Last week, a 60-year-old woman in Padua, Italy, waddled into a fire station to report a peculiar emergency: She was trapped in her chastity belt.
According to the local Padua news outlet Il Mattino di Padova, both the woman and her local firemen were embarrassed as she admitted she had lost the key to the padlock that opened the iron sex cage. While the authorities initially suspected the chastity belt was related to domestic abuse—and/or, as Il Mattino di Padova reported it, "some kind of dangerous sex game"—the woman claimed she wore the belt voluntarily, to prevent herself from entering into a sexual relationship.
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Some outlets have reported that the woman claimed she was wearing the belt to protect herself from sexual assault—a sad twist on the chastity belt's original purpose of preventing women from having sex with men who weren't their husbands. Or, rather, the chastity belt's widely accepted original purpose: According to medieval scholars like Dr. Albrecht Classen, a professor of German studies at the University of Arizona, chastity belts did not emerge in the Middle Ages, as most people assume, but in the 19th century. While texts dating back to 1405 depict illustrations of chastity belts, Classen—in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-making Process—says they are most likely crude jokes that were then picked up by later generations in service of stereotypes about the "barbaric" Middle Ages. In other words, nobody actually wore them.
This was shocking to me, but of course it makes sense—as Classen told me over the phone, the chastity belt "is an absurd notion. Medically, it is so unhygienic that the woman would probably soon die from infections."
"It all dates back to the 19th century," Classen explained. "There's a great interest in projecting certain concepts about the past: The Middle Ages were dirty, the Middle Ages had no science, they were primitive, they thought the Earth was flat. All these stupid concepts, which find good expression in the Monty Python movies."
In the 19th century, this willingness to mythologize the past combined with the era's notorious sexual repression, when anthropologists, historians, and proto-feminists converged to perpetuate the idea of the chastity belt. "[The chastity belt] was a genius way for [the Victorians] to compensate for those repressions by using a pseudo-scientific approach to talking about the past," Classen said. "This became a very convenient, welcome material to delve into fantasies." (It also meshed well with the Victorians' fascination with torture—"they just loved to show you the most egregious, horrendous torture instruments lacerating the human flesh," Classen said.) Indeed, according to the book Misconceptions about the Middle Ages, in 1996 the British Museum had to remove a "medieval chastity belt" from display after it was found to have been made in the 18th or 19th century, an age when people would construct the clunky sexist diapers as "curiosities for the prurient or jokes for the tasteless."
But despite historians' best efforts, the myth has persisted, showing up in period films like Robin Hood: Men in Tights, though now what was once perceived as a misogynist weapon of control can be painted as a sex-positive toy. "Today you have the curious additional element of the S&M culture, and they happily play on this," Classen said. "It allows them to combine their general historical interest—playful interaction with the past—and their sexual fantasies. Although I thought I had written [my] book to deconstruct [the myth] and bust it forever, you cannot repress erotic fantasies."
When I asked Classen about the Italian woman's use of a chastity belt for its fake-intended purpose, however, the tone of our conversation darkened. While this week's reports of the poor woman trapped in her chastity belt have carried a light-hearted tone of the wacky local news story, it's easy to see how, in a dystopian version of reality, they could have gone differently. "Of course, I could see why somebody might say, 'Well, if you had had a chastity belt you would have been safe' [during a sexual assault]," Classen said, "but that's a completely different story."