Morality consists of suspecting other
people of not being married.
George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma
Before Christianity started to take an interest in controlling
marriage, there had been little or no taint associated with
illegitimacy. Even in the Middle Ages families would be proud
to admit to having been founded by bastards. Many still bear
surnames starting with the element Fitz-, which often
indicates that the first bearer of the name was a royal bastard.
As Church influence over marriage grew stronger, sex was increasingly
discouraged outside marriage. Penances were imposed that depended
on factors such as age, marital status, and whether or not the
man was in Holy Orders*.
Class came into it as well. A man who seduced a serving girl
could expect half the penance of one who seduced a girl who
was his social equal. As Christianity grew stronger, so did
the stigma of illegitimacy. For example, fornication was not
a crime in the American colonies until Puritans made it one
in 1692. In some states it remained an offence until the late
twentieth century. In Arizona, for example, fornication was
punishable by three years imprisonment.
Victorian times it was common for women's lives to be ruined
by a single indiscretion in their youth. The child would be
sent to an orphanage and the mother to a mental asylum. This
practice continued well into the twentieth century. In the 1990s,
there were still old women in mental asylums who had been there
for decades, and who were first committed for no other reason
that they had given birth to a child out of wedlock. Others
escaped their fate by murdering their new-born children and
hiding the bodies. Every so often such grisly relics are found,
often in old shoeboxes in attics. Children who were sent to
orphanages were generally informed that their parents were dead.
Thousands of such "orphans" were shipped from Britain
to Roman Catholic orphanages in Australia after World War II,
without the knowledge of their parents. Some discovered in adult
life that the Church had lied to them and they were not orphans
at all. Forty such women, brought up by the Sisters of Nazareth
in Garaldton, returned to Britain on the fiftieth anniversary
of their exile to be reunited with their families in 1997*.
The term living in sin has a mildly humorous ring
to it now, but not so long ago it was widely used in all seriousness.
In 1995 there was considerable opposition when a Church of England
report suggested abandoning the term. In the past all Christians
genuinely believed, as a minority still do, that unmarried couples
are committing a grave sin. If one of the partners is married
to someone else, then they are committing adultery, an even
more serious matter under Church Law. After all, the Old Testament
clearly prescribed the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:22 and
Leviticus 20:10). As recently as 1959, Geoffrey Fisher, the
then Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that adultery ought to
be a criminal offence.
One of the worst sexual sins in the eyes of churchmen was masturbation.
Masturbation was particularly loathed, yet priests felt compelled
to inquire into the minutest details during confession. A leading
fifteenth century theologian, Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the
University of Paris, wrote an entire treatise on hearing the
confessions of masturbators. Countless generations have been
terrified by stories of what God would do to those who practised
masturbation. They would go blind or deaf, or become insane,
or develop syphilis or gonorrhoea. The usual term for masturbation
was "self pollution" or "self abuse". As
for many other harmless practices, biblical authority was found
to condemn it, and as so often the interpretation was questionable.
According to the book of Genesis, God was displeased with Judah's eldest son, so he killed him. Since he had died without issue,
Judah was concerned about his succession. The Leverite law stated
that in such circumstances a brother of the dead man should
marry the widow and raise any children in the dead man's name. This duty fell to Onan:
And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife,
and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan
knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass,
when he went into his brother's wife, that he spilled
it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore
he slew him also.
The reference to spilling seed probably denotes coitus
interruptus, rather than masturbation. Roman Catholic theologians
have traditionally favoured this interpretation because it provides
grounds to prohibit coitus interruptus as a form of
contraception*. In fact
Onan's offence is clearly not so much what he did, but
what he did not do. His error lay in disobeying his father,
and not doing what he had been instructed to do. This latter
interpretation, that Onan's offence was the wilful disobedience
of the Leverite law, is the one accepted by most rabbinical
scholars*. No matter, there
was no other text to justify criticism of masturbation, and
Christian moralists needed one, so this one had to be pressed
into the twentieth century the state of New York officially
held that masturbation causes insanity. God, too, apparently
shared such misapprehensions for he revealed all manner of erroneous
information to Protestants, Roman Catholics and other Christians.
To Ellen White, the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, he
disclosed that masturbation would
render a man a cripple and an imbecile. Such stories were supported
not only by churchmen but also by Christian physicians who gave
the stamp of medical approval. Doctors assured their patients
that masturbation caused all manner of ills, from back pain
to epilepsy. Up until the middle of the twentieth century almost
every adult in a Christian community was, as Bertrand Russell
said, more or less diseased nervously as a result of the taboo
on sex knowledge when he or she was young. Even today it is
not difficult to find fervent Christians who will affirm in
all seriousness that masturbation
causes impotence, blindness, deafness, insanity, and venereal
disease, and that it will result in hair growing on the palms
of the hands. Although all of these supposed symptoms are imaginary,
Christian children of many denominations are still threatened
of Auvergne pointed out in the thirteenth century that male
masturbators are automatically guilty of a number of crimes
including homicide and sodomy (homicide because the semen was
spilled unproductively, sodomy because it was not being deposited
in a proper vessel). Apart from the shame, guilt, and embarrassment
associated with masturbation, penalties for it could be severe.
At one time seminal emission attracted a penalty of seven days
fasting if it was involuntary and 20 days if it was physically
assisted. Monks masturbating in church were liable to a fast
of 30 days, and bishops to 50*.
No punishment succeeded in eliminating this vice, and masturbation
was still a major problem in Victorian times. Boys might be
infibulated, i.e. have wires threaded through their foreskins
to prevent them from masturbating. Alternatively, spiked metal
rings could be fitted around the penis to discourage tumescence.
For girls, matters could be worse. Father J. C. Debreyne, a
Trappist monk and physician, who had his own list of imaginary
symptoms caused by masturbation, favoured the surgical removal
of the clitoris from female offenders. It was after all only
an organ of pleasure, superfluous to the act of procreation.
Clitorectomies (sometimes called female circumcisions) were
performed on Christian girls, just as they still are on Muslim
girls. In the late nineteenth century Dr Jules Guerin of London
claimed to effect excellent cures on masturbators by cauterising
the clitoris*. All this
because Christian theologians believed masturbation to be worse
than incest or murder. Infibulations and clitorectomies are
no longer tolerated, but the Church still clings to its ancient
attitudes. As a modern theologian has observed:
...anyone who derives his theology from Catholic moral theologians
will be convinced, even today, that masturbation wastes the
spinal marrow, softens or desiccates the brain, and can generally
impair the constitution*.
Because of their association with sex, the genitals were generally
seen as vile and disgusting. So it is that we refer to them
by the Latin name pudenda, from pudendus meaning
"of which one ought to be ashamed". In England our
straightforward native Saxon terms have been forced out of use
or reduced to the status of obscenities. Missionaries down the
centuries, even to the present day, have encouraged potential
converts to think of their genitals as shameful and dirty. Shame
is introduced to make all cultures more like the guilt-ridden
ones of Christendom. Even so, it seems that clothing does not
always guarantee freedom from temptation to natural desire,
at least if we are to make inferences from the incidence of
red-haired aborigine babies in the wake of Irish missions in
For many non-Christians it is difficult to credit the extent
to which Christian societies have gone to suppress sexual matters.
Not so long ago nuns and convent girls were expected to take
their baths in swimming costumes, or with the bath sheeted over.
The reason was that otherwise their naked bodies might be seen
by God, or by their guardian angel, or by one of the host of
other spiritual beings who frequent our bathrooms. Many children
in Christian countries still reach puberty without having learned
anything of basic human sexual physiology. Adolescent boys raised
by Christians are often surprised to find themselves experiencing
spontaneous nocturnal seminal emissions, and girls are often
horrified at their first menstruation. In many non-Christian
cultures such events are much less traumatic: children are familiar
with sex and sexuality from an early age because such matters
are ordinary, natural aspects of everyday life.
the twentieth century, it has become apparent that Christian
communities have found a variety of ways to induce sexual ecstasy,
often presented as religious ecstasy. Examples are flagellation,
constraint and other Sadomasochistic
practices often described as "discipline". Some
sects use self denial and rhythmic chanting to achieve altered
states of consciousness. Another, perhaps unlikely, method employs
snake handling to induce ecstasy. Since Freud wrote about sublimated
sex, an ever wider range of people have become aware of the
difficulties in distinguishing religious from sexual ecstasies.
Christian societies are now slightly more realistic than they
once were. The second Council of Mâcon in 585 decreed
that male corpses should not be buried next to female ones until
they had decomposed*. One
could never be too careful in matters sexual. The obsession
with sex often had dire results. Not so long ago gynaecologists
could carry out physical examinations only when absolutely necessary.
And even then it was common practice for such examinations to
be carried out under sheets in darkened rooms. In the early
nineteenth century a Philadelphia professor could boast of American
women that they "prefer to suffer the extremity of danger
and pain rather than waive those scruples of delicacy which
prevent their maladies from being fully explored"*.
We shall never know how many thousands of women have died unnecessarily,
protecting their Christian modesties from the attentions of
the medical profession.
of the extreme Christian ideas are now discarded and forgotten,
having been superseded by liberal, secular and scientific ones.
Sometimes all that was necessary was for a non-believer to bring
the Christian-inspired practice to public notice, and public
opinion did the rest.
As we have already noted, at the end of the nineteenth century
female masturbation was sometimes prevented by excising the
clitoris, or cauterising it with red-hot irons, this operation
being advocated and practised by Christian physicians. Such
practices fell out of use after being publicised by an atheist
physician named Sigmund Freud*.