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The Sexual Variety and Variability
Among Women and Their Bearing
Upon Social Re-construction

October 14, 1915 — Meeting of the British Society for Study of Sex Psychology, London, England


Perhaps I had better preface what I have to say, by stating my point of view on some essential subjects.

I do not think that any intelligent, humane and self-respecting attitude towards sex is generally possible, without great economic changes; and a responsible education in the laws of sex, and a much wider co-operation and companionship between men and women, wholly apart from erotic relations, are equally necessary.

I am utterly opposed to the “double standard”; but I believe the “double standard” is an integral part of a certain social order: to repudiate that standard, while upholding and accepting the social order, seems to me absurd.

Finally: I do not accept traditional platitudes: especially not that doctrine of the uncleanness of sex, insisted on by the Christian — or as it should be called, the Pauline superstition.

Now what are the assumptions underlying the conventional view of women’s sexuality?

1. The denial, first of all, of any strong, spontaneous, discriminating, — note these qualifications — sex impulse in women.

2. The division of women into two arbitrary classes, corresponding to no psychological or ethical individual differences:

(a) The prospective or actual private sex property of one man.

(b) The public sex property of all and sundry.

3. The over-rating, which amounts sometimes to a sadistic fetishism, of one manifestation of sex and one characteristic.

Hence the belief that the majority of women, those not belonging to the prostitute class, feel neither curiosity, nor desire on these matters, while they are maidens. And that when their sexual life has begun, its physical side is quite subordinate, and merely a response to their husbands.

Also that no woman who has any principles or any fastidiousness, can be physically attracted to more than one man; in the words of the thousand-fold repeated cliche: “Women is instinctively monogamous, while man is polygamous.”

The upholders of this doctrine do not propose to dispense with the promiscuously polyandrous class of women who are the necessary concomitants of a system of patriarchal marriage, especially monogamous marriage: and of compulsory chastity for most women before marriage. Yet this class of women is in no State adequately protected, least of all in the States which profess Christianity. It is to be hoped that the whole question of the status and psychology of the prostitute will be very carefully studied. I will only suggest here, that the experience of Eastern civilisations, frankly and systematically patriarchal for thousands of years, tends to show that polygamy legally recognised, is not itself any remedy against prostitution. That remedy lies deeper.

I believe that the conventional estimate of women’s sexual apathy and instinctive monandry is not true. Any men of exceptional vitality and attractions knows it is not true. So does any man of exceptional intelligence and sensitiveness. So does any observant traveller, acquainted with human habits under conditions which do not foster artificial ignorance and dependence in women. The history of any time in which women — generally course, only a small percentage of women in the ruling class — were given any freedom and scope, proves that this theory is not true: the Empresses and patrician ladies of Rome, the Renaissance princesses and courtesans, Christine of Sweden, the Russian Tzaritzas, Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great, and the Frenchwomen who are so intimately a part of seventeenth and eighteenth century culture.

Most experienced lawyers and doctors will admit privately, at least, that this theory is not true. Finally, women are beginning to say so themselves.

The sexual emotion in women is not, taking it broadly, weaker than in men. But it has an enormously wider range of variation; and much greater diffusion, both in desire and pleasure, all through women’s organisms. And thirdly, arising from these two characteristics of variability and diffusion, it is extremely liable to aberrations and perversions, which I believe, under constant social and religious repression of normal satisfaction, have often developed to a pathological extent, while sometimes remaining almost entirely subconscious.

The variability of the sexual emotion in women is absolutely basic and primary. It can never be expressed or satisfied by either patriarchal marriage or prostitution. It is found in the same woman as between different times, and in different individuals. This is the cause of much cant and bitterness between women, for there is a considerable and pretty steady percentage of cold natures, who may yet be very efficient and able and very attractive to men. These cold women generally have a perfect mania for prohibition as a solution for all ills. But surely, we do not want the new world to be built up only by women who have long ago forgotten what sex means, or who have never experienced strong sexual emotions, and regard them as a sign of grossness or decadence.

I think no one who knows the “personnel” of many social reform movements, can doubt that this is a very real danger. Persons of cold temperament have special aptitudes for much valuable work: they have their peculiar excellences, their precious achievements. But they must not alone make the laws for more ardent natures.

And the greatest drawback of the sexually frigid woman is the ease with which her coldness adapts itself to venality and vulgarity, whether conventionally sanctioned or not.

It is this variety and variability of the sexual impulse among women, which would militate against any real promiscuity, if women were all economically secure and free to follow their own instincts, and to control their maternal function by the knowledge of contraceptives ( a most important part of women’s real emancipation). Most people are apt to under-rate the real strength of desire, and at the same time, to exaggerate its indiscriminate facility. I submit that, though few women are absolutely monandrous, still fewer are really promiscuous. And I believe that much of the promiscuity of men is either a reaction from conditions of life and work, which a sane social order will abolish, or a response to organised commercial exploitation, and therefore an artificial product. In a social order where women were not tempted for bread and butter, and any of the “jam” of life, to exploit the desires of men, it would soon become apparent that the sexual instinct is selective. The most ardent natures, if they are not insane or suffering from prolonged sexual starvation, have their cool quiescent times; and I think no woman who has had the inestimable happiness and interest of real friendship with men, can doubt that it may exist without any conscious sexual desire. Much of the unhealthiness of sexual conditions at present is due to the habit of segregating the sexes in childhood and partly in latter life, and making them into “alien enemies” to one another. Some measure of co-education and a much wider professional and administrative co-operation will clarify our views and induce a more generous and human tone.

One form of shibboleth, which has superseded the shibboleth of the virtue of compulsory abstinence, and the duty of unwilling surrender in marriage, among some advanced women, is the shibboleth of the “great love”. Let me not be mistaken here. I believe the great love exists, and that it is the greatest gift of whatever gods may be, to humanity. But I do not believe that the great love is the sole justification of sexual experience. Most natures are not capable of it. They have not strong and sure enough intuitive instinct. They are not sufficiently evolved. The great love can no more be demanded to order than the emotion which is most of al resumbles — ecastic religious faith. Moreover, our social system seems designed expressly to thwart and stifle it. Women must learn to recognise that all persons are not on the same plane, psychically or physiologically. They might also profitably turn their efforts towards removing the barriers which at present generally doom a great love to slow frustration or sudden catastrophe.

Jealousy, both physical and psychic, will always be the shadow of passionate love, and even of most strong affection. But it is unnecessary and barbarous to consecrate jealousy in one, and only one, special set of circumstances. Love cannot be forced, or bought, or even earned. To really keep anyone’s love, much self-control is necessary, and much skill and care, and much instinctive respect for their individuality and one’s own. It should be recognised that the art of attracting and satisfying desire is a part of refined civilisation, and not necessarily mercenary or degrading in any way. But women must demand more of life — and give more to it. Let them set their own requirements, and boldly claim a share of life and erotic experience, as perfectly consistent with their own self-respect — and realise also, that love can only a part of life, and sometimes a small part, to any man with big work to do in the world. Both the experimental love of variety and the permanent preference for one mate are inherent in all human beings. And in women there is a special need for recognising free experiment. First love is generally almost entirely an illusion, and many women have ruined their lives, because an illusion was made permanent and petrified by marriage. General early marriage, even if possible under present conditions, does not solve the sex question. Women’s erotic experiments will probably be always less numerous than men’s, and include more “amitiés amoureuses”; but they are an integral part of life.

The very consciousness of being desired, even by a man who does not overwhelmingly attract her (provided he is not positively repellent), is a tonic to most women: and the sexual relation when happy and harmonious, vivifies a woman’s brain, develops her character, and trebles her vitality. The comparative intellectual barrenness of woman is just as much due to the nervous corrosion and mental torpor, caused by prolonged sexual repression, as to the lack of education and the exclusion from prominent and responsible positions.

Even the great love, in women as in men, by no means always excludes lesser attractions and intimacies, which may run the whole gamut from sentiment and camaraderie to the frankly physical, yet remain totally distinct from the dominant passion. I allude, of course, to genuine, even if transitory, impulses, not to commercial transactions for pearls or cheques or livelihood. Indeed, I think this is the test of the great love, that any minor episode seems to heighten one’s desire for, and pleasure in, it.

Diffusion of the sexual emotions in women is not merely physiological: it extends throughout the imaginative and emotional life. It helps the transmutation of desire into religious devotion, charity, musical and poetic appreciation, etc. It is the basis of inherent modesty, as contrasted with conventional modesty. It is the perpetual contradiction of the ecclesiastical view of sex, as a somewhat low and uncleanly prelude to the act of procreation. This diffusion is the main cause of the greater slowness and complexity of the sexual processes in women. Finally it makes the traditional masculine over-estimate of, and insistence on anatomical virginity, the most ridiculous superstition in the world. Even if we consider sexual ignorance and intactitude as a woman’s highest charm, and virtue — the unruptured hymen is no guarantee of this ignorance and intactitude. It may co-exist with the most varied, and even perverted, sex experience. Virginity will always have value and charm for men, and consequently it will always be source of keen pleasure to women, to be able to give this gift to their beloved. But the woman whose virginity is her chief charm, has very little intelligence, vitality or passion: even very little character. And in any case this anatomical accident is something quite distinct from modesty, or from that instinctive discrimination and proud self-control which alone deserve the name chastity.

The diffused sexuality of women, again, is the enemy of very abrupt transformations and transitions: no social order which took this fact adequately into consideration, could tolerate the present forms of marriage, with the outrage on decency and freedom alike involved in the ideas of “conjugal rights”.

No woman has been given her full share of the beauty and the joy of life, who has not been very gradually and skilfully initiated into the sexual relation. Marcel Prevost’s affected reprobation the “demi-vierge” is equally stupid and cruel. A really satisfactory lover must have insight and intuition as well as virility and passion: he must respect his mate’s individuality, and be able to exercise an iron self-control: his own enjoyment will be all the keener in the end. How far do education and social institutions, not to speak of the mawkish cant miscalled religion, help to develop this respect and self-control?

The existence of prostitution is a great wrong to women and love, in subtle as well as in obvious ways: it not only debases the whole view of sex, but – combined with the abuse of alcohol — it favours a mechanical facility of the sexual process in men, which increases the natural difficulty due to women’s slowness in reaching complete gratification, thus causing disappointment and disharmony.

Women vary greatly in respect of the periodic function. Here I can only briefly point out the importance of sex education, in helping to establish this function in a healthy manner and minimizing nervous disturbances. Many girls suffer for years, and from bitter and distorted views of life, as a result of the neglect which allowed them to meet the shock of puberty unprepared, or with only a revoltingly crude, inadequate warning. In my opinion, in the social order for which some of us hope and work, provision will have to be made for women’s periodic changes; menstruation and the menopause, must be recognised and “allowed for”, as well as gestation and child-birth. I know that many experienced medical women, whose knowledge and judgment I respect, believe that under fair and healthy conditions, menstruation will gradually become almost negligible. I cannot think so; though, certainly, it has been made needlessly painful and debilitating, and one of the chief agents in aggravating its symptoms and effects, has been persistent sexual repression. I believe most women after they have formed sexual relations, find that the periodic pain and weakness decrease considerably; even be it noted, when sexual gratification stops short of complete intercourse. Of course the average married woman, is not given time to benefit by this new experience before she has to face the changes and risk of pregnancy.

We lack a whole psychology of menstruation, and need direct testimony from various types of women. Disturbances of the function may occur as the result of sexual excitement, whether satisfied or not; also of almost any unusual physical exertion or emotional excitement, as well as from purely physiological causes. Also among “civilised” women, it is not invariably accompanied by definite sexual desire, though the two tend to be correlated, and some women are at their maximum strength and efficiency just before the period: others again, though they may suffer a good deal while menstruating, feel an indescribable access of general energy and well-being in the week, or fortnight afterwards. I suggest to you, that menstruation may have some important psycho-physical purpose, quite apart from ovulation, which we do not yet understand: and that definite investigations be made, as to whether certain phenomena of menstruation, and certain types of menstrual activity, e.g. the three or five days’ period — are correlated with certain special mental, temperamental and constitutional qualities.

The repressed sex-impulse in women often breaks out irresistibly at the change of life, sometimes undermining sanity and control, through the remaining years. The happy memories and influences of a complete and active life, will always be a great safeguard through the critical years to a wise, healthy, kindly old age. The suggestion has been made by Dr Drysdale in the “Malthusian” for May, 1915, that the period of effective sexual life may be much extended by rational hygienic habits. Shortly after Dr. Drysdale’s suggestion, Dr Mary Scharlieb, in a paper quoted by the “British Medical Journal”, independently made the statement that the menopause now occurred, on average, four or five years later than two generations ago. Certainly, birth-control is more widely practised than in our grandmothers’ time – I hope and believe also, that there is less involuntary abstinence and repression among women now, than then, though there is room for immense advance along both lines of progress!

The education of women together with the complexity of their emotional life, and their special physiology, help to stimulate sexual aberrations to a degree which is not generally realised, but it is none the less important and injurious. I wish particularly to make this point clear. Of course, normal sexuality includes the beginnings of most abnormal instincts. The pleasure in either inflicting a certain degree of pain on the beloved one, or suffering a certain degree of pain from them, is almost inextricably a part of desire. So are certain forms of fetishism, as Mr Housman acutely insisted in his introductory paper. We are learning to recognise congenital inversion as a vital and very often valuable factor in civilisation, subject of course, to the same restraints as to public order and propriety, freedom of consent, and the protection of the immature, as normal heterosexual desire. Also, certain amount of self-excitement, and solitary enjoyment, seems inevitable in any strongly developed sexual life, and is indisputably much safer, and more consonant with humanity in refinement, than the so-called safety-valve of prostitution. The black shadow of the Christian superstition has perpetuated needless ignorance and suffering here.

In short, sex is complex, and in humanity, largely mental and imaginative. Certain minor and occasional aberrations are part of the complete life. But the system of silence and repression, often reacts on women’s organism in a thoroughly abnormal manner, and a completely artificial (this is the point) perversion may be established, and if it is established early enough, may be quite unconscious for years. And the most sensitive and diffident and amenable to ideas of modesty the girl is, the more easily may this process be developed.

Any direct external stimulation is much rarer among young girls than among boys of the same age and class. The actual physiology of women, as well as the sense of modesty and the fear of shocking and offending, will generally prevent this, either alone, or with other girls, though here again there are many exceptions. But day-dreaming, the production of a high degree of excitement, and sometimes of the actual climax of enjoyment, by means of vague yet delightful imaginings, is the most exquisite pleasure and deepest secret of many imaginative and sensitive girls, and may even begin before puberty. The development of the heterosexual relation, either in marriage or with a love, may supersede those experiences, and they remain a beautiful but temporary episode, or recur at intervals of loneliness between some erotic activity. But in these days of suppressed desires and delayed marriages, it is more and more probable that the habit will become a necessity, and it may lead to a great difficulty in forming normal connections or even to an aversion thereto. I would even say that after twenty-five, the woman who has neither husband nor lover and is not under-vitalised and sexually deficient, is suffering mentally and bodily — often without knowing why she suffers; nervously irritated, anaemic, always tired, or ruthlessly and feverishly fussing over trifles; or else she has other consolations, which make her so-called “chastity” a pernicious sham.

Artificial or substitute homosexuality — as distinct from true inversion — is very widely diffused among women, as a result of the repression of normal gratification and the segregation of the sexes, which still largely obtains. It appears, I think, later in life than onanism: in the later twenties or thirties rather than in the teens. Sometimes its only direct manifestations are quite non-committal and platonic; but even this incomplete and timid homosexuality can always be distinguished from true affectionate friendship between women, by its jealous, exacting and extravagant tone. Of course, when one of the partners in such an attachment is a real or congenital invert, it is at once much more serious and much more physical. The psychology of homogenic women has been much less studied than that of inverted men. Probably there are many varieties and subtleties of emotional fibre amongst them. Some very great authorities have believed that the inverted woman is more often bisexual — less exclusively attracted to other women — than the inverted man. This view needs very careful confirmation, but if true, it would prove the greater plasticity of women’s sex-impulse. It has also been stated that the invert man or woman, is drawn towards the normal types of their own sex. These and other points, should be elucidated by the Society’s work. Certainly, the heterosexual woman of passionate but shy and sensitive nature, is often responsive to the inverted woman’s advances, especially if she is erotically ignorant and inexperienced. Also many women of quite normally directed (heterosexual) inclinations, realise in mature life, when they have experienced passion, that the devoted admiration and friendship they felt for certain girl friends, had a real, though perfectly unconscious, spark of desire in its exaltation and intensity; an unmistakable indefinable note, which was absolutely lacking in many equally sincere and lasting friendships.

Neither artificial homosexuality nor prolonged auto-erotism, to use Havelock Ellis’ masterly phrase, prove innate morbidity. Careful observation and many confidences from members of my own sex, have convinced me that our maintenance of outworn traditions is manufacturing habitual auto-erotists and perverts, out of women who would instinctively prefer the love of a man, who would bring them sympathy and comprehension as well as desire. I repudiate all wish to slight or depreciate the love-life of the real homosexual; but it cannot be advisable to force the growth of that habit in heterosexual people. And remember, there are other very dangerous and degrading perversions which may develop under repression. I know of a case in which a sudden inexplicable, but apparently quite irresistible, lust of cruelty developed in a woman of the most actively kind and tender heart, but highly emotional and nervous, and sexually unsatisfied. As for the indirect psychic effects of involuntary and prolonged abstinence, surely Freud’s researches can leave no doubt in the minds of thinking people. Here again, I know personally of a case of a fixed idea, which for three years developed recurrent spasms of maniacal terror.

Again, I ask, why all this waste of women, and of life?

The realities of women’s sexual life have been greatly obscured by the lack of any sexual vocabulary. While her brother has often learned all the slang of the street before adolescence, the conventionally “decently brought-up” girl, of the upper and middle classes has no terms to define many of her sensations and experiences. When she marries or meets her first lover, she learns a whole new language, and often this language has been defiled in the mind of the man who teaches it to her, long before they met.

There is one criticism which I want to forestall here. It will be said that, in women, the maternal instinct is inextricably interwoven with the sexual, and that, in ignoring this instinct, I have a very false perspective. I admit at once that a certain protective tenderness is part of any strong passion, or even amorous fancy, in nearly all women, though not the sole constituent. As to the love of one’s own children, or the desire for children, I have tried to say nothing in this paper, that was not known to me, either through my own experience, or the observation and testimony of persons I know well. My conclusions are based on life, not on books, though I have been confirmed in any personal opinions and conclusions by some of the greatest psychologists, especially Dr Havelock Ellis, whose immense research is fused and illuminated by an inspired intuition.

I have no experience of maternity, nor of the desire for maternity, which is generally attributed to women. Also I think much actual motherhood is unwilling, and this is an irremediable wrong to the Mother and the Child alike. Absolute freedom of choice on the woman’s part, and intense desire both for her mate and her child, are the magic forces that will vitalise and transfigure the race. As it is, many women have no maternal longings at all, and they should never become mothers. If the Eugenics Education Society deserved its name, it would undertake in this country, the work that Margaret Sanger — to whom be honour and gratitude for ever — is doing in America. In view of the gross neglect of women’s interests as mothers and as citizens and of the lean years before us all, the demand for a higher birthrate is both impudent and inhuman. The underhand opposition to the spread of contraceptive information must be over come. The ineffably foolish laws penalising abortion must be abolished; they are one of the foulest remnants of the Canon Law. And as ecclesiastics and capitalist and militarists call for more births, let us remind them that a large percentage of young adult women are debarred from legal motherhood, and that, in spite of the War Baby Scoop, our Bastardy laws remain unaltered.

The eugenic aspect of sex and love has been very neatly summed up by a woman-poet, Anna Wickham:

The world whips frank, gay love with roads;
But frankly, gaily, shall ye get the gods.



Source: The Sexual Variety and Variability Among Women, and Their Bearing on Social Reconstruction, by F.W. Stella Browne (London: The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology) Publication No. 3, 1917.