Sex : an Uncomfortable Topic
Sex–for some, an uncomfortable topic. In whatever way one may react to the subject, that reaction itself is, in large part, a reflection of societal norms. Each individual has their own view on intimacy. What society deems as acceptable and appropriate varies with every generation. This fluctuation is due partly to society’s’ ever-changing outlook on gender, religion, and age.
During the Classical age, attitudes toward sexuality and romance were markedly different than they are today. Often said, the ancient Greeks lacked terms or concepts that match the contemporary dichotomy of ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. Greek society distinguished between two roles in sexual relations: dominating or penetrating versus submissive or receiving. Only those considered as inferiors–women, slaves, or male youths who were not citizens–comprised the category of “passive” lovers. Thus, the ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, known as the erastes, and an adolescent, the eromenos or paidika. The erastes needed to profess that he had noble interests in the eromenos, not solely a sexual motive. The boy was not to submit right away, and if courted by more than one lover, was to choose the superior. Interestingly, there is evidence that the erastes would face the eromenos and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos, thereby avoiding penetration. This was known as intercrural sex. Once the boy reached adulthood, the relationship typically ended (Dover).
Plato, in the Symposium, advocated for an army composed of same-sex lovers. The Roman writer, Plutarch, wrote in Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) that “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail” (Ibid. 146). Gender was regarded as an irrelevant “detail” and instead one’s integrity and beauty was of greater importance. Under the Republic, Roman view on same-sex relations mirrored that of Ancient Greece. However, likely a result of social and economic turmoil, under the Empire, Roman society’s outlook on same-sex relations became increasingly more negative. The precise attitude the New Testament presents towards sexuality, and in particular, same-sex relations is under heavy debate. John Boswell, author of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, insists the majority of scripture cited in condemnation of homosexuality takes more issue with prostitution than homosexuality. Where same-sex acts are described as “unnatural” the meaning is analogous to ‘out of the ordinary’, not immoral (Boswell).
However Boswell’s scholarship has been questioned (Greenberg). What’s free from uncertainty is, although negligible to the Gospels, condemnation of homosexuality is recurrent throughout the New Testament. The writings of the early christian fathers were unreserved in their disgust and fear of sex as a whole. By the fourth and fifth centuries primary Christian sentiment sanctioned procreative sex. Not found previously in Greco-Roman views, the belief that conceptive intercourse within marriage is permitted, but all alternate expression of sexuality is sinful, brought about concern with the gender of one’s partner. This philosophy forbade homosexual sex and soon came to be reflected in Roman law. Justinian’s Code, decreed in 529, that individuals know to engage in homosexual sex were to be put to death. However those who were repentant could be spared. Historians concur that in the late Roman Empire dogmatism towards same-sex relations heightened.
Amidst the fall of the Roman Empire, numerous germanic kingdoms formed. Excluding Visigothic Spain, overall, in Europe, homosexuality was tolerated. “European secular law contained few measures against homosexuality until the middle of the thirteenth century” (Greenberg). Homophilic literature thrived during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, despite the efforts of Christian theologians to stigmatize non-procreative sexuality (Boswell). Anyhow, the Gregorian Reform Movement in the late twelfth century through the fourteenth century brought about a dramatic rise in hate towards homosexuality. The Catholic Church began to adopt the supposition that “nature” was the standard of morality, and twisted it in such a way that homosexual sex was viewed as sin. For example, the first ecumenical council to condemn homosexual sex, Lateran III of 1179, announced that “Whoever shall be found to have committed that incontinence which is against nature” shall be punished. The acerbity of punishment was contingent on whether the transgressor was a cleric or layperson (Boswell).
Sodomy is defined as “Anal or oral copulation with a member of the opposite sex. Copulation with a member of the same sex. (or) Bestiality” (“Sodomy”). Legislation against sodomy called for brutal penalties. Be that as it may, enforcement was sporadic. In the 19th century, the legal penalties for sodomy were reduced notably. The Napoleonic Code decriminalized sodomy. Conjointly, in various countries where homosexual sex remained a crime, typically, sodomy was eliminated from the list of capital offenses.
Sermons on sexuality shifted from apostolic to secular based. Increased trust in science, and in particular medicine, led humans to justify sexual preference as innate and biologically driven. This explanation allied with the state’s need for a growing population, adequate military personnel, and sound households with defined gender roles. While the Ancient Greeks idealized same-sex relations for their pandemic benefits such as population control, 18th and 19th century Europe opposed homosexuality for the same reasons. The Medieval view of sodomy deduced sodomy as a voluntary act. Belief that sodomites choose sin was replaced by the modern understanding of homosexuality as a fixed, involuntary part of ones identity, whether one submits to their sexual desires or not. While it would be inappropriate to describe one as a “closeted sodomite”, “closeted homosexual” , the vernacular used to refer to someone who is hiding their sexuality(gay), makes sense. Sexuality isn’t seen as act-construed anymore. Rather one’s physiological and psychological content, often depicted as defective or pathological, is credited to the contemporary classification of “homosexual”. Despite historical precursors (e.g Aristotle put forward a anatomical vindication of passive homosexuality) this was a new trend.
Technology and the media provided the scientific community with greater public exposure and credibility(Greenberg). Implication of this had both positive and negative effect. On one hand, as sexuality wasn’t viewed as a choice, to criminalize certain orientations appeared irrational. Unfortunately, the belief that those who engaged in same-sex relations were in an ill mental state prompted medical professionals to attempt rehabilitating or curing these individuals. Preventative measures were also sought after. Simultaneously, the School Reform Movement catalyzed a exponential increase in school attendance rates and the average length of the school day, reduced transgenerational contact, and consequently reduced amounts of sexual intercouse between members of different generations, which caused same-sex relations among partners of roughly the same age to become common. Gradually premarital intercourse became more frequent and eventually admissible. Deteriorating restrictions against sex for the sake of pleasure, even outside of marriage, left anti-gay arguments meritless. “In the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City. The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets and in nearby Christopher Park” (“Stonewall Riots”). For the first time the public spoke out in defence of homosexuals rather than to demonize homosexuality