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The Venus Pendulum: A Brief History of Women and Sex

The Venus Pendulum: A Brief History of Women and Sex
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How do you condense the history of female sexuality into 1500-ish words? With dignity, aplomb, and an occasional dig at the Victorians.

  From Adulation to Misogyny

The history of female sexuality is a catalogue of both adulation and misogyny, exultation and ignominy. As global cultures shifted from the worship of many gods—both male and female—to ‘god the father,’ the power of the matriarch, symbolized by arcane magical forces and gloried female sexuality, was inverted and rendered perverse. What once was splendid became shameful. That which had been celebrated was now abhorred. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wonderful world of testosterone poisoning. Slip into your chastity belt, lower your hems and lock your knees in an uptight position, it’s going to be a long, bumpy flight.

The good news is that desire subverted does not die; it merely evolves. That which is forced beneath the surface engenders a massive labyrinth of intertwining roots that from time to time, force growth upward to escape the subterranean stranglehold of patriarchal repression. Parting the moist, fecund soil in far-flung oases and the rare, fertile earth of clandestine gardens, peculiar plants bearing strange, enticing fruits and bold intoxicating flowers sprang forth to seduce the senses and confound the culture of puritans.

From under the thumb of such taboos emerged surreptitious sub-cultures, decadent demimondes—and a handful of bawdy souls who just didn’t give a damn. In haute society, courtesans bloomed and were plucked like hothouse flowers. Cleverness combined with subterfuge to create cross-dressing false identities for same-sex lovers who defied convention, right under convention’s nose. Chaucer and Rabelais regaled the world with a ribald peasantry, who happily plunged through life feasting, drinking, belching, boasting and bedding whomever they pleased.

Of course, the Victorians were practically no fun at all. Sex was for procreation. Period. End of story. Any woman who sought sex outside of marriage, or God forbid, actually enjoyed the attentions of someone other than her husband, was considered a pervert and a sinner. In The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America authors John S. Haller Jr. and Robin M. Haller, relate that during the Victorian era, a woman of loose virtue or dubious sexual orientation was looked upon as an “ominous indication of national decay.”

Experts of the day added more wet blankets to the fire: In The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, William Acton suggested that women lacked sexual urges altogether. Superintendent of the Purity Department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Mary Wood Allen, M.D. decreed: “the most genuine love between a husband and a wife existed in the lofty sphere of platonic embrace.” Freud, who hypothesized that clit was kind of like a penis—only a lot smaller and not nearly as cool—wasn’t much help, either.

And then, dragging its ass, kicking and screaming, the pendulum began to swing back.

  Swung

With the advent of birth control, as well as significant improvements in personal hygiene brought about by the Industrial Revolution, women escaped the specter of sex that was often literally dirty and dangerous for passion that was figuratively filthy and fun. In 1949, Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, debuted. In this cornerstone of contemporary feminist doctrine, de Beauvoir championed the cause of sex for pleasure, and once and for all elevated the clit to its rightful seat on the throne of love—or at least, in the lap on that throne.

By the ’60s, “free love” was becoming de rigeur. Enlightened women delved into the ancient mists to embrace their inner Goddesses once more. Throwing off the shackles of “male oppression,” they offered up flaming brassieres as burnt sacrifices. In counterpoint, the mainstreaming of sexual imagery in the form of Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds, ensured that copious amounts of jiggling breasts were pretty much everywhere. Although some protested such icons objectified women, the paradigm was eventually turned on its head by forward-thinking feministas who could see the fundamental clout of a Marilyn Monroe for what it was—a steel-jawed soul trap camouflaged by a husky whisper. Women found a way to retool the feminine force men had co-opted, and claim it for their own. These days, women throng to thongs and push-up bras as an expression of female sexual empowerment.

And the pendulum swings.

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