Aphra Behn and Female Sexuality
Aphra Behn, recognized as being England’s first woman writer to earn money from her publications, is a woman who pushed boundaries with her writing in numerous ways. In addition to being a spy, playwright, and author of prose, Behn scandalized her contemporaries with her sometimes explicit and always unapologetic portrayal of female sexuality in her poetry. In a time when women were supposed to remain quiet about their sexual desires, Behn asserted that women, equal to men, were sexual beings. Behn palpably portrays women who are capable of lust and desire. One of many of Behn’s poems to explore the theme of female sexuality is “The Willing Mistress.” In this poem, Behn ignores the notion of denying female sexuality as she playfully and poetically explores female desire that is equal to male sexual desire.
The poem tells the thoughts of a woman who is reflecting on a sexual interaction she had with a man. As the title of the poem, “The Willing Mistress,” suggests, the woman of the poem is a willing participant in this sexual interaction, but readers may argue that the speaker’s emotions display female desire more than the female acceptance that might be implied. By describing the woman as “willing,” Behn is portraying female sexuality with a coy effect. She continues this effect and writes,
A many kisses did he give
And I returned the same,
Which made me willing to receive
That which I dare not name. (13-16)
This portrayal of female sexuality is befitting of the time period in which Behn lived. While her poetry was perceived as being explicit by her contemporaries, modern readers may see the way in which Behn censored herself for her modest audience. The description of the rendezvous is never told in vulgar terms. Behn never specifically describes sexual intercourse; rather, she only suggests the idea of intercourse. In creating this unspoken intimacy, Behn is able to discuss female sexuality without being completely scandalous. Further, the woman of the poem only reciprocates affection. She does not kiss the man first; she returns his kiss. This mere reciprocation of affection allows room for the common conception of submissive women. Still, it is worth noting that Behn’s subject matter alone was unbecoming for a woman of her time, and this is why Behn metaphorically walked on eggshells while crafting her works.
Another aspect of this poem is the idea that this sexual interaction takes place in private. Behn may be utilizing this setting as a means of commenting on the hidden nature of female sexuality. She writes,
Amyntas led me to a grove,
Where all the trees did shade us;
The sun itself, though it had strove,
It could not have betrayed us. (1-4)
Because women were not allowed to openly express their sexuality, Behn presents the lovers in a hidden grove, away from judgment. It is in this private grove, hidden by trees, that the woman of the poem feels comfortable to express her sexual desires. This presentation of hidden sexuality, again, allows Behn to discuss this taboo subject in her poem without being too shocking or crude for her audience. There is a politeness in Behn’s portrayal of sexuality that reflects her ability to maintain some level of respect for common presentations of women while dismantling the stereotype of women as nonsexual beings. Further, the private nature of the interaction serves as an example of how female sexuality was stifled and hidden. Women were expected to suppress their sexuality in public, but it was appreciated by men behind closed doors.
In conclusion, Aphra Behn’s poetry explores the theme of female sexuality. Despite the taboo nature of the subject, Behn writes of female sexuality that is as legitimate and complex as male sexuality. Behn maintains a level of modesty in her writing in a manner that is respectful of her audience and of the gender roles of the time, yet she depicts female sexuality with a sense of strength and wonder. Behn’s poetry and its reception sheds light on the hidden, unapproachable air that surrounded the subject of female sexuality, and her exploration of such subjects demonstrates her position as a pioneer of the female expression. Female sexuality is still a somewhat taboo subject in the modern age. Though great strides have been made towards gender equality, women are still judged based on their sexual prowess. Though mainstream culture embraces and commodifies sexuality, women are still looked down on for taking control of their sexuality. Perhaps Behn’s poetry is less of a time-capsule than a modern reader might suspect.
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