Version 3.0. This version has been heavily edited and substantial additions have been made. I think it’s worth reading again.
Concerning Myth, Sexuality, and Culture
Myth is common to all cultures. In fact, it seems that if there is anything inherently human, it is the formation and propagation of myths. The very fabric of how we view ourselves, our society, and reality itself, is governed largely by myths. Most of us are familiar with many of them. For instance, we all know about black cats and walking under ladders, and we’ve all heard the story of Adam and Eve, and most of us grew up expectantly waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer to bring us presents on Christmas – a celebration of the birth of a god-figure which was adapted (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from earlier pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
These are not the only myths, though. There are more subtle beliefs that permeate any society, and most people don’t even know they exist. We take many things as factual based entirely on the degree to which they infiltrate our lives. In the pages that follow, I will attempt to identify many of the myths concerning sexuality, family, and reproduction. My aim is not to convince you that there is necessarily something wrong with your views, but rather to broaden your understanding of what is locally accepted (and acceptable) and what is objectively true in a broader sense.
Sexual mythology is rooted in our sense of self. Indeed, our sexual myths are reflections of our attitudes towards society, and even towards humanity itself, for there can be no separation between sexuality and society. Contrary to the common Western paradigm, in which sexuality is seen as something private and sacrosanct, the very core of culture is dependent on, and entirely derived from, our sense of self. As evolved organisms, we are driven to reproduce, for without sex – without reproduction – society, culture, art, literature, and everything that we hold dear, would not exist.
First, let’s look at some of the myths that have created our own society. In the Talmudic lore, the first woman was not Eve. Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She, unlike Eve, was created with Adam from the dust of the earth. She had been one of the wives of Sammael (or Satan), but because of her wild disposition, she left her husband to join Adam in Eden. This union was also doomed, for Lilith insisted on equality with Adam. After all, both of them had come from the same ground. They fought, and Lilith left Eden to live in the realm of air. Adam prayed to God to return Lilith to him, and so three angels were sent in pursuit. The Lord instructed the angels to tell Lilith that if she did not return to Adam, one hundred of her offspring would die each day. Lilith refused, and vowed vengeance against children for the destruction of her own offspring. In later lore, Lilith is a vengeful spirit who roams at night, seducing men and killing babies.
You’re probably not familiar with that myth, but when you pair it with the current reading of the Christian creation myth, it begins to make more sense. Have you ever wondered why Adam and Eve had two boys, and still managed to populate the earth? Uneducated apologists often postulate that Eve had children with Cain and Abel, or that perhaps there were daughters who weren’t mentioned in the bible. However, when we recognize that the Lilith story was originally attached to the myth, it begins to make more sense. There were quite a large number of people on earth before Adam and Eve were even wed!
As we look at the more familiar creation myth, we see Eve as a second wife. This time, the woman was created from man’s flesh, giving man authority over her. Nevertheless, Eve’s inherently naïve and gullible nature became the downfall of the entire human species.
Many pundits speak of the Christian creation myth as a cause of male domination and repression of women through the centuries, but I suggest to you that this is a narrow way of thinking. Cultural views reinforce myths which in turn reinforce cultural views. In the complex landscape that is human culture, we sometimes forget that culture and myths are mutually dependent. As a society changes, its myths also change, but it is overly simplistic to suggest that there is a strictly causal relationship between the two.
Our concepts of sexuality are not derived solely from Christianity. As many scholars have demonstrated, there was hardly anything new in Christianity. It’s uniqueness was in its virulent reproduction, not in the content of its message or beliefs. Nevertheless, it is illustrative to mention some of the prominent opinions of pre-Christian Judaism and later Christian theologians. Philo, an Alexandrian Jew born in the first century BCE, believed that Eve’s original sin was the result of sexual desire. For the sake of sex, he argued, humankind gave up immortality and bliss. Males were rational, while females represented the senses of the world, or more precisely, the very temptations that had caused man to fall. This view, while not representative of traditional Judaism, had a great impact on Christians in later centuries.
The Christian view of sexuality, and indeed human nature itself, derives largely from three traditions: Persian, Greek, and Jewish. The Persian creation myth, while similar in many ways to the Christian Genesis, differs philosophically in one particular way with regard to human nature. In the beginning, there was good and evil, existing as unique philosophical categories. Humankind was created within this framework, and as such, cannot avoid the eternal struggle which is carried on in the universe around them. Ahura Mazda, the one true god, and ultimate source of all that is good, is in an eternal battle with Angra Mainyu, the Demon of Darkness. As in the Christian myth, this struggle directly influences humanity, but unlike the Jewish/Christian interpretation, humanity itself was not responsible for all the evil in the world.
The image of Adam and Eve covered by fig leaves was popularized by Augustine, who believed that Eve, embarrassed by her genitals, had woven covers for herself and her husband. He also believed that lust was one of the curses bestowed upon humanity after their expulsion from paradise. Within pre-Christian mystery cults in the first century CE, celibacy was being taught as at least a virtue, and at most a necessity. Paul admonished people not to marry if they could avoid it. The very image of Mary as a holy virgin, sexually pure and chaste, is evidence that sexuality was looked upon as something to be avoided. Indeed, the appearance of Christ as the only human born of a sexually pure woman is a reinforcement of this concept of sexuality as a corrupting force.
This sex-negative view is not intrinsic to religion or myth, however. In relatively recent history, there are myths that involve women as independent and powerful creatures. A Vedic myth involves a sage named Agastya who formed a sublime woman from various parts of different creatures. He caused her to be born to a king who was childless. Lopamudra, as the child was called, grew in stature and beauty, and when she was old enough, Agastya took her as a wife. After her first menstruation, he took her into his bed. Before intercourse, Lopamudra spoke in no uncertain terms. She instructed Agastya to give her as much pleasure as he could. She demanded royal bedding, jewels, flowers, and finery.
This story is particularly significant when we consider the place of women in India today. Such a myth does not belong to a male dominated society in which women are little more than property. This is a story of a proud, powerful, and free woman. Though she was wed to her husband, she had a high degree of control within the marital bed, and presumably elsewhere.
Recent history is not without examples of more egalitarian cultures. When the artist Gauguin visited Tahiti, he was astonished at the boldness of the young women of the island. Unlike European women, these seemed not to care at all about saving themselves for marriage. On the contrary, they offered themselves freely, and felt no obligation or sense of attachment afterwards. What Gauguin did not realize is that, like many more primitive societies, the Tahitians viewed a virgin simply as an unwed woman, not as sexually unspoiled. The women were their own until marriage, which included the choice of offering or refusing sexual congress.
In the early 20th century, a European living in the Niger delta reported that the highest god of the residents was a mother with many breasts. They wear medals with depictions of the goddess at public ceremonies and official functions. The particular town, Ibadan, is no longer primitive. They have paved roads, multi-story buildings, and budding external commerce. Still, their religion centers around a goddess.
In a neighboring area, Dahomey (which is now called Benin), the chief god for many years has been an androgynous deity. Specifically, it is two gods in the form of one, male and female together. Even in the Bible, we find references to the Israelites turning away from their male god, to Ishtar, or Ashtoreth. Josiah destroyed a temple to Ishtar that had been in Jerusalem for three centuries. Clearly, the dominance of male deities has not been as historically ubiquitous as the myths would have us believe.
In virtually all creation myths, the god or gods perform some act of reproduction to bring forth the universe. For instance, in the Aranda genesis of Australia, the great ancestor sweated the original people out of his armpits. Though this may not at first seem sexual in nature, we should keep in mind that recent science has proven that sexual pheromones are released through the armpits in sweat. What the ancients may not have known scientifically, they seemed to know intuitively, or empirically. For some societies, vomit, excrement, and sweat have been the bodily fluids used to create the universe. For others, it has been semen. The Egyptian god Neb-er-tcher contained all opposites within himself. These aspects, somewhat similar to the eastern concepts of Yin and Yang, interacted within the god while he masturbated into his clenched hand. After ejaculating, Neb-er-tcher places his semen into his mouth and spits forth creation.
If this myth makes you cringe, or if the idea of sweat becoming humans seems completely foreign, you are beginning to understand just how wide and varied the concept of sexuality can be. We must be careful not to make the mistake of judging these myths as inferior to our own. While it is a natural inclination to hold our own myths as sacred, we must remember that so, too, does every other culture. Our disinclination to discuss masturbation, oral sex, and other sexual acts is a result of our inculcation into our societal myths. It is not an indicator of the objective nature of these acts, or of the relative value of the societies who view them differently.
It has become increasingly clear that many of the most ancient myths have been altered by a shift in gender domination. The highly esteemed mythologist, Joseph Campbell, calls it “The Great Reversal. He places it at approximately 600 BCE. From this point on, we see the earlier notions of humans and human nature as integral parts of a natural system gradually disappear, to be replaced by a negative interpretation, where human nature is a thing to be defeated. As a clear example, the term “virgin” is widely agreed to have changed meaning. In the earliest myths, a virgin was an unwed woman, not a sexually chaste one. The hierodules, sacred prostitutes in the temples of Ishtar, were known as “the holy virgins.” An archaic term for children born out of wedlock was “parthenioi,” literally “virgin-born.”
As we survey the religions of the world, we find many examples of ancient goddesses being overthrown by younger gods. This is indicative of a major shift in the perceptions of the cultures that spawned the myths. Ishtar, Gaia, Ataentsic, Awonawilona, Ilamatecuhtli, Astarte, Cybele, Isis, Anahita, Annis, Rhea, Demeter, Themis, Artemis – all of these are representative of the reverence and respect held by ancient civilizations for the power of goddesses. I do not wish to belabor the point, for it is not my intention to espouse a return to female worship. It is sufficient to show that we are not as we have always been. This is a point that must not be overlooked: Many civilizations have thrived while maintaining vastly different sexual myths than the ones we hold today.
One of the persistent western sexual myths concerns the unity of sexuality and gender. Not only have we created a mythology by which heterosexuality is normal and anything else is deviant, we have also believed that gender is the same thing as sexuality. Even though research has proven that among humans, as well as many other animal species, homosexual individuals are born at an essentially constant rate, regardless of cultural beliefs, we persist in the notion that homosexuality is an “alternate choice.”
There is an ancient Greek myth that illustrates the difference in myths. The earliest mention of it is by Plato, but he attributes it to Aristophanes. In the beginning, people did not look the same as they do today. They were not short or tall, but round. Everyone had two sides – four legs, four arms, two faces, and two sets of genitalia. There were three genders. Some people had male genitalia on both sides. Others had female on both sides. Still others were half female and half male. Sexual practice was much different than it is today, as you might imagine. Unfortunately, we do not have records of exactly what kinds of things these people engaged in, but the Greeks clearly thought very highly of their abilities.
In fact, it was pride that was the downfall of early mankind. The almost limitless potential for sexual experience made people overly proud. Zeus, the mighty and jealous god, was offended by their presumptuous arrogance. As punishment, he split each of them in half. Now, they were clumsy and gangly. They could no longer see behind themselves. Worst, they were no longer sexually complete. They were literally only half of what people were originally intended to be. This caused them to have a great internal aching and longing which had been unknown before. They were possessed of a constant desire to return to the unity they had once known.
Apollo was charged with the task of giving them relief so that the punishment would be bearable. He stretched and wrapped their skin so that their back halves were no longer exposed, and tied a knot in the middle of their abdomens – their navels. He relocated the sexual organs to where they are today. (The original positions permitted much more adventurous sex, but it was simply impossible now, so Apollo made the best of what he had to work with.)
Since then, people have been forced to search the world, looking for the half of themselves from which they were split. Males who were part of a full male search for their male counterpart, as do females who were all female. Those who were part male and part female searched for the opposite gender. It is uncommon to find the other half of ourselves. Sometimes, we find someone who is similar to our missing half, and we are happy for a time, but it is only rarely that we find our true self and are united into something that is close to the perfection that we once knew.
As you can see from this myth, sexuality was not thought of in black and white terms. Gender preference was explained in a much less judgmental way. People were not seen as acting immorally if they practiced “alternate sexuality.” In fact, they were seen as being exactly who they were designed to be!
Greek gender relationships were not perfect, though. One of the primary features of early Greek mythology is the consistency with which we observe older, female centered myths being turned around and reformed into male centered myths. For instance, the legend of the Oracle of Delphi and the ancient shrine were originally part of a goddess hierarchy, where the women were the keepers of mystery and secret knowledge. In the Greek myths, we now see Apollo reigning over the temple. We have seen many of the old goddesses relegated to positions relative to men – wives, daughters, concubines. No longer do we see a universe dominated by the mysterious power of the female creator. We see Zeus, the powerful male, dominating and subjugating the wild and dangerous females.
While the Greeks accepted the joy of sex with women, they were highly distrustful of them in any other sense. Greek morality centered around male concepts. Apollo was the embodiment of virtue and masculinity, while Dionysus, the once proud and powerfully androgynous male god, was transformed into an irrational and dangerously feminine symbol of weakness.
Young men were taught to aspire towards a concept known as areté. There is no equivalent word in English, but it conveyed a sense of perfection of both body and mind. Boxers had areté of the body. Philosophers had areté of the mind. The most revered males had a unity of areté, and consequently, a physical and temperamental realization of the male ideal. Sexuality, virility, physical prowess, and mental acuity were all part of the concept, and the phallus was the outward symbol of it. Apollo, in one myth, transfers the full power of his areté through his semen to the son of Bathycles, illustrating the Greek idealization of the power of manhood and sexuality.
Christian culture was heavily influenced by the legacy of the Greeks. Though they did not retain the same acceptance of sexual conduct, they most certainly retained the concept of feminine weakness and irrationality. As Jungian theorist James Hillman explains, “This structure of consciousness has never known what to do with the dark, material, and passionate part of itself, except to cast it off and call it Eve.” (Highwater, 86) It is incredibly telling that such a well educated scholar chose to regard these aspects of sexuality as “dark.” Even as we become aware of the way myth affects us, we are still dominated by it. We are still under the heavy influence of the shift in perception.
The 2004 Olympic Games, held in Athens, Greece, were broadcast all over the world. Before and after each commercial break, the cameras panned across many of the ancient Greek statues still standing around the city. They are a testament to the fascination with the male form that was dominant, and represented one of the integral aspects of areté. They also prominently feature anatomically correct penises. The United States was uniquely prudish in their observance of the events. The FCC received thousands of complaints from viewers who were certain that they or their children would be traumatized by this exposure to the human form.
There has obviously been a distinct change in the way sexuality and virtue are perceived. To the Greeks, and to substantial parts of the world today, sexuality and nudity are not synonymous. The body is regarded as a pinnacle of beauty, and a thing to be admired. The sex act itself was regarded as part of the human experience, with a wide variety of possible variations. Virtue included physical beauty, and the human body was proudly displayed, both in art and by the people themselves.
The United States has received some parts of the Greek philosophy and completely rejected others. While it is common for us to engage in mildly homoerotic customs such as stag parties, “guys’ night out” and the dichotomy of language (We don’t speak that way in front of ladies!), we have disregarded and demonized the more open expressions of such feelings. We have kept the distrust for females, as well as the concept of femininity as less virtuous than masculinity. We have discarded the notion of sexuality as an expression of completion between any of the three combinations of pairs, and we have kept the mythology of jealous male gods.
For Greeks, androgyny was an ideal from which man had separated. Male and female were imperfect halves of a whole, and longed to be complete and reunited. We see twisted echoes of this in the Christian creation myth. We see now the creation of a singular man. Eve is an afterthought – a solution to the imperfection of manhood. Unlike God, who is perfect in his non-sexuality, Adam needed a counterpart to be happy. Androgyny is superior, as in many of the oldest myths, but now, the joy of androgyny is completely missing. After centuries, the links to the goddess myths have all but disappeared, and man now dominates the mythology of creation. Woman is evil. She is the cause of all mischief and evil, and it could not have been otherwise, for she is by nature willful and defiant of the “natural” male authority under which she has been placed.
Jamake Highwater states the connection between myth and sexuality very succinctly. “The way the body has been envisioned and evaluated by various eras and cultures is a history of the sexual messages transmitted by social myths and the customs based upon such myths. The act of sex flows into the mythic imagination and, consequently, the mythology of a people largely determines its attitudes about sexuality.” Some myths involve self sacrifice. Some involve sexual intercourse. Some are female based, others male, and still others revolve around a couple, or a harem. When we examine the societies which propagate these myths, we discover that sexual “norms,” as well as sexual conventions, and what is considered moral and immoral, are reflections of the myths.
Consider America’s sense of gender identity. A person is male or female, and they are straight, gay, or bisexual. As with many things, we consider sexuality to be a dichotomy. Gays cannot be straight, and bisexuals choose between males and females. This kind of black and white thinking would have been incomprehensible to the Greeks, who viewed sexuality as the desire for pleasure and beauty, inherent in both the male and female forms. As adolescent boys gradually moved from infatuation with other young boys to young women, they were not regarded as “sexually experimental,” nor were they seen as an aberration. They were simply following the course of life as they moved from the joys of childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood – most notably reproduction.
In Mombasa, the concepts of gender and identity are similar to those of the Greeks. Lesbians remain women and dress as women. However, in Oman, the view is exactly opposite. A gay male is viewed as a woman, and effectively becomes one in society, dressing as one, and even affecting the mannerisms. In America, we would refer to them as transsexual, but in Oman, no such concept exists. Sexuality and gender are quite separate.
I have previously alluded to Americans’ propensity for black and white conceptualizations. Largely because of our cultural myths, we believe that there is a “normal” sexuality, and that anything else is abnormal. Heterosexuality is normal. Marital sex is normal. Monogamy is normal. All else is abnormal. The jump from normal and abnormal to right and wrong, or good and evil, is very short indeed, and we will see later that there was hardly ever a need to make the leap, for we have always had our feet firmly straddling the gap.
As a final comparison, I’d like to make a brief mention of the concepts of Yin and Yang. Eastern culture has come to dominate much of American society in recent years, with anime cartoons, video games, interior décor, and international cuisine gravitating strongly towards the east. Even so, it would be hard for us to get Yin and Yang more wrong. Most Americans view Yin and Yang as opposites – black and white, night and day, male and female. While this might be true semantically, it’s quite mistaken philosophically. Each side of the apparent dichotomy is dependent on the other for its very existence. It is not a struggle for dominance, or an arm wrestling match. Rather, it is an almost symbiotic relationship. Night is not only dependent on day, but benefits from it. Likewise, male and female, though different, are two sides of the same coin, relying on the other for completeness. In fact, using the words “male” and “female” is not entirely doing justice to the concept, for it is not the gender identity, or the genitalia, that define the concepts, but the concepts themselves that define the cultural ideas about gender and sexual identity.
It is not my purpose to survey the whole of human sexual experience, only to provide examples that are perhaps shocking enough to shake us loose of the idea that our concepts are objectively correct. Remember that in each of these cultures that I’ve mentioned, people felt as strongly about their sense of sexual self as you do today. They were as entrenched in their own myths as we are in ours. The only way to begin to look at sexuality objectively is to recognize the myths for what they are, and to attempt to judge ourselves and others based only on what we can demonstrate – not on what we instinctively feel to be true. Alas, our instincts are not nearly strong enough to overcome our socialization. To this end, we will now examine some of the historical foundations of our current sexual mythology.
The Influence of The Church
I’m going to begin my survey more or less at the same time that the first Christian cults appeared, or around 55 CE. However, we need to make some observations about the state of the Mediterranean world before the coming of Christianity, for the sake of comparison, and also so that we can recognize the remnants of previous mythologies in those we still carry with us.
It is often said that we don’t know much about the personal habits of ancient civilizations. This is actually not true. In addition to fictional letters by rhetoricists, personal journals, and random correspondence, we also have a plethora of official records. What all pre-Christian Mediterranean cultures had in common was an almost fetishist obsession with marital and family records. In addition to the relatively reliable personal accounts, we can learn a great deal from studying official records and extrapolating what kinds of behaviors and practices must have been common. Consequently, much of what we know is derived directly from our knowledge of inheritance.
At the risk of over-generalizing, I’m going to point out a few relevant characteristics of the pre-Christian Orient, and contrast them against pre-Christian Europe. In North Africa and the Mediterranean, most areas were predominately patrilineal. That is to say, inheritance was passed down based on the father’s bloodline. However, there was little of what we would recognize as a “traditional family unit.” Though there were husbands, wives, and children, there was also polygamy, and what we would consider adoption was regarded casually in many places. Children belonged not to individual parents, but to the family, or tribe. Our modern sense of parental ownership and obligation to children would have been quite hard for most early Middle-Easterners to understand. Due to a higher rate of mortality, widowhood was not uncommon. In keeping with the tradition of family lands being passed on exclusively within the male lines, it was quite common for widows to marry the brothers or cousins of their dead husbands. The most common, and most culturally favored marriage was with the father’s brother’s daughter. To give a wife to another family bloodline was considered dishonorable. In short, the primary goal of a familial group was the continuance of tribal or family land within the family. Widows, orphans, and the unmarried were not thought of as outcasts, rather they were entitled to the fruits of the tribal land in the same way as those who were married and had children. Widows and the elderly were often guardians – what we might consider surrogates today.*
Lest you think I am painting a rosy picture of pre-Christian western Asia, it should be noted that the strongly patrilineal tradition meant the strict separation of the sexes and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. We can see the same tradition being carried on today in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern theocracies.
In pre-Christian Europe, inheritance was clearly more bilineal, with great importance given to the maternal family and to alliances (arranged marriages). In the Germanic tradition, women clearly played a part in public life, and had limited political authority. Societal honor was tied to the ownership of a title. Whereas Oriental structure was closely linked to familial land and wealth, European structure was derived much more from the concept of rank and honor. Inheritance was still immensely important, but because of the less unilateral approach, there were not the same kinds of strict social rules for in-marriage or against out-marriage. Though we in the Christianized west would feel slightly more comfortable in Europe, we would still not recognize or empathize with many of the concepts of parental obligation or marital bonds.
As we move on to the coming of Christianity, we must recognize two distinct periods. First, Christianity between 55CE and 313CE, when the Edict of Milan was issued. During this time, there are two very important things to remember: Christianity was not a unified religion – it was more properly described as an unrelated group of mystery cults, each having their own savior myth, and each subscribing loosely to a doctrine involving liberation from the Romans. Also, Christianity, regardless of which particular version, was persecuted very harshly by the Romans – hence the desire to be liberated.**
During this first period, we don’t see much in the way of Christian influenced legislation regarding sexual or marital practice. How could we? With no governmental authority, and nothing approaching a unified council of leaders, the individual sects were left to eek out their own existence. Apart from the books that would become the bible, and those that were left out but detailed currently defunct cults’ history or beliefs, there is little recorded material. All indications are that marriage and sexuality were largely unaffected by the budding religion. It is interesting to note that what records we do have seem to indicate a penchant for celibacy, but without any way to enforce such a doctrine, it is unlikely that the sects had much luck changing the behavior of those outside their own order.
After the Roman Empire officially converted to Chrisianity, we see an almost immediate flurry of legislation dealing with marriage, inheritance, and sexual practice. In fact, much of what we know of pre-Christian Europe is largely extrapolated from the writings of church officials after Rome’s conversion. As Bede and many other monks complained to Rome of the obstacles they were encountering in their attempts to convert Pagans, we discover much about the way life was before Christianity. Clearly, the most stubborn resistance was offered in defense of that which the pagans held most sacred.
One of the earliest existing replies to such complaints is reputedly from Pope Gregory. In it, he denounces marriage to kin inside the 4th degree of separation. Beyond that, marriage to the stepmother and sister-in-law are also condemned. He encourages marriage between church members, and highly discourages divorce. In the Synod of Hertford in 673 CE, these attitudes become law: "That wedlock alone is permissible; incest is forbidden; and no man may leave his lawful wife except, as the gospel provides, for fornication. And if a man puts away his own wife who is joined to him in lawful marriage, he may not take another if he wishes to be a good Christian. He must either remain as he is, or else be reconciled to his wife." In addition to prohibitions on divorce and inmarriage, Gregory also condemns wet-nursing.***
The prohibition on inmarriage is curious. Most modern day apologists seem to be of the opinion that the ban on inmarriage stemmed from the growing realization that close biological mating tended to produce sickly or mentally weak offspring. While it is true that this phenomenon was known, it does not explain the extent of the prohibitions. Later laws prohibited marriage as far as the seventh cousin. For perspective, without consulting a family tree, see how many of your seventh cousins you can name. More than that, though, the prohibitions included both sides of the family. In other words, once you were tied by marriage, your in-laws were also prohibited to the fourth, and later the seventh cousin. Though there is some validity to the biological argument, there is obviously another dynamic at work.
To those of us who were raised as Christians, there should already be a certain cognitive dissonance becoming apparent. In the Old Testament, these practices are mentioned numerous times, and often condoned or even commanded by God. Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, and many other figures engaged in marital and sexual practices that the Church now condemned. The prohibitions on marriage are original features of the Roman Christian church, and indeed run contrary to the Occidental tradition on which Christianity was ostensibly based.
In addition to prohibitions on wet-nursing, in-marriage and divorce, there was another interesting set of legal precedents which at first seem rather progressive. Rome officially sanctioned, and later enforced consent between both marital parties. While this sounds perfectly normal to us today, we must remember that the concept of marriage for love and happiness that we hold so dear did not exist at this time. The requirement of consent had very little to do with romantic love, and virtually everything to do with confining marriages to church members. Over the centuries, many legal precedents were set defining who could and could not give consent. If non-Christians couldn’t consent to a "mixed marriage," then such marriages would be greatly reduced. It should also be noted that consent was only required in the marriage itself – once a couple was married, affection became completely extraneous, (if indeed it was ever important) as it was impossible to divorce except in very rare circumstances.
Adoption was also banned. Though this may come as quite a surprise, adoption was rarely practiced in Europe during the Middle Ages, and only became relatively common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Again, there are many examples in the bible of adoption, including the story of Moses, one of the most central figures in Jewish lore.
Continuing in its break from tradition, the church also strictly outlawed polygamy, both in marriage and in the practice of concubinage. Only one wife was permitted. If you recall your bible school lessons, you will note that there are quite a few figures, including Solomon, reputedly the wisest man in all of Israel, who had numerous wives, and many concubines. This is representative of the culture, for wealth entitled a man to as many wives as he could afford. In this way, a man’s legacy was ensured, and nothing short of total annihilation would prevent his land and wealth from remaining in the family.
In summary, the most notable, and most influential legislative actions taken by the Roman Church in the first few centuries after its rise to power were:
Requirement of consent; prohibition of divorce
Outlawed marriage inside of the 4th degree of separation
Outlawed non-related inmarriage to the same degree
There is one last piece of the puzzle that will bring all of these laws into focus, but I must digress briefly before revealing it. As we look at this list of laws, we must ask ourselves why such drastic changes were made. In order to answer this question correctly, we must remember where Christians had been. For two hundred odd years, they had been persecuted, disenfranchised, and even killed for their beliefs. Before that, the Jews had been captive for many years, and before that, they had been enslaved by the Babylonians and the Egyptians. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the early clergy, it is easy to recognize the fervor with which they exercised their newfound legislative authority. One could hardly blame them for doing everything in their power to make sure that Christians never again would have to suffer the same kinds of indignation. Keep this in the front of your mind as I reveal the last piece of the puzzle – the piece that will explain why the church was so intensely interested in the laity’s marriage and personal habits.
Here it is. The last piece of legislation was this: The church made extensive legal provisions, and then embarked on an intense propaganda campaign encouraging good Christians to leave land to the church in perpetuity. This encouragement took two forms. First, and most important, the Church sanctioned, and later mandated that Christians not leave land to anyone but their blood heirs. If you think about this in context with the other laws, you will see design. Concubinage combined with adoption allows almost certain production of a male heir. With readily available divorce, a man could leave a barren wife to find another. With polygamy and enough wealth, a man could be virtually assured of producing an heir. Taking the high rate of mortality into account, in-marriage provided the same kind of insurance. If a man died before producing an heir, his wife would remain in the family, and the legacy could continue.
Look at this another way. Assuming two births and Medieval mortality rates, an average couple is roughly 20% likely to have two girls, and roughly 20% likely to have no surviving children. With the new Christian emphasis (and later, insistence) on patrilineal descent, this means that many couples would have no heir on which to bestow an inheritance. Combine this with the prohibition on passing land to non-blood heirs, and there’s nobody left. This, of course, is where the church came in. Due primarily to large "donations" and bequests, within four hundred years, the Roman Church owned nearly 40% of all the land in predominately Christian areas of Europe.
As an interesting (and disturbing) side note, this set of legislation was also responsible for the creation of what we know as indigence and poverty in the modern Western world. As family and tribal groups were legally separated by the new laws, family plots grew smaller and smaller. I have not yet mentioned the second way in which the Church encouraged families to donate land to God. Even those families who had heirs were encouraged to donate a tithe, most often ten percent, of their land, in exchange for a special place in heaven when they died. There are many accounts in the contemporary histories of families who left their own children destitute in favor of donating their land to the church. So, the attack on family holdings was two-fold. First, the church systematically created barren families, and then essentially mandated the transfer of their lands into church holdings. Second, the lands of non-barren families were whittled down by tithes and personal bequests as pious church members sought to improve their own standing in the afterlife. The net result was that widows, orphans, and the elderly often found themselves without any family to support themselves.
I find that in discussing the virtue of the church with Christians, an argument is often made that the Church does great good in the world by providing orphanages, monasteries, and charitable organizations for those who cannot fend for themselves. It is sometimes hard for me to contain myself, for I know that it is their ignorance that prevents them from understanding the ironic circumstances which led to the creation of the very problems the church claims to be solving. In no uncertain terms, the church, though not wholly responsible, was to a large degree the cause of the very problems they were solving.
Lest this chapter digress too far from its course, let us now return to the discussion of myths and sexuality. Please forgive my somewhat long and perhaps tedious recounting of events from so long ago, but an understanding of them is crucial to recognizing the fact that many of our concepts of love, sexuality, and marriage are not derived from some “universal man” concept. Indeed, the universal man – one set of “normal” ideals for manhood, and one for womanhood, was a 17th century invention.
We must now make a jump forward in time and examine our current conceptions of love, sex, and family. There is a common misconception among many, even those who clearly understand the origins of our cultural sexual identity. It is based in our love for dichotomy, or rather, for clear-cut, right and wrong, good and evil answers. There are many who believe that despite the somewhat spurious origins of our myths, they are still inherently superior. After all, they will opine, it’s patently obvious that families are better off with a man, a woman, and children. This arrangement encourages close familial bonds, and is the foundation of everything American! It allows freedom of the individual. We are no longer tied to our tribes or extended families. We can marry whomever we wish, regardless of social status, finances, or family obligation.
Alas, it simply isn’t so. Stephanie Coontz, the preeminent social scientist, has written an intensely researched and meticulously documented account of America’s obsession with the nostalgia of yesteryear and the myth of the American family. (The Way We Never Were, 1992, Basic Books) For anyone wishing to rid themselves of the baggage of American Christian ideology, it is an indispensable tool. I cannot hope to do justice to the work in such a short space, but I will point out the most applicable misconceptions, and hopefully, we can start to see a pattern emerge – one that will stretch back to the original land grab, and the drastic break from previous tradition.
The first thing that we must do is identify what I have called the Nostalgia Trap. There are several beliefs inherent in this. The first, and most pervasive, is the idea that America has at some point in history been made up of mostly “traditional families.” By traditional family, I mean a rather Rockwellian image of mother, father, son and daughter sitting around the Christmas tree with Grandma and Grandpa and even some aunts, uncles, and cousins. In this family, the father worked, the mother tended the house and the children, and the elders were available for counsel and help with babysitting. Each member of the family was an individual, but held firmly to their family bonds, forging their way forward, working during the day, and then leaving the cold, hard world for the warmth and security of their family at night.
As an extension of this image of the perfect family, we have quite a few cultural attitudes that can rightly be called myths themselves. For instance, men who have reached successful business age are often looked at as overly immature for not having married. Single mothers are viewed as a plague to be eradicated by the renewal of “old fashioned family values.” Women who put off marriage, or “play the field” are considered sexually immoral. Women who decided not to have children were until very recently considered by the mainstream medical profession to suffer from a form of insanity.
In examining the roles of husbands and wives in American history, we must remember that through the majority of colonial history, women and children had virtually no rights, and were treated (if not legally designated) as property of their husband. The patriarchal traditions from two thousand years before were still strong. Even so, the family was far from stable. The average length of marriage was less than a dozen years, due mainly to high mortality rates. One third to one half of all children lost at least one parent. Particularly in the south, orphans were common. Over one half of all southern children under the age of thirteen had lost at least one parent.
Contrary to popular belief, colonial America was remarkably open about sexuality, even in front of children. “Fornication” was a common four syllable word in grammar classes, and preachers went on in surprisingly frank detail about various sexual indiscretions and the consequences of engaging in them. In households where large families lived in very small houses, breast-feeding was hardly noticed, and it would be foolish to presume that children were unaware of their parents’ sexual activity. The current American obsession with protecting children from any exposure to sexuality would, ironically, seem rather puritanical to the Puritans.
The common image of a man working the fields while his wife tended the children and the chores is also not founded in reality. Single family income was reserved for the middle class and up, as poor families often had to put even their very young children to work in household businesses, or worse, in service to more wealthy families. This practice was not too unlike child slavery, but it was the only option available to most poor families. In the mid 1800s, entire families worked in factories, usually eighteen hours a day. When you consider that food preparation and household cleaning were still highly labor intensive, it’s easy to see that most families hardly had time to wish each other goodnight before going to sleep.
We must also remember that divorce was not the only option for leaving a spouse or family. Before the social security system made it easy to identify people, the most common form of divorce was abandonment. When a man found that he could no longer support his family, he simply left to find work in another city, perhaps under a different name, although that was hardly necessary if the distance was great enough. Looking at divorce statistics is hardly helpful when we consider that the real solidarity of the family depended very little on such legal distinctions.
In reading the journals and letters from this period, it becomes obvious that colonial Americans, like their modern day descendants, lamented the days when parents raised their children to be good citizens, and when families held together like they used to. Sermons are rife with references to the untamed youth running wild in the streets and causing mayhem. Wealthy citizens complained of the profusion of the poor and lawless masses, untempered by moral instruction or restraint.
At the turn of the century, things were no better. Child labor was rampant as industrialization took over. In major cities in 1904, children made up 23 percent of the textile workers. Even children as young as five or six were regularly put to work for fourteen to sixteen hours a day, sometimes more. By the 1920s, reports of the breakdown of the “traditional family” were rampant, and the primary source of blame was Irish immigrants. During the depression, even those who had been sheltered from the normal “work week” were forced to enlist their whole families in the effort to keep food on the table. The two World Wars disrupted families even further, leaving many widows and many more orphans. In short, from colonial times to the Second World War, there simply was not a time when even a significant portion of American society was characterized by the “traditional nuclear family.”
From political pundits to parents to grandparents to Hollywood, everyone seems to be in agreement that the fifties were a swell time to be an American. Proponents of the Traditional Nuclear Family myth are particularly enamored of the decade, and at first glance, it appears that there’s very good reason for this. For the first time in the 20th Century, divorce and illegitimate births dropped sharply. For comparison, both were less than half that of the 1990s. Gang violence, drugs, and teenage rebellion were not yet considered to be social problems. School discipline was strict, and students were getting good educations, going to college, getting married, and starting families. From 1945 to 1960, the Gross National Product rose 250%. There were record numbers of housing starts. In 1954, the words “Under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. For the first time in the collective memory, upward mobility was a real possibility for almost everybody. On all counts, the 50′s seemed to be a utopia of family values and morals.
Unfortunately, all of these statistics are grossly misleading. Though they are all essentially true, they mask a much less pristine reality. The fifties were a time of great social upheaval, widespread discontent, and the beginnings of heavy handed government intrusion into private lives. The prominence of the nuclear family was not so much due to the collective desire of individuals to form such bonds, but on the social, political, and legislative lack of other viable options.
Much like the nostalgic memories of colonial American life, our memories of the 50s are colored by our collective amnesia. During the 50s, twenty five percent of Americans – between 40 and 50 million people – were living below the poverty line. There were no food stamps, and very few options for low cost housing. Compared with the poverty in later decades, the fifties were intensely difficult for those below the line. Sixty percent of the elderly were poor. A staggering number of blacks and hispanics lived in squalor. Like every generation before, the poor had to work very long hours at the most undesirable jobs, and there was virtually no such thing as a nuclear minority family.
Things were not all rosy for the middle class whites, either. After World War II, a great many women lost the jobs they had entered while all the men were away. If they were not outright fired, they were forced into menial jobs with terrible pay. The reality for women was that they could either get married or starve. While television celebrated core families like the Cleavers, and Ozzie and Harriett, the real middle class women were being herded into marriage, motherhood, and domestic duty, whether they wanted it or not. Popular medical wisdom said that any woman who did not desire motherhood and family domesticity was neurotic, unstable, or worse, morally loose. There was a very common cure espoused by the medical community: Shock treatment. (If it sounds to you like women were tortured if they failed to conform to social expectations, you’re not alone in that assessment.)
The general consensus among psychologists of the day was that women were essentially untrustworthy, and capable of little more than housework. While previous generations of middle class women were at least able to hire out their housework to lower class servants, the 50s generation was ridiculed, shunned, and often medicated if they didn’t love to stay home and do the housework themselves. Consequently, even with the availability of modern appliances, the amount of housework for the average wife increased drastically.
Not surprisingly, women were not always as happy as the media portrayed them. Though there were shockingly few divorces in the fifties, approximately 1/3 of the marriages begun in that decade were dissolved by the seventies. In what is considered the definitive social survey of the decade, less than 33% of women indicated that they were either “happily married” or “very happily married.” Over 20% indicated that they were “unhappily married.”
Sexual battery, though largely unreported, appears to have been rampant. The medical community generally regarded sexual assault within the marriage as a female problem. If only the woman would be more sexually responsive, they said, things like that wouldn’t happen. The problem of “female frigidity” was discussed much more than female repression or unhappiness. (It’s worth noting that the cure for sexual frigidity, i.e. males sexually abusing their wives, was also shock treatment.) Similarly, battered children were quite common, and though it’s difficult to get exact percentages, the evidence clearly shows that incest and sexual abuse of minors was at the least not uncommon.
Predictably, drug and alcohol abuse by women skyrocketed. Although much of it was hidden (specifically, in a flask underneath the unmentionables), there is clear evidence that alcohol abuse was at record highs. Also, a little known fact about the pharmaceutical industry is that tranquilizers were developed and marketed specifically as a solution to “the female problems.” Millions upon millions of prescriptions were filled for women unable to cope with the happiness gained from their traditional family.
By 1960, the problem was clear. Redbook magazine ran an ad soliciting stories explaining “Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped.” The editors received over twenty four thousand entries. Even in 1949, Life Magazine had reported that young wives “suddenly and for no plain reason [have been] seized with an eerie restlessness.” Obviously, there was a lot more going on in this decade, and the emergence of the core family did not solve any problems, at least not without creating significantly more problems.
Although things were significantly better for men, they were not great. The same pressure that women were put under, to marry and reproduce, were felt by men as well. There are volumes of anecdotes about men who were passed over for promotions because they were not married. Bachelors in the fifties were regarded as reckless, deviant, and morally depraved. Men were expected to get married, buy a house, and start a family as soon as they finished school. If they didn’t, there were sometimes very severe social repercussions.
Perhaps worse than the social consequences of bachelorhood were the potential political repercussions. Most of us are familiar with the Red Scare and McCarthyism, but what is not as well known was that sexual deviance was also considered potentially seditious. Gay bashing was almost as common as Commie bashing, though it was not flaunted publicly. Particularly in larger cities, an unmarried man was open to suspicion of sexual sedition. Whether the speculation was that he was gay, or that he was simply too undisciplined and deviant to have a respectable family life, the consequences were very real. Thousands of men lost their jobs and families due to the intrusive Big Brother tactics of overzealous communist hunters.
Lastly, one of the most commonly flaunted statistics from the 50s is the dramatic drop in teen pregnancy and illegitimate births. Again, however, these statistics, while technically accurate, are not reflective of reality. The most obvious reason is that with the emphasis on early marriage, women were simply getting married earlier, and thus reducing the number of unwed mothers. With more careful scrutiny, it becomes obvious that more teenage girls were having babies in the fifties, but because they were married, the statistics for teen pregnancy went down. Married women, after all, were not teens anymore, regardless of their age.
Another major contributor to this deceptive statistic is the way illegitimate births were reported. Due to an archaic quirk in the census data, no matter what age a girl conceived, if she was living with her parents, it was not reported as a single mother. In addition, babies that were born in wedlock were not counted, regardless of when they had been conceived. There was intense social pressure to marry if a girl was found to be pregnant. Specifically, the number of pregnant brides doubled!
Yet another factor must be considered. The sexual rules for women were changing drastically. Whereas in previous generations, men had been responsible for respecting the purity of women, teenage girls in the fifties found themselves on the other end of the stick, so to speak. Men were seen as actively pursuing women, and it was entirely up to the woman to protect her own virtue. In the interest of finding the right man, girls were constantly encouraged by their peers to engage in heavy petting, but they were considered loose if they allowed any penetration. (The question of how many teen pregnancies were the result of heavy petting gone too far – with or without the girl’s consent – is another matter, but you can probably make an educated guess.)
The cold, hard facts belie the apparent bliss of the fifties. The “traditional core family” has never existed on its own, and for the one decade that it was forced, and enforced, the results were not nearly as wonderful as they were popularly portrayed. The Cleavers are a product of wishful thinking. The fifties were a failed experiment in social engineering. They were a last ditch effort by those who believed they could enforce happiness through conformation.
One of the myths that permeates human society in almost all cultures is the belief that humans are special or different in kind from other animals. We believe that our intelligence (or worse, our “soul&rdquo makes us separate from – and higher than – the animals. In fact, the very language we use betrays our belief that we are better than them. We say that someone is acting like an animal, and we don’t mean it in a good way. We urge our fellow humans to give up the base animal instincts and pursue something higher. In so many religions, we hear admonitions against giving in to our “base instincts.” By this, most religions mean lust, sex, and desire.
In reality, if we are to have a chance of truly understanding ourselves, we must dispense with this belief. From early childhood, we are told that we are special. We are told that god, or the universe, or karma has some “special plan” for us. When we become adults, we build immense monuments and fight wars and bulldoze forests in the name of human supremacy. Despite all this, we are not different from animals. We are animals.
Unfortunately, this is where a lot of non-critical thinkers stop. Often, they are stopped by their own conscience, but if they are not, it’s almost certain that a friend or immediate family member will do their best to talk them out of such nonsense. After all, they will argue, it’s obvious that humans are different than animals. Why, we build hospitals and make music and art! We love, and are loved in return. We tell our grandchildren about how our grandfathers fought in the War to End All Wars, and how they knew that there was something bigger than themselves, so they did what they had to do.
This response, and the seemingly inevitable defeat of anyone who tries to argue against it, is clear evidence of just how strongly our myths can take hold, and how much of an impediment to critical thinking they can be. Once we examine what it is to be an animal, and how animals differ from each other, we will see that it’s not only possible to be an animal and experience love, honor, duty, and beauty, it’s actually impossible to think of it any other way. We must be animals if we are to experience the intricate and noble culture we have created.
Before I continue, I must caution against all-or-nothing thinking. Though we are animals, and are not different in kind from other animals, it does not follow that we are not different in degree. Only a fool would argue such a thing, though it is amazing how many theists and bad critical thinkers will argue vehemently against this position, as if defeating such a pitiful argument makes them right. This, by the way, is called a strawman argument. Whenever someone portrays their opponent as making a ridiculous argument, only to argue against it (even though the opponent never actually made the argument in the first place), we say that they have created a strawman.
One of the most essential differences between humans and other animals is our brains. We are among only a handful of creatures on earth who are capable of language, and our capacity for abstract thought is unrivaled. Nevertheless, this difference is a difference of degree. Our ape-like ancestor was smart enough to use tools, and may have possessed some rudimentary language skills, as do modern day chimps and apes. Dolphins and whales communicate through clicks and songs, respectively. Our intellect and capacity for language have allowed us to make incredible leaps in the last hundred millenia, much greater leaps than any other creatures, but we are not the only intelligent creatures on earth.
Another difference between humans and other mammals is female sexuality. Unlike most animals, human females do not experience estrous. In most animals, female sexual response is governed by the four phases of estrous. During Proestrus, one or more follicles in the ovary begin to grow. This can last for one day, or as long as three weeks or more. The lining of the uterus starts to develop. (Incidentally, there is sometimes vaginal discharge that is mistaken for menstruation.) During proestrus, females are not sexually receptive.
Estrus, often called, “in heat,” is when the female becomes sexually receptive, and is often accompanied by outward physical changes and involuntary or reflexive sexual behaviors, most notably the lordosis behavior, in which the hindquarters are elevated and the spine undergoes ventral arching. In some animals, there is an intermediate phase, known as inerestrus, after which estrus resumes again if copulation has not occurred.
During Metestrus, the signs of estrogen stimulation subside, and the uterine lining begins to break down. Finally, during Diestrus, the lining of the uterus is absorbed into the body and reorganized for the next estrus phase. After the entire estrous cycle is complete, there is usually a period of inactivity known as Anestrus. There is no sexual receptivity in females during this period. The duration varies greatly, but is usually based on seasons. Some animals go into heat several times a year, while others only get one or two chances.
Contrast this with humans, who undergo menstrual cycles. Instead of reabsorbing the uterine lining, humans experience eumenorrhea, which is the regular discharge of the uterine lining, sometimes with the endometrium lining. You know this as the menstrual cycle. There is not a clear answer to the question of why humans evolved differently than almost every other mammal. It has been suggested that the energy cost of absorbing and then reforming the uterine lining is more than that of simply creating a new one. Also, it is possible that the discharge of the uterine lining also cleanses the body of sperm-borne pathogens. Finally, it has been theorized that menstrual synchrony, or the tendency of cohabiting females’ periods to align, was beneficial to societies in which the hunters went out on long expeditions, leaving the women alone and sexually unresponsive, only to have the best chance of receptivity and ovulation when the entire group returned.
Human females have varying degrees of sexual receptivity during all stages of menstrual cycle. Though many women are most receptive to sexual intercourse while they are most fertile, some level of sexual interest is maintained for virtually the entire cycle. However this evolved, it was clearly one of the catalysts for the development of human culture as we know it. Human sexuality is not simply reproductive. In fact, considering the fact that women are fertile only a few days a month, but can have sexual intercourse multiple times per day virtually every day of the year (Yes. I know. Make your own joke here.), it would be incredibly surprising if non-reproductive sex wasn’t a big part of our culture.
As we developed language and began to form complex relationships, we naturally began to make long term predictions which were impossible for other, less intelligent animals. Men recognized that repeated sexual advance was more successful with females who had already consented once. They learned the value of impressing women. Women learned that men had learned the value of impressing them. The snowball was rolling downhill. More intelligent men found clever ways to impress women. The women liked it, and the resulting children tended to be more intelligent. Men and women recognized the fact that sexual intercourse felt good. Those whose brains released more endorphins found that it was beneficial to return to the same mate often. Other people noticed. Jealousy was born. The snowball was getting huge. Culture was inevitable.
In any case, this is one very important way in which humans are quite different from other animals. Whether we learn the exact evolutionary path we took to get here, we must look at this difference critically if we are to understand our own sexuality. In fact, it is this very thing – our ability and desire to have sexual intercourse outside of procreation – which makes us different from animals. Contrary to the common conception, our sex drive is not similar to those of the lower animals. It is substantially different, and might just be the catalyst for our entire culture! When we describe sexuality as a base, animalistic drive, we don’t recognize the irony, for we misunderstand the simple truth: Our sexuality is what makes us human!
If you will forgive me a bit of wild speculation, it is not difficult to imagine an early religion forming around the mystery of the female. They regularly bled, and always with the tides and the moon. They did not suffer as men when they bled. Before man had discovered the link between sexual intercourse and babies, it must have been even more miraculous! Women had the power to make life, and they pulled from their bodies both men and women. It would not have been lost on them that all these abilities seemed to coincide with the passing of the moon and the movement of the water. Any wonder that they made idols of women, and that many of the most ancient relics of long forgotten civilizations indicate female worship?
By now, you should be seeing a disturbing trend with regard to the idea of Western sexual and familial values. At each turn, the social norms were not the result of a “natural state” of human sexuality. Rather, they were the product of an intricate web of social, political, and religious circumstances that seldom had very much to do with creating human happiness in marriage. In fact, it would not be difficult to argue for the opposite: The institutions and conventions surrounding human sexuality have been designed to work towards political and socio-economic ends, regardless of the consequences for individuals or families, and without regard for personal happiness.
I have tried to focus on the periods in Western History that have been, in my opinion, most relevant to the topic. Rest assured that for any period, from the Middle Ages to Victorian to Post-modern, there are always pointed examples of social engineering of sexual and family arrangements. This chapter is not intended to be comprehensive. It is only meant to demonstrate that our beliefs about human sexuality are not based on some overarching concept of right and wrong. Rather, they are based on the myths that we live by, and the history that created the myths, whether purposefully or through blind chance. We will now examine some of the notions we still hold today, and examine them in the harsh light of evidence.
One particularly odd notion we hold in the west is that of independence as a virtue. Americans regard dependency as a weakness. We are encouraged to owe nothing to anyone, to settle our debts, and to always get what we pay for. When we watch movies about the Old West, the heroes are inevitably loners. They are men who are rugged, hardened, and emotionally unattached. They survive on their own in the wilderness, only occasionally dropping their guard long enough to have a passing romance with a ravishing young woman.
In most cultures, this kind of attitude is considered immature, and even antisocial. Most social bonds involve mutual inequality – a kind of permanent state of indebtedness to all those on whom one depends for his or her life and livelihood. In fact, if you think back through history, you will find that America is rather singular in its insistence upon self reliance. What, exactly, do we expect of ourselves? Is it realistic? For that matter, is it even possible?
For one thing, we must disabuse ourselves of one prevalent notion about independence. Throughout all but the last several decades of American history, when we have spoken of self reliance, we were speaking exclusively of men. Women have always been relied upon by men, because the meals have always needed cooking, and the clothes washing, and the socks darning. Our particular brand of independence, then, relied on a separation of societal and marital expectations. When men went out into the workplace, they were the masters of their own destinies. While they were out winning the bread, the women were at home tending to the chores.
It is very telling that modern pundits, especially those on the right, continually call for a return to family values. What, exactly, are they calling for? Men have always worked. The amount of time men have spent with their children has remained remarkably stable, and remarkably small, throughout American history. Indeed, men have seldom been with their wives for their entire lives. As I mentioned earlier, though divorce rates may have been very low in the past, abandonment was not, and death during childbirth was not at all uncommon. Single parent families have always existed, and at relatively stable rates throughout the generations. The reality of the situation is disturbing, but it’s all too clear. The only thing that has changed significantly in the past century has been the level of personal and political rights enjoyed by women. Let us ask again, then: What exactly is this “return to family values” that the right desires so strongly?
The truth about independence is that it’s virtually impossible. However, the notion has been kept alive by the subtle manipulation of gender roles. Individualism was not possible until the coming of industrialization, but as any cursory reading of that period will reveal, industrialization practically enslaved those who could not afford to live above it. As always, independence was reserved for the very rich.
There is a more insidious result of the drive for individualism, particularly with regard to love and gender roles. Marriage presented unique problems for those who advocated strict independence, for if every man is an island, what is there for marriage but reproduction? The obvious answer is that love and business are separate ideals. What men lack in emotional and nurturing instincts, women have in abundance. Women and men were seen as fulfilling the needs of the other in the perfect union – the core family. The problems with this were immediate, however. Since men were socialized into the belief that they are expected to be unemotional, business savvy, and independent, and women were raised to be nurturing, docile, and dependent on their husbands for their livelihood, the result was that men and women soon had very little in common. While the interdependency of marriage (while remaining strictly individual, of course) looks good on paper, in the real world, our modern concept of love is dependent on shared interests.
As romance and love became separated from business, a new cultural myth evolved. Love was a sanctuary away from the impartial, detached world of business. Only in the home could a man experience the joy of a gift that required no repayment. Only in marriage could a woman receive all she needed to live, and owe nothing in return. Marriage was sacrosanct. It was a harbor in the cruel world of business and politics and economics. Of course, the flaw in this rationale seems obvious to us today. Marriage is not the free exchange of gifts. A woman is not free to deny her husband the satisfaction of the marital bed, nor is the husband free to abandon work, leaving his wife without support. In a thousand ways, marriage is a constant give and take, and either spouse will feel resentful and slighted if they do not receive the “gifts” to which they are entitled.
Again, I feel compelled to remind the reader that all of these facts must be understood within the context of myth. There are many cultural norms for familial and marital obligations, and all of them come with their own baggage. In Japan, it has not been uncommon, even in the recent past, for a woman to pack her husband’s travel bags, knowing full well that during the upcoming business trip, he will avail himself of the services at the local brothel. While this is unconscionable in America, it is important to remember that culture creates the myths, and people’s beliefs in the myths form the foundations for what is proper. While it is easy to sit in our armchairs and judge deviant behaviors to be morally reprehensible, we must remember that things we hold dear are considered equally repulsive by other cultures, many of them quite a bit older and more historically stable than our own.
In the West, we have created a cycle in which the myth of the core family competes against the myth of the self reliant individual. As we saw earlier, the Church itself created the cult of the individual, albeit inadvertently, by legislatively ending the precapitalist extended family/tribal model. If we look at history with that in mind, we can see that in fact, widespread calls for return to family values have usually been symptoms of socioeconomic fragmentation, rather than a cure for it. During the fifties, the enemies of family values were perceived to be sexual liberation, delayed marriage, unwed pregnancy, and lack of proper subjugation of women to men. Ironically, industrialization was more to blame for the social ills than any nebulous lack of morality. With the ready availability of consumer goods at low prices, the birth of the mass media, and the discovery of targeted advertisement of luxury goods and services, individuals were pushed out of their homes by the lowering of individual wages combined with the increased pressure to become upwardly mobile. The supposed moral shortcomings of citizens were simply reactions to the new societal conditions. As women became less dependent on men because of their ability to enter the workforce, their need to get married decreased, and their ability to delay marriage, waiting for the best possible option, increased. The availability of easy transit made it possible for couples to be alone more easily. In every case, the new morality was not the result of a change in values. It was a reaction to the availability and desirability of previously unknown options.
How, then, should we view ourselves? How shall we judge our own sexual morality? If there is not a single role to be played by either men or women, what measure do we have left? Surely society cannot be asked to tolerate any sexual or familial arrangement that one deems appropriate, can it? These questions are complex, and do not have easy answers. Like all societal questions, careful study of the facts leads us to the clear conclusion that there are not completely right, or completely wrong answers. My hope is that in reading this chapter, the reader will have a broader understanding of how societal roles and moral values are created and shaped by cultural forces, not the other way around. Whenever you hear a pundit talking about how individual morals shape the culture, you must fight the urge to unthinkingly agree. As in all areas of morality, individuals react to their society. If revolution occurs, it is because the factors necessary for revolution were present. If moral standards change, it is not because people changed, but because circumstances changed.
The most prevalent myth shared by most Americans is that individuals create societies, and that some constant sense of internal morality is responsible for both the decay and the advancement of civilization. The reverse is true, however. Sexuality, like all other human interactions, is judged not by an arbitrary standard, but by practical standards. This is not a sign of weakness in humans. On the contrary, it is one of our most beautiful adaptive traits. Unlike many animals, who can only mate once or twice a year, and only in certain spawning grounds, human mating rituals are incredibly adaptable. We must learn to separate the myths from the realities if we are to make personal decisions with the best possible chance of attaining our personal goals. For that matter, our best chance of discovering what, exactly, our personal goals happen to be depends on our ability and willingness to look at our deepest beliefs while recognizing the power, but not the ultimate rightness, of our own cultural myths.
*It’s important to remember that this paragraph is a broad generalization, and certainly doesn’t speak to the wide variety of practice. It does, however, give the reader a respectable understanding of the predominant trends.
**To be perfectly clear, calling the entire group of mystery cults Christianity is somewhat disingenuous, as there was not such a sense of unity in the minds of the adherents. Indeed, some of the doctrines were quite incompatible.
***The prohibition on wet nursing is not as directly relevant to the topic at hand, but I have included it for both completeness, and to provide a sense of how thoroughly the church disrupted common practice.
A Short History of Marriage, Westermarck, The Macmillan Company, 1930
The Rise of Christianity, Stark, Harper Collins, 1997
United States History from 1865, 20th Edition, Krout, HarperResource, 1991
Since Yesterday, The 1930s in America, Allen, Harper and Row, 1940
Myth and Sexuality, Highwater, Meridian, 1990
The Way We Never Were, Coontz, 2000
Wayward Puritans, Erikson, Macmillan, 1966
Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God, Campbell, Penguin, 1964
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