Sunday, January 31, 2010

A History of Sex

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Mary Cassatt did not get married, which does not tell you anything about her.

The ways we are having sex do not change with time, but the ways we interpret it vary with time and place. For instance, the President of France, Francois Mitterand, wanted to be buried in presence of his wife and his mistress, and it is how the two women presided the official ceremony in 1996 (you can find a picture of it here) I heard of Presidents of the USA who had a double life, but I doubt very much that a scene like this would be appreciated by the American voters: different places, different point of views.

Similar differences can be observed in the past. A history of sex should be mandatory for US historians, because they fail to understand the simplest cultural factors of the past. I was listening yesterday to professor Brands re-telling to a fascinated audience that Eleanor Roosevelt warned her daughter, on the eve of her marriage, that sex was an ordeal to be borne.
What does it mean? That Mrs. Roosevelt did not like sex? That she was a lesbian? That her husband was a prick? I am not sure. The one thing I know for certain is that four or five great aunts and old cousins of mine, all born in the 1880s like Mrs. Roosevelt, told me the exact same thing when I got married. Women born in the 1880s in the bourgeoisie all had a Victorian education (Queen Victoria died in 1901.)
Good women were not supposed to like sex, only bad women enjoyed it; good women only suffered through it. So, men got married to a bourgoise who had children and they had mistresses for the fun of it. This not only explains La Belle Epoque and the can-can dancers with open drawers (unlike the abundant lace you see in the movies), but a lot of the early 20th century architecture. Paris is full of bachelors' pads of the period, with just one large front room, a small bath and a kitchen relegated at the end of a long hallway, so the servants could respect your privacy.
I do not mean that married women of the early 1900s did not enjoy sex, just that they were not supposed or expected to: the culture was so pervasive all over the Western world that several of the old women I knew were convinced that female cats were always raped (only the male cat enjoyed sex!)

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So what is the meaning of what Mrs Roosevelt told her daughter? It means that she was born in the 1880s.
Similarly, all the discussions about lesbians in the 19th-early 20th century have to be taken with caution. A woman who writes to another woman nowadays that she wants to sleep in her arms is probably a lesbian. One century ago, the same letter does not mean a thing: maybe yes (I am longing for you), maybe no (like: sister, I wish we were peacefully together).What people write reflects their culture and their personality, you cannot infer who they are from what they write out of both contexts.
Above all: why would you care about other people's sex life?

Useful reading: Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Galaxy Books) by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg
Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon by Mark Bostridge

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