Classical literature has judged Helen of Troy harshly. Because she chose Paris after having children with Menelaus, her chroniclers condemn her for the destruction of a great society. In Homer’s Odyssey the bard writes:
Helen would never have yielded herself to a man from a foreign country, if she had known that the sons of Achaeans would come after her and bring her back. Heaven put it in her heart to do wrong, and she gave no thought to that sin, which has been the source of all our sorrows.
This has been the tradition in Western society. An open female sexuality has been viewed as something deviant or sinful and is so ingrained that it’s nearly impossible to imagine it could be any other way. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s thought to be simply human nature. However, this is likely a more recent cultural condition and certainly isn’t the full story.
In many indigenous societies sexuality is considered a healthy activity and marriage is a flexible social arrangement that can be initiated or terminated by either sex. For example, among the Vanatinai people of the New Guinea Highlands, Lepowsky (1990:190) writes “sexual activity is regarded as a pleasurable activity appropriate for men and women from adolescence to old age.” Divorce may be initiated by either husband or wife, and is most frequently the result of laziness on the part of the husband or because of the wife’s infidelity. However, infidelity is apparently common enough that Vanatinai marriage rules make any children born to outside fathers the husband’s kin.
This is mirrored among the Australian Aborigines of the Darwin Hinterland. Sansom (1978:100) found that “marriage does not stand for the containment of sexuality within the relationship. It is expected that all husbands and all wives will want lovers.” However, an infidelity that becomes too serious and involves economic favors can frequently lead to bitter argument or divorce.
Even among the Yanomamo, a group regarded as the definitive example of a traditional society in which a man’s dominance status correlates with his reproductive success (high ranking men have multiple wives, low ranking men are bachelors), the picture is not as clear as some would like to believe. Anthropologist John Peters contacted the Shirishana Yanomana during a period when there was a shortage of women and found there were nine polyandrous marriages (one woman with several men) and five monogamous ones (Peters & Hunt 1975).
This flexibility of monogamy and the sexual freedom among many indigenous women today was likely a condition for indigenous groups in the past. As demonstrated by the Montagnais of Northeastern Canada in the 1600s, French Jesuit Paul le Jeune reported with consternation that:
“The inconstancy of marriages and the facility with which they divorce each other, are a great obstacle to the Faith of Jesus Christ. We do not dare baptize the young people because experience teaches us that the custom of abandoning a disagreeable wife or husband has a strong hold on them” (Leacock 1981:50).
Likewise, having children with multiple partners was another right that women and men took for granted and which the Jesuits weren’t able to convince the Montagnais to abandon. Perhaps the most telling difference between the sexual standards of indigenous and Western societies came when a Montagnais man objected to le Jeune’s preaching. According to le Jeune:
“I told him that it was not honorable for a woman to love any one else except her husband, and that this evil being among them, he himself was not sure that his son, who was there present, was his son. He replied, ‘Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe.'”
In contrast to tribal societies, the rise of states and the development of religious law initiated a starkly different vision for women’s sexual choices. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism each developed strict punishment for a woman’s sexual freedom. Whereas any “man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife [both] the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:10) any unmarried woman who has sexual relations with an unmarried man shall be brought “to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die” (Deuteronomy 22:21).
In fact, the only sexual relationship outside of marriage that did not end in death for the woman was in the case of rape. In that event, if the woman was married, “the man only that lay with her shall die” but, if she was a virgin, “the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her” (Deuteronomy 22:25-29). The main interest in all of these cases was the paternal interests of kinship and never the interests of the woman in question.
The Bible views women as being half as valuable as men, which is directly comparable to the Qu’ran. There are also direct parallels in punishing women’s sexuality. For example, there is no punishment for men in the event of rape except under the categories of “adultery or fornication.” In which case “scourge ye each one of them with a hundred stripes. And let not pity for the twain withhold you from obedience to Allah” (Surah 24:2). However, if a married or unmarried woman is “guilty of lewdness,” which Ali (2003:189) defines as adultery or fornication, “confine them to the houses until death take them or until Allah appoint for them a way [flogging for fornication and stoning for adultery]” (Surah 4:15).
The Manu Smriti, an early Hindu law book that claimed to record the words of Brahma, states that “When a woman, proud of her relations or abilities deceives her husband with another man, then the king should ensure that she be torn apart by dogs in a place much frequented by people.” (Manu VIII:371). Such punishment is necessary because “It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females” (Manu II:213). The Artharva Veda dictated that if a woman was found guilty of a carnal crime her generative organs were to be cut off and she was ultimately sentenced to death (Arth IV:13).
This stark contrast between indigenous and state societies can be understood as power relationships between the sexes that change as the result of social scale. Anthropologist John Bodley (who I’ve had the pleasure of working with directly) wrote in his groundbreaking work The Power of Scale that:
“The size of human societies and cultures matters because larger societies will naturally have more concentrated social power. Larger societies will be less democratic than smaller societies, and they will have an unequal distribution of risks and rewards” (Bodley 2003:54).
The invention of agriculture and the subsequent choice by some societies to remain sedentary led to the unequal accumulation of private goods and the need for a ruling elite to mediate property disputes. This ruling elite frequently identified themselves as an embodiment of the state itself (and often with divine authority). While smaller scale societies would manage any dispute or crime communally, state level societies defined all crimes as crimes against the state (for example, hunting wild deer on the King’s land would be construed as “poaching the King’s deer”).
Males of many species use their larger physical size, or sexual dimorphism, to increase their reproductive success. But females generally have opposing strategies when their reproductive interests are different. Whereas indigenous societies are often more egalitarian, early state level societies codified human sexual dimorphism into law and viewed paternity rights in the same category as property rights because inheritance was of greater concern. With the power of the state to punish any violation of the law, women were relegated to the status of chattel and their sexual choices were constrained by the threat of capital punishment.
I would argue that it has only been the rise of secular democracies, with the dispersal of centralized power structures and the reduction of religious authority, that has made it possible for women to reclaim their sexual freedom. The last thirty years has seen the largest rise in women’s economic and social power in human history (mostly confined to the West). It’s not coincidental that women have also seen the greatest freedom from sexual coercion and control during this same period. There is a great deal of work that needs to be done and, at the same time, there are still strong proponents in favor of moving backwards.
While greater female sexual equality hasn’t existed in every indigenous society, it would appear that social and environmental factors are crucial. Sexual equality means a woman’s right to enter and leave relationships with the same freedom as men. So we shouldn’t confuse sexual equality with promiscuity. One could make the argument that, whereas many women in the Middle East and North Africa are subject to one form of patriarchal control and denied sexual equality, women in the West are subject to another form and are made to feel like they must be sexual objects for male gratification. Looking at the images below, which culture would you say is guilty of imposing sexual roles on women?
With the Achaeans at the doorstep of Troy, Helen cried out to her new husband’s
Would that I had chosen death rather than to have come here with your son, far from my bridal chamber, my friends, my darling daughter, and all the companions of my
girlhood. But it was not to be, and my lot is one of tears and sorrow.
However, Helen’s lament is not the cry that has been universal throughout human history. While many women today are experiencing a bitter existence under patriarchal control, it may be some consolation to know that this isn’t a law of nature. This is the outcome of human decisions and can be changed if we have the commitment to do so.
Ali, A.Y. (2003). The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland.
Bodley, J.H. (2003). The Power of Scale: A Global History Approach. M.E. Sharpe. New York.
Leacock, E. (1981). Myths of Male Dominance. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Lepowsky, M. (1990). Gender in an egalitarian society: a case study from the coral sea. In Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in Anthropology of Gender. Sanday, P.R. & Goodenough, R.G. (eds). University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Peters, J.F. & Hunt, C.L. (1975). Polyandry among the Yanomana Shirishana. Journal of Comparative Family Studies 6:197-207.
Sansom, B. (1978). ‘Sex, age, and social control in mobs of the Darwin hinterland’, in J.S. La Fontaine (ed.), Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation, Academic Press, London.