Erwin J. Haeberle
A Brief History of Female Sexuality
Invited keynote lecture at the 3rd conference of the SSSST
Patriarchal Traditions in East and West
II. Female Sexuality in the Western World
1. Women in Politics
2. The Fight for Contraception
3. The Need for Sex Education
4. A First Definition of Sexual Health
5.Overcoming the “Reproductive Bias”
6. Scientific Studies of Female Sexuality
III. Three Current International Problems
1. The Mutilation of Female Sex Organs
2. The Empowerment of Women in the Fight against AIDS
3. The Medicalization of Female Sexual Problems
By allowing me, a male, to speak about female sexuality, you have greatly honored me and, at the same time, saddled me with a heavy burden. After all, for us men this is a dangerous subject. It carries the temptation to say more than we actually know. Actually, when confronted with a largely female audience, as I am here today, any man would probably be wise to say nothing at all and thus avoid revealing the extent of his ignorance.
However, having accepted your invitation, I now feel obliged to share with you some of what I have said and written over the years. It is "on the record" anyway, and I might as well stand by it. Thus, if you permit me, I will try to give you a brief survey of bits and pieces from my web site that touch on today's subject. You can find all of the following remarks scattered about here and there in my various writings, but for this special occasion I will try to pull the scraps together in some coherent, if rather modest, whole:
Biologists know that women are the stronger, and men are the weaker sex. On the average, men die earlier than women, they are less able to take care of themselves when they are old, their sexual development is more precarious, their sexual response is less reliable, and more of them tend to suffer from sexual dysfunctions. Men are also more likely to show strange and unacceptable sexual behaviors. Most sex crimes are committed by men, and most sexual violence is caused by men. In short: Male sexuality is fragile and easily threatened while, in comparison, female sexuality is stable and strong.
Indeed, modern science has taught us that the female sex is the basic and primary sex. Just look at the human embryo: Without the production of testosterone, the embryonic development will "automatically" take a turn towards the female. In other words: The female sex is the basic or primary sex. From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, it is also the older sex. The male sex can develop only if "something is added", i.e. if certain hormones help it along during certain periods during pregnancy. In mythological or poetic language: Eve was created first, and after her Adam was made from her rib.
Of course, we all know that
the Bible tells us the opposite: God created Adam first and Eve second as his
companion, explaining: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis
2, 18). However, since the famous book of Simone de Beauvoir of 1949 we know that “The Second Sex” is no longer content with being defined as
God’s afterthought. Indeed, in the last few decades the modern women’s movement
has produced many other rebellious books, of which “The
Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan of 1963 is probably the best known, because in the
At the same time, the traditional lower social status of women has also become an international political issue: In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted a Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. Two years later, in 1975, the first World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City, the second 1980 in Copenhagen, the third 1985 in Nairobi, and the fourth 1995 in Beijing. These conferences articulated a whole series of demands that are still waiting to be met in all too many parts of the world. In the meantime, countless internationaI and national agencies and organizations have joined the work of elevating the status of women by developing and pursuing a great variety of projects. They all have the same goal: The complete political, economic, social, cultural and legal equality of the sexes.
Of course, these recent developments have their roots deep in ancient
human history. The issues that are so hotly debated today have been fought over
for thousands of years. However, a women’s movement in the modern sense began
only with the Age of Enlightenment in
Be that as it may, many forms of
foot and shoe fetishism have also been known in the Western world. Not
only the feet, but the soles of the feet and the toes have been, and still are,
sexual fetishes for some men. This also applies to footwear, especially at
times when very high heels or elaborate boots are in fashion. However, one has
to keep in mind that fetishism is a matter of degree, and that much depends on
the circumstances whether it becomes a problem. In imperial
At this point, I must confess my complete ignorance of the cultural and
social history of
In the Judeo-Christian West, we have known about some powerful women in
antiquity, from the biblical Queen of Sheba
to the historical Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, who
charmed both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony. However, as it soon turned out,
she did not have any real power. She killed herself when the Roman army
advanced on her palace, and
(From the left) Elizabeth I. (1533-1603) Queen of England; Maria Theresia (1717-1780) Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Empress of the Holy Roman empire; Catherine II the Great (1729-1796) Empress of Russia
At the same time, women have advanced in many other fields, but still have not achieved their goal of complete equality. Whatever progress they have been able to make over the years has been the result of a long, arduous struggle, and it is mainly owed to many courageous women. Today, I can name only a few of them:
In 1848, the American feminists
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and Lucretia Mott convened the first
women's rights convention in
In 1869, the great English libertarian John Stuart Mill published his book "The Subjection of Women", in which he argued for the legal and social equality of the sexes. Interestingly enough, he did not acknowledge his co-author - his wife Harriet.
Finally, in 1893,
Still, as already mentioned, the legal equality of the sexes is now an
international issue, and progress continues to be made. However, at least
equally important is equality in the social sphere, and here again, from the
very beginning, women have made significant contributions. One of these was the
struggle for a woman’s right to use contraception. This struggle began in
earnest in the early 19th century in
In any case, the decisive breakthrough did not come until the middle of
the 20th century, and it was mainly due to the tireless efforts of
one woman: Margaret Sanger. She had begun as a
nurse in the poorer sections of
In 1916, Sanger and her sister opened a birth control clinic in
Eventually, in 1953, Margaret Sanger encouraged and
supported Gregory G. Pincus, an American biologist, in the development of
an oral contraceptive. Taking advantage of earlier hormonal research by the
chemists Carl Djerassi and Frank Colton, who worked for different pharmaceutical companies,
he was able to produce a contraceptive pill. Together with John Rock, an obstetrician at Harvard, he then began human
trials of the new pill first in
Today we know that this scientific breakthrough was the decisive factor in the subsequent “sexual revolution”. The “pill”, which soon found almost universal acceptance, finally made it clear to everyone that sex and reproduction had become separate issues. Once women could decide for themselves if and when they wanted to bear children, their sexual attitudes changed, and the traditional psychosocial balance between the sexes had to be readjusted.
However, before talking about this in greater detail, I should first mention two American women who have done more than anyone else to promote scientifically based sex education for both the young and the old – Mary S. Calderone and Ruth Westheimer. The German-born American sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, the younger of the two, was the most remarkable sex educator in the late 20th century. Through her radio and television shows as well as her public lectures and numerous publications, she became an immensely popular spokesperson for an enlightened, progressive approach to sex. Her grandmotherly appearance and manner, combined with a heavy German accent, made her the darling of the media and overcame all resistance to her sex- positive message. If anyone, it was she who made it possible for many Americans to talk more openly and without embarrassment about sex.
However, an equally great or even greater contribution was made by Westheimer’s most important forerunner. In 1964, the physician Mary s. Calderone, with
several others, founded, the “Sexuality
Information and Education Council of the US” (SIECUS)
Mary Calderone also played an active part in the decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1975 to propose, for the first time, a definition of sexual health:
“Sexual health is the integration of the somatic, emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of sexual being, in ways that are positively enriching and that enhance personality, communication, and love. Fundamental to this concept are the right to sexual information and the right to pleasure.”
This definition and several others that followed are well worth an extended discussion, but here we do not have the time for it. Today let me simply point out that, among other things, it also marked a watershed in the understanding of female sexuality.
Throughout the 19th century, the main purpose of sexual activity was still believed to be procreation, a goal now barely mentioned by the WHO. Moreover: At least women would not have been granted a right to sexual pleasure. On the contrary: A healthy woman was believed to have little interest in sex. She tolerated marital intercourse mainly because she wanted children and then fulfill her true calling as a mother. A typical statement of this belief was provided by the eminent Victorian physician William Acton (1813 -1875) in his book "The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs” (1857):
"I should say that the majority of women, happily for them, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind".
Women who insisted on their sexual satisfaction were often considered "nymphomaniacs", subjected to medical treatments designed to dampen their desires or were even committed to insane asylums. On the other hand, the sexual pleasure potential of women - denied and feared at the same time - caused a great deal of anxiety among men. This became evident in many literary, artistic and musical works until well into the early 20th century. Plays, treatises, and novels by Strindberg, Weininger, Wedekind and Heinrich Mann testified to this overwhelming male fear. They described "vamps", i.e. women who, like insatiable vampires, sucked the life blood out of men, ruined and destroyed them. Women like Salome in the play by Oscar Wilde and the opera by Richard Strauss, “Lulu” in the play by Wedekind and Alban Berg's opera, but also Marlene Dietrich's "Lola" in "The Blue Angel" embody this male nightmare. Officially, however, female sexual health consisted in "modesty" i.e. lack of sexual desire - the very same condition that today is believed to require treatment.
As I already mentioned, breaking the link between sex and reproduction, has irrevocably changed the way we think about female sexuality. Still, I believe that even today, many people do not yet understand how far-reaching the implications of this development really are. To take only one example: When the government of the People’s Republic of China adopted the policy of “one-child per couple”, it implicitly declared that reproduction and sexual activity are different matters which must be understood and judged on their own terms. Chinese couples should have only one child, but obviously this does not mean that they should practice sexual abstinence ever thereafter. Thus, for the first time, a government officially recognized sexual intercourse for its own sake as valid in itself.
This is quite a contrast to
the traditional teachings of certain Western religions which saw (and still
see) reproduction as the only justification of sexual activity. Indeed, for
many centuries Western criminal and civil laws were based on this premise. The
long struggle fought by contraception advocates - from the Neo-Malthusians to
Margaret Sanger – illustrates how difficult it has been to remove the
“reproductive bias” from the law. Indeed, until early in the 20th
century doctors were punished for giving women contraceptive information. In
However, the “reproductive bias” still persists in another legal area - that of marriage itself. For example: Recent years have seen a growing demand by lesbian and gay couples for the right to get married. In many countries this demand has met with fierce resistance and the argument that marriage must always be reserved for couples of different sex. Some legislatures have therefore declared that “marriage is permitted only between one man and one woman”. The main reason given for this restriction is that the purpose of marriage is the raising of children and that only couples of different sex can produce children.
However, this argument is not likely to prevail in the long run. After all, marriage has always been permitted, even recommended, for post-menopausal women. Thus, the law has, in fact, always recognized that love, companionship, and economic, social, and emotional security are valid reasons to get married. All of these factors also apply to same-sex couples. To deny them the right to marry is therefore nothing less than discrimination and inherently unjust. As long as a woman over fifty is allowed to marry a man so that she can turn loneliness into togetherness, it is hard to explain why she should not be allowed to marry another woman for the same reason.
In view of this, some countries have now given same-sex unions the full status of marriages:
Since today our topic is female sexuality, we should perhaps seize this opportunity to take a brief look at lesbian couples. Many of them are now becoming parents by artificial insemination, proving once again that the formerly unbreakable link between sex and reproduction has definitely been broken. Obviously, the sexual expectations, experiences and attitudes of these women are quite different from those living in traditional heterosexual relationships. However, even these relationships are now undergoing profound changes. The sexual revolution that made same-sex marriages possible has liberated all women by promoting more sex research and thus helping everybody to gain a better understanding of female sexuality in general.
The first woman to research female sexuality seems to have been the young American physician Clelia Mosher who, in 1892, began a survey among educated middle-class women concerning sexual attitudes and experiences. The results remain unpublished until 1980. They document an unexpected openness and sensuality of the women who answered the questionnaires.
From a historical point of view, however, the first truly revolutionary study of female sexuality was Alfred C. Kinsey’s survey “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” of 1953. He was able to show that, in essence, the sexual behavior of women was not all that different from than that of men, indeed, that the female sexual potential was, in certain ways, greater than that of males. This created a firestorm of outrage in religious and politically conservative circles, and thus the Rockefeller Foundation, which had supported Kinsey’s research, was forced to end its support. Kinsey never recovered from this blow and died shortly thereafter with many of his other ambitious research projects unrealized. The entire episode proved once again, that female sexuality was - and still is - an important political issue.
Since Kinsey’s time, many women have begun their own sex research,
especially into the physiological aspects of female sexuality, and they more
than confirmed Kinsey’s findings. The most prominent of these initially they worked
with their husbands. For example, in 1966 Virginia
Johnson and William A.
Masters published their study “Human Sexual Response”, followed in 1970 by "Human Sexual Inadequacy". These two
books, more than any others, laid the groundwork for modern sex therapy. In 1972,
another couple, the
Another female sex researcher who gained prominence in the later 20th century was Shere Hite, who became very well known through her two best-selling studies “The Hite Report on Female Sexuality” (1976) and “The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality” (1981). Her highly individualistic research methods have remained controversial, since she used non-representative samples of subjects who filled out anonymous questionnaires, but in any case, she gave voice to many women who had not been heard before, and she succeeded in stimulating a new discussion of long neglected aspects of female sexuality.
In any event, the accumulated recent research has undermined many previously held assumptions. Once it was demonstrated that females and males had essentially the same sexual capacities, it became necessary to make practical use of this insight. For example: Most current textbooks of sex therapy still distinguish between male and female sexual dysfunctions in a way similar to the following table:
Female and Male Sexual Dysfunctions: Traditional Definitions
This table of traditional terms lists three female and five male sexual dysfunctions, and it seems, at first glance, that they are totally different phenomena without any common physiological basis. As a result of such traditional distinctions, many people are under the false impression that the physical reactions of men and women cannot really be compared. Modern sex research has clearly demonstrated, however, that such a comparison makes a great deal of sense. Indeed, we are now beginning to realize that, just as the sexual responses of males and females are quite similar, so are their sexual dysfunctions. We therefore need new special terms that can be applied to both sexes.
Female and Male Sexual Dysfunctions: New Definitions
Looking a little closer at the problems of orgasm, we see strange parallels, cross correspondences and a curious value system at work:
This new chart undoubtedly deserves an extended discussion, but this is obviously not the right time for it. I show it here only to illustrate that much of what we see as substantial is actually conceptual - a matter of semantics. I personally believe that it is now high time to end the traditional terminological discrimination and to grant women equal rights with men when we talk about their sexual responses and dysfunctions. But that is a topic for another lecture. Right now, I prefer to turn to some more immediate concerns.
In the area of female sexuality, many urgent problems are still waiting to be solved. Today, I will mention only the three I consider the most important: 1. The continued mutilation of female sex organs in some societies, 2. the still lacking, but indispensable empowerment of women in order to fight the AIDS pandemic, and 3. the attempts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicalize female sexual problems. The first two of these problems are of long standing, especially in some developing countries, but now they have acquired a new urgency. The third problem is relatively new, but no less important.
Today, the surgical mutilation of female sex organs in parts of
These operations are usually performed without anesthesia on very young girls. Their ages vary according to local customs from infancy to early adolescence. In most cases, the age lies between 3 and 8. The instruments are often unsterilized knives or razor blades. The procedure is one of the most brutal forms of violence against young females, and it is always performed with a good conscience by older women who derive their income from it.
Prevalence by country and
form of mutilation
In the meantime, all organizations trying to eliminate the practice have
come to realize that this cannot be done by simply passing laws against it.
Essential is a mentality change in the population. An important step in
obtaining religious and civil support for the end of the traditional sexual
mutilations was taken in 2003 in
Today, nearly half
of all HIV infections world-wide are found in women (48%, much higher in some
The only effective AIDS prevention in these circumstances is to raise the status of women, educating and empowering them so that they can reach an adequate level of sexual self-determination. However, this means asking for revolutionary changes in some countries that are still bound by ancient patriarchal traditions in religion, custom, and law. On the other hand, it is clear that these countries will court disaster if they fail to carry out the necessary changes and do it soon. There will be millions of AIDS orphans with no women to care for them, and where farming is still mostly women’s work, it will simply no longer be done, leaving the survivors without sufficient food.
The recent enormous commercial success of so-called potency pills for men has prompted attempts to develop similar drugs for women. Certain pharmaceutical companies and many physicians hoped for a huge new market and corresponding profits. However, they were not really sure of the expected demand and therefore first began to construe a new disease – “Female Sexual Dysfunction or FSD”.
Manufacturing sexual diseases for men and women is nothing new in medical history. In the 18th century for example, the invention of “masturbatory insanity” created an entirely new, very large class of patients, in the late 19th century, the invention of “contrary sexual feeling” (homosexuality) as a mental illness provided a lucrative business for psychiatrists and psychoanalysts for the next 100 years. Around the turn of the 20th century, a new, fashionable female malady commanded the public’s attention – hysteria. All of these diseases have, in the meantime, been removed from the diagnostic manuals, and indeed, they have disappeared from the public consciousness. However, in their time their existence was blindly accepted. No one questioned the medical assertions, and countless individuals were subjected to degrading and useless treatments.
In our own time, many people are still prone to be manipulated in this fashion. After all, large numbers of women and men continue to be ignorant about the sexual functioning of their own bodies; they feel shame and embarrassment when it comes to their sexual feelings and needs, and they quite unreasonably expect sexual gratification from their partners without any personal effort. The promise of a miracle drug that can bring instant sexual happiness fits all to well into this picture.
Thus, in the late 1990’s, the new disease FSD was invented and advertised. Fanciful statistics were presented about its prevalence, and pretty soon, guided by the “medical-industrial complex”, more and more people began to believe in its existence. This, in turn, set the stage for some industry-subsidized research which would find a cure. A minor detail was deliberately neglected: Nobody really knew the exact definition of the disease and its specific symptoms.
Not surprisingly, therefore, a few feminist sex researchers began to organize a scientifically based response to this new attempt to medicalize female sexuality. The most important of these was - and is - the American psychotherapist Leonore Tiefer. Together with some like-minded colleagues, she started an active campaign against the new simplistic view of women and soon presented a positive manifesto under the title A New View of Women's Sexual Problems (2001).
The New View Manifesto demonstrates the weakness of the prevailing medical model of sexual dysfunctions. It emphasizes the social context of in which female sexuality develops and recommends that the effort to define “normal” sexual function should be abandoned. Most importantly: It offers an alternative classification system of causes for sexual problems rooted in society, relationships, psychology, and disease. Thus, the new view now groups female sexual problems in four categories:
1. Socio-cultural problems in the widest sense. These include sexual ignorance and anxiety due to inadequate sex education - - inability to articulate feelings and experiences - -lack of information about the formation and maintenance of gender roles - - inadequate access to contraception, STD prevention and treatment - - shame about one’s body or about one’s sexual orientation - - conflict about traditional and new cultural norms - - fatigue and lack of time due to family obligations.
2. Relationship problems. These include inhibition, avoidance, or distress arising from betrayal, dislike, or fear of partner - - discrepancies in desire for sexual activity or in preferences for various sexual activities - - loss of sexual interest and reciprocity as a result of conflicts over commonplace issues such as money, schedules, or relatives, or resulting from traumatic experiences, e.g., infertility or the death of a child - - inhibitions in arousal or spontaneity due to partner's health status or sexual problems.
3. Psychological problems. These include sexual aversion, mistrust, or inhibition of sexual pleasure due to past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse - - general personality problems with attachment, rejection, co-operation, or entitlement - - depression or anxiety - - sexual inhibition due to fear of sexual acts or of their possible consequences, e.g., pain during intercourse, pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, loss of partner, loss of reputation.
4. Medical problems. These include pain
or lack of physical response during sexual activity despite a supportive and
safe interpersonal situation, adequate sexual knowledge, and positive sexual
attitudes - -. Such problems can arise from numerous local or systemic medical
conditions affecting neurological, neurovascular, circulatory, endocrine or
other systems of the body - - pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or
other sex-related conditions - - side effects of popular drugs, medications, or