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How patriarchal religion suppressed sexuality

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A photo of two statue with a red filter, with the title How patriarchal religion suppressed sexuality

Ten or twelve thousand years ago, some humans first realized that sexual activity actually had something to do with the production of new life, formerly considered an enviable magic embodied only in females. Once fatherhood began to be recognized, men could assert that sexual activity was something more than a mere pleasure. As an essential part of the mysterious miracle of life-giving, it could be revered as sacred.

Early peoples generally had very positive views on sexuality. In Graeco-Roman times, sexual pleasure was widely believed to be a foretaste of paradise, a gift of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus. Some claimed that a blessed afterlife would consist of an eternal orgasm. This concept contributed to the later Muslim notion of the so-called “72 virgins” to be enjoyed by male heroes in the afterlife. Of course, this was a profoundly patriarchal concept. Virtuous women — no matter how heroic — were never to be provided with comparable postmortem lovers.

Indeed, Islam has been often devoted to the idea that women should experience little sexual pleasure. To this end, in major portions of the world, Islam has practiced routine clitoridectomy, often wrongly described as “female circumcision.” It is nothing like circumcision. It is comparable to what would be, in male anatomy, amputation of the penis, and it usually has included extensive mutilation of the vulva as well. Over the centuries, untold numbers of women have died of these operations or the ensuing infections. According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million women alive today have been subjected to this horrendous procedure.

But these are customs of a fully developed patriarchy — centuries after initial recognition of sexuality as a basic life-giving magic. Earlier male gods proudly displayed endless erections to demonstrate superhuman potency. Phallus worship was not uncommon. In Egypt, for example, the earth god Geb was shown lying face up, erect phallus reaching up to the goddess Nut, queen of the night, as she passed overhead, while the stars of the Milky Way, still so named, poured from her world-nourishing breasts. His phallus was represented by the obelisk, of which many examples still exist. It is perhaps amusing that the biggest obelisk in the world today is the Washington Monument.

Roman roads often sported the statues known as “herms” at their crossroads, which travelers would touch for good luck as they passed by. A herm is a short stone pillar with the head of the god Hermes carved at the top, and an erect penis sticking out halfway up the column. Ritual consecration of crossroads contributed to the later witchcraft craze, in which inquisitors claimed that witches engaged in evil ceremonies at crossroads. Of course, all their claims were amply confirmed by their routine use of torture.

The charm involved in touching the sexual parts of a deity seems to have first arisen very long ago in India, where some temples of the goddess Kali Ma featured a yoni or vulva symbol at the doorway, where worshipers could touch it as they entered. The goddess was shown in a crouching posture, knees apart, displaying her yoni in the form of an upright, double-pointed oval. The same symbolism was found among the tribes who first populated Ireland. It is shown by the pre-Christian sheila-na-gig statues, which used to appear over the doors of houses of worship until the Catholic Church declared them evil and removed them. Some are still found in museums.

The pointed-oval yoni design has had an interesting history. Some versions of the Indian symbol were given two small curls at one end, signifying the tail of a fish. It was generally held that women’s sexual secretions smelled like fish. There was even a goddess figure whose name meant “Fishy Smell.” Fish were therefore held to be aphrodisiac foods, and inhabitants of Northern Europe ate fish on Friday, the day sacred to the goddess Freya, in order to maintain fertility and good sexual relations. Then the church took over fish-eating Friday and declared it a “fast day” sacred to Jesus, who was described in medieval literature as “the little Fish that the Virgin caught in the fountain.” Christians later adopted the yoni, turned horizontally, and declared it a symbol of Jesus. I am always amused by seeing a yoni on the bumper of a fundamentalist car. I think: If they only knew!

Just as phallic symbols were widely worshiped in earlier prepatriarchal times, so also were yonic symbols. The famous omphalos or “navel-stone” in the temple of the Delphic Oracle is an example that has been widely misunderstood. According to its myth, the Delphic shrine was long sacred to the original earth goddess Gaia, mother of the world, until it was taken over by the sun god Apollo; but the priestess who gave the oracular speeches remained a female, the so-called Pythia, receiving her inspiration from deep in the earth rather than from Apollo’s sunlight. The so-called navel-stone does not look like a navel; it looks like a clitoris. It is hardly to be wondered at if women formerly worshiped their own sexual nature, just as men later engaged in widespread phallus worship.

Symbols of sexual conjunction were also fairly common. A prime example is the Egyptian ankh, which shows a round or oval female sign on top of a cross, which was a common sign of male genitalia. In literature of the medieval Kabbalah it represented God united with the Shekinah or female world soul, and it was said to be in the Ark along with the tablets of the law, showing “a man and woman in ultimate embrace.” All this history was quite deliberately forgotten when it came to be called the Star of David or Seal of Solomon, though it had nothing to do with either of them.

Among the various warring sects of early Christianity, there were some Gnostic groups that still defined the “bliss” of heaven as sexual in nature, and practiced “sacred sex” in their shrines like the pagans before them. St. Valentine, adopted by the church as a patron of lovers, was a semi-mythical Valentinus whose festival took place in the Ides of February, the month sacred to the goddess Juno Februata, when she was in her febris (fever) of love. The Gnostics performed what was called “a rite of spiritual marriage with angels in a nuptial chamber.” St. Valentine was a sketchily Christianized version of the love god otherwise known as Eros, Cupid, Priapus or Kama, all names associated with the goddess in sexual rituals aimed at promoting fertility.

However, when the official Church finally began to take shape in the early fourth century, the sects that formerly allowed some form of sexual license were condemned. The Church was influenced by the trend toward asceticism that had begun in India with yogis who claimed that self-denial of all earthly pleasures would enable the performance of miracles like healing the sick, walking on water, and achieving nirvana while still alive. The earliest Christian saints were then declared extreme ascetics who starved, whipped, deprived and generally abused themselves in order to atone for every sin and become particularly blessed. Sex became the instrument of the devil and the tool whereby women — those “daughters of Eve” — enticed men into evil behavior. According to St. Augustine, sex was the root of original sin and the means of transmitting it to all generations. Tertullian said sex renders marriage “obscene.” Numenius of Apamea proclaimed that only total cessation of sexual activity could unite the soul with God.

Early fathers of the Church became intensely committed to denial and condemnation of sexuality. St. Jerome ordered: “Regard everything as poison which bears within it the seed of sexual pleasure.” St. Athanasius said the only real message of Jesus was the saving grace of chastity. Legends were promulgated about (mostly imaginary) saints so holy that they chose physical torture ahead of sexual pleasure. Medieval theologians said sex “caused the damnation of humanity, which was on its account put out of paradise, and for its sake Christ was killed.”

According to Joseph Fletcher of the Episcopal Theological School, “Christian churches must shoulder much of the blame for the confusion, ignorance, and guilt which surrounds sex in Western culture.” Psychotherapist R.E.L. Masters has written, “Almost the entire blame for poisoning the sexual life of the West, rests squarely on the Roman Catholic Church.”

That’s why for most of European history, the ancient world’s knowledge of the location and function of the clitoris was totally suppressed, unknown even to a majority of women. When discovered on the victim of a witch trial, it was usually described as a “devil’s teat.” In 1503, an Englishman (though married) apparently saw one for the first time and said it was “a little lump of flesh, sticking out as if it had been a teat,” which at first sight he “meant not to disclose, because it was adjoining to so secret a place which was not decent to be seen; yet in the end, not willing to conceal so strange a matter,” he showed it to sundry bystanders, who had never seen anything like it either. The witch was convicted and killed.

In the Victorian era, priests held that “total repression of a woman’s sexuality was crucial to ensure her subjugation.” Leading medical authorities like Dr. Isaac Brown Baker performed many clitoridectomies to cure women of such symptoms of sexual frustration as “nervousness, hysteria, and female dementia.” Such operations were also recommended to keep young women from masturbating. In the United States, the last recorded clitoridectomy to cure masturbation was performed in 1948 on a 5-year-old girl.

In the end, patriarchal efforts to repress female sexuality punished men also, since they led to repression of sexuality in general. When forbidden normal expressions of human love, both men and women suffer. Patriarchal religion has been the primary offender in promulgating this cultural distortion, from which we are just now beginning to recover. Our society is still crippled in many ways by this uncomfortable history.

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2 Responses

  1. Very interesting historical context is given by Barbara Walker on many aspects of a patriarchal religion such as Christianity. I personally would have liked to also learn more about the curious standard of “virginity”; it appears to be considered a ‘virtue’ that is, supposedly, important only for females. Not only do males usually hardly need to be “virgins” in order to be considered desirable mates – often times, the exact opposite standard seems to be applied to males. The generally accepted notion is that the more ‘experienced’ a guy is, the more desirable he’s supposed to be. I mean – only a thoroughly patriarchal religion could espouse nonsense like this.

    1. This virgin thing is out of hand. Only a man could think this one up. Of course you are right; the patriarchal religions are the ones enthralled with virginity for females only.My question is when are we going to start making the men as responsible for pregnancy as woman? They seem to disappear after the fun is over leaving b the poor woman to.make all.the difficult decisions, abortion unfortunately sometimes being one of them.

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