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Saturday, November 16, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40c - Book Appreciation with Heather Rose Jones - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/11/16 - listen here)

A transcript is pending.

Show Notes and Links

In this episode we talk about:

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Friday, November 15, 2019 - 10:09

It's the official book-birthday for Floodtide! I'm loving seeing all the mentions and recommendations washing through my social media. Such a difference from last time! (More thoughts on that, but not while I'm in the middle of celebrating.)

A brief reminder of logistics:

  • You can buy both the hard copy and all ebook formats direct from my publisher, Bella Books.
  • Ebooks will be available though other distributors in about a month. (This is a business strategy for Bella, nothing I have control over.) Bella has a handy instruction guide for side-loading their epub, mobi, and pdf formats into your favorite reader.
  • Paper copies of Floodtide can be ordered direct from all the usual online retailers, but if you have a local brick-and-mortar bookstore, even if they don't typically carry books from Bella, I encourage you to consider buying/ordering from your local business.
  • But from my point of view, the best way for you to buy my books is the one where you buy them. No matter what it is.

Bonus opportunity!

An even more brief reminder of the part you can play in Floodtide's success:

  • One-on-one word of mouth has been the most powerful factor in the success of the Alpennia series. And with Floodtide, there's an opportunity to recommend the book to people who might be daunted by plunging in to a whole series.
  • Sharing and retweeting any sort of positive social media about Floodtide helps extend visibility. I expect to keep up a major flurry for the next month or so, and every little bit helps.
  • Reviews help any book's visibility, especially if they are (also) on the major review sites like Goodreads and Amazon, though reviews on personal blogs can reach readers who might not hear about the book otherwise.
  • Amazon in particular is difficult to get review numbers on, ever since they began the "minimum shopping threshold to leave reviews" requirement. So if you're in a position to be able to leave Amazon reviews (you don't have to have bought the book there) and willing to, it can be a great help. I've given up on The Mystic Marriage or Mother of Souls ever reaching that "magic" fifty-review target, but I have hopes that Floodtide might crack it.
  • I appreciate any efforts that my fans and readers make to help spread the word about my books. And I never take it for granted or expect it as a right. Nothing I post here is intended to contradict that position or pressure you in any way.
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Thursday, November 14, 2019 - 09:13

To celebrate the release of Floodtide, I've been picked as the Featured Author of the month at Bella Books. That means my entire backlist (hard copy and ebooks) is 30% off. So whether you're only just discovering Alpennia through Floodtide or if you meant to get caught up on the series before reading it, this is a great opportunity to fill in the gaps.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - 09:23

Last week finished up the teaser series, so all that’s left is waiting with breathless anticipation (no, don’t do that:…out…in…out) for Floodtide to appear in your mailboxes, e-reader screens, and maybe even on selected bookstore shelves. (Keep in mind that if you do have a local genre bookstore and want to own a hard copy of my books, ordering through the store is a win-win all around. The bookstore wins, and it becomes more likely that they’ll order additional copies to display for others to find.)

I’m feeling reasonably confident about being prepared for this book release. Publicity blogs have been showing up. Reviews are starting to be posted. Bella Books is going to make me “featured author of the month” so if you’re planning to order any of the other Alpennia books, expect them to be on sale soon. (You can check on my catalog page to see if it’s effective yet.

But of course the majority of the success will depend on word of mouth and reader enthusiasm. I really appreciate how my unofficial “fan club” keeps plugging away to let people know about Alpennia. Floodtide is a great chance to invite new readers in and get them hooked. Expect me to be doing a lot of book cheerleading this week and feel free to join in the celebration!

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Monday, November 11, 2019 - 07:00

Although I’m generally organizing this “classics of the history of gender and sexuality” series on a thematic basis, I moved this one out of order for logistical reasons (It’s the only one I have in pdf and I wanted get it done before I moved the other current 40+ article pdfs onto my iPad, so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.)

Rich’s article--written in 1980, the year I graduated college and came out as a lesbian--simultaneously feels dated and feels all too current. It is dated in some of the ways it uses terminology and concepts around the word “lesbian” in ways that are either overly broad or appropriative of other nuances of identity. I know that it’s frowned on to view either people or texts as “products of their time” but I think it is important to understand the context in which things are written and said.

In 1980 we hadn’t yet developed the current extensive palette of vocabulary to talk about nuances of identity. And in 1980 the queer struggle was for the right to be recognized as existing and valid in the face of overwhelming heteronomativity. If people seem to have taken overly absolute positions for queer identities that now feel narrow and prescriptive, it was in part because any equivocation, any sign of nuance or weakness in one’s political positions, was seized on as undermining the whole. If you’re a woman who has ever felt love or desire for a man, then you’re really just straight and confused. (It was social conservatives who established that interpretation first, before it became attributed as an official lesbian position.)

If lesbian activists and historians of that era seem overly eager to lay claim to marginal cases for the lesbian team, it was because all they seemed to have were marginal cases. The Ladies of Llangollen? Just good friends. Emily Dickinson? Neurotic and jealous. And for vast numbers of candidates “But they married/fucked men, so how could they be lesbians?”

But Rich’s article also feels very current in many ways: the exclusion of relations between women as a categorical alternative to heterosexuality when discussing social dynamics; discussing “women” in ways that silently assume “straight women” (and, of course, silently assume “straight white women”); the socio-political systems that indoctrinate women in (and enforce) heterosexuality because to recognize alternatives is to allow women an escape hatch, regardless of their innate orientations. When Rich lists those systems--including the interaction between misogynistic pornography culture and workplace gender power dynamics, social and legal structures that push women to rely on men for economic security and status, and so forth--many of the examples could be pulled from our current headlines.

So approach this article, written 40 years ago, with charity. And if parts of it seem quaintly old-fashioned, ask yourself why so many other parts haven’t changed.

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Full citation: 

Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Signs 5: 631-60.

Rich opens with examples of academic and feminist writing that talk about women’s lives in ways that exclude homo-affective bonds or label them as deviant. If lesbianism is mentioned at all, it is treated as being born of hostility toward men or as mere “sexual preference” or as being a direct mirror image of the male homosexual experience. She follows this bias towards “compulsory heterosexuality” in four sample texts, all presenting themselves as feminist and taking the position that social relations between the sexes are disordered and problematic, but in every case ignoring or excluding the question of how “lesbian existence” (and in the context of this article, it becomes clear that this should be read as “the existence of women’s committed same-sex relationships of any type”) would change both the analysis and possible solutions to that problem. None of the texts questions whether, all other things being equal, the same proportion of women would choose the problematic state of heterosexual marriage as it exists.

The first book, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women by Ehrenreich and English looks at professional health advice to women from a Marxist-feminist point of view with the conclusion that advice regarding sex, maternity, and child care has always echoed and reinforced the requirements that a capitalist economy requires women to fulfill. Although their analysis challenges the basis of many principles of this advice, it never deconstructs the anti-lesbian position embedded in the advice manuals, despite the clear parallels between the persecution of lesbians and more general misogyny.

The second book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Miller) is written as if lesbians don’t exist. The third, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise (Dinnerstein) argues that disordered gender relations can be addressed by more equal sharing of parenting and the erosion of gendered social roles. The current arrangements, the book argues, perpetuate social relations that are hostile, exploitive, and destructive. But the book operates on an assumption that relations between men and women are the essence of society and simply need to be made more rational. Excluded from consideration is the long history of women who either opted out of those relations or were excluded from them (singlewomen, widows, lesbians, etc.). The author considers female separatism an interesting but impractical thought experiment, ignoring the fact that the “experiment” already exists in the small scale and has done so for centuries.

The fourth book comes the closest to acknowledging lesbian existence. The Reproduction of Mothering (Chodorow) takes a psychoanalytic examination of the gendered imbalance of child-rearing and how relations with a same-gender versus other-gender primary caretaker affect a child’s psychological development. For women, she concludes, this dynamic means that men are “emotionally secondary” in their lives, that men are not as emotionally important to women as women are to men. And that women have had to learn to deny the limitations of men as lovers (compared to women) for practical and psychological reasons. But within this conclusion, she does not come to the apparently obvious attraction for women of having female lovers. Chodorow dismisses this idea with, “lesbian relationships do tend to re-create mother-daughter emotions and connections, but most women are heterosexual.” [Note: If one sometimes feels that Rich engages in bi-erasure in her rhetoric, it’s important to note that the texts she is studying also engage in bi-erasure from the straight side.] Chodorow continues, “This heterosexual preference and taboos on homosexuality, in addition to objective economic dependence on men, make the option of primary sexual bonds with other women unlikely--though more prevalent in recent years.” [Note: keep in mind that Chodorow was writing in 1978.] The presumption “most women are heterosexual” is not examined even in the face of acknowledging the potential influence of social taboos and economic inequities.

All four of the books focus on how to “fix” the existing system of compulsory heterosexuality, despite acknowledging that there are sound emotional and psychological reasons for women to enjoy bonds with other women. That women continue to disproportionately hold to heterosexual relationships because of innate preference and that engaging in homosexual relationships is the only state that requires an explanation. This is expressed sometimes as the position that all people are inherently bisexual and that in an ideal world in which gender inequities were removed, this would be expressed. But we don’t live in an ideal world and the choices women make and situations the find themselves in are shaped by the existing inequities, including unequal access to the concept of lesbian existence.

The second part of Rich’s article focuses on the question: if people’s earliest experiences of nurture and emotional caring are from women, why would women ever redirect their search for those things to men? [Note: Rich is engaging in her own essentialism and erasure here in accepting the archetype of the nurturing mother as representing an experiential truth.] Why have the dynamics of reproduction become so inseparable from the impulse toward emotional/erotic relationships that it became necessary to violently enforce women’s loyalty and subservience to men?

But she moves on to a set of dynamics laid out an essay “The Origin of the Family” (Gough) that, rather than examining the reasons for this situation, focuses on eight mechanisms by which it is maintained [my paraphrases]:

  • Deny women their own sexuality (either by psychological or physical means)
  • Force them to accept male sexuality
  • Male control/exploitation of women’s labor and production
  • Male legal/physical control of children
  • Control of women’s physical abilities or geographic movements
  • Male use of women as objects of value in social transactions
  • Suppression of women’s creativeness
  • Prevention of women’s access to or participation in knowledge/cultural attainments (including suppression of knowledge of women who succeeded) [Note: once you start diving deeply into the history of women in the arts, literature, and sciences you begin realizing how much of the absence of women from those fields is a lie, that knowledge about them has been deliberately erased and suppressed.]

These mechanisms act together with the idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage in popular culture to make same-sex alternatives not simply unattainable but unthinkable.

The next part of the article looks at the braiding together of the sexualization of women in everyday life, especially in the workplace, with the normalization of pornographic imagery, and the use of accusations of lesbianism or prudishness against women who push back against these forces. Within this multi-layered dynamic, does the notion of women’s “consent” have any meaning? [Note: this is one part of the article where I got a strong “not enough has changed vibe,” when you look at entire industries where women feel that their economic participation is contingent on going along with pervasive, casual sexualization of their existence.] Does “consent” to heterosexual marriage have any meaning if it is offered as the only viable alternative to male predation in the workplace? [Note: In 1980, one could still have the illusion that marriage enabled a woman to remove herself from the public economy.]

What if, Rich asks, men’s sexual anxieties about women are not that sexually uncontrolled women will “devour” them, but that sexually uncontrolled women will find them irrelevant? How much of the enforcement of male sexual dominance over women is because men fear not having access to sex at all? [Note: this question in Rich’s article predates but predicts the “incel” mentality.] Female sexual slavery exists not only in conditions of physical restraint, but in any situation where women trade consent and autonomy for freedom from violence and exploitation. The concept of compulsory heterosexuality enables that system by suppressing the awareness of alternatives.

At polar opposites are the questions: why do some women never turn away from that “primary emotional attachment to women,” and conversely why do some lesbians persist in identify/aligning with men in their social and political allegiances? [Note: I feel like this can be answered by “people are complex” but we’re going somewhere more theoretical in this article.] The phenomenon of the oppressed identifying with the values of the colonizer is widespread as a survival mechanism. We see it in women being co-opted into being the “enforcers” of male dominance (e.g., women as the gatekeepers for phenomena like genital mutilation or other physical “beauty” torture practices). It is also a factor in white women’s racism where allegiance to white male oppressors is valued over identification with other women.

Rich returns to Cavin’s “rich and provocative, if highly speculative” ideas about the history of the rise of patriarchy within a posited context of matrilineal female-dominated social bands. I.e., that the mother-child bond with male children was allowed to overcome the purported practice of ejecting adolescent males. [Note: I’m glad that Rich added “highly speculative” here.] Thus the idea that the primacy of heterosexual pairings evolves from male exploitation of the mother-son parental bond. Whatever its origins, Rich suggests, is the question that feminism needs to address not so much simple “gender equality” but the enforcement of heterosexuality  for the purpose of ensuring men’s unquestioned sexual, emotional, and economic access to women? And if this is the central problem of feminism, how does the erasure of lesbian possibilities undermine finding the solution?

In the third section of Rich’s article, she defines what she means by the terms “lesbian existence” and “lesbian continuum.”

[Note: this is a part of the article that I feel contemporary readers must work to enter with an open mind. The very phenomenon that Rich makes the center of this article--that a vast complex of social and historical forces combine to keep women from embracing the power of bonds with other women--continues to operate. There are ways in which use of the word “lesbian” are still being used to fracture and divide groups that by rights ought to be natural allies. I am not a disinterested bystander on this topic, as someone who identifies strongly with the label “lesbian” in a variety of its possible senses, and as someone willing to fight to the death to prevent the word from being turned into a poison pill by conservative forces who are trying to co-opt lesbian existence to weaponize it against other queer people. But that’s a rant for another time and place. For now, let me beg the reader to allow that “lesbian” can be used in an inclusive, rather than exclusive sense--in the sense used when we identify (the heterosexually-married) Sappho as a “lesbian”, when we embrace as historical antecedents the women described in 16-18th century texts as “lesbians” on the basis of erotic/romantic relationships between women, even when those same women also had erotic/romantic relationships with men.]

It’s worth quoting Rich extensively here. “Lesbian existence suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence. I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range--through each woman’s life and throughout history--of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support; if we can also hear in it such associations as marriage resistance and the “haggard” behavior identified by Mary Daly ... we begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of ‘lesbianism.’”

The denial of lesbian existence is made possible by the lack of automatic access to a shared community and history (unlike the existence of identities that are based on ethnic, religious, or national identifies). Lesbian existence in history can be erased not only by prevention of the creation of a historic record, but by prevention of the transmission of that record [Note: see the reason we don’t have the majority of Sappho’s poetry, or more recently the deliberate omission of vocabulary relating to lesbianism from the Oxford English Dictionary], or by the direct destruction of that record (e.g., the burning of letters and diaries). Lesbian existence can also be erased by a false equivalence of the lesbian experience as identical to that of men in homosexual relationships. [Note: in this section, we can see some unsettling hints of Rich’s woman-centered philosophy swallowing divide-and-conquer tactics when she notes that she wants to dissociate the lesbian experience from “male homosexual values and allegiances” and to consider it as “a profoundly female experience.”] Accepting “lesbian” as having only a clinical, medicalized definition divorces it from the experience of female friendship and comradeship, focusing only on the erotic and thus limiting the understanding of the erotic. [Note: She refers to the type of distinction seen in Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men where a qualitative line is drawn between romantic relationships between women based solely on whether those relationships had an erotic component. One angle that Rich doesn't---if I recall correctly--bring up explicitly, is that an insistence on a strict narrow clinical definition of "lesbian" as "a woman whose erotic desire and sexual activity not only is expressed overtly, but is solely directed toward women throughout her entire life." A big problem with such a narrow definition is that it essentially negates the possibility of finding lesbians in history.]

Rich works through a detailed catalog of the types of interactions between women that she wants to include under her concept of a “lesbian continuum” with the assertion that if all of those relationships can be dismissed as “deviant” in support of the proposition that heterosexuality is the only “natural” orientation for women, then women’s natural alliances with each other (and the resistance generated by those alliances) can be suppressed and dismissed. Similarly the “double-life” of women who would have preferred to devote themselves entirely to their relationships with women, but who married men for economic security, can be reclassified as “women’s natural preference for heterosexuality.”

The fourth section of Rich’s article is largely a summing up of her conclusions. Here are a few highlights. The denial of the reality and visibility of women’s passions for each other is a loss to the power of all women to change relationships between the sexes. It is based on a series of lies: that women are inevitably and tragically drawn to men even in destructive relationships, that women turn to women only out of hatred for men. So are all heterosexual relationships to be condemned? That’s the wrong question, she suggests, paralyzing us into a fixation on identifying “good” versus “bad” heterosexual relationships. It is the absence of choice--the refusal to acknowledge other categorical options--that must be addressed.

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Saturday, November 9, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40b - Interview with Heather Rose Jones - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2019/11/09 - listen here)

Transcript pending.

Show Notes and Links

In this episode we talk about:

  • What are the advantages to setting stories in an invented country like Alpennia?
  • The roots of Heather’s love for language and history
  • Themes and tropes in the Alpennia books
  • Why weren’t the books written as romances?
  • Complex intersections of gender and sexuality in the books
  • Queer coming of age in the 19th century
  • What books inspired the Alpennia series?
  • Why a laundry maid as a protagonist? Writing precarious lives.
  • Touch-points for writing historic disasters and sowing seeds of revolution
  • Why write a stand-alone book in the middle of a series?
  • Why write in first versus third person?
  • Finding the people of color in Alpennia
  • Planting story-seeds to harvest in later books
  • What’s next for the Alpennia series?
  • Giving characters failure modes
  • What else does Heather want to write?
  • Books mentioned
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Friday, November 8, 2019 - 06:00

As has become the custom in SFF circles, this blog is to place on record those items I will have created in 2019 that might be of interest to those nominating and voting on SFF awards. (Or any other genre of awards, for that matter, but there really isn't any equivalent culture within the lesbian literary community.) At the actual end of the calendar year, I'll do my usual "What Hath She Wrote" post that summarizes all my activities, but this one is just for the plausibly SFF items.


Floodtide (November 2019, Bella Books) - Not actually out in the world yet at the time I'm posting this, but them's the breaks.


I'm going to the a bit daring and suggest that there's enough historic fantasy content in The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to consider it eligible for consideration for SFF podcast awards. Specific episodes offered as evidence: a discussion of time-travel/time-slip motifs in f/f historical fiction, a discussion of and excerpts from Delariviere Manley's pseudo-utopian satire The New Atalantis, interview with author Katherine Duckett, interview with author Zen Cho, interview with author Molly Tanzer. I'd like to get people thinking of the podcast in this context even more in 2020 when the fiction series may publish historic fantasy as well as plain historical fiction.

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Writing Process
Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 06:00

I'm drafting up entries for an Alpennia FAQ based on either overt or implicit questions I get asked about the books. This time I tackle one more of the possible genres the books might fall in:

Are the Alpennia books SFF?

The Alpennia series fits very comfortably into the broad, general category of “science fiction and fantasy” or SFF for short. The magical elements place them solidly into the fantasy genre, and they also fit comfortably into the subgenres of “Regency fantasy” (more or less “settings that feel like Regency romances but have fantastic elements added to them”) and “fantasy of manners” (sometimes contrasted with genres like “high fantasy” that tends to deal with epic quests and the fate of empires, whereas a “fantasy of manners” tends to derive its conflicts and triumphs from the rules and mores of a stratified social structure).

As a reader and author, I tend to consider the SFF community to be my home town, and the SFF literary tradition to be my native tongue. As a generalization, I’d say that the Alpennia books have most easily “clicked” with people who consider themselves SFF readers. Other SFF readers may feel that the significant romance elements push them out to the margins of that genre. And for those who classify books based on publisher, the fact that Bella Books is not a SFF publisher undermines categorizing Alpennia as such. So, as for most of these questions, much depends on which factors you emphasize.

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Writing Process
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 13:56

This is it: the final installment of the Floodtide teasers! Carefully selected to avoid any spoilers at all. As I've mentioned previously, for several of the novels I've "bookended" the stories with a pair of short passages in a different narrative style. As for Mother of Souls, the bookends for Floodtide echo each other in theme.

You can pre-order the book at the Bella Books website for release-day delivery. (Actually, I'm not certain that hard copies will arrive by release day, but e-books will.) And I'll be giving away a copy or two to my newsletter subscribers, so if you aren't signed up for my monthly newsletter you might consider it. (I mean, sure you're going to pre-order it, but you can always give the book away as a gift if you win it.) And if you happen to be geographically local to me, I'm having a very informal release day party at my house the evening of Friday the 15th. (If you aren't a fb friend, you can contact me for info.)

The promotional blogs and interviews I'm doing for the release are appearing around the web in various places. At some point I'll set up a link blog with pointers to them all. And remember that enthusiastic and vocal fans are one of the best assets a new book can have!

Sometimes life is like the scent of fresh lavender as you strip it off the stems. It crawls up your nose and spikes into your head until it pounds and throbs in pain. Sometimes it’s like the close work in the still room, turning the flowers into sweetness. Sometimes it’s like the soft scent of lavender water sprinkled on the sheets in a faint reminder of sunlight giving you good dreams through the night.

They say any work can be a mystery if you do it with care and a prayer in your heart.

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Monday, November 4, 2019 - 07:00

This concludes the summary of Cadden's book with a discussion of how medieval medical and theological writings dealt with the apparent contradiction of valorizing sexual abstinence while justifying sexual desire as a healthy response to the balance of bodily humors. The variety of approaches--including a recognition of different reasons for abstinence--can be attributed both to the need to justify these conflicting principles and to a recognition that human situations were diverse and might need to be addressed by different approaches to health.

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Full citation: 

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Chapter 6: Abstinence & Conclusions

Medieval opinions about abstinence--as expressed in medical, philosophical, theological, and social literature--are more complicated and ambivalent than those about procreation. Given that much of the discourse around procreative sex frames it as driven by medical and moral imperatives (e.g., theories about how sexual desire has the goal of achieving balance and promoting health), how can abstinence fit into the same framework without being considered unhealthy?

There were varieties of abstinence. Virginity was the one held in highest regard, especially in the early Christian period, and represented a complete avoidance of the experience of intercourse at any point in one’s life. Virginity was often contrasted with marriage (in contexts where marriage assumed sexual activity), with marriage being a “second-best” way of avoiding fornication (unauthorized sex). But one could also be a virgin within marriage, a condition that often features in saints lives.

Men could be virgins, just as women could, though the condition was more salient for women. In the later middle ages, the Church deemphasized virginity, either as an ongoing state, or as a requirement for various events such as marriage or taking monastic vows. This seems to have been largely a matter of practicality.

In a social context, only women’s virginity was emphasized and subject to family protection and control. This was driven by the desire for controlling the parentage of offspring. A number of medical tests purported to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin, and of course the ultimate proof of non-virgin status was pregnancy and childbirth. There were no equivalent tests and proofs for male virginity or fidelity. Countering these tests, there were also manuals with instructions for how to counterfeit proofs of virginity, especially the bleeding after penetration that was associated with myths about the hymen.

Although religious principles regarding sexual continence were, in theory, gender-neutral, they were generally compatible with the secular interest specifically in female virginity. One exception was that the Church allowed for the possibility of “spiritual virginity” even after the experience of intercourse. Thus some held that those who only experienced approved sex within marriage (the usual understanding of the term “chastity”) could be considered virgin. Theology was also less interested in the sex-specific “proof” offered by an unbroken hymen.

The next “rank” of sexual abstinence after virginity was permanent celibacy, as for those who took religious vows. Monastic institutions regularly had problems with enforcing this and the sexual misconduct of monks and nuns was a regular trope in medieval popular culture. A sincere religious vocation was only one of the paths to monastic life. Monastic institutions were commonly used as a place to store “surplus” sons and daughters for whom no land or dowries were available--a purpose that would be undermined by procreation. But conversely, for people (especially women) who wished to abstain from sex, a religious life was a useful option.

Far more common than these lifelong commitments to celibacy were temporary periods of abstinence such as due to postponed marriage or abstinence during certain religious festivals. Certain regional marriage patterns involved postponement of marriage well into the 20s, and demographics indicate that this wasn’t accompanied by significant illegitimacy rates. Medical texts indicate that this could be considered a problematic condition, and might recommend nonreproductive sexual activity such as masturbation (in conflict with the theological position on the topic). Both theology and medical theory supported a woman being abstinent while menstruating. The two also agreed on the desirability of women being abstinent during pregnancy, though some medical theories recognized that women might experience sexual desire during pregnancy even though it served no biological purpose. The prohibition was largely on moral grounds regarding the justifications for enjoying sex, though there were also anecdotal theories that a pregnant woman who committed adultery could achieve a second pregnancy with her lover’s child.

The central theme in all of these is that even for those who have a context for licit sex, the desired state is “continence”, that is, sex only in approved circumstances for the purpose of procreation. This was the principle behind condemnations of contraception, abortion, sodomy, and masturbation, as well as sex during pregnancy. This theme of the desirability of control over sexual impulses belongs to theological literature, while medical texts address only specific types of nonprocreative sex that are considered harmful. In other contexts, medical manuals (such as the one attributed to a female author, Trotula) acknowledge the harmful effects of abstinence on women who have no licit outlet (such as widows), or the ill effects on some women of sexual activity (and its consequences) who are not in a position to abstain, and offer treatments for those situations. One approach was the use of anaphrodisiacs to decrease sexual desire. This was not an approved theological solution as it removed the moral benefit of actively resisting temptation.

In general, medical authorities considered sexual activity to be essential for good health. Abstaining would put the body out of balance, unless one’s personal constitutional balance was already out of balance in a way that sex would aggravate. For those whose constitutions required sex for good health, but whose personal circumstances did not offer the opportunity, remedies might include medicines, diets, or activities that addressed the imbalance in other ways. But some medical authorities recommended masturbation as a way of restoring health. This might be dressed in the guise of a professional treatment, as in some prescriptions for women to have a midwife massage their genitals until orgasm.


While the interests of medical, philosophical, and religious traditions often aligned in principle around issues of sex and gender, when dealing with specific medical problems and conditions, the secular authors often showed flexibility and practicality in applying the varied and contradictory theoretical traditions to the topic at hand. There was no unified over-arching system to their approach, but the general principles of polarities, balance, and a “whole life” approach carry through. Beliefs about inherent differences between male and female bodies result in different assumptions and approaches. Although medical theories were sometimes used in support of social or theological concerns, as a general rule, medical writers did not feel constrained by purely theological principles (though theology might be an unnoticed part of the underlying assumptions).

The enforcement of a philosophical system of binaries, and the acceptance that qualities could manifest in contradiction to their expected assignment as a form of “imbalance,” meant that medieval medical and philosophical theories had no framework for understanding homosexuality as a distinct phenomenon. Rather, individuals were viewed as manifesting properties at odds with their nature. So, for example, a female person who desired sex with another female person was not viewed as having “same-sex desire” but rather as being of a masculine nature, where part of the inherent properties of a masculine nature was to desire women. [Note: One should not lose sight of other behaviors that could indicate a “masculine nature” in a female person, such as being strong, brave, intellectual, and in control of one’s emotions.]

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