Sex outside Marriage


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    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 Orders1. 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.

    By 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 19972.

    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.
    Genesis 38:8-10

    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 contraception3. 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 scholars4. 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 service.

    Well 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 with them.

    William 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 505. 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.

    A chastity belt is a locking item of clothing designed to prevent sexual intercourse. Such belts were historically designed for women, for the purpose of ensuring chastity, in order to protect them from rape or to prevent women and their potential sexual partners from engaging in coitus. Some devices were especially designed to prevent masturbation. Uninterrupted long-term wear could have caused genitourinary infection, abrasive wounds, sepsis and eventual death.

    Christian apologists have recently taken to denying that chastity belts were ever used, or alternatively that they were a Victorian invention. In fact Gregory the Great, Alcuin of York, Bernard of Clairvaux and Nicholas Gorranus all made reference to 'chastity belts' within their discourses, and museums around Europe possess dozens of pre-victorian examples.

    The first detailed actual mention of what could be interpreted as "chastity belts" in the West is in Konrad Kyeser von Eichstätt's Bellifortis (1405), which describes the military technology of the era. The book includes a drawing that is accompanied by the Latin text: "Est florentinarum hoc bracile dominarum ferreum et durum ab antea sic reseratum." ("These are hard iron breeches of Florentine women which are closed at the front.")

    Nether part of a Venetian chastity belt on display in the Doge's palace. (Labelled 16th–17th century.)

    From the eighteenth century and well into the twentieth centuries, masturbation regarded by Western Christian physicians as harmful. Numerous mentions are found in medical journals of the time of the use of chastity belt-like devices to prevent female masturbation in women and girls. Many designs for anti-masturbation devices were filed in Patent Offices up until the early 1930s.

    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 clitoris6. 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 constitution7.

    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 Australia.

    Christian doctors lent credibility to a host of fictions in their polemic against masturbation, largely designed to terrify children, adolescents and adults for normal healthy activities. While Christian Church leaders promised torture in the next life, Christian doctors promised torture in this life. One such, in Britain was William Acton. In the USA, John Harvey Kellogg, co-inventor of the famous breakfast cereal, and a Seventh Day Adventist Christian, was one of many Christian doctors obsessed by the imaginary evils of masturbation. As an advocate of sexual abstinence, Kellogg devoted large amounts of his educational and medical work to discouraging sexual activity on the basis of dangers both real (eg sexually transmissible diseases) and imaginary.

    He set out his views on such matters in one of his books, published in various editions around the start of the 20th century under the title Plain Facts about Sexual Life and later Plain Facts for Old and Young. Like many other Christians was a zealous campaigner against masturbation. Kellogg claimed that "neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism," citing a supposed medical authority. Kellogg strongly warned about masturbation-related deaths noting that "such a victim literally dies by his own hand". He felt that masturbation destroyed not only physical and mental health, but also the moral health of individuals.

    Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution,
    and its Frightful Consequences In Both SEXES Considered..., 1723


    Some of his milder ideas involved diet. Those experiencing sexual temptation were to avoid stimulating food and drinks, and eat very little meat, or none at all. Kellogg's Corn Flakes were developed as a suitable breakfast food for Christians keen to give up habitual masturbation.

    Kellogg also stressed the importance of keeping the colon clean using yoghurt enemas. Although a qualified medical doctor, he taught that the practice of masturbation, the"solitary-vice", caused cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility; as well as "dimness of vision".

    Consequences of practising the "Solitary Vice"


    He also encouraged enclosing the penis in a metal band with sharpened spikes pointing in to render excruciatingly painful even involuntary night erections. He must have found a large market, since involuntary night erections occur in almost all healthy sleeping boys.

    He worked on the rehabilitation of masturbators of both sexes, employing genital mutilation, preferably without anaesthetic since the pain would emphasise a moral lesson. In his Plain Facts for Old and Young, he wrote:

    "A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed. "

    and on a method of treatment to prevent masturbation

    " ... we have employed it with entire satisfaction. It consists in the application of one or more silver sutures in such a way as to prevent erection. The prepuce, or foreskin, is drawn forward over the glans, and the needle to which the wire is attached is passed through from one side to the other. After drawing the wire through, the ends are twisted together, and cut off close. It is now impossible for an erection to occur, and the slight irritation thus produced acts as a most powerful means of overcoming the disposition to resort to the practice "

    Girls fared no better:

    " In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid (phenol) to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement. "

    He also recommended, to prevent children from this "solitary vice", bandaging or tying their hands, covering their genitals with patented cages and electrical shock. In his Ladies' Guide in Health and Disease, for nymphomania, he recommended

    " Cool sitz baths; the cool enema; a spare diet; the application of blisters and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, the removal of the clitoris and nymphae..."

    Masturbation was not the only dangerous and sinful sex crime. He warned that many types of sexual activity, including many "excesses" that couples could be guilty of within marriage, were against nature, and therefore, unhealthy.

    He drew on the warnings of William Acton and expressed support for the work of Anthony Comstock.

    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.

    Excerpt from US by Jonas E. Heyser, Patented J 11119 20, 1911
    (Application filed January 19, 1910, Serial No. 538,829. Renewed November 9, 1910. Serial No. 591,533.)
    "My invention relates-to improvements in surgical appliances and more particularly to devices for preventing masturbation by males, the object of the invention being to provide an improved device of this character which may be secured on the body of the patient and which cannot be removed by the patient, and which will absolutely prevent any attempt on the part of the patient to masturbate."

    Since 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 decomposed8. 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"9. We shall never know how many thousands of women have died unnecessarily, protecting their Christian modesties from the attentions of the medical profession.

    Most 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 nonbeliever 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 Freud10.

    Some Christians still hold to the traditional line that masturbation is a sin




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    1. Richards, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation, p 29.

    2. Widely reported in British newspapers on 29 th May 1997. See for example The Daily Telegraph and The Independent of that date.

    3. Pius XI noted in 1930 (Casti connubii II) that God had on occasion punished the horrible crime of Coitus interruptus with death. Coitus interruptus at one time could incur a penalty of up to ten years" penance (Tannahill, Sex in History, p 140).

    4. In the Soncino Chumash edited by the Rev. Dr A Cohen, Genesis 38:9 reads "And Onan knew that the seed would not be his ..." rather than " ...should not be his.... ". In other words Onan seems to be concerned not with the propriety of his duty but with the responsibility involved with fathering a child on someone else's behalf.

    5. Tannahill, Sex in History, p 139.

    6. Further details of this and other cures for masturbation may be found in Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 285-7.

    7. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 81.

    8. Tannahill, Sex in History, p 175, citing D. B. Sherwin (2) The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Tradition ( London, 1959), p 73.

    9. Tannahill, Sex in History, p 336, citing Godey's Lady's Book (1852).

    10. Sigmund Freud exposed the practice in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex published in 1905


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