How Do They Not Know?

Sex is not a transhistorical concept. This means that “sex”, as we think of it, is not a concept that exists throughout all of history.

In fact, a lot of things that seem as inevitable as blue skies are not transhistorical. Love is a relatively recent human invention. In fact, the color blue is another recent-ish invention and, to this day, doesn’t exist everywhere.

This could, of course, get us into tricky conversations about when things exist and the nature of existence. Did people feel love before French poets named it? Probably. Was the sky blue before we had words for the color “blue”? Yes. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it then does it make a sound?

When we say that something didn’t exist before a certain historical point we don’t mean that it couldn’t be found in the world. Certainly, the sky was blue before there was a word for “blue.” Undoubtedly, some people did experience what we call love before it was valorized as an ideal state. For that matter, the archaeological record shows signs of naturally generated nuclear fission reactors long before humans would dream of making them.

Rather, when we say that something didn’t exist before a certain historical point we mean that like love, the color blue, and nuclear fission, it wasn’t meaningfully integrated into human life until a certain point.

When I say that sex is not transhistorical what I mean is that certain acts which we define as sexual, which we cannot imagine as being otherwise, were not always classified as sexual acts. An example comes from a brilliant book, The Technology of Orgasm.

“This androcentric focus, in fact, in many cases effectively camouflaged the sexual character of medical massage treatments. Since no penetration was involved, believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually gratifying to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring when their patients experienced the hysterical paroxysm during treatment. Even the nineteenth-century physicians who excoriated the speculum for its allegedly stimulating effects and questioned internal manual massage saw nothing immoral or unethical in external massage of the vulva and clitoris with a jet of water or with mechanical or electromechanical apparatus.” (10)

The historical period being discussed above is less than 200 years ago. That is, less than 200 years ago, manual stimulation of the clitoris to “hysterical paroxysm” was not considered sexual by the majority of the medical community.

Most people I know, when introduced to this information, ask the question that heads this post:

How did they not know?

How did the doctors not recognize a hysterical paroxysm as orgasm? Did this mean that they were not used to seeing orgasms in their wives or mistresses? How did the women not know that what they were experiencing was sexual in nature? Did they know but kept quiet about it? Did they know and not keep quiet about it but we don’t know that they knew because of the ways in which women have been excluded from the historical record?

How did they not know?

This historical anecdote usually ends in a chuckle and shake of the head. “Ha-ha”, we say, “How could those silly people from the past not know an orgasm when they see it?” Or the color blue? Or love?

But questions of what does and does not count as sex are, unfortunately, still obscure for some important people in the U.S.

Earlier this week I posted a chronological list of statements about rape made by Republican legislators over the past nine years. They are horrifying and infuriating and overwhelming.

Within the morass there is one particular quote I’d like to draw your attention to. It comes from Brian Greene, a state representative in Utah. (He is not this guy, who is also named Brian Greene, and who you should definitely check out sometime.) The following statement was made in February of 2015:

“I’m not trying at all to justify sexual activity with an unconscious person. It’s abhorrent to me, but do we as a legislative body, want to make that rape in every instance? . . . an individual has sex with their wife while she is unconscious . . . a prosecutor could then charge that spouse with rape.” []

In July of the same year, Michael Cohen, lawyer and aide to the leader of the Republican party, said,

“And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse.” []


He later apologized for the comment and called it inarticulate and contrary to his beliefs.

To be fair to Mr. Cohen, marital rape wasn’t illegal in all 50 states until 1993. That is to say, spousal rape was not a crime in all states when Mr. Cohen passed the bar. There’s also that whole history of women being property to be exchanged between men thing that renders the idea of spousal rape as antithetical to any properly patriarchal notion.

Just like naturally occurring nuclear fission reactors, spousal rape was something that happened in nature long before it was legally regulated.

It’s a little silly to think of earnest 19th century doctors who didn’t know a female orgasm when they saw one. It’s a lot terrifying to think of 21st century legislators who can’t recognize the difference between sex and rape. It leads to the question:

How do they not know?

Of course, the answer to that question is long and complicated. Far too much so for this humble blog post or even for a single dissertation, but part of the answer is that they don’t want to.


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