Yep, We Are Still Thinking Like Medieval Men!

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’”?

flow3On 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.

Getting birth control is so complicated!

Getting birth control can be so complicated!

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.

The Medieval Vagina


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.

5 thoughts on “Yep, We Are Still Thinking Like Medieval Men!

  1. “believed that a woman is not capable of making all her own decisions regarding her womb”

    I hate this argument. No one really thinks this. Of course women are capable of deciding. This idea of “the man” trying to control my uterus is an inflationary tactic and no kind of thoughtful argument.

    The situation is this: what we, as a society, choose regarding new human life (babies), has a profound impact on us as a society. We are now humans with the power to control our own life cycle. This isn’t wise women with herbs, this is medical science available to the masses.
    The use of contraceptive practices has a profound effect on society as a whole. This means that WOMEN and THEIR CHOICES matter to humans as a whole.

    Look how much western society has changed since the advent of birth control pills. It is profoundly and irrevocably shifted. Women are now educated equally, they have made great strides toward equal pay, and equal employment. Women are coming to the forefront as world leaders (admittedly not in droves yet…but it’s coming!)

    What have we lost and what have we gained? Has Motherhood itself changed? yes, it has- Now women choose whether to raise a child alone. Single motherhood is happening on a large scale and in new ways all the time. That’s neither good nor bad but it is different which is automatically bad to some people. We are changing as a society and some of it is related to the decisions we are making about our wombs.

    Has our attitude toward life changed? Yes, it has. We can now, as a society, chose to take our own self interests and put them before the life of an unborn child. And that choice can now take place in a clean facility with proper medical care. It’s an attitude that has shifted.

    Are we as human beings better off for having the legal protection to make that choice to end the life of a child?
    Are we better off for being able to delay and control procreation as we do?

    Now those are worthwhile questions and the arguments both for and against are worthwhile.
    And Men ie. fellow human beings get to have opinions about this and women needn’t be grumpy about that.

    For the record I’m not in favor of abortion rights without medical necessity, just as I don’t believe in capital punishment. Human life is sacred even that of criminals. That’s got nothing to do with my interest in anyone else’s uterus. It’s got to do with my interest in the care and keeping of all human life. but then, I care and keep for a living as a nurse and mother…

    • Sarah, Thanks for your comment. I had a couple of thoughts.

      Is it a matter of society as a whole to determine whether or not men can procreate? No one is debating or even suggesting that society should weigh in on whether or not men have access to Viagra, so why should the ability of a woman to procreate, or not, be anything other than her own choice.

      From the standpoint of abortion, you seem to be making a couple of assumptions that I have to disagree with. One, that the choice to have an abortion is based only on self-interest and not also on the interest of a child brought into the world. I don’t have statistics, but I suspect that many, if not most, women make the choice based on whether or not the child can be cared for emotionally, physically, and/or financially.

      Second, is the the assumption that all agree on the difference between a fetus and an unborn child. If your distinction is that a child has a human soul, then there is no medical answer as to when this occurs. As far as society is concerned, it is at best a religious/theological question, the answer to which has varied over the ages from 30/40 days, at the quickening, or at first breath. (If I’m not mistaken, the idea that the soul enters the body at conception is a modern idea.) Regardless, it is a matter of PERSONAL conviction, not public opinion.

      Personally, I feel that the choice to procreate, or not, is purely a personal one to be made between a person (man or woman) and their doctor, and if they so choose, their partner and possibly a spiritual advisor.

      We can certainly agree to disagree, but I do appreciate the dialogue.

      • Why should women’s procreation be anything other than their own choice?

        Well, it is a Woman’s choice now more than ever. Look, as a society we are moving toward a more compassionate existance, from no-kill animal shelters to states without the death penalty. And things like homicide are definately not allowed. If it’s not a theological argument about whether the drunk driver who ran your kid over is a murderer, then why is it a theological argument that a fetus should not be killed? It’s not theological to me, it’s human life and I feel both passionately and compassionately about that. I feel our society should be able to grow to be more compassionate, not less.

        I believe it is a poverty of thought to think that a child should die because of a belief or fear that there might not be resources available for his or her lifelong care and keeping. It is also a poverty of thought, in my opinion, that a child should die so that the mother can live as she wishes. I feel it is essential to the evolution of humanity that people with beliefs like mine continue to offer a counterpoint. We must not slide quietly into theoretial logic about “choices for procreation”. Logic is great and it has to be balanced with what we know in our hearts. (I didn’t “know it in my heart” until I became a mother of two myself, then the whole world shifted for me and I began to understand a multitude of things.) I don’t so much base my beliefs on the idea of the presence of a soul. If a 5 month old fetus can, today, be born and survive to maturity thanks to advances in modern medicine, then why would it be ok to abort a 4 month old fetus, or even a 3 month old fetus?

        We have on the horizion, human cloning, human gene selection, and perhaps even growing the fetus outside of the womb entirely. We could have humans whose DNA is owned and trademarked by a corporation.

        Did you know that many aborted fetus’ are due to in-vitro fertilization practices? (I was shocked when I discovered this.) Multple embryos are implanted in the womb, if they all survive, the parents will sometimes choose to selectively abort one or two of their own babies so they don’t have to deal with the risks and costs of raising too many babies at once. A man and a woman and their doctor choose this. Why did they implant so many embryos? Well, in-vitro is expensive so, in effect, they were being thrifty by boosting the chances of success so as to avoid having to pay for the procedure to be repeated. Which fetuses do they choose? the girls? the boys? the blue eyed ones? In the future, humans will have even more options about their procreation open to them. What limits will be placed on them? What will we feel about human life when we can suddenly produce humans entirely in a lab?

        I’d like to think we are maturing as a species and so every once in a while we can say- “Wow, this is wrong what we are doing. Let’s change this”. We do it all the time, the guillotine- out of favor, hanging deaths- out of favor, foot binding- out of favor, corporal punishment as a standard disciplinary measure between school teachers and children- out of favor. When we know better, we do better. Sometimes we have to have laws in place to guide the direction we want to head. What about seatbelt and car seat laws? We are all safer in our cars because we’ve been legally encouraged to do the right thing and “click it”. It took an entire generation to get that one fully integrated into society.

        I’m not a categorical “no abortion” person- I think there is a middle path, eg. no second trimester or beyond abortions, no abortions without medical necessity- to be determined 1:1; woman to doctor (who should have medical guidelines from obstetric associations to follow). The morning after pill is fine with me, a woman should always have the right to have her period anytime she wishes. I do think though, that while women still have many choices open to them regarding procreation, chosing to kill our fetus’ should not be one of them.

        In the words of Caitlin Moran. “I have a uterus and I care what happens to it, so therefore I am a feminist.” In other parts of the world women are forced to have abortions. I think everyone would agree how wrong that is. I would add to Caitin Moran’s statment, “I am also a Mother, and I care about what happens to our children.”

        • Welcome back Sarah 🙂 I agree with many of the things you say. I also respect your position. You said in your previous comment that you are against the death penalty. To me that shows that you are consistent in your respect for human life. And for the record, I am not pro-abortion, of course no one should be forced to have an abortion, but I don’t feel that it is my right to make that choice for someone else for the reasons I stated before. Our main disagreement is how human life is defined. Of course a child who is hit by a car is a human life. Not everyone agrees that a clump of cells is a human life. THAT is what I’m saying is different based on a persons personal/religious/theological beliefs.

          Mainly, I have trouble with the absolutes imposed on women. For example, “no second trimester abortions.” Suppose a woman discovers that her fetus is anencephalic in the fourth month. Should she be forced to give birth, knowing that the child would have no hope of survival. I don’t think so, it should be her choice. I realize that some tests are not always conclusive, but as you said our medical expertise is advancing every day.

          I was aware of the issues you describe concerning in-vitro, but to be honest the only people I know who have been through the process, I didn’t ask the question about removing embryos. It wasn’t my place, and I was aware of how difficult and emotional the whole issue was for them. Also, if they chose to implant and then remove extras, they weren’t just being “thrifty”. It took years to save the money to get something they desperately wanted. However, this brings us back to the issue of how we define human life. You said that they “choose to selectively abort one or two of their own babies.” We are talking about embryos, not babies. Again, this brings us back to personal/religious/theological beliefs which vary from person to person, implying, in my opinion, the necessity for personal choice.

          I do hope that if a pregnancy is advanced enough for the fetus to be viable outside the womb, a woman would choose to give birth. However, I am wary of laws that enforce this. For example, the woman who was recently jailed for 20 years. She says she had a miscarriage, but was convicted of feticide AND neglect of a child. Obviously, I don’t know the truth, but the situation seems very tragic. If it was beyond her control, she is now paying with a huge chunk of her life for something she didn’t do.

          One other thought. You said, “We must not slide quietly into theoretial logic about “choices for procreation”. Logic is great and it has to be balanced with what we know in our hearts. (I didn’t “know it in my heart” until I became a mother of two myself, then the whole world shifted for me and I began to understand a multitude of things.)”

          This sounds like you want to make choices for others based on, not logic, but on what you “know in your heart.” All I’m saying is that other people know different things “in their heart”, so who are we to tell them what they should believe and what choices they should make.

  2. Therein lies the word….choice. I’m a parent AND a grandparent. I made the choice to carry two pregnancies. My daughters both made the choice to carry a pregnancy. It was MY choice. Not some other faceless, nameless entity. The whole idea of souls entering a zygote at the moment of conception is ridiculous to me. Why would a “God” put a soul into a mass of cells just to wash it out of the body three days later before a woman even knew she was pregnant?

    The idea of choice should IMO, be left up to the person who has to make the choice. If that involves a partner, not a rapist or a church, or a governmental entity or some person who thinks they know best, then so be it. I am sick to death of being preached to about who thinks it is their right to make decisions about MY body. Don’t want an abortion? Don’t have one. Otherwise get your face out of my uterus.

    Women have been and continue to be second class citizens. Are things better than they were one hundred years ago? Yes. Do we still have a long way to go? Yes-see above paragraphs-because we are still having the conversation about who decides about pregnancy and abortion. Don’t think we are still having this conversation? Educate yourself. In 2013 over 600 different laws were introduced about women’s bodies. Know how many laws were introduced about men? ZERO. That should tell you that there are still plenty of people-both men AND sadly, women-that believe that women can’t control their own bodies.

    Good points ladies!

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