One of the major controversies in contemporary society concerns sex. The gap between our supposed sexual morality and our actual behavior is extreme and when an entire nation practices such hypocrisy, the results can be calamitous. Since the behavior is based upon a natural sex drive that, when repressed, results in perversion, impotence, frigidity and unnatural feelings of guilt and shame, society is searching for a new morality more in keeping with the newly recognized "facts of life."
To better understand this Sexual Revolution, it is worthwhile to explore the origins of our present-day traditions and taboos regarding sex. As we have seen, our sexual mores are based primarily on religious teachings. But where did our religions acquire their strong antisexual nature? Man hasn't always equated sex with sin and his concepts of sexual morality have varied greatly through the centuries. Where did the ideal of chastity come from? And the notion that virginity is a virtue? Who devised the idea of chaste "romantic love" to replace natural sexuality? Has organized religion always been antisexual in concept?
Historically, religion and sex always have been intimately interwoven. Sex played an important role in early religious beliefs and rites, and vestiges of its celebration are apparent in many of our contemporary religious rituals. The first religions of primitive man deified sex and fertility. In the quite complex, sophisticated and intellectual societies of pre-Christian Rome and Greece, the gods were patterned after men and they were as sexually potent as one might expect a god to be: Roman and Grecian mythology are filled with tales of their sexual prowess. But the Jewish and Christian faiths perceived a less human God, and in this more ethereal state, He had no need of sex. The psychoanalytic might also point out that the Christian God has all the attributes of a father figure, with whom sex would be considered incestuous; and it is certainly true that incest and Oedipal fears played a major role in the early history in Christendom.
Though it is not generally recognized today, the concept of virginity as a virtue in women is actually antifemale in origin, derived from a period when women were thought of as property, owned first by their fathers and later their husbands. And as Dr. Roger W. Wescott wryly observed: "...it is far from flattering to 'the fair sex' to treat its members as salable commodities with only two possible labels—'used' or 'unused.'"
The term "virgin" did not mean to the Classical world what it means to us. The early Romans distinguished between virgo—an unmarried woman, and virgo intacta—a woman who had never known a man; the same distinction was made by the Greeks. To them a virgin was a woman who had retained her personal autonomy by not submitting herself to the restrictions of marriage. Virginity was more a social and psychological state than a physical one. It was the married woman, who had lost her independence through matrimony, who was no longer considered virgin. Indeed, it was believed that sexual relations with a god magically restored virginity.
In early Rome and Greece, sexual behavior was largely a matter of personal taste, though there were civil laws protecting individuals from abuse, such as rape. R. Rattray Taylor states, in his book Sex in History: "Husbands had property rights in their wives; a wife's adultery was severely punished by the husband, because it made the paternity of the children doubtful. A husband, on the other hand, could have what sexual experience outside of marriage he liked, subject only to the fact that that he would incur the wrath of another husband if he seduced a married woman, and might be killed for so doing. An unmarried man was equally free.... There was no admiration of virginity as a good in itself [however] and among the populace an [unmarried] woman was free to sleep with a man at her own discretion."
Sex in Early Judaism
The early Jews, according to Taylor, "believed strongly that one should enjoy the pleasures of life, including those of sex (see Deuteronomy 21:10-14) and some teachers held that at the last day one would have to account to God for every pleasure that one had failed to enjoy." Jewish law was derived from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi and the only sexual injunctions in the Ten Commandments are against adultery and coveting of a neighbor's wife. On this, Taylor states: "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 handmaidens 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. Once a 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."
But in the post-Exilic period there was a remarkable change in the Jewish attitude toward sex. There developed a feeling that all pleasure, but especially sexual pleasure, was wicked. Reubeni speaks of "the power of procreation and sexual intercourse with which, through love of pleasure, sin enters in." In Ecclesiastes, we find the blame for sin being laid on women: "Women are overcome with the spirit of fornication more than men and in their heart they plot against men."
As with early Christianity, it is probable that the persecution of the Jews had a great deal to do with this increase in sexual suppression and feelings of guilt. Coupled also with this change in attitude, as seems always to be the case, went a tightening of restrictions and a loss of personal liberty. Whereas previously the sexes had mingled quite freely, it now became a sin for a man to speak to, or even look at, a woman unless it was unavoidable.
L.M. Epstein states, in Sex Laws and Customs of Judaism: Virginity now began to be praised—"Happy is the barren that is undefiled...and happy is the eunuch"—whereas, previously, rabbinical tradition had regarded celibacy as a crime. Josephus reports of the Essenes: "They reject pleasure as an evil, but esteem continence and conquest of the passions to be a virtue. They neglect wedlock." This period was marked with a new concern over afterlife and intensely increased feelings of guilt, shame and suspicion. According to one teacher, boys should not be allowed to play with girls, and a mother-in-law should not live with her married daughter for fear she might seduce the husband. Rabbi Samuel Glasner writes, in his chapter on Judaism and sex, in The Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior: "...The Talmud prohibits a widow's keeping a pet dog, for fear of the suspicion of sexual abuse (Abodah Zarah 22b; Baba Betziah 71a), and in later times both Maimonides and Karo advised against unchaperoned association between young males (Yad I.B. 22, 2; Eben Ha-Ezer 24, 1). Ideas of contamination became widespread—with women considered the source of infection; a man was not permitted to pass within four ells of the house of a prostitute for fear of disease.
The attitude toward homosexuality changed markedly, as the warning against young men being allowed together unchaperoned suggests, and not only was it made a capital crime, punishable by death, but the law was applied to non-Jews as well. The intensity of these new homosexual anxieties is perhaps best illustrated by the special ban placed upon a father appearing naked in front of his sons, although no such specific prohibition was thought necessary in the case of his daughters. Ham, one of Noah's sons, was condemned to slavery, and his children after him, and his children's children—hence the rationalization for the subjugation of the Negro race, for Ham was black. His crime was that he entered the tent of his father and found him lying there dead drunk and naked. In general, Taylor reports, exposure of the sexual parts of the body was regarded as a crime, and within a family, a form of incest. Complete nudity was considered even more obscene and sinful. Homosexual fears seem to also be suggested by the rule that a mother might kiss her sons, but not her daughters, and conversely for a father.
Taboos against masturbation are certain to produce feelings of guilt in any society, since masturbation is a nearly universal sexual activity, especially among young males, and the post-Exilic Jews laid tremendous stress on such prohibitions. The Zohar called it the most reprehensible sin of all and Rabbi Glasner reports that one Talmudic authority declared it to be a crime warranting death. Clerical regulations on the subject display an obsession with detail: for example, a Jew was forbidden to sleep on his back, wear tight trousers or touch his sexual parts while urinating, for fear of sexual arousal. Even an involuntary seminal emission rendered the individual ritually unclean and required a ritual bath for purification (Leviticus 15:16-17; Deuteronomy 23:10-12).