Literary Travels – Part 1: Prague
Some time ago I went to Prague with a couple of friends for a two-day festival. We had scheduled two extra days for sightseeing, which turned out to be a fantastic idea! Everyone who’s been in Prague already knows that it’s a beautiful city. It reminded me of Budapest with its bridges and beautiful architecture. The last day of the festival everyone went on a trip to the ossuary in Kutná Hora, a sight you wouldn’t believe! Legend has it that when the local abbot went on a pilgrimage to Palestine, he returned with a handful of consecrated dirt, which he sprinkled across the chapel’s cemetery. This made the cemetery holy ground, leading to its immense popularity as a place of burial. Because the small cemetery couldn’t hold so many people, they decided to exhume the bodies. Their remains are now on display in a work of art, rightfully dubbing the chapel UNESCO World Heritage. Personally, I was amazed at how the artist handled the skeletons with such creativity.
Our very last day we wanted to do one final activity with the gang, and on my suggestion we ended up in the Sex Machines Museum. A brochure I found had some intriguing pictures of strange contraptions, and we simple couldn’t resist finding out more! The first thing we saw upon entering were two old pornographic films, shot on the command of the Spanish king Alphons XIII in 1925. We also found a number of hand-operated vibrators and penis pumps.
Less cheerful machines included an electrical device with one end to be attached to a sleeping boy’s penis, and the other end to a bell in his parents’ room. This way they would always know when their son had a night-time erection. Embarrassing, I can imagine.
Strangely enough, the medieval and renaissance tools were a lot less alienating than those in the “modern” room. Whereas the instruments and furniture from the Early Modern period seemed to be designed to improve comfort during sex, the modern devices served the exact opposite purpose. Besides the introduction of a number of strange and rather amusing fetishes (ever heard of pony boys?), the emphasis lay on S&M in its most unpleasant forms.
Although parts of the exhibitions made us slightly uncomfortable, the museum provided insight into the sexual mentalité of the past. In that respect it reminded me of a book I was reading during the trip, to the delight of my roommates: Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. This fascinating book relates the transition from a former one-sex model to the current two-sex model. To contextualize this model, we first need to revisit the difference between sex and gender. A person’s sex is made up of the biological and anatomical features that define them as either male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is a socio-political identity that is connected to a person’s sex. In other words, gender studies generally examine the social roles that women and men are given (or fed). So we can conclude that sex is natural, and gender cultural. Here’s where the one-sex model complicates things. In the old days, people believed that there was actually only one sex: male. What about women, you might say. Well, they were considered only lesser versions of men, “unfinished” so to say. This theory was supported by the then widely accepted idea that women possessed pretty much the same sexual organs, except that their ‘inward penis’ never had the chance to grow outward like in the man’s case. According to Galen (the man who popularized medicinal blood-letting based on Hippocrates’ theory of the humours), this stunted development was due to a lack of “heat” as nature’s steroids, present in men. Allow me to illustrate:
This wonderful drawing is an illustration from Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica. It portrays a woman’s vagina as a replica of the man’s penile shaft. The comparison went even further with the idea that if you’d fold the ovaries into the uterus you’d get something that resembled the male scrotum. If you do the same to the rest, the vagina will become the penile shaft, and the labia foreskin. The one-sex model didn’t last, however. The 19th century witnessed men and women become two distinct sexes, opposites even.
The female orgasm: myth or mandatory?
In his preface, Laqueur mentions that he originally intended to write a study on the female orgasm throughout history. You might wonder how one could write an entire book about an orgasm. Funny thing: in Medieval and Early-Modern times the female orgasm was considered a prerequisite for conception. If a husband and wife couldn’t conceive, everyone knew whose fault it was! No seriously, the husbands were often humiliated whenever it took too long for a couple to become pregnant. After some time, and a great deal of counter-evidence, this theory of conception was rebutted. Unfortunately, with the rise of the new two-sex model, the female orgasm disappeared … literally. The nineteenth century, and especially Victorian England, witnessed a change in what it meant to be a woman. Now there were only chaste, pure beings without any sexual drive at all. Men and women became “the opposite sex”, men sexually active and women passive, and women were now believed not to have orgasms at all. A sad, sad world.
What I found so exciting about this book is that it makes you not only rethink history, but also present knowledge of biological facts. This evolution of science entails that sometimes facts are indeed subject to interpretation, and consequently also to change. Even scientific thought is often influenced by cultural persuasions, in that our thoughts are structured by these influences which we are unaware of. The same goes for the language we use to express and define our thoughts. If in ancient Greek the same word is used for parts of the female sexual anatomy as well as the male, then it’s no wonder that their referents should be equated. I must add that it was a wonderful coincidence that I was reading this book at the time that I visited the museum. It certainly rekindled my interest in sexual history and culture-specific interpretations of the human body.