The Cult of Seduction
Of women’s unnatural, insatiable lust, what country, what vil-
lage doth not complain?
[Robert Burton], The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), 541
Why should women have more invention in love than men? It
can only be, because they have more desires, more solliciting
passions, more lust, and more of the devil.
William Wycherley, The Country-Wife (1675), Act IV scene 2
As a sex, women are more chaste than men. . . Men are cer-
tainly more under the influence of their appetites than women.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
(1792), 281, 312
The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much
troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habit-
ually, women are only exceptionally.
William Acton, The Functions and Disorders of the
Reproductive Organs (4th edn, 1865), 112
Ever since the dawn of western civilization it had always been pre-
sumed that women were the more lustful sex. The most extreme,
misogynist version of this argument asserted that women’s minds
were so corrupt, their wombs so ravenous, their ‘amorous fire’ so voracious, that truly ‘if they dared, all women would be whores’.1 More generally the idea was simply that, though lust was a universal temptation, females were mentally, morally, and bodily weaker than males – less rational, less able to control their passions, less capable of self-discipline. Indeed all human sin, so Christians were taught, derived ultimately from the original weakness of Eve, the first woman: the pollution of sex was itself but one manifestation of this. The presumption of female infirmity and lust was a commonplace of biblical, classical, medieval, and Renaissance thought. As historians, literary critics, and other scholars have explored at length, it was a basic building block of the pre-modern conceptual universe.2
Because women’s easy arousal was taken for granted, it was also generally believed until the eighteenth century that female orgasm was essential to pregnancy: without it, no child could be conceived. That is why Samuel Pepys, after climaxing during sex with one of his illicit lovers, was immediately terrified that he might have made her come too – until the tone of her voice reassured him that she had not. It equally explains the breathless speech of the maidservant Anna Harrison, who in the 1690s supplemented her income through casual sex with acquaintances. ‘Pray make haste, make haste, make haste,’ she would exclaim, as a man penetrated her body, ‘I am afraid you should get me with child. . . no, no, I must take care for that, ’tis a very troublesome thing to have a child, and no father, who owns it.’ The orthodox view was, as the devout, monogamous John Evelyn advised a young bride in 1676, that the avoidance of female orgasm during intercourse was ‘not only impossible, but a stupidity’.3
By 1800, however, exactly the opposite idea had become firmly entrenched. Now it was believed that men were much more naturally libidinous, and liable to seduce women. Women had come to be seen as comparatively delicate, defensive, and sexually passive, needing to be constantly on their guard against male rapacity. Female orgasm was no longer thought essential to procreation.
This shift was already well advanced by the middle of the eighteenth century. Most famously it was manifested in the first great novels of the English language, which appeared in the 1740s and 1750s. As the critic Ian Watt pointed out more than fifty years ago,
the sexual ideology that these embodied was ‘a historical novelty. . . in complete contradiction’ to all of previous literature: they marked ‘a very notable epiphany in the history of our culture’. Never before had there existed such a distinction between the irredeemable lustfulness of men and the essential asexuality of virtuous women; yet from that point forward this view of sex became ‘an essential feature of our civilisation’. Henceforth, it was taken for granted that the female sex was inherently less lecherous than the male. The effects of this new presumption were, if anything, even more profound. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the notion of women’s relative sexual passivity was fundamental to gender dynamics across the western world.4 Its effects were ubiquitous – they still are.