Social historians try to deny the historicity of le droit de Seigneur–the right of the Sir, Sire or feudal overlord to deflower all pubescent virgins. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four this jus primae noctis was propaganda with which children were indoctrinated about the oppression from which the revolution had freed them: they were no more subject to ‘the law by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories’ (I ch. 7). Hooray!
|V. Polenov, Le droit du Seigneur (1874)|
Yet, for several decades, the modern equivalent of the feudal overlord or the capitalist factory-owner, a media superstar called Jimmy Savile, subjected hundreds of very young women to routine sexual harassment (allegedly). Lots of people knew about it; some reported it; but nothing was done. He became a Seigneur or 'Sir', his knighthood a weird acknowledgement of his URTMWI (Universal Right to Molest With Impunity). Droit de Seigneur still functions in every human group exploiting the power of televisual personalities and messages: a BBC factual programmes producer of repulsive appearance proposed to me in 1991 that if I performed a sexual act on him he could make me famous. When I refused, he got nasty.
Men with power but no commitment to human rights have always felt entitled to be rewarded in sexual currency just for being powerful. The hero of the oldest recorded literature, Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia, imposed droit de Seigneur on the terrified brides of Uruk until his best friend Enkidu pointed out that he was being tyrannical.[i]
It would be nice to think we had moved on since 6000 BC. But there are not enough Enkidus around. Some male dons at Oxford in the early 1980s, when men-only colleges were newly open to female students, could not resist the potential of the power relationship between them and the 18-year-old women now sitting in their studies reading out essays on ‘Manliness in the Iliad’.
I only attended the first of 16 tutorials on Homer. The groper responsible for this lacuna in my education (not a tutor at my own college) never reported my absence because he didn’t want the reason for it to be discovered. It was for the same reason but with a different individual that in my third year I gave up Ancient History after a distressing tutorial on Sparta and changed to Classics and Modern Languages. Moreover, I can absolutely guarantee that it would have been my reputation and career that would have been damaged if I had made a fuss, rather than those of the (now deceased) Lothario.