Sexuality in the Renaissance

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During the Renaissance period, sexuality impacted how people, both men and women, were treated and how they behaved. The lives of women were completely defined by the ideals of sexuality that were enforced during that time. Every area of a woman’s life from birth was influenced by outside influences rather than by they themselves. It took a particular type of woman to break past the clearly defined description of what a “Renaissance woman” should be. Sexuality is defined as one’s sexual character which possesses the structural and functional traits of sex. In the Renaissance, this definition was accompanied with ideologies of gender. This incorporated knowledge led to their notions of the female being inferior to the male based on what was already known about the male. Women were seen as well as imperfect versions of men. 1 “The Aristotelian model, viewed women as incubators, contributing nourishing matter and a warm place for  the fetus to develop, while the male see provided the formal principle or soul.” 2 Homosexuality, although condemned as a “nonprocreative” sex act, was still seen and documented in the Renaissance society.3 It was acknowledged in literature and art even though the church deemed it as a crime “against nature”. This behavior was documented as more prominent with men than women. This is partially because the majority of women were illiterate and they generally kept their business quiet. It was also a common occurrence for women to keep close company with each other, so it wasn’t always easy to distinguish between friendships and intimate relationships. 4 Queen Christina of Sweden was one homosexual woman who stepped down from her position to avoid marriage altogether. Nuns and even housewives took part in homosexual activities and were a literary favorite because of their apparent fervor.5 The literature of that day showed an interest in sexual ambiguity as well as boundary crossing. The “passing women” was a term of the day which described a woman who, for freedom, dressed as a man or even married another woman. As a result of the strict limitations that were put on women, they sometimes felt the need to switch their identity in order to gain access as well as privileges that were unknown to them. The powerful, well-known soldier, Joan of Arc, wore men’s clothes and bore arms in battle. Some women soldiers cross dressed while in the army and their true identities were never discovered until they were dead.6 Consequently, the courts had to give a ruling individuals sex and then forced people to stick to a specific gender.7 The actual condition of women’s lives in the Renaissance were very much based off of these ideals of sexuality. Women were expected to play certain roles in their families at every age. Whether they were young daughters (virgins), wives, mothers, or widows, they had a lot to deal with. Daughters had to learn all of the skills that they were supposed to be able to do as managers of a house as well as a wife. They had to know how to do things such as supervise servants and run the houses expenses. At a young age, the rules of chastity, obedience, and silence were instilled in them. If a woman was to be married, it was expected that she would bring her inheritance as a dowry to her new husbands’ home. Woman rarely owned anything for themselves for if something did not belong to her husband, it belonged to a male relative.8 During the Renaissance, human desire was regarded by the church as a detour from the path of salvation. Sex was seen then as a sin of the flesh, only to be used for procreation. Celibacy and virginity was preferred over the practice of actual sex and was demanded of woman until they were married. 9 Honor also depended on virginity. If a young girl lost her virginity, no matter the situation, she would be deserted by her male kin which often left prostitution as her only option. Women had to remain celibate because they were defined solely by what they had to offer.10...
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