The Sexual Double-Standard from the 16th to 21st Century in America

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by Rachel Latham

“If a man is highly sexed he's virile. If a woman is, she's a nymphomaniac. With them it's power but with us [women] it's a disease! Even the act of sex is called penetration! Why don't they call it enclosure?” This powerful quote by Gemma Hatchback, a feminist writer, encapsulates the double standard perfectly by looking at the difference in terminology that is applied to men and women’s sexuality. The perception of women’s sexuality and sexual agency in the United States has changed substantially though the centuries. Women were originally seen as the keepers of virtue and were wholly un-sexual beings to harlots corrupting men with their overt-sexuality. In both instances women’s sexuality was restrained and defined by the male driven society. Unfortunately, these devastating perceptions of women have persisted almost unchanged through the years up to the contemporary period. In order to bring an end to the sexual double standard both women and men must understand that this dichotomy on sexuality and how it applies today. There are still attempts to regulate women’s sexual agency most notably through social pressures presented by peers and family members. In order to ground this essay we will first look at the ideologies from the 16th and 17th centuries that created the double standard in the 18th and 19th centuries. Using the ‘one sex’ model of the body to look at the fluidity of bodies in the 16th and 17th centuries and then the shift to the ‘two-sex’ model in the 18th and 19th centuries we can see the way popular and widely accepted beliefs formed the basis for contemporary ideologies on sexuality. Looking at the change in point of view concerning female sexuality from the 16th to the 19th to help us understand the perceptions that still exist today. I will illustrate the harm of the sexual double standard displayed by the Sarah-Session case and the the suicide of Amanda Todd. These two examples 270 years apart have multiple similarities which illustrates how the sexual double standard is used as a cultural tool to limit a women’s sexual expression and that women who break the expected norm are punished, while men avoid any penalties for the same behavior and are often praised.

The double standard is a term that refers to the fact that in the United States there are different standards of the expression of one’s sexuality between men and women. From early on women were forced by the Church and their community to suppress their own sexuality. When looking at the 16th to 19th centuries it is clear that women were expected to have considerable restraint. Through the the 16th and 17th centuries there were two views of sexuality that dominated colonists’ thoughts. One was the religious view endorsed by churches and the other was the medical view. Many Christian sects, namely the Puritans, influenced sexuality by making it a moral issue. These Church leaders believed that sexuality only could apply to heterosexual relationships within marriage. It is important to note that marital or reproductive sex was not seen as evil. Nor was the Church or community silent on this matter. On the contrary, the Puritans were very open about sex and it was commonly discussed in church and by the members of the community. This is because sexual acts were consistent with the Bible and were necessary within a marriage. Women were even able to divorce their spouses if they would not or could not have sexual intercourse with them. This shows how important bearing and raising children was to the colonists since even cases where women were abused did not always qualify as grounds for divorce.

According to Foucault’s periodization in the history of sexuality, before the 19th century, sexual desire was seen as a moral shortcoming that anyone was susceptible to engage in as well as a legal crime. In fact before the 18th Century human bodies were inherently fluid. Women were prescribed a set of characteristics that made them inferior to men. Women were unable to hold positions of power because they were prescribed a certain set of characteristics that made them inadequate namely, their sexual nature, promiscuity, and disorganized (Evans, 22). In the 16th and 17th centuries the medical and popular views on one’s sexuality were dominated by the Galenic ‘one sex’ model. Women were usually not allowed to even seen diagrams of their own bodies in medical books; even midwives were reliant on the information that male doctors described to them, and doctors were “reluctant to give their patients too much knowledge” (Porter, 86). Thus, women were isolated and could not get information about their own bodies or learn about their own sexuality in a male-dominated society.

The ‘one sex’ model had to do with the amount of “vital heat” that a person had and this in turn placed them in a hierarchical system according to their varying degrees of perfection called the “chain of being” (Laqueur, 4). Humans in general were seen as the most perfect and balanced sanguine beings therefore they were at the top of the chain (Laqueur, 5). Then there was the differentiation of human beings in which men were seen as more perfect than women because of their heat which caused them to be fully formed. There was then degrees of men and women all relating to their perceived “vital heat”. This meant that women and men had the exact same genitals the only difference is that women had their ‘penis‘ located inside her uterus. It is important to note that I am using the term uterus to explain the ‘one sex‘ model but it wasn’t until the 18th century that we get specific female anatomical terms and at this time period medical diagrams of were very difficult to read since they referred to male organs.

The reason that women did not have their penis’s externally as men do is because women had cooler bodies which allowed their penis to stay inside their bodies. While men’s heat forced their penis out of their body. This heat was intrinsic but always related to the lifestyles of men. Men that were very active and strong were seen as containing a lot of heat and this is why girls had such strict codes of conduct that did not allow them to even run for it might generate enough heat and according to the ‘one sex’ model their penis would come out of their uterus (Laqueur, 4). Furthermore, women's wet and cold humors made women deceptive. For, “women’s intellect [was at] the mercy of her lower nature... her very sensual and deceptive power, in fact, dictated the necessity of her subordination within marriage” (Evans, 23). While the ‘one sex’ anatomical model has been replaced, the sexist belief that men are inherently superior to women still remains today.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries there was a clear contradiction, while there were rigid codes of conduct and sanctioned expressions of sexuality within marriage but by looking at the excessive amount of documentations of violations in both legal proceedings and within the Churches it is clear that both men and women were not following this codes of conduct. Looking specifically at the 17th century the Church and the community tired to regulate extramarital sexuality, for thousands of New England residents were tied in courts for lewd speech, fornication, adultery, bigamy, rape, incest, sodomy, and bestiality (Godbeer, 20). Of these fornication was the most common; from just 1633 to 1691 there were 69 cases of fornication in New England (Deetz, 148). Furthermore, in England in the 16th and 17th Centuries twenty percent of all brides were pregnant when they got married (Godbeer, 3). But in New England in the 17th century the parents and community boosted of their strict observance of their children which resulted in only ten percent of women giving birth to their first child less than eight and a half months after their marriage (Mintz, 19). The community actively punished both women and men through fines or public whippings if they had a child to soon after getting married.

By the 18th Century premarital sex was even more common. Over forty percent of women were giving birth to their first child less than eight and a half months after marriage (Mintz, 19). The difference of extramarital sex emerged in the 18th Century because it was commonly accepted that sanctioned sexual relations were allowed once a couple were engaged (Mintz, 18). However this was not supported by the Church. It is clear that “Puritan orthodoxy had to contend with alternate beliefs and standards even among those who considered themselves respectable, God fearing men and women: the covenanted community itself proved to be a hybrid culture” (Godbeer, 22). Furthermore, many New Englanders believed that the “boundary between illicit and licit sex was crossed once a couple became committed to each other” (Godbeer, 3).

Cornelia Dayton’s article Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth Century New England Village offers a powerful example of the development of the sexual double standard in 18th Century New England. In the eighteenth Century women were still punished for any sexual misconduct, but men on the other hand had almost unregulated sexual agency. In Dayton’s article Sarah had sexual relations with Amasa which lead to her pregnancy and abortion which ultimately lead to her death (Dayton, 19). On August 2 Dr. Hallowell attempted a manual abortion but he was not able to remove the child. According to Zerviah’s testimony Sarah has an “argue fit” and miscarries in her father chamber pot on August 4th. Ten days later Sarah suffers from violent pain and develops a “malignant fever” she is sick for the next month and on September 14th 1742 Sara dies at just twenty years old.

Three years after Sara’s death in March 1747 legal actions were finally filled against both Dr. Hallowell and Amasa Sessions. All charges against Session were dropped but Hallowell was found guilty (Dayton, 20). However, before the sentence was carried out Hallowell fled to Rhode Island. In the end both Hallowell and Sessions never faced legal or community punishments but Sara “paid for her sexual transgression with her life” (Dayton, 21). Furthermore, Dayton argues that in the 16th and 17th Centuries Sara’s parents and friends would have been successful at convincing Sessions to marry Sara because he would be fined or whipped along with public scorn and loss of reputation in the community (Dayton, 21).

However, as stated before Sessions was not prosecuted or punished by the community because there was a shift in the treatment of men. In the 18th Century judges stopped forcing couples that were having sex to get married (Dayton 22). Because “shifting standards of sexual behavior and growing concern over the evidentiary impossibility of establishing paternity, prosecutions of young men for premarital sex ceased. Thus fornication was decriminalized for men, but not for women, Many of Sarah Grosvenor’s female peer continued to be prosecuted and dined for bearing illegitimate children” (Dayton, 22). In fact Session suffers no negative reactions to causing Sarah’s death and he spends the rest of his life in Pomfrent, in which he got married, had several children and was a well respected member of the Pomfret community (Dayton 22). This is particularly important because it displays the perception of the community in regards to Sessions actions resulting in Sara’s untimely death. Since the community did not rise up against Sessions it is clear the they choose to excuse Session’s of all of his involvement to end Sara’s pregnancy that ultimately lead to her death. Thus, in this instance the community stressed the belief that the “sexually irresponsible activities of men in their youth would not be held against them as they reach for repute and prosperity in their prime” (Dayton, 22). However, women who sexually transgressed were subjected to legal penalties as well as were shunned from the community. Women were not held to the same norm of behavior as men. This displays the sexual double standard that originated in the 18th Century.

It is likely that the custom of extramarital sex in the 18th Century is what allowed Sarah Grosvenor to have a relationship and eventually get pregnant from Amasa Sessions (Deetz, 148). While no information is known about Sarah and Amasa’s relationship prior to February to mid- March when Sarah conceived the illegitimate child of Amasa, it can be inferred by the testimonies of Zerviah and Hannah that Sarah and Asama were in a committed relationship. In Zerviah’s testimony she states that Sessions told Sarah that they would be married (Testimony of Zerviah). Since both Sarah and Sessions were from prominent families in Pomfret and the frequency in which women were already pregnant when they were married it is then important to ask why Sessions wanted to end Sarah’s pregnancy and actively forced her to take the abortion powder and to eventually get a manual abortion. The statement of Dr. Hallowell provide the most insight to this question, in that is seems likely that Session merely did not want to marry Sarah or have to provide for their illegitimate child.

Also, as explained in Zerviah’s statement Sarah did not want to take the trade to begin with and plead with Sessions to not try to cover up their sin with another sin. Sarah was unsuccessful at getting Session to change his mind but Zerviah says that Sarah often would not take the trade. Sarah backed into a corner by the man she was seeing tried one final attempt to save her baby telling Sessions that she could have the baby and she would never tell who the father was and that she was sure that her father would not abandon her or the illegitimate child. It is clear that Sarah again could not convince Session to allow her to have their baby. Keeping with the standards of behavior of female subordination to the superior male, Sarah was coerced into taking the trade and receiving the manual abortion that killed her.

On November 11, 2012 fifteen year old Amanda Todd committed suicide due to non-stop bullying and torment both online as well as in person along with being physically attacked by her class mates. Much like Sarah, Amanda was seen as breaking the behavioral norms of women and therefore had to be punished. In seventh grade Todd began talking to people via computer video chats with her friends. One day she decided to flash someone and a year later police showed up to her house to inform her that a photo was taken of her with her breast exposed and that it was sent to thousands of people. She changed schools several times but the bullying never got better. She felt trapped and alone with no option other than to kill herself, for that was the only way she knew she could stop the harassment and abuse for flashing someone. Todd’s class mates labeled her a whore and treated her as less than human. By looking at the tragic and short life of Amanda Todd it is clear that there is still a powerful double standard in contemporary society. Women still have limited sexual agency and Todd paid for her sexual transgression, like Sarah with her life. On the other side men in contemporary society are encouraged and in fact the very essence of manliness deals with their sexual conquests. Men are not prescribed as whores but instead championed for their sexual encounters.

The 18th and 19th Centuries saw a break from the ‘one sex’ model to the ‘two sex’ theory posed by Thomas Laqueur. This theory still exists today in which men and women were now seen as complete opposites. Jacques- Louis Moreau famously wrote that “not only are the sexes different, they are different in every conceivable aspect of body and soul, in every physical and moral aspect” (Laqueur, 5). Thus, the sexual differences between men and women in which men were inherently more perfect became the foundation in 18th and 19th Century relationships. This is why Sarah’s voice was drowned out by Sessions; Session was a man and therefore his physical anatomy was all that was needed to justify his superiority. Today the double standard is still going strong mostly though social norms and standards of behavior, much like in the past but with less legal regulations of sexuality pertaining to premarital sex. From the 18th to 19th century the sexual double standard was a reflection of the belief that men were superior to women and therefore should have almost total control over women. Under this system of patriarchy men held all of the roles of authority and dictated what women’s sexual agency would be and how much information they were to even know about their own bodies. The sexual double standard is clearly displayed in the Sarah-Sessions case and these issues of women sexual agency can still be seen today through the life and death of Amanda Todd. Hopefully we can learn from both Sarah and Amanda’s untimely deaths the real harm of the sexual double standard. With education and understanding we can help bring an end to the injustices against women starting with the destruction of the sexual double standard.