Sexuality in the Western World: A Historical Perspective
Judaic and Christian Traditions
By the time Hebraic culture was established, gender roles were highly specialized. The book of Proverbs, in the Hebrew Bible, lists the duties of a good wife: She must instruct servants, care for her family, keep household accounts, and obey her husband. Procreation (the bearing of children, especially sons) was essential; the Hebrews’ history of being subjugated, persecuted, and enslaved made them determined to preserve their people—to "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth" (Genesis 1:28).
Yet sex within marriage was believed to be more than a reproductive necessity. To "know" a partner sexually, within marriage, was recognized in the Old Testament of the Bible and in tradition as a blessing of profound physical and emotional experience (Kunst, 2011; Walker, 2008). The Song of Songs in the Bible (also known as the Song of Solomon) contains sensuous love poetry. In this small excerpt, the bridegroom speaks:
How fair is thy love,… my bride!
How much better is thy love than wine!
And the smell of thine ointments than all manner of spices!
Thy lips, oh my bride, drop honey—honey and milk are under thy tongue. (Song of Songs 4:10-11)
And the bride:
I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me.
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; Let us lodge in the villages. . . . There will I give thee my love.
(Song of Songs 7:10-12)
The joyful appreciation of sexuality displayed in these lines is part of the Judaic tradition. This view was overshadowed, however, by teachings of Christianity. To understand why this happened, we have to remember that Christianity developed during the later years of the Roman Empire, a period of social instability. Many exotic cults had been imported from Greece, Persia, and other parts of the empire to provide sexual entertainment and amusement. Early Christians separated themselves from these practices by associating sex with sin.
We know little about Jesus’ specific views on sexuality, but the principles of love and tolerance were the foundation of his teachings. However, Paul of Tarsus, a follower of Christianity, had a crucial influence on the early church. (He died in 66 CE, and many of his writings were incorporated into the Christian Bible, in the New Testament.) Paul believed that all things of the flesh were bad, and only things of the spirit were good—or "godly" (Walker, 2008). He emphasized the importance of overcoming "desires of the flesh"—including anger, selfishness, hatred, and nonmarital sex—in order to inherit the Kingdom of God. He associated spirituality with sexual abstinence and saw celibacy (SEH-luh-buh-see), the state of being unmarried and therefore abstaining from sexual