Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021


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Sex: where would we be without it?

Part 1: from bonobos to Lesbos

Sex has a way of slipping between the cracks of recorded history, as it were, a deliciously hidden and elusive creature, and that seems to be the way we like it. As Honor Beddard, the curator of "The Institute of Sexology -- Undress your mind," an exhibition which opened this month in London puts it, "Each generation likes to think that it invented sex." She has a point. Few of us get off on images of our unsmiling, partially clad great-grandparents engaged in unspeakable acts and yet, to each generation, sex and its great power feels inherently rebellious and defiant.

Exactly how sex makes it into the annals of recorded history depends very much on the eyes of the beholder. Nowhere else do historians betray their lack of impartiality as thoroughly as when describing the sexual practices of the past. Cultures oscillate between poles of prurience and excess, historians have little trouble in finding examples to fit their prejudices.

Love for all

An example of finding behavior to fit your prejudices is the current bestseller Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Dr Cacilda Jetha. They postulate that pleistocene man didn't have the struggles we face today with sexual infidelity, broken homes and sky-high divorce rates. They ascribe these deficiencies to the practice of monogamy. For most of the 200,000 years of human life on this planet, they point out we lived in small communal groups of fewer than 150 where survival depended on sharing. In this one-for- all, all-for-one society, there was no possessiveness, no individual ownership of anything, least of all each other so there was no cause for jealousy or distress. No woman could be sure which of her many lovers had fathered her child. The practical consequence was that men treated each child as his own. Paternity couldn’t matter less. We human-apes are closest to chimpanzees and those other furry creatures called bonobos, known affectionately in pop culture as the "love-monkeys" for their excessive, playful promiscuity and with whom we uniquely share oxytocin the so-called "love hormone."

In such a culture, say the authors who are strong supporters of Darwinian evolution, where there is no overt competition among males for female mating, competition occurs on the cellular level in the ovaries between sperm. In the great sperm race only one winner gets to fertilize the egg. One bit of evidence they cite—and there are many --- is the shape of the glans of the human penis, the ridge of which, they suggest, has evolved to suction out the semen of a previous lover.

Sex by the book

All of the world's major religions, themselves a product of the agrarian lifestyle with its stress on individual ownership, uphold marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual relations. The first recorded information about sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism. Though the higher-ups in ancient India seem to have been allowed some sexual freedom, the population in general were encouraged to think of sex as exclusive to marriage where men and women were expected to pleasure each other equally. And lest they need instruction the Kama Sutra, arguably the most widely read secular text in the world, provided an excellent education.

India is also renowned as the birthplace of Tantra, a spiritual practice that may or may not involve sexual intercourse. Contrary to Western opinion, this path to spiritual enlightenment does not of necessity involve slow, sustained sex. One sacred text, the Yoni Tantra, states that: "there should be vigorous copulation." Be that as it may, other spiritual seekers in India renounced sex altogether as an impediment to enlightenment, an idea also common to Buddhism and one that would resurface with the advent of Christianity.

Commie prudes

The ancient Chinese were blunt and to the point: according to the I Ching, the world began with sex, when Heaven bedded down with Earth. The history of Chinese sexuality is suitably lush and varied, filled with a rich palate of behaviours -- dalliance, marital bliss, homosexual alliances, goofy bawdiness and affection. In contrast, the communist regime has been repressive on matters sexual. Citizens are encouraged to refrain from premarital sex and, especially, the "decadent capitalist phenomenon" of homosexuality.

Penis art

Many cultures have practiced same-sex love, often without applying a label to it as such. Love between boys and men was an important part of ancient Greek society, where it was known as paiderastia, meaning "boy love." Older men, called erastes, were mentors to their young lovers, who were usually between the ages of 12 and 17. The senior took on the responsibility of protecting, educating and providing a role model for his eromenos, as they were called. The relationship ranged from chaste to fully sexual. intercrural sex -- non-penetrative sex wherein one partner places his penis between the other partner's thighs -- was considered more noble an act than anal sex.

Penises were big in Greece -- figuratively, that is. The symbolic, disembodied phallus, oft referred to as a herma, was a symbol of fertility that appeared ubiquitously in art and architecture, but in the bedroom, not so much. Massive instruments of manhood were considered unseemly, even barbaric. One unfortunate minor god, Priapus, was born with a huge member but cursed with infertility and unceremoniously chucked off Mount Olympus to be raised by shepherds. This attitude explains the discrete, almost dainty penises found in most Ancient Greek sculpture. Actual virility in an individual was correlated with a man's moral and intellectual being.

Marriage as a vehicle for bearing legitimate children was in full flower among the city states, but some women, often former slaves, played very different roles. Hetaira were financially independent, educated women who functioned as courtesans much like Japanese geishas, often admired more for intellectual rather than sexual prowess. They took part in the symposia, where their opinions were valued and respected and, like the men, they were required to pay taxes.

Brothels of all kinds were seen as an integral part of Greek democracy, and had many laws that governed them. The Pornai were prostitutes on the bottom of the scale and offered sex on the cheap, while temple prostitutes in Corinth were seen as servants of the gods. Hetairistrai or "she-minions" were women who preferred to service women.

The earliest known mention of female homosexual practices globally is made in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which dates from 1745 B.C.E. The reference is to women called the salzikrum or "daughter-men," women who were allowed to marry other women. The Western moniker, "lesbian," after the Greek lyric poet Sappho who made her home on the island of Lesbos, was a construct of the 19th century. Early sexologists categorized lesbians as women who did not adhere to female gender roles and deemed them mentally ill. Until then, the word lesbian referred to any derivative of the island of Lesbos, including a type of wine.

Coming next issue: Human Sexuality, Part 2: masturbation to liberation.

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