I’m a philosopher, a feminist, and a cyclist. And I’m fascinated by the history of women’s cycling and its connection to the early feminist movement.
One of the most striking things in the history of women’s cycling is the terror of female masturbation associated with the shape and position of the bicycle seat. It’s worse than the dreaded bicycle face and worse than the fear that bicycling would make women prone to infidelity and prostitution.
Here’s a passage from Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement of the 1890s that presents the general problem quite clearly.
“That bike riding might be sexually stimulating for women was also a real concern to many in the 1890s. It was thought that straddling a saddle combined with the motion required to propel a bicycle would lead to arousal. So-called “hygienic” saddles began to appear, saddles with little or no padding where a woman’s genitalia would ordinarily make contact with the seat. High stems and upright handlebars, as opposed to the more aggressively positioned “drop” handlebars, also were thought to reduce the risk of female sexual stimulation by reducing the angle at which a woman would be forced to ride.”
In “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women” Ellen Gruber Garvey (American Quarterly) writes that both advocates and critics of women’s cycling used medical arguments related to women’s sexuality and reproduction. Anti-bicyclists claimed that riding would ruin women’s sexual health by promoting masturbation while pro-bicyclers asserted that bicycling would strengthen women’s bodies and make them more fit for motherhood.
Heaven forbid that we argue for cycling on the grounds that women enjoy it. Isn’t it enough that bike riding makes women happy, and provides a way for us to get around?
Garvey is struck, like me, with the amount of ink that was spilt on this particular problem and the amount of detail regarding masturbation and evidence of masturbation that the doctors describe.
In an outpouring of numerous articles in medical journals, physicians went into extensive and virtually prurient detail about ways the bicycle saddle might produce sexual stimulation: The saddle can be tilted in every bicycle as desired…. In this way a girl… could, by carrying the front peak or pommel high, or by relaxing the stretched leather in order to let it form a deep, hammock-like concavity which would fit itself snugly over the entire vulva and reach up in front, bring about constant friction over the clitoris and labia. This pressure would be much increased by stooping forward, and the warmth generated from vigorous exercise might further increase the feeling. This physician reported the case of an “overwrought, emaciated girl of fifteen whose saddle was arranged so that the front pommel rode upward at an angle of about 35 degrees, who stooped forward noticeably in riding, and whose actions … strongly suggested … the indulgence of masturbation.”23 Although the patient is evidently worn to a frazzle by her fevered indulgence, the imagery of this physician’s first passage seems to reflect concern that female masturbation is a kind of indolence or relinquishment of vigilance: the leather is “relaxed”; the vulva rests in that signal article of Victorian leisure furniture, a hammock.
It’s not just the seat itself that’s at issue. Doctors were also obsessively concerned with rider position. The same position that with men was associated with going fast and racing, was seen with women as an obvious aid to masturbation. Men who like going fast ride stooped over to dodge the wind but when women adopt the same position, doctors assumed it was a means of getting more pressure on the clitoris from the bike seat.
The tell-tale riding stoop of the second passage, however, raises a different issue: the “scorching” position-that is, the bent-over- the-handlebars posture adopted by speeders. In male riders, it might be criticized or mocked. But for women, fast riding was condemned; deviations from upright decorousness and graceful riding are more serious, and bicycle-riding posture could be a significant measure of propriety and sexual innocence. Another physician complained that “except when one rides slowly and erect” the “whole body’s weight … rests on the anterior half of the saddle.” Here, not only the saddle and its adjustment but also speed is at fault, and the punishment for stepping out of line is pain and pathology: The moment speed is desired the body is bent forward in a characteristic curve and the body’s weight is transmitted to the narrow anterior half of the saddle, with all the weight pressing on the perineal region…. If a saddle is properly adjusted for slow riding and in an unusual effort at speed or hill climbing, the body is thrown forward, causing the clothing to press against the clitoris, thereby eliciting and arousing feelings hitherto unknown and unrealized by the young maiden and painful and debilitating “granular erosion” or “polypoid growth” will result…..Similarly, medical books had warned for years that the signs that girls “are addicted to such a vice . . . [are] only too plain to the physician” and that the “habit” of masturbation left “its mark upon the face so that those who are wise may know what the girl is doing.”
So we can see two problems here with bike seats, the first is their shape and position, but the other concerns the posture of the rider. Sitting upright makes women go more slowly and is apparently less likely to provoke sexual excitement.
Did anyone consider that the flushed face and the obvious excitement of sitting in an aerodynamic racing position came from the thrill of speed? Probably not.
One of the things I’m interested in seeing is whether the attitudes to women on bikes in the 1800s have entirely gone away. What I argue, in the course of a longer paper on the subject, is that they haven’t. In fact, I think some of the same attitudes pose an obstacle to getting more women on bikes now.
But surely the fear of bike orgasms has gone way? Right?
Sort of. I’d say it’s still a topic that gets more interest going than seems merited by the phenomena. Every few years a version of the “Women have orgasms while exercising” story goes around. Here’s this year’s version from Live Science: No Sex Required: Women Have Orgasms at the Gym,
“Of the women who had orgasms during exercise, about 45 percent said their first experience was linked to abdominal exercises; 19 percent linked to biking/spinning; 9.3 percent linked to climbing poles or ropes; 7 percent reported a connection with weight lifting; 7 percent running; the rest of the experiences included various exercises, such as yoga, swimming, elliptical machines, aerobics and others. Exercise-induced sexual pleasure was linked with more types of exercises than the orgasm phenomenon.”
The triple threat of sexual pleasure, women, and bike seats is still a source of humour among cyclists. I was once on a ride where we encountered a section of what locals call ‘corduroy road,’ kind of halfway paved so still bumpy. It wasn’t quite cobblestones or dirt and it was easily doable on our skinny tired road bikes. It was a time when you noticed a difference between aluminum and carbon frames (aluminum vibrates more). After we got to the end of that section of road, one of the men at the front yelled back, “Do you girls want to ride over that section of road again?” Nervous laughter ensued.
The issue of contact with bike seats hasn’t gone away altogether either. Contrary to what most people think the best seat for fast riding is not a big wide, comfy sofa of a thing. Instead it’s a narrow, racing-style seat, see Live Strong on choosing a bike seat. Ideally for comfort you want as little contact between your body’s soft parts and the seat of a bicycle.