Sex laws over the millenia

SexAndPunishmentCoverLast week I listened to an episode of Fresh Air on NPR, where Terry Gross interviewed Eric Berkowitz on his new book, ‘The Boundaries of Desire‘, about sex laws over the last century.  But what interested me more in the interview was the brief introductory discussion of sex laws in ancient societies, which led me to read the first half of Berkowitz’s earlier book, ‘Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire‘.

Berkowitz starts off looking at laws in bronze age societies such as Egypt, Assyria, the Hittite empire, and various Mesopotamian city states.  The first thing that struck me were that early sex laws were written completely with the interests of the husband in mind.  Women, even freeborn nobility, were basically property.  The wife was the husband’s vessel to produce his heirs, and daughters were assets to be sold through dowries.

The adultery laws seem designed to help men ensure paternity of any babies born to their wives.  Wives were forbidden from having sex with anyone other than their husbands, and the penalties for doing so were severe, often involving disfigurement, death, or demotion to a household slave.

Often, even if the wife were raped, she was blamed for allowing it to happen, and endured many of the penalties.  Some of the laws did make a distinction between women raped “on the road” versus being raped in their own household.  On the road was considered more outside of the women’s control, but if it happened in her household, she was often assumed to be complicit.

Husbands had much more freedom.  Aside from the fact that they could often have multiple wives, there was nothing prohibiting them from having sex with other women, as long as the woman wasn’t some other freeborn man’s wife, daughter, or slave.  Husbands were free to have sex with any slave they owned, with prostitutes, or anyone that wasn’t already attached to another man.  Regarding men, rape or adultery was handled as a type of theft, rather than an act of violence or treachery.  The idea of a husband raping a wife, no matter how violent, would have been an incomprehensible concept.

Bronze age societies didn’t seem to care much about any type of sex that didn’t threaten paternity problems.  Homosexual sex appears to have been largely ignored.  Bestiality might be a problem, depending on the species.  (For example, relations with a goat in Egyptian society was considered divine devotion, but in Hittite society, relations with cows, dogs, and sheep incurred the death penalty.)

On the homosexual front, things started to become a bit more restricted as we get to iron age societies like classical Greece or Rome, where the role of the male became important.  There was no issue with a male that took the active role in same sex relations, but anyone taking the passive role risked losing status.  As a result, the passive role was reserved for slaves, prostitutes, and other low status individuals.  Greek societies did have the concept of pederasty, of an erotic relationship between an older and younger male, but it was controversial and the Romans rejected it.

The oddballs in the ancient world were the Hebrews.  Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows their attitudes toward sex.  If it didn’t lead to procreation, it was evil.  Penalties were harsh.  Berkowitz speculates that the Hebrew attitudes might have been formed in a context of a low population people feeling besieged by enemies on all sides, with a desire to channel sexual energy as much as possible into procreation.

Whatever the reason, the Hebrew attitude largely formed the later Christian attitude, that of all sex being dirty and disgusting.  Reading about the stark differences between early Roman permissiveness on sexual matters and the much more restricted Christian ones, I’ve wondered how Christianity managed to succeed with those restrictions.

I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Christianity started largely in the lower strata of society.  Thinking about ancient sex laws, a lot of the ancient permissiveness toward sex disproportionately benefited upper class males.  Women, slaves, and lower class individuals were probably much more often the victims in these relationships.  For them, the strictures involved in the new faith might have been more perceived as additional protection rather than curtailment of freedoms.  In any case, women’s sex lives were heavily restricted both before and after the transition.

However it happened, Christianity radically changed societal attitudes toward sex.  Sex in all forms was bad, but since it was inevitable, it needed to channeled in marriage and even then, only done for procreation.  Married couples were heavily restricted in the types of sex they could have and when they could have it.  (For example, it was forbidden on certain days of the week and on the numerous holy days.)

In the early centuries, aside from a few periods of persecution, failure to follow these strictures was a personal failing, a matter between the sinner and God, with the penalty being various religious penances as prescribed in religious penitentials.  (Although the penances could be severe, such as having to live on bread and water for 15 years.)  But after about 1000 AD, spurred by fears from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, sexual deviancy, sodomy, became a public policy issue.  Penalties for having the wrong kind of sex became severe, often involving death by fire, castration, or many other gruesome alternatives.

Paradoxically, during this period, brothels were common, often actually run by the churches or local municipalities.  The idea was that they were necessary to prevent worse sin.  Of course, women continued to be heavily restricted.  The brothels were for men.  With the Protestant Reformation, brothels came under attack.  Official brothels run by churches or towns disappeared, with Catholics and Protestants seeming to be in competition for who could be more restrictive.

I’ve written before about the importance of the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  It probably accelerated the Renaissance and provided the mechanism for both the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.  Given the history of the internet, this makes sense, but one thing I had never thought much about, was that printing also enabled mass publication of obscenity and pornography.  What had previously only been available in isolated paintings and hand written manuscripts could now be widely published.  The churches reacted with restrictions and bans, and the long societal tension over this kind of entertainment began.

At this point, my reading of Berkowitz became a bit selective.  In this book, he covers the modern period up the beginning of the 20th century, but I had started reading to learn about ancient attitudes toward sex and wasn’t too interested in the modern period, already having a pretty good idea of what those attitudes were.

One later section I did read discussed the cultural clashes that took place as westerners colonized the world, encountering cultures whose attitudes toward sex were close to those old bronze age societies.  Of course, by this time, westerners were wholly conditioned to regard anything outside of prescribed boundaries to be not only disgusting, but dangerous, potentially bringing God’s wrath down on everyone.  The results were attempts to stamp out unapproved sexuality in native peoples, often with severe harshness.

Reading about all of this, I was reminded of two important historical facts.  The first is how much culture shapes our perceptions.  If an European from 500 BC somehow met one from 1500 AD, they would have found each other’s attitudes toward sex either disgusting or incomprehensible.

The second is how much laws reflect the interests of those with power.  Until very recently, sex laws were crafted by men, largely to the benefit of men.  Those who sometimes bemoan the state of modern society or get frustrated with the complexities of democracy and universal suffrage, should remember that the past was often far worse.

13 thoughts on “Sex laws over the millenia

  1. Sounds about what I expected. I figured that the rise of agrarian societies brought out the rise of conflicts and competition over land and resources, which favored societies that created a male “warrior caste” of fighters specializing in combat who lived off of what surplus could be created from agriculture back then (male because men have a significantly greater size and upper body strength difference over women, and many would have already been hunters). They then conquered the rest of the small villages and communities, rolling villages into tribes, then tribes in kingdoms, then kingdoms into empires.


    1. I don’t think that’s too far off. Although I think calling it a warrior caste might be projecting too much of later developments. From what I’ve read, most ancient warriors prior to the classical period were part time soldiers, fighting when they weren’t farming. I also think kingdoms larger than a chiefdom needed an administrative class to track tax levies and receipts and for the overall minutia of running a state.


  2. Thank you Mike, for this excellent overview. It rather sounds as if the book might better have been titled Sex, Punishment and Patriarchy, although perhaps the publishers may have objected to the inclusion of the latter term.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Hariod. Something I didn’t really have space to get into was that children were also more or less the property of parents, with which they could pretty much do anything they wanted. Society has traditionally been relentlessly hierarchical, something that can be hard to wrap our brains around today.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting. Two points spring to mind. Firstly how we are finally breaking free of some of the ancient attitudes (women as property of men, with few rights) and Christian attitudes (all sex is disgusting, except between man and wife and as long as neither enjoys it). Secondly, how deeply Christian values have ensnared all of us in the West, so we might often find ourselves uncritically thinking along these lines, for no good reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed on both counts. Even the most liberal minded people’s views today are influenced by our Abrahamic heritage. It’s virtually impossible to divorce ourselves from our culture. Often we can only see its influence by looking at other cultures.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “[P]rinting also enabled mass publication of obscenity and pornography.”

    Every technology for text and image has been immediately taken up with by porn! XD

    Image technologies, especially. Obviously.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Greek societies did have the concept of pederasty, of an erotic relationship between an older and younger male, but it was controversial…”

    I wonder if the older/younger relationships were more common amongst the wealthy. I feel like I read that somewhere, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any Greek history. I get the sense just from reading Plato that such relationships were controversial in the mainstream, but more accepted amongst the elite (and by that I mean those who hung out with Alcibiades and the like.) I could be wrong about that, though.

    I haven’t read anything that deals specifically with sexuality in ancient Greek culture, but I’m feeling like it’s time. So much is fascinating about it, especially the Eleusinian mysteries and the connection to sexuality/violence. (We don’t know much about the Mysteries because anyone who participated had to take a vow of secrecy. Revealing the secrets meant death.)

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    1. From what I’ve read about ancient Greece, any relationship between master and slave, of any ages, with the slave taking the passive role, was considered fine. The only controversy was when it involved upper-class boys in the passive role. Even then, it was apparently widespread, particularly in Sparta.

      Not sure whether it was restricted to just the elite, but one of the things we always have to remember when reading ancient writers, is that they were almost always members of the elite. Anything they describe would be from that viewpoint. Often, our only clues to what the common people thought is archaeology.

      On ancient Greek sexuality, Berkowitz has a chapter devoted to Greece, with a number of citations, which you might find interesting. He draws from a mixture of case law and ancient sources.

      My personal fascination is with all ancient or otherwise alien cultures. It’s always interesting how radically different their worldview was from ours. I think many people often view the ancient Greeks as our cultural forebears, and are often shocked by just how alien they could be.


      1. “Not sure whether it was restricted to just the elite, but one of the things we always have to remember when reading ancient writers, is that they were almost always members of the elite.”

        I guess that’s why I thought maybe the elite—which is what we read, as you point out—could be giving us a distorted view of what was acceptable. From the elite POV, the relationship of “lover” (older man) to “beloved” (younger) was ideally educational. Lyrics from the Leonard Cohen song, “Susanne” come to mind: “You know that she [in this case, he, the beloved] will trust you for you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.” The beloved was not supposed to be terribly interested in having sex with the lover. He was supposed to be hard to get, and only when the lover could prove that he had good intentions would he be allowed sexual favors, and these were supposed to be fairly modest by our standards. The youth was idealized, unless he prostituted himself or gave himself up too quickly. And this affair wasn’t necessarily a life-long thing, nor was it expected to be, but more a rite of passage for the youth and a way for him to learn to become a citizen.

        Plato plays off of this ideal in Socrates’ relationship to Alcibiades. Alcibiades is the presumed beloved as an attractive general, yet he desperately wants to have sex with Socrates (who’s not physically attractive) because he’s in love with his mind. Socrates sleeps in the same bed with Alcibiades without touching him, much to A’s dismay.

        The emphasis on the education of the beloved made me think it might not be quite as widespread. I forgot about the slave relationships, which is kind of silly of me. Obviously that would be going on and it’s not likely the slave’s relationship to his owner would be hotly debated.

        I just did a little research on the ancient pottery depictions of homosexual relationships, and a lot of them confirm the idealized version above, but it seems even the ideal was a contested matter. And perhaps the ideal changed and evolved.

        “I think many people often view the ancient Greeks as our cultural forebears, and are often shocked by just how alien they could be.”

        Very true. Once you start getting into the details of these matters, things get so alien, sometimes beyond comprehension for me.

        Berkowitz’s book sounds interesting. If I ever decide to read again instead of frittering my time away, I’ll have to check it out.


        1. It’s interesting how the description of what the young male was supposed to do (be hard to get until he knew the older man’s intentions were honorable) resembles in many ways our society’s general conception of what a proper female should do.

          I hadn’t heard that particular tale about Socrates. Burkowitz mentions Socrates, but his description of him in this regard isn’t quite as noble, painting him as someone who liked to hang out at schools and ogle the young boys (while also making clear that, in his time, this wasn’t unusual).

          The slaves in these societies are actually very easy to forget. To the writers of the day, they were like furniture, so they’re rarely mentioned, except in passing, and shows and movies about the ancient Greeks rarely acknowledge them. (For some reason, they show up a lot more in movies about Romans.) In many ways, it’s like the slaves in Revolutionary America; depictions of those times rarely mention the slaves, but of course they were everywhere.

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