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Alas, alas, that ever sex was thought to be sinful.
(Adapted from Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’)
To use a colloquial phrase, Buddhism has no special “hang-up” about sex; the third of Buddhism’s five moral Precepts carries no more weight than the other four. What Shame investigates with impressive scholarly erudition is the change in attitudes to sex from the Romans to early Christian times: the subtitle is ‘The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity’. Both religion and sex play an important role in social and personal life, and it is interesting to note how the former influences the mores of the latter. Among other works, I would draw readers’ attention to The Body and Society by Peter Brown (1988), and to A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Classical World, edited by Mark Golden and Peter Toohey (2011). While shame comes within the social register, sin denotes the register of religion. Sin brings shame (or ought to) while shame does not necessarily imply sin. It can be said that sex and the survival instinct are the two most basic and powerful of drives in all nature: see the first page of Lawrence’s novel, The Rainbow. In Romantic literature, love overrides the survival instinct.
The Greek and Roman world recognised sex as a powerful force which, though it had dark overtones, could also be beautiful. The fascinating 2nd century novel, Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius, celebrates the beauty and power of love: Amor vincit omnia. Love conquers all things. Sexual conduct could bring shame, social disapprobation, but not sin: the language of sexual sin is totally alien to Roman law. Adultery was a crime against man, not the gods. However, the excessive pursuit of sensual pleasure was regarded as unmanly, indicating a lack of self-control. Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were frequently in pursuit of love. Zeus kidnapped beautiful (female) Europa, and the handsome youth Ganymede whom he made his cupbearer. Scenes of sexual congress were part of domestic décor. The comparatively laissez-faire attitude to sex is partly, if not largely, due to the fact that Rome was a slave-owning empire. Slaves had no rights and could be made use of freely, irrespective of sex or age.
Being bisexual was considered normal and natural. A person has several aspects to identity, and his or her sexual orientation was unimportant: it didn’t go to identify the individual. The martial Spartans (the word is now also an adjective) institutionalised homosexual relations; male couples were sent into battle together in the belief that the one would fight fiercely in defence of the other. The great warrior of the Trojan War, Achilles, loved Patroclus. (The word “lesbian” relates to Sappho’s island, Lesbos.) When Antinous, the love of Hadrian died, the grief-stricken Emperor organised a cult devoted to his worship, and founded the city of Antinopolis. In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates and Phaedrus discuss, among other things, whether homosexual love is superior to the heterosexual.
The discontinuation of the persecution of Christians by Constantine (d. 337) eventually ended with the Roman Empire becoming Christian. In as much as the English language spread across the globe because Britain was an imperial power, so too what had been the belief of a small sect became the official faith of imperial Rome and spread rapidly. The conversion marked “one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the centre of it all was sex”. Sexual “behaviour came to occupy the foreground in the landscape of human morality, in a way that it simply never had in classical culture”. The early Christians could best distinguish themselves from pagans through their sexual code. They linked sex not to the stars but to animals: Bishop Methodius of Olympus describedt sex as “putrid”. St Paul famously wrote it was better to marry (and have sex) than to burn. Sex was now only within marriage and that too with the sole purpose of procreation. Sex was a necessity and not to be enjoyed for itself. (See Jared Diamond’s Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality, 1998.) Classical homosexuality was rejected: the assault on it was “sudden, violent, and total”. Those who renounced sex altogether formed the “spiritual aristocracy”. By renouncing all sexual activity, the human body could join in Christ’s spiritual victory. This attitude goes back to Jewish groups such as the Essenes who were celibate. Jewish legend has it that after forty days spent in the presence of God, Moses lost all interest in sex. (His deprived spouse is reputed to have said she pitied the wives of those men who became intensely spiritual.) Sexual misdemeanour now meant grievous sin.
Something of this Christian attitude persisted into modern times. For example, missionaries were shocked at the sexual freedom of men and women in the South Seas, and set about inculcating in them a sense of sin from which they were, till then, free. (Lady Hillingdon wrote, 1912, that when husbands approached at night, wives should lie back, close their eyes and think of England.) However, in a great and humane move, Christianity opposed forced prostitution, and the making of free sexual use of female and male slaves. Secondly, the new religion and its concept of free-will opposed ancient belief in fate which, in turn had led Greece and Rome to give credence to dreams and fortune-tellers, to astrology and horoscopes.
It must be emphasised that Christian attitudes to sex after late-Antiquity lie outside the concern of this book. Secondly, Shame to Sin is not a criticism but a study of a historical change so radical that it was revolutionary. In as much as it’s now acknowledged there are several “Englishes”, valid varieties without hierarchy, similarly, Christianity is widely spread; there are variations in sexual attitudes and behaviour depending on country, class and sect, and one cannot simply generalise. Given its importance, the study of changing attitudes to sexuality, be it in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam (alphabetical order) can afford us valuable insights into society and its culture.