‘The Velvet Vampire’: Sex is Violence, But Doesn’t Have To Be

“We are animals, too.” Whispers Diane LeFanu, “But it must frighten us.”

Diane is the titular vampire. She has sex with people and then eats them. “We try so hard to forget.” She goes on. “But why fight it?”

The more pensive ‘exploitation’ directors harbored an uneasy conscience regarding the modern world. In the long term, the world was less violent, less exploitative than ever. In the short term, it felt unprecedentedly dark.

In pushing the limits of censorship, exploring the boundaries of what could be called ‘artistic expression’, they rebelled, perhaps, against the sort of backwater nihilism that had blossomed in twentieth century America. They were uniquely pensive about their violence.

Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire, in particular, poses interesting questions about the pluriformity of sexual violence. In the old days, women rarely had many assets of their own. The kind of resources, financial and otherwise, that might have enabled them to shield themselves from abusive situations were largely relegated to men.

Women propositioned for sex only rarely had the option to decline. And when they were abused, there were scant means by which they could obtain justice. If their assailant was a member of a lower social caste, they might be able to accuse him, but even that was a coin toss, and acknowledging that you had been assaulted negatively affected your ‘market value’ if you were a single woman seeking marriage.

And if you were a single woman not seeking marriage, you were probably under a patriarch who was seeking out a spouse for you (because you were a drain on family resources), so acknowledging that you had been deflowered might have halved your market value (or worse) and rendered you a pariah.

If you weren’t forced into sex and managed to marry off unscathed, your husband became your ‘master’, more or less. In the distant (but not that distant) past, of course, you would literally become your husband’s property. More recently, in the decades that preceded the sexual revolution, you were, of course, understood to be a ‘person’, not property – but only on paper. You could divorce an abusive or unfaithful husband, in theory, so long as you could afford good legal representation (which you probably couldn’t, because the household income belonged to your husband). You could set about living on your own (which you probably couldn’t, because your husband hammered you in the courts with his significantly-better-team-of-lawyers). You could get a job and pull yourself up by your bootstraps (which you probably couldn’t, because the jobs available to former-housewives hardly paid out enough to build a life on). Or you could become, like, a nun or something.

So there were scant options available to women who would resist the advances of men, powerful or not, before the sexual revolution. For those of us born after the fact, it’s easy to be ignorant of the incalculable good that the ‘revolution’ brought. For those who lived through it, it’s easy to forget.

But Kinsey’s liberation is probably an unhappy alternative. “We are animals, too.” Diane hums from her soapbox. “Why fight it?” – and then seduces a married man, among other things.

The aforementioned man, Lee, has permission to sleep with her. And any woman. It is the seventies, after all, and monogamy is passé, apparently. His wife has agreed, albeit reluctantly, it appears, that they should not be so selfish as to constrain one another to exclusivity. Psychoanalysts and airy dialecticians have laid bare the “monogamous impulse” in Western men and women, apparently, and assured us that it has its origins in some ghastly neurotic fixation, or in proto-captialist trade rituals. And Oscar Wilde said that since we couldn’t destroy love we domesticated it, et cetera.

His wife, Susan, never does redeem her coital license to gratify her desires with anyone else. As in any open relationship, she’s certainly not obliged to. But one gets the sense, perhaps, that she isn’t nearly so enthusiastic about the arrangement as her husband. Open relationships may theoretically level the ground between men and women, but this one certainly did not.

Because while he is now free from what is probably the final specter of St. Paul’s once-revolutionary exhortation to male monogamy, Susan, being a woman, and wedded, is still constrained to occupy the rather limited pool of stations that women were permitted to occupy in civil society in 1971. Freeing Susan from “imposed  monogamy” did not so much liberate Susan from male domination as it liberated Lee from one of the few areas in which he was not permitted to dominate her.

*

St. Paul is hung up on regulating the sex lives of his converts, and we’ve long hated him for it. But what might have possessed him to wear the ‘cosmic buzzkill’ mantel when he might have rendered his religion more palatable with a looser sex ethic?

Perhaps because in Imperial Rome, sex is violence. In Paul’s churches, this must change. Two millennia later, even in the shadow of the ‘sexual revolution’, there’s plenty of work to be done. Much of our sex is still, frankly, violence.

And we can’t pin it all on pornography. Western culture has a staggering sex problem, but so far as I can tell, porn is a symptom, not the root. It only lays bare what many assume: that ‘consent’ is malleable, that women are little more than pathways to gratification – devices to be operated. That old ‘the sexual revolution ruined everything’ narrative is, at best, obscurantism. Genesis 3:16 (“and thy desire shall be for man, and he shall dominate thee,”) was composed long before the sixties.

Don’t get too excited. I am talking about why Paul’s ‘restrictive’ sex ethic is good and we should keep it. However else you feel about it, it’s hard to ignore that his chief impetus was to form the early Christian communities into an alternative to Rome’s exploitation culture. And so the men whom Paul discipled were exhorted to monogamy, specifically, with their wives, and barred from copulating with anyone before they’d married them. Women, too, were subject to the same restrictions. Both were encouraged not to deprive their spouses of their ‘conjugal rights’, unless they had mutually agreed to set them aside for a time and devote themselves to prayer or to finally finishing that book they’d begun in January before work got crazy. Men, specifically, were told not to neglect their their wife’s sexual appetites.

Which was interesting, because there was no ‘recreational’ sex for women in Rome – at least in the mainstream. Nor for men, at least, in the way we think of it. Sex was not a game in the Empire Aeneas built – it was a tool, specifically, to dominate others. Affairs were not unheard of, but they were rarely for fun: Rome was entrenched in a rigid class system in which upward social mobility was nearly impossible. Sexual favors were often doled out in exchange for gifts, both monetary and otherwise.

Prostitution, however, did not exist apart from the Imperial slave system. Nearly all female prostitutes were orphans who had been left out to die upon birth – because the noblemen were encouraged to populate their homes, if possible, with sons who could grow into strong men who furthered the interests and prestige of the family; Daughters were not particularly valuable, because they were essentially sentient fleshlights. If an unwanted daughter was born, she would be abandoned in a kind of unofficial ‘drop-off’ zone, where she would either die of exposure or be picked up by a human trafficker. They would begin their career in sex work, often, before puberty, and their ‘customers’ were encouraged to brutalize them to their satisfaction. Customers ran the social gamut: Household slaves came to spend their aggression and their weekly allowance on powerless young women and noblemen came to satisfy appetites their wives didn’t meet.

There was, of course, no expectation that husbands would remain ‘faithful’ to their wives, because there was no concept of ‘faithfulness’ within which Roman men might be constrained. The Roman man of Noble birth was the crux of personhood; all else was auxillary, including their wives. For a woman to object to her husband’s philandering would have been absurd within the Etruscan moral vision. ‘Infidelity’ was a non-concept.

So to be even more on-the-nose: ‘Sex’, as we understand it, did not exist. It was, almost exclusively, a means whereby ‘noblemen’ upheld the ‘cosmic hierarchy of the Empire’. It’s not quite an exaggeration to say that the ‘phallus’ was the gatekeeper of Imperial orthodoxy. Let me explain: Rome was for the strong – it had to be. The ‘weak’ posed an existential threat to the well-being of an Empire built on ‘manly virility’. It was your duty to humiliate the ‘weak’, if you so desired, with your genitals. Although Plato, Aristotle and others had waxed philosophical about the cardinal virtues we learned about in middle school, their net effect on the public was approximately nil. ‘Self-control’, ‘justice’, and so on were nominally aspired to by a populace of men who – literally – sought to drink the nobility of other men away by sexually assaulting them. I’m not talking about ‘locker room talk’. Roman politicians were known to sexually assault their political enemies, because to be the passive recipient of anal sex carried such a stigma that a known male rape victim could lose his citizenship as a result. Rome was precisely the sort of world one might expect to emerge if the ‘will-to-power’ were the basis for moral philosophizing.

Nietzsche was aware of this. He was annoyed that Paul and co. destabilized and ultimately toppled the Cosmic Frat Party that was pre-Christian Rome. However ‘restrictive’ you feel the Christian sex ethic to be, its actual aim was to deweaponize male sexuality. I’m not innovating here. Read Gregory of Nyssa ‘On Virginity’, or Calvin’s commentaries. One cannot exaggerate the extent to which Paul made women safer.

*

In Rome, sex was connected to ‘Eudaimonia’ – that is, the ‘flourishing of Mankind’. Paul had another angle: “In God’s world, maybe Womankind should flourish, too.”

This has a further relevance – especially today: Paul’s influence spanned Palestine to Africa to Spain, and so on. At the time of his death, Britain remained unreached. When Paul authoritatively enjoined his churches to embrace, not suppress, women’s sexuality, he had in mind black and brown bodies. Womanist scholars have long argued that the West only half-interprets women of color as women. They are systemically desexualized. Western culture, they continue, sets up young, white women as the paragon of sexuality: The optimal sexual conquest. Well, Paul didn’t know any white women. So not only is sex not a conquest in Paul’s vision, but it is for women – more specifically, it is for women of color as much as it is for anyone.

And Paul is still relevant here, because what he began isn’t done – not by a long shot. It is important to positively influence the broader culture (“seek the good of Babylon” Jer. 29:7), but we’ve got a more immediate directive to root out misogyny in the Church.

In its infancy, the Church existed as a ‘counterculture’, whose ethos the broader culture gradually appropriated and eventually capitulated to. So much so that when Julian the Apostate finally wrenched control of the State back, even his campaign to dismantle Christendom was unprecedentedly peaceable. The churches had already begun turning the world upside down – even their enemies. Contrary to popular belief, the ‘Christianization’ of the Empire was mostly organic. Essentially, the widespread public embrace they had garnered made it inevitable. Tales of the the established Church as a belligerent monolith, ‘conquering the world for Jesus’, aren’t quite false. They’re more like ‘drunk history’: laughably reductive, damnably inastute. More accurately, Byzantine became substantially Christian long before it was ‘officially’ anything. The public had capitulated to our ethos, and the consequence was that Paul’s campaign to deweaponize sexuality in the Church indirectly began to deweaponize sexuality in the Empire itself.

I have written a strange appreciation to Christianity’s bizarre sex ethic. But, as you noticed, this post was not about Christianity’s bizarre sex ethic, insomuch as it was about the transformative character of the earliest churches. With little warning, the Christian cult quietly remade the world. They conquered the Empire, somehow, without picking up the sword they had bought at the Lord’s behest (Lk. 22:36). Myths abound about how the Christian revolution overcame its fashionable enemies, about what followed, and what we must do to pick it up again. But if our past has taught us anything, it’s this: Put no faith in those who want to ‘conquer the world for Jesus’. Focus on your churches. If we embody our true identity, together, perhaps Paul’s strange egalitarianism will do its work in the world, again, tomorrow.

Produced in the midst of the sexual revolution, by a studio famous for having normalized soft-core pornography, from a producer who consistently exploited the radical new epoch for profit by mandating a baseline of gratuitous sex and nudity, The Velvet Vampire provides a fascinating look at the limits of the sexual revolution.

In a universe in which people remain people, the abstract promise of sexual liberation does not, itself, create equitable partnerships. Vampire suggests that there is nothing terribly liberating about flattening out the essential differences between humans and animals and then extrapolating a libertine sex ethic from there.

What we might call ‘sexual vampirism’ was widespread, even omnipresent, before and after the days of Kinsey, or Marcuse, et cetera. It was built into the structure of the bona fide prehistoric patriarchy, of primogeniture, of entrapping women into cycles where they chose between marriage and starvation, and then sought as much as possible to maintain dignity as the much-coveted property of any old land-owning male.

Sometimes their master would die and they were inherited by a next of kin. If they were lucky enough to grow up in Israel, they’d fare slightly better – emphasis on the slightly. Progress is always incremental, moving along in fits and starts, much more difficult to wait on in real-time than to read about in hindsight. But as we have seen, we’ve not driven a stake through the heart of ‘sexual vampirism’ after all.

Not least because the backwater nihilism of “We’re all animals, why should we deny ourselves?” does very little to provide the basis for embracing the humanity of sexual minorities that Paul’s enigmatic theology did. This hardly means that the sexual revolution itself was the problem, it simply means that not all sexual revolutionaries are equally worth heeding. More probably, stewarding the legacy of the sexual Revolution well will mean pressing further into Paul’s uncanny vision for redeemed sexuality rather pulling further away from it.

[Previously published in modified form at Misfits Theology Club]

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