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Women and Sexuality in Aphra Behn's Poems

Women and Sexuality in Aphra Behn's Poems

"All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of AphraBehn, . .

. for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." (Woolf 91)

Born in 1640, AphraBehn broke gender stereotypes when she undertook a thrilling

(if unrewarded) life as a spy for the Crown, but it was her scandalous career as

an author which truly achieved many firsts for women. She was the first woman to

supporthereself financially by solely relying on the profession of writing, and

many readers argue that Oroonoko--her passionate tale about the institution of

slavery--was the first English novel. She was certainly one of the first female

authors to write candidly about sexuality: in fact, she both broke new ground

and challenged conceptions of patriarchal power when she wrote about women's

empowerment through sexuality. In her poems "The Willing Mistress" (from her

play The Dutch Lover, 1673) and "The Disappointment" (1680), Behn creates

situations of bold sexual mischief in which female characters are aware of,

comfortable with, and even thrive off their sexuality.

Not only was it virtually unheard of for a woman of Behn's time to express

herself openly as a sexual being, but it was also explicitly forbidden by

cultural precepts for a woman to so aggressively take charge of her own physical

desires and satisfaction, as Behn's characters do. Previously, men were in

control of most sexual situations--both in real life and in literature. Behn,

however, creates a playing field where the traditional roles not only do not

apply but are subverted. Urged to seize the da...

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...ny; they

can hold the power. Although these sentiments were certainly ahead of their

time, they did help pave the way for future generations of women to express

themselves honestly, sexually or otherwise. For that, all women are indeed

eternally indebted to AphraBehn.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. "The Disappointment."The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.

2nd ed. Eds. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York : Norton, 1996. 112-115.

---. "The Willing Mistress." Norton. 111.

Bradstreet, Anne. "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment."

Norton. 89.

Woolf , Virginia . "AphraBehn." Excerpted from A Room of One's Own. Reprinted in

Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing. Ed. Michele Barrett. New York : Harvest, 1979.

89-91.
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