Sex and Sensibilities

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Being a documentary fanboy, I’ve lately stumbled across a couple of interesting histories on the topic of sex, which have set me thinking about what shape our attitudes to it, so forgive me coming over all Carrie Bradshaw.

Many early European cultures had a decidedly celebratory attitude to sex. Ancient Egyptians practised public fertility rituals which included open masturbation. The homes of ancient Romans were liberally adorned with explicit images of sexual activity and body parts. And this was not pornography, erotic images to enjoy in private; these were lawn ornaments, architectural features, frescos and trinkets to be viewed shamelessly and openly – much to the discomfort of the stuffy Victorians who excavated Pompeii.

Sexuality too was a different concept to the gay/straight/bisexual one we commonly use today. What mattered for the ancient Romans was not who your partner was or who you found attractive, but what role you played. A man was still behaving in a respectable, manly way when he had sex with either a man or a woman, as long as he was the active partner. For men, the only shame to be found in gay sex was that of the passive partner – the man who had taken the ‘female’ role. The Greeks, meanwhile, openly encouraged gay relationships for their (male) citizens, rationalising that soldiers fighting alongside their lovers would be disinclined to show cowardice, and would fight more fiercely to protect each other.

Many seem to attribute the birth and spread of sexual shame to the rise of Christianity, though I’m not totally convinced it’s a fair accusation. I’m no historian, but for my money, social attitudes rarely have such simple and singular causes. But in any case, one of the many oddities that sets Christianity apart from so many of its contemporary religions is the fact that Yahweh apparently fundamentally disapproves of sex and sees nakedness as shameful, rather than entirely natural and (shock, horror) enjoyable! For the Pagan religions, sex was a fundamental, even semi-divine, part of life. For Christianity, it was a barrier, a temptation that led you away from the divine. Early church fathers seemed to only grudgingly permit sex within marriage if people find themselves unable to keep to the nobler state of chastity. In St Paul’s words:

I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, KJV)

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians took on an interesting twist when I learned that in Roman times, Corinth, with it’s temple to the goddess of beauty and love Aphrodite, was rather notoriously for sexual conduct. ‘A Corinthian girl’ was an expression for a prostitute, while ‘a Corinthian businessman’ was a pimp. For me, it makes St Paul’s letters sound like an outraged viewer writing in to a television network to complain about the disgraceful scenes of debauchery they’ve had the nerve to broadcast.

It also surprised me to learn that the church officially opposed not only sex, but marriage too for being a vehicle for sex, until as late as the 12th century. Previously, marriage was not really a religious institution at all, more a personal, business arrangement. But here the church took over the business of marriage and controlled it (and by extension, sex), rather than simply oppose it. Though there remained many prohibitions on sex even within marriage – never on a Sunday or religious holiday, missionary position only (man on top), and never naked. And it was only in the sixteenth century that the marriage oath was made a sacrament that had to be performed by a priest.

Attitudes to sex in the Christian west have remained on the rather prudish end of the scale since. Until today where it seems, if anything, rather commercial. Perhaps it is understandable in societies built on capitalism, where selling is the order of the day. After all, nothing sells like sex, and a sexually enticing advertisement cannot help being instinctively arresting. But though we are surrounded by the PROMISE of sex, sex itself is still largely conspicuously absent from our public culture. There’s hardly a film made these days without a sex scene, and though it seems like film-makers are constantly testing the boundary of how much of the sex act they show, actually graphically showing it is still confined to our top shelves, our private cinemas in seedy districts, our secret ‘bedroom stashes’ and behind proof-of-age paywalls. Public displays of affection are often viewed as rude to others, and nakedness a thing for which there is ‘a time and a place’ – neither of which seem to be in the public arena. For all its promoting and selling of sex, our modern society still seems to have far more in common with the Christian mindset of sex as something naughty, than with the pre-Christian cultures who were literally shameless about it.

Now even though we atheists hold no belief in God, we cannot help being products of our culture, and our culture is steeped in Christianity. So where does that leave an atheist drawing their own sexual boundaries? Where once I promised myself I would only ever sleep with the one and only man I would ever fall in love with (oh for those innocent days of youth again), I’ve since found myself in bed with men mere hours after meeting them. Is that something for which I should be ashamed? Is there anything wrong with being a slut?

Certainly there are health aspects to consider. Then again there are precautions we can take which make sex a relatively safe experience. Accidents, of course, happen even when everyone is being responsible, but that is true of practically any activity. We wouldn’t consider cooking a meal shameful just because someone might have an accident.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have come at this from a religious angle. Perhaps our notions of sex come as much from the ‘one true love’ fantasies of Disney and fairy stories? But in any case, where do you, as an atheist (or not…?) draw your own sexual boundaries? Are you comfortable with your naked body? Can you look at yourself naked in a mirror without the urge to cover up? Who are you comfortable being naked around? Do you kiss your partner in public? Do you mind when others do? How long do you like to know someone before you have sex with them? And what would you think of someone who would do it in half the time? Share your thoughts.

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