3 Myths About the History of Sex and Marriage

myths about the history of sex and marriage

Last week on the blog, I wrote about some things I had learned about sexuality and the history of sex and marriage when I studied a module at university called Sexualities in History. I also mentioned that the module had challenged me a lot and made me reconsider a lot of things I thought I knew about sex, sexuality, and marriage.

So today I thought I’d share with you some of the myths about the history of sex and marriage that the module debunked for me.

1. Sex only happened within marriage

Before I properly studied sex, sexuality, and marriage, I was generally under the belief that, historically, sex had been pretty much confined to marriage – particularly in medieval England where the Church’s control was so absolute.

Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to believe that no one had sex outside of marriage, but I assumed that most people followed the Church’s guidance and restricted sex to marriage.

Ooh boy, was I wrong. Whilst the Church did impress on people the importance of limiting sex to marriage, turns out as long as you didn’t get pregnant, people weren’t bothered. Even then, as long as you got married sharpish, the world was pretty much okay with pre-marital sex (providing you weren’t, y’know’, some kind of aristocratic woman). In fact, amongst the lower classes, it was generally accepted that as long as two people were intending to marry each other (kind of like an historical engagement), pre-marital sex was fine.

What’s more, in some cases, sex actually sometimes formed part of the marriage contract – making pre-marital sex not only common, but legally necessary.

See, medieval England operated under Canon Law (that is, the law of the Church), and under canon law only one thing was needed for a marriage to be valid – consent (okay, consent and two witnesses – but only if the marriage was disputed).

However, there were two types of consent under Canon Law (okay, three, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with two): present consent and future consent. If two people exchanged words of present consent (i.e. I take you to be my wife), then a marriage was valid. If, however, they only exchanged words of future consent (I will take you to be my wife), then another thing was needed to turn that promise into a valid marriage – sex.

Thus, to say that sex only happened once two people were officially married not only denies the reality of the matter, but also denies the finer points of Canon Law.

2. People used to marry very young

One of the biggest misconceptions I used to have about the history of sex and marriage is that people used to marry very young.

Erm, nope. Think again, past me.

Whilst it is true that people (particularly women) in the nobility married young throughout much of history, most everyday folk like you and me didn’t get married until their 20s. Which, although is younger than a lot of people in the 21st century choose to get married), is a pretty reasonable age for marriage – particularly when you consider the legal age for consent was 12 for girls, and 14 for boys.

This was particularly true in the period after the Black Death, when severe population decreases gave women more opportunities to work (and thus more economic freedom), thus allowing them to delay marriage. What’s more, young women and men who were in service or who were apprentices weren’t allowed to marry – and since most apprenticeships and service contracts lasted until people’s early to mid-twenties, that meant marriage for the lower classes was often delayed.

3. The Victorians never spoke about sex

How many times have you heard the trope that the Victorians were so prudish and ashamed of sex that they covered up table legs in case men got too aroused?

Yeah, turns out that’s bullshit. Or at least, kind of.

See, whilst scholars of the history of sex and marriage generally state that from the 17th century onwards, England underwent a sexual repression, it seems that the old adage silence speaks louder than words rings true here.

Although explicitly talking about sex began to be seen as taboo and inappropriate – at least within the middle and upper classes – there were other ways that the Early Modern and Victorian English expressed their thoughts and feelings about sexuality.

Catholic confession, for example, was one way in which people were not only encouraged, but also were increasingly expected, to talk about the sex. As the Church became more and more obsessed with ‘sins of the flesh’, confession became a place where people could talk, albeit in a veiled and euphemistic way, about their sex lives and sexuality.

Similarly, from the 18th century onwards, sex increasingly became a matter for the law and police, as governments and institutions became concerned with protecting innocent people from sexual ‘deviants’. Thus, whilst sex was not necessarily talked about positively, it was still being talked about within the context of law and order.

Even when sex deliberately wasn’t spoken about, in places like schools, for example, evidence of society’s obsession with it can be seen everywhere –  from the architecture of buildings, to the segregation of the sexes in public places.

Those are three myths about the history of sex and marriage that I had debunked during my time at university – what are some common misconceptions about sex and sexuality that you know to be untrue?

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