Human indulgence in matters of sex is as old as its origin as a species. The obsession of the modern society about sex and everything of sexual nature – from ‘sexting’ to movies, from dresses to food, from vacation to retirement – is pervasive. The topic has been grabbing headlines in the final days of the current US Presidential Election cycle. Yet, while violence is glorified, discussion about sex is still considered a taboo, even in Western societies that are now considered to be in post-sexual revolution era. Needless to say, in traditional societies, such as India, China or across the Muslim World, sex is not only taboo but is legally restricted. For example, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in India face legal challenges and homosexuality is punishable by death in many Islamic nations.

Sex is surrounded by an army of social norms, religious restrictions and moral taboos.

The principle that illicit sex was a public crime was asserted with increasing vigor form the early Middle Ages onwards.

Indeed, since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100-1700 BCE), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the Romans. The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honor and property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups.

The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him’; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman — in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.

The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off.

If these sound barbaric, the ethos of the dominant Christian tradition was — and remains — hardly different:

‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of (God’s) Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’.

The centuries that followed brought little change and instead further developed this essentially negative view of sex. Among the most powerful proponents of this view was Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of the town of Hippo on the North African coast, who has had a more profound impact on Christian attitudes towards sexuality than any other person. He came to see lust as the most dangerous of all human drives and, in a letter to another bishop, summed up his philosophy thusly:

‘For it intrudes where it is not needed and tempts the hearts of faithful and holy people with its untimely and even wicked desire. Even if we do not give in to these restless impulses of it by any sign of consent but rather fight against them, we would nonetheless, out of a holier desire, want them not to exist in us at all, if that were possible’.

The church took these moral matters into its own hands with the establishment of is permanent courts around 1100, catapulting sexual offenses from the realm of private confession into the increasingly powerful system of public inquisition. The rise of towns and cities imposed yet another layer of punishment, giving rise to new civic penalties against adultery, fornication, and prostitution. By the later 13th century, such sexual and marital legal cases accounted for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all litigation. But despite the development of a formal system, punishments a remained crude violation of modern human rights. In London, Bristol, and Gloucester, they constructed a special public ‘cage’ in the main market-place, in which to imprison and display prostitutes, adulterers, and lecherous priests; elsewhere, cucking-stools were used to punish whores.

But, by the 16th century, these punishments seemed insufficient to a moral-extremist cohort as the Protestant movement began to vocally condemn the Catholic Church — nicknamed the Whore of Babylon — for a lax attitude towards sexual morality, from its lecherous priests who took the ideal of clerical celibacy as a joke to the toleration of prostitution. And yet, the church was thriving in its hypocrisy. As the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers.
So, why does sex continue to be a taboo?

According to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, sex is such a problem because it reminds humans of their basic, core animal nature. Basically, humans deal with mortality concerns by embedding themselves in cultural symbolism (beliefs, values) or immortality beliefs (Heaven). Animalistic, physical behaviors threaten the very things we use to confront our mortality fears. Put somewhat differently, anthropologist Otto Rank argued that procreation via such a physical act is a direct threat to the idea that we are spiritual beings. Why would a spiritual being emerge from such a physical act?
Well, our primal, animal sexuality ignites fears of our own mortality. Only when it is embedded in a uniquely human context, like love and romance, that it becomes less of a fear.

Perhaps, we wine and dine, and experience love, as methods to procreate without being riddled with our most basic fear: death.

In the early 20th century, US became the first country to introduce the concept of sexual education as a way to stall the outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. However, programs that were started as a way to deal with the unwanted side effects of sex have hardly progressed in a meaningful way, all because of the taboo issue. Thus, young adults who are primed for sexual exploration arrive on college campuses without enough psychological preparation.

Several universities now have started to offer undergraduate courses to remove the age old stigma around sex. One such popular class is Sex and Love in Modern Society offered by the Department of Sociology at Stanford University that attempts to shed light on contemporary issues of sexuality and romance. “Gender, sexuality, relationships and love are topics that impact all of us in our lives,” said Alison Fogarty who recently instructed that course. “Getting to understand the social processes that are involved in structuring the way that these things operate is hugely important, both on a personal level and on a sociological level.”



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