Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
At the beginning of the 19th century, a masturbation epidemic broke out in Western Europe. At least, that's the way Michel Foucault puts it in Discipline and Punish, his book about the prison system. A large percentage of the population, especially young men and women, were found to be "abusing" themselves on a regular basis.
In the years just before this outbreak of onanism, the physical architecture of schools, prisons, hospitals, and other congregate facilities was radically altered. A new kind of structure in which students, inmates, and patients could be observed at all times was widely adopted. The best example of it was the prison constructed in a circular form with an observation post in the center from which each prisoner's cell could be observed 24 hours a day. A similar form came into use for hospitals so that medical staff could keep an eye on patients day and night, and something similar occurred in boarding schools.
Masturbation at that time was not seen as the benign activity it is today, at least not by the medical profession. Medical texts included pictures of the chronic masturbator—haggard, dark rings under his eyes, a demented look on his face—alongside a portrait of the healthy and intelligent non-masturbator. Masturbation, it was believed, led to both physical debilitation and insanity. One of the first things a psychiatrist wanted to know when a new patient was brought to him was whether the patient masturbated. Even decades later Sigmund Freud checked the pants of boys for dried semen. Girls' fingernails were examined to see if they were worn down by the acid secreted by the female genitalia during arousal.
The principal medical means to prevent masturbation by males was the removal of the glans penis—so-called circumcision. The practice had been around for religious and cultural reasons for thousands of years ranging all the way from Africa to the original homo sapiens of Australia. But now it became a medical matter. Cutting away the male foreskin made the dermis beneath it less sensitive and thus rendered masturbation, as well as sexual intercourse, less pleasurable. Making it less pleasurable would, it was hoped, reduce its incidence. The modern rationalization for cutting off part of the penis of newborns as a prophylactic against infection has been refuted time and again by members of the medical profession, and both doctors and nurses testify that babies howl in pain when the procedure is inflicted on them. Yet, late into the 20th century and beyond newborn, male children have been circumcised as a routine matter. The practice of cutting away parts of the female sex organ is an even more drastic mutilation, today associated with third-world countries, but it was once done to middle-class European women. In the 19th century it must have seemed as if the human race, especially the superior, white part of it, was self-destructing through self-abuse.
Now we seem to have a similar "epidemic" on our hands: male sexual predation. All of a sudden, in just a couple decades, men have turned into monsters who routinely expose themselves to unsuspecting females, demand oral sex in exchange for employment and/or advancement, and rape with a sense of impunity, even of privilege. These are not men who prowl dark alleyways at three in the morning, but movie moguls, film stars, TV producers, high-financiers, clergy, doctors, teachers...
This horde of molesters started to surface in the '90s and early 2000s. At first they were assumed to be random cases. Then came Bill Clinton's accusers, too numerous to dismiss, whom NOW and other feminists treated with contempt because he was such a dependable supporter of abortion rights. Those same women had already hung Anita Hill out to dry in 1994 when she alleged sexual harassment on the part of a nominee for the Supreme Court. Now they disassociated themselves from Clinton's accusers, calling them trailer trash and "big hair."
Bill Cosby, comic favorite of my youth back when he was doing stand-up on the Ed Sullivan show with a turn about his combat experience in World War Two and the elaborate rules for playing stickball on the congested streets of a big city, later became "America's Dad" in an iconic sitcom. Now he was being exposed as a rapist who lured his victims into his den where he drugged and molested them. Roman Catholic and other clergy were being exposed as chronic child-molesters. Then came the turn of the Harvey Weinsteins and scores of other celebrities and men in positions of power, peaking with the outing of Jeffrey Epstein whose little black book included everyone from British royalty to celebrity lawyers to famous scientists and heads of state. Not a day went by, it seemed, that some male in the public eye was not exposed as a sexual predator. It seemed a social virus of the most virulent kind had swept through our society without our realizing it. Grown men, famous men, trusted men, medical men, even holy men, were turning out to be sexual predators. Who knew?
Any woman who has ever reached her mid-teens knew, that's who. As British actress Emma Thompson pointed out in an interview she gave shortly after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, every girl has been groped on public transportation, or worse, by the time she's reached her 16th year. French women have long known that taking a bus in Paris means experiencing roving hands. And the Italian mala morta was a cliché long before the Cosbys and Epsteins of the world were exposed. If sexual predation is an epidemic, it's one that's been raging for as long as masturbation itself.
How could we have been so naive for so long? For that matter, how could grown men and women even in the dark ages of the 19th century have believed masturbation was something other than a normal activity human beings engaged in, one the ancient Greeks called a "gift of the gods"?
In addition to women and girls, those who knew all along how widespread was the sexual abuse of girls and woman as well as of boys and young men were the perpetrators themselves. The clergy knew and were careful to cover it up. Businessmen, movie stars, and ordinary guys who considered taking advantage of women and children a perk of being a boss of any kind, knew. But a combination of shame along with a sense of futility prevented women from coming forward, knowing that not only would they not be listened to, but they would very possibly put their jobs and their reputations in danger by coming forward with a complaint. Then something was triggered by the allegations brought against Cosby, Weinstein, and others. The MeToo movement was born, and women began telling their stories of sexual abuse and harassment by less prominent men, ordinary men, and we realized we had an epidemic on our hands that had been hiding in plain sight all along.
There was plenty of information on the subject in the canonical feminist literature of the '60s and beyond, but for some reason the tipping point of public awareness was long in coming. Thousands of years long. Virginia Woolf doesn't chronicle explicit sexual abuse in her classic A Room of One's Own. Her emphasis there is on the powerlessness of women, their role as mere appendage to their male fathers, husbands, and brothers. A room of one's own means primarily an income of one's own, which Woolf placed above the franchise in the empowerment of women because it gave them the ability to act as free and independent agents. But the research she did in the British Library for the lectures that resulted in that book merely scratched the surface of man's inhumanity to woman. That was laid out decades earlier by the French historian Jules Michelet in La Sorcière.
Michelet is out of favor these days because of the passion and poetic vision he puts into his historiography. Nowhere is that passion more evident than in La Sorcière (available for free in translation from gutenberg.org and other sources). In the early section, which describes the life of women in medieval times, he chronicles a day in the life of a young woman married to a serf, how her imagination conjures fanciful creatures out of the lonely hut in which she lives and the surrounding woodland, a land of faeries and elves. But he also describes her wedding day when the lord of the manor executed his right to break her hymen before her husband was allowed to take her to bed—the so-called droit du seigneur, the lord's privilege. It was a moment of great hilarity at the castle, no matter the young woman's tears and pleadings. Even high-born women joined in the mockery, and genuinely so because they were freer than any lower-born male, almost an equal to their lord because they brought with them the title to great wealth in the form of land, albeit land held in their father's name. If such a woman were to go back to daddy, the lord could find himself with a considerably reduced income. He therefore turned a blind eye even to his wife's infidelities, just as she delighted in her own power by mocking the peasant girls her husband deflowered.
At home the serf's wife was subject to another lord, her husband. And if she strayed outside the home, became involved in any behavior prohibited by her male-dominated religion such as gathering and providing herbal remedies to relieve the sufferings of her neighbors, she could be burned alive. Only male physicians trained at the medical school in the University of Paris had the right to prescribe medical treatment, though their ministrations killed more than they cured. A woman could also be burned on the word of a neighbor who claimed she had cast a fatal spell on her child. She could be burned just because she was old and ugly or young and pretty—too pretty. She was, as she had been for thousands of years, entirely under the control of the males around her, and still is to an extent most men do not realize. How many young women or men today know that just a generation ago a woman in the United States of America could not open a bank account or get a credit card without her husband's signature? Or that men and many woman as well once opposed giving women the suffrage because it was assumed that would only mean giving existing male voters a double vote?
Beating your wife has been a duty, not a crime, for just about all of Western history. Like a child or a domestic animal, she needed chastisement to rid her of inclinations toward independence or insubordination. God commands such chastisement. Much of the world still treats women in this brutal way. She is, after all, less than a man in much the same way as a horse or a dog is less than a man. Her intellectual capacity is weak, she is ruled by the vagaries of her reproductive organs, she is childlike in her willfulness when not kept in check, and her sexual appetite is notoriously ungovernable.
All of which is in the past? Not if Harvey Weinstein and his less famous brethren are any indication. Has any male reading this not heard a modern version of the attitudes listed in the previous paragraph from other males, even if such stories are accompanied by a snicker rather than a rage? I have listened to a young man lecture teenage girls on their duty to learn how to properly perform oral sex. I've listened to young and older women recount the sexual demands made on them by prospective and current employers. From my earliest teens I have heard classmates brag about how they "scored" on dates. And yet all of this is doubtless just a shadow of what most women could tell about what it means to be a girl or woman in Western nations where she enjoys on paper full and equal rights, never mind what an African or Indian woman could tell us about modern witch-killings, mass rapes, and ordinary sexual abuse that sound to us like stories out of our own Middle Ages.
But why has all this sordid but old news captured the public's attention only in the past few decades? Powerful men—and all men are powerful when it comes to women—have not changed their behavior enough to warrant their suddenly becoming front-page material. Is the recent storm of publicity simply the result of the media realizing that male predation, at least as it exists among celebrity males, is a sure money-maker? Have women themselves reached a tipping point beyond which silence is no longer endurable?
Who knows. The only relevant question is: Will the spirit of the MeToo movement continue, or will we go back to, if not the status quo ante, something less than real liberation of women from their millennia-old oppression? Frederick Douglass reminded us that power never gives up anything without being forced to. Are women and their male fellow-travelers motivated enough to bring that kind of pressure to bear with the kind of persistence the Abolitionists and the Suffragettes had? Or, in usual American fashion, will the spirit of the MeToo movement, like that of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, be silenced or co-opted or lose faith in its ability to make lasting change?