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."