book review: the nature and evolution of female sexuality
The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality, by Mary Jane Sherfey, M.D. Vintage Books, copyright 1966, 1972.
A hearty welcome to new blog subscribers. Be aware that we do tackle some thorny issues from time to time. Not every essay is going to be to every reader’s liking. But, we are seekers of truth, even uncomfortable truths.
A few words as to how this essay came to be.
This is the type of book one notices on the shelf at a used bookstore, and one purchases it for reading in the future. This paperback was purchased in the late 1980s or early 1990s during the time I was frequenting used book stores and buying lots of books on various subjects. It sat on a bookshelf for some years before finally being read 10 or more years ago. (The personal record for me is a book that was bought in the late 1980s and not read until late 2009!)
While gathering my thoughts for another essay (currently in the draft stage), I recalled a relevant passage in this book that might be helpful to use. After retrieving it from one of the bookcases in our home, I found that the passage was too general and not as specific as I remembered it to be. There were many underlined paragraphs from when I read this book. No doubt at the time I had thought the underlined paragraphs might be useful at some future time. That future time is now.
. . . . main essay . . . .
Although the book is now a few decades old, the author, Dr. Sherfey, makes 2 very important points in her book worth considering here.
1. The woman’s capacity for multiple orgasms contributes to a strong sexual appetite in the human female (especially in the last 14 days of her cycle). No surprise here, as women know this from their own personal experiences. The author deals at great length and in much specificity with the female urogenital anatomy. The main fact demonstrated is that blood refills certain tissues in the female genital region after an orgasm has basically pumped the blood out from these various tissues. As long as (sexual) stimulation is maintained, this process can continue and thus the female is capable of additional (serial) orgasms. Subsequent orgasms can be more intense (and therefore more pleasurable). This capacity is independent of the woman’s “fertile time”. Unless a woman has suffered injuries (from either physical trauma (such as from operations or accidents) or degenerative diseases) in this part of her body, or has some birth defects in these tissues, she is physically capable of multiple orgasms.
2. Dr. Sherfey, towards the end of her book, then goes on to make a much bolder assertion, one not without some cultural, anthropological, and historical support.
Here we need to quote extensively from the book. From pages 138 – 140, emphasis in the original:
“Many factors have been advanced to explain the rise of the patriarchal, usually polygynous (multiple wives, not polyandry which indicates multiple husbands – larryzb), system and its concomitant ruthless subjugation of female sexuality (which necessarily subjugated her entire emotional and intellectual life). However, if the conclusions reached here are true, it is conceivable that the forceful suppression of women’s inordinate sexual demands was a prerequisite to the dawn of every modern civilization and almost every living culture. Primitive woman’s sexual drive was too strong, too susceptible to the fluctuating extremes of an impelling, aggressive eroticism to withstand the disciplined requirements of a settled family life – where many living children were necessary to a family’s well-being and where paternity had become as important as maternity in maintaining family and property cohesion. . . . . . . .
“There are many indications from the prehistory studies in the Near East that it took perhaps 5,000 years or longer for the subjugation of women to take place. All relevant data from the 12000-to-8000 B.C. period indicate that precivilized woman enjoyed full sexual freedom and was often totally incapable of controlling her sexual drive. Therefore, I propose that one of the reasons for the long delay between the earliest development of agriculture (c. 12,000 B.C.) and the rise of urban life and the beginning of recorded knowledge (c. 80000 – 5000 B.C.) was the ungovernable cyclic sexual drive of women. Not until these drives were gradually brought under control by rigidly enforced social codes could family life become the stabilizing and creative crucible from which modern civilized man could emerge.
“Although then (and now) couched in superstitious, religious, and rationalized terms, behind the subjugation of women’s sexuality lay the inexorable economics of cultural evolution which finally forced men to impose it and women to endure it. If that suppression has been, at times, unduly oppressive or cruel, I suggest the reason has been neither man’s sadistic, selfish infliction of servitude upon helpless women nor women’s weakness or inborn masochism. The strength of the drive determines the force required to suppress it. . . . . . .
(The author at this juncture does say that her hypothesis (“that women possess a biologically determined, inordinately high cyclic sexual drive”) requires confirmation from many scientific disciplines before it can be accepted without reservation.)
“Should the hypothesis be true that one of the requisite cornerstones upon which all modern civilizations were founded was coercive suppression of women’s inordinate sexuality, one looks back over the long history of women and their relationships to men, children, and society since the Neolithic revolution with a deeper, almost awesome sense of the ironic tragedy in the triumph of the human condition.”
It seems that repression of women’s hyper-sexuality was needed for the rise of civilization as we know it. It does follow here that for the nuclear family to survive and provide a healthy, supporting environment for raising children, monogamy and marital fidelity (on the part of both spouses) is necessary. (Of course, one could also observe that patriarchies stand or fall on known paternity.)
Of course, to suggest or assert that women cannot say no to sex, cannot exercise some self-control, would be to rob women of their humanity. (Dr. Sherfey does not assert that women are incapable of self-control – even though she does use some forceful terms in making her points.) We certainly do not take such a primitive, pessimistic and dim view of women.
There are 2 shortcomings to this book in our opinion. There is a glossary, but no index. Her discussion becomes quite technical at times, and an index would be of help to the casual reader who may want to quickly locate certain specifics for reference or re-reading without having to read the entire book. The other shortcoming we will refer to in our next essay as it is a glaring omission indicative of the major blind spot in virtually all of the literature of the time (and much current literature) on sexuality in the US. (Our apologies to readers. In our opinion, this is necessary so as to do justice to our next essay.)
. . . . additional relevant thoughts . . . .
We see an attempt to de-sexualize wives and/or repress their sexuality within the history of Christianity. (Note: What follows is not from Dr. Sherfey’s book.) This arises with (St.) Augustine (354 -430). When Augustine converted to Christianity, he did not leave behind the views (or attitudes) of the various ancient pagan schools of thought with which he was intimately familiar. (These were the Stoics (who believed that the only purpose of marriage was procreation), various Gnostic groups, and the Manicheans.) As well, Augustine likely suffered from some personal bitterness in this area of love and sex. (I seem to recall reading that he had a concubine for many years and his mother, St. Monica, broke up that relationship.) Thus, he had a dim view of both the married state and the pleasures of the marriage bed. Also, due to an erroneous understanding of human reproduction (thanks to Aristotle), women were not thought to play any role in conception. Regrettably, there was neither a mature understanding nor healthy appreciation of female sexuality in these earlier centuries.
It is important to note that this sexual pessimism (directed at the married state) and hatred of pleasure (in the marriage bed) from these times is not Biblically based.
We believe that sex (human sexuality) does not fare well at the extremes. The excesses and hedonistic licentiousness of the so-called sexual revolution have yielded many bitter fruits in the western world since the 1960s. As well, the other extreme of a repressed and inhibited sexuality within one’s marriage is not healthy either. A joyless and sexually unfulfilled marriage does great emotional and psychological harm to the spouses. The spouses ought to express their sexual love for each other joyously and frequently. And, as we have said previously (in the marriage series), the range of expression of this mutual and shared love ought not be unduly restricted.
We are encouraged that Christian wives are now writing, speaking, and blogging on marriage and healthy sexual intimacy. Women are reclaiming their sexuality so to speak, and now have a healthy appreciation and respect for its importance within their marriages. And, that can only be good for marital happiness and lasting marriages (and thus stable families).
The question may arise in the minds of some readers: Why do some women have difficulty achieving orgasm during coitus, or experiencing multiple orgasms during coitus? Our next essay (for release in early May) will indirectly address this question and one major, not to be underestimated, cause of this difficulty.
For the benefit of recent and new blog subscribers, here is the link to our essay on feminism. Thumbs up for equity feminism. Thumbs down for radical or gender feminism.
Husbands: love your wives . . . . frequently, and with passion.
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