Thursday, February 17, 2022

Early Feminists Pathologized Male Sexuality - Janice Fiamengo

Nineteenth century debates about prostitution and disease ignited widespread feminist denunciations of male sexuality, which in their fury and deliberate dehumanization clearly foreshadow modern feminism’s hatred of male sexual nature.

Nineteenth century British and North American societies were periodically convulsed by discussions of prostitution, especially as it related to the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea, two then-incurable sexually transmitted diseases. Though historians cannot provide clear data about the number of people infected at this time, the diseases were widespread enough to cause serious concern amongst medical authorities, and to result in alarming rates of infertility, deformity, blindness, mental defect, and death.

The question of whether and how to regulate prostitution in order to limit the spread of disease occupied governments and social reformers for many decades, and a full history of the subject is beyond the scope of this essay. What is striking for our purposes is the involvement of feminists in the debates, especially their viciously unpitying assaults on male sexuality. Feminists repeatedly portrayed prostitutes as

victimized innocents, and all men, not only those who paid prostitutes for sex, as villainous monsters, carriers of physical and moral corruption. The now-familiar demonization of all men as selfish sexual abusers is firmly rooted in 19th century feminism.

The general 19th century attitude to prostitution in Anglophone countries was one of disapproval coupled with acceptance of male sexual need. In a society that believed strongly in the importance of female sexual purity, it was thought inevitable—and better than the alternatives—that unmarried men occasionally turn to prostitutes. Even some married men, it was recognized, had unmet needs sometimes caused by their wives’ refusal of sexual intimacy.

William Acton, who published a book on The Function and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in 1857, empathized with men who were, as he explained it, “debarred from the privileges of marriage” as a result of their wives’ “apathy, selfish indifference to please, or unwillingness to overcome a natural repugnance for cohabitation” (qtd. in Susan Kingsley Kent, Sex & Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914, p. 61). Such empathy, however, infuriated feminist commentators.

In Britain, which will be my focus here, government attempts to limit the spread of venereal diseases, primarily within the armed forces, were codified in the Contagious Diseases Acts, first passed by the British Parliament in 1864 and expanded in later years, until finally repealed after much public protest in 1886.

Under these acts, police in port or army towns could arrest, and medical authorities could physically inspect, women suspected of being prostitutes. If the women were found to be infected, they could be confined for varying periods to a hospital, where they were forced to undergo treatment until they were declared fit to return to society.

Feminists and many others objected to the law, and not without cause, because of the brutal, humiliating nature of the inspections, which involved physical violation of the women’s bodies, often on mere suspicion, and were, as many dissenters pointed out, a contravention of basic British civil liberties. Young working class girls were at times seized by policemen from the streets and pinned down on examining tables for what became excruciating, sometimes physically damaging examinations. The number of campaigners who spoke out in detail about what amounted to legalized rape ultimately shamed British politicians into withdrawing the laws.

But feminists went much further in their objections. They were disgusted by what they argued was a clear instance of double standards, whereby women who worked as prostitutes, or were merely suspected of doing so, were singled out for punishment while the men who made use of them—much more culpable in the feminists’ view—were allowed to continue their lives.

As feminists saw it, the Contagious Diseases Acts exposed not only this outrageous social hypocrisy, but also the sexual exploitation of all women, who, they argued, had been made into sexual objects for male use, whether that use was legal (in marriage) or illicit (in prostitution). In their many speeches and pamphlets, feminist activists poured contempt on the excuse of male sexual need, asserting that men’s actions resulted from selfishness and cruelty, not need. The problem was not prostitutes, they repeated, but a system of male power that prostituted all women.

One of the best known of feminist campaigners was Josephine Butler (1828-1906), the devoutly religious daughter of a father who had been instrumental in abolishing

Josephine Butler
the Slave Trade, and who married a reform-minded Anglican minister who supported her advocacy. Butler spent years writing and speaking on behalf of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, one of the major organizations that mobilized support to defeat the government legislation.

Butler’s declared position was that until prostitution ended in its entirety, it was just to regard all men, even those who were faithful to their wives, “as depravers of society” because they “hold the loathsome and deadly doctrine that God has made man for unchastity and woman for his degraded slave” (all excerpts are taken from her speech, “Sursum Corda”).

The intensity of Butler’s sexual disgust is evident in a long speech she gave to the Ladies’ National Association in Liverpool, England, in 1871 entitled Sursum Corda, a Latin phrase translated as “Lift up your hearts.” Butler’s speech demonstrates, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, that the vilification of all men as sexually depraved was quite acceptable in nineteenth century British society, and was a central plank of early feminism.

For Butler, prostitution was “slavery in its most hideous form,” constituting the “regular and constant sacrifice of a multitude of women to the basest and most shameful uses.”

The reason it existed, she argued, was the “low moral standard of men,” caused by women’s lack of social power and by the corrupting influence of one man on another. She described how “Men, driven away at an early age from the intimate society of women, and forcibly thrown upon the corrupted and corrupting society of one another, have concocted and cherished a wholly different standard of sexual purity from that existing generally among women.”

Notice her emphasis on the danger of men associating together apart from women. Notice also the stress on men’s deliberate “concocting” of a degraded moral standard. Butler rejected outright that male sexuality was in any measure part of a natural instinct. On the contrary, she claimed, it was an invention to justify evil. “They have persuaded themselves (and this is the case even with those personally innocent) by the mere force of vicious familiarity with male profligacy, that sexual sin in man is a venial and even (as some have it) not wholly undesirable practice, certainly, at worst, the ‘irregular’ indulgence of a natural impulse.”

For Butler, who described how men “coolly study, and plot, and plan” to seduce women, there was in the male desire for sexual intimacy not one jot of forgivable need, longing for the alleviation of loneliness, desire for human contact, or actual liking for women: it was all impurity, selfishness, and shameful “degradation.” Butler’s many speeches and essays about the need to protect women from degraded men provide a vivid illustration of the foundational role of anti-male hatred in the nascent feminist movement.

Over forty years later, in 1913, near-identical points were made with even greater self-righteous condemnation by Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragette daughter

Christabel Pankhurst
Christabel Pankhurst, prominent leader of the militant wing of the suffrage movement in Britain, including of its terrorist bombing campaign (more on that in a later essay).

Pankhurst declaimed against male brutality and female enslavement in relation to what she called, in a book by that name, The Great Scourge and How to End It (1913). The scourge included prostitution, but was more specifically veneral disease, the effects of which Pankhurst described in detail, quoting at length from medical experts on the horrors suffered by innocent women whose husbands brought syphilis and gonorrhea into their homes and whose physical health, lives and even sanity were thus blighted. “They suffer torment,” she explained, “their health is ruined; their power to become mothers is destroyed, or else they become the mothers of diseased, crippled, blind or insane children.”

According to Pankhurst’s terrifying and exaggerated exposé, up to 80% of men were infected by gonorrhea alone before they married as a result of visits to prostitutes, a fact allegedly hidden by a “conspiracy of silence” amongst men that was only now being broken. Like Butler before her, Pankhurst found nothing forgivable in the actions of the culprit men. The spread of sexually transmitted disease was, for her, a vivid metaphor for male moral pollution and misogyny. Because men despised women, allegedly, and used them as sex slaves, they corrupted their homes and their entire society.

In Pankhurst, we see fully developed what would become the modern feminist attack on male sexual power, stunning in its simplistic typecasting and deliberate exclusion of centuries of evidence to the contrary, in which everything male illustrated their inability to see women as fully human. The vicious circle of feminist illogic is evident in the following statement—a fairly lengthy quotation--which sums up Pankhurst’s condemnation of male desire:

Sexual disease, we say again, is due to the subjection of women. It is due, in other words, to the doctrine that woman is sex and beyond that nothing. Sometimes this doctrine is dressed up in the saying that women are mothers and beyond that nothing. What a man who says that really means is that women are created primarily for the sex gratification of men, and secondarily, for the bearing of children if he happens to want them, but of no more children than he wants.

As a result of this belief, the relation between man and woman has centred in the physical. What is more, the relation between man and woman has been that of an owner and his property—of a master and his slave—not the relation of two equals.

From that evil has sprung another. The man is not satisfied to be in relation with only one slave; he must be in relation with many. That is to say, sex promiscuity has arisen, and from that has in its turn come disease.”

For Pankhurst, even the idealization of motherhood became an example of sexual degradation, and the entire history of male chivalry became just another form of female enslavement.

The solution to this great moral and physical scourge was encapsulated in the suffragettes’ double demand: Votes for Women and Chastity for Men! As women were empowered, according to Pankhurst, they would teach men to strive to equal women’s moral purity. “Upon men the effect of women’s enfranchisement will be to teach them that women are their equals, and not the sub-human species that so many men now think them; not slaves to be bought, soiled, and degraded and then cast away.”

Like Butler nearly half a century before, Pankhurst did not bother to imagine any non-contemptible reason why a man mght, even against his better judgement or sincere intentions, turn to a prostitute, despite the risk to his own health and that of his family. Faced with the implicit question of whether every man in Britain had reckless disregard even for the health of his own offspring, Pankhurst offered the following damning explanation:

The fact is that the sex instinct of these men has become so perverted and corrupted that intercourse with virtuous women does not content them. They crave for intercourse with women whom they feel no obligation to respect. They want to resort to practices which a wife would not tolerate. Lewdness and obscenity is what these men crave, and what they get in houses of ill-fame. Marriage does not ‘satisfy’ them. They fly to women who will not resent foul words and acts, and will even permit unnatural abuse of the sex function.”

To bolster her worst-case construction of male motives and feelings, Pankhurst cited medical authorities who claimed that sexual self-control was a simple enough matter for any decent man, and that men who claimed to find it difficult had only themselves to blame. “The truth is that the desires of men are inflamed to an unnatural degree by impure thought and action, by excess in the way of meat and drink, and by physical and mental indolence.”

She even recommended medical castration for men who failed to control themselves, reminding her male readers that “In prisons men, constitued as they are, have medicine administered by the medical officers. If prostitution can thus be abolished in prisons, it can be so in the world of free men. Self-control for men who can exert it! Medical aid for those who cannot!”

As we now know, the feminist movement developed in a direction unforeseen (and perhaps unimaginable) by Christabel Pankhurst, as later generations of feminists—and even some in her own era—rejected her call for sexual purity, celebrating their right to be as sexually free as the men they still criticize. I have shown elsewhere (“Early Feminists Hoped to Destroy theFamily”) how free love radicalism was already a part of feminist advocacy in its early years.

Yet while attitudes towards sexual freedom and the commercialization of sex continue to shift amongst feminists, the anti-male revulsion remains. It is now not only the dominant feminist position, but has become an acceptable—or even mandatory—general societal position. The remarkable endurance of this hatred, which remains uncondemned by the vast majority of modern women, should be regarded as the major feminist legacy of the past 150 years. 

                                        Janice Fiamengo

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