How Sex Became Dirty

Homophobia, misogyny, and sheer wrong-headedness started to develop in the writings of the early Church fathers.
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Nowadays, the very idea of sexual activity is regarded as just a bit shameful and dirty. While one can appreciate the contention that it is rather a private affair, surely the amount of embarrassment attached to it is exaggerated? Our sexual attitudes, including what is considered lawful, is a phantasmagoria of hypocrisy, sexual hang-ups of insane rulers through the ages, confused morality and obscure precedents; most of it dated from around the agglomeration of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the pre-Christian era, sex was usually considered to be an integral part of the sacredness of life. As can be seen from rock paintings in the Sahara, dated 4 – 5,000 BC, and the collection of “adult only”; papyri found in the Nile Valley, sex is perhaps the most ancient subject of artists. The Chinese also produced their fair share of sexual erotica, and left vases, statuettes and even coins that would still have to be bought under the counter in disreputable bookstores today. At one point the Taoists claimed that a higher spiritual plain, and maybe even immortality, could be achieved by young men who conducted intimate relationships with heifers.

Over in Europe, the Wicca and Druids were just as open about sexual realities, their paintings revealed frank depictions of fertility rites, with sketches of both humans and animals. Taking lack of inhibitions one step farther, the Wiccan religious ceremonies were practised stark naked. In Greece sexuality was a gift from the gods, and indulged in as frequently as felt natural with persons of any and all genders and ages. Although Roman stoicism curbed the more licentious drives, during the Decline of the Empire the patricians became famous for their orgies. These binges of rich food and orgiastic sex represent the zenith of Western sexual experimentation. In fact, even among early Christians, sex was favourably regarded.

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Among the Gnostic Carpocratians — who were later deemed heretics — sex was considered ‘a bond between all created things’. The orthodox were permitted premarital sex as a means of checking out potential spouses, and sexual adventurism, rather than a mortal sin was considered to be a bit of a waste of energy. The moral code of the New Testament which advised fidelity and monogamy was probably not intended to encourage extreme forms of Puritanism but merely a sensible of ensure survival of humanity in the days before condoms and penicillin.

Homophobia, misogyny, and sheer wrong-headedness started to develop in the writings of the early Church fathers. Sadly for us, religion, power and sex has always been inextricably linked. With a God who stood above the world, Christian society called for a rigid stratification along gender, racial, class and any other lines that could be perceived. They realised that by suppressing human freewill and weakening secular bounds between people, they could control their congregations more effectively.

Between 300 and 500 AD the Church began an aggressive campaign against human sexuality, which was consolidated during the Holy Roman Empire. Clement of Alexandria referred to sexual activity as dangerous, excepting insofar as it is engaged in the procreation of children. St. Jerome admonishes, “… regard everything as a poison which bears within it the seed of sexual pleasure.”

St. Augustine, an African born Bishop who led an extremely promiscuous life before converting, was perhaps the most dedicated crusader against sex. He describes it in derogatory terms like “… this diabolical excitement of the genitals” and insisted that human sexuality is a clear indication of mankind’s powerlessness over evil. For him, sex was inherently evil because the human soul was more vulnerable to the devil at the time of intercourse than any other time.

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His views represented a growing sentiment among the hierarchy of the Church. This is hardly to be wondered at, since our pious St. Augustine was not above bribery and brutal force to influence Church council acceptance of his theses. One time he had his friend Aiypius sweetened the deal with 80 Numidian stallions, and his “compel them to enter” doctrine helped in legitimising the use of the army.

Also from St. Augustine came the inexplicable theory that Adam’s original sin was passed to the rest of humanity through sex.

These early Christians more or less decided on the church doctrine about sex, it took some time to slowly trickle down to the rest of the population. Only after several centuries, during the Reformation, did prudishness spread over Europe. A world where sex was venerated as an integral part of nature, and the cycle of life as well as a simple, pleasurable and basically benign activity, was transformed into a place where sexuality was repudiated. Even the body was something to be covered and be ashamed of.

Joseph Lambert, a French prior, warned that even the very touching of bodies was a serious sin, ‘loathsome to God’ and deserving of the harshest punishments. Orthodox Christians were taught that a husband committed a mortal sin if he enjoyed the attentions of his wife too much. Church leaders propagated a belief that sexual pleasure was ungodly, amoral and therefore shameful. Sir John of Salisbury is caught saying ‘who except one bereft of sense wold approve sexual pleasure itself, which is illicit, wallows in filthiness, that God without doubt condemns.’

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The success of these strictures can be gauged by the syphilis epidemic that ravaged Europe in the late fifteenth century. It decimated the population to an extent that writers and doctors were prophesying the extinction of the human race by 1510. Despite reality, the official doctrine won out. The idea that sex was solely for procreation, a lady’s duty rather than pleasure, and that masturbation leads to insanity and lost of fingerprints (possibly through attrition) was conceived by maniacal Victorian minds.

The Victorians were lamentably confused and inexcusably hypocritical. On one hand they proselytised about the vilest torments in hell which are visited on unrepentant fornicators, while on the other they cheerfully introduced and practised sadomasochism and paedophilia. Establishing the position of mistress as an acceptable calling for poor but ambitious young girls as well as elevating the brothel keeper to the lofty title of Madame are also among the idiotic sexual perversions of Victorians.

The official attitude remained one of moral rectitude as seen in the plethora of laws governing sexual behaviour during that era which checked homosexually, prostitution and other creative sexual proclivities. They also adopted coy names for the anatomical paraphernalia and made discussing sex taboo. Enjoying sex was inexpiable, and persons reputed to do so were branded as immoral libertines or worse.

How and why the neuroses of these pathetic venereally aberrant people became the accepted principle of modern day standards is tragic. Through the machinations of church and state, a legacy of embarrassment and shame befell sexuality. Even today, despite the well-publicised existence of statistics that invalidate the supposition that sex is for manufacture of offspring only, these attitudes persist.

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