Sexual morality

Sex in the ancient world

Since the dawn of history every civilisation had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality.  The oldest surviving legal codes (c 2100 -1700 BCE), draw up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the romans.  The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property right of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups. The same outlook underpinned the justice of the Germanic tribes that settled across western Europe and the British Isles in the final years of the roman empire…  Thus the earliest English law codes, which date form this time, evoke a society where women were bought and sold, and lived constantly under the guardianship of men.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

[Ancient Greece] Boys were considered sexually desirable from the start of puberty until late adolescence, but stopped being so at the appearance of the beard and pubic hair.  Athenians considered love affairs between adult and adolescent males as natural and honourable, on condition that sexual etiquette was respected.  The term used to describe the sexual pursuit of adolescent males by adult males was “paederastia”.  In stark contrast to modern attitudes towards sex between teachers and students, paederastia was usually conceptualize as a pedagogic and erotic mentoring relationship between an adult male, the “erastes” (lover), and a young, passive “pais” (boy), called the “eromenos” (beloved), usually between 12 and 17-20 years old… Often presented as a normal part of the education of a young man, paederastia institutionalised a relationship in which the mentor instructed the boy in philosophical matters and general knowledge, and prepared him for his citizenship role.   (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

Relationships between men were socially acceptable, common, and widely reflected in the literature, art, and philosophy of the time.  Attitudes to male-to-male sex were not homogeneous, however, and disputes on whether desire for young men or for women was superior abounded.  Some argued that love for men was superior to that for women, since love between equals was preferable to that for inferior creatures.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

Certainly, for most Graeco-Romans, the idea of classifying people according to the gender of the person they have sex with would have seemed downright bizarre.  Antiquity was not a culture of sexual libertarianism.  Sexual morality was highly regulated by moral and legal rules.  However, moral preoccupations centred on sexual practices, not on the subject of desire.  The ancients did not make sense of themselves in terms of sexual identities, whereas the policing of gender identity was of central importance to them, as we shall see.  Consider the contrast with the ways in which modern subjects make sense of their sexual experiences. Categories such as heterosexual and homosexual are a central source upon which we draw in order to make sense of their own sexuality.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

Seduction of a free Athenian woman was a crime which was generally deemed more serious than rape, because a secret liaison meant that a man could not be sure of the lineage of his children, whereas in the case of rape any offspring could be identified and killed.  Rape was thus primarily seen as a crime against the husband, father, or male guardian of the woman rather than against herself, and as a threat to public order due to the risk of revenge from the aggrieved male party.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

No convincing evidence exists of temple prostitution in ancient Greece or Rome, in contrast to the ancient Near East, where the practice of sacred slave-prostitutes serving visitors was widespread;  but prostitutes did have their own religious festivals in Rome, and more generally attended religious festivals either as worshippers or to work the crowds.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

It is important to remember that Rome and Athens did not form a single homogeneous ,unitary culture.  Whereas Roman sexual ethics were quite similar to those of classical Greece, the most marked difference was that sodomy was much more problematic within Roman culture, and pederastic relationships (and their supposed educational advantages) were not generally idealised.  Relations with free-born men and boys were legally prohibited in roman morality laws such as the lex Iulia, though it was legal for a free man to have sex with male prostitutes, slaves or foreign young men (as long as he performed the active role) or to frequent brothels.  Such laws were periodically re-enacted in the Empire to demonstrate the respective emperors’ concern for public morality; however, they were rarely enforced.  Reflecting Greek cultural influence, revered Roman poets such as Catullus, Ovid, Horace and Virgil wrote of love affairs between men, and one of Tibullus’ poems described his heartbreak at having been left for a woman by his young male lover Marathus.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

In the Mosaic law there was no rejection of polygamy, and it was practised occasionally by Jews into New Testament times and by some early Christians; but Christians have long rejected this.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

Christianity and sex

Thought Jesus is not recorded has having said much on the subject, he evidently did not condone adultery or promiscuity, and the later leaders of his religion developed in increasingly restrictive doctrines of sexual morality.  In doing so, they drew upon many earlier teachings, so that the outcome was, as one scholar puts it, “ a complex assemblage of pagan and Jewish purity regulations, linked with primitive beliefs about the relationship between sex and the holy , joined to Stoic teachings about sexual ethics, and bound together by a patchwork of (new) doctrinal theories”.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

Jewish law had been fairly tolerant of fornication between unmarried men and women, of men using Gentile prostitutes, and of concubines – indeed, as the Bible recorded, the ancient Hebrews had often had multiple wives.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

After all this time thinking about homosexuality, I finally get why the Bible is apparently anti-gay.  The real obsession of the Hebrew Scriptures isn’t about what people do in bed; that’s a more modern fixation.  What the Scriptures are really concerned with is [producing] children… the people of ancient Israel were obsessed with their own survival. (Giles Fraser – Church of England priest, Oxford)

Christian ideals promoted virginity and sexual abstinence for men as well as women.  … sexual desire came to be blamed for binding humans to their worldly obligations to spouse or children.  It prevented them from concentrating on spirituality in furtherance of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and preparation for the afterlife.  Christina hostility towards sex reflects this wider religious project of freeing humans from their worldly ties and desires. Celibacy and purity came to be valorised, whereas sex and desire became policed.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

The taint of sin was thought to pollute humans from the moment of birth.  As Calvin put it, a newborn baby is “a seedbed of sin and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God”.  (Veronique Mottier – Professor Lausanne, Cambridge)

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)

[contrast – italics added]  “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt 19:9)

“This is what the Lord Almighty says … ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)

“In the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27)

In this book, I study the practice of permanent sexual renunciation – continence, celibacy, life-long virginity as opposed to observance of temporary periods of sexual abstinence – that developed among men and women in Christian circles in the period form a little before the missionary journeys of Saint Paul, in the 40s and 50s AD, to a little after the death of Saint Augustine, in 430 AD.  My principal concern has been to make clear the notions of the human person and of so city implied in such renunciations, and to follow in detail the reflection and controversy which these notions generated, among Christian writers, on such topics as the nature of sexuality, the relation of men and women, and the structure and meaning of society.  (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

To be frank:  I have frequently observed that the sharp and dangerous flavour of many Christian notions of sexual renunciation, both in their person and their social consequences, have been rendered tame and insipid, through being explained away as no more than inert borrowings from a supposed pagan or Jewish “background”.  But an effort to do justice to the particularity of certain strains of Christian thought and practice should not be held to justify the systematic dismissal of the complex and resilient ecology of moral notions that characterised the Mediterranean culture of the age; still less should it encourage us to ignore the profound changes in the structure of ancient society in this period.  (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

The very matter-of-fact manner in which monastic sources report bloody, botched attempts at self-castration by desperate monks shocks us by its lack of surprise.  (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

Sexual intercourse is a universal human practice.  Yet sex also has a history.  How we think about it, what meanings we invest in it, how we treat it as a society – all these things differ greatly across time and place.  For most of western history the public punishment of men and women like Robert Watson and Susan Perry [who had a child outside of marriage] was a normal event.  Sometimes they were treated more harshly, sometimes less, but all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state, and ordinary people devoted huge efforts to suppressing and punishing it.  it seemed obvious that illicit relations angered God, prevented salvation, damaged personal relations, and undermined social order.  Nobody seriously disagreed with this, even if men and women regularly gave way to temptation and have to be flogged, imprisoned, fined and shamed, in order to remind them.  Though the details varied from place to place, every European society promoted the ideal of sexual discipline and punished people for consensual non-marital sex.  So did their colonial off-shoots, in North American and elsewhere.  This was a central feature of Christian civilisation, one that had steadily grown importance since the early middle ages. In Britain alone by the early seventeenth century, thousands of men and women suffered the consequences every year.  Sometimes, as we shall see, they were even put to death.  Nowadays we regard such practices with repugnance.  We associate them with the Taliban, with Sharia law, with people far away and alien in outlook.  Yet until quite recently, until the Enlightenment, our own culture was like this too. This was one of the main differences between the pre-modern and the modern world.  The emergence of modern attitudes to sex in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries therefore constituted a great revolution.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

Jewish law had been fairly tolerant of fornication between unmarried men and women, of men using Gentile prostitutes, and of concubines – indeed, as the Bible recorded, the ancient Hebrews had often had multiple wives.  In its earliest centuries, Christianity too seems to have tolerated concubinage.  More generally, however, the leaders of the new religion interpreted God’s commands as forbidding any sex at all outside marriage:  that way lay hell-fire and damnation.  Many of them were so repelled by sexual relations that they saw even marriage as a less pure and desirable state than complete celibacy.  Already in Christianity’s earliest surviving texts this message is spelled out by St Paul, the dominant figure of the early church.  “it is good for a man not to touch a women”, he explained to the Christian community at Corinth around the middle of the first century… In the centuries that followed, the leading authorities of the church (most of whom were themselves celibate men) developed further this essentially negative view of sex.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

The middle ages saw a considerable acceleration in the theory and practice of sexual discipline.  Between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, the western church greatly expanded its power in this sphere, in line with its growing social and intellectual dominance.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

That adulterers ought to be put to death was the ideal of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, and other leading reformers.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

The argument of this book has been that the origin of modern western attitudes to sex lies in the great intellectual and social revolutions of the eighteenth century.  For well over a thousand years, form the early middle ages to the seventeenth century, the enforcement of ever-stricter public discipline over sexual behaviour was a central preoccupation of every Christian community across the globe – yet by 1800 this had been replaced by a fundamentally different outlook.  … In place of a relatively coherent, authoritative world view that had endured for centuries, the Enlightenment left a much greater confusion and plurality of moral perspectives, with irresolvable tensions between them.  That has been part of our modern condition ever since.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

It was not until 1991 that English law formally recognised the concept of rape within marriage.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

Until the 1830s Englishmen were regularly executed for “buggery”:   between 1810 and 1835, forty-six men were judicially killed for this crime.  Thousands more were publicly humiliated in the pillory, or sentenced to jail for their unnatural perversions.  Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment at hard labour for two years in 1895 is only the best-known example.  Even more remarkable than this Victorian severity is that , in numerical terms at least, it was vastly outstripped by the huge twentieth-century increase in legal persecution of homosexual behaviour.  At the time of Wilde’s trial, such incidents amounted to about 5 per cent of all trials for crimes against a person; by the later 1950s, the figure had increased to over 20 per cent – in other words, thousands of persecutions a year.  The same dramatic surge took place in other European countries and across the United States.  To curb homosexuality, perhaps even to exterminate it, was for many decades a prominent concern of public policy.  (Faramerz Dabhoiwala – Oxford)

How old is the universe?  Well, science painstakingly reckons it’s about 14 billion years, give or take the odd billion.  Not so, says religious authority:  it is 6000 years old.  Where did you get that from?  The Bible!  What evidence?  The Bible!  I see:  on what grounds do you trust the Bible?  Because the Bible tells me so!  I had long since grown tired of that kind of circularity.  … I don’t mind you sticking to a 3000 year old myth of creation that says God made the universe in six days.  It’s eccentric, but I can live with it unless you try to impose your eccentricity on everyone else.  But where women and gays are concerned it is not just an eccentric opinion, it is an active injustice … Your opinion has solid consequences for the lives of men and women, some of them terrifying.  (Richard Holloway – Professor Gresham, formerly Bishop of Edinburgh)

The canonical Gospels do not comment on Jesus’s marital status. The norm for
1st-century rabbis was to marry well before 30. New Testament sources are
familiar with husband-wife teams, like Priscilla and Aquila in the letters of
Paul, among the earliest missionaries. The New Testament also states that
bishops should be married. According to 1 Timothy, an indication that a man is
ready to take on a leadership role is his ability to discipline his children
with wisdom and without anger. So from a historical perspective, it is really
the idea that Jesus might not have been married that might surprise us. (Kate
Cooper – Professor Manchester)

would love it if every clergyperson would stand up and say to their
congregations: “Sometimes the Bible is wrong.” There is a
taken-for-grantedness in conservative American Christian culture—and it’s true,
I think, in much of mainline Christianity today as well—that understanding the
Bible is simple. And, if the Bible says something is wrong, then that pretty
much settles it. There are very few Christians who are willing to stand up and
say, “Sometimes the Bible is wrong.” Yet, I think that’s really important
for Christians to say occasionally…Obvious examples are passages in the Bible
that say slavery is OK. And, there are some passages in the Bible that
absolutely prohibit divorce. In Mark 10:9, it’s complete. Matthew has an exception clause: except for reasons of adultery. Then, there are clearly passages in the New
Testament that expect Jesus to come again very soon from their point in time.
Now, 2,000 years have passed. There are so many more examples where in plain
terms we need to say, “Sometimes the Bible is wrong.”  (Marcus J. Borg – Professor Oregon State)

… something I wish every Christian knew, and I say this as a deeply committed Christian myself: sometimes the Bible is wrong. It not only tells us about the wisdom and insights and experiences of our spiritual ancestors, but also contains their
limited vision, their acceptance of things like slavery and the subordination
of women. That’s not uniform, of course. There are also texts that proclaim the
equality of men and women and forbid a Christian from having a Christian slave
and so forth, but it’s all there, including mistaken notions about how the
second coming will be soon.  We would escape a whole bunch of problems if only we all knew that and weren’t alarmed by it. The whole Genesis versus evolution controversy. For me, it’s not that the first chapters of Genesis are wrong, but they’re not meant to be taken literally. So, also the issue of whether women are supposed to be subordinate to men. That issue disappears if people are willing to say, “sometimes the Bible is wrong.”  So also with the texts that are quoted in opposition to same-sex behavior. Those passages, and there aren’t many, tell us what some of our spiritual ancestors thought and clearly they were wrong about that. So many conflicts in the church could be either resolved or handled in a very different way if only we didn’t have this uncritical reverence for the Bible.  (Marcus J. Borg – Professor Oregon State)

We rightly abandoned Christian legitimizing of slavery about 150 years ago,
Christian legitimizing of sexism in the last 30 to 40 years, [and the]
Christian legitimizing of heterosexism more recently.  (Marcus J. Borg – Professor Oregon State)

General points

Homosexual behaviour throughout the animal kingdom – Wikipedia article

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