During the late 18th and early 19th centuries European ideals concerning human liberty, society, and sexuality underwent tremendous changes. The social and political movements entrenched in the principles of the Enlightenment led the scientific and intellectual community to drastically redefine their construction of the female body, and in particular female sexuality. At the same time European colonial expansion was also taking hold of European society and science. While more and more “exotic” and “unexplored” territories were falling under European control, a general feeling of anxiety regarding European men’s superiority and rightful dominion over the native people of these lands led scientists and researchers to construct a biologically sound model of racial differences. However, race was not the only difference in need to be biologically defined. European men also held dominion over women; therefore a biological construction of gender differences was also needed. The “primitive” women of colonial lands were perfect objects for this exploration and exploitation, with particular attention paid to the sexuality of these women. Both Laquer’s and Fausto-Sterling’s articles explore science’s fascination with female sexuality during this period of so-called “Enlightenment” and the political and social interest serving European men in the interpretation and construction of it.
Women’s bodies for centuries have been a source of mystifying fascination for men. During the Age of Exploration this notion of exploring the unknown realm of the female manifested itself into the very ideals surrounding the exploration of the world. Fausto-Sterling writes:
From the start of the scientific revolution, scientists viewed the earth or nature as female, a territory to be explored, exploited, and controlled. Newly discovered lands were classified as female, and it seems unsurprising that the women of these nations became the focus of scientific inquiry. Identifying foreign lands as female helped to naturalize their rape and exploitation, but the appearance on the scene of “wild-women” raised troubling questions about the status of European women. Hence, it also became important to differentiate the savage land/woman from the civilized female of Europe. (22)
The problem of separating the “civilized” European woman from the “savage” is the first example of how science’s fascination and construction of female sexuality is used to fulfill political agenda. In Fausto-Sterling’s account of the exploitation of Saartje Bartman she writes of the scientists undying persistence in attempting to study her genitalia and in their recounting the tales of her ravenous sexual appetite. Bartman represented the ultimate in unexplored “terrirtory” to these scientists, “As a woman of color, she served as a primitive primitive: she was both a female and a racial link to nature…” (28). Her body was under continual scrutiny, not only by the scientists, but by the public that came to see her exhibition, who were fascinated with the size of her buttocks and trying to get a peep at the mythical “Hottentot apron”. According to Fausto-Sterling, “Bartman’s display linked the notion of the wild or savage female with one of dangerous or uncontrollable sexuality”(30). In fact, by the middle of the 19th century the buttocks had become one of the most prominent symbols of female sexuality (Gilman 1985: 210 in Fausto-Sterling), furthering the notion that large buttocks meant a primitively large sexual appetite.
With linking sexuality, and especially an aggressive sexuality, to primitivism and comparing Bartman’s behavior (both sexual and otherwise) to that of apes and monkeys, science succeeded in confirming a firm ideal of the “other”; what Euro-American women were not and should never strive to be. Caucasian women’s civility was confirmed by their sexual modesty and fidelity. This served well the politics of the white European man because “civilization kept the European woman under control, decreasing the danger of rebellion, but thwarting male desire. Minute scientific observation converted the desire into a form of voyeurism, while at the same time confining it to a socially acceptable location” (41). This socially acceptable location was of course the primitive woman. When Cuvier was finally able to examine the genitalia of Saartje Bartman, it was only after her death. By doing so he was finally able to gain control over the previously uncontrollable (35), which served as a prophetic and sanctifying accomplishment that secured the domination of white men over all primitive, exotic, unexplored, or lesser territories, including that of white “civilized” women.
When Amerigo Vespucci first encountered Native American in the women in his exploration of the Americas he found that they had “special knowledge of how to enlarge their lovers’ sex organs, induce miscarriages, and control their own fertility”(Tiffany and Adams 1985 in Fausto-Sterling 22), something “civilized” society did not understand until the 1930s. This self-aware, self-controlled form of female sexuality warranted Vespucci to identify Native American women as “immoral” (21). It is this conception of morality that was a guiding influence in interpreting female sexuality in the Age of Enlightenment. Laquer tackles this very notion of female sexuality and morality in his article “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology”. Laquer analyzes how in the 18th century ideals regarding human sexuality changed greatly due to the Enlightenment and the politics of equality surrounding it.
With the idea emerging that men and women were both inherently afforded equal rights, a focused scientific attention on the female body and female sexuality emerged as way to make different men and women. Laquer writes, “As the natural body itself became the gold standard of social discourse, the bodies of women became the battleground for the redefining the most intimate, the most fundamental of human relations: that of man to woman” (18). As science began to contest and deconstruct the one-sex model of the female reproductive system, different theories regarding the female body and particularly female orgasms were coming to the forefront. Whereas in the past the female orgasm was considered a necessary part of conception, male scientist now contested that it had nothing to do with the generative process at all. (1) Women’s physical pleasure became a topic “whose existence was a matter for empirical inquiry or armchair philosophizing”(2). This is another example of how science’s fascination with female sexuality fulfilled the political and social goals of white, Euro-American men. Science postulated that the female orgasm was not necessary to conceive a century and a half before it could be physiologically supported. (3) Therefore, such a conclusion was obviously the source of some political and social pressure to deconstruct the former model of female sexuality and to erect a new one. (3)
By obliterating former notions of female pleasure and desire, society was able to theorize completely new scientific and philosophical concepts of female sexuality in a “civilized society”. The creation of a biological reasoning for women to be inherently passionless, sexually modest, and higher moral beings emerged out of the minds of both feminists and anti-feminists. Rosseau states, “The timidity of women is another instinct of nature against of the double risk they run during their pregnancy” (Laquer 20). Rousseau believes that if not for the natural modesty and sexual inhibition of women than the propagation of the species could not have arisen as such; “Indeed, all of civilization seems to have arisen in consequence of the secular fall from innocence when the first woman made herself temporarily unavailable to the first man” (21). Through the encouragement of the idea that sexual modesty is an instinct, women were placed with the responsibility of warding off men and remaining faithful to their husbands, as there was no temptation to do otherwise. A woman whose sexuality was not “modest” would then be considered abnormal and immoral Conversely, men’s biological wiring would encourage them to attempt to sow their wild oats with as many women as possible because the natural modesty of women would greatly decrease the number of women with whom they could accomplish intercourse. Feminists and anti-feminists alike took to arguing that women were inherently passionless and therefore more “morally adept” (23). It was a woman’s duty to civilize men, because women were free from sexual desire and could act less out of “self-interest” (23) To feminists this argument placed women on a higher moral ground than men, while to anti-feminists it helped created a double-standard for men to seek “sexual gratification outside of marriage”, while forbidding it to women (23). All though some of the agendas among the scientists and thinkers of this time seem that they should contradict each other on the surface (i.e. feminists and anti-feminists), the increased fascination with female sexuality stemmed from the same “critical place”, as Laquer writes, “Desire was given a history, and the female body distinguished from the male’s, as the seismic transformations of European society between the 17th and 19th centuries put unbearable pressure on old views of the body and its pleasures” (24).
The Age of Enlightenment and colonial expansion was also the age of sexual re-definition. Women’s sexuality was taken a hold of by science and society and reconstructed to appease varying modes of political necessity. However, this reconstruction added to a budding form of sexual repression of both men and women. As Fausto-Sterling notes in her article, already aforementioned, the civilizing affects of constructing female sexuality as inherently modest, not fully sexually satisfying, and passionless may have kept women under control of men, but it “thwarted” male desire so that it reared its head in “scientific” voyeurism, or other perversions, and rendered female passion immoral and abnormal; thereby repressing female sexuality into the virtual nether regions.