From the debauchery of the ancient Greeks, to the puritanical persecutions of the early Christians, Western views towards human sexuality have swung widely in their extremes. Such is the history of sex.
It seems apt to begin in Greece, where so much of out sexual lexicon comes from. Aphrodisiac, eroticism, homosexuality, nymphomania, and pederasty are all terms that originated in Greece. Sex was an integral part of the cultural tradition and Greek myths are rampant with stories of the sexual exploits of their Gods. The myths of Homer and Plutarch gave us the image of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who rose from the foaming semen of her father’s castrated testicles. And Hercules, who would ravish 50 virgins in a night, yet also had a homosexual relationship with his young nephew Iolaus.
Pederasty, in which an older man takes an adolescent boy as his lover, was socially accepted in Greece between the 6th and 4th century. In fact, relationships were based more on social power dynamics that they were on sexual orientation. The Greeks though that love should centre around the concept of a powerful top, and a weak and needy bottom. So a relationship between two men of similar age and social standing would be considered odd, maybe even scandalous.
The traditions of the Greeks were carried on by the Romans, but the rapid spread of Christianity saw the church gain a firm grip over the morality of much of Europe beginning in 400AD. The moral codes enforced by the clergy took their form from Hebrew law of the Old Testament. Sexual acts and thoughts were declared a sin that would be punished by eternal damnation. Sex was tolerated within marriage for the benefit of reproduction. However, masturbation, incest, oral sex, anal sex, and homosexuality all became sins and the church instructed people to watch for and to report any possible wrong doing so action could be taken against the offenders.
Much of the sexual intolerance that we have today comes from this foundation that the church built so many centuries ago. There have been periods when these conventions relaxed under social pressure, such as during the Renaissance. But shame is a powerful tool which has been wielded so expertly by the righteous. Each of these eras of sexual liberation have been followed by an equally repressive period in which hedonism is forced underground. And during each of these periods of sexual repression, society finds itself struggling with rising rates of prostitution and a public health crisis of venereal disease such as London, England found itself battling during the Victorian era and leading into the first world War.
Given how history has repeated itself, and these cyclical patterns humans have in their sexual views, I often find myself wondering what stage of the pattern we’re in now. Sometimes it seems obvious, at other times, not so much.