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Sexuality and Gender

Sexuality and Gender

Religion played a major role in Renaissance attitudes toward sex and gender. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches regarded sex as an activity that should occur only within marriage. Sexual behavior outside that framework—such as prostitution or homosexuality—was sometimes tolerated but rarely approved by either the church or society as a whole. The laws and customs that regulated sexual behavior tended to reinforce the inferior role of women in society. For example, women faced stricter penalties for adultery* than men did. On the other hand, men usually faced harsher punishment for homosexual acts. Sex between women went largely unnoticed.


Gender Roles. Men dominated both private and public life in the Renaissance. Most families were patriarchal, meaning that the male head of the household controlled the family's money and made all the important decisions. Both civil and church law supported this arrangement, which treated the family as a miniature version of the state in which the ruler held the place of father to his subjects.

A few women did manage to gain some degree of independence. Nuns, for example, could largely escape the control of men by removing themselves completely from male society. It was also possible for a woman whose husband had died to inherit his money, which would give her both economic power and social standing. For most widows, however, the death of a husband brought financial hardship rather than gain. Likewise, the life of a prostitute was usually a hard one, but for the upper-class courtesans* of Italy it offered economic and social power. These women offered refined companionship, as well as sexual services, to their clients. Writers and painters honored famous French and Italian courtesans for their glamour and elegance. A few women sought to escape their social boundaries by passing themselves off as men. Dressed in male clothing, these "passing women" could gain access to places open only to men.

Attitudes Toward Sex. During the Middle Ages, most of Europe based its attitudes about sexual desire on theology*. Religious thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo had seen desire as a force that could either draw individuals toward God or lure them away from the path of virtue and into the sins of the flesh. The Roman Catholic Church placed a higher value on virginity and celibacy (the state of being unmarried) than on sexual activity. It believed that sex should take place only within marriage, with the goal of producing children.

The Renaissance brought a shift in the church's attitude toward marriage and family. It began to focus more on love and companionship as a part of marriage. As a result, it became acceptable for married people to enjoy—in moderation—sexual pleasure that was not directly related to producing children. Although society did not openly approve of birth control, the practice was fairly common.

Society continued to recognize a variety of offenses relating to marriage. Fornication, or sex between unmarried persons, was officially a crime but seldom carried a severe punishment. Instead, it often served as a step toward marriage. A more serious offense was adultery, or sex between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse. Penalties for adultery varied, and men often faced less severe punishment than women. Social status also played a role in determining the penalties for this crime. For example, a married aristocrat who had sex with his female servants was unlikely to be charged with adultery at all.

Although Renaissance society recognized rape as a crime, the punishments for it depended on the age and social rank of the people involved. To a certain extent, society saw male desire as naturally violent. Literature, for example, often dealt with cases of a young man forcing himself on a woman. Thus, the penalties for rape were usually less harsh than those for homosexuality. Rape carried a severe penalty only if it involved very young girls—or if it involved a breach of social station, as in the case of a peasant attacking a noblewoman.


Prostitution. Prostitution was widespread during the Renaissance, especially in cities. Society appears to have viewed it as a necessary evil for coping with young men's sexual desires, which might otherwise pose a danger to honorable girls and women. In Italian cities, some people regarded prostitution as a way of encouraging young men to have sex with women rather than with other men.

The elegant courtesans of Italy and France were the exceptions rather than the rule. Most prostitutes were poor women who often suffered from violence and disease. Some women combined prostitution with other forms of labor, such as sewing, laundering clothes, or selling food and drink, moving from town to town with other members of the working poor. The few accounts left by these women suggest that they regarded prostitution primarily as work that paid relatively well. In most cases, it seems, their neighbors did not shun them because of their occupation.

The status of urban prostitutes changed significantly over the course of the Renaissance. During the 1300s and 1400s many cities and towns throughout Europe opened official brothels* or set aside certain districts where prostitution was allowed. Laws regulating the brothels tried to protect both prostitutes and their clients by such measures as forbidding weapons, banning the sale of women, and checking the prostitutes for disease. In this era, prostitutes—at least those who lived in the city-run brothels—were an accepted part of urban society. They appeared as a group at city festivals and openly welcomed important visitors to the city.

In the later 1400s, however, many cities—especially in northern Europe—placed greater restrictions on prostitutes. They had to wear clothing that distinguished them from "honorable" women and stay in the brothels at all times. Those who lived outside the official brothel or district faced harsh penalties, such as banishment or mutilation (having parts of their bodies cut off). German cities closed their brothels altogether in the 1500s, and Spanish cities did the same in the early 1600s. Major Italian cities did not outlaw prostitution entirely, but they regulated it more strictly.

Scholars once believed that this shift toward tighter control of prostitution was due to the appearance of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Today, however, most believe that the main cause was the new moral strictness brought about by the religious reform movements of the era. Martin Luther, a leader of the Protestant Reformation*, called prostitutes tools of the devil and accused them of bewitching single men. Catholic reformers of the time attacked prostitution in equally vicious terms.


Homosexuality. Since the Middle Ages, European societies had defined sodomy, or same-sex relations, as both a sin and a crime. Nonetheless, such activities were widespread in Renaissance society. Both men and women engaged in sexual activities with others of the same sex, but male homosexuality attracted much more attention. It occurred at all levels of society, from kings and nobles to priests, merchants, and sailors. Most relationships between men involved an older man, often one who was married, and an adolescent. Society viewed the older man as the more active partner and imposed stricter penalties on him. Among women, same-sex relations sometimes involved "passing women," who sometimes carried their male role so far as to "marry" other women.

Modern scholars disagree about the nature of homosexuality in the Renaissance. Most believe that Renaissance culture did not recognize the concept of "being" homosexual. According to this view, homosexuality was an act rather than an identity—a sin into which anyone might fall at some point. A few scholars, however, argue that the Renaissance gave rise to the first inklings of an idea of "homosexuals" as a group. They note that the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, so widely admired by humanists*, had recognized and accepted sex acts between men. Humanists such as Marsilio Ficino of Italy penned defenses of male love.

(See alsoFamily and Kinship; Feminism; Love and Marriage; Women. )

* adultery

sexual relationship outside of marriage

* courtesan

prostitute associated with wealthy men or men in attendance at a royal court

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

Women in Love?

It is difficult to determine to what extent sexual relations between women occurred during the Renaissance. The concept of "lesbianism" did not exist at the time, and there is very little surviving evidence about such activities. Thus, scholars can only guess. For example, some suggest that Queen Christina of Sweden (ruled 1644–1654) was a lesbian because she refused to marry. Other scholars believe that, like Elizabeth I of England, Christina may have rejected marriage because she did not want to share power with anyone, not even a husband.

* brothel

house of prostitution

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

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