The Trouble with ‘Female Sexuality’

The Trouble with “Female Sexuality”

By Sarah Salih

Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art, Issue 5 (2014)

medieval woman and unicorn

Introduction: Using medieval western art to speak of female sexuality is difficult. Karma Lochrie argues that medieval women’s sexuality was organised in ways so alien to current categories that it requires careful excavation:

Medieval hybrids that are incomprehensible today, such as ‘chaste marriage’ or even a kind of ‘willful virginity,’ were not only practised during the Middle Ages, but they suggest a much more diffused and complex interaction of categories than we are used to. Armed only with the heterosexual/homosexual divide and a presumption of heteronormativity, we cannot even begin to sort out such categories as Amazons, female masculinity, or even virginity.


Lochrie’s book, like most studies of medieval sexuality, is primarily concerned with textual sources. Can the visual arts contribute to this work of categorisation? This brief overview will suggest that such a focus tends if anything to find more uncertainties of various kinds; to indicate that “Female sexuality [in the visual arts] … wasn’t.” The encounters of women, the visual arts and eros, that is, are so heterogenous and their boundaries so unclear as to make the category elusive. Of course women in the Middle Ages had sexual experiences, desires, fantasies, pleasures and pains; and of course we cannot have direct access to the experiences of the long dead, though we can converse about them. But the very nature of artistic representation, whether visual or textual, means that such desires and pleasures become shared property, which cannot be said to belong to women more than to men – or indeed to the medieval rather than to the modern. Hans Belting argues that “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images”; thus a contemporary viewer, assessing the sexual content or impact of a medieval image, must put their own bodies and sensibilities forward as substitutes for those of medieval viewers.

“Sexuality” itself, of course, is a post-medieval term, which is nevertheless, with appropriate caveats, regularly used. I do not propose not using it, but would note to begin with that it seems unlikely that its range quite matches any medieval domain of knowledge. Medieval textual sources tell us a number of quite different things about female sexuality: that a woman’s desire may be directed to men, women, herself, or lifeless things; that women have an insatiable desire to be penetrated; that they are naturally inclined towards chastity; that their reluctance can be overcome by violence or seduction. Visual sources are no more consistent. I might identify both a painting of St. Catherine of Siena’s stigmatisation by a crucifix and a female exhibitionist figure as illustrating aspects of female sexuality, but there is no evidence that these images spoke to one another in any known medieval context: their conjunction is a product of my framing category. The split between sacred and profane desires is so pronounced that the category does not cohere.


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