Meet the Feared 'Promiscuous Woman' of 1960s Medical Literature

In Depth

“There have been many guesses as to what makes a woman ‘easy’,” writes Dr. Marcus McBroom, at the beginning of his 1963 article “A Clinical Appraisal of Some Sexually Promiscuous Females.” Published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, his musings—like many of the other variably absurd, frightening, hilarious, and offensive antiquated hypotheses pursued by doctors in the 20th century—are archived deep within PubMed and university libraries. McBroom’s explanation of the psychological struggles at the root of rampant sluttiness continues:

Maybe she did not have a careful upbringing. Maybe her mother never had a heart to heart talk with her and never pointed out that unless she were discriminating she would not get a husband. Maybe she is over-sexed, stronger and lustier than most women, and consequently finds men irresistible. These are the more common guesses…We no longer have to guess what makes these women different from women of normal virtue. We know.

It seems like groundbreaking stuff. Can’t imagine why this article has remained buried.

Using five promiscuous women as his case studies, McBroom introduces us to five archetypes. I’ll call them the Insecure Minx, Bohemian Rebel, Messalina Reincarnate, Homosexual, and Love Starved Woman. It reads like a quiz about Sex and the City: which Promiscuous Woman are you?

The Insecure Minx

Our first promiscuous female is the woman who “uses sexuality to deaden her sense of economic insecurity.” These women may be financially independent and gainfully employed but, subconsciously, are not convinced of their own security. To relieve this anxiety, they indiscriminately bed wealthy and powerful men. Writes McBroom of his subject:

All of her numerous sexual partners were men of power and prestige. She was bitter about the fact that she was at a disadvantage in a man’s world; she felt that she was at a disadvantage with all male competitors. Sleeping with men of power and prestige gave her an edge over these male competitors. They had no possibility of getting close to the boss in quite the same way.

McBroom astutely recognizes that women are at a professional disadvantage in 1960s America. It is unfortunate that he believes the only way to confront this is with their vaginas.

He simplifies this well-worn trope (the woman attracted to powerful men) by falling back on an explanation favored by many condescending conservatives throughout the ages: daddy issues.

She was repressing the longings for the male protection that she had been denied. She actually had a stronger craving for male protection than most women, precisely because these feelings remained buried in her unconscious, hidden under an exterior of self-sufficiency and over-dependence. Sleeping with men of power and prestige was her way of searching for that protection.

McBroom goes so far as to acknowledge both the patriarchy and the disadvantage it confers on women, but not an inch further. Poor Insecure Minx Just Wants a Sugar Daddy.

The Bohemian Rebel

This woman’s promiscuity is built entirely out of defiance against her prude, restrictive parents.

She made of her whole life a wild and voracious quest for sexual gratification. Every time she went to bed with a man, it was an act of rebellion against her over strict parents.

Despite the Bohemian Rebel’s desire to escape her parents, she has unconsciously adopted their ideas of sex as evil and holds herself back from enjoyment. Shamelessly throwing herself at all men who cross her path, this woman’s hypersexuality belies a tragic secret:

“The fact is that she was frigid and that in all relationships she never reached a sexual climax… For all her unrestrained sexual activity, what she feared most was a lover who could arouse strong feeling in her and thus give her true sexual fulfillment.”

I had not realized until this point that it was possible to be simultaneously frigid and sleep with every man who crossed your path. Apparently these two poles intersect in the Bohemian Rebel: a woman who wildly quests after sex without enjoying it, and fears the love that Dr. McBroom says she so deeply wants and needs.

The Messalina Reincarnate

Messalina was an ancient Roman empress famous for her uncontrollable lust for men. A woman suffering from the so called “Messalina Complex” is typically rich and powerful, using her sexuality to prove herself superior to men and maintain control in the bedroom.

“She lets her partners, invariably of a lower economic class, know first, last, and always that she is boss. During the course of all her relationships she manages to humiliate her partners and to show her own dominance.”

Like the Bohemian Rebel, this woman is incapable of reaching climax, which she would view as a loss of control. Her man-hating superiority is expressed by practising BDSM as a dom with an affinity for orgasm control.

The Homosexual

This is the shortest description, perhaps because it was the easiest for McBroom to explain away. A product of a broken home and the victim of childhood abuse and rape, the homosexual woman takes comfort in companionship with other women. Obviously, this is nonsense.

The Love Starved Woman

The last kind of “easy” woman whom psychologists have described and tried to help is a product of our impersonal and lonely city life. This is the woman who is so friendless and isolated that she is really desperate in her need for affection. She uses sexuality whenever she can to establish any human contact at all…her opportunity for a well-adjusted sex life had been thwarted by circumstances.

The Love Starved Woman is decent and upstanding. She would be happily married, had she experienced more opportunities. She is desperate for attention, affection and sex.

Notably, the Love Starved Woman is the only woman of the five who received the loving protectiveness required of a father figure, but she also has the most tragic fate. In McBroom’s scenario, she chose poorly when she picked her lover, sleeping with a man who viewed her only as a conquest. When he refused to return her calls after that night, she committed suicide. She was “a victim of a situation described by Dr. Kinsey, who points out that women’s need for sexual outlet and the opportunities provided are not commensurate.”

Minus the searing condescension, the Love Starved Woman is not unrelatable. If you replace the suicide with “gets very drunk with her friends and sings karaoke,” McBroom’s love-starved woman is one who has moved to a new city for a job and is already disillusioned with OKCupid.

Addressing his male readers, he concludes:

Psychologically, these women are the prototypes of many women in the United States today suffering from feelings of not being wanted, that they are unlovable, despised and isolated….what we think of as an eager, passionate haste to enjoy our unique charms is with the great majority of such conquests the cold, compulsive behavior of a woman driven by insecurity, desperate loneliness, or the wish to dominate.

There is no mention of “easy men” in the whole thing, of course. But the article does make clear that, while sex with easy women is satisfying and pleasurable, the women themselves are emotionally dead. It’s not that men won’t enjoy the sex (think of the simulated passion!), it’s just “nothing to brag about.” A genuinely passionate woman would not be easy.

When you are interested in crafting massive generalizations about an entire gender based on five case studies, it is easy to find an individual who will make your story work. Curiously, McBroom fails to let us know anything about the process of identifying and interviewing these women. These archetypes (and his generalizations) could just as easily have been based on Capote’s Holly Golightly or, for that matter, Nelly Furtado and Timbaland on “Promiscuous.” None of the scenarios described by McBroom are impossibilities—we’ve all known an Insecure Minx or a Messalina. It’s when he attempts to reduce the entirety of the female pre-martial sexual experience into daddy issues and loneliness that he runs into trouble.

In an attempt to build on and expand Dr. McBroom’s research, I have identified a sixth archetype, tragically missing from A Clinical Appraisal of Some Sexually Promiscuous Females and peer reviewed by the five people I emailed the original study to.

The Woman Who Has Sex Because Sex is Fun

This woman is aware that, when practiced safely, consensual casual sex can be beneficial, pleasurable, and enjoyable. It offers health benefits and can even count as aerobic exercise. She is not defined by the number of partners she has. She realizes that wanting to have sex with someone probably does not mask a profound psychological issue. She is not an idiot.

There is nothing unique about a man putting on the mantle of supposed objectivity to speculate about female behavior or about someone trotting out anecdata to prove their point. But, unlike your slightly inebriated sexist uncle or an American politician, Dr McBroom’s condescending views of women’s sexual behaviors were printed a peer reviewed medical journal.

It may be unfair to judge these principles from our modern perspective. After all, his archaic clinical appraisal was published in 1963, a time when the Journal of the National Medical Association allowed a man to describe a woman as “quite a juicy apple.” Thankfully, we have finally moved past the stage where a woman’s sexuality and sexual health is discussed and determined by men in power. It’s a brave new world.

Caroline Weinberg is a doctor with a masters in public health and a background in international healthcare.

Photo via Getty.

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