One common and popular assumption about chastity belts is that they were a medieval device, designed by men and worn by women, to ensure that wives would remain faithful while their husbands went into battle and were away from home for long periods of time. Whether or not the medieval ironclad, lock-and-key chastity belts ever existed remains unknown (there is no concrete evidence that they did exist), but the mythology of the chastity belt survives into the twenty-first century.
In Renaissance poetry, largely written by men for women, chastity belts surfaced as symbols or pledges of fidelity. In William Collins's "Ode on the Poetical Character" (1747), the poet describes a "zone" or girdle that functions as a stand-in for virtue and moral purity:
"That girdle gaue the virtue of chast loue,
And wiuehood true, to all that did it beare;
But whosoeuer contrarie doth proue,
Might not the same about her middle weare,
But it would loose, or else a sunder teare."
(Jung 2006, p. 17)
Sandro Jung's study of William Collins's "girdle poems" reveals the chastity belt to be a "magical" device that represents purity and a "constancy of love" that reinforces the elevation of romantic love as existing above all other forms (2006, pp. 17-18).
The voluntary and "pleasurable" bondage of romantic love that the girdle represents in the Renaissance is literalized in the Victorian era, when actual belts were created in order to ensure that people would not venture too far from virginity. The very word chastity was often used in Victorian poetry to refer to a woman's sexual discretion, and ability to be faithful to her husband.
During the Victorian era, cloth and leather chastity belts were sometimes prescribed to prevent both male and female youth from masturbating, which at the time was thought to be physically and morally harmful. In addition, women of this era sometimes wore cloth chastity belts in order to avoid the consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace. In two hundred years' time, the idea, as well as the form, of the chastity belt had transformed from being a symbolic emblem of romantic love to a literal and repressive medical device to be used to distance people from their bodies.
The Roman Catholic Church had condemned masturbation before the Victorian era, but during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, according to Planned Parenthood, "physicians involved in the social hygiene movement … continued to diagnose and treat conditions thought to be sequelae of masturbation [especially female masturbation]" (2003, p. 3). Among these treatments was the use of chastity belts, "or toothed urethral rings that would prick the penis if it became erect, metal strap-on-and-lock sheaths to cover the penis or vulva, or electric alarms that promised to put an end to wet dreams" (Planned Parenthood 2003, p. 3). During the mid-twentieth century, however, thanks to Freudian theory and Alfred Kinsey's published results on human sexuality, the medical community acknowledged the beneficial effects of masturbation.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the chastity belt returned in the form of "Forget Me Not Panties." Actually a hoax and never truly for sale, these were a line of women's underwear which "was advertised by its creators as a way to keep track of girlfriends, wives, or daughters. It was an instant hit" (Deziel 2006, p. 41). The creator of the "Forget Me Not Panties," Leba Haber Rubinoff, intended to create a "humorous way to get people talking about gender" (Deziel 2006, p. 41). This satirical version of the chastity belt indicates a shift toward playing with, and thus questioning, traditional and widely accepted notions of sex and gender roles.
Denziel, Shanda. 2006. "The Smartypants Scam." Macleans 119(2): 41.
Dingwall, Eric John. 1931. The Girdle of Chastity: A Medico-Historical Study. London: Routledge.
Jung, Sandro. 2006. "William Collins and the 'Zone.'" ANQ 19(2): 17-22.
Kinsey, Alfred; Wardell B. Pomeroy; Clyde E. Martin; et al. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
Kinsey, Alfred, et al. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 2003. "Masturbation: From Myth of Sexual 'Health.'" Contemporary Sexuality 37(3): 1-7.
Stengers, Jean, and Anne Van Neck. 2001. Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror, trans. Kathryn A. Hoffmann. New York: Palgrave.