Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The ReaderThe National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Despite attempts to counter gender inequalities, western women today still face many issues. For centuries, female sexuality has been relegated to the margins of wider discussions about sex. Studies are only just beginning to show the disturbing effects that masculine-dominated narratives around sex have had on women. It is jarring to learn just how many women tolerate discomfort or even pain during sex, often enduring it for the sake of their partner’s pleasure at the expense of their own wellbeing. The extent to which the female sexual experience is not being communicated in science, film, media and academia is truly shocking, leaving us with the problem of where to find the words to express it

Aphra BehnWikimedia Commons

While discussion of this issue may seem like one confined to the modern day, the words of women from the past testify that the position of female sexuality has always been a concern. In 1680, Aphra Behn published her poem The Disappointment, which tells the story of Lisander’s seduction of Cloris. Behn’s poem seems at first glance utterly conventional, with Lisander the active pursuer and Cloris the passive recipient of his advances. In Cloris’ experience, “Love and Shame confus’dly strive”; her sexuality is a carefully balanced performance, unable to untangle her desire from the shame that follows. While Lisander is able to pursue his sexual cravings, Cloris must maintain her honour despite herself.

However, what is striking about Behn’s poem is how she focuses on Clorisexperience of the encounter. The “disappointment” of the title refers not to Lisander’s frustration, but Cloris’, as Lisander is left unable to complete the act at the poem’s humorously anticlimactic conclusion. Behn uses the narrative of male love poetry, the conventions of the passive, fleeing woman and the amorous man, before sharply turning the tradition on its head. Her poem is not a satisfying escapist dream, but a subtle presentation of female sexuality and the shame that must inevitably accompany its expression. Through wit, the female voice defies the weight of a masculine tradition.

While Behn shows us the suppression of the female experience, Labé is tired of the delicate performance

Louise Labé, writing in Lyon earlier in the 16th century, is still bolder than Behn’s work in overturning contemporary conventions. In her Sonnet 18, she demands:

“Kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me more … Give me one of your most smouldering ones / I’ll repay it with four, hotter than any embers.”

Unlike Cloris, she demands sexual freedom without a hint of fear, asserting that “living in reserve makes me impatient”. While Behn shows us the suppression of the female experience, Labé is tired of the delicate performance. Labé’s poetry is most wonderful for the fact that she chooses the Petrarchan sonnet to express it, a form that for so long has been used to express male desire, in the process confining the female voice to the negative space between the lines. Labé rewrites the tradition, inverting the canon of male dominance both in sex and in writing.

Clearly, the poetry of Behn and Labé has a lot to offer us now, for in it we can find empowerment to overturn the traces of inequality that still scar our society today. Their work was so significant to uncovering the female experience that Virigina Woolf once argued that “all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

Louise Labé, an engraving by Pierre WoeiriotWikimedia Commons

Though Woolf is quite right to give Behn credit for being the first female writer to earn a living from her words, I have to acknowledge that there is something unsettling in her suggestion that “all women” owe Behn such a debt. Behn’s presentation of women of colour in her other works, particularly her short novel Oroonoko, is often problematic. As a white woman it is easy for me to note first Behn’s liberation of female sexuality, but her words also carry with them the darker weights of their time. If we do pull this poetry into the discourse of the contemporary feminist movement, it is essential to note its limitations in being, without a doubt, exclusionary. Behn might have been a championing figure for the likes of Virginia Woolf, but today we must understand the complexities and difficulties that will undeniably accompany any art we bring forward from the past.

If we recognise these elements of Behn’s writing for what they are, and understand how these are issues that also resonate so strongly today, we can use their nuance as part of a modern, intersectional movement by taking account of its simultaneous acts of liberation and suppression.


Mountain View

The naked body and the (fe)male gaze

The poetry of both Behn and Labé is testament to the fact that we must continue to fill the negative space between the lines with the words of the silenced. Just as Labé filled the Petrarchan structure with the voices of women so long confined to the margins of the form, we now must find space to talk about female sexuality creatively, academically, scientifically, anecdotally, and elevate the voices of all women to combat the problem. We cannot continue to play the delicate game of Cloris, lacking the language to express the female sexual experience. Though parts of Behn and Labé’s poetry should absolutely be left to the confines of the past, what both of these incredible women writers show us is that female sexuality always has, and will continually, strive to be heard, and that it is in fact quite possible to find the words to express it.