Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

May 26, 2017
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Celibacy to Masters and Johnson

The History of Sexuality, Part 2

History of Sexuality: Part 1 (December 2014) covered the period from the dawn of time through the Greeks and Romans. Part 2 carries on from there


A new theme emerged in Western thought with the rise of Christianity, perhaps as a whisper on the wind from the Hindu and Buddhist ascetics: celibacy. For a religion that began with a virgin birth, it is perhaps not surprising that celibacy became a major theme. And while other cultures like Judaism had formal guidelines for sexually appropriate behaviour, the central role of celibacy in Christianity, and the inherent rejection of sexuality that went with it, pushed prohibitions and condemnations to another level of significance.

Celibacy wasn't a disaster for those who found rewarding careers in holy orders and, for a very few women like Joan of Arc, it lead to a kind of to freedom, a noble reason to avoid the drudgery of housewifery and live a different life, albeit, in Joan’s case, with unfortunate consequences. For the hoi polloi though, men and women alike, sexual desire became contorted in a confusing pit of shame, guilt and rigid social constructs where stepping off the straight and narrow lead to damnation.

It wasn’t that you couldn’t experience real love outside a consecrated relationship. Take, for example, courtly love, where a man is permitted to fall in love/lust with a pure woman he admires from afar, and then sacrifice himself at war in her honour. One medieval writer describes the process as a thing "at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exhaling, human and transcendent." Sex can clearly be twisted to meet most contingencies.

Those who succumbed to the filth and wretchedness of illicit carnal relations didn’t have to wait for damnation in the next world. They were mutilated, hung in cages to starve to death, or lost their heads, bowels, or worse in this one. The joy of sex still existed, of course, but public expressions of that delight went underground for the next several centuries and only emerged not so very long ago.

A heinous sin

Masturbation, the most common sexual behavior, has hardly faired any better. As recently as 1994, Bill Clinton had to fire in his Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, over the public outcry she caused by saying masturbation was safe and healthy, and should be mentioned in school health curricula.

Which brings us to chastity belts. There is very little evidence that they were a veritable staple in medieval sex life or even in use back then. Fact is, the first time the belts became widely available was in the 1800s for a different reason entirely: preventing self-love. Until the 1930s, when it was proven to be harmless (if not beneficial), masturbation was seized on as the root of a great number of mental and physical health problems. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas believed it was a worse than rape, incest and adultery on the ground that at least the others had a chance of leading to procreation.

The craze against playing with oneself received fresh fuel with the 1716 publication by the Dutch theologian Dr Balthasar Bekker's of a tract titled, "Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice."

A 17th century law in the Puritan colony of New Haven, Connecticut made masturbators eligible for the death penalty. Such harsh treatment was supported by arguments from luminaries like Kant and Voltaire who established the perception of the practice as a debilitating illness for the next two centuries.

Flakes for purity

The rising popularity of circumcision can be attributed in part to the belief that it functioned as a preventative for masturbation. In the US, the renowned Dr John Kellogg advocated circumcising boys sans anesthesia and applying phenol (an acid) to girls' clitorises to prevent self-harm. Genital cages, hand tying and electric shock were also effective, he thought. "Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox… have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism," he pronounced. He concocted a bland food made of flakes of corn which he believed would help curb the sexual appetites of the youth, which generations then promptly scarfed down from the box with the cheerful big green and red cock on it. A little later, Reverend Sylvester Graham invented Graham crackers with a similar intent.

A long arm

As if it wasn't enough for the population to be forbidden from 'knowing' themselves by hand, so to speak, Sigmund Freud introduced the idea that the origins of our sexual impulses exist deep in the unconscious, far from reach. Here began a journey to discover the "truth" of sex, says contemporary French philosopher Michel Foucault, a journey that continues to this day. Obsessive discussions and great questioning about sex abounded in Victorian times, and were not quite as “Victorian” as we like to think. There's a reason why sex comes to mind when we think of that era, and it isn't because no one was having any. Family planning was coming into view, and new ideas about morality and biology influenced perceptions of sexual roles. Darwin placed sex at the centre of his story of evolution and, increasingly, people's identities became tied to their sexuality.

Post-war sex

Women were considered to be far less sexual creatures than men, though a young American sexologist was soon to dispel with that fatuity. The bisexual Alfred Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in 1947 and a year later published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male followed, five years after that, with a book of similar title on the human female. Kinsey is credited with having liberated female sexuality and dispelling notions of female disinterest in sex. He is also remembered for his eponymous scale used to determine sexual orientation.

The dynamic duo of William Masters and Virginia Johnson took Kinsey's work a crucial step farther. While Kinsey based his research on information gleaned from interviews and somewhat biased personal observation (as well as participation), Masters and Johnson acquired the data for their Human Sexual Response (1966) and Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970) in the laboratory where they observed and measured masturbation and sexual intercourse in at a more scientific distance. Initially able only to use prostitutes for their experiments, eventually the team recruited over 600 women and men volunteers from the community who were then arbitrarily matched as partners.

More significant than any single one of their findings was the tone of their writings which showcased sex as a healthy and natural activity to be enjoyed as a source of intimacy and pleasure, though they considered homosexuality to be a correctable dysfunction. This misperception aside, their works very much set the tone for the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.

Books like Sex and the Single Girl, The Way to Become the Sensuous Woman and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) became handbooks for a youth culture that broke taboos about premarital sex, homosexuality, public nudity and abortion. The widespread availability of the contraceptive pill from 1972 onward levelled the playing field at last for women.

Are you a GGG?

The subject of sex and the “truth” of our sexuality is as much of an obsession today as it ever was, in spite of the fact almost nothing is taboo. In the past decade, gay sex columnist Dan Savage has introduced a population of readers young and old to the many sexual lifestyles open to those who are “GGG” — his abbreviation for “good, giving and game”. His kind-hearted, savvy, almost grandmotherly approach has normalized kinks and emphasized the importance of pursuing one's person sexual impulses. But in spite of all the good words and sex-positivity, we have yet to learn how to have intimate relationships that don't end in trauma. Given our 50 percent divorce rate and a declining interest in marriage especially among under 40s, a social crisis is brewing with the nature of our sexuality at its core.

The partners/authors of Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Dr Cacilda Jethá, suggest that while we can't go back to a prehistory where love was freely given between all members of society, it may be time to reconsider our conception of monogamy and the sexual relationship-destroying restrictions it imposes. It’s a think-through that has stumped humankind these thousands of years. There’s a chance that we can make a better job of it this time around by remembering that while, as the research shows, sexual expression is a healthy, beautiful thing, sex for sex’s sake can never be allowed to rival the blessing that is love.

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