'Inch of iron between vagina and temptation' is a myth

20 January 2016 - 02:38 By Radhika Sanghani, ©The Telegraph

Chastity belts sound as though they belong in the Middle Ages but this week an Italian woman was forced to enlist the help of firefighters after she became stuck in her own iron number. The middle-aged woman, who can't be named for privacy reasons, had lost the keys to her belt and asked firefighters to help cut her out. She said she'd chosen to wear the belt to prevent herself from embarking on a sexual relationship.The chastity belt is something we're all likely to recognise - especially if you've seen 1993's Robin Hood: Men in Tights or the recent Mad Max: Fury Road - but just how much do we really know about it?In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Dr David Reuben, a physician and surgeon, described chastity belts as an "armoured bikini" with "a screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation".The idea, he said, was that medieval men could lock their wives up while they went off to war - often for several years - safe in the knowledge that their women couldn't have sex with anyone else. This view of chastity belts as misogynistic tools designed to sexually oppress women has been the commonly held belief for centuries. Metal chastity belts in museums and collectors' galleries have been viewed as medieval relics and have come to represent the crudeness of the Dark Ages.But recently academics and historians have started to shed light on the fact that chastity belts might never have been used for this purpose - that they are mythical items that were never used at all.Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona's German studies department, explores this in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-making Process.He explains that it is highly improbable that men in the Middle Ages used chastity belts to control their wives' sexuality because it has never been documented and "would be contradicted by modern medical research, because a woman would not survive the consequent hygienic and health problems after several days".The earliest depiction of a chastity belt is a 1405 drawing in a work called Bellifortis. But, as this book on engineering also features flatulence jokes, Classen believes it was included as a joke. Since then most other literary references to the belts are either allegorical or satirical.He believes subsequent historians were so quick to believe them because of the perversity of the idea and the fact that it was "so intimately connected with sexuality, the gender relationships, and power structures within the family".In other words, chastity belts were so sexual and taboo that "satirical authors and artists, political propagandists, and later collectors and curators quickly and then firmly embraced the idea that the chastity belt actually existed in the Middle Ages and was in widespread use".Sarah E Bond, assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, explains that 18th- and 19th-century historians aimed to present chastity belts as real to prove just how superior their civilisation was compared to that of the "dark ages"."Just because [belts] represented chastity does not mean they were used in order to 'lock up' the female genitalia of the medieval period," writes Bond."The truth about chastity belts is that they are largely a fiction constructed in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods in order to conjure up a more 'barbaric' Middle Ages."She explains that the belts first originated in ancient Rome, where brides would wear white tunics and a corded belt to signify their chastity, which would be tied in a Herculean knot that the husband would later untie.But she agrees with Classen that the metal versions of these belts were rarely used and were jokes or fakes constructed by Victorians.Felicity Riddy, of York University's department of medieval studies, subscribes to the same belief and feels that depictions of medieval chastity belts in modern culture "buy into a fantasy about the Middle Ages -in which everyone has boils and people are all hunchbacks".Today, chastity belts can still be bought - mainly from sex websites. They have now morphed into fetish items used by couples for bondage and sadomasochistic sex.The purpose is to "bring sexual anticipation to an unbearable level by putting yourself into a chastity belt and surrendering total control by giving the key to your partner. It is known as 'orgasm denial play'."It is incredibly rare today to find a woman being forced into wearing a chastity belt or deliberately choosing to wear one, as the Italian woman claimed she did - particularly as it is looking increasingly likely that medieval women never wore them.They were, it appears, simply a joke and today have morphed into a sexual fetish that has absolutely nothing to do with chastity...

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