Sexual Empowerment of Women in Behn's The Willing Mistress and The Disappointment
"All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." (Woolf 91)
Born in 1640, Aphra Behn 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 support hereself 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 day, Behn's willing mistress does so, following her lover into the bushes and coyly closing out the reader from her moment of pleasure. Likewise pursued, in "The Disappointment," Behn's young virginal maiden takes her sexual destiny into her own hands (literally), leaving her would-be lover impotent, an outcast from what used to be his realm of power. Thus in "The Willing Mistress" and "The Disappointment," Behn confers power to women by creating an environment of sexual freedom in which female sexuality is natural, strong, comfortable, and driven by pure desire.
In the Middle Ages, if a woman wanted to express herself in writing, she was limited to expressions of religious faith, as were Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Any rapture described in the literature of this period was usually reserved for Christ, prompted by the ecstatic realization of an eternal life. In the 16th and 17th centuries, women writers were still largely limited in how they were permitted to express themselves. While writing about love became more socially acceptable, most examples still presented a romanticized perspective in which passion was inextricably linked to emotional involvement. There are glimpses of sexuality, such as when Anne Bradstreet in "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment" refers to...