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Is your money safely locked up at the bank? Then why isn’t your vagina locked up as well? From Mad Max to Robin Hood: Men In Tights, this historical garment has been appearing in pop culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has also become a popular accessory for BDSM enthusiasts, with a wide variety of both male and female chastity belts available from sex toy manufacturers. In fact, the chastity belt that society knows and portrays did not actually exist in days past. Instead, they are a myth drawn from allegories of purity and faithfulness which were exaggerated throughout time by historians who have the same fantasies as many men—fantasies of female sexual appetites so extensive that only lock and key can contain.
Just about everyone knows what a chastity belt is. It’s been shown in films and discussed in books. David R. Reuben discusses it in his book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), which was later turned into a Woody Allen film, calling it an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.” Modern society saw this device as something that would assure medieval men going off to war that their wives would not be unfaithful. As barbaric and unhygienic as it sounds, it is dismissed as a ritual of a different time. What most people don’t know is that it is also a ritual that never existed.
Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona’s German Studies department, set out to dispel this myth in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process. “It’s a concise enough research topic that I could cover everything that was ever written about it, and in one swoop destroy this myth.” In fact, Classen’s book contains little evidence for the existence of these chastity belts, because little existed. There are very few pictures or accounts of chastity belts being used, and even fewer physical remains to argue the case. The few books on the subject all reference each other and the same few outside sources.
Chastity Belts in Literature
The literary references that exist are almost all allegorical or satirical, and there are no historical references to a man putting a chastity belt on his wife. Metal tests on many physical replicas in museums later revealed that they were created in the 19th century as jokes or mock-ups of medieval tales.
Those text references that do exist are all heavily based in theology and used as metaphors for fidelity and purity. For example, one Latin source admonishes the “honest virgin” to “hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth… true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body…” It is quite possible that none of this was meant to be taken literally. The earliest drawing of a chastity belt appeared in 1405 in Bellifortis, a work on military engineering. The drawing appeared among detailed designs for catapults, armor, torture devices and other instruments of war. However, not everything in the book was serious. It also included objects to make soldiers invisible. Therefore, it is probable that this image is also a joke, since this is one of the only records from this period.
Not Taken Seriously
In the 16th century, the chastity belt began appearing more regularly. A husband would be leaving for a journey with his wife in the scene, wearing metal underwear. The wife’s lover would be waiting nearby with a copy of the key in his hand. Classen argues that the story continued and grew from this point due to fear and jealousy. “There’s always a lover in the background who already has the duplicate key, he says. In other words, even in the 1500s, no one took the idea of locked-up metal underwear very seriously as an effective anti-sex device. When chastity belts were depicted, it was in the Renaissance equivalent of Robin Hood: Men in Tights—and the audiences for those pieces of art probably thought the idea of a metal chastity belt just as giggle-worthy as late 20th century teenagers did. There are physical examples of chastity belts that have been displayed in museums, but most scholars now think that these metal objects were made much, much more recently than the Middle Ages and are fantasy objects referencing a past that never really existed. Or, as the British Museum put it: “It is probable that the great majority of examples now existing were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.”
An Enduring Myth
Why has the myth of the chastity belt endured? Once an idea has lodged itself in people’s minds, it’s hard to disprove it. Especially when there is so little evidence for or against the idea. As a result, the same scant information and a series of jokes throughout history have managed to convince generations that medieval men locked up their wives to keep them faithful. Even the practical difficulties of such a device have not kept people from believing in chastity belts. “People delight in delving into sex. They can say they only have a historical interest, but in reality they have a prurient interest,” says Classen. “It’s a fantasy.”
For men, chastity belts are a fantasy about female sexual appetites. They enjoy believing that women are so horny that only locking them up can keep them from seeking satisfaction. For women, it’s a fantasy about male cruelty and control. But for many people, it’s simply a fantasy about sex. While chastity belts used to enforce medieval fidelity were not real, modern-day chastity belts, sold as fetish objects, most definitely are.