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Are Women Devoid Of Desire?
by [?]

Perhaps a religious periodical like the ICONOCLAST should avoid a question of such delicacy, should leave it to the medical magazines, which may speak as plainly as they please, even in the presence of the proverbial “young person”–now deep in the study of physiology and even essaying the practice of therapeutics. My quarrel, however, is with these same medical magazines, which delight in discovering mares’ nests for no other apparent purpose than to make mankind uncomfortable. They will persist in disregarding the time-honored axiom that “everybody knows more than anybody,” a truism which Dr. Spahr elaborated in his declaration that “the common observation of common people is more trustworthy than the statistical investigations of the most unprejudiced expert”– even though he be a distinguished M.D. I have before me an essay by George Troup Maxwell, M.D., of Florida, read before the association of doctors and printed, with evident approval, by the Virginia Medical Semi-Monthly. Like most gentlemen of his profession, Dr. Maxwell discusses matters of the utmost delicacy with refreshing freedom, an example which I must follow to some extent if I would expose his fallacies; hence the “young person”–unless indeed she be studying to become a doctor or a writer of “realistic” fiction–is solemnly adjured to dive no deeper here. Dr. Maxwell makes several startling assertions from which I–albeit a doctor of divinity instead of medicine–must emphatically dissent. I make no apology for so doing, for it is the time-honored prerogative of preachers to speak ex cathedra on all questions, whether religious, scientific or political. The pulpit is to all other professions what philosophy is to the various schools of science–exercises supervisory power, and by a tap here and a prod there, makes them consentient with its own infallible scheme of things, so to speak. It is a very trying occupation, yet some complain that we parsons must have our summer vacation on full pay and nurse our precious health at swell hotels, while common people feed on potatoes–and plant and grow six-cent cotton for the benefit of the contribution plate. But from of old there have been morbose people ever ready to criticize the holy and put cockleburs in the back hair of the pure in heart. The salient features of Dr. Maxwell’s essay may be summarized; as follows:

Sexually considered, civilized man is more beastial than the brutes. He does not respect the person of his gestant wife, and this disregard of natural law is the most potent failure in the curtailment of natural increase. Certain physiological facts indicate that woman is destitute of desire. Carpenter, the great English scientist, is quoted in support of this proposition, and a “female lecturer of distinction” (name not given) to establish the theory that the chief cause of marital unhappiness and the ill health of wives is the sexual inhumanity of husbands–such inhumanity being quite as common among the better as among the uncultured.

The foregoing is as delicately as I can state propositions of such far-reaching importance, and which neither Dr. Maxwell nor the “female lecturer of distinction” treat in a manner at all “mealy-mouthed.” Even after exhausting my stock of euphemisms the recital appears risque enough to alarm more than one lady reader, and I am tempted to turn back; but courage, good soul! there’s nobody looking, and if we must live it is important that we learn. “The proper study of mankind is man;” and we can obtain no true idea of the animal if we view him only in holiday attire. As despite all “progress of science,” incubators and other labor-saving machinery, people still persist in entering the world in the primogenial way, the relation of the sexes is of quite immeasurable importance, and knowledge thereof should not be monopolized by the narrow circle who read medical magazines. It is well that we come occasionally out of the cloud-realm of sentiment and discuss the relations of man and woman from the standpoint of practical common sense. I am aware that the views expressed by Dr. Maxwell are entertained by some very able medical men; but they violate the public understanding, and, as usual, the people are right and the specialists are wrong. We do not find desire, as here understood, in plants and the lowest development of animal life, it being particularly an attribute of the higher biogeny. As the more perfect the animal organism the more acute the sensations of pleasure and pain, it follows that in man, most complex of earthly creatures, is found the most powerful procreative passion. But while this is the necessary correlative of his superior nervo-muscular organization, his better attributes are likewise developed–or differentiated–by the same law of evolution. Desire, though accentuated, is refined and rendered subordinate to his reason, while the brute is the blind slave of instinct. With the desire of the man and the reason of the mollusk, the genus homo would be all that he is painted by Dr. Maxwell. Should man become for one day “more beastial than the brute” his boasted civilization would revert to subter-savagery. Under such conditions human progress, society itself, were impossible. It is by no means true, as Dr. Maxwell asserts, that children are born solely because men are animals possessing animalistic instincts. True, they could not well be born were men not animals; but the “sweet reasonableness” of things enters ever more and more into the advent of children upon this earth. Were man made altogether of mud, intent only on the indulgence of brute desire, there had been no sacred institution of marriage, and family names proudly handed down from sire to son through many centuries. The name of father had not been venerable, nor that of mother a synonym of sanctity. To the civilized man marriage does not mean, as Dr. Maxwell seems to imagine, simply license for obscene riot, but a solemn covenant that he and the object of his adoration have forsaken all else to cleave each unto the other through weal and through woe, through life unto death. Desire may be the basic principle of the union, but only as the earth is the basic principle of the rose’s beauty and the jasmine’s perfume. Since earliest biblical days women have sought to bear children that their husbands might love them better; indicating that indulgence is not man’s sole concern, even though he be a barbarian; that one reason he seeks the opposite sex is his desire for fair daughters and brave sons–a love in which there is no taint of lust. Hugo, to whom the human heart was as a printed page, has given us an admirable portrait of “the way of a man with a maid” in the courtship of Marius and Cosette. Youth and ardor and opportunity, yet no thought of evil–all the dross in human nature transformed into the spirituelle by the pure white light of love. True, all men are not Mariuses or Romeos. There be Lovelaces and Cagliostros and Calibans; but prithee, good sir, let us judge our kind by the nobler instead of the baser standards. Josephs and St. Anthonys are not plentiful I grant you; but neither are such brutish husbands as those you denounce. Love and poetry and chivalry still have an abiding-place in the heart of man, and the mother and matriarch of this triune is woman. Prof. Carpenter, Dr. Maxwell and the “female lecturer of distinction” to the contrary notwithstanding, it is doubtful if the sexes differ much in the intensity of desire. True, I have written somewhere that “God made the male to seek, the female to be sought”; but it does not follow therefore that every woman is a Daphne who would be transformed into a laurel tree to escape an importunate lover. There may have been women so bloodless that their love left frost on the window-panes of their boudoirs; but never did their sons become world compellers. Despite the pretty theory of Dr. Maxwell, the same fiery cross is laid upon the daughters as upon the sons of men, and thousands falter and fall beneath it and are swept downwards to their doom. Were it otherwise, were women the passionless creatures some doctors del
ight to paint them, all our encomiums of female virtue were idle mockery. It is because we realize that in the veins of the vestal virgin runs the same fierce tide which Egypt’s Queen nor Russia’s Empress could control, and which flamed in battle-splendor in the ten years’ war of Troy, that with uncovered heads we render her the tribute of our respect. Women admit all this in demanding the “single standard of morals.” It is doubtless true that many women are less amorous than their lords– are to some extent the victims of the latter; but before assuming that this defect is congenital it were well to inquire if there be not an efficient post-natal cause. It is no compliment to woman to urge that she contributes unwillingly to the world, would fain ignore the God-given law to “be fruitful and multiply.” Regardless of the affected horror of anaemic prudes and ancient wall-flowers, the woman of to-day insists upon being recognized as a vital force–is even beginning to comprehend that, refine it as you will, differentiate it as you may, it is the same vital force which fills the cradle that sways the scepter. As she aspires to share with man the regency of this world, she will scarce thank Carpenter and Maxwell for a premise from which the conclusion must be inevitably drawn that, as a world-power, she must ever rank with eunuchs–that she is here solely by man’s volition and despite her implied protest. We must understand woman before presuming to measure her passions or estimate her powers; and it is well to remember that after some sixty centuries of interested scrutiny she remains very much a mystery–to eminent physicians as well as others. Her mind seems to bewilder the psychologists no less than her body puzzles the physiologists–both find the factual impossible and the self-evident absurd. Dr. Maxwell has discovered, however, that comparatively few women marry men whom they would select were they free to inspect the entire human penfold and make a choice of a mate. Now if he will conjoin that fact to this other, equally self-evident, that with the average woman desire is the fruitage of which love is the flower, perchance he will find a valid explanation of what Carpenter calls her sexual passivity. Man is a born polygamist, but woman is not naturally polyandrous. This statement–which I have made hitherto to the consternation of the godly and at imminent danger of being prosecuted for heresy–is substantiated by the fact that with man desire usually precedes love, while the latter is not its necessary sequence; but with the normal woman love must act as pilot for passion–so much is she our moral superior. Every woman is a day-dreamer and a worshiper. During girlhood she pictures to herself some perfect man–some impossible demigod–who is to drift within the little circle of her life and make her the proudest of women, the happiest of wives. In grace or beauty, in genius or bravery–or all these attributes–he is to be the paragon, to tower like Saul above his brethren. Her husband is to be a man of whom she will be intensely proud, herself the envy of her sex. If this be not correct let some old mother in Israel answer. Happy for the daydreamer if her fairy prince, or somewhat her fond imaginings can accept as such, lays heart and fortune at her feet; sorrowful indeed if he come not, worse if he materialize and have eyes only for others. If she be so fortunate as to wed the one man in all the world whom she would have chosen had such choice been vouchsafed her by kind Heaven, o’ermastering love will sweep her through all the heavens a sensuous fancy ever feigned; but the chances are that her idol lives only in the ghostly realm of dreams, else goes elsewhere to wive, and she marries not whom she would but whom she must– wedlock, thanks to her mistaken training, being the end and aim of her existence. Instead of an idol to adore, she secures some foolish eidolon whom she can scarce respect, and through days of disgust and nights of agony strives to “do her duty,” to conceal from the world her disappointment. Thus is blood that might have been a sirocco to stir the soul of an anchorite, transformed into an icy mist–the Paphian Venus lies crushed, degraded, cold, amid the reeds of Pan. But this mesalliance, this mating with Davus the detested instead of with Oedipus the adored, is not the only cause of indifference. The health of American wives, their muliebrity or womanly power, is sapped in various ways. Millions of them are overworked, all the virility ground out of them in the brutal treadmill of existence; and it not infrequently happens that they are the wives of men in easy circumstances, who are too fat- headed to realize that those womanly attributes which so charm the sterner sex cannot long withstand continual drudgery. One is tempted to believe that such men married to save the expense of hiring a housekeeper, that they hoped by sleeping with their laundress to avoid wash bills. Take the great middle class of America (which is the social and moral cream of the country) and you will find that, as a rule, the men have abundant leisure in which to recuperate from the exhaustion of labor, and are robust as Jove’s Phoenician bull, while their wives slave from early morn till dewy eve and present the faded, “washed-out” appearance that bespeaks the work which is never done and the worry which ends only with death. If you will look closely you will detect traces of tight corsets and other sartorial enginery with which Dame Fashion attempts to eliminate the little life which continual cooking, washing and pot- walloping has left–for woman, though her heart be broken, her spirit crushed and her viscera a chaos, still clings to her vanity, will “follow the fashions” though they lead to a funeral. Such is your Idalian Aphrodite ten years after marriage, when to her matured charms the beauty of her girlhood should be as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine. And this wan, suffering creature, with a drug- shop on her pantry shelves and more “female complaints” than were known to the father of medicine, is expected to comfort the couch of Caesar! Nor is this all. As the struggle for existence grows harder (as it has been doing in America for some decades) and the necessity for “keeping up appearances” more imperative, ever greater precautions are taken to prevent family increase. So widespread is this evil that you can scarce pick up a paper without finding some abortion nostrum advertised. Scan the next paper that comes into your home and see if the virtues of some tansy, penny-royal or other foeticidal compound be not therein set forth. Were these crime promoters not extensively sold the murderous scoundrels who manufacture them could not annually expend vast sums of money without “public educators” for their exploitation. These advertisements frequently suggest the crime; that is their intent; hence publishers who insert them are the co- partners of abortionists and share both the iniquity and the cash. But even this costly advertising does not indicate the extent of the evil, for by far the greater part of those married women who desire to avoid maternity are their own practitioners–paying the penalty with premature age, impotency and pain. As a rule the mother of a large family is a healthy woman with vigor unimpaired, while others of her age having few children or none are the semi-invalids who denounce their husbands to the doctor. The practice of avoiding marital responsibility is frequently condemned by the medical press, even by the pulpit; but while M.D.’s and D.D.’s make a specialty of both gynecology and gyneolatry, neither seem to understand the spirit in which these sins against hygienics are committed. Doubtless a few fashionable butterflies avoid motherhood for selfish reasons; but these are unimportant exceptions to the rule. If a woman does not love her husband she may not care to bear him children; but maternal instinct usually dominates this desire. If she does love him, and his financial resources be limited, she hesitates to increase his responsibilities. The social standing of a family in this a
rtificial age is measured chiefly by the faithfulness with which it follows fashion’s decrees; and as every child, by enhancing expense makes service of this modern Moloch more difficult, the unborn innocents are slain. She considers the educational and other advantages that will accrue to the children already born, and unselfishly–if sinfully–sacrifices herself. It is an evil that will scarce be eliminated by the dehortations of homilists who see no deeper than the surface. Dr. Maxwell and his lady lecturer are certainly mistaken in the assumption that American husbands do not consider the welfare of their wives when in a delicate condition, and it is a mistake that must be classed either as criminal negligence or calumny. I opine that the lady lecturer aforesaid is a sour old maid–that if she ever becomes a wife and mother she will learn somewhat of the caprices of her sex subsequent to conception that will materially modify her complaint. Reasoning by analogy from the inferior order of animals to man hagled more than one enthusiastic physiologist into serious error. The medical profession is continually alarming the country. It has been but a little while since men were assured that they were poisoning their babies by kissing them, and now they are flatly told that their wives regard the nuptial couch with aversion. Havana cigars give a fellow the “tobacco heart,” plug exhausts the saliva necessary to digestion, and bourbon whiskey burns his stomach full of blowholes. Beer makes him bilious, tea and coffee knock out his nerves, while plum-pudding gives him dyspepsia, grape pie appendicitis and hot biscuits undermine his general health. Emotional preaching afflicts him with “jerks,” golf has a tendency to paresis, the round dance infects him with philogyny and bicycling deforms his face. We might just as well be dead and with Lucifer as believe these doctors, for life wouldn’t be half worth the living if we heeded their laws. My brethren of the loaded capsule and sociable stethoscope are evidently off their equipoise. Babies flourish much better on the kiss micrococcus than on the slipper bacillus, few women will live with impotent husbands, and nearly every centenarian is a collocation of bad habits that, by all the laws of Hippocrates, should have buried him at the halfway house. It may seem unchivalrous to say so, but it is a stubborn fact nevertheless, and merits the consideration of Dr. Maxwell, that more men are misled by lustful women than maids betrayed by designing men. In fact, no man–at least no civilized man–makes improper advances to a woman unless he receives some encouragement, being deterred both by chivalrous sentiment and respect for the persuasive shotgun. Despite the picture drawn by the lady lecturer and others of the horrors of married life, I opine that the woman who captures a sure-enough man who isn’t negotiating simply for a cook and chambermaid, and who can be depended upon to play Romeo to her Juliet for sixty years or so, should be in no unseemly haste to break into that heaven where Hymen is given the marble heart, and the matron who breaks into the game with seven obedient husbands to her credit has no advantage over the old maid who never swallowed a pillow while watching a man clad only in a single garment and a cerulean halo of profanity, making frantic swipes under the bureau for a missing collar- button.