What Does Erotica Reveal about Society? Talking with Pernilla Myrne

"I really liked Cardi B’s 'WAP.' It reminded me of one of the earliest poems written in history."
Pernilla Myrne

In 1972, Pierre Bourdieu claimed that it was a universally acknowledged truth that patriarchal societies had no interest in the female orgasm; sex for patriarchal men was about quantity, not quality. Bourdieu’s claim proposes its mirror image: that the female orgasm is intrinsically antipatriarchal. However, the medieval Muslim world certainly had no shortage of patriarchy—and as Pernilla Myrne, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of the recent Female Sexuality in the Early Medieval Islamic World (2020) shows, there was no shortage of orgasms either—and women demanding them.

How-to manuals for giving your wife (or concubine) an orgasm, poets boasting of their sexual prowess: in the medieval Muslim world, how to give women pleasure was a huge concern for both scientists and littérateurs. Women got in on the game too, writing dirty poems about the beauty and wetness of their vaginas. Is that revolutionary? Does it matter?

Mathilde Montpetit sat down with Dr. Myrne to talk about talking about sex, and what historians can learn from texts that titillate.

Mathilde Monpetit (MM): The readers of Public Books are probably not very familiar with the early Islamic world that you describe in your book and your research. Can you tell us a little about what period you study, and especially what sex was like?


Pernilla Myrne (PM): My book focuses on the 9th and 10th century CE, what is now called the Abbasid Empire, whose imperial center was Baghdad. It was an enormously important time, intellectually: you have the translation of science and philosophy from Greek and Arabic, and the beginning of Arabic literary culture.

It was an important time for sex, too, because it was the end of the formative period of Islamic law; its rulings privileged male sexuality, as people know today. This era has been blamed by Muslim feminists, among others, for influencing Islamic law in a more patriarchal direction.

That may be true, absolutely. But I wanted to look at this period and see how people actually understood and perceived women’s sexuality. What I found is that there is a wealth of texts discussing sex, and also female sexuality. And these contradict the Islamic rules in many ways.

The learned texts include some on Islamic or Arabic medicine, but also a genre that I call erotology, which is influenced by ancient erotology, Greek and Persian and even Sanskrit, like the ma Sūtra. Alongside these learned discourses, we also have Arabic poetry and anecdotes from the earlier Arabic oral tradition. And all these discourses—learned discourses, scientific discourses—and prose and poems often discuss sexuality.


MM: In terms of men’s access to sex, at this time, they’re not only allowed to have four wives. In this early period, they’re also allowed sexual access to their female slaves, to concubines. What role did enslaved concubines play in this environment?


PM: This is the 10th century, so slavery is everywhere. And yes, men had sexual access to their female slaves (women did not have access to male slaves).

There was a huge, visible population of enslaved women in the cities, especially in Baghdad. Many of them were taught to read and write and speak perfect Arabic, and were entertainers, artists, musicians, poets. … These educated slave women constituted what we can call a courtesan culture, a bit like the geishas in Japan. They were artists, and they were also entrusted with the learned Arab traditions: storytelling, poetry, prose. They could also recite from the Qur’an or from the traditions attributed to the Prophet and others, called hadīth.

The courtesans’ poems and anecdotes became a body of work that was repeated in later literature. Some of them are still told today, not least because many are included in the One Thousand and One Nights, which has stories about the caliphs of this period, the well-known singers, the poets.


MM: One of the things I found remarkable about the literature you include in your book is how explicit it is—it’s surprising!


PM: Yes, it’s interesting, because we think that talking openly about sexuality is a part of progress—and that we, today, are at the height of progress.

But that’s not true. Of course this society was male-dominated; it was a patriarchal society, like all other historical societies. But it was possible to talk explicitly about sex, sexual pleasure, sexual desire, for both men and women.


MM: Poetry was a particularly big forum for this, right?


PM: Yes, there are very explicit poems attributed to women about sexuality. And some of them are lost, because they were not copied or transmitted later on.

But there are references to women who are describing their vaginas, in line with a popular poetic genre called mujūn. It was especially popular in the social group I was talking about before, these poets and artists. Many, but not all, of the women were originally enslaved—they were not rich, but they could read and write, and they were learned. They were entertainers. It was absolutely okay in their world, and they were probably appreciated for it: some of these women are extremely famous, even if their particular poems are not extant.

But in later periods, this came up against the changing norms of society. I think that is the fate of many women in history. When they lived their lives and expressed what they felt, it was appropriate and appreciated; but for later authors and transmitters and the ones who filter history, it was not. So they got left behind.


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MM: It reminds me a bit of the culture wars around explicit rap lyrics, particularly by women.


PM: Yeah, it’s awful [laughs]. I really liked Cardi B’s “WAP.” It reminded me of one of the earliest written poems in history, dedicated to the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna. She was famous for poems attributed to her, where she describes her own vagina. And it’s wet. It’s well-watered land, or a hill. Some of those symbols and metaphors reoccur in Arabic poetry—though the poems by these famous courtesans are not extant, there are vagina poems attributed to women, usually anonymous, in these erotic manuals. This was a genre in which men described their penises, so why couldn’t women do the same? They describe their vaginas in humorous and bragging ways, like “I have the most beautiful, I have the most attractive vagina: come on.” The men could say, “I have the biggest penis. It’s like a sword, it’s like a minaret.” The women would say, “But my vagina is so wet and so hilly. It’s sweet like honey.” Et cetera.

I find it really funny that these metaphors are used in a totally different setting, two thousand years later, and apparently not influenced by the Arabic poetry. But it’s really time to break these barriers of shame around women’s bodies, and it’s so good that cool idols like Cardi B and others are doing this—they’re doing something important.


MM: Were these texts meant to be erotic? When people read them, was that meant to be an erotic experience?


PM: To start with the erotology, yes. There is one extant book, an encyclopedia, which is translated as the Encyclopedia of Pleasure, from the late 10th century, which I’m currently editing and translating. It is made up of supposedly everything the author knew and had read about sexuality, and in particular, sexual pleasure. Erotic literature is an important part of it, and it was definitely meant to be titillating, to be arousing, absolutely.

But there’s much more to it. The book has three themes. The erotic, the titillating, is one. That is meant to arouse the readers, but also entertain—those are very close to each other. But the most explicit theme is the learned discourses on sex, to show off everything the author knew that was new and modern, freshly translated from Greek and Persian. It is addressed to a specific class of readers, to male readers, to educate them but also to make them feel exclusive. Because this is exclusive, complex knowledge.

The third is sex education. A lot of it looks like it’s taken from the Indian tradition, but other sources, too. The author really wants to teach men, the male reader, how to please a woman.

But the book was written at a particular time, so of course it reflects that ideology, especially that, in theory at least, men have sexual access to a large number of women. The author wants to show his male readers that you have all these opportunities to get pleasure from women, but at the same time he says that women are different.

One of his main points is that in order to get pleasure, you have to also see to it that your partner is enjoying the act. It’s absolutely fundamental for pleasure, and also for love and marriage and relationships. Men have access to all these women, but they have to make sure that each of them gets pleasure. He has a really nice focus on simultaneous orgasms, because he has a theory about it, that the semen, from men and women, has to mix—and that creates a loving relationship.


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MM: There’s a persistent trope in this literature of insatiable female desire, this idea that women are hypersexual. How does that work?


PM: It’s very interesting. The widespread idea—I also find it in Islamic religious sciences—was that women have much more sexual desire, naturally, than men have.

But it seems like the author of the Encyclopedia of Pleasure doesn’t think that lines up with reality. For him, the hypersexual woman is an erotic fantasy, a male heterosexual erotic fantasy—this woman who enjoys sex and who is very easily satisfied, who is easily aroused: she only has to see his dick and she will love him. She doesn’t need more; he doesn’t even have to touch her. She only wants sex. That is an erotic fantasy.

But when it comes to real women, the author of the Encyclopedia says that women, especially free women, tend to be shy. So you have to treat them sensitively, and you have to be careful. You shouldn’t, for example—and he says this—you shouldn’t try these unconventional sex methods with them, because they would find it humiliating. He takes for granted that women have natural desire, but they are brought up in a way that makes them feel shame for their natural desire. So the man becomes the teacher, he becomes the one who will open up her sexual desire again and allow her to feel pleasure.


MM: What do you mean that hypersexuality is a fantasy, in this context?


PM: That this particular kind of female sexual desire is attractive and arousing to his heterosexual audience. And I think it’s the same today. Modern porn is directed to a heterosexual male audience, and many of the women who populate these porn videos, too, are very easily aroused and easily enjoy sex.

But the problem is, how can you accommodate this within the norms regulating female sexual desire, especially in a patriarchal society like that of the 9th and 10th century?

I think the author of the Encyclopedia of Pleasure found a solution; namely, to take these erotic fantasies—which are not realistic, because most women need to be touched and need to have foreplay; they need to get aroused in different ways—and combine them with sex education. I think it’s very neat that he combines these two.

Perhaps that’s a problem today, when porn is everywhere, especially the kind of porn that is directed to this kind of audience. It doesn’t always show female pleasure in a realistic way, or at least many women feel that this portrait is unrealistic; they couldn’t feel pleasure from that.

So it should be combined with sex education—that’s something we can really learn from this time period. You can’t present these erotic fantasies without telling your audience that it’s not that easy.


MM: That’s a very good point. Yet you do have female authors today who are trying to reclaim all this, like Salwa Al Neimi. Her book, The Proof of the Honey (2009)—which was a best seller in many Arab countries—is very frankly erotic. She’s consciously evoking this tradition.


PM: I think it’s very good to try to reclaim this tradition, and to somehow transform it a bit. Make it a bit more modern, and perhaps a bit more feminist, which it definitely wasn’t at the time.

The matter of women’s sexuality has become a very contentious issue in the Arab world, in part because sexual freedom has become a symbol of the West—both decadent and colonialist. Writers like Salwa Al Neimi are very brave to try to reclaim this tradition, which is not only Arabic but also Persian and Turkish.

I think that in the beginning, the Arab women’s movement didn’t want to deal with this, because there are so many things there that we don’t want to have in modern society. But as an activist, you’re absolutely free to pick out the good things from different historical contexts. We can have this and this and this, and we can use it to build a more equitable modern world.


MM: The question of Muslim women’s relationship to sex, and talking about sex, has recently been brought back to the fore by Leila Slimani’s Sex and Lies (2020), about Moroccan women. When I was reading it, it struck me that Slimani has a rather “conventional” or “second-wave feminist” lens on prostitution. The only sex worker she interviews is very clearly unhappy with her situation, and sex workers appear throughout the book as victims of overweening male desire.

That’s very different from the emerging discourse around sex work in the US, which argues that sex work can be empowering, and, in fact, may be in some ways inherently empowering. That’s of course in part a reflection of the very different socioeconomic situations in Morocco and the US, and it’s also very different from the very real conditions of enslavement or patriarchal marriage the women you study are in.

But do you think about these larger questions around sex work differently, in light of your research?


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PM: I don’t know if I think about the modern debate differently. As you said, it’s very different to be a sex worker in Morocco, because in Morocco you’re more more likely to be an outcast, so you don’t have much support. So it’s of course much more difficult.

In that book, Leila Slimani also interviews a director, Nabil Ayouch, who made a wonderful film called Much Loved (2015). When I read her interview with him, it seemed like he had this “second-wave” view of sex workers as victims. But you see the film and you’re not sure—because he really succeeds in showing their agency.

That is what I try to do in my research. I feel that sex work can be a kind of agency, absolutely. I want to see the potential of every woman I find in my studies to improve or change her life situation, but these are very difficult circumstances. Yet I cherish any sign of female agency, whatever it might be. Because it shows what women are capable of doing, and for their own sake, which I think is a feminist statement.


MM: The late René Khawam translated a collection of medieval erotic stories—Les fleurs éclatantes dans les baisers et l’accolement (1973)—that are all about the “wiles of women,” the ways that women trick men. These stories are ostensibly moralistic, teaching men what to keep an eye out for with their wives, but they’re actually all about the erotic thrill of cuckolding.

It caught my eye because there’s a huge explosion of cuckolding fantasies right now, too, that feel like a response, as in 14th-century Egypt, to the growing power of women. Those anxieties are sublimated into fantasy.


PM: This cuckolding anxiety is really at the core of patriarchy. The author of the Encyclopedia of Pleasure says it explicitly: Why are men allowed to have many licit relationships with many women, but women only with one man? Because we have to know the father of the child, if there is a child. People may ask why men alone have all these relationships when women can’t. He admits it’s not logical, but this is it, this is the problem. We should know who women have sex with because we want to know that the child is ours, our blood.


MM: There are these broad similarities in fantasy—hypersexuality, cuckolding—but do these texts work as erotica today, or have we changed too much?


PM: I think it’s very difficult to read these books as erotica now. We were talking about Salwa Al Neimi and others who want to revive this literature. They have a difficult task ahead of them: there are things that don’t work anymore, at least if we look only at the sex manuals as they are.

But if we look at the erotic stories, they can be read as erotica today, absolutely. Because they really celebrate sexual pleasure. Some of them border on misogyny, like the women’s wiles, but the ideology behind it is a straightforward one, which is that, actually, both men and women are hypersexual.

Both men and women in the erotic stories only want sex. I wouldn’t necessarily call it misogyny, it’s just genre: it’s arousing to imagine people enjoying sex.


MM: What can we learn about a society from looking at its erotica? Do you feel like you have a different perspective on this period than other scholars because of the sources you look at?


PM: I hope so [laughs]. But it’s difficult to interpret. Sexuality is so intimate, and it’s so universal for human beings, for all living beings. It’s construed so differently in different cultural settings, but there is something similar, even if they are construed differently. It’s intimate, it’s related to personal emotions, and to norms at the same time, even if these norms vary. So this intersection of personal emotions and norms is really interesting to look at.

In a way, I want to come closer to these people that I study. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think erotica is maybe one way to do it.


This article was commissioned by  Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Pernilla Myrne. Photograph courtesy of Pernilla Myrne