Sex Changes: Evolution of Female Sexuality in America (resubmit)

This topic submitted by Leesa Gresham, Heather Miller, Abeni Peyton ( at 9:13 pm on 2/28/01. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Section: Cummins.

American society's view of female sexuality has changed radically over the past several centuries. Until the 19th century this subject has had a distinctly male viewpoint. A brief history of how female sexuality has changed throughout the 16th-19th centuries is required to create a foundation of understanding that will aid us in analyzing our research in this study.

When the colonists traveled from Europe, they brought with them two distinctive viewpoints on sexuality. These religious and medical viewpoints guided society. "The church viewed sexuality as a moral issue. [They] assumed that all sexuality should be heterosexual, genital and confined to marriage"(Porter, 83). Sex was not seen as an evil practice but something God-given and needed for procreation. Women were seen as inferior to men in every way. "Although ordinary women could never aspire to [political or religious positions in the public sphere] they had other powers unique to their sex: Women were disorderly, sexual, and lusty… With woman's intellect at the mercy of her lower nature, she would be prone to the evil powers of witchcraft. Her very sensual and deceptive power, in fact, dictated the necessity of her subordination within marriage" (Evans, 22-23).
The medical perspective was limited in that males dominated this profession. "Even diagrams of female anatomy in medical books are limited to male eyes only. Plans to instruct midwives in anatomy were thwarted. Physicians were reluctant to give their patients too much knowledge"(Porter, 86). Women during this period really had nowhere to turn to obtain helpful knowledge about their bodies and/or sexuality in a world dominated by men.

The next major shift in America's view of female sexuality was in the Victorian era. Because of their "extraordinary emphasis on virginity and their profound disdain for illicit sex the nourishing and even inventing" of the Madonna-whore dichotomy was sustained throughout this period (Wright, 74-75). There were two kinds of women in this era, "Good Woman (wife) and the Bad Woman (whore). What made Good Woman good was a set of moral virtues, which included the absence of sexual feeling. In this construction the Bad Woman was aberrant, for she appeared to like, seek, and appreciate sex" (Laws, 13). The Madonna-whore dichotomy was perpetuated by Judeo-Christian cultural tradition through the two strongest women it presents: Eve and Mary. "Sexuality as exemplified by Eve is a constant temptation to man, which must be distanced and distained. Carnality has no part in men's 'better' nature, which yearns for union with God. In fact, according to tradition, it was Eve's intervention that ruptured the harmonious relationship between man and God… [The Virgin Mary, on the other hand,] is holy precisely because she is sexless" (Laws, 13-14). The Virgin Mary is essential to man's well being in that she provided the medium for the birth of Jesus, who redeemed man to God. Because the church was so instrumental at this time, these ideas encouraged the double standard of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. As before, men dominated the ideas of female sexuality in this era. They made the rules and set the standards for sex.

It wasn't until the turn of the century that America saw any new developments in its view of female sexuality. Sigmund Freud put a new twist on the female sexual experience with his many liberal ideas. Freud is responsible for the idea that women should achieve orgasm via vaginal penetration during coitus. He felt that any other form of sexual pleasure experienced by a woman detracted from her femininity and her responsibility to her mate. "In the Freudian view, the 'true woman' experienced orgasm only through penile stimulation of the vagina; the woman who experienced orgasm through clitoral stimulation was 'immature' and possibly 'masculine'… Moreover, when a woman did not experience orgasm through penile penetration, she was a 'failure'" (Laws, 14-15). Physicians and therapists adhered to Freud's ideas about female sexuality as late as the 70s and in some respects are even being used today.

In the 60s the mobilization of the feminist movement allowed women to question their status as stay at home mothers. As Evans discusses, the late 1960s produced a youthful subculture the celebrated love and community (ideas that are typically feminine) yet its focus on drugs and sex were often times highly exploitative of women. Birth control pills became widely available in the 1960s and for the first time women were able to separate ideas of sexual pleasure from procreation. In the 70s the feminist movement gained more power in that it was able to challenge traditional American ideas about femininity and motherhood. "Congress passed more legislation in behalf of women's rights than it had considered seriously for decades" (Evans, 290). The legalization of abortions with the passage of Roe vs. Wade gave women increased power over their bodies and sexuality. "Feminists created institutions in response to women's unmet needs and their desire to be free from dependence on male-dominated institutions and ideas" and these institutions provided women with a safe place to talk about issues pertaining to rape and homosexuality (Evans, 293). "Masters and Johnson (1966) broke many traditional taboos by studying female orgasm in the laboratory" (Laws, 16).

Finally, ideas of female sexuality have taken shape throughout the past 30 years in political arenas, the art world, and through the numerous articles and books that have been written on the subject. And although female sexuality has yet to be completely defined, at least it is now women who are working on that definition- instead of men who had written the book for so long.

The purpose of our project is to analyze the evolution of female sexuality in America. Society's image of female sexuality in America has been modified several times, specifically during each major historical period from colonial times to the present. We would like to examine the ways in which the sexuality of women has changed over the years, and the kinds of ideologies that have influenced those changes. Based on past progressions of female sexuality, we hope to identify trends in societal beliefs that will enable us to see how college students and their professors feel about sex in the twenty-first century.

We hypothesize that college students in comparison to college faculty of the Baby Boomer generation, will prove to be more liberal in their views of sexuality because they were raised under less sexually restrictive ideas than those of Baby Boomers. We also hypothesize that males will be more liberal when compared to females based on how history has taught men to view women and sexually.

Materials and Method:

We will be surveying 100 western females, 100 main campus females, same amount of males and 100 Miami female faculty aging 40-55 and males in this category as well. In order to obtain 200 faculty members in these age ranges we will be distributing many surveys to the faculty group. Included in the faculty survey will be a letter explaining our project and asking for their participation. Our survey consists of 15 questions asking people about various topics dealing with sexuality. You can view the survey here. We will use the answers from these questions to draw conclusions about female sexuality in particular. After analyzing the data we will identify trends, if any, in the results and support our conclusions with stat-view tests. We will be asking that the class participate in our research by taking the survey.

Week of March 5th - stuff faculty mailboxes, distribute western surveys
Week of March 19th - go to Shriver 5-7 pm to administer main campus surveys, data analysis
Week of March 26th- have faculty return surveys, data analysis continuing
Week of April 2nd - run stat-view on data
Week of April 9th - have project finished, make slight changes


We find this topic to be quite interesting because it is one that has undergone such scrutiny in the past. The mere fact that American society's perception of female sexuality has changed so much over the past three centuries is proof that this topic is an important one to investigate.
Sexuality is an issue that follows a person from birth till death and is constantly shaping their identity. From the moment a person enters the world (and now, even before this occurs, thanks to sonograms) he/she is given a label: "it's a boy" or "it's a girl" and from that moment on he/she has been placed on a gendered path for the rest of their life. This label determines how their parents will raise this person and how they will be viewed by society for their entire existence. "One of the earliest attributes individuals identify in themselves is that of femaleness or maleness. Gender identity, as this is called, appears to crystallize at the age of two to two and a half and is considered to be irreversible" (Laws, 9). Young children are sexualized in many forms ranging from what toys they are encouraged to play with or avoid, to how their parents model "maleness" or "femaleness" around them. Girls are further sexualized in the teenage years by being taught by parents and the media how to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex by enhancing their beauty and hiding their "flaws."

As a woman comes into adulthood (which is often times defined by the moment she marries and starts to bear children, not by the moment she accepts responsibility for herself) she is forced to deal with the ideas of what men want in terms of sexual experience. Her peers, prospective partners, society and the media influence her decisions. Finally, after the children are all grown and out of the house, the woman finds that she has little to offer the world any longer due to her infertility, at least that is what Wright would say. "As they pass through middle age, they are less and less likely to further promulgate our genes. By the time they are old and infirm, we have little if any genetic use for them" (Wright, 176). This is a bleak end to a life full of confusion about her sexuality.

There is some light at the end of this dark tunnel however. As we have seen since the 1970s, women have worked diligently to rewrite what defines female sexuality. "Some of these new constructions differ radically from the traditional ones. Thus women are confronted with choice between old and new, and between male-perspective and feminist social constructions of female sexuality" (Laws,13).

In looking at this topic from a historical perspective and analyzing the answers given on our surveys, we hope to be able to draw conclusions about where female sexuality stands in the 21st century.

Other Support for this Topic:

While researching this topic we find all types of literature discussing the ideas around female sexuality. What we mostly obtain from this research is a sense that there are not many tests done in this field. The works in question are mostly based on observations from social situations occurring in the last thirty years. What makes our research stand out from many of these works is that they looked at the issue of female sexuality from a highly feminist perspective. We plan to take a less bias approach to our study by including male viewpoints. The one document we found that was most similar to our research methods was The Hite Report published during the late seventies. Shere Hite surveyed the population and culminated her research with this book. It covered issues concerning female sexuality such as orgasm, masturbation, female attitudes towards sex and a comparison of male sexuality to female sexuality.

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. Free Press Paperbacks: New York. 1989(original copyright- 1997 was the new edition).

Grigg, Russell, Dominique Hecq and Craig Smith. Female Sexuality: The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies. Other Press, New York: 1999.

Hite, Shere. Women as Revolutionary Agents of Change. The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin: 1994.

Laws, Judith Long and Pepper Schwartz. Sexual Scripts: The Social Construction of Female Sexuality. The Dryden Press, Illinios: 1977.

Porter, Roy and Mikulas Teich. Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality. Cambridge University Press, New York: 1994.

Vance, Carole S. Pleasure and Danger:exploring female sexuality. Routledge and Kegan Paul, Boston: 1984.

Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: Why we are the way we are. Vintage Books:
New York. 1995.

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