In 1956, my Grandma Claire gave birth to the first of her five children and soon after divorced the father, an Australian who turned out to be a drunk and besotted loser. Her father was so embarrassed by the divorce that he banned her from the family home. Claire refused to submit and shortly after being disowned, she moved west. Her second child was born to her (and my grandfather) in 1959, at Grace Hospital in Vancouver.
This time, she was not married at all. And the nuns in attendance were so disgusted to see an unwed mother that they refused to give her a pillow during labour. She never legally married my grandfather, an Irish-Catholic-altar-boy-turned-atheist, and once again put the shame behind her. She lived her life uncowed by the stigma and shame that divorced women faced in that time.
As far as I know, she was never bitter. Instead, the misogynistic bigotry of the Catholic Church was a source of amusement, and she regularly mocked the church. I’ve seen photos of her waiting at the arrivals department of Vancouver Airport to greet my grandfather while dressed as a stern Catholic nun. She could find humour in just about anything. Once, when I was a teen, she nearly choked laughing at a Marilyn Manson lyric I shared with her about “surviving abortion.” She didn’t suffer fools. She built a life for herself rooted in left-wing politics, trade unionism, and—though I never heard her call herself a “feminist” per se—second-wave feminism.
I was born 52 years after Grandma Claire, and I benefited greatly from the changes women of her generation fought for and achieved. Growing up, there were no nuns to scold me about my sexuality, and the idea of being disowned for divorce was unthinkable. When I was a young teen, Claire bought me a book on female puberty and sexual education that was suffused with the Pacific Northwest Riot Grrrl feminism of the time. I recall experiencing a mix of embarrassment and gratitude. I wasn’t quite sure why she got it for me, but of course see it now as a gift rooted in love and born out of her own experience.
Unfortunately, I didn’t save it. But five years ago, I got another one of Claire’s books. She had this one in her possession for over 60 years: 10 Lessons in Sex Technique, a 1948 publication edited by Toronto physicians L. Pellman and R.W. Hatch. I inherited the worn and crumpled copy after she died.
Why would she keep this book for over six decades? Perhaps it’s for the same reason she dressed up as a nun: The thing represents every piece of misogynistic bullshit that she stood against. My guess is that it appealed to her dark sense of humour; whenever I read its yellowed pages, I hear her laugh clink around in my head.
On sex before marriage, Pellman and Hatch were just as scornful as nuns: “Promiscuity of any sort is never advisable. Besides the dangers to the self-respect and emotional balance of the girl who surrenders her virginity, or the boy who visits prostitutes, there is the terrible danger of infection with one of the venereal diseases.” Those who marry after pregnancy, a “scandal” as they called it, might find the resultant marriage is “only a dreary and distasteful duty.”
Page after page, the book does not disappoint. “As a wise man once said, marriage should not begin with a rape. In other words, the husband must win his bride, captivate her emotions, rouse her to the pitch where the urge to submission will overcome all her fears and inhibitions, and then carry out the act with the minimum of pain and shock.” A few of the volume’s 10 lessons cover the basics of sexual education, including sections on anatomy, and how pregnancy occurs. Other lessons conjure images of poodle skirts and drive-in movie theatres. But perhaps most memorable of all is the bonus “eleventh lesson.” It’s about female inferiority and sexual submission, male dominance, and a man’s (apparently) barely-controllable sexual drive. The words are prescriptive, not descriptive. They enforce the worst stereotypes about men and women:
The young wife must be warned again that the sexual act is a mutual relationship; both partners should take a full part, the wife throwing aside her previous modesty and inhibitions, and meeting her husband’s aggressive advances with a willing and active submission.
“Men have been designed by nature to be the wooer and aggressor; women to be the receptive, surrendering partner,” the authors further explained. A husband should, therefore, “realize that his bride has been taught all her life to resist the sexual embraces of men, to maintain her chastity at all costs,” while the wife “should undertake active cooperation and response to his advances.”
In 2020, it’s easy to laugh off Pellman and Hatch’s words as anachronistic. And until recently, that’s what I was inclined to do. But by an odd twist, this “eleventh lesson” from the 1940s has snuck back into the mainstream, albeit through the back door of progressive politics. I’ve seen it happen, experienced some of the consequences personally, and witnessed the negative impact on numerous families I’ve encountered in my professional role as a nurse.
* * *
I moved in with an older male when I was a teenager. I don’t carry fond memories of our time together. The first time I left him, age 20, I moved into a dank one-bedroom basement across town. I was happy to be gone, finally, dark and depressing as my new basement dwelling was. On the first night, the woman who owned the home was visited by her boyfriend. The walls were thin, making it easy for me to hear him beat her; he then roamed around the yard, posturing and growling unintelligible words. I dialed my ex, unsure who else to call in the middle of the night, afraid to be alone (afraid, even, to call the police) and unsure if the landlady’s boyfriend had a key to the basement unit. My ex came over. I hadn’t unpacked anything and didn’t have any furniture, not even a bed. I had been trying to sleep on the floor that night. When my ex arrived, I told him I didn’t want to reconcile, I was just afraid of being alone and would have to figure things out in the morning.
I don’t believe I slept that night. I remember being cold, nauseous, afraid, and horribly sad. I didn’t want to go back to his house—the one I’d finally left. He lied down on the floor beside me, moved close. My nausea rose when I realized he had an erection and wanted me to be aware of it. I felt debased, but moved back to his house the next day.
The second—and last—time I left was a couple of months later. I began to see that I could no longer degrade myself by staying. Several weeks after my first attempt at leaving, he casually mentioned that it was “okay” for the time being if I wasn’t ready to have sex, but that I would have to be ready at some point in the near future. I mumbled agreement, knowing that I would never touch him again. When I told him I was leaving, he said he always found my supposed stubbornness an indication that I might be a lesbian.
What would Pellman and Hatch say about this? “The young wife must be warned again that the sexual act is a mutual relationship… Her bodily movements, her return of his caresses, even her requests for a particular kind of caress from him—all of these are expected by the average lover, and bitter disappointment ensues when he does not receive them.”
Growing up, I didn’t need Pellman and Hatch to understand that many women are still expected to submit to males, and that some males want us to believe that they are helplessly driven by sexual urges that we females must indulge. The eleventh lesson was never stated outright. But it was always implied.
As second-wave feminism receded and today’s third wave crests, we are quick to congratulate ourselves for the work we’ve done to dismantle gender and “smash” sex stereotypes. We talk about women’s sexual liberation. We (rightly) celebrate laws against marital rape, and the movement to bring sexual predators to account, fraught though it may be. Things are better. But there are blind spots, and not just where you might normally expect to find them.
In Western countries, the same regressive sex stereotypes peddled by Pellman and Hatch have regained liberal respectability thanks to our newfound obsession with gender—in particular, with the idea of a soul-like “gender identity” that overrides sex. Girls and women who eschew stereotypically feminine appearances or hobbies are encouraged to come out as non-binary or trans. The only “real” females, now, as in 1948, paint their nails and play with dolls. And naturally, men—“progressive” men, especially—have discovered they can leverage this trend to lord their sexuality over women.
When author J.K. Rowling recently tweeted in support of a woman who shares my view that sexual biology is real and important, legions of self-identified females told the famous author to suck their “lady dicks.” It seemed a more vulgar, but also more concise, restatement of Pellman and Hatch’s advice that women “undertake active cooperation” to male desires, sexual or otherwise, with “no unnecessary difficulty put in the way.” Numerous outlets reported on Rowling’s alleged “transphobia,” while ignoring the misogyny perpetrated against her. It is fine to tell a woman to shut up and submit, apparently, so long as you get your pronouns right.
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
In January, I agreed to report on the court appearance of Jessica Yaniv, the now infamous “trans activist” who’d taken legal action against a number of aestheticians at the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, on grounds that they’d declined to wax Yaniv’s testicles. Yaniv was subsequently charged with two counts of possession of a prohibited weapon, after brandishing a Taser on YouTube. During a recess in court proceedings relating to these charges, I entered the women’s washroom in the court building, took a few steps inside and saw Yaniv standing at the sink.
I had previously seen a video of Yaniv allegedly assaulting a reporter by repeatedly hitting him over the head with a cane. I saw another video of Yaniv inside a women’s washroom, apparently spraying pepper spray at the mirror while warning viewers, in a garbled voice, not to “fuck with me.” Yaniv is nearly a foot taller than me and weighs at least twice as much. I felt afraid. Yet of course, I would have to be the one to leave. This was in the women’s bathroom, remember.
I immediately fled. But a few minutes later, while still seated on a bench outside the court, I was approached by four sheriffs. One of them said I’d been accused of taking photographs of Yaniv inside the bathroom. He asked me if I knew “what a serious allegation” this was. Yaniv stood behind the sheriffs, demanding my arrest. I told the sheriff that Yaniv’s bizarre allegations were absolutely untrue. I opened the image feed on my phone and showed that I had not taken any pictures. The sheriffs left, as did Yaniv. But days later, Yaniv posted fabrications about the encounter on Twitter.
I called the police but got no response. I tried to obtain a protection order, or at least file a complaint about being targeted with a false accusation. The responding officer said it didn’t sound like I was being harassed. So I filed a civil claim for defamation. Yaniv filed a response to my claim, and in it alleged that prosecutors were proceeding with charges of sexual assault against me.
A police officer then contacted me, informing me that I was a suspect in a voyeurism case, and that I’d need to come to the police station to provide a statement. I told him that he’d need merely review courthouse tapes to see I was inside the bathroom for only a second. He made a flippant comment to the effect of, “If you come in to make a statement, I won’t arrest you.” My lawyers—whom I consulted immediately after the call—advised me not to go to the police station, as the officers were possibly employing a tactic whereby they’d make an arrest before the weekend, thereby forcing the suspect to wait in jail until Monday to see a judge.
I was terrified of the police separating me from my breastfeeding baby, and couldn’t sleep for several nights after the phone call. It was the same feeling I’d experienced, under very different circumstances, all those years ago on that concrete floor, with a boyfriend whom I’d tried to leave.
But there’s a difference. When I did leave that boyfriend, it was seen as an act of courage—the sort of thing lauded in today’s feminist circles. But when it came to Yaniv, many progressives now will gladly take the side of a biological male who likes to take selfies in women’s bathrooms and demand that underpaid immigrant aestheticians handle a scrotum. Based on social-media screeds that denounced me as a “transphobe,” friends abandoned me. At a public event, I had a crowd of hundreds chant “Save the baby from the TERF” at me and my infant son. And of course, I’ve been regularly attacked online. As I write this, a Twitter notifications dinged with a message from a flamboyant autogynephile who insists that the fight to maintain sex-segregated safe spaces for women and girls amounts to “naked phallophobia.” The term would meet approval from Pellman and Hatch, no doubt. Hey, maybe it’s a sign of lesbianism, just like my ex said.
There are countless women in the world whose lives are more difficult than mine. I think of my Grandma Claire, whose own father shunned her. I imagine her cursing under her breath at the Grace Hospital nuns as she left, proudly, with her new infant. Like her, I’ll carry on.
I also can’t help but wonder what she would have made of today’s sex-education doctrines, which sometimes seem even more deranged and regressive than what she’d endured in the early Cold War. Would she be able to laugh at a Vice article on how to perform “cunnilingus” on a penis?
Here’s hoping I will one day be able to laugh with my own granddaughters over the absurdity of it all, while teaching them how the women who came before them refused to submit.
Amy Eileen Hamm lives in New Westminster, BC. Follow her on Twitter at @preta_6.
Featured Image: Graphical illustration appearing on Page 52 of the 1948 Canadian publication “10 Lessons in Sex Technique,” by L. Pellman and R.W. Hatch.