Ovid – the Art of Sexual Harassment

Ovid was a Roman poet, and was a contemporary of Virgil and Horace. I will admit, that have very little knowledge of Latin poets…I decided to read Art of Love as when I walked past it on the shelf at my local book shop, because I was in a soppy mood and thought that it would be good research for Valentines day. I was incorrect in this assumption …

Ovid blames his poem The Art of Love for his exile from Rome, even though it was published six years before the event, either way, it certainly does have some interesting ideas and I find it funny just how contemporary reading it feels. The advice given out in the poem feels like the sort of stuff I could imagine my brother spouting to his friends in the pub, if one of them had just been freshly dumped. The is why I found reading a classic Latin poem so fun and kind of surprising, because it could be adapted quite easily to my understanding of relationships. Although that this is not to say that all of Ovid’s descriptions of what is acceptable in Roman love life is adaptable– for example there are examples of when force and or domestic violence is tolerable. However, even if attitudes about what is permissible then and now has changed, it seems abundantly clear in that ‘force’ is still part of modern day relationships.

Passing on advice is the purpose of the Art of Love and it is described as didactic for this reason – as it is intended to be a field guide for those who read it. The original ‘Men are from mars, Women are from Venus’.

Ovid is giving his readers instructions on three areas

  1. Work to find out what you’d like to enamour (how and where to find women)
  2. Win over the woman you’ve impressed (how to make relationships last)
  3. Make sure that it’s a love that time can test (aimed at women, includes how to fake an orgasm)

‘whether you want to love, or just to play,

you’ll find a one-night stand, or one who’ll stay’

Ovid feels that he is qualified to teach these subjects because Ovid is aware that everyone feels love differently, and Ovid himself feels it more acutely than others.

This blog entry focuses on the first section of the Art of Love – which is the lessons in how to get a woman interested and to flirt and to give advice

I have titled this blog post Ovid and the Art of Sexual Harassment, as this is how the first book reads to me.

“First off, believe there’s no one you can’t get.

You’ll capture some: simply lay the net”

This does not particularly sound like a good rule for ‘love’ in the sense that I understand. It does however seem to the basis of every modern dating app, where by one spends time creating the perfect online profile and spends time in crafting text messages to present yourself as the perfect match, who ever they are.

Whilst going on to read the rest of book one, I was reminded of bell hooks and her work on ‘rape culture’ – whereby men are told that women want sex and that they are told to act like they don’t want it. Thus we can see why a rape culture can thrive if this is the basis of our gender roles. I think Ovid writing encompasses this, and the cultural idea that women should be a ‘lady on the street and a freak in sheets’ and as Ovid says:

“discreet sex please woman, just as man;

she merely hides it better than he can”

More problematically, we have this advice:

‘So don’t despair; all girls are worth a go,

and barely one of many will say no’

This also harks to the current and consistent revelations of men in positions of power and authority are using this to exploit the lesser bargaining power of the women who work for and depend on these men for economic success:

“Make promises; they cannot harm your health.

With promises, you hint at boundless wealth”

Although not directly parallel, it makes me think that Ovid’s advice here is born out of the idea that women are often finically dependent on men, and buying gifts and making promises to do so, plays on this vulnerability and I think this is a key theme underlying sexual harassment by anyone who has more social status and privilege.

I think that there are two key quotes that reflect this idea of the male privilege and sexual harassment:

“she read, but won’t reply? Then don’t be pushy –

send her more things to read, and make them slushy.

If she enjoys the read, then she’ll reply –

These things move by degrees from Low to High.

It’s possible that her first notes demur

And ask you if you’ll please stop bothering her.

She fears that; what she wants, she doesn’t say;

So carry on – your godsend’s on its way”

[…]

To mix kisses with flattery is wise –

If she won’t give, then take what she denies,

She’ll fight at first, call you a ghastly chap:

She wants, though to be conquered by a scrap”

Or in the words of Robin Thicke …”good girl // I know you want it”

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