"The judgments of men concerning women are very rarely matters of cold scientific observation, but are colored both by their own sexual emotions and by their own moral attitude toward the sexual impulse. . . . [Men's] Statements about the sexual impulses of woman often tell us less about women than about the persons who make them." – H. Ellis.
BY the majority of "nice" people woman is supposed to have no spontaneous sex impulses. By this I do not mean a sentimental "falling in love," but a physical, a physiological state of stimulation which arises spontaneously and quite apart from any particular man. It is in truth the creative impulse, and is an expression of a high power of vitality. So widespread in Anglo-Saxon countries is the view that it is only depraved women who have such feelings (especially before marriage) that most women would rather die than acknowledge that they do at times feel a physical yearning indescribable, but as profound as hunger for food. Yet many, many women have shown me the truth of their natures when I have simply and naturally assumed that of course they felt it – being normal women – and have asked them only: When? From their replies I have collected facts which are sufficient to overturn many ready-made theories about women.
Some of the ridiculous absurdities which go by the name of science may be illustrated by the statement made by Windscheid in the Centralblatt für Gynäkologie: "In the normal woman, especially of the higher social classes, the sexual instinct is acquired, not inborn; when it is inborn, or awakens by itself, there is abnormality. Since women do not know this instinct before marriage, they do not miss it when they have no occasion in life to learn it."
The negation of this view is expressed in the fable of Hera quoted by Ellen Key. Hera sent Iris to earth to seek out three virtuous and perfectly chaste maidens who were unsoiled by any dreams of love. Iris found them, but could not take them back to Olympus, for they had already been sent for to replace the superannuated Furies in the infernal regions.
Nevertheless it is true that the whole education of girls, which so largely consists in the concealment of the essential facts of life from them; and the positive teaching so prevalent that the racial instincts are low and shameful; and also the social condition which places so many women in the position of depending on their husband's will not only for the luxuries but for the necessities of life, have all tended to inhibit natural sex-impulses in women, and to conceal and distort what remains.
It is also true that in our northern climate women are on the whole naturally less persistently stirred than southerners; and it is further true that with the delaying of maturity, due to our ever-lengthening youth, it often happens that a woman is approaching or even past thirty before she is awake to the existence in her of the sex-urge. For many years before that, however, the unrealized influence, diffused throughout her very system, has profoundly affected her. It is also true that (partly due to the inhibiting influences of our customs, traditions and social code) women may marry before it wakes, and may remain long after marriage entirely unconscious that it exists subdued within them. For innumerable women, too, the husband's regular habits of intercourse, claiming her both when she would naturally enjoy union and when it is to some degree repugnant to her, have tended to flatten out the billowing curves of the line of her natural desire. One result, apparently little suspected, of using the woman as a passive instrument for man's need has been, in effect, to make her that and nothing more. Those men – and there are many – who complain of the lack of ardor in good wives, are often themselves entirely to blame for it. When a woman is claimed at times when she takes no natural pleasure in union, it reduces her vitality, and tends to kill her power of enjoying it when the love season returns.
It is certainly true of women as they have been made by the inhibitions of modern civilization, that most of them are only fully awake to the existence of sex after marriage. As we are civilized human beings, the social, intellectual, spiritual side of the love-choice have tended to mask the basic physiological aspect of women's sex-life. To find a woman in whom the currents are not all so entangled that the whole is inseparable into factors, is not easy, but I have found that wives (particularly happy wives whose feelings are not complicated by the stimulus of another love) who have been separated from their husbands for some months through professional or business duties – whose husbands, for instance, are abroad – are the women from whom the best and most definitive evidence of a fundamental rhythm of feeling can be obtained. Such women, yearning daily for the tender comradeship and nearness of their husbands, find in addition, at particular times, an accession of longing for the close physical union of the final sex-act. Many such separated wives feel this; and those I have asked to keep notes of the dates, have, with remarkable unanimity, told me that these times came specially just before and a week or so after the close of menstruation, coming, that is, about every fortnight. It is from such women that I got the first clew to the knowledge of what I call the law of Periodicity of Recurrence of desire in women.
This law it is possible to represent graphically as a curved line; a succession of crests and hollows as in all wave-lines. Its simplest and most fundamental expression, however, is generally immensely complicated by other stimulations which may bring into it diverse series of waves, or irregular wave-crests. We have all, at some time, watched the regular ripples of the sea breaking against a sand-bank, and noticed that the influx of another current of water may send a second system of waves at right angles to the first, cutting athwart them, so that the two series of waves pass through each other.
Woman is so sensitive and responsive an instrument, and so liable in our modern civilized world to be influenced by innumerable sets of stimuli, that it is perhaps scarcely surprising that the deep, underlying waves of her primitive sex-tides have been obscured and entangled so that their regular sequence has been masked in the choppy turmoil of her sea, and their existence has been largely unsuspected, and apparently quite unstudied.
For some years I have been making as scientific and detailed as study as possible of this extremely complex problem. Owing to the frank and scientific attitude of a number of women, and the ready and intimate confidence of many more, I have obtained a number of most interesting facts from which I think it is already possible to deduce a generalization which is illuminating, and may be of great medical and sociological value.
It is first necessary to consider several other features of woman's life, however.
The obvious moon-month rhythm in woman, so obvious that it cannot be overlooked, has been partially studied in its relation to some of the ordinary functions of her life. Experiments have been made to show its influence on the rate of breathing, the muscular strength, the temperature, the keenness of sight, etc., and these results have even been brought together and pictured in a single curved diagram supposed to show the variability in woman's capacities at the different times in her twenty-eight-day cycle.
But it brings home to one how little original work even in this field has yet been done, that the same identical diagram is repeated from book to book, and in Marshall's "Physiology" it is "taken from Sellheim," in Havelock Ellis "from Von Ott," and in other books is re-copied and attributed to still other sources.
This diagram appears to be the only one of its kind, and is reproduced by one learned authority after another, yet nearly every point on which this curve is based appears to have been disputed.
According to this curve, woman's vitality rises during the few days before menstruation, sinks to its lowest ebb during menstruation and rises shortly after, and then runs nearly level till it begins to rise again before the next menstrual period. This simple curve may or may not be true for woman's temperature, muscular strength, and the other relatively simple things which have been investigated. My work and observations on a large number of women all go to show that this curve does not represent the waves of woman's sex-tides.
The whole subject is so complex and so little studied that it is difficult to enter upon it at all without going into many details which may seem remote or dull to the general reader. Even a question which we must all have asked, and over which we have probably pondered in vain, namely: What is menstruation? cannot yet be answered. To the lay mind it would seem that this question should be answerable at once by any doctor; but many medical men are still far from being able to reply to it even approximately correctly.
There are a good many slight variations among us, ranging from a three to a five week "month," but the majority of the women of our race have a moon-month of twenty-eight days, once during which comes the flow of menstruation. If we draw out a chart with succeeding periods of 28 days each, looking on each period as a unit: When in this period is it that a normal healthy woman feels desire or any up-welling of her sex-tides?
The few statements which are made in general medical and physiological literature on the subject of sex feeling in women are generally very guarded and vague. Marshall ("Physiology of Reproduction," p. 138), for instance, says: "The period of most acute sexual feeling is generally just after the close of the menstrual period." Ellis speaks of desire being stronger before and sometimes also after menstruation, and appears to lean to the view that it is natural for desire to coincide with the menstrual flow.
After the most careful inquiries I have come to the conclusion that the general confusion regarding this subject is due partly to the great amount of variation which exists between different individuals, and partly to the fact that very few women have any idea of taking any scientific interest in life, and partly to the fact that the more profound, fundamental rhythm of sex desire which I have come to the conclusion exists or is potential in every normal woman, is covered over or masked by the more superficial and temporary influences due to a great variety of stimuli or inhibitions in modern life. For the present consideration I have tried to disentangle the profound and natural rhythm from the more irregular surface waves.
Chart No. I may assist in making graphically clear what has been said in these last few pages. It is compounded from a number of individual records, and shows a fair average chart of the rhythmic sequence of superabundance and flagging in woman's sex-vitality. The tops of the wave-crests come with remarkable regularity so that there are two wave-crests in each twenty-eight day month. The one comes on the two or three days just before menstruation: the other after; but after menstruation has ceased there is a nearly level interval, bringing the next wave-crest to the two or three days which come about eight or nine days after the close of menstruation, that is, just round the fourteen days, or half the moon month, since the last wave-crest. If this is put in its simplest way, one may say that there are fortnightly periods of desire, arranged so that one period comes always just before each menstrual flow. Upon her vitality at the time, and the general health of the woman, the length of each desire-period, or, as we might say, the size and complexity of each wave-crest, depends. Sometimes for the whole of as many as, or even more than, three days she may be ardently and quite naturally stimulated, while at another time the same woman, if she is tired or overworked, may be conscious of desire for only a few hours, or even less.
The effects of fatigue, city-life, bad feeding and indeed of most outward circumstances may be very marked, and may for years, or all her life, so reduce her vitality that a woman may never have experienced any spontaneous sex-impulse at all.
The effects of fatigue, which reduces the vital energy, even in a normal, strongly sexed woman, can be seen on chart II, where at a the intermediate wave-crest is very much reduced. This is not a generalized chart, but a detailed record of an actual individual case.
Curves similar to those shown on charts I and II represent in general terms a simplified view of what my research leads me to believe to be the normal, spontaneous sex-tide in women of our race. As one young married woman confided to me, her longing for bodily union with her husband, as distinct from her longing for his daily companionship, seemed to well up naturally "like clock-work," and this when he had been long away from her. But human beings vary remarkably in every particular, and just as no two people have the same features, so no two people would have absolutely identical curves were they recorded in sufficient detail. Many a woman is particularly conscious of only one period in each moon-month. Of such women, some feel the period which comes before menstruation, and some feel the one which follows it. In those who generally feel only one, the second period is sometimes felt when they are particularly well, or only when they read exciting novels, or meet the man they love at a time coinciding with the natural but suppressed time of desire. There are a few women, who seem to be really a little abnormal, who feel the strongest desire actually during the menstrual flow.
If any one who reads this thinks to test my view by questioning a number of women, the result will probably appear very conflicting, partly because it is not often that women will tell the truth about such a thing, and partly because in the larger number of women either one or the other period is the more acute and is the one they observe in themselves – if they have observed anything. But a delicate and more accurate investigation of such cases will often bring to light the existence of the second crest of sex desire. Once the fundamental idea is grasped, much that appeared obscure or of no significance becomes plain and full of meaning. One lady doctor with whom I discussed my view at once said that it illuminated many observations she had made on her patients, but had not brought together or explained.
There is but little evidence to be found in scientific works on sex, but an interesting instance is mentioned by Forel, "The Sexual Question," in another connection. He says: "A married woman confessed to me, when I reproached her for being unfaithful to her husband, that she desired coitus at least once a fortnight, and that when her husband was not there she took the first comer." We may perhaps all see in her want of self-control a grievous moral delinquency, but in her fortnightly periods of desire she fits perfectly into the law which, it appears to me, governs the normal sex-tides of the female of our species.
In this connection it is of interest to note the decrees of the Mosaic Law regarding marital intercourse. Not only was all intercourse with a woman during her menstruation period very heavily punished (see Leviticus XX. 18: "If a man lie with a woman having her sickness...both of them shall be cut off from among their people"), but the Mosaic Law provided that women should be protected from intercourse for some days after each such period. The results obtained by my independent investigation thus find some support in this ancient wisdom of the East. Modern writers are inclined to deride the Mosaic Law on the ground that it prohibits intercourse just at the time when they think sex-feeling should be strongest. But it does not appear on what grounds they make the latter statement, nor do they give any scientific data in support of it. Thus Galabin in his "Manual of Midwifery" says: "In the Jewish law women are directed to abstain from coitus during menstruation and for seven days after its cessation. Strict observers of the law are said to go beyond what is commanded in Leviticus, and even if the discharge lasts only for an hour or two, to observe five days during which the discharge might last, for the period itself, and add to these seven clear days, making twelve in all. . . . It is much to be doubted whether . . . a whole nation was ever induced to practice abstinence at the period of most acute sexual feeling." But, as will readily be recognized, the old Jewish plan of having twelve clear days after the beginning of menstruation before the next union, is in almost exact harmony with the Law of Periodicity of Recurrence of desire in woman as shown in my charts.
These comparatively simple curves represent what I would postulate as the normal spontaneous up-welling of natural desire in woman. These are the foundations on which the edifice of the physical expression of love may be built. It must not be forgotten, however, that, particularly in modern luxurious life, there are innumerable excitements which may stimulate sexual feeling, just as there are many factors in our life which tend to inhibit or retard it. A woman may be, like a man, so swayed by a great love that there is not a day in the whole month when her lover's touch, his voice, the memory of his smile, does not stir her into the thrilling longing for the uttermost union. Hence it is often difficult, particularly for a woman dwelling with the man she loves, to recognize this rhythm in herself, for she may be perpetually stimulated by her love and by his being. I am convinced, however, that ordinarily, whether she recognizes it by outward signs or not, it profoundly influences the average woman, and hence that it fundamentally affects the marriage relation in every way. The burning magnificence of an overpowering lifelong love is not given to many, and a husband who desires lasting and mutual happiness in his marriage, will carefully study his wife, observe how far she has a normal rhythm, and in what respects she possesses peculiar personal traits. He will then endeavor to adapt his demands on her so that they are in harmony with her nature.
This mutual adaptation is not an entirely simple matter, and will be considered in the next chapter.
- (In Leviticus XV, it is the man who is directed to abstain from touching the woman at this period, and who is rendered unclean if he does.)