- Mythological figures in which the male and female are combined are common throughout the world’s cultures.
- The current Western conception of gender as being wholly and unequivocally either male or female is highly unusual in a global context.
- In Western eyes, sexual desire itself appears to be essentially masculine in nature; but this does not necessarily imply weak feminine libido.
"Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known… [She] is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance, she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding."—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Some of our earlier posts have led readers to ask who enjoys sex more—men or women? As with so much else, ancient Greek mythology might offer an answer.
The story of Tiresias
Tiresias, when still a young man, was walking through the forest when he came upon two snakes entwined in copulation. Upon placing his staff between the two amorous serpents, he was suddenly transformed into a woman. What became of the snakes is unknown.
Years later, Tiresias was again walking through the forest when she again interrupted a private moment between two snakes. By once more placing her staff between them, she completed the cycle and was transformed back into a man.
The unique breadth of experience thus enjoyed by Tiresias led Zeus and Hera to call upon him to resolve a marital dispute: Who enjoys sexual intercourse more, males or females? The answer from Tiresias was both unambiguous and precise: Females do—nine times more than males!
This response incensed Hera so much (as she was apparently attempting to argue how little pleasure she experienced) that she struck Tiresias blind. Feeling responsible for having gotten poor Tiresias into this mess, Zeus tried to make amends by giving him the gift of prophecy. It was from this state of blinded vision that Tiresias prophesized the terrible destiny of Oedipus.
The blending of masculine and feminine around the world
Mythological figures in which the male and female are combined are common throughout the world’s cultures. In India, Shiva is often depicted united with Shakti, his spouse—he on the right side, she on the left—in the manifestation known as Ardhanarisha, “The Half-Woman Lord.” Some African and Melanesian tribes have ancestral images which contain both female breasts and a beard or penis to signify the masculine. Awonawilona, the principal god of the pueblo of Zuni, known as the maker and container of all, is sometimes referred to in the masculine, but is actually he-she. Syng Hyang, the “ambisexual” Balinese god, is thought to be capable of changing sexes instantaneously (Highwater, 1990). The Candomblé deity, Oxumare, switches sexual identity every six months (Krippner, 2001). And The Great Original of the Chinese chronicles, the holy woman T’ai Yuan, contained both the masculine Yang and the feminine Yin. Among the Greeks, Hermaphrodite and Eros were each both male and female.
Moving from the mythological plane to the physical, we find a blending of the male and female essences in the behavior and thought processes of many cultures. In many North American tribes, for example, the two-spirited one (formerly known as a berdache) is seen as an utterly legitimate, even sacred gender identity—despite being neither male nor female (Williams, 1986). In India, the hijras are similar in that they are born male but choose to become not-men-not-women and undergo castration to gain admission to one of the seven “houses” of the hijra community (Harris, 1989). The Sworn Virgins of Albania are biologically women, but women who have decided to be male in gender, normally before the age of 10. They take a vow of chastity, wear men’s clothing, work with the men, and are accepted as being men—except that they cannot be murdered. This prohibition is a distinct advantage in a culture driven by blood feuds (Taylor, 1996).
As a last example of these shifting, fluid lines between male and female, the Hua people of New Guinea distinguish physical sex from social gender by reference to nu—a substance that is essentially female in nature. Nu is produced by women but can be transmitted to men via sexual contact and food (somewhat like the concept of yin energy in Taoist thought). Figapa people contain a lot of nu, while kakora people have little. The figapap include fertile women, children of both sexes (because of their close contact with the women), postmenopausal women who have had fewer than three children, and old men who have become permeated with nu during years of sexual contact and nu-rich food. The kakora include males who have been initiated properly and postmenopausal women who have had more than three children—which has purged them of nu so effectively that they can be given male initiation and go to live in the men’s house (Taylor, 1996).
The Western conception of gender
Even so cursory a survey of the anthropological literature on gender strongly suggests that the current conception of gender in the Western world as being wholly and unequivocally either male or female is highly unusual in any comprehensive context.
Furthermore, it is striking to note that while the male and female essences are seamlessly blended or eternally shifting in many myths and customs of cultures around the world, the currently accepted, bifurcated sense of sexuality is not only split; it is predominantly preoccupied with only half of the spectrum. Like nervous photo editors airbrushing away inconvenient reality, the female half of human sexuality is largely missing from the picture.
Indeed, in Western eyes, sexual desire itself appears to be essentially masculine in nature. The surprisingly scant body of research into female sexuality tends to be focused on issues tangential to the pleasure and fulfillment women may be experiencing. In a recent review of sex research, Manderson, Bennett, and Sheldrake (1999) conclude:
"Much of the research on sexuality is concerned with the sexuality of men, although specifically homosexuality; for women, the silences around sex and sexuality are marked, and the majority of studies on women and sexuality are about sex work…In the research that does focus on heterosexual female sexuality, the exploration of desire and pleasure tend to be conspicuously absent."
Until recent times, to have attributed open sexual desire or the shameless pursuit of physical pleasure to a woman would have been to insult her character. With very few exceptions, this is still the case. The so-called double standard is well-known and well-represented in various types of cultural and religious iconography. The feminine is celebrated for its supposed passive, non-sexual character. Jesus was born to a woman who had supposedly never had a sexual experience. Living in Spain, I’ve met many women called Inma, which is an abbreviation for Inmaculada Conception (Immaculate Conception)—certainly an interesting name to choose for one’s daughter!
Before we come to any conclusions about the weakness of female libido, we should consider the thoughts of Tiresias and the impact of thousands of years of cultural indoctrination on the free expression of female desire.