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"

By Julie Peakman

Published November 17, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

     (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=898682'>macroworld</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(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 b...

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