Keywords: Sexuality, society

Sex and Society

Sex Atlas, 1983, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York

Haeberle, Erwin J.
Type of WorkEncyclopedia

Human beings are "social animals", and their habits, desires, hopes, fears, and beliefs are shaped by the various societies into which they are born. This is also true of their sexual attitudes and behaviors. People are born with a certain potential for sexual expression, but this potential can be realized in a great variety of ways. Indeed, in sexually repressive societies it may well remain partially or completely unrealized.

The point is perhaps best illustrated with the often-used analogy of language: All children are born with the potential for speech, but they are not programmed for any particular language. In England, they will grow up to speak English, in China, Chinese. Some societies have different "secret" languages for males and females, and children will learn these too, according to their sex. Furthermore, if they have intelligent parents and good teachers, they may learn to speak exceptionally well.

By the same token, harsh and ignorant parents may keep their children mute or inarticulate, or may cause them to stutter. On the other hand, some mistreated children may develop a "loose tongue" and use it to vent their hostility; others, who are more fortunate, may choose their words carefully to express only love and devotion. Finally, some people may voluntarily give up the pleasures of speech and, for some religious or moral reason, take a vow of silence.

Human sexual behavior develops in a very similar fashion. Children learn to adopt that behavior which is acceptable to their particular culture. They also acquire different masculine and feminine qualities according to their sex.

If they have tolerant parents, their erotic capacities will grow, but a puritanical education will make them feel guilty and block or cripple their sexual responses. On the other hand,

  • some frustrated children develop "loose morals" and use sex mainly to express their hostility;

  • others, who are well satisfied, choose their sexual partners carefully and shower them with affection.

  • Finally, some people decide to give up the pleasures of sex and, for some religious or moral reason, take a vow of chastity.

However, the comparison need not restrict itself to this individual level, i.e., to personal idiosyncrasies, failures, or successes. Human sexuality and language are also comparable on a general level and can be examined for their collective implications. After all, as every linguist knows, different languages express different basic philosophies. They paint different pictures of reality and reflect different approaches to life, in short, every language preforms the perceptions of those who grow up with it. Quite apart from specific personal opinions, large groups of people together learn to view the world differently according to their different "native tongues".

This is also true of "native" philosophies of sex. The sexual behavior of men and women reflects not only their personal tastes, but, to a large extent, also the basic values of the society or social group to which they belong.

No matter how much they may differ as individuals, their moral sense is always shaped by the underlying assumptions of their whole culture.

  • In hedonistic and tolerant cultures, most people are likely to be joyful and sensuous;

  • in puritanical and repressive cultures, they tend to be anxious and inhibited.

In the first case, they will celebrate sex as a source of happiness; in the second case, they will deplore and conceal it as a source of shame.

Therefore, when we study the sexual attitudes of any individual, we are actually dealing with two separate sets of questions.

  • We ask not only: "How well does this man or this woman conform to the sexual standards of his or her society?"

  • but also: "What is the basis of these standards? What does this society believe about the ultimate purpose, or meaning, or 'nature' of sex?"

In most societies, of course, the meaning of sex, as the meaning of anything else, is revealed by religion. At least this has always been the case in societies of the past, and even in modern, secular societies the sexual standards often remain tied to older religious doctrines.

There can be no doubt, for example, that the sexual standards of our own society are still influenced by our Judeo-Christian heritage. However, cross-cultural studies reveal that this heritage has always been highly peculiar.

The ancient Israelites saw the nature of sex in reproduction and condemned any sexual behavior that did not promote this goal. The early Christians adopted this narrow view and even restricted it further by treating sex as a necessary evil and extolling the virtues of sexual abstinence. Since they expected the second coming of Christ and the end of the world in their lifetimes, they did not think very much of sexual pleasure. Instead, they became susceptible to the various ascetic philosophies of their time and incorporated them into their own religion. When Christ failed to return, and the world went on as before, they became a little more tolerant, but their basic belief did not change: Sexual activity was acceptable only when it could lead to pregnancy within marriage, and even then it was something of an embarrassment.

Needless to say, the Christian sexual philosophy did not seem arbitrary or accidental to its proponents. On the contrary, to them it appeared as the objective, eternal, and universal truth. Indeed, wherever they looked, they found this truth confirmed by factual observations.

  • Did not respectable men and women cover their bodies with clothing, and did this not prove that they had an "inborn sense of modesty?"

  • Did not people avoid discussing their sexual fantasies openly, and did this not prove that they felt uneasy about them?

  • Did not parents hide the intimate side of their marriage from their children, and did this not prove that there was something wrong with sexual intercourse?

  • In short, did not nature itself demonstrate everywhere that sex was inherently base and humiliating?

Thus, the North African bishop and "church father" Augustine wrote dogmatically of the "shame which attends all sexual intercourse" in his book The City of God (Book XIV, Chapter 18):

  • "Sexual intercourse is always performed with lust and therefore needs to be hidden. . . . Indeed a natural sense of shame ensures that secrecy is provided even in brothels. . . . Fornication is called shameful even by shameless men, and though they are fond of it, they dare not display it.... Even conjugal intercourse, respectable and legitimate though it be, does it not always require a private room and the exclusion of witnesses? Before the bridegroom caresses his bride, does he not turn away all the attendants . . . and even those relatives that had been admitted to the bridal chamber? . . . And why so, if not because that which is by nature fitting and proper is so done as to be accompanied by the penalty of shame?"

In accordance with this opinion, Augustine referred to the male and female sex organs as obscoenae partes (obscene parts) and viewed all "carnal" desire with barely concealed disgust. Moreover, he was convinced that all decent people everywhere felt the same way. Yet, in actual fact, his attitude was not universally shared even in his own time. There were still tribes in distant parts of the Roman empire who preserved their old "pagan" customs and delighted in group sex and various sexual displays.

Thus, Augustine's statement about the "shame attending all sexual intercourse" was not really true. It was only much later, and only through Christian influence, that it became true for most Europeans. Outside of Europe, however, many societies developed very different sexual values. When, after centuries of isolation, Christian explorers finally discovered such societies, they were amazed and incredulous.

For example, when Captain Cook came to Tahiti he was greatly surprised to find that the Tahitians had sexual intercourse in public and "gratified every appetite and passion before witnesses". Thus, he reported in his Account of a Voyage Around the World (1769):

  • “A young man, nearly six feet high, performed the rites of Venus with a little girl about 11 or 12 years of age, before several of our people and a great number of natives, without the least sense of its being indecent or improper, but, as appeared, in perfect conformity to the custom of the place. Among the spectators were several women of superior rank who . . . gave instructions to the girl how to perform her part, which, young as she was, she did not seem much to stand in need of.”

In spite of his consternation, however, Captain Cook apparently kept his composure and did not try to stop the performance. After all, he was not a moral crusader, but a practical Englishman, a seasoned world traveler, and a son of the Age of Enlightenment. It was left to the Christian missionaries of a later time to become outraged and to eradicate the traditional island customs.

Indeed, one can easily imagine the effect the sexual spectacle would have had on Augustine, had he been able to witness it. One can also assume that it would not have changed his opinion. Instead of admitting that he had been proven wrong by the "shameless" islanders, he would probably have condemned them all as slaves of the devil.

At any rate, we know only too well what would happen to the Tahitian performers if they appeared in the United States today. Any man who performed in a "live sex show" with an eleven-year-old girl would be sent to prison as a statutory rapist. Even worse, as a "child molester" or "pedophile", he could be declared a "sexual psychopath".

This means that, before, after, or instead of serving his prison term, he could be committed to a mental hospital for forced psychiatric treatment. If he should ever be released, he would be required to register with the police for the rest of his life. The girl, on the other hand, would be regarded as a juvenile delinquent and could be sent to "reform school". Finally, the entire audience might be arrested for having witnessed, and thereby encouraged, an act of public "lewdness and obscenity".

As this example illustrates, the moral values of modern America differ profoundly from those of precolonial Tahiti. There, people were applauded as valuable members of the community, who are here considered criminal or insane. What Americans now abhor as the moral "corruption of minors", the Tahitians encouraged as practical sex education. What appears sinful to us, often had a religious purpose for them. As a matter of fact, they supported a special order of celebrants (the Arioi society) who were trained to give public sexual performances. In short, the Tahitians subscribed to a sexual philosophy that is nearly the opposite of our own.

Should we therefore jump to the conclusion that they were "decadent", "degenerate", "depraved", "morally bankrupt", "animalistic", "sick", or "perverted"? Obviously not. Such denunciations would be entirely inappropriate, because all of their visitors unanimously described the Tahitians as the happiest, healthiest, gentlest, friendliest, and most generous people on earth. Their decline began only after their contact with Western Christians, although even today they retain much of their original free-hearted spirit.

Should we then conclude, to the contrary, that our own standards are wrong, and should we try to adopt the sexual customs of ancient Tahiti? Not necessarily.

First of all, a moment's reflection will show that a sudden, radical change of this kind is not feasible. Secondly, even if it could be accomplished, it might well create more social and sexual problems than it solves. Just as the Tahitians were not helped by the imposition of a foreign morality, so we ourselves could come to regret the blind acceptance of values that are foreign to us.

In each society the sexual norms are embedded in a large network of other norms, laws, and traditions, all of which have been developed over long periods of time to support each other and to serve a multitude of social purposes. Changes in sexual behavior therefore always affect many other areas of life. It follows that no sexual revolution can do much good, if it makes no allowance for particular historical circumstances and ignores the complexity of cultural traditions.

Indeed, this is exactly what was wrong with the hasty Christianization of the Pacific islanders. A sexual morality that had worked well for them was abruptly replaced with another which hampered the education of their children, disturbed the traditional courtship and marriage patterns, and undermined the institution of the family as they knew it. Worst of all, none of these changes carried any demonstrable benefit. Therefore, the new morality at first demoralized large parts of the population. It loosened the whole social fabric and produced a lengthy period of confusion.

We could, of course, carry our comparative study of moralities still further, in depth as well as in breadth, but by now at least one fundamental insight should already have become clear: There is nothing universal or permanent about sexual norms. On the contrary, when compared cross-culturally, they appear rather capricious and variable. They may seem objective and wholesome to the specific societies which subscribe to them, but outsiders may find them absurd or corrupt. In sum, what, in sexual matters, people call "nature" is usually nothing more than convention.

Sensible men and women have always recognized this truth and acted accordingly.

We have seen, for example, that Captain Cook in Tahiti calmly observed a sexual performance which would have provoked a riot and perhaps a lynching in his home country. As an enlightened explorer, he simply honored the sound adage: "When in. Rome, do as the Romans do", i.e., respect local customs and do not offend your hosts!

In return, this prescription was also followed by a handsome, young Tahitian, whom Cook later brought with him to England. This "noble savage" by the name of Omai conducted himself with great decorum, moved successfully in the highest social circles, and was much praised by the ladies. We can only guess at his sexual behavior, but we know that he did not give any cause for scandal, although this could perhaps be explained by the tolerant attitude of his aristocratic English admirers.

Actually, in this case, a major reason for the mutual respect between "heathen" and Christian was simply the timing of their encounter.

Eighteenth-century England was no longer as prudish as it had once been under Puritan rule. (The Victorian 19th century is another matter.) The study of the Greek and Roman classics, various secular modern philosophies, and contact with distant foreign cultures had taught Europeans some religious and sexual tolerance.

 Indeed, reading reports like that by Captain Cook and meeting people like Omai led many of them to question their traditional moral assumptions and put them into a more liberal frame of mind.

In France, Capitain Bougainville published his own account of a voyage to the Pacific, and the great encyclopedist Denis Diderot acclaimed the Polynesian sexual morality in his Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage (1796).

Thus, gradually, the old rigid sexual attitudes softened in some Western countries. Moral values that had been accepted as absolute, began to be recognized as relative, and people began to criticize their inherited way of life. More and more of them decided to think for themselves and to pursue their own happiness in their own way. Resenting both church interference and government regulation, they demanded freedom from moral tutelage. The ideals of privacy and individual liberty won increasing support and, in the American and French revolutions, finally led to political and social reforms.

This is not to say that Western prudery was dead. Indeed, it was still very much alive in the middle and lower classes, and, as we have briefly mentioned, it regained a great deal of strength in the following century. Nevertheless, among the educated there remained an awareness of uninhibited non-Western sexual customs and, for that matter, of a certain pro-sexual Western tradition.

 After all, Augustine had never spoken for every one of his fellow Christians. Behind the official moral facade, there had also always been an older, native European sensuality. With the arrival of Christian asceticism, this sensuality had been disparaged, denied, and driven underground, but it had repeatedly surfaced in the Middle Ages at popular festivals, in Renaissance art and literature, in Baroque pomp and pageantry, in rural customs and urban fashions, in earthy folklore and aristocratic splendor, in theater, music, and dance.

By the same token, in actual fact the sexual behavior of Westerners was never as joylessly disciplined as their official religious dogmas and secular laws might have suggested. Especially farmers and feudal lords had lived largely by their own, less repressive sexual standards. It was mostly the clergy, and in modern times the bourgeoisie, which insisted on temperance and austerity.

However, after the successful industrialization of the Western world, even the formerly straitlaced middle classes became more tolerant in sexual matters. As their material comfort increased, they realized that the political and economic freedom they had won was incomplete without sexual freedom. Thus, in this century, we have seen a growing trend of sexual liberalization. Drawing on the experiences of non-Western cultures and on Western libertarian traditions, a great many scholars, moralists, and ordinary citizens are today working for a new, humane world without sexual oppression.

For more than a century now, an important part of this work has been the scientific study of human sexual behavior and its social implications. By definition, sex research tends to promote a rational approach to sexual problems and thus combats sexual prejudice, ignorance, and fear.

It is in this spirit that the following pages attempt to describe the current state of knowledge in various fields of study. Needless to say, it is not really possible, within the scope of the present book, to deal with all social issues related to sex, but one can gain at least some understanding of their complexity by making a few historical and cross-cultural observations. Therefore, this last part of the text offers a brief analysis of the modern fight for sexual equality, the problem of sexual deviance, recent changes in marriage and family patterns, the fate of the sexually oppressed, and the impact of the present so-called sexual revolution.