What Erotica Reveals about Society: A Conversation with Pernilla MyrneHistorians in the News
tags: medieval history, history of sexuality, Islamic History
In 1972, Pierre Bourdieu claimed that it was a universally acknowledged truth that patriarchal societies had no interest in the female orgasm; sex for patriarchal men was about quantity, not quality. Bourdieu’s claim proposes its mirror image: that the female orgasm is intrinsically antipatriarchal. However, the medieval Muslim world certainly had no shortage of patriarchy—and as Pernilla Myrne, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of the recent Female Sexuality in the Early Medieval Islamic World (2020) shows, there was no shortage of orgasms either—and women demanding them.
How-to manuals for giving your wife (or concubine) an orgasm, poets boasting of their sexual prowess: in the medieval Muslim world, how to give women pleasure was a huge concern for both scientists and littérateurs. Women got in on the game too, writing dirty poems about the beauty and wetness of their vaginas. Is that revolutionary? Does it matter?
Mathilde Montpetit sat down with Dr. Myrne to talk about talking about sex, and what historians can learn from texts that titillate.
Mathilde Monpetit (MM): The readers of Public Books are probably not very familiar with the early Islamic world that you describe in your book and your research. Can you tell us a little about what period you study, and especially what sex was like?
Pernilla Myrne (PM): My book focuses on the 9th and 10th century CE, what is now called the Abbasid Empire, whose imperial center was Baghdad. It was an enormously important time, intellectually: you have the translation of science and philosophy from Greek and Arabic, and the beginning of Arabic literary culture.
It was an important time for sex, too, because it was the end of the formative period of Islamic law; its rulings privileged male sexuality, as people know today. This era has been blamed by Muslim feminists, among others, for influencing Islamic law in a more patriarchal direction.
That may be true, absolutely. But I wanted to look at this period and see how people actually understood and perceived women’s sexuality. What I found is that there is a wealth of texts discussing sex, and also female sexuality. And these contradict the Islamic rules in many ways.
The learned texts include some on Islamic or Arabic medicine, but also a genre that I call erotology, which is influenced by ancient erotology, Greek and Persian and even Sanskrit, like the Kāma Sūtra. Alongside these learned discourses, we also have Arabic poetry and anecdotes from the earlier Arabic oral tradition. And all these discourses—learned discourses, scientific discourses—and prose and poems often discuss sexuality.
MM: In terms of men’s access to sex, at this time, they’re not only allowed to have four wives. In this early period, they’re also allowed sexual access to their female slaves, to concubines. What role did enslaved concubines play in this environment?
PM: This is the 10th century, so slavery is everywhere. And yes, men had sexual access to their female slaves (women did not have access to male slaves).
There was a huge, visible population of enslaved women in the cities, especially in Baghdad. Many of them were taught to read and write and speak perfect Arabic, and were entertainers, artists, musicians, poets. … These educated slave women constituted what we can call a courtesan culture, a bit like the geishas in Japan. They were artists, and they were also entrusted with the learned Arab traditions: storytelling, poetry, prose. They could also recite from the Qur’an or from the traditions attributed to the Prophet and others, called hadīth.
The courtesans’ poems and anecdotes became a body of work that was repeated in later literature. Some of them are still told today, not least because many are included in the One Thousand and One Nights, which has stories about the caliphs of this period, the well-known singers, the poets.
MM: One of the things I found remarkable about the literature you include in your book is how explicit it is—it’s surprising!
PM: Yes, it’s interesting, because we think that talking openly about sexuality is a part of progress—and that we, today, are at the height of progress.
But that’s not true. Of course this society was male-dominated; it was a patriarchal society, like all other historical societies. But it was possible to talk explicitly about sex, sexual pleasure, sexual desire, for both men and women.
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