I am pleased to welcome back Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, authors of The Medieval Vagina and the hugely popular post Menses Madness: Menstruation Myths and the Medieval Mindset. They are with us today to address the question “Are we making progress, or is it true that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’”?
On March 4, we presented a book signing followed by a discussion at Trident Booksellers in Boston. One of the questions that an audience member asked us concerned parallels between women’s issues today and during the Middle Ages. Admittedly, women’s issues were deeply entwined with patriarchy and a number of them have been resolved as women have gained more rights and powers. Sadly, we are still grappling with two important issues facing women…800-plus years after the end of the medieval era. These are rape culture/victim blaming and birth control freedoms.
Rape is a crime that transcends time and culture. In the Middle Ages, rape was viewed as a sexual attack, with the perpetrator so filled with lust that he could not control his actions. Today, we know that rape has less to do with sex than it does with power and dominance and terrorization. What hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages is victim blaming. The male perpetrator was driven to act on his out-of-control lust because of something his victim did. Perhaps she was too pretty or her actions or attire were seductive or flirtatious. Whatever the reason, one thing was clear. It was the woman’s fault. This vile attitude continues to repeat itself. There have been countless court cases in which the rape victim herself was raked across the coals, watching her reputation be torn to threads, while character witness after character witness testified to the saintliness of her attacker. Have we all not heard stories of college girls who were raped being told with disclaimers such as “she shouldn’t have drank so much” or “she shouldn’t have walked home alone” or “what did she expect to happen when she wore those shorts”? Society still looks to the victim when a rape occurs, trying to find exactly what she did wrong to bring this attack upon herself. Centuries have passed since the Middle Ages and still this medieval mindset exists.
Rape culture and victim blaming has been deeply engrained in our societies and manifests in laws, policies, rules, and regulations, all telling women what they need to do to avoid unwanted advances of men. Little, however, is done to teach boys to change their behavior, to not advance those unwanted advances. Take school dress codes for example. Most are designed to restrict what the female students can wear so that they do not create a “distraction” for the male students. Just last week, top students at Downing High School in Iowa were sent letters inviting them to attend an awards ceremony. The letter included a dress code for the ceremony…two lines of rules for the boys to follow and FOUR PARAGRAPHS for the girls, including the line “Choose an outfit that is pretty enough to show you are a woman and covered enough to show you are a lady.” What this, and other female-specific dress codes, are really doing is reinforcing the idea that women are to blame if men are sexually aroused by them. Instead, schools should teach boys to respect girls and women no matter their attire so they won’t turn into young men who think it is okay to have sex with a woman who is passed out drunk or who refuse to take “no” for an answer from a girl in a tank top and mini skirt.
Next, we will look at the second issue facing medieval women that is still prevalent today: birth control. In the Middle Ages, birth control was not just a woman’s issue. It involved the patriarchy…husbands, the crown, the church. As a second-class citizen, a woman was not free to make her own decisions about her reproductive rights. All decisions were made for her. Sound familiar? Even today, a woman’s uterus is the subject of legislation, laws, and religious debate. Remember Hobby Lobby? Remember the University of Notre Dame? No other part of a woman’s body is being regulated and controlled by outside entities, yet it is still believed that a woman is not capable of making all her own decisions regarding her womb. She needs help and guidance, so some still think, or else she may make the “wrong” decision. How archaic is this mindset?
Thankfully, much has changed since the Middle Ages and woman have come a long way, baby. But clearly, there is more work to be done. Banishing victim blaming and removing reproductive rights from the court system will both go a long way to removing the medieval mindset that we still see today.
Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety are the authors of The Medieval Vagina: An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages.
What do you think? Are we making progress? Leave us your thoughts and comments.