Anthropology and History

5 Bizarre Historical Attitudes Towards Sex

A brief look at some of the more unusual customs and beliefs surrounding sex and sexuality from earlier periods history.

posted on 01/23/2012
Adriana Morales
Scribol Staff

Woodcut from The Fair Melusina / 15th centuryPhoto: Woodcut from The Fair Melusina / 15th century

Sex. The word alone can make people smile, giggle, frown or squirm, but regardless of the reaction, it is still one subject that gets people’s attention. We have gone through many sexual stages in our society. There was a time when talk of anything sexual was whispered about in hushed tones, the subject matter seen as taboo. There have also been times when sexuality was celebrated and glorified. Here we will look at some of the things people believed or practised in the name of sex.

So in the words of Marvin Gaye… Let’s get it on!

5. Premature Ejaculation

File:Ornamental Bronze Plaque, Celtic Horse-gear, Santon, Norfolk (Detail).jpgPhoto: Gun Powder Ma

When the Chou Dynasty of China reigned over the land from 770 – 222 BC, those who followed the popular (yet still informal) religion of Taoism believed that men and women had different amounts of essence or “life force”. Men apparently had a limited supply of the Yang essence while women had a limitless supply of Yin.

This led to a strong belief that men should not use much of their “Yang” or they would be drained of energy until they died! The trick for the men, however, was to get as much “Yin” as possible, so that when they did use their “Yang” the essence of the woman would provide them with more energy. The belief practically programmed men to wait until their lady partners had an orgasm (preferably multiple times) before releasing themselves.

Not only was ejaculating before the woman climaxed discouraged, but so was masturbation. It was actually forbidden for men and thought of as unhealthy because of the belief in the Yin and Yang balance. But masturbation was only forbidden for men; women were allowed as much self-pleasure as they desired as long as they did not use foreign objects, due to the belief that these would damage the womb (Which brings a whole new meaning to the expression “Ladies First”).

4. Casual Sex

File:Female head Mesopotamia Louvre AO24227.jpgPhoto: Marie-Lan Nguyen

In today’s world, a woman engaging in casual sex in the form of one-night stands and having multiple sexual partners is generally not encouraged. Which could be seen as strange, given the sexually charged society in which we currently live. More often than not, it becomes a burden for the woman, both socially and emotionally. However, there was a time when, if a woman really wanted to have children and make sure she was fertile, sex with strangers was encouraged.

The belief in having sex with a stranger to become more fertile was practised in Ancient Mesopotamia in the 10th Century BC. The Temple of Ishtar was a place that all women were required to visit in their lifetime, and once there, they would sit and wait until someone showed up, dropped a piece of silver into their lap and told them that, “in the name of Mylitta”, they were inviting them for some hanky-panky. The women were unfortunately unable to refuse the offer once it was made and, after having sex with the stranger, would finally be allowed to return home.

After some time, the temple became a place where sex was performed as a profession, or, to put it bluntly, prostitution was practised. Yet it was still not frowned upon, and these women were referred to as “Holy Prostitutes”. It was forbidden to speak of these women in an insulting way and at times there were even male prostitutes found in the Temple.

3. Sex Within Marriage

A Branked Scold in New England During 1685Photo: Michael Donovan

During the Middle Ages, (c. 400 – 1500AD) sex was quite the touchy topic, especially to those with strong religious beliefs. Since religion influences many to lead certain lifestyles, those who felt like they wanted to be “right with the Lord” believed that sex was a shameful and degrading act both outside and within marriage. Many viewed sex only as a form of reproduction and influenced married couples to ignore actual pleasure during intercourse. Sex was also considered to be “morally dangerous” as it was believed that sexual impulses and feelings could not be fully controlled by the human will. Although authoritative figures were against this particular form of eliminating sexual urges, castration was occasionally used. Sexual relations outside of marriage were immediately considered as fornication.

St. John Chrysostom, an early Church Archbishop, explained some prohibitions surrounding sexual intercourse at the time:

“When one’s wife was menstruating, pregnant, or nursing.
During Lent, Advent, Whitsun Week, or Easter week.
On feast days, fast days, Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
During daylight.
If you were naked.
If you were in church.
Unless you were trying to produce a child.”

Washing immediately after intercourse was a way to “purify oneself” from the act and lewd kissing, oral sex, fondling, repeated sex (more than once in one day or night) and multiple positions were discouraged as well.

2. Homosexuality and Bisexuality

File:Ebish-Il Louvre AO17551.jpgPhoto: Jastrow

Homosexuality and bisexuality have existed for as long as humans have walked the Earth. At times it was seen as normal and was even mandatory for some, but there were also periods when it was deemed immoral and seen as a terrible offense. Regardless of what people thought, it was (and remains) something that cannot be denied or ignored, as is a huge part of human sexuality. So much so that those who study it still cannot find a valid and 100% scientific answer as to what causes homosexuality or bisexuality.

Homosexuality and bisexuality in Ancient Greece was often part of social initiation and linked to education, religion, politics and art. Prostitution was also accepted and was even separated into different levels, such as “refined prostitution”. Interestingly, it was also believed that women probably envied the male penis due to the heightened praise and worship of the phallus during this period. Wives even had to compete with male household slaves and young men because they were often considered a tool and a necessity for reproduction, but not much more than that!

In Europe alone there were many different traditions and beliefs to do with sexuality. In Etruria (now modern-day central Italy), women were often known to have sex outside of marriage. If a child was born and the father could not be identified, the child was not considered illegitimate, which caused philosophers such as Plato to consider their way of handling sexuality “immoral”. Orgies were also described as common and even ritualistic.

1. Children and Sex

Baie de Cook in MoPhoto: Rv

In French Polynesia, sexuality was even more liberal. Children were commonly seen having sex with other children their age or with fully-grown adults. Engaging in sexual activities on the islands was normal for both age groups, and girls as young as eight would have rivalled grown women in terms of seduction and sexual prowess. Parents did not have sex privately either, and often shared the bedroom with their own kids, thus allowing their children to grow up watching mom and dad make love. As soon as young boys understood their own sexuality and the act of intercourse, penetration soon followed. In actuality, adults looked at children having sex as very amusing. The only real restrictions set on youthful sex related to incest, regulation of sex with close relatives (not to be confused with immediate relatives), and women who were firstborn in high-ranking families. These women, however, were allowed sexual freedom, and more specifically, affairs outside of the marriage after having their first child.

These are only some brief explanations of some of the beliefs, traditions and rules concerning human sexuality around the world. However, after reading this you may have noticed that most of these practices took place in Eastern parts of the world.

The West is certainly not to be forgotten, but it is safe to say we were not as advanced or as open to human sexuality compared to the East.

Over time, though, the Western part of the world did catch up, and notably became just as open about sexuality as the rest of the world. With the way sex is publicized and pretty much encouraged in the US today, it is hard to believe that this was not the land from which most of our sexual ideas, customs, traditions and beliefs originated.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

 

Adriana Morales
Scribol Staff