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Helen’s Lament and the Origins of Forbidden Love

October 18, 2009

Classical literature has judged Helen of Troy harshly. Because she chose Paris after having children with Menelaus, her chroniclers condemn her for the destruction of a great society. In Homer’s Odyssey the bard writes:

Helen would never have yielded herself to a man from a foreign country, if she had known that the sons of Achaeans would come after her and bring her back. Heaven put it in her heart to do wrong, and she gave no thought to that sin, which has been the source of all our sorrows.

This has been the tradition in Western society. An open female sexuality has been viewed as something deviant or sinful and is so ingrained that it’s nearly impossible to imagine it could be any other way. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s thought to be simply human nature. However, this is likely a more recent cultural condition and certainly isn’t the full story.

In many indigenous societies sexuality is considered a healthy activity and marriage is a flexible social arrangement that can be initiated or terminated by either sex. For example, among the Vanatinai people of the New Guinea Highlands, Lepowsky (1990:190) writes “sexual activity is regarded as a pleasurable activity appropriate for men and women from adolescence to old age.” Divorce may be initiated by either husband or wife, and is most frequently the result of laziness on the part of the husband or because of the wife’s infidelity. However, infidelity is apparently common enough that Vanatinai marriage rules make any children born to outside fathers the husband’s kin.
This is mirrored among the Australian Aborigines of the Darwin Hinterland. Sansom (1978:100) found that “marriage does not stand for the containment of sexuality within the relationship. It is expected that all husbands and all wives will want lovers.” However, an infidelity that becomes too serious and involves economic favors can frequently lead to bitter argument or divorce.
Even among the Yanomamo, a group regarded as the definitive example of a traditional society in which a man’s dominance status correlates with his reproductive success (high ranking men have multiple wives, low ranking men are bachelors), the picture is not as clear as some would like to believe. Anthropologist John Peters contacted the Shirishana Yanomana during a period when there was a shortage of women and found there were nine polyandrous marriages (one woman with several men) and five monogamous ones (Peters & Hunt 1975).
This flexibility of monogamy and the sexual freedom among many indigenous women today was likely a condition for indigenous groups in the past. As demonstrated by the Montagnais of Northeastern Canada in the 1600s, French Jesuit Paul le Jeune reported with consternation that:

“The inconstancy of marriages and the facility with which they divorce each other, are a great obstacle to the Faith of Jesus Christ. We do not dare baptize the young people because experience teaches us that the custom of abandoning a disagreeable wife or husband has a strong hold on them” (Leacock 1981:50).

Likewise, having children with multiple partners was another right that women and men took for granted and which the Jesuits weren’t able to convince the Montagnais to abandon. Perhaps the most telling difference between the sexual standards of indigenous and Western societies came when a Montagnais man objected to le Jeune’s preaching. According to le Jeune:

“I told him that it was not honorable for a woman to love any one else except her husband, and that this evil being among them, he himself was not sure that his son, who was there present, was his son. He replied, ‘Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe.'”

In contrast to tribal societies, the rise of states and the development of religious law initiated a starkly different vision for women’s sexual choices. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism each developed strict punishment for a woman’s sexual freedom. Whereas any “man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife [both] the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:10) any unmarried woman who has sexual relations with an unmarried man shall be brought “to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die” (Deuteronomy 22:21).
In fact, the only sexual relationship outside of marriage that did not end in death for the woman was in the case of rape. In that event, if the woman was married, “the man only that lay with her shall die” but, if she was a virgin, “the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her” (Deuteronomy 22:25-29). The main interest in all of these cases was the paternal interests of kinship and never the interests of the woman in question.
The Bible views women as being half as valuable as men, which is directly comparable to the Qu’ran. There are also direct parallels in punishing women’s sexuality. For example, there is no punishment for men in the event of rape except under the categories of “adultery or fornication.” In which case “scourge ye each one of them with a hundred stripes. And let not pity for the twain withhold you from obedience to Allah” (Surah 24:2). However, if a married or unmarried woman is “guilty of lewdness,” which Ali (2003:189) defines as adultery or fornication, “confine them to the houses until death take them or until Allah appoint for them a way [flogging for fornication and stoning for adultery]” (Surah 4:15).
The Manu Smriti, an early Hindu law book that claimed to record the words of Brahma, states that “When a woman, proud of her relations or abilities deceives her husband with another man, then the king should ensure that she be torn apart by dogs in a place much frequented by people.” (Manu VIII:371). Such punishment is necessary because “It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females” (Manu II:213). The Artharva Veda dictated that if a woman was found guilty of a carnal crime her generative organs were to be cut off and she was ultimately sentenced to death (Arth IV:13).
This stark contrast between indigenous and state societies can be understood as power relationships between the sexes that change as the result of social scale. Anthropologist John Bodley (who I’ve had the pleasure of working with directly) wrote in his groundbreaking work The Power of Scale that:

“The size of human societies and cultures matters because larger societies will naturally have more concentrated social power. Larger societies will be less democratic than smaller societies, and they will have an unequal distribution of risks and rewards” (Bodley 2003:54).

The invention of agriculture and the subsequent choice by some societies to remain sedentary led to the unequal accumulation of private goods and the need for a ruling elite to mediate property disputes. This ruling elite frequently identified themselves as an embodiment of the state itself (and often with divine authority). While smaller scale societies would manage any dispute or crime communally, state level societies defined all crimes as crimes against the state (for example, hunting wild deer on the King’s land would be construed as “poaching the King’s deer”).
Males of many species use their larger physical size, or sexual dimorphism, to increase their reproductive success. But females generally have opposing strategies when their reproductive interests are different. Whereas indigenous societies are often more egalitarian, early state level societies codified human sexual dimorphism into law and viewed paternity rights in the same category as property rights because inheritance was of greater concern. With the power of the state to punish any violation of the law, women were relegated to the status of chattel and their sexual choices were constrained by the threat of capital punishment.
I would argue that it has only been the rise of secular democracies, with the dispersal of centralized power structures and the reduction of religious authority, that has made it possible for women to reclaim their sexual freedom. The last thirty years has seen the largest rise in women’s economic and social power in human history (mostly confined to the West). It’s not coincidental that women have also seen the greatest freedom from sexual coercion and control during this same period. There is a great deal of work that needs to be done and, at the same time, there are still strong proponents in favor of moving backwards.
While greater female sexual equality hasn’t existed in every indigenous society, it would appear that social and environmental factors are crucial. Sexual equality means a woman’s right to enter and leave relationships with the same freedom as men. So we shouldn’t confuse sexual equality with promiscuity. One could make the argument that, whereas many women in the Middle East and North Africa are subject to one form of patriarchal control and denied sexual equality, women in the West are subject to another form and are made to feel like they must be sexual objects for male gratification. Looking at the images below, which culture would you say is guilty of imposing sexual roles on women?

With the Achaeans at the doorstep of Troy, Helen cried out to her new husband’s

Would that I had chosen death rather than to have come here with your son, far from my bridal chamber, my friends, my darling daughter, and all the companions of my
girlhood. But it was not to be, and my lot is one of tears and sorrow.

However, Helen’s lament is not the cry that has been universal throughout human history. While many women today are experiencing a bitter existence under patriarchal control, it may be some consolation to know that this isn’t a law of nature. This is the outcome of human decisions and can be changed if we have the commitment to do so.
Ali, A.Y. (2003). The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland.
Bodley, J.H. (2003). The Power of Scale: A Global History Approach. M.E. Sharpe. New York.
Leacock, E. (1981). Myths of Male Dominance. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Lepowsky, M. (1990). Gender in an egalitarian society: a case study from the coral sea. In Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in Anthropology of Gender. Sanday, P.R. & Goodenough, R.G. (eds). University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Peters, J.F. & Hunt, C.L. (1975). Polyandry among the Yanomana Shirishana. Journal of Comparative Family Studies 6:197-207.
Sansom, B. (1978). ‘Sex, age, and social control in mobs of the Darwin hinterland’, in J.S. La Fontaine (ed.), Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation, Academic Press, London.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2009 1:09 pm

    Excellent piece, though I suspect you’re optimism concerning “human decisions” may be mistaken (I hope I’m wrong).
    From my perspective, the centralization of power you point to isn’t so much a result of a given society’s size, as it is of its central organizing principles. The larger scale is a concurrent result, along with these property-based principles, an inclination toward invasive war, infectious disease, a radically shifted view of the natural world (from sheltering womb to potential enemy), and sedentary settlements—all results of the shift to agriculture. So, for me, Bodley is confusing cause/effect with two parallel results of the advent of agriculture in the quote you gave:
    “The size of human societies and cultures matters because larger societies will naturally have more concentrated social power. Larger societies will be less democratic than smaller societies, and they will have an unequal distribution of risks and rewards” (Bodley 2003:54).
    All true, but correlation, not causation, as they say.
    You appear to replicate this misplaced causation, as when you write:
    “The invention of agriculture and the subsequent choice by some societies to remain sedentary led to the unequal accumulation of private goods and the need for a ruling elite to mediate property disputes.”
    What societies invented agriculture but didn’t “choose” to become sedentary? Horticulturalists like the Yanomami wouldn’t qualify because their semi-foraging life makes them, by definition, not agriculturalists.
    As usual, weighty ideas, artfully presented.

  2. October 18, 2009 1:31 pm

    As I understand it, Bodley is discussing centralized societies not federal democracies. So I don’t think we disagree with each other that “central organizing principles” lead to inequality. Modern democracies generally have more internal freedoms the more decentralized the economic and political power structures are.
    To your second point, I was referring to the invention of agriculture, which would apply to horticulturist societies as well as agriculturalist societies. Many societies had the knowledge of agriculture but, based on culture or the environment they lived in, ultimately chose not to pursue it the same way. In other cases, some societies adopted an agriculturalist lifestyle and subsequently abandoned it.

  3. October 18, 2009 1:34 pm

    One more thing. You ask, “Looking at the images below, which culture would you say is guilty of imposing sexual roles on women?”
    Having just finished watching the Frontline World report on Pakistan (which is mind-blowingly excellent), I have to say it’s not even close. Only the woman in the burka is having anything “imposed” upon her. Nobody’s blowing up girl’s schools in the Western world (except maybe Muslim extremists). Yes, the fashion industry is a shameful mess, but a slick ad in a magazine is a far cry from acid in your face if you don’t wear the burka.

  4. October 18, 2009 1:37 pm

    Agreed. The primary difference being the political power structure imposing these sexual roles. Nonetheless, it is important to look ourselves in the mirror from time to time.

  5. Art permalink
    October 18, 2009 2:52 pm

    It has to be noted that many of the most repressive laws have come from societies where human population faced very clear limits in the bearing capacity of the land. Both Christianity and Islam come from arid regions where water and fertile soil are scarce and crops and flocks are subject to failure. In such a setting population control becomes paramount.
    Along with this comes the history of the people as nomadic, herders with a strong warlike culture.
    Given early knowledge if one wants to control population you control women. If you want to survive as a tribe in a nomadic and warlike culture you need men to fight. You need the women to have more male children to replace losses in battle and fewer female children, who will need to be watched.
    And, of course, if one sex has all the weapons and is raised to use violence it will, as a matter of course, maintain itself in power and control.
    None of that makes the subjugation of women right or good. Just more understandable.

  6. October 19, 2009 11:26 am

    I’d disagree with Art about population control being important to Christianity and Islam, both of which strike me as being anything but interested in limiting population growth. Rather, I think both religions encourage the rapid growth of population and the forcible expansion necessary to support it (using, of course, armies of expendable young men to do so). Marvin Harris and others argue that the ubiquity of infanticide in foraging societies has been greatly understated. His point is that population control is important for foragers who know the carrying capacity of their area. Farmers or pastoralists can always get more land to grow more food or raise more animals.

  7. October 22, 2009 8:29 pm

    @#3 CPR: There most definitely is a difference between a repressive regime that orders women to behave and dress in a certain way and forbids them education, the right to drive or work outside the home, etc., versus the free society women in the U.S. enjoy. But just because U.S. society’s prescribed cultural roles for women are not enacted into law and violations punished with the throwing of acid, doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that they don’t have some serious force. The cultural norms, demands, and expectations for femininity in the U.S. are completely different than they are in a country where a woman is required to be completely covered in a burka, but they do exist. I took this to be the point of the comparison of the pictures. That we should not deceive ourselves about our “freedom” to conform to an unrealistically thin, scantily clad, heavily made up, uncomfortably shod fuck fantasy of heterosexual men, always expected to be readily sexually available at a moment’s notice no matter what else we are doing.

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