The History of Female Pleasure and The Church by Sarah Chadwick

Close up from Lucas Cranach The Elder’s Diptych “Adam and Eve” c1530.

This blog post is derived from the chapter on religion in my book, The Sweetness of Venus. A History of the Clitoris.

There is a dangerous concept that repeats in various hues in the patchwork history of female sexuality in the West: the persistent notion that women are morally as well as sexually lax, and that one is symptomatic of the other. It is a chicken-and-egg paradox, and it’s hard to unravel which came first. Why have the two been so inextricably and unfairly linked? This symbiotic relationship exists only for women and is still played out today. How did views about female morality come to be bound up with women’s sexuality? And where did the belief that women are less morally able than men come from?

Some people argue that Christianity, whose key female didn’t even have sex, has been instrumental in establishing a culture that labels women as sexually and morally lax. Before the Virgin Mary there was Old Testament Eve, who predates Mary by five or six centuries. What exactly did Adam and Eve learn from biting the apple that grew on the tree of knowledge? Does their modesty with the fig leaf imply that their newfound knowledge had something to do with their genitals? Is the gesture symbolic of a sexual awakening, or the advent of lust in their lives?

The narrative is about the promise of knowledge and power, both of which—as well as the lust symbolized by the snake—are sexy. If you ask me, it’s a heady melting pot of sexy, and Eve fell for it, shared it with her man, and everyone was cursed. Eve was cursed with increased pain in childbirth and subjugation to Adam, and Adam was cursed because he followed Eve’s lead, thus setting in motion a tradition that men shouldn’t listen to women, along with the idea that male dominance is a given. Can a disrespect for female judgment, female morality, and female sexuality be traced back to the Genesis story?

Is this where the idea originated that no good can come to a man from a knowledge-seeking, sexual woman? I’m struck by how well Eve would do in today’s world, where colleges, internships, and employers are all looking for candidates who demonstrate intellectual curiosity. She’d be on a shortlist of two, along with Pandora. However, in terms of understanding the cultural landscape that has minimized female pleasure, it seems that Eve played her part by giving in to temptation, and desire became a sign of moral laxity in women. And the biggest temptation in the human adult world? Sex. But wait! Was Eve even real? Or is she a religious construct?

I am not alone in interpreting the Adam and Eve story as having sexual connotations. The ancient Hebrew philosopher Philo of Alexandria stated in Questions and Answers on Genesis that the serpent was inclined toward, and a symbol for, passion. “And by passion is meant sensual pleasure.”[i] During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe’s so-called querelle des femmes raged, focusing on Eve, the nature of women, and their sexuality.

Consumed by literate members of the gentry and mercantile classes, pamphlets rolled off the printing presses like British red-top tabloid newspapers in their heyday as writers battled it out, drawing on weighty sources: the Bible had divine status as the word of God; classical antiquity was revered for its wisdom and longevity; anecdotal evidence was used to prove arguments about women; and every rhetorical fallacy you can name was presented to persuade readers that women were lusty and deceitful to their core, like Eve.

Front piece from a pamphlet so popular it was reprinted ten times.

Sadly, few popular pamphlets debated the nature of men. The territory that was battled over was the nature of women, and that of men was not up for discussion. If I’d had my 21st-century feminist way, I would have argued that some women may be inconstant, with racy sexual appetites, but no more so than some men. As it was, the counterargument tended to go down the route of holding up women as loyal, chaste, and hardworking, marrying “more for the propagation of children than for any carnal delight or pleasure they had to accompany with men, content to be joyned in matrimony with a greater desire for children than Husbands.”

Furthermore, they found “more joy in being mothers than in being wives.”[i] This is a narrative about women that was re-spun by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century when he wrote about the ideal woman, and again by 19th- and early-20th-century doctors and pundits who couldn’t understand—or didn’t want to endorse—female sexuality.

All female traits, having been tied together—as with personality politics, where one trait is taken to be representative of the whole—stood or fell together. To avoid the banter, bullying, and accusations levelled at them in the course of their daily lives, women needed to model exemplary behavior that contradicted the stereotype being propagated. It was a classic catch-22. Given that there were huge social advantages in being seen to be moral, female sexuality, was damned and forsaken and no number of good women after Eve—even an exemplary virgin—could make up for womankind’s sins.

In an age when women could not inherit wealth, go out to work in the same environments as men, access education, or live or travel on their own without fear, they were on the whole expected to be chaste, and then chastely married—and if you were pragmatic, you had no other option than to conform. There is not room here to explore the implications for female pleasure of the Catholic Churches’ insistence that the only good sex is reproductive penis-in-vagina sex.

One hundred years of surveying women about their sexual pleasure has consistently shown that a mere 25% of women experience orgasm through this model alone. The Sweetness of Venus. A History of the Clitoris explores the extent to which this framework has impacted attitudes today. It also unravels the history of anatomy, which as a discipline created its own framework in which women were seen as lesser versions of men, to the detriment of understanding female sexuality and female sexual pleasure.

I hope you will want to read more there.

With love, Sarah


[i] Philo, 13 BCE–54 CE, Questions and Answers on Genesis, tr. Ralph Marcus, from the ancient Armenian version of the original Greek, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1953.

[ii] Tattlewell, Mary, and Joan-Hit-Him-Home, The Women’s Sharp Revenge, London, 1640, pp. 133–134. The pen names are indicative of the banteresque nature of the pamphlet wars

About The Author - Sarah Chadwick

Sarah’s book, “The Sweetness of Venus. A History of the Clitoris” was published in February this year. Sarah began researching after a discussion with a much younger friend about how sex really worked. “I was shocked by the orgasm gap that continues to exist in heterosexual relationships today, and to realize that female desire and pleasure was not further up the sex-ed or media agenda than it had been when I was in my 20s. I began asking, why is this? And after a lot of academic research the book was born. It was important to me that the book was fun as well a rigorous.” to buy the book/kindle or audio book

IG @its.personalgirls

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