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Sexual Anarchy, 1

Puritan norm

Implosion of the system

Gauguin vs van Gogh
Sexual Anarchy, 2

The sciences legitimised the age-old fear of female emancipation, while the arts fuelled the debate, reinforcing prejudices while fantasising about the free woman.

1. The norm of a healthy femininity

Social dimorphism


Eminent doctors, sociologists and philosophers studied sexual behaviour and laid down rules of conduct for healthy sexuality. They concluded that the greater the sexual dimorphism, the more advanced the society. So they encouraged men to cultivate their muscles and their minds, and kept women away from any activity too vigorous for a weak natural constitution. A so-called healthy woman, the guarantor of an advanced society, had to meet such criteria of sanity.

2. The crisis of the sexual norm

The New Woman

Despite all the caution, a fin-de-siècle sexual anarchy was shaking the edifice, brought about by a modern Amazon called the New Woman. She rode bicycles, wore trousers, smoked cigarettes, studied at university and reclaimed her sexual body. The male world panicked, the nation was in danger.

3. The New Woman and fin- de-siècle arts

The liberated woman is a criminal


It was admitted that nature had given women a fragile constitution. Therefore, if she were to cultivate her intellect, it could only be to the detriment of her womb, which would be weakened and give birth to atavistic beings. What's more, since menstruation causes chronic anaemia, the emancipated woman was expected to unleash the potential vampire that lay dormant within her.

The equation - female emancipation equals murderous nymphomania - was reinforced by a visual arsenal in which fin-de-siècle art played a key role.


Academic painting gave the equation an ancestral validity: since the dawn of time, the sensual woman has been an enchantress, holding back the rise of men with her funeral procession of witches, mermaids, sphinxes and other ophidians. And Art Nouveau jewellery reified this theory.

4. Reality and mythology

Readings Joseph A. Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny: The Social Discourse of Nineteenth Century British Classical-Subject Painting, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989 Shearer West , Fin de Siècle, Overlook press, 1994 Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity, Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, Oxford University Press, 1986

Iconographic study

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