Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Of the existence of such prohibitions, most people have some dim appreciation, since they are still maintained, if with diminished strength, in many quarters today. What is less generally realized is the extensive nature of the attempt which was made to limit and control the sexual act when performed within the marital relationship. Thus the sexual act must be performed in only one position, and numerous penalties were prescribed for using variants, the approach “more canino” – which was held to afford the most pleasure being regarded with especial horror and calling for seven years of penance. Confessors were required to ask specifically about these and every other possibility, and the manuals with which they were later supplied contain questions concerning every imaginable variant of the sexual act: in the present condition of the laws against obscenity it would be inadvisable to quote them here. (86)

Not content with this, the Church proceeded to cut down the number of days per annum upon which even married couples might legitimately perform the sexual act. First, it was made illegal on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which effectively removed the equivalent of five months in the year. Then it was made illegal for forty days before Easter and forty days before Christmas, and for three days before attending communion (and there were regulations requiring frequent attendance at communion). It was also forbidden from the time of conception to forty days after parturition. It was, of course forbidden during any penance. (172)

Such were the ideas from which European sexual ideals have been principally derived. As we shall see, both the general conception of sex as sinful, and many specific prohibitions and enactments, survived almost unmutilated until modern times and still affect our conduct today. Nevertheless it would be giving a false impression to suggest that the Church prepared these codes with the businesslike and ruthless detachment of a Russian commissary. Rather is it the case they were thrown together in a passion of despairing guilt . The picture we get is of a number of individual figures, like Augustine or Aquinas, Damiani or Bernard, tormented by the virtual certainty of damnation for all who so much thought of sexual pleasure, desperately striving to build dam against the rising tides of sensuality, in a frantic attempt to save people from the results of their own folly. Never mind the justifications, never mind the cruelty and injustice, if only this frightful disaster can be prevented.

Only real desperation is enough to explain the ruthlessness with which the Church repeatedly distorted and even falsified the Biblical record in order to produce justification for its laws. For such extreme asceticism is not enjoined by the Bible, and certainly not by the New Testament. As Lecky shows, “The Fathers laid down as a distinct proposition that pious frauds were justifiable and even laudable”, and he adds, “immediately, all ecclesiastical literature became tainted with a spirit of the most unblushing mendacity.” (156)

The Church claimed that this stringent taboo on sex had been proclaimed by St. Paul, but in point of fact, although Paul had gone much further than anyone before him in the direction of discountenancing sexual activity, he did not get nearly as far as this. In view of the vast edifice of repressive legislation erected on this tiny base, it is worth giving Paul’s actual words, well known as the quotation is:

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. For I would that all men were even as myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment. If thou marry thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry she hath not sinned…