Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cultural Attitudes Toward Sexual Experience

Jeff Mishlove Dionysariadne
Here is my condensation of the final chapter of V.F. Calverton's 1928 book, The Bankruptcy of Marriage. Calverton's main point is to debunk the idea that certain contemporary attitudes towards matters such as chastity are, in fact, universal:

With primitive man sex was a superstition, with ancient man it was a religious cult. The primeval attitude toward sex was free of pruriency and secretiveness. The sex organs were symbols of potency and objects of adoration. Even the exanimate world was endowed with sexual attributes. In the primitive concept of the gods was embodied the sexual origin of the world. Uranus (SKY), for example, was the male in unending sexual congress with Gaia (EARTH), the female; in this embrace humanity was conceived as in a constant state of propagation. Phallic worship among the Greeks and Romans was a widespread and accepted custom. In all these attitudes sex has a social aspect. It is translated into every form of life. In art its manifestations are arresting and signal The Comedy, for instance, as Aristotle observed, originated in the Phallic performances, in honor of Phales himself. Greek religion is saturated with sex. Judaism likewise embodies the concrete evidences of phallicism.

It has only been since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the rise of the bourgeois class and its narrow-bound morality, as we saw in earlier chapters, that sex became discussion-gagged by the censor. The stork now became the errand boy of the doctor, and ignorance was sweetly cherished as innocence. Candor became a vice, and hypocrisy a virtue. Art in the nude was draped, legs suddenly became limbs, and passion became a sin of the pagans. The difference between the clean attitude of ancient man toward sex and the unclean attitude of modern man is well illustrated in the controversy that arose about the Greek play Lysistrata. In this play, when it was originally staged in Greece, the actors wore artificial phalli, and no one was either shocked, surprised or bewildered. When Aubrey Beardsley, however, illustrated this Greek play according to its original form, with its phallicism manifest, he horrified the bourgeois world, and was scorned and attacked with unmitigated vigor.

To primitive and ancient man, it is clear, sex was a significant phenomenon, which he approached with reverence and candor. He did not allow the element of shame to intrude into his conception of it. He did not attempt to obscure or deny its realities. He spoke of the organs of procreation with affection and with a clean respect for their potency. To him sex embodied the mysterious source of creation and he idealized it in art and religion. Modern man, on the contrary, has been taught either to look upon sex as a sin, or as something unclean and unbeautiful except in its stupid sentimentalities and childish bathos. He has endeavored to hide it, and confine it to the unspoken. He has encouraged ignorance of it as an ideal. Pruriency and smugness grew up as characteristic manifestations of this ostrich-like attitude. An unclean and unhealthy "refinement" was the consequence. It was not until our present generation that this "refinement" was recognized as a form of hypocrisy, a spurious virtue that brought only ignorance and pain, and a sense of sickening impotency with its realization.

Sexual customs in modern times as well as in ancient reveal wide and sweeping fluctuations. The concept of chastity has often been singled out as something which all moralities have advocated. This again is nothing more than an attempt to force historical fact to fit one's moral predilections. It is, of course, essentially fallacious. Among primitive peoples chastity is often considered a vice instead of a virtue. Among the Nasamonians the custom is for the bride to surrender herself to all the wedding guests before she welcomes her husband. Herodotus describes this custom in the following manner:

"When a Nasamonian marries, it is the custom for the first night to lie with all the guests in turn, and each, when he has intercourse with her, gives her some present which he has brought with him."

Pomponius Mela claimed that greater honor attached to those women who had many such sex relations on their wedding night than those who had but a few. Diodorus, commenting upon the customs of the inhabitants of the Belearic Islands, wrote:

"They have a strange custom at their weddings, for on the wedding night the oldest friends and guests lie first with the bride; then the others in the order of their ages. The bridegroom is the last man who is admitted to that honor."

Even at the present day this same custom continues among the Barea of Abyssinia, the Australian aborigines, and the Waitata and the Watveta of East Africa. Similar usages existed in New Guinea, Cuba, Peru and Central America. Among Southern Slavs, until a short time ago, it was the convention for the two best men at the wedding to spend the night with the bride in bed before she experienced the embrace of her husband. Until fifty years ago it was still the custom for the male guests to disrobe the bride in the nuptial chamber. Just as it had been the practice in ancient Ireland for the king to deflower every bride before she reached her husband. Fertility in these early societies was important, and not virginity. The fear of hemorrhage accompanying defloration was perhaps the main reason for the contempt for virginity.

Virginity is often the source of great superstitious fear. Many peoples, for instance, specifically enjoined early intercourse in order to avoid the stigma of virginity. In Egypt the girl had to lose her virginity by promiscuous intercourse prior to puberty. With the Basoga-Batamba of Uganda virginity in a woman, who has reached a marriageable age, is considered criminal. Among the Bushango the aim of a girl after she has been betrothed is to have frequent intercourse with many men in order to occasion a pregnancy. This is an accomplishment which gratifies her prospective husband because it is definite assurance that she is not sterile. The Indians of Canada were so inbred with the same idea that a pregnant girl was the greatest attraction for men anxious to marry. In the Philippines, the Bisayos scorn their wives if they prove virgins. In Nigeria, among the Kaje, this same attitude predominates. A virgin there can command only the price of a goat; a girl who has already borne a child, however, is worth a horse. In the Congo regions a virgin is worth only one-sixth as much as a woman who has had

a child. In New Zealand women are considered fortunate because they have never known when they were virgins—for they have love affairs with boys almost from the cradle. This tendency to unrestricted intercourse from childhood is to be found among most primitive and many ancient peoples. Only in certain places, where virginity is associated with property value, is this general freedom reined-in by an economic custom. It is a curious phenomenon that virginity should be particularly guarded in parts of Africa where the influence of the slave-trade was most profound. And wherever it is guarded it is done so because of its economic value and not moral virtue.

With the exaltation of virginity is associated the subjection of women. Virginity has a value for the man who sells the woman or who purchases the wife. It is not the woman who profits by the economic asset which her virginity commands—but the man. While suicide in defense of one's virtue is not an uncommon gesture on the part of the Chinese woman, Chinese men indulge in a variety of sexual freedoms all of which are entirely approved by custom. Little Wives become their property as well as their Great Wife; female slaves are often employed to offer more devious thrills for their master's erotic proclivities; and the habit of providing prostitutes for the entertainment of male friends is a frequent practice among the mandarins. It is only the woman who is forced to protect her purity. Among those peoples in which women are dominant, we do not find them enslaving themselves in any such manner. In fact they maintain a greater freedom in their sexual relations often than the men. In Uganda, Hawaii, Tahiti, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Madagascar and among the Bosonge of the Congo, women disdain such virtues as foolish and unnatural. In these places women are not subject to men.

The exclusive possessiveness which has been encircled about the sexual relation it is patent, is only of recent evolution. The habit of lending one's wife, or even daughter, was common in many parts of Europe not many generations ago. It continued even in the fifteenth century in Holland:

"It is the custom in the Netherlands that whosoever hath a dear guest, unto him he giveth his wife in good faith."

The idea that marriage has always been an affair of life-long duration is likewise absurd. Among many primitive peoples marriage usually lasted until the birth of a child or at best for a few years afterwards. Among the Manes of Sahara the women consider it proper to marry frequently; a long married life is condemned as unrefined and vulgar. The Abyssinians have limited or trial marriages as a general practice. The North American Indians also had trial marriages. For instance the Wyandottes had trial marriages which continued for only several days. Among the Hurons, Rev. D. Jones states that women are purchased (for marriage) by the night, week, month, or winter. The Cherokee Iroquois change wives several times a year. The Esquimaux are known for seldom keeping their wives more than a few years. In Malaya individuals marry forty and fifty times during a life-span. These variations could be multiplied without number were we to touch the habits and customs of all the different peoples in our world.

In very modern times the practice of polygamy, which ordinarily is associated with primitive and barbarous peoples—although the Biblical Jews practiced it on the basis of moral principle—was recommended by a poet no less conspicuous than John Milton and a moralist no less ingenious than John Lyser. Milton, who was a Puritan, made a plea for polygamy that was grounded in Biblical testimony:

"Either polygamy is a true marriage, or all children born in that state are spurious, which would include the whole race of Jacob, the twelve tribes chosen by God. . . Not a trace appears of the interdiction of polygamy throughout the whole law, not even in any of the prophets."

In 1650 shortly following the peace of Westphalia, the Frankish Kreistag at Nuremberg, confronted by the decimated population which had resulted from the Thirty Years' War, passed a ruling permitting every man to marry two women.

In other words, it was only a little over 275 years ago when an actual decree in favor of polygamy was issued by a Christian state in what is now Germany. And today we find Norman Haire prophesying polygamy as a possible solution for the sex problem:

“Legalized polygamy would offer many advantages . . . there are many men, and some women, who apparently need more than one person of the opposite sex to make life reasonably happy for them. Before marriage the man and women would state whether they desired the union to be monogamous or polygamous."

The attitude of the Christian Church itself has undergone a surprising change. In the early centuries of its era "married life was treated as absolutely unlawful." St. Ambrose declared that "married people ought to blush at the state in which they are living," and Tertullian maintained that the disappearance of man was better than his propagation by sexual intercourse. The Christian hatred of woman strengthened her subjection. "Marriage and propagation are of Satan" was one of the famous proclamations of the priest Saturninus. Today the Church has reversed its attitude completely. Marriage is now lawful and priests and preachers confirm and bless it. The words of Tertullian are repudiated. It is the multiplication and not the extinction of humankind which is embodied in its opposition to birth control and abortion.

It has been our purpose in this long recitation of varying attitudes toward love and the sex-life to illustrate the relativity of standards and their impermanency in terms of social change. There is apparently nothing inherent or irrevocable in any attitude. We can only speak of values in reference to their immediate environment. They have no universal or unchanging sanctity which can be defended as ideal.

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