In an attempt to better explicate the sexual revolution currently taking place in society, and Playboy's own part in this search for a "new morality," we offered last issue a brief history of sexual suppression since early Christendom through the Middle Ages, and this month we will complete that historical analysis with a consideration of the Renaissance, the Reformation, Puritanism, Victorianism and their relationship to present-day sex prohibitions and taboos.
We have already noted that earlier pagan religions did not suffer from similar suppression and that pre-Christian Roman and Grecian societies were relatively free of symptoms of sexual guilt and shame. Virginity was prized in the female, but not because of any religious or moral convictions: Women were considered property and a virgin female had a greater value, even as a new and unused piece of pottery, furniture or clothing might; similarly, adultery was a crime against property, like stealing another man's ass or plow. These prohibitions applied only to women and it is directly from this concept of the female as being the property of the male that we evolved our own present moral views of virginity as a virtue and as adultery as a sin.
The coming of Christianity did not increase the status of women in society—indeed, the opposite proved true and the antisexual nature of the new religion produced a far greater antifemale attitude than had existed previously. Women were considered "vessels of sin," according to one authority of the period, and a source of temptation and lust that could lead men to their downfall. Robert Briffault, the noted English historian and anthropologist, writes that the early Church "pronounced a curse upon sex, stigmatized woman as the instrument of Satan..... Woman was regarded not as 'impure' only, but as the obstacle to purity, the temptress, the enemy; she was the 'gate of hell.'"
This Christian view of sex and the female as inherently sinful did not come from Christ. It was derived largely from the teachings of St. Paul, who was influenced by the asceticism of the Asiatic religions then spreading throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had a personal aversion to sex and he also believed that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent, and that man should put away all things material and prepare himself for that moment. Nathaniel S. Lehrman states, in "Some Origins of Contemporary Sexual Standards," in the Journal of Religion and Health, "Neither the doctrine of virgin birth nor the as yet unenunciated view of sex as original sin played any part in shaping the thinking of St. Paul, whose exaltation of celibacy was so important in determining Christianity's entire subsequent attitude and history. His eschatology, with its anticipation of the imminent, cataclysmic end of the world, and his personal preference for the unmarried state, probably an overreaction against the sexual promiscuity of his times, were probably the most important factors underlying his viewpoint." 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 distance. He is of the definite opinion that it is better for Christians to follow his personal example and remain unmarried." St. Paul had an extremely guilt-ridden and pessimistic view of both man and sex: He wrote, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman"; and further, "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. William Graham Cole, while chairman of the Department of Religion at Williams College, wrote in his book Sex in Christianity and Psychoanalysis, "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 other 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 to 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 who were 'consumed with passion' were urged not to marry, to discipline themselves, to mortify the flesh, for the flesh was evil...."
Henry C. Lea, author of the classic English studies on the Inquisition, wrote in his History of Sacerdotal Celibacy, "[Jesus'] profound wisdom led him to forbear from enjoining even the asceticism of the Essenes. He allowed a moderate enjoyment for the gifts of the Creator; and when he sternly rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for imposing...burdens upon men not easily to be borne by the weakness of human nature, he was far indeed from seeking to render obligatory, or even to recommend, practices which only the fervor of fanaticism could render endurable."
Early Judaism accepted sex as a natural part of human existence. Lehrman states that premarital virginity and extramarital fidelity were "not demanded of Hebrew men. Prostitution, both sacred and profane, existed in Israel and the sexual use of captured women was also specifically permitted, although limited." 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 of sexuality, 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."
David Mace writes, in his Hebrew Marriage, "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...."
Roman society was sexually liberal and this turned the Christians away from sex toward asceticism; the first Christians were a persecuted people and the religion early developed a masochistic nature which it has never completely shaken. Roman society had also tended to upgrade the status of women, compared to earlier times, and Ira L. Reiss, professor of sociology at Bard College, states in his book, Premarital Sexual Standards in America, "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 demanded a return to the older and stricter...ideas, and beyond this, they instituted a very low regard for sexual relations and for marriage.... Ultimately, these early Christians of the first few centuries accorded to marriage, family life, women and sex the lowest status of any known culture in the world."
Sexual liberalism has often erroneously been cited as the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. Concerning this, Hunt writes, "By the fifth century, Saint Augustine and other Christian writers would state flatly that sexual sin was directly responsible for the crumbling away of the Empire, the afflictions of which were interpreted as the punishment visited upon mankind by a wrathful God. The evidence of comparative anthropology, however, proves that many societies have permitted extramarital sexual activities and love affairs without major damage to themselves.... Historians differ with the early Christians in assessing the role of love in the overall decline of Rome."
Hunt then enumerates the reasons most often adduced by historians for Rome's decline: "...the squandering of resources, the indolence of the proletariat, the corruption and greed of the upper classes, the growing political power of the army...more generally, these are all related to the parasitism, excessive leisure and purposelessness of imperial Roman life."
As Christianity spread, so did its antisexuality. Following the Babylonian Exile, Judaism developed related repressions and feelings of sexual guilt and shame previously unknown in Hebrew history. Hunt states, "A growing current of asceticism and antifeminism" manifested itself. By the fifth century, "an increasing cynicism and weariness [had] affected the Western Empire as well as the Eastern, maturing into a widespread soul-sickness.... Oriental, Jewish and barbarian ideas were mingled and fused with the Christian contempt for women; the concept of the wife was that of an inferior and sinful creature.... It is true in all monogamous family life that children must repress the sexual impulses they feel toward the parents they love; but it was early Christianity that made a philosophy of the situation and turned it into a lifelong problem, rather than a problem of childhood alone."
William Graham Cole states, "If Christianity had not in some measure spoken in accents to which the ear of the age was attuned, it would have remained an obscure sect.... Origen castrated himself in order to escape the temptations of lust; John Chrysostom declared that 'virginity is greatly superior to marriage'; and Tertullian regarded sex even with marriage as sinful."
Hunt comments, "The struggle against lust produced an explosive state of mind; the personality could be held together only by the tenacious cement of irrationality. The desert fathers saw and worked little miracles every day. In themselves, these sound harmless enough, but the same intellectual orientation could lead further, and did; not by mere coincidence, it was a towering figure of asceticism, Tertullian, whose formula for finding the truth of Christianity was Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd), while Pope Gregory—later sainted and called 'the Great'—burned the Palatine library because he considered it a hindrance to Bible study. Asceticism led thus to intolerance, obscurantism and overt aggressiveness. The ascetic was not content to master himself; inevitably his route led him to try to master other men's flesh, and their minds as well."
In such a time, it was not illogical for the Church to rewrite religious history to suit its antisexual attitude, including the story of Adam and Eve and their Fall in the Garden of Eden. Cole states, "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."
The twisting of the tale of man's Fall from Paradise to suit the Church's obsessive concern over sex helped St. Augustine and others substantiate the ideal of celibacy. Roland H. Bainton comments upon St. Augustine's attitude toward sex in What Christianity Says About Sex, Love and Marriage: "Since procreation is definitely approved, the sexual act cannot be wrong. Nevertheless, it is never without wrongful accompaniments. There is never an exercise of sex without passion, and passion is wrong. If we could have children any other way, we would refrain entirely from sex. Since we cannot, we indulge regretfully. Augustine almost voices the wish that the Creator had contrived some other device." Cole states, "Augustine's prejudices against the passions, particularly the sexual passion, is thoroughly un-biblical...."