History | Stuff People Used to Believe: Sex Edition

If I were to ask you to name a strange thing people used to believe, you'd likely go for "the earth was flat". You probably wouldn't say that people believed a woman could essentially think her way into birthing rabbits (unless you have to put up with me in real life, in which case I've probably mentioned it several times). A whole range of weird things were believed back in "the olden days", and ideas of sex and reproduction were no exception.

The vagina is just an inverted penis (circa. C2-C18)
This theory can be traced back to Galen (129-210 AD); a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher. The theory was not abandoned until the turn of the eighteenth century and certainly dominated medical theory for many years preceding 1700. It was believed that men and women essentially had the same genitalia, but that men could force theirs outside their body due to greater body heat. Within this 'one-sex system', sex was understood as varying by degrees, rather than there being a strict binary between male and female.

Female pleasure is necessary for conception
An extension of the one-sex theory was the idea that female orgasm was necessary in conception. By the logic that men and women had the same organs, it made sense that both parties would need to orgasm to conceive (as opposed to just the man). According to this theory, at orgasm, the mouth of the womb would open and absorb the male ejaculate like a sponge, whilst the mixing of male and female fluids, would result in conception. Thus, women's pleasure was treated as equally important to men's, and medical professionals even advised men on how best to pleasure their wives in order for conception to occur.

Bodies are powered by 'humours' (circa. 460BC-C19)
Image source
Originating with Hippocrates (460-370 BC), this theory stayed prominent until the turn of the nineteenth century. The Hippocratic humoral system suggested that men and women essentially had the same bodies, powered by different 'humours'. It was thought that hot and dry humours were the most desirable and, of course, men were generally associated with these, whilst women were associated with cold and wet humours. The humours were linked to different bodily fluids (see diagram), and processes such as menstruation were seen as a purge of certain humours from the body. This theory influenced conceptions of sex as it was believed that women were trying to achieve a perfect balance of humours through union with men, thus the womb was often portrayed as a lustful animal independent of the woman. Within this humoral system too, intersex people were seen as having a good balance of gender - making cross-dressing and gender fluidity popular.

Women's thoughts could influence the child inside their womb (circa. C16-C18)
The theory of maternal imagination, a subject of great debate generally only referred to small things: for example, if a woman craved peaches often, the child may have a peach-shaped birthmark. However, this was hugely flawed as it was also theorised that a great aversion to peaches during pregnancy could cause the same result. The story of the rabbit-woman (see this blog post) was seen as proof of maternal imagination by many, as she claimed to have had great longings for rabbits whilst pregnant.

Hysteria was cured by *ahem* massages (circa. C19)
During the Victorian era, many women complained of feelings of sleeplessness, erotic fantasies and several other symptoms we would today group together as symptoms of sexual frustration. This "chronic disease" became known as hysteria and the cure was thought to be pelvic massages to the point of hysterical paroxysm. As a "chronic disease" it required repeated treatment, and doctors found that the women suffering from hysteria were returning to them very often indeed, happily paying extra for treatment. However, the extent of this treatment (and whether or not the doctors' subsequent hand pains actually caused the invention of the vibrator) has been much debated by historians, with some considering it a major phenomenon and some considering it a niche occurrence.

Thanks for reading! Which theory surprised you the most? Let me know in the comments

Paris out 💃 xxx