It’s Not Us, It’s History: Women’s Sexuality Through The Years

Imagine if everyone led satisfying and healthy sex lives – whether this meant all the consensual sex they wanted or none at all. Sex is something many of us do and even more of us think or talk about. Having sex is a shared commonality among genders, sexualities, ethnicities and ages. So why is women’s sexuality considered more complex? Why do so many women experience shame?

“For most of history, women’s sexual desire has been vilified and their pleasure dismissed, while men’s sexuality and pleasure is seen as the centre of it all.”

For most of history, women’s sexual desire has been vilified and their pleasure dismissed, while men’s sexuality and pleasure is seen as the centre of it all. We can trace these attitudes through historical events; demonstrating that the vilification and dismissal of women’s sexuality are simply ideologies that have been created without any footing. Women’s sexuality is not more complex, it is not shameful, but years of history have tried to convince us that it is.

The UK government introduced the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864 during the Crimean War, designed to counter an increase in STIs in the British Forces. In certain ports and army towns, sex workers (or women believed to be sex workers by police) were forced to undergo examinations for venereal diseases. If the woman was declared infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered. Notably, the men did not have to undergo such checks – women were held accountable for their own sexual behaviour as well as the men’s.

In 1888, the legal age of consent was raised from 13 to 16. Consent laws aimed to protect children from abuse, however, it’s widely recognised that the law was also to protect girls from their own sexuality. Young girls were considered susceptible to temptation and sexual activity, which was viewed as corrupt by those in power.

In 1918, Marie Stopes published her book, Married Love. Included in it was advice on maintaining a sex life in a marriage – a satisfying one – and acknowledgments of women’s sexual desire. Stopes wrote that men should not force their wives to have sex and advocated for female pleasure and orgasms. Naturally, the book was a bestseller. Unsurprisingly, it was banned in the US and heavily criticised by religious and medical institutions as well as the British press.

Before the 60s, Government and medical institutions attempted to squash promiscuity by limiting women’s access to contraception. Comparing contraceptive methods for women with the history of the condom, we can see that male sexuality was normalised and encouraged: during WW2, all soldiers were given condoms and encouraged to use them, while the pill was only made available in 1961 and on the NHS in 1974.

Women’s pleasure, too, has been largely dismissed throughout history, and in 1905, Freud actually argued that clitoral orgasms were an example of women’s sexual immaturity. It was only discovered 50 years later by Alfred Kinsey in 1953  that the clitoris was the primary source of orgasms in females. Shockingly, it was only in 1998 that Dr Helen O’Connell revealed with an MRI the structure of the clitoris. A man went to the moon and the internet was invented before we even knew the structure of the clitoris – let that sink in.

In 2019, thankfully, female sexuality is less taboo. In the UK, women can access contraception for free. Women are sexually free outside of marriage. Sex toys have entered the mainstream. Women are becoming more open about having better sex. Men can no longer legally rape their wife. As I write this, the upskirting bill just came into force. Coercive control is recognised as abuse. Not only are women engaging in more sex and sex outside of marriage; the law increasingly recognises ways women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy have been restricted.

Yet, are attitudes towards sex today really so different from the historical ideas above? Accountability for the actions of men still lies at the feet of women: victims are still blamed for their sexual assault, women are still called teases and slut shaming is still a thing. Governments are still trying to limit women’s reproductive rights, the orgasm gap in heterosexual partners is astonishing, there’s an increase inw women and teenage girls consulting doctors about vaginoplasty and labiaplasty; making the vagina ‘tighter’ or more symmetrical. It’s not good enough.

Art By @RubyRare

The entirety of the historical and current landscape of sex and pleasure cannot be reduced to one essay alone. This brief exploration, however, highlights that attitudes still prevalent now are historical. The shame of female-pleasure and the perceived complexity of our sexual desires were created. Over the past hundred years, women’s sexual agency and freedom have progressed massively. We are, however, still fighting to undo hundreds of years of female sexuality being vilified and pleasure being dismissed, and we’ve still got a long way to go. Women’s sexuality is not broken, it’s not shameful – it’s misunderstood and misinformed.

Women are pushed into impossible roles: don’t be frigid, don’t be a tease, don’t be a slut. We’re rushed to orgasm, and if we don’t, then ‘faking it’ is widely accepted and expected over speaking up. Women who experience trauma, women of colour, women with disabilities, women in the LGBTQ+ community, transgender women and older women all experience multifaceted levels of shame and discrimination for their sexual desire. There is no simple solution to shaking these attitudes and feelings, but shame silences women on their sexual health, their preferences, experiences and needs. We need to address it.

We can begin by redefining what sex and pleasure mean. How many of us really know much about vaginas? Even our own? Could we draw a diagram of one? How much time do we spend reflecting on our sexuality and how much do we communicate this with our partners? Getting to know our bodies empowers us – let’s make us the experts.

Furthermore, sex does not have to be a linear, goal-orientated process. Lots of women are not sexually satisfied and still orgasm. Enjoying sexuality for the process, the in-between and what happens before the so-called ‘end’ is important; so let’s enjoy the process and redefine what sex is. Learn what works, what you love, what you like, what you don’t like. This gives us the power to say no and yes. We deserve to enjoy our sexuality, respect ourselves and have healthier and more satisfying sex – all of us.

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