Women & Sex: A Desire That Says Equality
In selective works from some of the 17th century's most influential poets, a collective theme often appears: the poets allow the women they write about to assume the roles of sexually charged characters in a new fashion. Treating topics ranging from chlorosis to premature ejaculation to impotence, these poets not only address the issue of sex but also many of the concerns that may arise during sexual encounters. More importantly, each explores the divisions between the men and women's behaviors provoked by these experiences. In "A Remedy for the Greensickness," by an anonymous poet, the reader encounters a woman who suffers the tortuous effects of intense sexual desire. Whereas this piece offers the notion that only men possess the prowess to remedy this sort of illness, it also explicitly reveals a distinctive incurability in the woman's condition. Further compelling the idea that men lack this supreme ability, "The Women's Complaint to Venus," found in Some Songs from Bassus, depicts women who prefer the pleasures of men but nonetheless find greater satisfaction from other, unconventional sources. Introducing more overt evidence of men's sexual limitations, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and Sir George Etherege illustrate the effects of premature ejaculation from a male perspective and consider the disenchantment caused for the female in their poems, both entitled "The Imperfect Enjoyment." While the males receive some mocking from the poets, the females command the compassion of the writers and the audience. Perhaps the most intuitive representation of a sexually unfulfilled woman emerges with Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment," in which a young virgin's first sexual encounter ends without ever having begun. This particular poem differentiates itself from the rest, for no other poet communicates the female perspective of dissatisfaction first-handedly. Considering these poems within the context of each other results in an intriguing argument worth further examination. In treating men as beings not absolutely endowed with the capacity to cure the sexual thirsts and desires of women, the poets of the 17th century grant their female characters significant sexual equality with their male lovers, especially in terms of their own demands.
Interestingly, poets during the 17th century began to write about a condition, clinically acknowledged as chlorosis, in which women's sexual appetites would cause intense pain and suffering. While accepted as a medical condition, it also received recognition as the outward manifestation of a woman's sexual desires. In "A Remedy for the Greensickness," a young girl endures this illness, calling out for her only suspected cure: a man to have sex with. The Oxford English Dictionary defines chlorosis, often referred to as greensickness, as a disease mostly affecting young females about the age of puberty, characterized by anæmia, suppression or irregularity of the menses, and a pale or greenish complexion. Accordingly, the poet describes the virgin as "panting" (1), "green" (2), "mournful" (2), "burning" (8), and "despair[ing]" (12). From the onset of this poem, her condition deems her weakened and defenseless. The girl, herself, adds to this portrayal, as she cries out "I cannot live, I sigh and grieve,/ My life I now disdain" (4-5). She describes herself as suffering "misery" (7) and "torments" (10) that make her "quite mad to end [her] misery" (7). In a contrasting light, she seeks a "brisk and brave" (19), "gallant" (28) young man with "courage bold" (25) to "keep [her] from [her] grave" (21). The language used to define both the girl and the young man creates a dichotomy in their supposed benefits from this encounter. While he appears to come merely to aide her toward recovery, the boy's arousal also requires attention: "It made his heart full glad to hear what she did say./ Into the room immediately this youngster did rush"...
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