Female Sexuality: the ‘Problem’ that Spans Millennia and the Myth of Social Progress.
This blog will examine The Bacchae by Euripides in 405 BCE to illustrate the position of female sexual agency in ancient Greece. Using sociological analysis, the significance of this text in relation to contemporary society will be demonstrated by comparing ancient Greek beliefs to the ideology of ‘purity’ culture; a movement largely endorsed in conservative Christian movements in the US. This is from the perspective of demonstrating the similarities between both an ancient society and a contemporary society in terms of the inadequacies when dealing with victims of sexual violence.
In The Bacchae, Pentheus expresses his disgust with female participation in a ‘new’ religion spearheaded by Bacchus (Dionysus):
Of fresh evils throughout the city,
That the women have left our homes
For counterfeit Bacchic revels (215-218)
To be maenads performing sacrifices,
But follow Aphrodite before Bacchus. (223-225)
The emotive use of kaka, "evils" when referring to women participating in Bacchic revels such as drinking, dancing, and promiscuity illustrate Pentheus’ feelings towards the worship of Bacchus. Bacchic revelry is discussed throughout the text and implies that female sexuality may run rampant if left unrestrained. Pentheus is also critical of the suggestion that these behaviours are a consequence of worshipping Bacchus. Rather, Pentheus considers Aphrodite a euphemism for engaging in socially unacceptable sexual behaviour due to an uncontrollable desire for sex. When Aphrodite is used sardonically, it condemns whilst simultaneously denies female sexual agency through continual references to external behavioural influences, to which it can be inferred that women’s sexuality is always controlled and exercised by another, rather than her own agency. Resistance against female sexuality may be considered by many to be an archaic preoccupation and not an issue in contemporary, post-feminist, western societies. Yet growing support for a ‘purity’ culture echo many of the arguments put forth in ancient Greek texts and should be analysed when attempting to understand contemporary arguments. More worrying is the implication of female sexuality within fears for moral decline.
‘Purity’ culture is an ideological movement heavily influenced by conservative Christian teachings and is widely endorsed in the US with growing support (Moslener, 2015). Beliefs are based on the premise that a girl should remain ‘pure’ and offer her virginity as a gift to her husband upon marriage. Organised events such as ‘Purity balls’ celebrate the valuableness of virginity and emphasise the economic and moral worth of women for marriage in those terms. As such, a woman’s moral centre resides in her sexual purity - to be penetrated is to be devalued. Female sexuality as a metaphor for morality thus becomes implicated in debates concerning moral decline.
Tiresias responds in a way that may appear to defend female agency:
But where chastity is in her nature,
You may rely on it. For a modest woman
Will not be corrupted by Bacchic rites. (316-318)
Upon closer inspection, phrases like ‘modest woman,’ (317) and ‘chastity is in her nature’ (316) are duplicitous in their insinuations in that women who are overtly sexual are therefore not feminine or female, even. Bacchic rites, including drinking and sexual behaviour, are implied as corrupt when the expectation of the ancient Greek woman (and in modern conservative Christian contexts) is to be pure. Consequently, this renders women into one of two camps - modest, chaste, and good versus vulgar, promiscuous, and evil. Furthermore, not only is immodesty therefore ‘evil’, it is considered an inversion of the very values according to which society operates. Hence, these ‘evil women’ pose a threat to the very axioms upon which cultures are built.
Of greater concern is the link between female sexual purity and sexual violence. Since value is placed on virginity, and devaluation equated with sexual activity, where does this leave rape victims? The cultural emphasis on sexual purity may result in rape victims feeling too ashamed to report victimisation for fear of ostracism from a community like the purity culture, or worse, being considered as partially to blame for their rape (Valenti, 2009). Placing ‘chaste’ women on a pedestal above the immorality of women following Bacchus is comparable to women in the ‘purity’ movement and the immorality of women who engage in sexual activity before marriage. A dichotomous view such as this may make invisible victims of sexual violence (Kerr et al, 2004; Brown & Walklate, 2012). For example, Pentheus argued that all women may be considered sexually rampant if given the opportunity and this remains a common myth disputed in contemporary feminist research into the disbelief of rape victims and accusations of false rape claims based upon a victim’s clothing, behaviour, sexual history, and religious beliefs (Kelly et al, 2005; Rape Crisis, 2013).
The continuing relevance of ancient Greek perceptions of female sexuality within contemporary society demonstrate that despite various social movements, legislative changes that support social progress, and the impact of feminism, female sexuality remains a contentious issue. This brief examination of an ancient text in relation to a contemporary social movement demonstrates a far cry from social progress. The dichotomisation of women as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in an attempt to control female sexuality continues to be prevalent in contemporary and historical accounts and must be considered critically in order to adequately protect victims of sexual violence in modern society.
Brown, J. & Walklate, S. (2012) Handbook on Sexual Violence. Routledge.
Kelly, L., Lovett, J. & Regan, L. (2005) "A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases." Home Office Research Study 293. London: Home Office.
Kerr, J., Sprenger, E. & Symington, A. (2004) The Future of Women’s Rights: Global Visions and Strategies. Zed Books.
Moslener, S. (2015) Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and the American Adolescence. Oxford University Press.
Rape Crisis (2013) ‘CPS confirms false rape allegations are very rare’. Available at: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/news/cps-confirms-false-rape-allegations-are-very-rare (Accessed: 30 May 2017).
Valenti, J. (2009) The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Hachette UK.
Georgina Riggs holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of Leicester and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Warwick. She is currently working on applications to study a PhD in Criminology. In particular, she is developing a research proposal to study sexual violence in higher education using a multi-sectoral approach in the context of post-feminist and neoliberalist ideological positions. More broadly, her interests within the social sciences stem from a social constructionist approach and range from the relationship between gender, politics, sexuality, and the law. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.