SEXUAL MORALS: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

It is characteristic of human beings to have beliefs about how they and others around them should behave. This leads to concepts of what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is bad; and the way we ‘ought’ to behave in general. One workable definition of a nation or a culture is ‘a group of people who share the same moral codes’. Morals are simply codes of behaviour that a given nation or sub-group within a nation agrees are acceptable. Such codes differ greatly around the world today and have probably been even more different over the centuries. Morality does not only cover matters to do with sex, of course. People make moral judgements about the upbringing of children, the conduct of business affairs, matters of government, and gambling and financial matters, among other things. Often the morals in such circumstances can be agreed upon fairly readily and adhered to or not according to the individual. When it comes to sexual morality the story is rather different because our sex lives put such urgent pressures on us that exceptional codes of behaviour are called for if we are to run a tolerably pleasant community.

Over thousands of years people have considered various sexual practices ‘immoral’ but it was not until the coming of Christianity that all such practices were forbidden. Throughout history, societies have usually condemned adultery; have sometimes condemned homosexuality and abortion; and have never condemned masturbation. The Christian Church declared all these pursuits to be immoral and, what is more, sinful. Not only did they, it was agreed, have adverse effects on society but they also offended God and cut the offender off from his maker until he repented. In the first few centuries after the death of Jesus, early Christian thinkers virtually outlawed any form of sex other than that within marriage for the procreation of children. Some of the greatest Christian proponents of these ideas could hardly bear to accept that men and women had to have intercourse to keep the race going, so fervently anti-sex were they. Most of these moral rulings had little or nothing at all to do with the teachings of Jesus, but were an embellishment of basic Judaeo-Christian thinking by over-enthusiastic authorities such as St Jerome, St Augustine and, to a lesser extent, St Paul.

Jesus, perhaps surprisingly, said very little about sex (though he specifically condemned adultery and divorce) and was loving and forgiving to those who broke the moral codes of the day. The Church over the years since his death has reinterpreted much of what He said, often to suit its own ends. This has resulted in the Church having basically negative and prohibitive views on sex and sexuality, though views vary considerably from sect to sect within the Christian Church world-wide. Even among members of some Christian denominations (for example Catholics) there is a considerable breadth of interpretation among both clergy and laity.

This had led to a situation in which Western cultures usually discuss morality solely in relation to sex. A woman can be a wonderful mother, never steal, cheat or lie and be a good housekeeper, but if she is unfaithful to her husband, then she is immoral. On the other hand as long as she is faithful to her husband, she can be a slut, a spendthrift, a poor mother and never out of the courts, yet she will not be labelled ‘immoral’.

The earliest moral rules were aimed at providing four main things. First, they were aimed at maintaining and increasing the numbers of the nation. From this real need arose rules that forbade any form of sex that did not result in children (such as homosexuality, masturbation and, of course, contraception). By going against these rules the person not only did himself ‘harm’ but also damaged the group or the race.

The second aim of traditional sexual morality was to strengthen the family unit because the family was the main structural unit of society. Marriage developed as a way of giving the children resulting from sexual intercourse a secure base from which to grow up and this tended to have a stabilising influence on society generally. At this time, most women died in their thirties or forties, not long after their procreative function had ended (the menopause was earlier in pre-Christian times). This meant that women saw their sexual role as inextricably linked with childbearing from when they were sexually mature until they died. This led to the view that all forms of sex that did nothing to promote family and marriage were ‘wrong’. Sex outside marriage was therefore ‘wrong’ as were all types of sex (such as homosexuality) that took men away from their main duty in life-that of supporting women within a family.

The third area of traditional morality is not so practically or socially based but involves the philosophical concept of asceticism. The argument runs as follows: given that sex is so pleasant, is it not ‘better’ in moral terms to prove to yourself that you can do without it and that it does not rule you? The acceptance of this principle led quite understandably to the state of affairs we have already discussed in which sex was ideally to be avoided at all costs. The early Christians were particularly influenced by this line of thought because they had seen the sexual excesses of the Roman empire which, they argued, had led to its downfall. After such a libertarian system people all over Europe were ready for something more sober. As a result Judaeo-Christian asceticism over sex came at the right time and the seeds fell on fertile ground. People had seen the terrible problems of libertarianism and did not want to pay the price themselves. The emerging Christian Church, like any other clever political institution, saw the advantages of taking this line, latched on to it and promoted it.

The fourth aspect of Christian sexual morality has occurred more recently in Christian and Marxist writings. It is suggested that too great an emphasis on sex is bad in a purely practical way because it takes people’s eyes off the production of material things for the community (in the Marxist version) or God (in the religious version). So either way sex ‘gets in the way’ of the real business of living and is therefore to be avoided.

For hundreds of years these attitudes were so ingrained in society that they became accepted as essential for all human beings – a view which is patently nonsense. Other societies all over the world have developed very different sets of morals, all of which are perfectly acceptable to them, yet many of their ‘norms’ are quite unacceptable to societies based on Judaeo-Christian principles. Clearly, then, morality in sexual matters in any one society is not necessarily based on concepts of absolute ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’. Sexual morality, like all morality, is based on practical considerations, the origins of which are often forgotten as the centuries pass. New codes of behaviour are constantly emerging and in a highly complex society such as ours in the West today there are many sub-groups whose concepts of sexual morality are developing at a different rate from those of others.

What then is happening today in the Western world? Quite simply, although we live in a notionally Christian society, few people adhere co Christian principles to any degree and as a result a secular collection of ‘morals’ has developed by common consent. This in itself would be fine but unfortunately things are not as clear-cut as one might think because, although most people do not follow Christian precepts, they have an uncomfortable feeling, deep down, that they should do, because our culture is inextricably tied up with individual religious affiliations. The problems arise when new or different concepts of morality, no longer based on the traditional ones, start to conflict with what we have been brought up to believe are unshakeable truths. If for all of your life you have been brought up to think of masturbation as immoral or sinful (for the historical reasons we have outlined), it is not going to be easy to unlearn this programming and suddenly to accept it as OK.

We live in a changing world in which many traditional morals are being questioned. This does not mean that the new morals are necessarily right, or that we are necessarily any happier because of this questioning, but it is undoubtedly happening and if producing all kinds of problems. The old objectives of traditional morality seem mainly irrelevant to many today, when population growth is, if anything, anti-social; when marriage is frequently a short-lived undertaking with a decreasing success rate; and when asceticism is a very unfashionable concept. Today’s moral principles seem to be based more on the increasing of pleasure for the majority and, perhaps even more important, on the right of each individual to express him- or herself in the best way he or she can. Because sex is an important form of self-expression it has become a very important part of this way of thinking.

These ideas have taken root and grown all the more quickly because we live in a world in which we no longer need so many children and in which we have effective contraception and abortion. These changes have freed us to have intercourse without worrying about what was, until very recently in human evolutionary terms, the inevitable outcome – children. Now that babies are no longer the inevitable outcome of intercourse, sex has taken on a new function which traditional moralists did not have to face. Add to this the fact that in today’s society women (perhaps with the help of the state) can support themselves and it becomes relatively unimportant for them, to marry men in order to be supported. This has led to concepts of more temporary support and even to a reversal of the roles with some women supporting their partners.

Only a tiny minority of even so-called ‘religious’ people today adhere strictly to traditional Judaeo-Christian morality in all its detail, and the law of the land certainly no longer upholds such morals as being essential for the maintenance of the fabric of society. Adultery, homosexuality and prostitution, for example, are not illegal, even in so-called Christian countries. What we see is a situation in which even religious people (a small minority of the whole population) adhere only to those parts of traditional morality that they choose. Clearly the average man and woman in the street are running their lives according to a set of moral codes that they have to some extent defined for themselves individually. Morality has thus become ‘privatised’ to a great extent. But even such a private system of morals is passed from generation to generation.

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