Sex -- it's everywhere . . .

Sex - It's everywhere: television, the news, in public, in books. How do we deal with it? How do we feel about it? 

Boffing, boinking, doing it, getting busy, going all the way, hooking up, making love, rolling in the hay, schtupping. No matter what you call it, it’s just sex. And it is everywhere. 

Sarcophagus from Cerveteri; The Etruscans

Sarcophagus from Cerveteri; The Etruscans

Evolutionary biology shows that the human genotype is the result of those ancestors who reproduced with greater frequency than others. The subsequent sexual behavior (for example, a man trying to have sex with many women while avoiding parental investment) is a result of the way we evolved and thrived in the Pleistocene era, 1.8 million to 11,700 years ago. 

Hades abduction of persephone by bernini

Hades abduction of persephone by bernini

Edward Shorter, a University of Toronto psychologist, says in his book, Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire (University of Toronto Press, 2005), that “...what people actually experience is always a mixture of biological and social conditioning: Desire surges from the body, the mind interprets what society will accept and what not, and the rest of the signals are edited out by culture."

To
be sure, the act of sex is viewed through the lens of the prevailing culture and society. In Japan, from the eighth century to the 1860’s, there is no indication that sexuality was treated in a pejorative way. In pre-European contact Hawai‘i and much of Polynesia, the concepts of premarital and extramarital sexual activities were probably absent, and members of this society indulged freely in their sensual appetites. Perhaps the oldest surviving literature in the world are the ancient Indian texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, which contain the first evidence of attitudes towards sex. These texts support the view that in ancient India, sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple, where husband and wife pleasured each other equally, but where sex was considered a private affair. Greek writers, such as Theopompus and Plato labeled  the ancient Etruscans 'immoral,' and from their descriptions we find out that the women commonly had sex with men who were not their husbands and that in their society, children were not labelled "illegitimate" just because they did not know who the father was. In the I Ching (the Book of Changes, circa 1000–750 BC, a Chinese text) sexual intercourse is one of two fundamental models used to explain the creation of the world. With neither embarrassment nor circumlocution, Heaven is described as having sexual intercourse with Earth. Similarly, with no sense of prurient interest, the male lovers of Chinese men of great political power are mentioned in the third century BC work of philosophy and literature, the Zhuang Zi.

Modern western civilization looks to ancient Rome as its foundation. There, as elsewhere in the world, wives and children belonged to the man of the family. A woman caught in the act of adultery could be killed by her husband on the spot, while a wife who drank more than a moderate amount of wine gave grounds for divorce. Despite this, the orgiastic culture of legend certainly existed during the Bacchanalian wine festivals, when all restraint was abandoned. Depictions of frank sexuality are abundant in Roman literature and art.

a flowchart of 10th century monastically approved sex.:  wacky by today's standards

a flowchart of 10th century monastically approved sex.:  wacky by today's standards

According to Reay Tannahill's book Sex in History, the years between 400 AD and 1000 AD saw Christian morality gain a grip on Western thought "so paralyzing that it is only now beginning to relax". Many of its rules regarding sex originate in the Hebrew law of the Old Testament and were fixed firm for over 1,500 years, with threats of hell fire proving one of the most successful deterrents ever invented. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church was a rapidly changing institution over the course of the 500 some odd years that make up what we now call "the Medieval Era." Penitentials (circa 900) are one such artifact of that transitioning. First compiled by Irish monks in the 6th century, penitentials are little handbooks that detail the sins a monk might be likely to hear in confession. Though they might cover anything from murder to eating habits, sex was the main course for these monastic manuals. The Canons of Theodore is one example. The many yeas and nays of monastically approved sex in the 10th century, as summed up in this flowchart, seem totally wacky to people today.  

The spread of syphilis to epidemic proportions across Europe in the 16th century reveals that many men and women were not as chaste as the Church would have liked. 

A courting victorian couple

A courting victorian couple

A combination of overt gentility and ignorance turned the 19th century into the strictest age there has ever been for sexuality. The model of the middle-class wife, safely installed with her family in a bourgeois home, was the universal ideal. But the repression led to a dark underground world of debauchery and vice. 

Not until after the Second World War did any real cracks begin to show in the Victorian moral code. The freedom many men and women felt as war workers made it hard to go back to the old life once peace came. The liberalization of sexuality kicked into high gear by the 1960s with the advent of the birth control pill, letting women get in on the fun and act on the basis of desire as men always had.

And so, our timeline reaches today. A 2013 survey of students in grades 9 to 12 indicate almost half have had sex. Martin Monto and Anna Carey of the University of Portland used data from the General Social Survey (GSS). They found that today’s youth is indeed having more casual sex, and less romantic sex, than the previous generation. A different survey found that the percent of marriages where one or both spouses admit to infidelity is 41.  How many men say they would have an affair if they never got caught?  74% . The percentage for women answering this question is 68.

It appears sexual practices today suffer from a near total lack of restriction, and are more liberal than ever before.

Or are they? It depends on who you ask. 

Hop over to Rebecca Lovell's blog to get her take on the issue.  Check out her stories, too!