Sunday, April 8, 2012

Silly, sanitized histories

If you've ever read good translations of ancient literature, you probably have at least a vague awareness of the fact that our human ancestors had minds and mouths every bit as filthy as ours. Art is also a great place to see that humans have had a sense of humor, a love of sexuality and an ability to insult each other that predates written language.

I read "The Odyssey" for the first time in 1997 in a course on Western literature and history at UNR.  The translation (Robert Fitzgerald) was awkward, but poetically beautiful, designed to preserve the poetry of the original Greek.  I read it again, for a Classics course at SFSU, and I had a bit of an awakening.  The second translation, by Stanley Lombardo, was easily grasped and full of ribald humor and nasty insults (which were part of the original, but often left out of translations because they interrupted the beauty of the poem).  The same course included a reading of Gilgamesh that led to several lectures about ancient sexuality (an eye opening experience for a few romantic souls in the class who envisioned a beautiful, polite past).  Sex as a civilizing force, sex as hospitality, sex as religious worship were known throughout the past.  Sex is a power laden act that our ancestors were well aware of (homosexuality, as we define, has been around a long time, as have been sexual fantasies and art).

Now skip forward a few centuries to the Victorians: the very people who are often held up as shining examples of morality and family values.  When you peel back the veneer of your expectations, there is a lot of sex, drugs and violence to the era.  They were obsessed.  Furniture, books, paintings, newspapers, science, medicine, psychology were all focused on sex, which brought in quite a bit of the drugs and violence.  Female sexuality was labeled deviant. Tools (the vibrator being the most enduring) and illnesses (hysteria, nymphomania) invented to control it.  Sex was used as a weapon and a rallying cry to Victorian England against India's attempts at throwing off the yoke of Imperialism.  The idea of the lily white, untouchable virtue of white women was invented, not for our benefit, but to demean others.

Then we get to the "sexual revolution" of the 1950's and 1960's when people begin to both question sexuality, experiment with it, and to decry the loss of morality.  Was it anything new? Probably not.  Sex is part of life, and while each time and society deal with it differently, it is perfectly natural and simply cannot be ignored on the grand scale.  All the repression in the world will fail, if we all get itchy.

These examples are not an exhaustive list or study, they are simply the examples that pop into the forefront of my mind when I think about the history of sexuality. Here's my thought, as an anthropologist, as a historian, as a thinking human being-  human's haven't really changed much, ever.  We still feel the same needs and urges;  we still struggle to deal with the hand we're dealt in life, and we still wonder what the heck we're doing here.  There is nothing new under the sun, and what goes around, tends to come back around.

As an entertaining footnote, I scheduled this post and closed the page to check my email.  Among the local news headlines on my home page was an announcement for a new San Francisco museum: The Antique Vibrator Museum .  It opens next weekend, and my now blushing husband has agreed to go with me. 


  1. Even better, the Good Vibrations store is the sponsor of the museum. Some of those vibrators could be the inspiration of some verrrry kinky steampunk erotica!

    It amazes me that in Victorian times, women were conditioned to be so detached from their bodies they went to doctors who used a vibrator on them to find relief from "hysteria."

    Thank goodness for Betty Dodson!

    1. I laughed when I figured out who and where the museum belonged to! I'm trying to go in the next couple of weeks.


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