The Gift & Curse of Female Sexuality
Blog by: Jessica
Back when I wrote my article on the inherent evilness of women, I spoke about the Jewish folklore/biblical figure of Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who left the Garden because she would not lie under him during sex. She wanted to be treated as Adam’s equal but because she would not subjugate herself to him, she left the Garden and thus became demonized for her willfulness and sexual wantonness. Tales speak of her enjoying sex, embodying it and engaging in sexual congress with Satan to produce incubi and succubi (sex demons). Christian myths in the Middle Ages about Lilith and her children portrayed them as the cause of lust and licentiousness. Patriarchal religions made the demon Lilith a personification of unchecked female sexuality - disruptive and destructive.
Her counterpart, Eve, Adam’s second wife, is raised up as the ideal figure for maternal potential but also how as a sinner and seductress she needed to be controlled. Whereas Lilith had the ability to leave the Garden, Eve -- being created from Adam’s rib -- could not. Because she was tempted by Satan, Eve was punished with the role of having many painful pregnancies. Her sexuality was placed under the control of Adam which then made her good in humanity’s eyes. These are the tales of the supposed first women of humanity and both their stories reflect the patriarchy's fear of women and the potential monstrous power that is contained within the female form.
There are two of my favourite female-focused “coming of age” horror films that I feel engage this duality of female sexuality and they are Teeth (2007) and The VVitch (2016). The young women in these films are taught to be an Eve figure through obedience, abstinence until marriage and only using sex for procreation. If women deviate from this path and indulge in their sexual desires, act independently or question established patriarchal rules, we are like Lilith - monstrous and a danger to ‘societal norms’. In both of these films, we see young women transitioning into womanhood and as they experience the [supposed?] dark side of female sexuality, they actually embrace and find strength in it.
As Sady Doyle states in her phenomenal book Dead Blond and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the FEAR of FEMALE Power, that “Puberty marks the point where girls stop being people and start being women, where it becomes important to ensure their submission to male power.” (p.53) Not only are young women dealing with how to maneuver around a culture of menstruation and bodily/hormonal changes, but the dawning realization that they will no longer be seen as girls -- they are coming of age and becoming women. They will now be seen by the world as sexual objects and no longer in control of their own story; every choice made will be questioned and their sexuality will be judged. They will have to deal with the dark side of female sexuality; the shame of no longer being pure, as well as the responsibilities (sexual health, birth control, emotional attachments, the number of partners, relationships) that come with young women beginning to engage in sexual relationships.
In Teeth, we see Dawn as a young woman who looks to be a leader in an abstinence group where she speaks about the importance of “keeping your gift” (in reference to preserving your sexual virginity). However, as she begins to develop feelings for a member of the group, Todd, she finds herself opening up sexually, but also struggles with these feelings and bodily desires. This is seen one night while Dawn has a sexual fantasy about Todd and she attempts to relieve her desire by masturbating. However, she stops suddenly, remembering her pledge to stay pure. Dawn must deny herself these feelings to stay committed to her promise for purity and save herself for marriage. This is even evident in the sexual fantasy that has her dressed as a bride. While Dawn continues to explore her feelings for Todd and begins to become physical with him, he, unfortunately, takes her forward advances as ‘consent’ and proceeds to rape her. In the act of violation Dawn’s vagina castrates Todd. From this point on, Dawn continues her transition into womanhood by coming to terms with her sexual identity and the development of vagina dentata.
When Dawn tries returning to the abstinence group, and when she talks about her assault, she is cast out. Like Lilith, she is demonized and seen as impure. She can no longer fulfill her role as “Eve” a pure and maternal figure, which is what virgin women are destined to become. After being rejected from the purity group, Dawn seeks the solace of a male friend.
During this time she has sex with him and experiences the pleasure of it without the horrific repercussions. However, she later discovers that she was being used to boost his ego in a bet, and in an act of anger she uses her ‘teeth’ to castrate him. After being hurt and betrayed yet again, Dawn accepts what men would consider a monstrous ability for this is ‘when a girl leans into the violence of desire... that she becomes the monster” (p. 53). And while she may now be considered demonic like Lilith, she owns the power that comes with her sexuality. As Dawn enters into womanhood and experiences sex, she realizes that she will no longer be a victim of men but engage with them on her own terms.
The VVitch is a brilliant film that is a coming of age tale as much as it is a story about a family being tormented by a witch in the woods. Thomasin is a young woman living with her Puritan family isolated from the rest of the village due to her father’s prideful ways. While she is a dutiful daughter and does what she can to help her family survive, you can sense the spark of independence in Thomasin that comes as a young woman progresses into puberty. She questions the decisions of her father and is not afraid to speak her mind when she feels she is being wronged. This leads Thomasin to come into conflict with her mother, the other adult woman in the household, who views her own teenage daughter as a rival and treats her as a threat. She recognizes that Thomasin is coming of age and needs to be shipped off to live with another family in which she will find a husband and fulfill her duties as a good Christian woman (as a wife and mother, like Eve). She is to be married and only able to use sex for producing children which will keep her too busy to think for herself.
Thomasin’s father struggles the most with her transitioning into womanhood as he would prefer to keep his daughter a pure and obedient girl. When her mother accuses Thomasin of theft and for Samuel’s disappearance (her baby brother who was left in her care), her father comes to her defense because she is still a child to him. He even maintains this viewpoint after she is accused of being a witch by her mother. He refuses to see his little girl become a woman, one that could potentially destroy his family. However, this changes when Thomasin questions her father’s judgment and innocence.The fact that she steps out of her “place” as a woman and questions the patriarchal figure could only mean one thing -- she is a witch. Thomasin is no longer his daughter but now a monster that needs to be caged, judged, and then burned. In the end, after enduring the death of her entire family and the act of killing her mother, Thomasin makes a choice to “live deliciously”. She embraces the very monstrousness that was believed to be within her. Instead of choosing the life of a Christian housewife and repressed sexuality, she chooses to use the power that comes with her sexual freedom and like Lilith, she leaves ‘paradise’ to be free of the patriarchal shackles that had been placed upon her.
Female sexuality is often demonized and when a woman desires to enjoy sex beyond the scope of procreation she is seen as insatiable and monstrous. That is why the patriarchy, fueled by religious intention, strives to place young girls who are developing into women under control by creating a culture of sexual repression. Young women are taught to stay away from sex and remain pure until marriage. Only then can women participate in the act of sex under the control of their husband and with the purpose to procreate. To step outside of these established roles labels these young women as ‘whores’ with uncontrollable lust that will endanger men who come into contact with them. What I love about the sub-genre of “coming of age '' horror is how subversive it is. Young women are seen coming into womanhood and engaging in sex for the first time through a monstrous gaze that while it may seem demeaning at first can be read as empowering! Women, both young and old, are working to reclaim and redefine their sexuality by reconciling the feminine dualities of Lilith and Eve.