In our contemporary world, the idea that sex is pleasurable is rarely questioned: pleasure is a key way of understanding what sex is and what it means. Yet this was not always so. Historically, pleasure was not the only, or even the main, expectation from sex for women, and there were significant changes across the 20th century.
When Australia federated in 1901, women were imagined largely as reproducers, rather than lovers. As the prominent Melbourne gynaecologist Walter Balls-Headley had professed a few years earlier, “the raison d’etre of women’s form” was “the propagation of the race, the production of the ensuing generation”.
Sexual reproduction and pleasure were split. When sex was discussed in the public world, it was rendered meaningful through concepts of family, reproduction and population. Sex was procreation with an emphasis on order, morality and virtue.
That individual women could feel pleasure should have been self-evident. But the procreative model remained powerful, even dominant, because it was tied neatly to the way gendered bodies were culturally, politically and scientifically constructed. White women were encouraged to breed for the good of the new white nation.
Pleasure – if it occurred at all – was to stem from either the reproductive or maternal aspect of a woman’s sexuality, or at the most from her feelings for an individual man. So too, female same-sex desire remained hidden, and lesbians were unnamed.
Women who felt too much pleasure were suspect, perhaps unnatural. This was a particular risk in the hot climates of Australia: women were believed to reach puberty earlier and more violently, rendering them more open to pathology, even nymphomania.
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There were practical reasons, too, why a woman may not have felt pleasure, or attempted to curb her desire. Heterosexual women were constrained by the ever-present fear of pregnancy, a powerful inhibitor against women’s erotic thought.
Ex-nuptial pregnancies and hurried marriage show that many young women did have sex before marriage, yet the palpable shame, fear and scandal of an unplanned pregnancy almost certainly impacted on their enjoyment of sex. For married women, too, the fear of yet another pregnancy – yet another child – meant many avoided sex as much as possible, whatever their desire.
None of this means, of course, that individual women did not enjoy sex, or seek it out for recreation or release, or find comfort in love and sex with men or women.
Hints of sexual feeling.
The historical record has left us only the vaguest hints of early 20th century women’s sexual feeling. The poet Zora Cross, for instance, gave voice to a passionate, libidinal woman: here, we find an erotic subject. At the most, she even hinted to orgasm: