Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How romance controls your sex life: Medieval advice for modern girls

Today's post, appropriately coinciding with Valentine's Day, is about sexualisation in medieval and modern advice literature for young women, in particular the way that 'romance' is used to control young women's behaviour. It's drawn from a longer journal article just published in the Journal of Gender Studies which you can read via the journal's website.*


As a teenager, I thought I was pretty clued up about love, sex, and relationship stuff. I'd attended some sex education classes at school, I'd definitely spoken to my friends about it, and I also read a lot of advice columns in magazines like More, Just Seventeen, and Bliss. For many girls my age, these magazines provided an additional (and, for some, perhaps only) source of information about the adult world of dating, relationships, and sex.

As I've learned more about the lives of medieval women, it has become clear that my generation was absolutely not the first to rely on written advice, or wise words from older friends or family. In fact, in the late Middle Ages in England (from the fourteenth-century onward) conduct texts specifically for women and written in the vernacular became more popular.

One of the most popular of these texts is How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter and was composed around 1350. It survives in five manuscripts today that date from 1350-1500, indicating that it was popular. It's written in Middle English rhyming verse from the perspective of a mother to a daughter, and is quite short - only 209 lines long. The text is quite colloquial and proverbial, and offers the imagined daughter advice on day-to-day bourgeois life - go to church, make sure you pay your tithes, manage your household - as well as advice on dealing with men and negotiating a potential husband.

Reading this text, it becomes clear that the advice given to the young woman is designed to control her behaviour. She is told where to go (not the the market or the tavern) and how to go there:
When you walk on the path, don’t walk too fast
Nor turn your head from side to side
[…] Go not as though you were a frivolous person (lit. a goose)
From house to house, to seek distraction (57-58; 61-62)
She is warned not to accept gifts from men ‘for good women, with gifts / May have their honour lifted from them’ (93, 94). She should not wear fancy or fashionable clothes, and certainly must never meet men alone. In short, while the advice might be framed as for the benefit of the young woman, it also reveals how worried older generations were about what young people were up to, especially as they were now living away from home in town and cities much more often than before.

This prurient concern from an older generation has echoes in the sexualisation debates of the twenty-first century - the idea that young people are becoming 'too sexy, too soon' and that this is damaging their ability to form lasting, romantic relationships. Generally, this concern has focused on overly-sexy clothing (high heels or padded bras for children), music videos, television, movies, video games, online content, and magazines. Predominantly focused on the effect on young women and girls, reports commissioned by multiple governments (Scottish; UK; Australian) in the twenty-first century outline the extent of public and media outrage.

And we can see echoes of medieval restrictions in modern advice too. I looked at articles and agony aunt questions on the website MyBliss.com, a companion lifestyle website to the now-defunct magazine Bliss containing (mostly heteronormative) advice on health, beauty, friendship, love and sex, aimed at teenage girls aged 14–17. Girls are advised not to wear overly fashionable (read sexualised) clothing; an article entitled ‘Love Lessons’ that promises to point out ‘where you’re going wrong’ and how to ‘bag that lad’ has ‘don’t be too fashionable’ as its number 1 tip. Elsewhere, girls are advised that ‘not all lads like obviously flirty girls’ and ‘superflirts make boys want to run a mile’ and that  men are 'put off' by women who have too many sexual partners.

MyBliss is clearly attempting to engineer particular kinds of (non-sexualised) gendered behaviour in its advice by claiming that it leads to romantic failure. A bad reputation can damage a woman's romantic chances and thus the threat of remarks is enough to control her behaviour and make her careful how she behaves around men for fear of being called a slut, slag, tart, or similar. In short, if you don't follow the advice given, you won't get the romantic happily ever after you're hoping for. This is the patriarchy at work, where men are allowed to do things that women are not (men can still have the romance even if they've also had the sex).

According to these texts, the key to romantic success for young women in both the Middle Ages and twenty-first century is to shut up, cover up, and stay home. Today, on V-Day, it seems like the right time to call out this kind of discourse to put an end to this narrow way of thinking about young people, sex, and romance and look for a different kind of sexual, feminist future.


I've blogged about this research elsewhere on Thirty-Fifth Century Romance (March 2015 and July 2016) and in a short piece at Notches, Thinking Medievally: The Sexualisation Debate and Medieval Advice Literature.   

* If you can't access the article (i.e. if you don't have a University or Library login) and would like to read it drop me an email (amy.burge@ed.ac.uk) and I'll send you an eprint copy.

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The image is by Jessica Ruscello @jruscello from the royalty-free Valentine's Day collection at unsplash.com.

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