How sexism blighted history of sex: The Romans entombed Vestal Virgins

How sexism has blighted the history of sex: The Romans entombed errant Vestal Virgins, ‘witches’ were mutilated in the Middle Ages and the Victorians feared cycling damaged the ‘feminine organs’

  • Kate Lister is the author of a colourful study of attitudes to sex through the ages 
  • A History Of Sex makes plain people have always wanted to link sex with morals
  • The cult of virginity, for example, is always associated with purity and innocence
  • Dangerous effects of a bicycle ride on the anatomy is also explored in the book  



by Kate Lister (Unbound £25, 384pp)

What a miracle it is that the human race manages to keep reproducing itself, generation upon generation, since attempts to stamp out sexual activity down the ages have been relentless.

As Kate Lister, author of this colourful study, makes plain, people have always wanted to turn sex ‘into a moral issue’, with complex social structures and taboos to regulate fundamental biological urges.

Take the cult of virginity, for example, which is always associated with purity and innocence. 

It is something that, once ‘lost’, is irretrievable — implying a lack, a degradation, a sullying. The punishment for a Vestal Virgin having sex, in Ancient Rome, was to be entombed alive.

Lister says, ‘in a paternalistic society, where wealth and power are passed down the male line, female chastity is heavily policed to ensure legitimate offspring, and that your worldly goods pass to your children’. And not the milkman’s children.

The concern is that erotic desire, if it is not curbed, can endanger the distribution of property or capital — lust clouds judgment. Hence, Baden-Powell warned the Scouts against the perils of self-abuse. 

Three women with a bicycle in 1895, a time when Victorians were wary of the effect cycling may have on the anatomy, according to Kate Lister – author of A History Of Sex

Young chaps were encouraged to be fitted with barbed urethral rings, acid, needles and electric shocks, to discourage nocturnal erections.

John Harvey Kellogg advocated circumcision without anaesthetic, which ‘will have a salutary effect upon the mind’. 

Also, ‘covering the organs with a cage has been practised with entire success’.

These days, the medical philosophy is that regular daily orgasms — or ‘hysterical paroxysms’ — are a champion way of avoiding prostate cancer. 

Poor souls who only ejaculate four times a month are 36 per cent more likely to get the disease. 

But the Victorians were even worried about bicycling, which was physical, bracing, energetic, and ‘all that bouncing about on a saddle’ not only made a man’s eyes water, but ladies, pedalling with determination, ‘would damage the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity and shake them loose’.

Bicycles were connected to women’s sexuality during the 19th century (pictured, a woman undressing in front of her bicycle in Italy at some point between 1900 and 1910)

Possibly so: Fifteen engagements were announced following a single cycle club picnic. 

Nevertheless, Lister’s book is more about denial and suppression than fulfilment and adventure. 

She tells us that to reduce the passions, cold baths have always been advocated, even ice-water enemas. Or else, water and soap were to be avoided completely.

Public bathing was thought to ‘inflame lustful senses’, and in the Middle Ages, ‘filth was synonymous with piety and humility’ — all those stinking monks, literally with dirty habits. 

Bathing was believed to weaken the body, ‘leaving the skin open to infection’.

The chief, disturbing, lesson of A Curious History Of Sex, however, is the male’s fear of women’s passion and independent erotic existence, a ‘moral leprosy’ that had to be crushed. 

They had periods for a start, which induced ‘petulance, caprice and irritability’, and in 1869 this was seen as a good reason to deny them the vote. It was also widely believed that a menstruating woman ‘could pollute food’.

But the chief problem was the clitoris, as first anatomically described by Gabriele Falloppio who, whilst he was in the vicinity, found his famous tube. ‘It was so hidden that I was the first to discover it’, he boasted in 1561.

And once located, doctors couldn’t wait to chop it out — the prevalent evil of female genital mutilation. The clitoris has been blamed for lesbianism and ‘abnormal sexual appetites’.

Lovers by Paolo Fiammingo portrays an obsession with sex. The chief, disturbing, lesson of A Curious History Of Sex, however, is the male’s fear of women’s passion

Dr Isaac Baker Brown (1811–1873), a founder of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, was a particular advocate of clitorectomies, as the operation was a cure, he claimed, for hysteria, back pain, epilepsy, paralysis, blindness ‘and much more’. 

He doesn’t sound much different to the 16th-century witch-finders, examining women for the Devil’s mark — warts, moles, scars and that ‘protuberance adjoining so secret a place which was not decent to be seen’.

In 1593, an old lady was burnt as a witch because of her hoo-hah, while the World Health Organisation estimates that today more than 200 million girls have been subjected to genital tortures.

A HISTORY OF SEX by Kate Lister (Unbound £25, 384pp)

Which isn’t to say men get away scot-free. Dr Serge Voronoff (1866-1951) devised a mad scheme to transplant monkey testicles into the human scrotum. 

This was an alleged cure for constipation, cramps, colitis, ‘disinclination to work, failing memory, indifference and depression’.

As part of the rejuvenation process, did the patient start climbing trees and eat bananas?

Dr Voronoff’s operation was so popular, he had to establish a monkey colony in France to meet demand. All those monkeys, singing soprano.

We shouldn’t think ourselves any cleverer or more superior. Lister casts a scornful eye over plastic surgery, Botox injections, penis enlargement operations, vaginal tightening, ‘and all manner of lotions and potions’ deployed to defer old age.

Ants’ eggs and vinegar have been used as depilatory aids, especially since the removal of underarm hair was first required in the 1920s, as a corollary of the fashion for sleeveless dresses.

Had Victoria Wood decided to write a scholarly book about sex, it would be like this. Lister has a saucy wit and I loved the deployment of ingenious euphemisms: baby-cave, lady baubles, sugared almond. 

I laughed out loud to learn that vibrators were never sold as sex aids. They were devices to cure colds, digestive complaints and flatulence, ‘from which the patient finds much relief’.

Most of all, though, the descriptions of the treatment of women are very angry-making — from the total ostracism of unmarried mothers and the horror of illegal abortions, to the insulting use of the word ‘whore’, which came to mean ‘a woman who has authority over a man and must be shamed into silence at all costs’. There has been a lot of shaming, a lot of silence. 

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