Sex in Early Christianity
In such a time, Christianity had great appeal, as Taylor views it in his authoritative and comprehensive Sex in History, for "it affirmed the sense of guilt [so prevalent among the people of that time] and authorized self-punishment to relieve it."
The officially favored religion in Rome at the end of the second century A.D. was Mithraism, which came from Asia and spread throughout much of Europe, including portions of England. It was an aggressive, outgoing religion. Taylor writes, "Mithraism specifically preached that good lay in action, in conquest, in grappling with the world...." As such, it had a considerable attraction to the Roman emperors, to soldiers, administrators and extroverts, but offered no place for women. In contrast, Christianity, in its early stages, was primarily a passive religion and it thus appealed to women, introverts, slaves and many of the common people of a lesser station. If a psychoanalytic interpretation of Mithraism reveals its sadistic nature, early Christianity may similarly be characterized as primarily masochistic. Taylor notes, "Mithraism adopted as its symbol the Cross, an instrument of torture and death.... The choice of Christianity in preference to Mithraism therefore not only represents a choice of masochism as against sadism, and a turning in of the death instinct against the self, but also a victory for death instincts as against life instincts."
A flood of Iranian and Semitic concepts was sweeping the Mediterranean world, threatening to submerge the elaborate cultures erected by Greece and Rome, and early Christianity adopted many of these beliefs into its own religion. In Social Control of Sex Expression, Geoffrey May states that Christian asceticism comes not so much from the teachings of Jesus as from the element of Oriental dualism, implying the antithesis of the spiritual and the physical, found in the teachings of St. Paul. Moreover, under the persecutions of the Roman Empire, Christians came to desire suffering and revolted against the sexual excesses of the Romans.
As with the Jews, persecution of the Christians produced a masochism that made deprivation, suffering and pain a virtue. In Love and the Sex Emotions, W.J. Fielding notes that adherents of the new religion soon developed an obsessional horror of sex and multiple methods of self-torture quite different from the asceticism of earlier religions. Fanatical monks retired to the burning deserts of North Africa to mortify their flesh: fasting, flagellating themselves, going without sleep and refusing to wash. Ammonius tortured his body with hot irons until he was entirely covered with burns; Macarius went naked in a mosquito-ridden swamp and let himself be stung until nearly unrecognizable; St. Simeon ulcerated his flesh with an iron belt; Evagrius Ponticus spent a winter's night in a fountain so that his flesh froze.
The association between these masochistic practices and sexual desire is indicated by the confessions of the fathers themselves. Thus Jerome says: "How often when I was living in the desert, which affords to hermits a savage dwelling place, parched by a burning sun, did I fancy myself amid the pleasures of Rome. I sought solitude, because I was filled with bitterness.... I, who from the fear of hell had consigned myself to that prison where scorpions and wild beasts were my companions, fancied myself among bevies of young girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled from fasting, yet my mind was burning with the cravings of desire, and the fires of lust flared up from my flesh that was as a corpse. I do not blush to avow my abject misery."
How closely the whole psychological process depended upon the suppression of sexual desire is further indicated by the preoccupation of these early Christians with the subject of castration. Taylor reports, "The tonsure of the priest is a recognized symbol of castration, and his adoption of a skirted cassock perpetuates the adoption of female clothes, in just the same way as the priests of Astarte, after castration, assumed female attire. The Jews had adopted circumcision—another symbolic castration—as part of a religious convention that made every man a priest, and thus able to read the sacred books. But symbolic castrations were not enough for some early Christians. Thousands hastened to castrate themselves in truth...and a sect sprang up so enthusiastically addicted to the practice that its members castrated not only themselves, but also any guest rash enough to stay under their roofs." Since the continuance of any religion depends upon the fact that children usually follow in the faith of their parents, a sect which fails to reproduce itself is in danger of dying out. The Church recognized this simple truth and soon forbade the practice.
The earliest Christians had sought to transcend sex—to be above temptation; but that didn't prove very successful, so the Church abandoned this technique in favor of repression. The relative merits of the two methods were not entirely resolved, however, and debate over the alternative techniques was to arise numerous times in the centuries that followed.
The medieval Church was obsessed with sex to an extreme degree, according to Taylor. "Sexual issues dominated its thinking in a manner which we should regard as entirely pathological." 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 damnable, "but any pleasure derived from it—and this pleasure remained damnable even when the act was performed for the purpose of procreation...." This idea reached its crudest expression with the invention of the chemise cagoule, a sort of heavy nightshirt with a suitably placed hole, through which a husband could impregnate his wife while avoiding any other contact with her. The belief that, even with marriage, the sexual act should not be performed for pleasure still persists in some Christian sects to this day.
Not only was the pleasure of the sexual act held to be sinful, but also the mere desire for a person of the opposite sex, even when unconsummated. Since the love of a man for a woman conceived of 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 apologetic De excusatione coitus, that for a man to love his wife too ardently is a sin worse than adultery.
By the eighth century, the Church had begun to develop the strict system of laws which ruled the Middle Ages. A series of "penitential books" appeared that explored the subject of sinful sex in minute and intimate detail; every misdeed was described at length and penalties were prescribed for each. Celibacy was the ideal and for those with priestly functions, it became obligatory. Since chastity was a virtue, it was virtuous for wives to deny sex to their husbands, which many apparently did. It is doubtful if this actually increased the sum total of chastity, however, since many husbands were driven to extramarital relations as a consequence, to such a degree that the Church felt obliged to intervene.
Shame of the body and a near-pathological modesty came with this increasing emphasis on chastity and soon extended beyond the areas of sexual activity, as with a virgin named Gorgonia, who "with all her body and members thereof...bruised and broken most grievouslie" refused the attentions of a doctor because her modesty would not permit her to be seen or touched by a man; it was reported that she was rewarded by God with a miraculous cure.
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: in the last case, the penance was 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 a disproportionately large amount of space to penalties for homosexuality and bestiality, but the sin upon which the greatest stress of all was placed was masturbation. In Social Control of Sex Expression, Geoffrey May observes that in the five comparatively short medieval penitential codes, there are 22 paragraphs dealing with various degrees of sodomy and bestiality, and no fewer than 25 dealing with masturbation on the part of 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. And as we previously observed, taboos surrounding masturbation are particularly significant, since this activity is so common, they are certain to produce feelings of guilt. Taylor observes that modern psychiatric insights indicate the belief that sexual pleasure is wicked springs primarily from parental taboos on infantile masturbation. Since the child is punished when he is too young to understand its significance, and when masturbation is his primary means of pleasure without outside assistance, a fear of this specific pleasure becomes imbedded in the unconscious, which later becomes generalized until it turns into a fear of pleasure in all of its forms. It is easy to understand why the early Church seized upon this willingness of parents to frown on infantile masturbation as a means of maintaining its system of sexual repression and, therefore, concentrated a considerable amount of attention on the matter.
The more general discouragement of pleasure, of even a nonsexual nature, was a part of earliest Christendom. In the third century, Porphyry set the tone by condemning pleasure in all its forms. May comments, "Horse racing, the theater, dancing, marriage and mutton chops were equally accursed; those who indulged in them were servants, not of God, but of the devil." Augustine called Porphyry the most learned of all the philosophers and established this doctrine on a formal basis.