Sex and the 17th Century
Sex is a tricky topic; typically taboo in many social circles. However unspoken, everyone seems to have some form of opinion about it. The media likes to glamorize it, religious groups like to condemn it, and parents like to pretend their kids will never know of it. But how can it be ignored when it’s plastered all over billboards and magazines? Pick up any issue of Cosmopolitain and read about “How to Satisfy your Man in Bed” or “What is He Really Thinking When You’re Under the Sheets?” These questions, subtle and smooth, lead a female to believe that satisfaction is most important during coitus for the male. This has been popular belief for centuries; sexual gender roles were long ago assigned to us with men playing the lead and getting all the glory. After many centuries of sexual repression, a brave woman named Aphra Behn spoke out. She became the voice for so many women who didn’t even know they had a voice, let alone how to use it.
Near the end of the Seventeenth Century, Aphra Behn published a poem titled The Disappointment which challenged the perspective of sexual relations that the majority of those in her time held. This poem depicted a shepherd named Lysander attempting to engage in sexual intercourse with Cloris, a maid. After a lengthy seduction, Lysander prematurely ejaculates and leaves Cloris sexually frustrated. Behn's fourteen stanzas show her subtle art in developing the changing fortunes of Cloris and Lysander. In the middle of the poem, Lysander’s impotence is stated with him "Unable to perform the Sacrifice" (Behn, 70). You see the shift of emotion from "vast Pleasure" before, to "Pain" afterwards (73). Behn often alludes to their fate as being controlled by the gods giving this poem the quality of an epic of that time with supernatural references. Given the topic of discussion in relation to gods gives it almost a mocking quality. With references to Cloris's fate being sealed because Phoebus did "conspire" (5) and whether it is by "Design or Chance" (104) the guides Cloris’ finger to Lysander's genitals actually seems to imply that these gods are in fact Cloris and Lysander themselves. Lysander is "that God of her Desires" (112) while she in turn is compared to Venus (129). Lysander cursed above all her "Charms" and "soft betwitching influence" as what "sway'd his Destiny." This dilemma was actually brought upon themselves.
In this same century a man named John Donne also tried his hand at poetically describing a sexual encounter. In his poem titled The Flea, the speaker tells his beloved to examine the flea in front of them and to notice “how little” is the thing that she denies him. He says that the flea has sucked first his blood, then her blood, so that now they are mingled inside the flea. That mingling, he says, cannot be considered sinful or shameful, but the flea has joined them together in a way that, “alas, is more than we would do” (Donne 9).
His beloved moves to kill the flea, but the speaker tries to stop her, explaining that killing it would kill the three lives in the flea: his life, her life, and the flea’s own life. He asks that she not kill herself by killing the flea that contains her blood; he says that to kill the flea would be almost blasphemy, “three sins in killing three” (18). When she does kill the flea, the speaker calls her “cruel and sudden” (19), and asks his lover what the flea’s sin was, other than having sucked from each of them a drop of blood. She replies that neither of them is less noble for having killed the flea. It is true, he says, and it is this very fact that proves that her fears are false: If she were to sleep with him, she would lose no more honor than she lost when she killed the flea. Donne seems to be describing a man who is trying to rationalize why the woman should give in and sleep with him; that her deed of killing the flea is to him, more dishonorable than if she were to give her whole self to him sexually.
John Donne wrote a similar poem titled The Sun Rising, which begins with the speaker lying in bed with his lover. Chiding the sun, he asks why it must bother them through windows and curtains, calling it a “busy old fool” (Donne 1). Love is not subject to season or to time, he says, and he admonishes the sun to go and bother late schoolboys and sour apprentices, to tell the court-huntsmen that the King will ride, and to call the country ants to their harvesting. He says that if the sun asks about the kings he shined on yesterday, he will learn that they all lie in bed with the speaker. Explaining this claim, he goes on to say that his beloved is like every country in the world, and he is like every king; nothing else is as real or important. The sun is not nearly as happy as he and his lover are and because the world essentially revolves around their bed makes the sun’s job much easier - “This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere” (30). Arrogance drives the speaker to believe that he is the “King” and his lover is the “country” that he is in power over. And that their love-making is greater than all the powers of the earth. This poem, standing alone, could be perceived as romantic until compared to The Disappointment, where we are faced with the reality of male and female sexual struggles.
“How to Fake it for your Man.” “What Really Makes Him Moan?” These are just a few examples of magazine articles about how high society places male pleasure. In the late 17th Century, Aphra Behn challenged the traditional male-authored carpe diem poetry by taking the subject of sexuality (a popular topic when discussing “seizing the day”) and giving in a more realistic, however negative, spin. Behn treats sexual subjects, particularly women’s sexual desire, in a very frank manner as opposed to male poets who tried to “tastefully” disguise the topic with more eloquent words of love and beauty. Behn brings them down to earth with her poem about male/female sexual dysfunction, from a female's point of view. She gave women courage to stand up for themselves and recognize that pleasure belongs to them as well. Even though this topic is still difficult to talk about so frankly, even those who disagree with her perspective are given a segue to discuss thoughts and emotions that would otherwise lie dormant in file locked away labeled, “Don’t Touch.”
Behn, Aphra. The Disappointment. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors, Volume A. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Donne, John. The Flea. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors, Volume A. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Donne, John. The Sun Rising. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors, Volume A. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.