A brief history of watching sex (and being watched)

Children used to be encouraged to gaze on couples in flagrante as a "method of instruction"

Topics: Books, Writers and Writing, Sex, Voyeurism, Exhibitionism, Editor's Pick, Editor's Picks, ,

A brief history of watching sex (and being watched) (Credit: macroworld via iStock)
Excerpted from "The Pleasure's All Mine"

Exhibitionism has taken various forms throughout the ages. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians who traveled to Bubastis to celebrate the festival of Artemis exposed themselves to those they passed by. They came on barges in great numbers and on the way the men would play flutes and the women sing, clap and clatter castanets. As they passed by a town on the riverbank, they would bring their barge close into the shore and the women would ‘shout abuse at the women of the place, or start dancing, or hitch up their skirts.’ These activities were an expected part of the procession. However, there were a variety of reasons and opportunities for showing off, and not all fitted neatly into patterns.

People have also exposed themselves as a form of insult. One woman called Mara from sixteenth-century Dubrovnik had gone to the house of Fiorio Petrovich and condemned him as a sodomite, calling him a ‘horned goat’ while gesticulating with lewd gestures. Afterwards, according to Petrovich, ‘to spite me, she lifted her clothes, showing her private parts.’ Such displays of intimate body parts were later to become recognized by twentieth-century anthropologists as methods of challenging or aggressive behaviour in ‘primitive’ people. As Evans-Pritchard remarked of the Azande women of Central Africa, ‘unusual action of the female genitalia is considered unlucky. It is injurious to a man if a woman provokingly exposes her vagina to him, and it is yet more serious if she exposes her anus in the presence of men.’ This belief gave women an innate power over men. Yet this type of exposure was obviously undertaken not only by tribal people but was also a common form of expression made with the intention of frightening the onlooker.

Some exhibitionistic acts undertaken in the past do not fit into a category of serious sexual deviance but were intended to shock with a laugh. Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’ in his fourteenth-century ‘Canterbury Tales’ told of one man involved in an incident in which he bared his buttocks:

And so he opened window hastily,
And put his arse out thereat, quietly,
Over the buttocks, showing the whole bum;
And thereto said this clerk, this Absalom,
‘O speak, sweet bird, I know not where thou art.’
This Nicholas just then let fly a fart
As loud as it had been a thunder-clap,
And well-nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap . . .



However, the seventeenth-century libertine was equally capable of intentionally insulting other people by showing off his buttocks, as Samuel Pepys was to record. He reported an incident of lewd exposure in his diary after the infamous Sir Charles Sedley had been celebrating at the Cock in Bow Street in June 1663, along with a party of friends that included Lord Buckhurst and Sir Thomas Ogle. Drunk as lords, they went out on the balcony, and according to one observer, ‘putting down their breeches they excrementized in the street: which being done, Sedley stripped himself naked, and with eloquence preached blasphemy to the people.’ He was heavily fined for his actions.

More innocuous acts involved tempting bets from friends who urged each other on to expose themselves. The Observer newspaper reported that on the evening of Friday, July 5, 1799, at seven o’clock, a naked man was arrested at Mansion House, the official residence of the Mayor of London. From there he was sent to the Poultry Compter, the small prison run by the Sheriff of London. The prisoner confirmed that he had accepted a wager of ten guineas (worth about £750 in today’s money) to run naked from Cornhill to Cheapside. While these types of exhibitionism were not taken too seriously (although there were sometimes small fines involved), laws were introduced to deal with more obvious intentions to shock, frighten or insult.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 enabled the prosecution of ‘every person willingly, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his person with intent to insult any female.’ It was thereby deemed to be an act perpetrated by a man towards a woman. Henceforth the perpetrator would be deemed ‘a rogue and a vagabond’ according to the law. However, men continued to exhibit themselves. On January 2, 1843, 43-year-old George Herridge was indicted ‘for indecently exposing himself’; he pleaded guilty and was jailed for twelve months. However, when 31-year-old John Daniels was found guilty of the same offence nine months later on October 23, he only received only one month in jail; there is nothing in the records to indicate why there was a disparity in sentencing. Some years later, on July 2, 1849, 62-year-old William Joiner was confined for four months for indecent exposure. Without more in-depth knowledge of the incidents, it is impossible to understand why some were treated more seriously than others, but other mitigating circumstances may have been involved. Then again, sentencing was, and is, notoriously inconsistent from one court to another.

In any case, given the low sentences passed, the activity was evidently not regarded as being too threatening. Even when the case of exposure took place in public places, it was often difficult to obtain a conviction. When, on January 5, 1857, Felix Hue exposed himself to Elizabeth Williams, it was on a public highway. Nonetheless, he was found not guilty, so presumably there were no witnesses. Even when there were witnesses, it seems to have still been problematic to ensure a conviction. On February 27, 1860, 31- year-old Giuseppe Pugno was accused of exposing himself to Margaret Stafford in the presence of William Henry Crocker. The incident had taken place in a railway carriage used for conveying passengers along the South Eastern Railway. Crocker’s defence argued that the carriage was not in a public place and suggested the carriage ‘might then be lying under some shed, or undergoing some repair in the carriage-house.’ The indictment was squashed on a technicality as ‘although it alleged the exposure to be in the presence of another person, it did not allege that it was within the view of that person; who, though present, might have been blind or sleeping.’

‘Streaking’ or ‘mooning’ became new terms for old activities. ‘Mooning’ as a popular term originated in the U.S. only around 1968 and was specifically used to apply to the act of publicly displaying the bare buttocks. It was usually done for fun rather than erotic arousal. Although the term ‘to streak’ had been used since medieval times to mean ‘to rush or run around’, it only came to imply nakedness from around 1973 onwards; this occurred after a mass nude run by 533 people took place at the University of Maryland. It seems to have been a particularly popular pastime at sports grounds – at cricket, rugby, football, tennis, snooker, golf and even the Olympic Games in 2006. One of the most famous female streakers (mainly because of the size of her breasts) was Erica Roe, who ran across a rugby match during an international tournament, showing off her forty-inch chest. Thousands of people saw the incident as it made headline news. Exhibitionism and its prohibition or acceptance therefore is, to a large extent, dependent on time and place.

****

Sexologists described voyeurism as the opposite of exhibitionism: watching people in the desire to glimpse their sexual organs or to see them having sex. Voyeurs often benefit from watching people who are unaware that they are being watched, the very secrecy providing an added frisson. In ancient Roman friezes and paintings, depictions of men and women having sex often included someone watching, standing behind a door or peering through a window; in paintings from Campania, someone else, usually a servant, is nearly always around in the pictures depicting couples having sex. The Roman poet Martial appreciated voyeurism when he advised one woman, ‘Always with doors wide open and unguarded, Lesbia, you receive your lovers; you do not hide your vices. The beholder gives you more pleasure than the lover.’

Peering through keyholes and gaps in walls seems to have be a pastime with a long history, if eighteenth-century bestiality and lesbianism trial reports are anything to go by. Many an upright citizen gave witness to the debauched behaviour of their neighbours after secretly peering through holes in their walls into adjacent homes. Richer families shared their homes with a bevy of servants who might sweep in at any time without a moment’s notice. Domestic servants were particularly well versed as witnesses at trials because of their close proximity to the rest of the household. Servants sleeping in overhead garrets were often party to the sexual activities of the inner sanctum of the boudoir of their mistresses. No doubt this created a sense of danger; the possibility of being caught in a clandestine relationship merely heightened the excitement.

Watching sex was also used as a method of instruction for young people, who were encouraged to witness couples having intercourse. John Cleland was worldly enough to have known about the regime of brothels when he wrote “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” (1748). He shows how the fictional heroine Fanny Hill began her sexual experience as a voyeur, watching through a hole in the wall while a couple had sex in the next-door room at the brothel where she was living. John Cannon (1684–1743) showed that this was not only a fiction. At sixteen, he drilled holes in a privy wall so he could masturbate while viewing the genitals of a maidservant living in the house next door. Similarly, a bunch of eighteenth-century libertines from Norwich planned their voyeuristic activities after they had drilled holes in their guests’ bedrooms in order to watch them. They also peered through keyholes to watch the sexual activities of others.

During the twentieth century, voyeurs were sent to psychiatrists for assessment and treatment, but most doctors seemed to consider them harmless (if excessive masturbators). As with exhibitionism, women were even blamed for men’s problems. One contemporary commentator of the 1960s exclaimed: ‘Some men provoke complaints from women; but some women invite such attentions by dressing and undressing with needless publicity.’ During the 1950s and ’60s, voyeurs were thought of as people who hung about parks, beaches and swimming pools hoping to catch a couple having sex or obtain a glimpse of genitalia. Others, known as Peeping Toms, peered through windows under cover of night, lurking in gardens. The term ‘Peeping Tom’ comes from the legend of Lady Godiva, when in 1044 Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, imposed excessive taxes on his tenants which his wife, sympathetic to the townspeople, asked him to remove. He agreed to do so only if she would ride naked through the town. Lady Godiva did so, but all the townspeople averted their gaze, except for Tom the tailor, who peeped though his window and was struck blind as a consequence.

In the twenty-first century, voyeurism is no longer necessarily conducted outside the home but can be quietly indulged in while sitting at a computer. In the comfort of an easy chair, it is possible to watch adults copulating, overhear schoolgirls chatting with each other about sex, watch women undress, see men urinate or all manner of acts which involve a state of undress – none of it illegal. Housewives have set up webcams to expose themselves and get paid for their services by the minute. Home videos now compete with the higher end of the porn market: teenage girls masturbating, single women having sex with their boyfriends, suburban married couples sharing partners with their neighbours – all are easily accessible to view online. The concept of voyeurism has therefore been eroded to a large extent, although there are still those who seek their pleasures in a more 3d form. Striptease acts, pole dancing and naked bars all offer full frontal viewing for the price of a couple of pints. The acceptability of voyeurism now comes down to a matter of consent.

One of the most recent forms of displayer/spectator sport can be seen in a more equitable form of exhibitionism–voyeurism. Called ‘dogging’, this activity takes place in parked cars in public or semi-public places. It seems to have started in the U.K. in the 1990s when people began to visit a particular area such as a car park or lay-by in order to have sex in the car, but left on their lights so that other people could watch. This also indicated to other doggers that they were part of the scene. The phenomenon has spread all over the West and several websites have sprung up to organize meetings between strangers to have sex in public places.

Strangely, non-consensual voyeurism did not become a criminal offence in the U.K. until May 1, 2004, and in Canada not until 2005. These laws also cover the offence of secret filming. In the U.S., the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004 amended the federal criminal code to provide that whoever knowingly videotapes, photographs, films, records by any means or broadcasts an image of a private area of an individual, without that individual’s consent, shall be fined or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both. Increasingly the laws have had to be amended and updated to take into account new ways of becoming voyeuristic. Meanwhile, exhibitionists and voyeurs were to introduce new games to their sex play.

Excerpted from “The Pleasure’s All Mine: A history of perverse sex” by Julie Peakman. Copyright 2013. Reaktion Books. All rights reserved.

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