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Sex and Erotica in History – Depictions in Literature

by Beth Divine 24 Apr 2019

Representations of sex and erotica in literature are quite hard to pin down. Not only has language changed dramatically, more or less every fifty to a hundred years, but attitudes towards sex change with almost as much regularity.

In medieval times, women were thought of as being hot blooded and always on the look out for sex, needing to be kept cool and calm. Then followed a time of unspoken sexual liberation when everyone was at it, but no one admitted to it.

It is with the advent of Victorian times that people began to take the fun out of sex, instead trying to catalogue and analyse it as a series of chemical and physical responses and reactions. In a way, they were right to do so, as a lot of emotional and physical responses rely on a chain of chemical and hormonal actions, reactions and reflexes – but they did it, it seems, in order to control and reduce the emotional and physical enjoyment of sex. Desire, lust, infatuation – all the physical manifestations of sexual need – were seen as unseemly, as animalistic and as something primitive to be overcome and subdued.

Of course, what they should have done, these early neurochemical and psychological scientists, is to examine what happens and attempt to fully understand it, taking the next steps towards understanding that trying to suppress sexual urges by repressing and oppressing the population’s libido is like trying to suppress hunger pangs by refusing to eat…

However, regardless of their reasoning, this is just one reason why mention of sexual activity is difficult, if not impossible, to find in early texts. This different mind set – that of sex being bad and shameful – meant that there is little easy mention of sex and sex acts. This is not to say that rampant sex was not happening: the male libido in particular was given fairly free reign, while women (under the control, in the main, of men) were restrained and prevented from temptations.

This patriarchal control just reveals the hypocrisy of the theories: if sex was a disgusting practice that was not necessary to our psyches, then firstly, men would have been able to resist their urges, and secondly, women would not have needed chaperones to prevent them from being tempted into it…

Writers of fiction often struggle to maintain untruths, and leaving all mention of sexual activity out of novels was impossible. Thus, they were inclined to include it, but using euphemisms that would allow them plausible deniability. Some of these mentions of intercourse are as follows: a couple can indulge in basket-making or face-making, a fling was represented as a tiff (now taken to mean a quarrel) or a brush, and ‘convivial society’ and ‘amorous congress’ were slightly more explicit descriptions of certain socially unacceptable activities.