The Ancient Roots of Our Judeo-
Christian Sexual Prohibitions
By Dr. Ronny West
The roots of the Judeo-Christian sexual prohibitions, as well as the sexual prohibitions of religions such as Islam, spring from ancient Jewish tribal law.
During early times wives were considered "property" and laws were specifically codified to protect three things: livestock, wives and dwellings--an order or importance that seems clear in Jewish law.
Beliefs among different groups ranged all the way from the approval of prostitution, homosexuality, sex with slaves and liberal views toward divorce, to 180-degree shifts in each of these areas.
Judaism also feared "diluting" the Jewish race through liaisons with non-Jews. Since marrying a Jew and having only Jewish children were central to this, scriptural law governing sex was codified to support this need. (Remember, there was no effective birth control in those days.)
Even the rape of a wife was primarily viewed as a sin against the husband and his family. In fact, most scholars agree that sexual restrictions in the Old Testament have more to do with maintaining property and the needs and survival of the Jewish race than with sex, itself.
The 4th century Bishop, St. Augustine, a man who admitted he had major personal problems with sex, ended up shaping Christian views on sex. His problems with sex were so pronounced that modern-day psychology would list them as obsessive-compulsive and borderline psychotic. He got the basics of his ideas from the prevailing mind-vs-body views popular at the time -- views which have long been repudiated by more enlightened thinking.
After reportedly leading a wanton and lascivious lifestyle, Augustine left his mistress and children and totally reversed himself by vowing to be celibate. Thereafter he saw the "flesh" as wicked, flawed and sinful. Augustine also saw himself as staunchly Catholic.
Given St. Augustine's strong anti-sex views, it will surprise and maybe baffle some that this sainted man felt that prostitution was necessary in society. According to a quote: "If you expel prostitution from society you will unsettle everything on account of lusts."
According to Father Thomas Raush, Chair of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University, "It's regrettable that St. Augustine's influence and the negative appraisal of sexuality, based on his own struggles to be chaste, has so impacted negatively with Christian tradition."
It will probably be equally surprising to many that Thomas Aquinas, another major influence in Christianity, also felt that prostitution was a necessary evil for a society.
We cite these examples, not to advocate prostitution, but to show just how much views on sexuality have changed over the years -- even within the Church.
More modern Christian scholars use a stronger word than "regrettable" for the damage that this man's warped views have done over the centuries -- especially when it comes to the plight of women.
Why weren't St. Augustine's views just ignored by the priestcraft of the day?
For one thing these views served the political, economic and religious interests of religious establishment. In particular they served to maintain the interests of a male-dominated religion.
But, beyond church politics, the greater sexual capacity of women was known by men — and feared. Women who enjoyed sex were condemned as being "evil."
Later, in history they would be dealt with as "witches" and tortured and killed.
Thus, husbands and wives were obliged to look to rabbis and priests (most of whom were celibate) rather to each other for sexual permissions. Early religious law set down very restrictive laws governing the "when and how often" of sex between married partners, even to the point of limiting sex to the so-called missionary position.
At one point the Catholic Church had "sex police."
For example, a married couple could be burned at the stake if they were caught having sex with the women on top. Sex was only for conceiving children, and for the male (and especially the female) to enjoy sex was not only deemed sinful, but could send you to hell.
Even after women were no longer considered "property," the male dominated church -- the same church that despite the lack of any supporting biblical evidence felt a need to trash Mary Magdalene as a prostitute -- felt it had to control women through religion. (Despite apparent efforts to eradicate the evidence, there is evidence in recently-discovered documents that not only was Mary Magdalene Jesus' favorite disciple ("the one most loved," and "the one who understood"), but that she initially was a powerful figure in the development of Christianity.
Two Reasonable Reasons
For Sexual Prohibitions
At some point in history it was discovered that life-threatening diseases were transmitted through sex.
Many people died as a result of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. It was reasoned that the spread of sexual disease could be controlled by placing limitations on sexual partners — a line of reasoning that was especially important before safe sex practices were available.
Next, before effective birth control, sex commonly resulted in pregnancy. Church leaders wisely observed that a woman could theoretically get pregnant every year of her marriage. Back when women married in their teens, this could mean a great many children. Plus, in those days many women died in child birth.
Although a few children may have been an asset in providing needed labor around the home and farms, it was clear that many couples could not (and did not want to) take care of a dozen or more children.
Among other things, this would clearly have a negative religious and economic impact. It was therefore reasoned that sex had to be "moderated" or controlled by various means. Since the church had the only real authority over people, sexual prohibitions had to come from there.
Later, effective birth control would arrive on the scene -- but the Catholic Church in particular banned it because (some argued) it could result in enjoying sex (still seen as a major sin) without concerns about pregnancy.
Finally, we need to note that the Bible isn't nearly as "asexual" as might be assumed. In fact, the Bible contains some rather explicit references to the joy of making love. The Song of Songs, which many view as at least semi-pornographic, is the classic example (notwithstanding the clear attempts by translators to make the original text less graphic by switching around some of the body areas discussed). Despite prudish attempts to make the Song of Songs into some type of allegory, more modern thinkers feel that the Song simply demonstrates unflinching support for the joys of sex experienced by lovers.
The latter, however, has been effectively buried throughout the centuries. In fact, before the advent of the printing press, the priestcraft, who held the only readily-available copies of the scriptures, commonly "shielded" their flock from parts of the Bible that they didn't feel they should be aware of. Even today, fundamentalist Protestants who proclaim every word of the Bible is the "word of God" conveniently ignore, or try to "explain away," scriptures such as these.
Because of centuries of the "sex-is-sin" thinking — thinking that has been conveyed through what became "traditional values" and supporting law — sex has evolved into an embarrassing and taboo subject. It has only been in recent years that fundamentalist Christian belief has started to deal with human sexuality in an open and positive (although still very restrictive) way.
Those who hold to prevailing religious belief tend to fear the presence of more sexually liberated and even more morally responsible views. Consequently, they attempt to not only control their own sexual experiences, but the experiences of everyone else. In fact, "illicit" consensual sex is viewed by some as more destructive to a society than violence. (One U.S. judge in sentencing a man for engaging in oral sex with his mate said it was a crime worse then murder.)
Today, many people are questioning and abandoning these antiquated beliefs. With the availability of effective birth control the primary rationale for prohibiting sex among single people now is the risk of STD (sexually transmitted disease). Where adequate precautions are not taken, this risk is very real, and the consequences can be devastating.
Although social and religious restraints may be considered illogical and outmoded, we have to realize that because of prevailing social views violating these restraints can carry profound personal, marital, social, and even legal consequences. ("Separation of church and state" notwithstanding, many of our laws are based in prevailing religious beliefs.)
Possibly the Latin phrase that translates to, "First, do no harm," should be a guiding principle. The concept of "harm," of course, includes both you and others.
Social change comes rather slowly, but as new knowledge and understanding is gradually accepted, it does evolve.
Eventually, we can hope that sex will become a natural, open and special part of relationships, devoid of the guilt, shame, and fears that have plagued so many people for so long.