Without a sense of context, we won’t be able to understand why sexological research came about. In a general sense, we might say that it developed “naturally” with the advancement of science. A truly empirical study of the human body is incomplete without addressing the secondary function of sexual organs. Breasts are for lactation, but also a source of enjoyment and sexual arousal. The penis, even the anus, are for the release of bodily waste but, notably, also produce tremendous arousal. These qualities we will, for now, gently call “secondary functions” of the organs because they are the source of differing functions but also because of the way, over centuries, they have become imbued with sexual power.
The study of the body and influence of science is not as clinical as many of us think. Science, despite popular opinion, is quite fun and amusing. Though many of us prefer, instead, the “social construction” of science. Psychology is a prime example of this, as would be politics or history. There are certain principles of human behavior and bodily function that are measurable and can be reproduced in a lab like infections, chemical imbalance on behavior, and performance on a test. Social construction of these ideas is dependent on how we understand the science, how an understanding changes and morphs in the retelling and embodiment. This is not a “new” thing. Humanity has been recontextualizing and repurposing information for several millennia and because of that, the social construction of sexual behavior – the taboos, regulations, social and political impact – has had a profound effect on cultures of the world since prehistoric times.
What follows is a light topical survey of where we have developed our ideas of sexuality. It is also, you might say, a study of empire. Each of the cultures discussed here are important because of their expanse – Greece, Rome, religion, India, China, Japan. Each of these empires have absorbed and “re-educated” villages and nations to their understanding of right. It is important to see the entries here as, for better or worse, “channels” of understanding. Markers of understanding. Somehow, the guides to traditions we seek to recover to better know ourselves today. We do well to remember though, that these were ancient cultures. While they inform our own, we cannot “revive” and “update” them to contextualize contemporary practices any more than we can see the ancient as the “right” way to understand the modern. One complements the other, but they are never the same. Alyssa Lyon of Michigan State’s Department of Anthropological Studies writes that while this tendency is prevalent, it must be resisted.
Sexuality in Ancient Egypt is a subject to be approached with caution. Norms in regard to sexual behavior cannot be looked at with our Western understanding of sexual identity as many cultures, both past and present, do not create categories based on the same things we do. Moreover, we must be careful when interpreting both written and artistic accounts of sex as we might cast our own assumptions and biases–such our inclination to ascribe to individuals monosexual identities–onto those who don’t fit into our mutually exclusive sexuality boxes.
Study of the History of Human Sexuality
The work of Swiss jurist Johann Bachofen made a major impact on the study of the history of sexuality. Many authors, notably Lewis Henry Morgan and Friedrich Engels, were influenced by Bachofen, and criticized Bachofen’s ideas on the subject, which were almost entirely drawn from a close reading of ancient mythology. In his 1861 book Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World Bachofen writes that in the beginning of human experience, sexuality was chaotic and promiscuous. This “aphroditic” stage was replaced by a matriarchal “demeteric” stage, which resulted from the mother being the only reliable way of establishing descendence. Only upon the switch to male-enforced monogamy was paternity certainty possible, giving rise to patriarchy – the ultimate “apolloan” stage of humanity. While the views of Bachofen are not based on empirical evidence, they are important because of the impact they made on thinkers to come, especially in the field of cultural anthropology. Modern explanations of the origins of human sexuality are based in evolutionary biology, and specifically the field of human behavioral ecology. Evolutionary biology shows that the human genotype, like that of all other organisms, is the result of those ancestors who reproduced with greater frequency than others. The resultant sexual behavior adaptations are thus not an “attempt” on the part of the individual to maximize reproduction in a given situation – natural selection does not “see” into the future. Instead, current behavior is probably the result of selective forces that occurred in the Pleistocene. For example, a man trying to have sex with many women all while avoiding parental investment is not doing so because he wants to “increase his fitness”, but because the psychological framework that evolved and thrived in the Pleistocene never went away.
Bachofen’s influence is interesting though because it highlights how we reconstruct the past is based on the materials we are able to recover. Sexual speech—and by extension, writing—has been subject to varying standards of decorum since the beginning of history. For most of recorded history, writing has been accessible to a small part of the total population of any society. Only in the 19th century and later are there societies where over half the population are basically literate. The resulting self-censorship and euphemistic forms are translated today into a dearth of explicit and accurate evidence on which to base a history. These recovered sources, or “primary” sources, can be collected across a wide variety of times and cultures, including the following:
- Records of legislation indicating either encouragement or prohibition
- Religious and philosophical texts recommending, condemning or debating the topic
- Literary sources, perhaps unpublished during their authors’ lifetimes, including diaries and personal correspondence
- Medical textbooks treating various forms as a pathological condition
- Linguistic developments, particularly in slang.
- More recently, studies of sexuality.
Reconstructing these texts can be difficult, as the primary sources are pieces of antiquity and, again, are not entirely “translatable” as they are outside of written language. Instead, most appear as works of art – lamps, drawings, carvings, statues, pottery, and so on. Searching for one specific meaning or interpretation is a bit of a rabbit chase, so instead the study of sex in history is painted in broad strokes based on region and culture.
India played a significant role in the history of sex, from writing one of the first literature that treated sexual intercourse as a science, to in modern times being the origin of the philosophical focus of new-age groups’ attitudes on sex. It may be argued that India pioneered the use of sexual education through art and literature. As in many societies, there was a difference in sexual practices in India between common people and powerful rulers, with people in power often indulging in hedonistic lifestyles that were not representative of common moral attitudes.
The first evidence of attitudes towards sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the first of which are perhaps the oldest surviving literature in the world. These most ancient texts, the Vedas, reveal moral perspectives on sexuality, marriage and fertility prayers. Sex magic featured in a number of Vedic rituals, most significantly in the Asvamedha Yajna, where the ritual culminated with the chief queen lying with the dead horse in a simulated sexual act; clearly a fertility rite intended to safeguard and increase the kingdom’s productivity and martial prowess. The epics of ancient India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which may have been first composed as early as 1400 BCE, had a huge effect on the culture of Asia, influencing later Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and South East Asian culture. These texts support the view that in ancient India, sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple, where husband and wife pleasured each other equally, but where sex was considered a private affair, at least by followers of the aforementioned Indian religions. It seems that polygamy was allowed during ancient times. In practice, this seems to have only been practiced by rulers, with common people maintaining a monogamous marriage. It is common in many cultures for a ruling class to practice polygamy as a way of preserving dynastic succession
The most publicly known sexual literature of India are the texts of the Kama Sutra. These texts were written for and kept by the philosopher, warrior and nobility castes, their servants and concubines, and those in certain religious orders. These were people that could also read and write and had instruction and education. The sixty four arts of love-passion-pleasure began in India. There are many different versions of the arts which began in Sanskrit and were translated into other languages, such as Persian or Tibetan. Many of the original texts are missing and the only clue to their existence is in other texts. Kama Sutra, the version by Vatsyayana, is one of the well-known survivors and was first translated into English by Sir Richard Burton and F. F. Arbuthnot. The Kama Sutra is now perhaps the most widely read secular text in the world. It details ways in which partners should pleasure each other within a marital relationship.
When the Islamic and Victorian English culture arrived in India, they generally had an adverse impact on sexual liberalism in India. Within the context of the Indian religions, or dharmas, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, sex is generally either seen as a moral duty of each partner in a long term marriage relationship to the other, or is seen as a desire which hinders spiritual detachment, and so must be renounced. In modern India, a renaissance of sexual liberalism has occurred amongst the well-educated urban population, but there is still discrimination and forced marriage incidents amongst the poor.
Within certain schools of Indian philosophy, such as Tantra, the emphasis in sex as a sacred duty, or even a path to spiritual enlightenment or yogic balance is greatly emphasized. Actual sexual intercourse is not a part of every form of tantric practice, but it is the definitive feature of left-hand Tantra. Contrary to popular belief, “Tantric sex” is not always slow and sustained, and may end in orgasm. For example, the Yoni Tantra states: “there should be vigorous copulation”. However, all tantra states that there were certain groups of personalities who were not fit for certain practices. Tantra was personality specific and insisted that those with pashu-bhava (animal disposition), which are people of dishonest, promiscuous, greedy or violent natures who ate meat and indulged in intoxication, would only incur bad karma by following Tantric paths without the aid of a Guru who could instruct them on the correct path. In Buddhist tantra, actual ejaculation is very much a taboo, as the main goal of the sexual practice is to use the sexual energy towards achieving full enlightenment, rather than ordinary pleasure. Tantric sex is considered to be a pleasurable experience in Tantra philosophy. 71
In the I Ching (The Book of Changes, a Chinese classic text dealing with divination) sexual intercourse is one of two fundamental models used to explain the world. With neither embarrassment nor circumlocution, Heaven is described as having sexual intercourse with Earth. Similarly, with no sense of prurient interest, the male lovers of early Chinese men of great political power are mentioned in one of the earliest great works of philosophy and literature, the Zhuang Zi (or Chuang Tzu, as it is written in the old system of romanization).
China has had a long history of sexism, with even moral leaders such as Confucius giving extremely pejorative accounts of the innate characteristics of women. From early times, the virginity of women was rigidly enforced by family and community and linked to the monetary value of women as a kind of commodity (the “sale” of women involving the delivery of a bride price). Men were protected in their own sexual adventures by a transparent double standard. While the first wife of a man with any kind of social status in traditional society was almost certainly chosen for him by his father and/or grandfather, the same man might later secure for himself more desirable sexual partners with the status of concubines. In addition, bondservants in his possession could also be sexually available to him. Naturally, not all men had the financial resources to so greatly indulge themselves.
Chinese literature displays a long history of interest in affection, marital bliss, unabashed sexuality, romance, amorous dalliances, homosexual alliances—in short, all of the aspects of behavior that are affiliated with sexuality in the West. Besides the previously mentioned Zhuang Zi passages, sexuality is exhibited in other works of literature such as the Tang dynasty Yingying zhuan (Biography of Cui Yingying), the Qing dynasty Fu sheng liu ji (Six Chapters of a Floating Life), the humorous and intentionally salacious Jin Ping Mei, and the multi-faceted and insightful Hong lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, also called Story of the Stone). Of the above, only the story of Yingying and her de facto husband Zhang fail to describe homosexual as well as heterosexual interactions. The novel entitled Rou bu tuan (Prayer mat of flesh) even describes cross-species organ transplants for the sake of enhanced sexual performance. Among Chinese literature are the Taoist classical texts. This philosophical tradition of China has developed Taoist Sexual Practices which have three main goals: health, longevity, and spiritual development.
The desire for respectability and the belief that all aspects of human behavior might be brought under government control has until recently mandated to official Chinese spokesmen that they maintain the fiction of sexual fidelity in marriage, absence of any great frequency of premarital sexual intercourse, and total absence in China of the so-called “decadent capitalist phenomenon” of homosexuality. The result of the ideological demands preventing objective examination of sexual behavior in China has, until very recently, made it extremely difficult for the government to take effective action against sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS. At the same time, large migrations to the cities coupled with China’s gender imbalance and significant amounts of unemployment have led to resurgence of prostitution in unregulated venues, a prominent accelerant of the propagation of STDs to many ordinary members of society.
In recent decades the power of the family over individuals has weakened, making it increasingly possible for young men and women to find their own sexual and/or marriage partners.
In what is often called the world’s first novel, the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), which dates back to around the eighth century AD, eroticism is treated as a central part of the aesthetic life of the nobility. The sexual interactions of Prince Genji are described in great detail, in an objective tone of voice, and in a way that indicates that sexuality was as much a valued component of cultured life as music or any of the arts. While most of his erotic interactions involve women, there is one telling episode in which Genji travels a fairly long distance to visit one of the women with whom he occasionally consorts but finds her away from home. It being late, and intercourse already being on the menu of the day, Genji takes pleasure in the availability of the lady’s younger brother who, he reports, is equally satisfactory as an erotic partner.
From that time on to at least as late as the Meiji Reformation, there is no indication that sexuality was treated in a pejorative way. In modern times, homosexuality was driven out of sight until it reemerged in the wake of the sexual revolution with seemingly little if any need for a period of acceleration. Yukio Mishima, probably the best-known Japanese writer in the outside world, frequently wrote about homosexuality, and its relationship with Japanese culture new and old. Likewise, prostitution, pornography, the tradition of the Geisha, and countless types of fetish and sadomasochism have resurfaced after decades underground.
In Japan, sexuality was governed by the same social forces that make its culture considerably different from that of China, Korea, India, or Europe. In Japanese society, the primary method used to secure social control is the threat of ostracism. Japanese society is still very much a shame society. More attention is paid to what is polite or appropriate to show others than to which behaviors might make a person seem “corrupt” or “guilty”, in the Christian sense of the words. The tendency of people in Japanese society to group in terms of “in groups” and “out groups” – residue of its long history as a caste society – is a source of great pressure on every facet of society, via pop culture (reflected in the tribal, often materialistic, and very complex nature of teenage subcultures) as well as more traditional standards (as in the high-pressure role of the salaryman). Sexual expression ranges from a requirement to a complete taboo, and many, especially teenagers, find themselves playing many otherwise strictly-separate roles during the week.
A frequent locus of misconceptions in regard to Japanese sexuality is the institution of the geisha. Rather than being a prostitute, a geisha was a woman trained in arts such as music and cultured conversation, and who was available for non-sexual interactions with her male clientele. These women differed from the wives that their patrons probably had at home because, except for the geisha, women were ordinarily not expected to be prepared for anything other than the fulfillment of household duties. This limitation imposed by the normal social role of the majority of women in traditional society produced a diminution in the pursuits that those women could enjoy, but also a limitation in the ways that a man could enjoy the company of his wife. The geisha fulfilled the non-sexual social roles that ordinary women were prevented from fulfilling, and for this service they were well paid. The geisha were not deprived of opportunities to express themselves sexually and in other erotic ways. A geisha might have a patron with whom she enjoyed sexual intimacy, but this sexual role was not part of her role or responsibility as a geisha.
As a superficial level, in traditional Japanese society women were expected to be highly subservient to men and especially to their husbands. So, in a socionormal description of their roles, they were little more than housekeepers and faithful sexual partners to their husbands. Their husbands, on the other hand, might consort sexually with whomever they chose outside of the family, and a major part of male social behavior involves after-work forays to places of entertainment in the company of male cohorts from the workplace—places that might easily offer possibilities of sexual satisfaction outside the family. In the postwar period this side of Japanese society has seen some liberalization in regard to the norms imposed on women as well as an expansion of the de facto powers of women in the family and in the community that existed unacknowledged in traditional society.
In the years since people first became aware of the AIDS epidemic, Japan has not suffered the high rates of disease and death that characterize, for example, some nations in Africa, some nations in Southeast Asia, etc. In 1992, the government of Japan justified its continued refusal to allow oral contraceptives to be distributed in Japan on the fear that it would lead to reduced condom use, and thus increase transmission of AIDS. As of 2004, condoms accounted for 80% of birth control use in Japan, and this may explain Japan’s comparably lower rates of AIDS.
Egypt (as told by Alyssa Lyon)
In art, sex is not usually explicitly detailed, though since much artwork was either in tombs or temples it can be argued that their sexual acts were not depicted so as to avoid their desecration. That is not to say that the ancient Egyptians never drew graphic pictures; often, at least one party was drawn as an animal to censor the act as the Egyptians had a certain prudishness towards illustrations of sex between two humans. Beyond this, the Ancient Egyptians did not seem to be terribly shy about sex. Their mythology relies heavily on sexual themes, and there are many (possible) coded messages and euphemisms about sex riddled within the art itself. For example, King Tutankhamen is shown on a chest using a bow while his wife stands by his feet with an arrow at the ready; the verb “to shoot” in the Ancient Egyptian language also means “to ejaculate.” This is symbolic of the need to have sex in order to be reborn after death. Moreover, their religion itself was stepped in sexual themes, including the ithyphallic god Min.
As for art showing humans in sexually explicit positions, there is the famous example of graffiti of a pharaoh and a man commonly thought to be Hatshepsut and Senenmut. It would have been highly taboo to draw the queen in this manner.
Less crudely made, the infamous Turin Erotic Papyrus shows scenes of either animals or humans in various sexual acts and positions. Some consider it to be “a satire on human manners and desires, as the animal vignettes on the first third of the papyrus suggest,” which also mocks individuals of the upper class. Others consider it to be purely pornographic and that it was used as such.
There was apparently no concept of virginity or any sort of expectation for it. Individuals could freely pursue sexual relationships so long as both parties were unattached.
One creation myth details how the first god (Atum or Ra), who created himself, fathered the next generation of deities through masturbation. There was supposedly an event in which the Pharaoh would ceremoniously ejaculate into the Nile to mimic Atum/Ra’s creation of Shu and Tefnut; that is, it was to encourage the fertility of the Nile. (I say this in a skeptical manner as I cannot find a corroborating article, merely one’s that reference this claim.) On the Turin Erotic Papyrus one can see a woman seated on a vase to pleasure herself while it is believed that Cleopatra may have created a vibrator for herself using bees.
Adultery was highly taboo in Ancient Egyptian society with both men and women punished for this act. Emasculation for a man may have been a punishment for the rape of a married woman while consensual sex would result in both people being punished by whipping or mutilation, possibly even put to death. This is in the context of pursuing a relationship with a married woman, so male extramarital affairs with unmarried women did not reflect badly on his character in the same way it did with a married woman or on cheating wives. However, men were not granted a free pass: it has been recorded that in some communities cheating husbands would experience social stigma for their actions.
Many deities wed their siblings in Egyptian mythology: She and Tefnut; Geb and Nut; Osiris and Isis; Seth and Nephthys. Egyptian royalty copied this pattern; King Tutunkhamen’s parents, for example, were siblings. This culminated a family line of inbreeding that caused the family to suffer from many malformations, infections and genetic diseases. However, there is little evidence indicating that the common masses frequently married their siblings. Premarital sex between two siblings was strange, but it was not considered taboo.
Regarding homosexuality, the story of Seth and Horus is illuminating. Seth and Horus have had a long history of one-upsmanship and some pretty awkward sexual tension. Seth, who has long wanted to be the chief god of the pantheon, tries to assert his dominance over Horus by having sex with him, planning to have penetrative or intercrural sex with Horus. By putting Horus in the “womanly” or passive position, Seth would have elicited the anger of the other gods towards Horus. This does not come to pass, however, thanks to aid of Isis who helps her son keep Seth’s semen off his body and plots to turn the tables around, making Seth appear to be the receptive partner by tricking him into eating Horus’s semen. (Though, some sources say that both men were equals in the sense that they were able to penetrate one another.) What can be gleaned from this story is that it was not homosexual relations themselves that were looked upon negatively but, like in Ancient Greece, the partner in the “passive” role who was disdained.
When Egyptologists first uncovered the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara, they were shocked to see that these two men not only shared a tomb, but that there was also art work depicted them in close, very intimate poses. Rather than believing that they were in a romantic and/or sexual relationship, the theory was immediately proposed that these two were merely brothers–nothing else. Some have even gone so far as assert that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were conjoined twins to explain why they are touching so often in artwork. They are depicted embracing in the same manner as heterosexual couples, which carries the same connotations of closeness in the context of sexual relations. This has spawned a very intense debate.
The theory of them being siblings is a weird heteronormative approach to this relationship that quite honestly is baffling to the mind: they could not be lovers because their wives and children are depicted on their tomb’s walls. This is not an adequate response. First, let’s break it down: behavior does not equal orientation. Because it was important to have children to care for their cult after death, their wives may have only served as a means to an end. As much as they loved one another, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep could not reproduce together, necessitating them to find wives to fulfill this purpose. However, this is under the biphobic suggestion that these two men must be monosexual. Both could have been attracted to multiple genders or sexes, and so may have had a romantic and/or sexual attachment to their wives andeach other.
A more than likely fictional tale from either the 18th, the 19th or the 25th dynasty, Neferkare was a pharaoh and Sasenet was one of his generals. The story goes that a man named Tjeti saw Neferkare walking somewhere during the night and decided to follow him. The pharaoh went to Sasenet’s house, where he stayed for quite some time in the embrace of his lover before returning to his home. This process would then repeat itself. This tale alludes to the relationship between Osiris and Ra, the later rising to fulfill his duties as a sun deity at the end of their nightly embrace. It is a parody piece of that myth, and is useful in determining that, given the tone, homosexual relations at this point in time were scandalous, but were not so taboo as to be unmentionable.
As to whether or not two women could be stigmatized for being in a relationship, it is unknown. There are some readings of Nephthys being a lesbian due to her infertility and the ambiguous sexual orientation of her husband. While I am not sold on Nephthys being a lesbian–though she and Isis had a close enough relationship I can certainly believe it–I would think that female homosexuality would likely not be seen as strange or as a threat.
Egypt, perhaps more than other ancient civilizations, is a guideline for sexual attitudes in Africa and Asia. Egypt, cast as an instigator and oppressive nation in the Torah, was also known as sexually permissive. Other nations, their political enemies, routinely spoke of the perversity of Egyptians. Along with incest, the Ancient Egyptians apparently engaged in bestiality often, from cows to dogs to even crocodiles. This practice was illegal and carried high penalties, but amazingly people continued to practice it anyway. In Egyptian mythology, Seth murdered and dismembered Osiris, necessitating Isis and Nephthys to collect the pieces. They were able to recover every part of Osiris except for his penis, so Isis created a new phallus for him. Restored, Isis has sex with her husband and thus conceives Horus. This helped to create the belief that even after death a person still had sexual power, which if unspent could wreak havoc. Herodotus wrote that some corpses would not be delivered to the embalmers for several days to prevent them from copulating with the deceased.
In ancient Greece, the phallus, often in the form of a herma, was an object of worship as a symbol of fertility. This finds expression in Greek sculpture and other artworks. One ancient Greek male idea of female sexuality was that women envied penises of males. Wives were considered as commodity and instruments for bearing legitimate children. They had to compete sexually with eromenoi, hetaeras and slaves in their own homes.
Both homosexuality and bisexuality, in the form of pederasty, were social institutions in ancient Greece and Athens, and were integral to education, art, religion, and politics. Relationships between adults were not unknown but they were disfavored. Lesbian relations were also of a pederastic nature. In ancient Greece, it was common for men to have sexual relationships with youths. These practices were a sign of maturity for youths, who looked up to men as sexual mentors.
Ancient Greek men believed that refined prostitution was necessary for pleasure and different classes of prostitutes were available. Hetaera, educated and intelligent companions, were for intellectual as well as physical pleasure, Peripatetic prostitutes solicited business on the streets, whereas temple or consecrated prostitutes charged a higher price. In Corinth, a port city, on the Aegean Sea, the temple held a thousand consecrated prostitutes.
Rape – usually in the context of warfare – was common and was seen by men as a “right of domination.” Rape in the sense of “abduction” followed by consensual lovemaking was represented even in religion: Zeus was said to have ravished many women: Leda in the form of a swan, Danaë disguised as a golden rain, Alkmene disguised as her own husband. Zeus also ravished a boy, Ganymede, a myth that paralleled Cretan custom.
The ancient Etruscans had very different views on sexuality, when compared with the other European ancient peoples, most of whom had inherited the Indo-European traditions and views on the gender roles.
Greek writers, such as Theopompus and Plato named the Etruscan ‘immoral’ and from their descriptions we find out that the women commonly had sex with men who were not their husbands and that in their society, children were not labelled “illegitimate” just because they did not know who the father was. Theopompus also described orgiastic rituals, but it is not clear whether they were a common custom or only a minor ritual dedicated to a certain deity.
The citizen’s duty to control his body was central to the concept of male sexuality in the Roman Republic. “Virtue” (virtus, from vir, “man”) was equated with “manliness.” The equivalent virtue for female citizens of good social standing was pudicitia, a form of sexual integrity that displayed their attractiveness and self-control. Female sexuality was encouraged within marriage. In Roman patriarchal society, a “real man” was supposed to govern both himself and others well, and should not submit to the use or pleasure of others. Same-sex behaviors were not perceived as diminishing a Roman’s masculinity, as long as he played the penetrative or dominating role. Acceptable male partners were social inferiors such as prostitutes, entertainers, and slaves. Sex with freeborn male minors was formally prohibited (see Lex Scantinia). “Homosexual” and “heterosexual” thus did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist.
Depictions of frank sexuality are abundant in Roman literature and art. The fascinum, a phallic charm, was a ubiquitous decoration. Sexual positions and scenarios are depicted in great variety among the wall paintings preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Collections of poetry celebrated love affairs, and The Art of Love by the Augustan poet Ovid playfully instructed both men and women in how to attract and enjoy lovers. Elaborate theories of human sexuality based on Greek philosophy were developed by thinkers such as Lucretius and Seneca. Classical myths often deal with sexual themes such as gender identity, adultery, incest, and rape.
Like other aspects of Roman life, sexuality was supported and regulated by traditional Roman religion, both the public cult of the state and private religious practices and magic. Cicero held that the desire to procreate (libido) was “the seedbed of the republic,” as it was the cause for the first form of social institution, marriage, which in turn created the family, regarded by the Romans as the building block of civilization. Roman law penalized sex crimes (stuprum), particularly rape, as well as adultery. A Roman husband, however, committed the crime of adultery only when his sexual partner was a married woman.
Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. Entertainers of any gender were assumed to be sexually available (see infamia), and gladiators were sexually glamorous. Slaves lacked legal personhood, and were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
The dissolution of Republican ideals of physical integrity in relation to political liberty contributes to and is reflected by the sexual license and decadence associated with the Roman Empire. Anxieties about the loss of liberty and the subordination of the citizen to the emperor were expressed by a perceived increase in passive homosexual behavior among free men. Sexual conquest was a frequent metaphor for Roman imperialism.
The Islands have been noted for their sexual culture. Many sexual activities seen as taboo in western cultures were viewed as appropriate by the native culture. Contact with Western societies has changed many of these customs, so research into their pre-Western social history has to be done by reading antique writings.
Children slept in the same room as their parents and were able to witness their parents while they had sex. Intercourse simulation became real penetration as soon as boys were physically able. Adults found simulation of sex by children to be funny. As children approached 11, attitudes shifted toward girls.
Premarital sex was not encouraged but was allowed in general, restrictions on adolescent sexuality were incest, exogamy regulations, and firstborn daughters of high-ranking lineage. After their firstborn child, high-ranking women were permitted extramarital affairs.
“The next day, as soon as it was light, we were surrounded by a still greater multitude of these people. There were now a hundred females at least; and they practised all the arts of lewd expression and gesture, to gain admission on board. It was with difficulty I could get my crew to obey the orders I had given on this subject. Amongst these females were some not more than ten years of age. But youth, it seems, is here no test of innocence; these infants, as I may call them, rivalled their mothers in the wantonness of their motions and the arts of allurement.” — Yuri Lisyansky in his memoirs
Adam Johann von Krusenstern in his book about the same expedition as Yuri’s, reports that a father brought a 10-12-year-old girl on his ship, and she had sex with the crew. According to the book of Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu and Étienne Marchand, 8-year-old girls had sex and performed other sexual acts in public.
Religion and Sex
Societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships have varied over time and place, from expecting all males to engage in same-sex relationships, to casual integration, through acceptance, to seeing the practice as a minor sin, repressing it through law enforcement and judicial mechanisms, and to proscribing it under penalty of death.
In a detailed compilation of historical and ethnographic materials of pre-industrial cultures, “strong disapproval of homosexuality was reported for 41% of 42 cultures; it was accepted or ignored by 21%, and 12% reported no such concept. Of 70 ethnographies, 59% reported homosexuality absent or rare in frequency and 41% reported it present or not uncommon.”
In cultures influenced by Abrahamic religions, the law and the church established sodomy as a transgression against divine law or a crime against nature. The condemnation of anal sex between males, however, predates Christian belief. It was frequent in ancient Greece; “unnatural” can be traced back to Plato.
Many historical figures, including Socrates, Lord Byron, Edward II, and Hadrian have had terms such as gay or bisexual applied to them; some scholars, such as Michel Foucault, have regarded this as risking the anachronistic introduction of a contemporary construction of sexuality foreign to their times, though others challenge this.
A common thread of constructionist argument is that no one in antiquity or the Middle Ages experienced homosexuality as an exclusive, permanent, or defining mode of sexuality. John Boswell has countered this argument by citing ancient Greek writings by Plato, which describe individuals exhibiting exclusive homosexuality.
In India, Hinduism accepted an open attitude towards sex as an art, science and spiritual practice. The most famous pieces of Indian literature on sex are Kamasutra (Aphorisms on Love) and Kamashastra (from Kama = pleasure, shastra = specialised knowledge or technique). This collection of explicit sexual writings, both spiritual and practical, covers most aspects of human courtship and sexual intercourse. It was put together in this form by the sage Vatsyayana from a 150 chapter manuscript that had itself been distilled from 300 chapters that had in turn come from a compilation of some 100,000 chapters of text. The Kamasutra is thought to have been written in its final form sometime between the third and fifth century AD.
Also notable are the sculptures carved on temples in India, particularly the Khajuraho temple. The frank depiction of uninhibited sex hints towards a liberated society and times where people believed in dealing openly with all aspects of life. On the other hand, a group of thinkers believe that depiction of sexually implicit carvings outside the temples indicate that one should enter the temples leaving desires (kama).
Apart from Vatsyayana’s Kamashastra, which is no doubt the most famous of all such writings, there exist a number of other books, for example:
- The Ratirahasya, literal translation – secrets (rahasya) of love (rati, the union);
- The Panchasakya, or the five (panch) arrows (sakya);
- The Ratimanjari, or the garland (manjari) of love (rati, the union)
- The Anunga Runga, or the stage of love.
The Secrets of Love was written by a poet named Kukkoka. He is believed to have written this treatise on his work to please one Venudutta, considered to be a king. This work was translated into Hindi years ago and the author’s name became Koka in short and the book he wrote was called Koka Shastra. The same name crept into all the translations into other languages in India. Koka Shastra literally means doctrines of Koka, which is identical with the Kama Shastra, or doctrines of love, and the names Koka Shastra and Kama Shastra are used indiscriminately.
In Islam sexual intercourse is allowed only after marriage and only with one’s spouse. Sex outside of marriage is prohibited, called zina, as is adultery, which is considered a sin and is strictly prohibited and punishable. According to the chapter Al-Israa’, verse 32 of the Qur’an, Allah (God) prohibits Muslims from getting close to (engaging in) zina, and having relations with anyone other than one’s spouse. And since marriage is only between a man and a woman, any sexual intercourse between two men is prohibited.
In Jewish law, sex is not considered intrinsically sinful or shameful when conducted in marriage, nor is it a necessary evil for the purpose of procreation. Sex is considered a private and holy act between a husband and wife. Certain deviant sexual practices, enumerated below, were considered gravely immoral “abominations” sometimes punishable by death. The residue of sex (as with any lost bodily fluid) was considered ritually unclean outside the body, and required ablution.
Recently, some scholars have questioned whether the Old Testament banned all forms of homosexuality, raising issues of translation and references to ancient cultural practices. However, rabbinic Judaism had unambiguously condemned homosexuality.
- And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28)
The Torah, while being quite frank in its description of various sexual acts, forbids certain relationships. Namely, adultery, all forms of incest, male homosexuality (though curiously, not female), bestiality, and introduced the idea that one should not have sex during the wife’s period:
- You shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to become defiled by her. (Lev. 18:20)
- Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (Lev. 18:22)
- And with no animal shall you cohabit, to become defiled by it. And a woman shall not stand in front of an animal to cohabit with it; this is depravity. (Lev. 18:23)
- And to a woman during the uncleanness of her separation, you shall not come near to uncover her nakedness. (Lev. 18:19)
The above passages may, however, be open to modern interpretation. The original meanings of these verses did not change, but their interpretation may have changed after they were translated into English and other languages. This view however, has been counteracted by conservatives who alternatively take a restrictive approach to sexuality in light of their scripture while maintaining that all forms of sexual expression, as long as it is consensual and with one’s spouse or even primary partner (regardless of gender) is “permissible” and that some forms of sexual expression (such as those leading to procreation) are even “holy.” This distinction between the restricted, the permissible, and the holy is a large part of the debate on interpretation of texts regarding sexuality in canon.
Christianity re-emphasised the Jewish attitudes on sexuality with two new concepts. First, there was the re-iterated idea that marriage was absolutely exclusive and indissoluble, placing further guidance on divorce and expanding on the reasons and principles behind those laws. Second, in Old Testament times marriage was almost universal, in continuity with the total matrimony in Eden, but in the New Testament, the trajectory is extended forward to the goal of no marriage in the new heavens and new earth (see Matthew 22). Practically therefore the new age after Jesus now has marriage as only normative, but celibacy is a valuable gift in and of itself.
The New Testament, through the pen of Paul, is more restrictive than the Gospels. In one of his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul directly answers some questions about sexuality.
1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 This I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-9, NRSV)
Paul is speaking into a situation where members of the church in Corinth were committing adultery (even incest), and some members admitted to using prostitutes (6:16), while others advocated a ‘higher spirituality’ that wrongly denied pleasure from earthly things, including abstinence from sex (7:1). For most Christian scholars, the diversity of sexual expression addressed by Paul offers a panoramic, even encyclical attitude for “Christians” on sex because it is so broad. The academic and even progressive end of the Christian spectrum argues that Paul was addressing specific instances, not making general statements – and even if he were, he is uncharacteristically too general, even contradictory. Paul maintains that the right context for sex is within marriage and emphasizes couples keep having sex and giving each other pleasure, but then encourages them to pursue celibacy (as he later explains [7:32-35], so that they may devote more time and energy to others) wherever God has granted that gift (7:7). Many other passages refer to sex or marriage throughout the later New Testament, the only consensus being that sex is important within a marriage.
Later Christian Thought
St. Augustine opined that before Adam’s fall, there was no lust in the sexual act, but that it was entirely subordinate to human reason. Later theologians similarly concluded that the lust involved in sexuality was a result of original sin, but nearly all agreed that this was only a venial sin if conducted within marriage without inordinate lust.
In Reformed schools, as represented for example by the Westminster Confession, three purposes of marriage are drawn out: for mutual encouragement, support, and pleasure; for having children; and to prevent lustful sin.
Today, many Christians have adopted the view that there is no sin whatsoever in the uninhibited enjoyment of marital relations. Some Christians will tend to limit the circumstances and degree to which sexual pleasure is morally licit, for example to build self-control to prevent sex becoming addictive, or as a fast.