11 things you probably did not know about women’s sexual history

I’m taking another great class from Professor Susan Cayleff at SDSU. It’s called “Body Politics” and it explores the dramatic changes in sexual behaviors and attitudes expected of women of various races and social classes throughout American history – focusing on how religious, medical, legal, and psychological experts define these roles – including how ideas about masculinity and heterosexuality emerged alongside these “body politics”.

So, here are a few of the tidbits you might find enlightening (and shocking).


1 – During the Salem witch trial era of 1692/93, 19 women died and 350 were imprisoned. The male testimony was that the “witch-women” first turned into animals who forced themselves on the men then they turned back into women and forced sex on those who testified.  Thirty-eight years later, after all the deaths and imprisonment, the men recanted their testimony.

2 – The first law against abortion was passed in 1803 by “propertied” white men and it applied to slaves – its rationale was simple – the more pregnant slaves (often impregnated by their “masters”) – the more slaves to do the work! Current anti-abortion sentiment (applicable to ALL women) was a later development in the 20th century development.

3 – Historically, the two most influential institutions that controlled both women’s bodies and their behavior were first the protestant church (from the early 1600s until the mid 1700s) and second the medical profession (from the mid 1700s to the present. Since both of these institutions were (and still are) comprised of and led by middle and upper class Euro-American white men, it is not surprising that their mores and prejudices prevailed.

4Kleptomania was a new “disease” named by the medical profession in the early 1900s, applicable to upper class women who frequented fancy department stores (a new concept in merchandising replacing the catalogue and the “general store”) and pocketed “souvenirs” to pass their time. The storeowner, who knew their influential husbands, called them to explain the situation and send a bill that the husband gladly paid. However, lower class women who dared to do the same thing (had they the nerve to enter these hallowed halls) were called thieves and sent to jail.

5 – The “Free Love” movement, that began in the 1860s, was the first ideology proclaiming that sex between consenting adults (including same sex adults) was deemed perfectly acceptable and a natural form of human expression. One of its proponents was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States with Frederick Douglas as her running mate. Although a leader in the suffragette movement and the operator of her own wall street brokerage firm, she became known as the most dangerous woman in America and was shunned by the suffragette movement for what was considered her “over the top” beliefs and actions – most notably her free love philosophy.

6 – A woman’s appearance took on new importance in the Victorian era. Her appearance and clothing were seen as a reflection of her husband’s worth. She was considered a “decorated appendage” and took extreme measures for her skin to appear pale and her waist to appear small. Many know about the corsets causing fainting but who knew about eating trace amounts of arsenic and swallowing tapeworms to affect an ashen grey pallor???



7 – The ideology known as “passionlessness” (a/k/s no sexual desire) was considered the norm for women in the early 1900s. Women who didn’t follow this ideology, as evidenced by: initiating sex, enjoying sex, masturbating, being assertive or argumentative were deemed hysterical by the medical profession and treated with various surgical interventions including removal of the clitoris and/or ovaries. The results were typically “effective” for no more than six months . . . (could it be that this was the time devoted to rest and recovery?).

8 – J. Marion Sims, M.D., the father of gynecological medicine, bought slave women (prior to the end of slavery) and experimented on them attempting to perfect these surgical interventions – often without anesthesia. (what about the Hippocratic oath and doing no harm?) – Also noteworthy is the 1887 scholarly article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by E.W. Cushing, M.D. declaring that removal of the ovaries cured “melancholia- induced masturbation”.

9 – Another fascinating development in the late 1800s was the treatise, “Sex in Education or a Fair Chance for Girls”, by Edward Clarke, M.D., supposedly proving that women were incapable of being educated due to their limited nerve forces – the idea being that women’s vital nerve force was located in the womb and that education caused this force to travel upward to the brain thereby depleting her reproductive ability. As a result, when women’s higher education was offered by the prestigious 7 sister colleges, women students were required to rest every 2 hours to keep their vital forces in balance. These colleges came under significant scrutiny because they were disrupting the normal order where women limited their activities to those involving child bearing and rearing.

10 – The “Flapper Era” of the 1920s represented incredible freedom for upper class women. No more corsets, tapeworms and arsenic. Hair was “bobbed” short, dresses were loose and short and drinking, smoking, dancing and sex were all part of the new culture – picture the Great Gatsby’s estate parties that lasted for days. . . .this era also heralded the use of makeup and hair product and all related consumerism we see on display today as we walk the aisles of our local pharmacies and department stores.

11 – For the first time in American history, a youth culture began. Prior to this time, most young people did not go to school and were often isolated from each other. School attendance was not mandatory until the 1910s. As more youth attended school and had the opportunity to congregate, their own culture developed – a culture including their own language (slang), their own dances and their own clothing styles. The advent of cars and rumble seats allowed for privacy and sexual exploration opportunities as never before. For the first time in history, the youth culture was leading the way. The chasm between teens and adults had never been greater. The magazines published during this era were replete with stories and concerns about the extent and rapidity of what may have been one of the greatest social changes this country has ever known. (so glad I wasn’t a parent during this time!)

So, as I always say in closing . . .


The Song for this Blog – THE CHARLESTON (what else?)




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