by Havelock EllisApril 10th, 2023
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What is the part of woman, one is sometimes asked, in the sex act? Must it be the wife's concern in the marital embrace to sacrifice her own wishes from a sense of love and duty towards her husband? Or is the wife entitled to an equal mutual interest and joy in this act with her husband? It seems a simple problem. In so fundamental a relationship, which goes back to the beginning of sex in the dawn of life, it might appear that we could leave Nature to decide. Yet it is not so. Throughout the history of civilisation, wherever we can trace the feelings and ideas which have prevailed on this matter and the resultant conduct, the problem has existed, often to produce discord, conflict, and misery. The problem still exists to-day and with as important results as in the past.
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Little Essays of Love and Virtue by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE LOVE-RIGHTS OF WOMEN


What is the part of woman, one is sometimes asked, in the sex act? Must it be the wife's concern in the marital embrace to sacrifice her own wishes from a sense of love and duty towards her husband? Or is the wife entitled to an equal mutual interest and joy in this act with her husband? It seems a simple problem. In so fundamental a relationship, which goes back to the beginning of sex in the dawn of life, it might appear that we could leave Nature to decide. Yet it is not so. Throughout the history of civilisation, wherever we can trace the feelings and ideas which have prevailed on this matter and the resultant conduct, the problem has existed, often to produce discord, conflict, and misery. The problem still exists to-day and with as important results as in the past.

In Nature, before the arrival of Man, it can scarcely be said indeed that any difficulty existed. It was taken for granted at that time that the female had both the right to her own body, and the right to a certain amount of enjoyment in the use of it. It often cost the male a serious amount of trouble—though he never failed to find it worth while—to explain to her the point where he may be allowed to come in, and to persuade her that he can contribute to her enjoyment. So it generally is throughout Nature, before we reach Man, and, though it is not invariably obvious, we often find it even among the unlikeliest animals. As is well known, it is most pronounced among the birds, who have in some species carried the erotic art,—and the faithful devotion which properly accompanied the erotic art as being an essential part of it,—to the highest point. We have here the great natural fact of courtship. Throughout Nature, wherever we meet with animals of a high type, often indeed when they are of a lowly type—provided they have not been rendered unnatural by domestication—every act of sexual union is preceded by a process of courtship. There is a sound physiological reason for this courtship, for in the act of wooing and being wooed the psychic excitement gradually generated in the brains of the two partners acts as a stimulant to arouse into full activity the mechanism which ensures sexual union and aids ultimate impregnation. Such courtship is thus a fundamental natural fact.

It is as a natural fact that we still find it in full development among a large number of peoples of the lower races whom we are accustomed to regard as more primitive than ourselves. New conditions, it is true, soon enter to complicate the picture presented by savage courtship. The economic element of bargaining, destined to prove so important, comes in at an early stage. And among peoples leading a violent life, and constantly fighting, it has sometimes happened, though not always, that courtship also has been violent. This is not so frequent as was once supposed. With better knowledge it was found that the seeming brutality once thought to take the place of courtship among various peoples in a low state of culture was really itself courtship, a rough kind of play agreeable to both parties and not depriving the feminine partner of her own freedom of choice. This was notably the case as regards so-called "marriage by capture." While this is sometimes a real capture, it is more often a mock capture; the lover perhaps pursues the beloved on horseback, but she is as fleet and as skilful as he is, cannot be captured unless she wishes to be captured, and in addition, as among the Kirghiz, she may be armed with a formidable whip; so that "marriage by capture," far from being a hardship imposed on women is largely a concession to their modesty and a gratification of their erotic impulses. Even when the chief part of the decision rests with masculine force courtship is still not necessarily or usually excluded, for the exhibition of force by a lover,—and this is true for civilised as well as for savage women,—is itself a source of pleasurable stimulation, and when that is so the essence of courtship may be attained even more successfully by the forceful than by the humble lover.

The evolution of society, however, tended to overlay and sometimes even to suppress those fundamental natural tendencies. The position of the man as the sole and uncontested head of the family, the insistence on paternity and male descent, the accompanying economic developments, and the tendency to view a woman less as a self-disposing individual than as an object of barter belonging to her father, the consequent rigidity of the marriage bond and the stern insistence on wifely fidelity—all these conditions of developing civilisation, while still leaving courtship possible, diminished its significance and even abolished its necessity. Moreover, on the basis of the social, economic, and legal developments thus established, new moral, spiritual, and religious forces were slowly generated, which worked on these rules of merely exterior order, and interiorised them, thus giving them power over the souls as well as over the bodies of women.

The result was that, directly and indirectly, the legal, economic, and erotic rights of women were all diminished. It is with the erotic rights only that we are here concerned.

No doubt in its erotic aspects, as well as in its legal and economic aspects, the social order thus established was described, and in good faith, as beneficial to women, and even as maintained in their interests. Monogamy and the home, it was claimed, alike existed for the benefit and protection of women. It was not so often explained that they greatly benefited and protected men, with, moreover, this additional advantage that while women were absolutely confined to the home, men were free to exercise their activities outside the home, even, with tacit general consent, on the erotic side.

Whatever the real benefits, and there is no occasion for questioning them, of the sexual order thus established, it becomes clear that in certain important respects it had an unnatural and repressive influence on the erotic aspect of woman's sexual life. It fostered the reproductive side of woman's sexual life, but it rendered difficult for her the satisfaction of the instinct for that courtship which is the natural preliminary of reproductive activity, an instinct even more highly developed in the female than in the male, and the more insistent because in the order of Nature the burden of maternity is preceded by the reward of pleasure. But the marriage order which had become established led to the indirect result of banning pleasure in women, or at all events in wives. It was regarded as too dangerous, and even as degrading. The women who wanted pleasure were not considered fit for the home, but more suited to be devoted to an exclusive "life of pleasure," which soon turned out to be not their own pleasure but men's. A "life of pleasure," in that sense or in any other sense, was not what more than a small minority of women ever desired. The desire of women for courtship is not a thing by itself, and was not implanted for gratification by itself. It is naturally intertwined—and to a much greater degree than the corresponding desire in men—with her deepest personal, family, and social instincts, so that if these are desecrated and lost its charm soon fades.

The practices and the ideals of this established morality were both due to men, and both were so thoroughly fashioned that they subjugated alike the actions and the feelings of women. There is no sphere which we regard as so peculiarly women's sphere as that of love. Yet there is no sphere which in civilisation women have so far had so small a part in regulating. Their deepest impulses—their modesty, their maternity, their devotion, their emotional receptivity—were used, with no conscious and deliberate Machiavellism, against themselves, to mould a moral world for their habitation which they would not themselves have moulded. It is not of modern creation, nor by any means due, as some have supposed, to the asceticism of Christianity, however much Christianity may have reinforced it. Indeed one may say that in course of time Christianity had an influence in weakening it, for Christianity discovered a new reservoir of tender emotion, and such emotion may be transferred, and, as a matter of fact, was transferred, from its first religious channel into erotic channels which were thereby deepened and extended, and without reference to any design of Christianity. For the ends we achieve are often by no means those which we set out to accomplish. In ancient classic days this moral order was even more severely established than in the Middle Ages. Montaigne, in the sixteenth century, declared that "marriage is a devout and religious relationship, the pleasures derived from it should be restrained and serious, mixed with some severity." But in this matter he was not merely expressing the Christian standpoint but even more that of paganism, and he thoroughly agreed with the old Greek moralist that a man should approach his wife "prudently and severely" for fear of inciting her to lasciviousness; he thought that marriage was best arranged by a third party, and was inclined to think, with the ancients, that women are not fitted to make friends of. Montaigne has elsewhere spoken with insight of women's instinctive knowledge of the art and discipline of love and has pointed out how men have imposed their own ideals and rules of action on women from whom they have demanded opposite and contradictory virtues; yet, we see, he approves of this state of things and never suggests that women have any right to opinions of their own or feelings of their own when the sacred institution of marriage is in question.

Montaigne represents the more exalted aspects of the Pagan-Christian conception of morality in marriage which still largely prevails. But that conception lent itself to deductions, frankly accepted even by Montaigne himself, which were by no means exalted. "I find," said Montaigne, "that Venus, after all, is nothing more than the pleasure of discharging our vessels, just as nature renders pleasurable the discharges from other parts." Sir Thomas More among Catholics, and Luther among Protestants, said exactly the same thing in other and even clearer words, while untold millions of husbands in Christendom down to to-day, whether or not they have had the wit to put their theory into a phrase, have regularly put it into practice, at all events within the consecrated pale of marriage, and treated their wives, "severely and prudently," as convenient utensils for the reception of a natural excretion.

Obviously, in this view of marriage, sexual activity was regarded as an exclusively masculine function, in the exercise of which women had merely a passive part to play. Any active participation on her side thus seemed unnecessary, and even unbefitting, finally, though only in comparatively modern times, disgusting and actually degrading. Thus Acton, who was regarded half a century ago as the chief English authority on sexual matters, declared that, "happily for society," the supposition that women possess sexual feelings could be put aside as "a vile aspersion," while another medical authority of the same period stated in regard to the most simple physical sign of healthy sexual emotion that it "only happens in lascivious women." This final triumph of the masculine ideals and rule of life was, however, only achieved slowly. It was the culmination of an elaborate process of training. At the outset men had found it impossible to speak too strongly of the "wantonness" of women. This attitude was pronounced among the ancient Greeks and prominent in their dramatists. Christianity again, which ended by making women into the chief pillars of the Church, began by regarding them as the "Gate of Hell." Again, later, when in the Middle Ages this masculine moral order approached the task of subjugating the barbarians of Northern Europe, men were horrified at the licentiousness of those northern women at whose coldness they are now shocked.

That, indeed, was, as Montaigne had seen, the central core of conflict in the rule of life imposed by men on woman. Men were perpetually striving, by ways the most methodical, the most subtle, the most far-reaching, to achieve a result in women, which, when achieved, men themselves viewed with dismay. They may be said to be moved in this sphere by two passions, the passion for virtue and the passion for vice. But it so happens that both these streams of passion have to be directed at the same fascinating object: Woman. No doubt nothing is more admirable than the skill with which women have acquired the duplicity necessary to play the two contradictory parts thus imposed upon them. But in that requirement the play of their natural reactions tended to become paralysed, and the delicate mechanism of their instincts often disturbed. They were forbidden, except in a few carefully etiquetted forms, the free play of courtship, without which they could not perform their part in the erotic life with full satisfaction either to themselves or their partners. They were reduced to an artificial simulation of coldness or of warmth, according to the particular stage of the dominating masculine ideal of woman which their partner chanced to have reached. But that is an attitude equally unsatisfactory to themselves and to their lovers, even when the latter have not sufficient insight to see through its unreality. It is an attitude so unnatural and artificial that it inevitably tends to produce a real coldness which nothing can disguise. It is true that women whose instincts are not perverted at the roots do not desire to be cold. Far from it. But to dispel that coldness the right atmosphere is needed, and the insight and skill of the right man. In the erotic sphere a woman asks nothing better of a man than to be lifted above her coldness, to the higher plane where there is reciprocal interest and mutual joy in the act of love. Therein her silent demand is one with Nature's. For the biological order of the world involves those claims which, in the human range, are the erotic rights of women.

The social claims of women, their economic claims, their political claims, have long been before the world. Women themselves have actively asserted them, and they are all in process of realisation. The erotic claims of women, which are at least as fundamental, are not publicly voiced, and women themselves would be the last to assert them. It is easy to understand why that should be so. The natural and acquired qualities of women, even the qualities developed in the art of courtship, have all been utilised in building up the masculine ideal of sexual morality; it is on feminine characteristics that this masculine ideal has been based, so that women have been helpless to protest against it. Moreover, even if that were not so, to formulate such rights is to raise the question whether there so much as exists anything that can be called "erotic rights." The right to joy cannot be claimed in the same way as one claims the right to put a voting paper in a ballot box. A human being's erotic aptitudes can only be developed where the right atmosphere for them exists, and where the attitudes of both persons concerned are in harmonious sympathy. That is why the erotic rights of women have been the last of all to be attained.

Yet to-day we see a change here. The change required is, it has been said, a change of attitude and a resultant change in the atmosphere in which the sexual impulses are manifested. It involves no necessary change in the external order of our marriage system, for, as has already been pointed out, it was a coincident and not designed part of that order. Various recent lines of tendency have converged to produce this change of attitude and of atmosphere. In part the men of to-day are far more ready than the men of former days to look upon women as their comrades in the every day work of the world, instead of as beings who were ideally on a level above themselves and practically on a level considerably below themselves. In part there is the growing recognition that women have conquered many elementary human rights of which before they were deprived, and are more and more taking the position of citizens, with the same kinds of duties, privileges, and responsibilities as men. In part, also, it may be added, there is a growing diffusion among educated people of a knowledge of the primary facts of life in the two sexes, slowly dissipating and dissolving many foolish and often mischievous superstitions. The result is that, as many competent observers have noted, the young men of to-day show a new attitude towards women and towards marriage, an attitude of simplicity and frankness, a desire for mutual confidence, a readiness to discuss difficulties, an appeal to understand and to be understood. Such an attitude, which had hitherto been hard to attain, at once creates the atmosphere in which alone the free spontaneous erotic activities of women can breathe and live.

This consummation, we have seen, may be regarded as the attainment of certain rights, the corollary of other rights in the social field which women are slowly achieving as human beings on the same human level as men. It opens to women, on whom is always laid the chief burden of sex, the right to the joy and exaltation of sex, to the uplifting of the soul which, when the right conditions are fulfilled, is the outcome of the intimate approach and union of two human beings. Yet while we may find convenient so to formulate it, we need to remember that that is only a fashion of speech, for there are no rights in Nature. If we take a broader sweep, what we may choose to call an erotic right is simply the perfect poise of the conflicting forces of life, the rhythmic harmony in which generation is achieved with the highest degree of perfection compatible with the make of the world. It is our part to transform Nature's large conception into our own smaller organic mould, not otherwise than the plants, to whom we are far back akin, who dig their flexible roots deep into the moist and fruitful earth, and so are able to lift up glorious heads toward the sky.

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This book is part of the public domain. Havelock Ellis (2005). Little Essays of Love and Virtue. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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