A German magazine last week ran the headline, “Ist Donald Trump ein Sexmonster?” (“Is Donald Trump a Sexmonster?”). Although most compound nouns in German are unintelligible to English speakers, the meaning of Sexmonster is humorously evident, and, as a result, the headline went viral.
This attention merited a fun article in Slate, which, in addition to highlighting some amazing German words (like Schlammschlacht), briefly touched upon the seriousness of calling someone a name in German. The author points out that “when they use Sexmonster for Trump… [i]t implies behavior beyond the pale; it’s recently been used to describe both Catherine the Great and Ariel Castro.”
Meaning someone who has a lot of sex with connotations of being ravenous and insatiable, it is hard to see the connection Sexmonster denotes between Ariel Castro, a man convicted of kidnapping and raping three women over the course of a decade, Donald Trump, a racist and misogynistic businessman who might have sexually assaulted more than ten women, and Catherine II.
Catherine’s accuser, as the embedded link showed, was another article, entitled “Die Zarin, die als Sexmonster verunglimpft wurde“ (“The Empress who was reviled as a Sexmonster”). Clearly the article was meant to be a bit of light fun and to capitalize on the salaciousness of the term, Sexmonster, because it purports to lay out the evidence of her sexual life and asks the readers to come to their own conclusion.
So, was Catherine a Sexmonster?
No. Not at all.
Well, that is my answer to the question and not at all what the article wants you to conclude. Instead, it presents three major sexual offenses that warrant this label:
1) She slept with many men—more than 20 of them! I cannot defend her from this charge, since it is true. However, the fact that such a big deal is being made of the number of sexual partners she had, a woman who lived well into her sixties, is inherently misogynistic, because it assumes “normal” women do not have sexual needs.
In addition, it minimizes the tenuous nature of her reign. As a German-born princess with a dead (marginally) Russian husband, her only claim to the throne was in the name of her infant son, Paul. If she were to remarry, providing a more socially acceptable avenue for expressing her sexuality, rival factions within Russia would be quick to wrestle her authority away from her, claiming that her duty was to her new husband and no longer the Russian Empire. Remarriage being out of the question, she still wanted companionship, friendship, and, yes, sex, so she had favorites who helped fulfill these needs.
2) She used her bed as leverage to support her position as Empress. This accusation is, again, embedded in misogynistic assumptions and historical misunderstandings. Nevertheless, there is some credit to this claim, particularly before the coup d’etat and the death of her husband. Some scholars believe that, for example, Paul was not Peter III’s son. Based upon the contentious and abusive nature of their marriage, it would not be that far fetched to assume that Catherine and Peter did not often have sex. Without a child, however, Catherine’s place at court was anything but secure—she was the foreign wife of the adopted heir to the Russian throne. Until she gave birth to a son, she had no power. By taking a lover who fathered her child, she was ensuring her power in Russia as the mother to the heir of the Russian Empire. Even this, though, is just wild speculation, because no evidence exists to suggest that Paul was not Peter’s son (and, temperamentally, both Peter and Paul seem remarkably alike). Yet, if this happened, then it would be an example of Catherine using sex to get what she wanted at court.
Beyond this case, however, there is absolutely no other example of her leveraging her position through sexual favors. In fact, when her known lovers are taken in the aggregate, they are almost uniformly Russian noblemen from relatively good families, who were increasingly younger than her with little political power of their own to wield. What, then, could these men with little experience, wealth, and power do for her that she, the eventual Empress of the Russian Empire, could not do for herself? By the end of their time as Catherine’s favorites, they all had good careers and were widely respected and wealthy—all of which was bestowed on them by Catherine, as a reward for public service or out of love and appreciation.
No evidence exists to suggest that she coerced these men into any sexual acts; and, likewise, no evidence exists to suggest that they coerced her into any sexual acts. The longevity of this rumor is based solely upon the misogynist assumption that she 1) had to have taken lovers for more than just companionship and sexual desire and 2) they had to exercise influence over her political decisions. This logic suggests that women, then and now, cannot separate the political from the personal in relationships, and that their political power is dependent on male authority—both of which do not bear out in Catherine’s case.
3) Which leads to the final, and most damning, charge: that she may have coerced her guards through sexual acts to overthrow and kill her husband. Besides the fact that Catherine was a serial misogamist her whole life and wasn’t in the habit of taking non-noble lovers, this claim assumes that the only reason people would have supported Catherine’s coup was because she used her feminine wiles to convince them. The promise of sex, yes, can influence action, though I believe its influence is greater in books and stories than in real life. Also, sex is but one of the many reasons people act. Catherine, for example, was a kind and friendly woman, who was proficient in several languages, well read, and very smart. She was known for being kind to servants and loved to spend time at parties. Although one of the main leaders of the coup was her lover, the rest of the men who came out to support her claim most likely did so because of her political acumen, her intelligence, and her personal strength as well as the numerous embarrassing deficiencies of her husband.
Despite the fact that most of these claims are, at best, half-truths, and, at worse, flat out false, the fact that the question—Is Catherine a Sexmonster?—doesn’t seem far fetched gives me pause. Obviously, this article was not only poorly researched, it was also purposely written to attract attention—the use of the term Sexmonster being something in between a red herring and click bait. However, it taps into a larger critique of women in power, a critique which was common in the 18th century and continues to be so nearly 225 years later.
Video game writers, TV producers, armchair historians, and romance novelists continuously evoke her image and name as a stand in for uninhibited female lust and the dangers of a vamp. This appropriation is certainly not new (she was popular in 19th-century British spanking pornography… a subject for a different day), but its longevity is worthy of scrutiny.
I want to better understand how Catherine is portrayed, both in her time and up through today, in order to appreciate how modern society tries to create images of female power. What visual and literary cues do people invoke when they discuss Catherine? What tropes emerged and when? What role does her female body play in these images? And what role does her power play, too? Over the next few months, I am going to highlight particular examples of how Catherine’s image was used in order to answer some of these questions.