03 December 2010

The history of sexual excess

Were Cleopatra and Catherine the Great sex addicts? Cybershrink looks at the politics of sexual excess.


Who gets to decide how much sexual interest and activity is "too much"?

Why is it that generally, through history and through most cultures, a sexually adventurous and demanding woman is considered pathological or wicked and socially excluded, while being called a whole eloquent range of rude words, from Slut on down? Yet a similarly sexually active man is often looked on with admiration and at least chuckling tolerance?

The old double standard

Of the Victorian Satyrists (if we might coin a phrase) one of the most famous was the boastful Frank Harris who wrote at major length about his enormous and versatile sexual activities, in the book (usually, now, for obvious reasons, available in an abridged edition!) My Secret Life, which at first ran to 11 volumes, 2539 pages, weighing in at 61 pounds (before the metric system) and described activities with some 2,500 women and assorted men.

Sexually busy women have occurred at various times in history, from Valeria Messalina, wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius I, Cleopatra, and Catherine the Great, who scandalised earlier eras; to the happy nympho celebrated in some women's magazines since the 1970's, when that field of publishing abandoned their earlier Knit-Your-Own-Royal-Family style.

'Purity' cruelly enforced

In the Victorian era the role of modest wife and mother was excessively sentimentalised, and nymphomania was medicalised with pseudo-scientific explanations.  Various nasty methods were used to control Lust.

A woman who admitted to having erotic dreams about a man who was not her husband, received a prescription of strict celibacy, cold sponge baths, a daily enema, and the swabbing of her vagina with a solution of borax. Others, especially when poorer and less socially significant, were committed to mental institutions, or even treated surgically by removal of the clitoris.

At the same time as social suppression of the overtly sexually active woman grew, the nymphomaniac, as sexually insatiable, became a stock figure of pornography and male sexual fantasies.

And a woman didn't need to be particularly voracious to earn such a title - experts of the time suggested the label for women who masturbated, or who would perform oral sex, or who preferred any but the most orthodox of sexual positions.

(Prof M. Simpson, Health24's Cybershrink, updated December 2010)

Read more:

The history of the vibrator

Write to the Sexologist


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