Faith,
Hope and
Chastity
Part I
Faith, Hope and Chastity --- to adapt an expression of Professor Lionel Tiger's --- has been in a quite startling decline in the country's gross national eroticism: there is widespread disapproval of the erotic possibilities of married life. And sexual taboos are still so powerful in some Hindu communities that higher caste women do not have a name for their genitals.

In modern India, the Mumbai film industry is only now reverting cultural norms to a more erotic --- sometimes downright raunchy --- model. The orgasm's story from Aquinas onwards is to a large extent the struggle between a near-global orthodoxy that sexuality is a regrettable, animal characteristic (paradoxical since animals rarely and barely experience orgasm) --- and occasional cultural blips when sex asserts its old power again and begins to reŽstablish its ancient primacy.

Given how physically pleasurable orgasm and its preamble are, the Christian achievement in bending the collective human mind away from thoughts of sex as anything beyond an occasionally necessary bodily function was no small feat. Sexual matters were far from ideal or liberal in the Ancient Mediterranean and Eastern worlds, especially when it came to the rights of women, but there is a huge gulf between the world view of Ancient Greek women comparing notes over who made the best masturbating sticks, or Ancient Hebrews believing sex is the holiest experience and undertaking known to man, and the subsequent generations of Christians who were successfully conditioned to be perfectly righteous in their perverse belief that sex and its entire hinterland of affectionate and pleasurable behaviours is a contravention of God's will, that only intercourse without a "lustful appetite" was acceptable.

Neither, in the absence of any unambiguous sexual directive or taboo having been imposed by Jesus, was there was a clear prime mover for the establishment of the Christian sexual ethic, no inventor of abstinence, self-denial and censoriousness as a virtuous way of living. In the Roman world, before it became Christianised, there had been an anti-decadence voice in one Musonius Rufus, a Stoic of the first-century, who created the modern marriage ideal. Christianity appreciated his sentiments so much that it borrowed them wholesale. They meshed perfectly with the emerging Christian idea that human beings would sacrifice living in Paradise if they succumbed to weakness of the flesh. (Islam later followed this pragmatic approach more directly; Paradise was expressly promised for those who kept sex from getting out of control on Earth.)

Musonius said marriage should be no more nor less than communion of souls with a view to producing children. His ethical doctrine, for those who bought into it, imposed something that had not really been seen since Neolithic days --- a measure of sexual equality. And therein may lie the root of Christianity's fervour for new sexual ways. Neither partner, in Musonius's vision, was allowed to have sex outside or before marriage.

The rules were also strictly the same for rich and poor. The wealthy he sees as "the most monstrous of all, some who do not even have poverty as an excuse." Here then, we start to see an extension of the recently dead Christ's spiritual, if not economic, communism into the sexual area. Except that there is no notion from Musonius of equality of sexual gratification.

For the first time, sex was only to be "indulged in for the sake of begetting children," never for fun. Given, as we have seen, the Old Testament's easy acceptance of a veritably throbbing carnality, plus the New Testament's blithe lack of concern with the matter, the Christian difficulty with sex is even odder. It extended, what was more, to all forms of pleasure: the third-century Lebanese philosopher Porphyry, regarded by St. Augustine as the father of Christian morality rather than Musonius Rufus, condemned not only sex, but horse racing, the theatre, dancing, marriage and mutton chops, averring of the latter that, "those who indulged in them were servants not of God but of the Devil." (In a bizarre footnote to the history of sexual abstinence, there exists to this day a vegan group in Christchurch, New Zealand, called Porphyry's People.

In the shining, sexless new Christian world which Musonius ushered in, the obsolete, yet still extant, holy books of the old Hebrews became something of an embarrassment. In their drive to understand human beings as a finer, more cerebral, more moral form of wildlife than they were in the past, the writers of the Gospels, the radically-minded post-mortem historians of Jesus, had a problem with antique, but still undeniably holy, relics such as the "Song Of Solomon."

It could hardly be struck out of the Bible without offending God, who must have had his reasons for allowing such muck to be published in his name. So instead it was reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ's love of his Church, just as the more hard-line Jews rebranded such verses as an explanation of God's love of Israel. The story of Onan was similarly adapted for the new creed's benefit by being used fallaciously to denounce masturbation, especially by the male, who has always in line with Musonius's idea of a repolarisation of the sexual status quo, been condemned more vigorously for sexual sin than the female.

These modern spiritual regimes across the Christian world triggered a form of what can only properly be regarded as madness, spiralling down the generations, as bodily pleasure (or at least any admission of indulging in bodily pleasure) became progressively more taboo. The prohibitions were so numerous --- no sex (or, needless to say, masturbation) on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which effectively removed five months in the year. Then it was made illegal during Lent (the forty days before Easter), during any penance during the forty days before Christmas, for the three days before attending Communion, during Saints' days and from the time of conception to forty days after giving birth, or until the end of breast-feeding in some cases, which ruled sex out for at least a year It seems the Church elders wanted ideally to turn all Christians into semi-professional monks.

But even then, they needed to take care; if a man experienced a nocturnal emission, he was required to intone thirty-seven psalms on awakening. The absurdity of all this was ably mocked by the Italian poet Boccaccio in his Decameron. The veto on masturbation was just as puzzling. Here was a harmless act that did not lower the value of a woman did not break either her hymen or her heart, and did not produce unwanted, illegitimate children. All masturbation does is to produce an orgasm.

If any proof were needed that it was the pleasure of orgasm more than, say, false intimacy or illegitmacy that was being targeted by the killjoy Christians, and would continue to be right up until the present day, it is surely the unfathomable obsession with orgasm. Like all bad political policies, the drive to marginalise sex and those who enjoy it threw up conundrums for the policy makers.

For example, absolutely all practices --- diverse sexual positions, oral sex, anal sex --- that a man and woman might discover they enjoyed were outlawed. But at the same time, a second cardinal rule in almost direct opposition to the first had to be instilled in the public. Because marital sex may have been a shocking thing, but was not half as shocking as adultery, the Church found itself having to insist strenuously on the concept of "marital debt." Married people were told, confusingly, that they must grant sex to one another on demand.

Other isolated incongruities in the monolithic Christian party line on sex can be found. In Christian Byzantium, for example, it was believed that a woman's erotic pleasure could positively determine her baby's health and temperament. But the overwhelming weight of belief was on the side of sex being highly regrettable, and the pursuit of satisfactory orgasm, especially in women, a near atrocity.

The communal drawing back from the lascivious delights of the old world and reaction to the bodily equipment their God had provided them with was a strange phenomenon. It was as if human beings had been given by God, Nature, evolution, whichever, a sports car to enjoy and chosen to use it as a tractor.

--- From The Intimate History of the Orgasm
Jonathan Margolis
©2005, Grove Press
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Part II

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