Contemporary society is undergoing a profound Sexual Revolution—it is apparent in our books, magazines, movies, television and everyday conversation—in every area of communication.
To some it represents a decline in moral standards—a turning away from the divinely revealed Word of God, as expressed in the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the Judaeo-Christian heritage that a majority of Americans share; to others it represents a facing up to the “facts of life,” an enlightened search for a new morality more in keeping with modern man’s greater understanding of both himself and the world in which he lives—a quest for a new code of conduct consistent with our conduct itself and based upon reason rather than superstition.
But whatever viewpoint one espouses, there is common agreement that a Sexual Revolution is taking place and that the old religious restrictions have little or no influence on the sexual behavior of a sizable segment of our society. For these citizens, at least, a new, more acceptable moral code must be found.
We will offer, in a subsequent issue, our own concept of a sexual ethic for modern society. But first we wish to consider the extent to which the old tradition and taboos surrounding sex have become inoperative and largely ineffectual; we want to discuss, also, the dangers inherent in any such societal schizophrenia—where a significant gap exists between professed beliefs and actual behavior—and the effect that such inconsistency can have upon the very fiber of society itself, especially when the moral code that a major part of society refuses to accept is reinforced by legal restraints in all 50 of these United States.
Religion in a Free Society We have previously discussed the importance of the separation of church and state in a free society and concluded that any fusion of religion and government is irreconcilable with the ideals of our democracy. The founding fathers took seriously the lessons of religious persecution and tyranny offered by history and gave us a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that guarantee full freedom to and from religion.
The dominant religion in America is Christianity and all who accept its teachings should be free to live accordingly. But it is obvious to even the casual observer that there is a wide divergence in the social, moral and religious precepts of the various Christian denominations. And what of the non-Christians in our democracy? Obviously the Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, existentialists, agnostics and atheists should be equally free to follow their own religious convictions. Each man’s freedom should be limited only to the extent that it infringes upon the freedom of others.
It was the search for such religious freedom that brought many of the original settlers to the New World in the first place. It was the awareness of the importance of such freedom that prompted George Washington to say, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
And James Madison, another of our founding fathers, said, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”
Clearly, then, each member of society should be free to practice, and to preach, his own particular religion, but no religious doctrine can be justifiably forced upon society by the state.
Religion and Morality
All religions include some moral precepts as a part of their theology and there are broad similarities among the moral codes of the major religions of the Western World—Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. But there is not nearly the unanimity of opinion on sex within organized religion in the U.S. that is often assumed, and among laymen there is virtually no agreement whatsoever.
Modern Christianity includes a significant strain of antisexuality—introduced, as we observed, first by St. Paul, strongly reinforced by the medieval Church, and again by the letters of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. The Protestant Puritanism that developed first in England and then America drew its antisexual prejudices primarily from the teachings of Calvin. Puritanism became the principal religious influence on the social patterns that evolved in both countries; in the U.S., Jewish and Catholic immigrants were influenced by the puritanical Protestant culture, and the Catholics reinforced our antisexual mores with sexual prejudices of their own. Thus the Protestant, Catholic or Jew in America is more apt to be sexually repressed than his counterpart in free societies elsewhere in the world.
As the oldest of the major religions of Western civilization, Judaism supplied the historic soil from which Christianity grew. Christian antisexualism was not derived from the earlier Judaic culture, however, and Jewish societies have been traditionally more permissive in matters of sex than either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant.
As we have already stated in our historical consideration of religion and sex in the August and September issues, early Judaism accepted sex as a natural part of life. The early Jews, according to G. Rattray Taylor, in Sex in History, “believed strongly that one should enjoy the pleasures of life, including those of sex, and some teachers held that [on one’s] last day one would have to account to God for every pleasure that one had failed to enjoy.”
The only sexual injunctions in the Ten Commandments are against adultery and coveting of a neighbor’s wife. Of these, Taylor says, “It must be understood that in this period, just as in Rome and Greece, adultery was a property offense and meant infringing the rights of another man. It did not mean that a man should restrict his attentions to his wife; indeed, when a wife proved barren, she would often give one of her hand-maidens to her husband that she might bear children for him. Moreover, as the Bible often reminds us, men were free to maintain mistresses, in addition to their wives; on the number of wives a man might have there was no restriction.
"Nor was there any ban on premarital sex; it is seldom appreciated that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any prohibition of noncommercial, unpremeditated fornication—apart from rape, and subject to a father’s right to claim a cash interest in a virgin [daughter]. Once the girl had reached the age of 12½ years, she was free to engage in sexual activity, unless her father specifically forbade it. Prostitution, though frowned on, was common, and in Jerusalem the whores were so numerous that they had their own marketplace. Nor in pre-Exilic days was sodomy a crime, except when committed as part of religious worship of non-Jewish gods.”
In an article in a recent issue of the Journal of Religion and Health, Nathaniel S. Lehrman confirms that premarital virginity and extramarital fidelity were “not demanded of Hebrew men. Prostitution, both sacred and profane, existed in Israel….” Morton M. Hunt writes, in The Natural History of Love, “Men in the Old Testament were patriarchal and powerful, and often guiltlessly enjoyed the services of several wives and concubines.”
Lehrman states further, “Because the bearing of children was regarded as such a blessing, dying in the virgin state was considered unfortunate rather than desirable…. Sexuality and eating…would seem to have been regarded rather similarly by the Old Testament. It permanently forbade certain types of food and sex, and sometimes temporarily prohibited all eating and sexual activity. Permanent and total sexual abstention seems to have been as foreign to its thinking, however, as permanent and total abstention from food.
"Although sexuality was accepted without question throughout early Biblical times, and in the Mosaic code in particular, various aspects of the latter have given rise to the erroneous belief that the Old Testament is antisexual. Such asceticism appears to be altogether foreign to the traditions of Israel.”
In Hebrew Marriage, David Mace writes, “The entire positive attitude toward sex which the Hebrews adopted was to me an unexpected discovery…. I had not realized that it had its roots in an essentially ‘clean’ conception of the essential goodness of the sexual function. This is something very difficult for us to grasp, reared as we have been in a tradition which has produced in many minds the idea that sex is essentially sinful….”
Post-Exilic Judaism developed certain sex fears and repressions as a masochistic reaction to persecution. These same fears and restrictions later found their way into early Christianity, which also suffered persecution and hence proved a fertile field for them. The extreme asceticism and antisexuality of the medieval Church and of Protestant Puritanism have no parallel in Judaic history, however.
Whatever antisexual element exists in modern Judaism is probably due, for the most part, to the nearly 2000 years of coexistence in primarily Christian cultures. American Jews—while not nearly as sexually permissive as the Hebrews of the Old Testament—are more liberal than either American Catholics or the mainstream of American Protestantism.
Christian antisexuality began, as we have stated, not with Christ, but with St. Paul, who was strongly affected in his views by the mystical religions of the Orient, which were then spreading throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had an extremely negative, pessimistic view of mankind in general, and sex in particular; he believed that the cataclysmic end of the world was imminent and that man should, therefore, put away all things worldly to prepare himself for that event.
John Short writes of Paul, in The Interpreter’s Bible, “Obviously the marriage relationship did not appeal to him…[he] seems to have regarded the more intimate sex relationship with some distaste. He is of the definite opinion that it is better for Christians to follow his personal example, and remain unmarried.” Paul himself wrote, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman….” but conceded that it was better to marry than to “burn.” He also wrote, “For I know that in me dwelleth no good thing…. For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do…. Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
But St. Paul’s antisexualism was slight compared to the twisted theological thought that followed him—and upon which much of our more recent Christian antisexuality is based. In Sex in Christianity and Psychoanalysis, William Graham Cole, then Chairman of the Department of Religion at Williams College, wrote: “All unwittingly [St. Paul] marked the transition point between the healthy and positive attitude toward the body which characterized the Old Testament and Jesus, and the negative dualism which increasingly colored the thought of the Church…. Although in most respects the Church successfully defended the ramparts of naturalism, the citadel of sex fell to the enemy. Increasingly, virginity became a cardinal virtue, marriage a concession for the weak…sex had become an evil necessity for the propagation of the race, to be avoided and denied by the spiritually strong…. Even those 'consumed with passion’ were urged not to marry, to discipline themselves, to mortify the flesh, for the flesh was evil….”
Out of Pauline dualism—derived from the mystical religions of Asia—the early Church conceived of the body and soul of man as being perpetual combat; deprive the body and you feed the soul; satisfy the body and the soul is damned to eternal hellfire. Asceticism turned into masochism and self-torture as fanatical monks retired to the burning deserts of North Africa to mortify their flesh, fasting, flagellating themselves, going without sleep and refusing to wash; some castrated themselves in order to be freed from the torments of the flesh.
The Church’s concern with sex became an obsession; virginity, sexual restraint and denial were prized above all else and eventually became a requirement of all those taking churchly vows. Sexual pleasure became a sin—first outside of marriage, and eventually inside of it as well. Marriage itself was held in low esteem, as were all women—who were viewed as a temptation to evil.
Roman society was sexually liberal and had tended to upgrade the status of women, in comparison to earlier times. In his book Premarital Sexual Standards in America, Ira L. Reiss, Professor of Sociology at Bard College, states: “The Christians opposed from the beginning the new changes in the family and in female status….. They fought the emancipation of women and the easier divorce laws…. They [had] a very low regard for sexual relations and for marriage…. Ultimately, these early Christians of the first few centuries accorded marriage, family life, women, and sex the lowest status of any known culture in the world.”
Taylor states that the Christian code was based, quite simply, “upon the conviction that the sexual act was to be avoided like the plague, except for the bare minimum necessary to keep the race in existence. Even when performed for this purpose, it remained a regrettable necessity. Those who could were exhorted to avoid it entirely, even if married. For those incapable of such heroic self-denial, there was a great spider’s web of regulations whose overriding purpose was to make the sexual act as joyless as possible and to restrict it to the minimum.” Taylor points out that it was not the sex act itself which was considered damnable, “but any pleasure derived from it—and this pleasure remained damnable even when the act was performed for the purpose of procreation….”
Not only was the pleasure of the sex act held to be sinful, but also the mere desire for a person of the opposite sex; even when unconsummated. And since the love of a man for a woman could be conceived as, at least partially, sexual desire, this led to the concept that a man should not love his wife too much. In fact, Peter Lombard maintained, in his De excusatione coitus, that for a husband to love his wife too ardently is a sin worse than adultery.
By the Eighth century, the Church had begun to develop a strict system of ecclesiastical laws, codifying every aspect of sexual activity in a series of “penitential books.” Celibacy was the ideal, though it did not become universally required of those with priestly functions until the 11th century. Since chastity was a virtue, it became virtuous for wives to deny sex to their husbands, which many apparently did. As we previously observed, however, it is doubtful if this actually increased the sum total of chastity, since many husbands were probably driven to extramarital relations as a consequence.
In some penitentials, fornication was declared a worse crime than murder. Attempting to fornicate, kissing, even thinking of fornication, were all forbidden and called for penalties: For the last named transgression, the penance lasted for 40 days. Nor was intention a necessary requisite for sin, for involuntary nocturnal emissions were considered sinful: The offender had to rise at once and sing seven penitential psalms, with an additional 30 in the morning.
The penitentials also devoted an inordinately large amount of space to penalties for homosexuality and bestiality, but the sin upon which the greatest stress was placed was masturbation. In Social Control of Sex Expression, Geoffrey May states that in five comparatively short medieval penitential codes, there are 22 paragraphs dealing with various degrees of sodomy and bestiality, and no fewer that 25 dealing with masturbation by laymen, plus a number of others dealing separately with masturbation by members of the clergy. According to Aquinas, it was a greater sin than fornication.
We have remarked previously on the insights supplied by modern psychiatry into societies with severe masturbatory taboos. The activity is nearly universal in infants, and since punishment comes when the child is too young to understand its significance, and when masturbation represents his primary means of pleasure without outside assistance, a fear of this specific pleasure becomes imbedded in his unconscious and later generalized into a fear of other sexual pleasure. Such taboos are thus to be found in almost any society suffering from repression or feelings of guilt and shame related to sex.
The Church fathers increasingly codified every aspect of sexual behavior to the point where only coitus between husband and wife, for the purpose of procreation, in a single approved position, was considered “right” and “natural.” Sodomy, fellatio and cunnilingus were prohibited—even among married couples and where such foreplay might be the prelude to coitus. Sex was also restricted to certain days of the week and times of the year: G. Rattray Taylor states that at one time in the Middle Ages, “the Church forbade sexual relations—even between man and wife—for the equivalent of five months out of every year.”
Taylor makes clear his conviction that these limitations on sex were calculated to make it as pleasureless as possible and that the Church laws prohibiting polygamy (which had been permitted pre-Exilic Jewish society and not forbidden by the early Christian fathers) and divorce (which the early Church had recognized for a limited number of reasons, including barrenness, religious incompatibility and prolonged absence) were motivated by an interest in curtailing sexual opportunity to the absolute minimum.
Similarly, laws against incest were broadened in the 11th century to include second, and eventually third, cousins—as well as the godparents and the witnesses at a baptism or confirmation (it eventually became a sin for even relatives of the godparents, priest and witnesses to marry one another). All of this tended to reduce the opportunity for “sin” (sex) and it is easy to imagine that in some small villages there might have been literally no one to whom a person of marriageable age could be legitimately wed.
The Church forbade all sex with animals (bestiality) and then defined copulation with a Jew as a form of bestiality, with the same penalties—which is not without a certain irony, since the Christian law against bestiality was derived from the Jews.
Because it considered marriage a contaminating process, the Church at first refused to perform the marriage ceremony, but later—as a part of its comprehensive attempt to control all sexual matters—it urged couples to take their marriage vows in the church, eventually proclaiming church marriage compulsory and all civil ceremonies invalid. The Church then refused to perform weddings at certain times of the year and Taylor reports that at one point “there were only 25 weeks in the year when marriages were legal….” The Church also restricted the hours during which the wedding vows could be taken; first declaring that the ceremony should be performed openly, “it established that marriages must take place in daylight, but later defined daylight as eight a.m. to noon.”
The Church fathers had no reservation about rewriting the Bible to their own ends. W.H. Lecky states, in The History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, “The fathers laid down a distinct proposition that pious frauds were justifiable and even laudable…[and] immediately, all ecclesiastical literature became tainted with a spirit of the most unblushing mendacity.” Taylor says, “Only real desperation is enough to explain the ruthlessness with which the Church repeatedly distorted and even falsified the Biblical record in order to produce justification for its laws.”
Attaching, as they did, so much importance to preventing masturbation, the medieval churchmen sought Biblical justification for this prohibition and finding none, they twisted the Scriptures to suit their purpose. Genesis 38 refers to Onan’s seed falling upon the ground and his subsequently being put to death. The interpretation was established—and is still widely believed—that this passage refers to masturbation, from which we derive the word onanism as a synonym for the practice. The passage actually refers to coitus interruptus and Onan was put to death for violating the law of the levirate, by which a man must provide his deceased brother’s wife with offspring, so that the family’s possessions can be handed down to direct descendants.
The Catholic writer Canon E. de Smet, in his book Betrothment and Marriage, comments upon this: “From the text and context it would seem that the blame of the sacred writer applies directly to the wrongful frustration of the law of the levirate, intended by Onan, rather than the spilling of the seed.”
The Romans, Jews and Greeks had not opposed abortion, but Tertullian, using an inaccurate translation of Exodus 21:22, which refers to punishing a man who injures a pregnant woman, popularized the belief that the Bible held abortion to be a crime. Rabbi Glasner states, “The Bible itself does not mention it all…. One might argue that therapeutic abortion, at least, would not be considered objectionable, since the embryo [is] a part of the mother (like a limb), and not a separate entity.” Taylor notes that though the error in translation has long since been recognized, the Church still maintains its position opposing abortion, and this opposition has been incorporated into secular law. Which also demonstrates that the moral laws of Christianity are frequently not so much derived from Biblical authority, as Biblical authority is sought to justify the particular prejudices and predilections of the time.
The Church’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden provides an especially striking example of construing Scripture in ways not consistent with the text. To support its general position on sex, the story was changed to suggest that the “forbidden fruit” Adam tasted in the Garden was sex, with Eve cast in the role of temptress. Thus the Original Sin that Adam handed down to all of us was sexual in nature. But the Bible makes no such statement: The book of Genesis states that Adam defied God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, making him godlike, and it is for this that God expelled him from Paradise. William Graham Cole wrote: “The preponderance of theological opinion, in both Jewish and Christian circles, has interpreted the Original Sin as pride and rebellion against God. The Church’s negative attitude toward sex has misled many into belief that the Bible portrays man’s Fall as erotic in origin. Neither the Bible itself nor the history of Christian thought substantiates such a belief.”
It is also worth noting that in the story of the Garden of Eden, the female is viewed in an unfavorable light—not only is she created from one of Adam’s ribs, placing her in a position of being his possession, but Eve is also the one who tempts Adam into breaking God’s commandment, thus causing their downfall. In an alternate explanation of the story, menstruation was explained as a “curse” imposed upon women for Eve’s treachery and that time of the month is still referred to by women today as “having the curse,” without any knowledge of the expression’s derivation.
Women are generally considered a source of sin and contamination, along with sex and marriage, by the Church of the Middle Ages. It was believed that sexual evil really dwelt within woman and that she was a constant temptation to man, who might otherwise remain pure. Tertullian proclaimed to all women: “Do you know that each one of you is an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: The guilt must of necessity live, too. You are the Devil’s gateway…you are she who persuaded him whom the Devil was not valiant enough to attack….”
Nor were such attitudes held by only a few members of the clergy. Robert Briffault states, “These views were not, as been sometimes represented, exceptions and the extreme….[The fathers of the Church] were one and all agreed. The principles of the fathers were confirmed by decrees of the synods, and are embodied in the canon of the Council of Trent.”
John Langdon-Davies states, in his Short History of Women, “To read the early Church fathers is to feel sometimes that they have never heard of the Nazarene, except as a peg on which to hang their own tortured diabolism, and as a blank scroll upon which to incite their curious misogyny.” Havelock Ellis says, “The ascetics, those very erratic and abnormal examples of the variational tendency, have hated woman with a hatred so bitter and intense that no language could be found strong enough to express their horror.”
An anonymous philosopher of the medieval Church wrote, “A Good Woman is but like one Ele put in a bagge amongst 500 Snakes, and if a man should have the luck to grope out that one Ele from all the Snakes, yet he hath at best but a wet Ele by the Taile.”
Christianity’s fierce hostility to sex produced a repressive society in which perversion and sadomasochism soon became prevalent and it erupted finally in the witch trials of the Inquisition, with the persecution, torture and death of millions throughout almost all Europe.
Modern Roman Catholicism can hardly be held accountable for the sins of the medieval Church, but much of the antisexuality conceived out of the irrational obsession with sex that marked the Middle Ages persists in the Church doctrine of today.
The Catholic Church remains more adamant in its opposition to sex outside of marriage than either the Jews or Protestant denominations. Catholic dogma still proclaims that the sole purpose of sex is procreation and so forbids all mechanical means of birth control, though the recent introduction of “the pill” (discovered by a Roman Catholic) and the pressures of population explosion in many underdeveloped countries of the world are producing a reevaluation of this doctrine.
Catholicism still considers civil marriage invalid for Catholics and opposes all divorce. It also forbids abortion—even therapeutic abortion, condoned by many Jews and Protestants.
The Church’s concern over sex has led many Catholics into active participation in censorship groups and their concern over birth control has sometimes produced an antagonism to public sex education. It is understandable, therefore, why the Catholic religion is still viewed, by some, as basically antisexual.
There is a more liberal element with modern Catholicism, however. Dr. John Rock, a devout and highly respected Catholic scientist, is one of the major researchers in the field of oral contraception and in his bold book, The Time Has Come, he forthrightly faces the linked problems of overpopulation and birth control; he also expresses the opinion that no state government has the right or competence to legislate on the religious aspects of the problem (this comment from the Boston scientist refers especially to the archaic laws of both Massachusetts and Connecticut, which prohibit doctors from giving out any information on birth control to their patients, even when it is requested) and states his conviction that all governmental restrictions on birth control, written or unwritten, should be removed.
In this same area, it is worth noting that whereas our previous President, a Protestant, refused to approve a policy whereby the U.S. would give out birth control information to nations suffering with the problem of overpopulation, remarking, “I can not imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity or function or responsibility.” President Kennedy, a Catholic, fully endorsed such assistance and permitted his representative at a UN debate on the subject to say, “So long as we are concerned with the quality of life, we have no choice but to be concerned with the quantity of life.”
The more liberal element in current Catholic thought is evident in this statement from The Church and Sex by R.F. Trevett, published in 1960 as Volume 103 of The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, with the official nihil obstat and imprimatur: “We have an occasional sneaking wish that the laws of the Church might be modified…. Surely there is room for more tolerance toward those struggling with a very powerful instinct that is apparently always warring against principles….
"Why is our sex life bedeviled with problems? Are those problems genuine or the result of taboos?… If we can find positive and practical answers to these questions, we may also hope to discover something very different from the negation and prudery, the obscurantism and intolerance which many sincerely believe—and we Catholics must take our share for this sorry state of affairs—make up the Church’s teaching on sex.”
It might be assumed that the Protestant Reformation would have produced a more natural, positive, less restrictive attitude toward sex. Just the opposite occurred.
The Roman Church had started to become more liberal in its attitude on sex with the Renaissance and this sexual permissiveness was one of the things that Protestant leaders like Calvin and Luther opposed. Calvin, especially, preached a doctrine that rejected not only sex, but all pleasure.
Calvinist Puritanism became popular in England and, later, America. The Puritans perpetuated the witch hunts of the Inquisition which, as we recorded in the August issue, were predominantly sexual in origin. The interinvolvement of church and state was extended rather than diminished and the Puritans actually gained control of the English Parliament in the 17th century, overthrew the monarchy (executing Charles I in a manner that would have made the most bestial barbarian proud), and ruled the government for a brief period, until strong opposition to their oppressive laws forced them from power.
The English Puritans attempted to make “immorality” impossible by imposing the harshest of penalties. For adultery and for incest (the latter being defined as sexual relations between any couple prohibited from marriage because of their relatedness) the punishment was death. Because the Puritan rule was not a popular one, juries most often refused to convict, but in Puritan, Rake and Squire, J. Lane reports that a man of 89 was executed for adultery in 1653 (which, as we observed in September, age considered, may seem more a compliment than an injustice) and another for incest (with his brother-in-law’s daughter) in 1656. These penalties were repealed with the end of Puritan rule, but as late as 1800, and again in 1856 and 1857, attempts were made to have Parliament reimpose the death penalty for adultery.
The first courts established by the Puritans in America were clerical rather than civil, and some simply introduced the Bible as the basis for their laws. The Puritans in America never burned any witches, but they did hang a few and one of them was crushed to death.
Centuries of religious sex suppression have not succeeded in stifling the natural mating urge in humankind, but they have managed to spawn a society in which sexual expression is excessively burdened with feelings of guilt and shame. Antisexualism reached its peak in England during the early reign of Queen Victoria and, in America, extended well into the 19th century. In that time, all sexual words and references were deleted from books, including the Bible; women wore several pounds of excess clothing, and a lady’s ankle was apt to cause more excitement than the sight of an entire leg does today; a woman was never pregnant, she was “in a family way”; sex education for children had babies being delivered by the stork; maidenly modesty forbade the discussion of sex, even with one’s own doctor, and rather than undergo a personal physical examination a female patient would often point to the ailing part of the anatomy on a small doll doctors kept in their offices for such occasions; undergarments and even male trousers were referred to as “unmentionables”; legs were discreetly called “limbs"—on people, the Thanksgiving turkey, and even on furniture; proper ladies covered the "limbs” of their chairs and couches with little skirts of printed crinoline, for modesty’s sake; some even took to separating the books on shelves by the sex of the author lest the volumes by men and women be permitted to rest against one another; the uncommonly prudish unmarried woman would not undress in a room in which a portrait of man was hung.
Far from de-emphasizing sex, such actions had the opposite effect, and so instead of remaining aloof from it, this period of English and American history must be seen as sexually obsessed—as are all periods of sexual repression.
While Victorian man urged women to purity, he distrusted them also. He wanted them to be virgins, but suspected secretly that they were whores. He was therefore compelled to divide the female sex into two categories: “good” women, who had no taste for sex; and “bad” women, who had. It is revealingly symptomatic of the times that W. Acton asserted, as a supposed statement of fact in a scientific work, The Functions and Disorders of the Re-productive Organs, that it was a “vile aspersion” to say that women were capable of sexual feeling. In A History of Courting, E.S. Turner states, “Sexual instincts became something no nice girl would admit to possessing; her job was to make man ashamed of his.”
In The Natural History of Love, Morton M. Hunt writes, “The role in which Victorian man had cast woman had its inevitable effect on man himself. Patriarchal he might be, stern to his children, frock-coated, mightily bewhiskered, and not to be trifled with, but he played this part at the expense of his own sexual expressiveness and his own peace of mind. If he were a libidinous man, he was driven to resort secretly to brothels. If he were weakly sexed, the emphasis on the purity of woman might actually unman him. If he were an average man with an average drive, he might live his entire life galled by the need for self-denial and self-restraint.”
Such is the stuff of which our sexual heritage is made.
It is difficult to state a contemporary Protestant view of sex, because the very nature of Protestantism, with its many denominations, makes for many viewpoints. Protestant attitudes thus range from the conservative to the most liberal.
The Puritan influence upon Protestantism, and upon the entire fabric of American society, is still pronounced. But there is also a new awakening to the sexual nature and needs of man within Protestantism, and some Protestants are quite outspoken on the subject.
In an article titled A 20th Century Philosophy of Sex, Joseph Fletcher, teacher of social ethics at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, states, “The Christian churches must shoulder much of the blame for the confusion, ignorance and unhealthy guilt associations which surround sex in Western culture. The Christian church from its earliest primitive beginnings has been swayed by many puritanical people, both Catholic and Protestant, who have treated sexuality as inherently evil.”
In The Bible of the World of Dr. Kinsey, William Graham Cole, head of the Williams College Department of Religion, put it even more strongly: “There can be no quarrel with the secular world at this point. It is right and the church has been wrong. Sex is natural and good…. It is attitudes which are good and evil, never things…. Those who take the Bible seriously must stop apologizing for sex…they must begin with a concession to the secular mind, granting that sex is natural.
"In its efforts to prevent irresponsible procreation, Western civilization has used the device of what Freud called the walls of loathing, guilt and shame. On the whole this method of social control has worked reasonably well, but a price has been paid for its success—the price of sexual perversion, which is the product of fear and anxiety…. The method of moralism has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, partly because it moves in the wrong direction and partly because it has based its case on fear.”
In “Religion and Sex: A Changing Church View”, David Boroff wrote in a 1961 issue of Coronet, “Much of Protestantism no longer wishes to be identified with repression and Puritanism. 'In fact,’ says Professor Roger Shinn, of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, 'repression is a Christian heresy…. In this country, Puritanism…has been hostile to the expression of sexual feeling. But in recent years, Protestant theologians have reexamined these concepts. They now argue that Puritanism, when it insists that sex is evil, is actually a distortion of Christian doctrine. These thinkers have been influenced not only by recent Biblical scholarship, but also by the findings of psychiatry—especially the revelation of the psychic damage that may be done by sexual repression.’”
As we observed in the July installment of The Playboy Philosophy, England is undergoing a Sexual Revolution. Time reported in its March 22, 1963 issue: “…The British are deeply concerned with their search for what some call 'a new morality’ to fit the hushed-up facts of life. 'The popular morality is now a wasteland,’ said Dr. George Morrison Carstairs, 46, professor of psychological medicine at Edinburgh University, in a recent BBC lecture. 'It is littered with the debris of broken convictions. A new concept is emerging, of sexual relations as a source of pleasure but also as a mutual encountering of personalities, in which each explores the other and at the same time discovers new depths in himself or herself.”
In a controversial report, an English group called The Religious Society of Friends attacked the onus attached to “a great increase in adolescent sexual intimacy” and premarital affairs. “It is fairly common in both young men and women with high standards of conduct and integrity to have one or two love affairs, involving intercourse, before they find the person they will ultimately marry.” This, the report concluded, is not such a sin. “Where there is genuine tenderness, an openness to responsibility and the seed of commitment, God is surely not shut out.”
The same month, Associated Press carried a story, date-lined London, which reported that a pastor of the Church of England challenged religious taboos against extramarital sex: “In a sermon delivered from the pulpit of Southwark Cathedral in London, Canon D.A. Rhymes declared the traditional moral code implied that sex is unavoidably tainted. 'Yet there is no trace of this teaching in the attitude of Christ,’ he said. 'He does not exalt virginity over marriage, or marriage over virginity—He merely says in one place that some have chosen virginity to leave them free for the work of the kingdom.
” 'Nor does Christ ever suggest that sexuality, as such, is undesirable or that marriage is the only possible occasion of any expression of physical relationship.’
“…Canon Rhymes said the moral code of today is being ignored because it is outdated. 'We need to replace the traditional morality based upon a code with a morality which is related to the person and the needs of the person….’” The pastor concluded that if we want to live full and healthful lives, “we must emphasize love,” not an inflexible, impersonal and unfeeling morality.
Morality and the State
There is obviously much theological disagreement regarding sex in America today and there is most certainly no single sexual ethic to which even the most pious individuals in contemporary society would subscribe. In truth, each individual is apt to view the piety and morality of his fellows in terms of how closely they conform to his, not their own, religious ideals.
But even if all of the religious leaders of the nation were of a single mind on the subject, it is clear that in this free democracy, they would have no right to force a universal code of sexual conduct upon the rest of society. Our religious leaders, of every faith, can loudly proclaim their moral views to one and all, and attempt to persuade us as to the correctness of their beliefs—they have this right and, indeed, it is expected of them.
They have no right, however, to attempt in any way to force their beliefs upon others through coercion. And most especially, they have no right to use the power of the government to implement such coercion. Any such action would be undemocratic in the extreme—it would contradict our most fundamental concepts of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It would frustrate the intent of our founding fathers and their dream that all Americans should be forever free of the tyranny and suppression, that, historically, have accompanied all church-state rule. It would oppose the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
Since no common agreement exists among the clergy of modern America, it is all the more incredible—if no more monstrous—to consider the extent to which religious dogma and superstition have, all democratic ideals and Constitutional guarantees to the contrary, found their way into our civil law. And nowhere is this unholy alliance between church and state more obvious than in matters of sex. In our most personal behavior, no citizen of the United States is truly free.
Moreover, many of the statutes dealing with sexual behavior in all of the 50 states reflect the extreme antisexuality of the medieval Church and Calvinist Puritanism, with which an increasing number of the clergy of most religions are no longer in agreement. The most common kinds of sexual behavior, engaged in by the great majority of our adult society, are illegal. Almost every aspect of sex, outside of marriage, is prohibited by laws on fornication, adultery, cohabitation, sodomy, prostitution, association with a prostitute, incest, delinquency, contributing to delinquency, rape, statutory rape, assault and battery, public indecency or disorderly conduct. And though few realize it, every state but one (and that one, we are personally pleased to report, is Illinois) has statutes limiting the kind of sexual activity that can be legally engaged in within marriage as well, between a husband and his wife. The precoital love play endorsed by most modern marriage manuals and family counselors on sex is prohibited by law in 49 states.
Marriage itself is regulated through religiously inspired laws on divorce and bigamy (although the Mormon religion endorses polygamy, it is outlawed by legislation passed by more powerful religious factions). Abortion remains illegal in all states of the Union, although it is undergone by hundreds of thousands of women annually, under circumstances that seriously endanger not only their health and welfare, but their very lives.
Modern birth control devices and drugs are nowhere publicly advertised and a number of states have laws curtailing or prohibiting their sales. In a recent article for Look on the importance of the separation of church and state, the Reverend H.B. Sissel, Secretary for National Affairs, of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. wrote: “Seventeen states prohibit the sale or distribution of contraceptives except through doctors or pharmacists; five states ban all public sale of such devices. Although these statutes were enacted in the 19th century under Protestant pressure, times and attitudes have changed for many Protestants. Today, they believe that Catholics have no right to keep such laws in operation. Some Catholic spokesmen have agreed that their church is not officially interested in trying to make the private behavior of non-Catholics conform to Roman Catholic canon law. Meanwhile, the laws stay on the books, though they are being tested in the courts.”
Church-state legislation has made common criminals of us all. Dr. Alfred Kinsey has estimated that if the sex laws of the United States were conscientiously and successfully enforced, over 90 percent of the adult population would be in prison.
A free society, through its government, passes and enforces laws for the protection and welfare of its individual members. Thus the state may sometimes quite properly prohibit certain actions—murder and theft, for example—that are also condemned as immoral or sinful by religion. This overlap of secular and clerical law is not, in itself, any indication of the improper interinvolvement of church and state. But secular law should be based on a rational concern for the happiness and well-being of man; whereas clerical law is based upon theology or faith. It is only when secular law is predicted on religious faith, rather than reason, that it is improper.
The Ten Commandments provide the basic moral laws for both the Christian and the Jewish religions, and while the Commandments “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” have their logical conterparts in our secular law, protecting the individual citizen’s life and property, few would seriously suggest that these ten Biblical pronouncements be turned, in toto, into legal statutes. The devout may accept “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” may consider it a sin to “take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain,” and may sincerely believe that we should “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” but only the smallest handful would want these religious laws turned into governmental ones; and only the most tyrannical parent would wish “Honour thy father and thy mother” turned into a legal edict.
From whence, then, comes the logic of turning the Sixth Commandment (or the Seventh, depending on your religious affiliation), “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” into a criminal offense? Only if one adheres to the ancient concept of the wife being property of the husband, rather than an individual human being, can one justify such a law; and it is from this idea of the female being a possession of the male, as we have previously noted, that the prohibition regarding adultery originally sprang. This is re-emphasized by the last Commandment(s), in which a number of specific possessions are mentioned, with the admonition, “Thou shalt not covet,” presumably listed in the order of their importance: “thy neighbour’s house…thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” In a rational society that views all human beings as free individuals, how do we justify turning the religious Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” into a secular law? And how do we broaden its original Biblical implication to include, not only wives, but husbands as well? In the time of the Old Testament, it was accepted that the wealthy male should have many wives and mistresses. We have shown that the broader antisexual implications were supplied by the medieval Church and that it was in that time that they found their way from the clerical into the secular law. But how did they find their way into our own law—with all of our righteous proclamations about religious freedom and the separation of our church and state in America?
And what of fornication? There is nothing in the Old Testament, or in the teachings of Christ, that specifically prohibits all sex out of wedlock. This too is derived, not from the Bible, but from the extreme antisexualism of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, in 1963, in an era of supposed enlightenment, in a society supposedly free, premarital sex is prohibited by law by most of the 50 United States.
But it is not our place to point out the non-Biblical origins of these religious laws—for modern theological dogma can be drawn from any source, or from no source at all. Neither is our intent to proclaim the moral desirability of either adultery or fornication. It is simply our purpose, at this moment, to point out the utter lack of justification in the state making unlawful these private acts performed between two consenting adults. Organized religions may preach against them if they wish—and there may well be some logic in their doing so, since extreme sexual permissiveness is not without its negative aspects—but there can be no possible justification for religion using the state to coercively control the sexual conduct of the members in a free society. Some sexual behavior is the proper concern of the state. In protecting its citizens, the state has the right to prohibit unwelcome acts of sexual violence or aggression; it also has the right to protect the individual from sexual exploitation and fraud. Before a certain age, individuals lack the maturity necessary for full participation in a free society and so it is logical to have special legislation for the protection of minors—although in matters of sex, our society is woefully unrealistic about both the nature and needs of its youth and is, itself, largely responsible for perpetuating sexual immaturity and irresponsibility in our young. Society also has the right to prohibit, solely on the grounds of taste, public sexual activity or immodesty that may be unwelcome to other members of the community—though in this regard, we should mention that sexual anxiety, repression, guilt and shame traditionally accompany a social order that is, by our standards, relatively immodest.
All other sexual activity—specifically, all private sex between consenting adults—is the personal business of the individuals involved and in a free society the state has no right to interfere.
This is not the radical viewpoint that some readers may assume. It is shared by a great number of the religious leaders of America and represents the general trend in religious thinking regarding sex in our contemporary society. This position was expressed recently by Father James Jones, a priest of the Episcopal Church, in a television debate on changing sexual morality; Father Jones pointed out that when private morality is legislated against by government, it goes underground, and it thus becomes more difficult for religion to reach and influence.
As we have previously noted, England is presently undergoing a Sexual Revolution quite similar to our own; their similar Puritan heritage produced a like set of unrealistically suppressive sex laws also. On this matter, the Moral Welfare Council of the Church of England recently stated: “It is not the function of the state and the law to constitute themselves guardians of private morality, and thus to deal with sin as such, which belongs to the province of the church. On the other hand, it is the duty of the state to punish crimes, and it may properly take cognizance of, and define as criminal, those sins which also constitute offense against public morality.”
The now famous Wolfenden Report was presented to the British Parliament in the fall of 1957 by a committee drawn from the clergy, medicine, sociology, psychiatry, and the law, under the chairmanship of Sir John Wolfenden, C.B.E. The Wolfenden committee not only included members of the clergy, it sought advice and guidance from others in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Thus, seven Catholic clergymen and laymen appointed by the late Bernard Cardinal Griffin, Archbishop of Westminster, submitted a report to the committee that stated:
“It is not the business of the state to intervene in the purely private sphere but to act solely as the defender of the common good. Morally evil things so far as they do not affect the common good are not the concerns of the human legislator.’
"Sin as such is not the concern of the state, but affects the relations between the souls and God. Attempts by the state to enlarge its authority and invade the individual conscience, however high-minded, always fail and frequently do positive harm.”
The official Wolfenden Report to Parliament reflected these same views. As yet no significant British legislation has resulted.
A similar trend in thinking exists in legal circles here in the United States. The draft of a Model Penal Code published early in 1955 by the American Law Institute contained a recommendation that all consensual relations between adults in private should be excluded from the criminal law. The philosophy underlying this recommendation was stated to be that “no harm to the secular interests of the community is involved in atypical sex practice in private between consenting adult partners” and “there is the fundamental question of the protection to which every individual is entitled against state interference in his personal affairs when he is not hurting others.”
Although this Model Penal Code was published nearly nine years ago, no state has yet reshaped its statutes on sex along the lines recommended by the Law Institute.