Promiscuous Women in Literature
Seren explores the ups and downs of female sexuality in English literature.
Women have always been pretty hard done by in the history of fiction.
Whether being sold off on the whims of their fathers or murdered by jealous lovers, female characters in literature, especially in the past, are often at the mercy of the wills of men.
The ones treated most harshly are the women who go against societal expectations in not bowing loyally to their father or husband or refusing otherwise to be good and pure by the standards of the time. This is why traditionally so-called promiscuous female characters often get the short end of the stick, with most ending up dead or, at the very least, miserable and/or deeply repentant.
Shame and disgust at a character’s sexual activity has in the past, and arguably still is, reserved for the women in the stories, with male characters often able to engage in sexual activity without punishment. While men are ‘playboys’, ‘philanderers’ and ‘womanisers’, women are ‘slags’, ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’, words with deeply negative connotations compared with their male counterparts.
This list is about women for whom sex is an integral part of their character, either because they thoroughly enjoy sex and have it on their own terms (not a given in literary history), or because they embody sex, whether on purpose or not.
Helen of Troy
Greek and Roman mythology has been the subject of fascination for thousands of years, and rightly so. These myths contain everything a good story needs: murder, betrayal, heroism, and of course, sex. One of the most famous female figures in ancient mythology is also one of the most sexual and sexualised: Helen of Troy. Described a millennium after the fact by Christopher Marlowe as ‘the face that launch'd a thousand ships’, Helen is most well known for being the catalyst for the Battle of Troy after leaving her husband for the Trojan Prince Paris. Whether she left willingly or was kidnapped depends on which translation you read, but either way, Helen’s place as supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world makes her sexual appeal an integral part of her character.
Arguably one of the most influential texts in western literature, the Bible, features a number of promiscuous female characters. While Jesus may save an adulterous woman from stoning in one part of the Bible, not all the women are as lucky. Jezebel is arguably one of the most famous of these fallen temptresses, in her case literally fallen; in her story, after persuading her husband to worship a different deity, the people threw her out of a window where she was eaten by dogs. While not explicitly adulterous, Jezebel is often depicted in fine clothes and makeup in a sexualised manner. As with many Biblical figures, her character has morphed into a representation beyond what was first described, with her name becoming synonymous with promiscuity.
Nancy (Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)
One of the most memorable characters in Dickens’ classic novel, Nancy is a classic example of a Victorian ‘fallen woman’. Defined as ‘a woman who transgressed Victorian sexual norms’, Nancy fits this description perfectly, being the lover of criminal Bill Sykes, as well as heavily implied to be a prostitute. Nancy was actually a controversial character among the readers of the novel, as many felt that Dickens was too sympathetically portraying the immoral Nancy. Of course, she still ended up being murdered by Sykes, because a ‘fallen woman’ couldn’t get too much of a redemption arc.
Lady Chatterley (Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence)
One of the most controversial books of the 20th century, when it was originally written in 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t allowed to be published in the UK. The explicit sexual descriptions and use of then-unprintable words meant that the novel was banned from publication until 1960. Lady Chatterley was a provocative character for a number of reasons – not only does she have an extra-marital affair and happily expresses her sexuality, she also does it with someone below her class status.
Shug Avery (The Color Purple by Alice Walker)
The portrayal of Black women as sexually active and with a happy ending was uncommon when The Color Purple was written, and sadly remains not common enough today. The character of Shug Avery in this novel is portrayed as unapologetically promiscuous, taking numerous lovers, both men and women, throughout the novel. Shug helps to open up Celie, the main character, to love and self-esteem, eventually leading her to leave her abusive husband. Other characters imply that she gained a ‘nasty woman disease’ as a result of her promiscuity, but that doesn’t stop her from expressing her sexuality.
Anastasia Steele (Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James)
One of the most popular and controversial books of the past decade, Fifty Shades of Grey is infamous for its explicit descriptions of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism), as well as launching erotic literature fully into mainstream view. Originally based on the character of Bella Swan from the Twilight series, Anastasia starts Fifty Shades as a naive virgin before being thrown into the BDSM lifestyle that her partner, Christian Grey, partakes in. While of course having developed controversy for its explicit sexual descriptions, the book has also been heavily critiqued for its depiction of an unhealthy relationship and inaccurate representation of BDSM.
by Seren Livie