the lustful sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala:

This is a point in history where the old idea that women are the more lustful sex – which dominated western culture until the 17th century – is suddenly overturned and replaced by exactly the opposite presumption, that men are naturally promiscuous and can’t help it, and women are more chaste and naturally asexual.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t true. Go all the way back to the Odyssey, where Penelope is expected to remain faithful to Odysseus — indeed, it’s pretty clear that if she were to shack up with one of the suitors the returning Odysseus would kill her — while when Odysseus and his men have sex with Circe and her fun girls they excuse themselves: “As we were men, we could not help consenting.”

Or think about Boccaccio’s great tale (the tenth story of day 3) about putting the Devil in Hell. It’s a story about a woman’s sexual passion, but note that Alibech shows no interest in sex until Rustico teaches her; that she becomes more enthusiastic about this, um, spiritual exercise than he is the reversal, the incongruity, that gives the story its humor.

A thousand more examples could be cited. Dabhoiwala‘s claim seems completely unsustainable to me.


UPDATE: But what do I know? I got an email from my former student Sarah Brom Lindsay, an  actual medievalist, who sets me straight and reminds me — once again! I never learn! — of the dangers of too-quick reactions. Here’s Sarah:

I can’t speak to ancient Greek ideas about sexuality, but certainly in the middle ages women were generally viewed as the more lustful sex. This arises partially from the anti-feminist tradition that saw women as simply more sinful than men; Chaucer’s Wife of Bath rails against this tradition while simultaneously embodying its worst suspicions about women’s uncontrollable sexuality.

The idea of women as more lustful also gained support from the association of women with the body and sensation rather than the intellect; while men could be expected to rationally control their impulses, women were seen as both feeling those impulses more strongly and lacking the rational ability to control their sexuality.

For an example, in her Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan spends a section addressing and refuting the ideas that few women are chaste and that women, even if they object, actually want to be forced. Christine’s work is one of the early entry in the Querelle des femmes and she is responding to broad claims about the inferiority of women, including the commonly-made claim that women are less chaste.

As for Boccaccio’s tale, I’d read the humor differently: the seduced woman may not have been interested in sex at first, but the priest should have known better than to awaken that desire precisely because it would soon outstrip his (although with the caveat that I’m not an Italianist or a Boccaccio scholar).

So the claim that the idea of woman as “the lustful sex” dominated western culture all the way back to ancient Greece may be overstated. But it certainly dates as far back as Jerome.