300 years of bad sex manuals

[trigger warning for historical description of a sexual assault case]

In working on the book, I’ve been reading sex manuals from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

What’s remarkable about them is their similarity.

They’re not identical in the kinds of mistakes they make – Artistotle’s Master-piece (1684) says that female orgasm is important for conception (it isn’t), while Krafft-Ebbing in 1886 concludes that healthy, normal, well-educated women are not really sexual at all. But they all make mistakes that seem to have resonated down the ages.

One example. Aristotle had this to say on virginity and rape:

I have heard, that at an assize held at Rutland, a young man was tried for a rape, in forcing a virgin ; when, after divers questions asked, and ‘the maid swearing positively to the matter, naming the time, place, and manner of the action ; it was upon mature deliberation, resolved, that she should be searched by a skilful surgeon and two midwifes, who were to make their report upon their oaths ; which, after due examination, they accordingly did, affirming, that the [hymen] membrane were entire, and not elacerated ; and that it was their opinion, for that reason, that her body had not been penetrated. Which so far wrought with the jury, that the prisoner was acquitted ; and the maid afterwards confessed, she swore against him out of revenge, he having promised to marry her, and afterwards declined it. And this much shall suffice to be spoken concerning virginity.

Now, this book was among the most widely read books in the English language, with more than 250 editions, and was read both for information and for titillation.

How could the ubiquity of the paragraph quoted above fail to influence twentieth (and indeed twenty-first!) century dialogue about sexual violence? How could this sole mention of rape NOT influence the way people thought about women who reported having been raped?

How could it not influence how the hymen is perceived? And the idea that a woman’s body is a more honest source of information about her sexuality than her words?

I’m interested in the indirect transmission of this idea through culture, this old, old, old paragraph filtering through generations into modern life. This paragraph, which is both the product of bad information and a perpetuator of it, how can we trace its movement through modern western history?

I want to go back in time and smack the anonymous author of this book and tell him to include at least five cases of women reporting rape and the perpetrator being found completely and unambiguously guilty. Maybe then rape culture would not be so entrenched as it is.