Women policing each other's sex lives: a history of lust and censure

Posted by
Stylist Team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Ever since that photo surfaced of Donald Trump signing an order blocking women’s access to abortion in a room surrounded by men, we’ve been thinking about the male policing of female bodies.

But, says Nichi Hodgson, author of new book The Curious History of Dating, it’s not just men: women have been attempting to control what other women do with their sex lives for centuries.

Female sexual liberty has long threatened men – and through the centuries, men have gone to great lengths to control it. But what about other women?

Mary Wollstonecraft may have first floated the notion of feminism more than 200 years ago, but as I found out writing my new book, The Curious History of Dating, wherever there are women looking to free themselves and one another, there are others keen to put them in their place.

You can psychoanalyse it however you like, but it’s more than a straightforward case of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. At various points throughout history, a woman’s livelihood – and life – was often dependent upon other women keeping her in line.  From protecting the family fortune, to protecting a woman’s reproductive health,  historical ‘slut-shaming’ was about much more than embittered, horny guys lashing out, although you could bet there was a male interest at the bottom of it. 

A case in point, if you’ve been watching The Crown, is our current Queen Elizabeth, who forbade her sister Margaret to marry the man she loved. Years later it would turn out that the Queen had been fed false information by the government. But Elizabeth forcing Margaret’s hand would affect the sisters’ relationship ever after.

Georgian women were not even allowed to touch fingers with a dancing partner

Even women we credit with liberating others often gave with one hand while taking away with the other. Take Marie Stopes, the scientist-turned-author whose book Married Love revolutionised how both married and single women had sex in the 1920s, mainly by championing contraception. Although Stopes answered thousands of letters from women seeking health advice, she refused to reply to those confessing affairs, and from lesbians, and she vehemently opposed abortion. Today, the Marie Stopes clinics offer a service to which she would never have put her name.

But who else straightened our skirts and directed us away from dangerous male attentions in times gone by?

1756-1914: Chaperones

In Regency England, it was a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune could find a wife in the shadow of her chaperone. 

Accompanied by a nurse, aunt, governess or trusted family friend, Georgian women were not allowed to even touch fingers with a dancing partner unless they wore gloves, much less go for a walk or sit in the parlour with them.

If your family was cock-blocking you, you could elope or become a professional mistress

It sounds draconian to the point of dictatorial, but who you married mattered – not least of all because at this point in history women still could not inherit their own property. Upon marriage, even your children belonged to your husband, so it was in the whole family’s interest to ensure that their single females weren’t going to fall into the arms of a cad.

Still, if your family was cock-blocking you, there were two other options. You could elope to Gretna Green on the English-Scottish border, where those under 21 could marry without parental approval, or you could become a professional ‘mistress’: the queen bee of the day, Harriet Wilson, was said to earn around £100,000.

1820-1935: Housekeepers

During the Edwardian era, nearly 40% of working-class women were employed in domestic service, and servants working in large houses were under a strict obligation not to strike up ‘friendships’ with other members of staff. In the case that a discreet relationship sprung up between say, a housemaid and a footman, the custom was to resign from service together.

Nor were female servants allowed to engage ‘followers’ – any kind of romantic partner found outside the house. Female housekeepers impressed to the young women in their charge that failure to ensure this would result in either a tongue-lashing, the retraction of their one afternoon off a week, or dismissal without references. Without a job or roof over their heads, the only option remaining was prostitution. 

Depressingly, the master of the house often chose to exercise his ‘droit de seigneur’ – aka force a maid to have sex with him – in a ruse not to get his own wife pregnant. But woe betide you try and report such a happening to the housekeeper. They usually colluded with the masters in a bid not to lose their own jobs.

1890-1940: Female patrols

During the First World War, there was widespread panic about ‘khaki fever’ – young women’s obsession with men in uniform, which resulted in soldiers being chased, stalked and mobbed by girls wanting a piece of the action.

As a result, two Suffragettes called Margaret Damer Dawson and Mary Allen set up the Women’s Police Service, with the aim of tackling ‘immoral’ behaviour. 

The Voluntary Women’s Patrols’ job was to stalk the streets and separate copulating couples

Arriving first in Grantham where there was a large army presence, the WPS was given access to any building within a six-mile radius of the camps – and they made a bee-line for every bedroom in the district.  At the time, a soldier’s wife found drunk or working as a prostitute could lose her army allowance, and the WPS took it upon themselves to sober such women up.

They were swiftly followed by another all-female organisation called the Voluntary Women’s Patrols, a section of the Metropolitan Police whose job it was to stalk the streets, lanterns in hand, and separate copulating couples, usually on Sundays where people met on their day off. Usually older women in their 40s or 50s hired for their ‘tact and experience’, the VWPs were nicknamed ‘The Interfering Toads’.

1965-1980: Public censors

From David Bowie flirting with another man on Top of the Pops, to the publication of Susan Quilliam and Alex Comfort’s illustrated manual The Joy of Sex, the 1970s was the era sex hit the suburbs. But it was also the decade in which conservative women rallied against women’s lib. And the most outraged of them all? A censorious, buttoned-up school teacher named Mary Whitehouse.

Along with her friend, rector’s wife Norah Buckland, Whitehouse produced a manifesto to battle against lasciviousness on TV: “We call upon the BBC for a radical change of policy and demand programmes which build character instead of destroying it, which encourage and sustain faith in God and bring Him back to the heart of our family and national life.” From David Bowie on TOTP to Radio 1 playing the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street, the BBC was a prime target.

But it didn’t end there. Having called French and Saunders “two fat dirty beer-swilling lesbians”, Whitehouse also campaigned for the banning of the publication Gay News, which resulted in a criminal trial and the magazine being prosecuted for obscenity.

1969-present: Dating experts

As long ago as there’s been publishing, there’s been dating advice in circulation – the Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians were mad about Etiquette Manuals. But while there have long been agony aunts ready to chastise women’s ways in pursuing men, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the advice game really changed with the publication of what would become the most popular dating guide of all time, The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherie Schneider.

The Rules was dismissive of feminism, feelings, and the desire to communicate like a human being

Endorsed by Oprah, The Rules went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies and became the golden standard for relationship game-playing. Its formula? To go one better than John Grey’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, by making your man planet-hopping mad for you.

Reading the book today, you’ll notice the passive-aggressive bullying tone dressed up as inspiration: Dating Mindfulness (“Accentuate the positive”) meets Mean Girls (“Stop dating him if he doesn’t buy you a romantic gift for your birthday or Valentine’s Day”; “Don’t break the Rules”).

Dismissive of feminism, feelings, and the desire to communicate like a human being and not a sociopathic cyborg, its essential message was to break you down before he broke up with you.

Today: Social media

In theory, social media allows us greater personal expression, with the chance to connect to other bad-ass, sexually confident women who share our liberated world view. But at the same time, it puts us under even greater scrutiny. From displaying our relationship statuses to dating apps that mine our Facebook profiles for intensely personal details, it's never been easier for people to make judgements about just exactly what we got up last night – and with who.

The real enemy is sexism – not one another

Street corner gossiping has been replaced with facestalking and trolling, while women react to the intense scrutiny and competition a filtered life foists upon them by slut-shaming one another.

Yet when social media is used for positive activism, to organise the Women's March or to report revenge porn, for example, it shows that we know the real enemy is sexism – not one another.

The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder by Nichi Hodgson is out in hardback now (£17.99, Little Brown).

Images: Rex Features, Getty, Netflix