Did You Emit Your Female Seed, Darling?

One of the many ways in which people misread history backwards from the nineteenth century is in assuming that the “Sexual Revolution” brought us the new idea that “girls want to have fun”; assuming that the strange notion that the belief that women didn’t or shouldn’t enjoy sex was held by not only the Victorians but also by everybody else who had previously lived. Except of course in the Trobriand Islands and everywhere else uncontaminated by white missionaries. I am not in fact convinced that “the Victorians” really did think that, it is all too easy to take some quotation from a disturbed or otherwise atypical individual and repeat it in every popular book and magazine article to the end of time. One can be quite sure that any Victorian praising and advocating female sexual pleasure would package his doctrine in euphemisms so subtle that our crude-talking age cannot understand them. To overstate the case somewhat, the Victorians didn’t care what you did as long as you weren’t caught and you didn’t talk about it.

In point of fact, most human cultures have believed that women are sexually insatiable. That women can continue to have intercourse after orgasm, and can thus tackle the proverbial football team, makes men feel profoundly inferior and anxious; the question of how many women actually want to tackle the proverbial football team becomes subordinated, in male minds, to their threatening capacity to do so. This is envy, since most men would love to roger eleven women at a session, but they know they simply can’t.

Understanding just how wrong this back-projection is easier if we look at discussions of female sexuality in the Middle Ages. Those wanting to make a case for medieval misogyny always quote the theologians and philosophers, preferably the same nasty remarks over and over again, as if a thousand years of history accommodated only the one opinion. It is salutary instead to look at the physicians, who followed the Ancients and took little notice of Christian doctrine. In addition, the twelfth century saw much translation of Muslim medical texts, which took a very positive view of female sexual pleasure, and also transmitted Indian ideas westwards.

Not that the physicians agreed with one another either; the period was dominated by a debate between the Aristotelians and the Galenists on the existence of the “female seed” and its role in conception. “Scientific” controversies about fertility and the transmission of qualities were of obvious relevance to a society built on inheritance. Both sides of the debate on the “female seed” emphasised the female capacity for pleasure, though for different reasons. Aristotle believed that the womb was like the soil in which the man planted his seed, but at the same time his theory of humours described women as being of excess humidity and so sexually insatiable. Female appetite was therefore a reality, though nothing to do with conception. The Galenists, on the other hand, believed in the “female seed,” while being unsure about just what it did, whether hosting the male seed, transmitting maternal characteristics or demonstrating pleasure in sex; in other words, the concept combined ovulation and lubrication. Given that some women explosively squirt vaginal secretions at climax, the confusion of ovulation, lubrication and orgasm under the venerable Galenic term of “female ejaculation” is all the more understandable. Moreover, recent scientific work has established a link between orgasm and conception, though not such a strong one as teenagers used to believe in.

If the female seed was essential to conception, and – as was a general medical view in the later Middle Ages – it was ‘ejaculated’ at orgasm, then it followed that if a man wanted progeny he should make sure that his wife enjoyed herself to the same degree and at the same time as he did. Contrariwise, barrenness could be the result of the husband not having prepared his wife adequately through foreplay. Although the marriage manuals considerably post-date the almost Tantric insistence of the Courtly Love tradition on male self-control, there might yet be a link.

Those too young to remember the era of “It’ll make you go blind” may be reluctant to believe the antiquity of the strictures upon male masturbation. In fact the modern belief that the supply of semen is unlimited is a very recent innovation; through most of history people have believed that the male vital force was a non-renewable resource. It followed that ejaculation was bad for a man, he was “spending” his capital. Contrariwise, it followed from ancient and medieval humour theory that female health was considerably endangered by abstinence, and there are even instructions for midwives to manipulate patients to orgasm. This may have powered male resentment of women, for ‘tempting’ them to squander their precious mojo, at the same time as the women themselves did not need to hoard theirs.

Posted on April 30, 2010 at 09:41 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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