportunities life offered to women now, compared to women then, were forbidden in the name of penis envy. (119)


Evidence against this rigid application of Freudianism began to pile up, even among psychoanalysts, who found it more and more difficult to apply Freud’s ideas to real-life women. Friedan interviews one of the last remaining analysts to have trained at Freud’s Psychoanalytic Institute:


“I had a woman patient on the couch for nearly two years before I could face her real problem—that it was not enough for her to be just a housewife and mother. One day she had a dream that she was teaching a class. I could not dismiss the powerful yearning of this housewife’s dream as penis envy. It was the expression of her own need for mature self-fulfillment. I told her: ‘I can’t analyze this dream away. You must do something about it.’” (122)


Friedan places the ultimate blame for the perpetuation of the feminine mystique not on the psychoanalysts and therapists but on the mass media and “popularizers and translators of Freudian thought into the colleges and universities”. Reductive Freudianism, prescriptively applied as an ideal, permeated the American consciousness and kept women stuck in rigid gender roles despite the recent gains made on behalf of their rights and freedoms. Ordinary women, even those inwardly seething against these culturally-imposed restrictions, retained such reverence for the “science” at the root of their serfdom that they could mount no meaningful rebuttal. (124–125)

As I concluded in my review of the previous chapter, those in power have an obligation to constantly self-evaluate and ensure that they are doing all they can to equalize the disenfranchised. Conventional wisdom is often our enemy in this endeavor, so we must give careful consideration to whether the assumptions and stereotypes we perpetuate are based on inherent characteristics or simply on cultural expectations. Maintaining intellectual honesty in this regard may surprise us.

I mean, maybe women like gooey, romantic movies because we keep telling them they’re supposed to.







  1. Friedan is here referring to the first-wave feminists.  ↩<



If you appreciated this post, you might also like my new series of fantasy short stories featuring the immortal woman whose adventures we now know only through scattered myths and legends. Read them for free starting at the Her True Name story archives!