Lust, Spirituality, and Religion
June 23, 2013 2:30 AM   Subscribe

Why is lust, pornography, masturbation and unregulated sexuality (i.e., sleeping around) seen as an unfavorable thing for many (if not most) of the world's various philosophies and religions?

I am equally as interested in why New Age systems might also have this attitude, since it seems they'd be less interested in serving traditional cultural institutions.

If you are religious, spiritual, or an expert in a particular religion or belief system, it would be helpful to know why your religion/belief system frowns upon these things. This is just a general question I've never found a satisfactory answer towards, and am thinking about using this as a springboard for a possible article I'd like to write.

Much thanks!
posted by The ____ of Justice to Religion & Philosophy (34 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
The theoretical reason often given in the Western tradition is that lust comes from our animal nature, and that our 'higher' rational or moral natures, which help define our specialness as human beings, should not relinquish control to the lower, animal side.

In practice it's evident that human societies co-opt the sexual impulse to strengthen families and other socioeconomic structures and alliances, and pursuit of non-marital sex of any kind weakens and disrupts this.
posted by Segundus at 2:55 AM on June 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


To question and control strong human instincts is the tool for exerting power.

This doesn't contradict what Segundus wrote, but it does add a dimension.

(Emphasis changes, as do the power-wielders. When we look at pedagogical texts from the 19th century, for example, the link between masturbation and extreme parental control is very strong; at other times, it may have been more about "the church" versus "individuals", society implementing family planning rules, or whatever other constellation may have been relevant. It is also not always so that those who wield the power actually know why they do what they do...)
posted by Namlit at 3:30 AM on June 23, 2013


Catholic tradition is that sex is for procreative purposes only. Pleasure is lagniappe, but absolutely not the purpose of sexual intercourse and seeking pleasure for its own sake is a sinful abuse of God's gift. "Why" is never properly explained. Like using "God's name in vain," it is simply offensive to He who should not be offended.

I imagine like the Jewish and Muslim proscriptions against eating pork and shellfish, there was some larger valid reason for it that the ancients didn't fully understand which may or may not be valid today.

Consider as well that the command to "love thy neighbour" and to forgive the sins of others (whcih are perhaps less controversial to modern ears, but no less difficult to foillow) are neither motivated by any further rationale than God says so.
posted by three blind mice at 3:33 AM on June 23, 2013


A few reasons: family is considered more important than personal pleasure; in Buddhism, pleasure is frowned upon; control is important across most religions.
posted by heyjude at 3:53 AM on June 23, 2013


If power and property are controlled by families and handed down generation to generation to, for example, the eldest living son of the current leader [monarch, chief, head of family, etc.], it matters very much who is fucking (procreating with, creating heirs with) whom. Law and religion are constructed to support this system, and promiscuous sex (and encouraging it) therefore becomes illegal, dangerous, taboo, exciting.
posted by pracowity at 3:58 AM on June 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


Here's a probably inadequate answer for Buddhism:

There are two levels covered in the Noble Truth of Right Action, one at the mundane, or householder level and the other at the renunciant level. On the mundane level, the prohibition is not against all non-procreative sex, but simply sexual misconduct:

He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.

Some of this reflects the culture of the time and some is pretty universal. It seems, at least to me, that "sexual misconduct" is generally considered by Buddhists of whatever culture to be what that culture's secular definition is (that's particularly true of Westerners).

On the renunciant level, that of the monk:

Abandoning uncelibacy, he lives a celibate life, aloof, refraining from the sexual act that is the villager's way.

It's important to note that in both cases, the reason for this is not a sense of "pure" morality (IE, "that's just bad!"), but because these actions would be unskillful in attaining good kamma (at the mundane level) or unskillful in attaining final release (as at the renunciant level). So it's a guideline for avoiding behavior that will harm you, either in the future, in the present moment, or both.

The "why" of the harmfulness is twofold; firstly, sexual acts that harm others, such as sexual deceit or child molestation create very bad effects on your kamma and will lead to a bad outcome, either in this life or the next. Secondly, a fixation on sexuality will lead to suffering in the classical sense of the Second Noble Truth; that is, sensuality is an aggregate that does not last or provide a lasting happiness, and clinging to it will create suffering.
posted by selfnoise at 4:11 AM on June 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you have more than a passing interest in this, there's a great book that addresses it from the Christianity side: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels (theology professor at Princeton). This is an academic piece, not a fundie's book, and there's too much in it to provide a tidy summary of her answer here. But, if I remember correctly she focuses just on Christianity even when looking at stories found in the Old Testament. Here's the passage from the back of the book:
How did the early Christians come to believe that sex was inherently sinful? When did the Fall of Adam become synonymous with the fall of all humanity? What turned Christianity from a dissident sect that championed the integrity of the individual and the idea of free will into the bulwark of a new imperial order -- with the central belief that human beings cannot choose not to sin? In this provocative masterpiece of historical scholarship, Elaine Pagels recreates the controversies that racked the early church as it confronted the riddles of sexuality, freedom, and sin as embodied in the story of Genesis. And she shows how what was once heresy came to shape our own attitudes toward the body and the soul.
posted by Houstonian at 4:22 AM on June 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


Catholic here, so I can only speak for my own religion/upbringing:

The purpose of the sexual act is to create a very deep spiritual and emotional connection between two humans, to make them "one flesh". According to some of the earliest Christian teachers, the sexual act creates a bond that is irreversible, and so "sleeping around" creates confusion and spiritual damage.

As a side note, procreation is a secondary aim of this union, not the primary one. People who are not capable of intercourse cannot receive the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic church while couples who are not able to conceive can and do get married. Intercourse is viewed as vital for the marriage bond even if there is no chance of procreation.
posted by M. at 5:23 AM on June 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


There are multiple reasons. One stems from the lack of effective birth control at the time these religions came into existence. Another, related, has to do with the social chaos it would cause at the time if marriages were undercut by promiscuity and children out of wedlock. Keep in mind that there were once no divisions between philosophy, various proto-sciences, medicine, politics and religion.

Then there's the goal of transforming consciousness. If you want to be freed from what binds you, you have to transcend your urges of all types which keep you addicted to your current way of being in the world. Lust, then, would be included with pride, gluttony and sloth etc. as hindrances.

Then there are energy theories in which sexual energy needs to be transformed into spirituality through various disciplines. Do orgasms detract from later meditations? Are spiritual experiences fueled by the same energy that fuels sex and thus in need of conservation/redirection?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:29 AM on June 23, 2013


In Christianity there are several places in the Old Testament where God likens Israel to a harlot for turning away from him and to other gods, and the relationship between God and his people is often compared to marriage. So the "ideal" human marriage as God set it up in Genesis--an intimate, committed relationship between two people--is symbolic of the relationship between God and his people. Symbolism and ritual purity were very important in biblical times, and adultery would contaminate the purity of the marriage relationship.

Of course on a practical level, in a patriarchal society where, as pracowity stated, power and property are handed down through the male line, female fidelity is very important. A man has no way to know whether the child a woman is carrying is his own, unless he can be absolutely confident she has had sex with no one but him.

So it is very telling that as the scriptures progress from Genesis onward, loopholes appear in marriage that exempt men from having to keep it down to a single wife (multiple wives, concubines, etc), while women are still subject to punishment and death for infidelity. For purposes of paternity it doesn't matter if a man is sleeping with a hundred women as long as each of those women are sleeping with no one but him.


Masturbation, on the other hand, is not mentioned in the Bible at all as far as I know. People sometimes like to use the story of Onan to show that God hates wankers, but masturbation wasn't the issue there. Onan was obligated to impregnate his widowed sister-in-law so that the child could be raised as his dead brother's heir, and Onan didn't want to do that so he pulled out during sex and ejaculated outside of her vagina.

Most Christians understand that and don't use the Onan story to condemn masturbation. So the "sin" factor generally gets tied to lust, on the theory that a person can't masturbate without thinking lustful thoughts, and Jesus equated lust with adultery.*


*In the New Testament Jesus quotes the Old Testament commandment "you shall not commit adultery'' but then adds " but I say to you, whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Which seems like a pretty clear prohibition against lust.

But a big part of Jesus' message was about people who obeyed the "letter of the law" but were not concerned about the spirit in which the laws were intended. For example, the religious leaders condemned Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, and he told them that the Sabbath was not intended as a burden for people but as a gift, a time for rest and refreshment, and so it was proper to do good and act compassionately on the Sabbath. He chastised them for giving an appearance of being good by obeying the tiniest detail of the law, while lacking compassion in their hearts.

The proscription against lust can be looked at in a similar light. The legalists believed themselves to be "good" because they obeyed the law and did not commit adultery; Jesus was pointing out to them that obeying the law outwardly did not make them holy because their hearts were not in the right place. If they were genuinely as holy as they thought they were, they would not even entertain the thought of adultery.

I don't believe Jesus said this to place an impossible burden on mankind. He was obviously aware that lust is biological and pretty much universal, and few if any people are going to be able to achieve an absolutely lust-free thought life. Most of us would have flunked in our early teens. (At least one of the religious leaders who Jesus spoke to claimed to have kept all the commandments since boyhood.) By invoking a near-universal sin which all his listeners would be able to relate to, I believe he was merely trying to illustrate the point that true holiness is not possible under the Law, which is why grace is needed.

posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:30 AM on June 23, 2013 [14 favorites]


Another incomplete answer with Buddhism:

In Buddhism, I'd say it's because lust and sleeping around don't bring long-lasting happiness, just short term pleasure. You also leave a lot of room for people to possibly get hurt, including yourself.

It also may be a part of one of the ten non-virtues (sexual misconduct).

I guess the idea is that you spend so much time either sleeping with people or thinking about sleeping with them that you start to lose sight of other things.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:22 AM on June 23, 2013


As someone who was sexually abused as a kid and has a compromised immune system, I have spent decades thinking about, discussing, and reading about "sexual morality" (for lack of a better term). Historically, you find that in eras with good education, good birth control and good medicine, sexual mores become looser. This inevitably leads to negative fallout, which brings more conservative values back into fashion.

A rock star who had a liver transplant due to hepatitis noted he came of age in the era of free love, after the invention of birth control and antibiotics but before the era of AIDS. Thus, he slept around a lot and ended up with hepatitis.

Religion and morality generally seem to perform the function of providing cautioning wisdom against doing things with catastrophic but not immediately obvious consequences. The short term, fun benefits of sex are pretty obvious. The long term, potentially catastrophic consequences of unintended pregnancy, hurt feelings (which can lead to assault or murder), deadly infections etc are not so obvious. Society cannot afford to let too many people learn that stuff the hard way, thus we try to find ways to say "hey, stoopid, don't do that shit!!!!" Framing it as sin, an edict from god, etc, has generally proven more compelling than "mom doesn't approve and thinks it is a bad idea."
posted by Michele in California at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


The issue about sleeping around and birth control also extended to the possibility of the woman (and/or child) dying in labour. If both survived - but the husband had long gone - then the woman (and her family) would suffer practically and economically.

There is considerable difference between the case of Jesus - who possibly had no significant relationships with woman - and Muhammad who started off by marrying his boss (who already had kids by two other marriages) and then went on to marry up to 12 others. For a long time it was Islam which was much more of a go-ahead religion than Christianity on sexual matters.
posted by rongorongo at 7:42 AM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not an expert in Wicca, so this answer is based off my personal experience and observations, and how it was explained to me.

Sex is neither good nor bad. It is part of your personal power, and it all depends on how you use it. Sex can be used to connect to other people, create life, celebrate life, etc. But it can also be used to control, harm, and manipulate. You are expected to use your personal power responsibly and with respect to others. If you want to have sex with lots of different people, no problem, as long as everyone is clear that that is what you are doing. If one of your partners (or their partner) has an expectation of monogamy, and you knowingly ignore that boundary, then that is considered "bad". Not the sex itself, but the circumstances around it.

That's the basic theory. But in practice, opinions and experience can vary widely from person to person. Most people I've met who practice Wicca consider sex a good and beautiful thing. Any rules or expectations among groups are in place to give people guidelines on how to act responsibly. So in general "lust" and "pornography" may be frowned upon because it has the potential to hurt you and the people you interact with. "Unregulated sexuality" is frowned upon because it means you aren't thinking about the consequences of your actions and aren't respecting the people directly or indirectly involved.
posted by rakaidan at 7:43 AM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a side note, procreation is a secondary aim of this union, not the primary one. People who are not capable of intercourse cannot receive the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic church while couples who are not able to conceive can and do get married.

Is incorrect.

OUTLINE OF AUTHENTIC ROMAN CATHOLIC TEACHING ON THE LIFE ISSUES

1. The marital act must always be left open to the transmission of life.

2. The use of artificial contraception is degrading to both human nature and to the institution of marriage.

3. Persons who employ artificial means deny the will of God and actually set their wills in His place.

4. Birth regulation through the use of natural family planning (NFP) is licit and, unlike the artificial methods, contributes to marital unity.

That last one is a fine point of Catholic canon and refers to the use of "rhythm method" to avoid conception. This is the only acceptable form of birth control as it is granted by God (who made women infertile some days of every month.)
posted by three blind mice at 7:53 AM on June 23, 2013


Unwanted children bring chaos and suffering to the kids, the parents, and the society that must tend to them as kids and deal with the disaffected youth/adults when they're older.

Spread of venereal disease.

suffering caused by jealousy and societal instability caused by rift unions.

Rape and sexual assault.

I think that about sums it up.
posted by sid at 8:37 AM on June 23, 2013


Three blind mice- actually, what you wrote there is not in conflict with what was said by M. Being open to procreation does not mean the primary goal isnt the union of the human couple. Also, this is the canon on life issues not sexuality. M is actually correct on this one.
posted by superfille at 8:45 AM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Since the question is about porn, masturbation, and promiscuity specifically, let's table the discussion of the Catholic view of sex-within-marriage. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:49 AM on June 23, 2013


Thus far, the responses here are illuminating, thank you so much! So many I would like to mark as best answer.

LobsterMitten--thanks for the intervention though I should add because I am looking at the issue of lust, discussion of Catholic doctrines with regards to sex within marriage is still fine for my purposes. I can understand if you want to curtail a derail into Catholicism though.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 9:05 AM on June 23, 2013


[Ah, okay then - carry on!]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:10 AM on June 23, 2013


"Why is lust, pornography, masturbation and unregulated sexuality (i.e., sleeping around) seen as an unfavorable thing for many (if not most) of the world's various philosophies and religions?"
I can only really speak to why it is so for the early Christian church, but I think the dramatic example there should generalize at least somewhat effectively and put the concept into a different more helpful focus.

The whole of the new testament message on sex is really centered around the word porneia (πορνεία), it’s used in the original Greek every time the topic of sex comes up and almost always when talking about sin in general. If you can really grok what Paul was talking about as he uses the word over and over again then the rest falls into place. Now porneia has always been translated into Latin as fornication, and traditionally translated into English as 'sexual immorality,' while being understood by many conservatives to just be a stand in for promiscuity. However, Porneia in post-classical Corinthian Greek did not mean generic sexual sin or sex outside of marriage and neither did fornication in actual Latin.

The word porneia as Greeks actually used it was related to the verb to sell, and was only ever used in one context. A porneon was a house of forced prostitution, pornos (πόρνος) were those who assaulted those forced into prostitution, pornois (πόρνοις) were more than one, the pornēs (πόρνης) were specifically those prostitutes who were 'owned' by a sex trafficker to be sold for the pathetic sum of one obol to any traveler, and those sex traffickers were called pornoboskos, a singularly unpleasant combination with the verb that described the keeping of livestock such as cattle. Paul used the word over and over again in his Epistles to make two primary assertions, that the ubiquitous system of porneia (πορνεία) fed by war and poverty was fundamentally not OK, and that a laundry list of examples were pretty much the same thing. Paul's fundamental position on sex, that it is something that even should much mess must be divorced from exploitation, was profoundly radical and novel for the time - even if it is hard to see today being the water we swim in.

Paul was so concerned about sex because it was one of the most fucked up aspects of the world he lived in and one of the things he clearly most wanted to address in his ministry, and the scale on which it was fucked up is truly unimaginable to modern readers of the historical records we have. The word is one of the more thoroughly defined terms we have from the post-classical greek lexicon, indeed the ancient greeks were so legally concerned, and facetiously fascinated, with it as to leave us with pretty much zero doubt about what it meant to them. To really understand it requires a little bit of context. Under the laws of Draco, where we get the term draconian today, any man who caught another man having sex with his wife could legally kill that man with perfect immunity. That is, in addition to being able to just get some friends together and safely jump him while he was taking a shit Pulp Fiction style, the cuckold could also capture the adulterer and inflict whatever tortures he imagined so long as he didn't use a knife. In practice this usually resulted in the aggrieved man extracting exorbitant amounts of money from the adulterer in exchange for forfeiting that immunity, but it also formed the basis for some really fascinating trials. As Draconian law, in this instance, only applied to wives (as well as concubines kept for the purpose of producing free children) and explicitly not to pornēs or those like them such as flute players, bridge women, wanderers, alley walkers, or ground beaters those accused of abetting adultery could, and often would, aggressively defend themselves by declaring the objects of their attentions pornēs - while very precisely defining the term.

Before Paul, porneia was seen as a totally uncontroversial part of life, the systematic rape of the vulnerable that it represented was regulated by cities in the same way that roads were, as a necessary public convenience. Price caps were established to protect 'consumers', pornoboskoi were given licenses to ensure quality 'product', and districts to operate in (generally near docks or city gates) to manage the noise and filth of the whole business. The 'trade' was also clearly not small, much less a small part of life in the world early Christianity was addressing. While it is very unclear what the exact percentage of women could be described as pornēs would be in any western society before the advent of the modern census, it is clear that at the time it was at least astonishingly large - particularly after military victories against foreigners as writers would report cities flooded with more cheap pornēs than they could rape at any price. It is also important to consider that every woman in that era had the threat of being sold into porneia hanging over her head, as women who lost the social status granted to them by a man for whatever reason could always be sold for 'scrap value.' There are authors who describe, in detail that would make the vilest Pick-Up-Artist blush, how they would make it very clear to their partners that the pornoboskoi were always by the gate should they ever talk back or the sex get bad.

In the way Paul uses the word though, it does also pretty clearly have jargon meaning specific to the communities he was addressing in addition to the root concept that underpins it. Indeed, Paul does clearly both put on his judging face and use the word porneia when describing examples of things like adultery or sex outside of marriage, even when there are no pornoboskoi or porneon in sight and no one is exchanging money much less anything as pathetic as an obol. However, this also only really makes a lot of sense in the context of the day. Examples of economically independent women who did not rely on sex work in the Roman world were very few and far between, and almost exclusively widows or only daughters still attached to dead men. In the world that Paul was trying to change, the magnitude of male privilege was such that women were fundamentally unable to exist economically independent of men. Sex outside of the commitment of marriage really was functionally very much like porneia, and was a clear path to the real thing.

The Pauline model for marriage is about avoiding porneia and the laundry list of examples of things he gives as being just like it. Without Pauline marriage there was no protection from being used by a partner until old and discarded to the elements; Paul stipulated headship but also repeatedly and inescapably mandates that men place their wives before themselves, that apostasy and misconduct are the only appropriate reasons for divorce, and that women are no less than men before God. The early church was flooded with women attracted by this radically feminist message that women were actually people with dignity that was inherent to them and needed to be respected by men. Even today porneia is by no means gone, in absolute numbers there are more women in sexual slavery today than there have ever been at any point in human history. However, most of the women who aren’t will be able to avoid it into a Pauline model marriage, some variety of post-Pauline marriage, a functionally equivalent model, or into a world made safer by them. This is Paul's legacy on sex that so many Christians have forgotten and discarded, being really extremely not OK with sexual trafficking or sexual traffickers and things like it while being really down with mutual giving patient kind humble love, not hating on people who want to join it in their own way.

TL;DR:
  • Masterbation is not addressed by any text Christians hold holy and prohibitions of doing it can only really be explained as a cultural thing that grew up in parallel to Christianity.
  • Pornography is literaly greek for depictions of porneia, which pretty accurately describes the traditional Christian view of the topic. While the notions of consent that are so important and awesome today are not really addressed by Christian models for understanding these things, a very significant portion of pornography produced today really is depictions of situations that really are porneia and I hope this helps explain why even those liberals among us at least have strong if conflicting feelings about the rest.
  • Christianity developed in a world where for women, or vulnerable men, who you slept with determined who served as your source of protection from omnipresent sexual slavery. Mandating that men pick a wife and stick with her, among other things, stabilized life for women, served to combat sexual exploitation in general, and was indeed a pretty decent way for not-shitty people to interact with the laws of Draco
  • posted by Blasdelb at 9:41 AM on June 23, 2013 [156 favorites]


    These answers are already above and beyond what I was expecting, but Blasdeb, I really appreciate your scholarly post.

    If I may ask, how did you acquire so much knowledge about something that is unknown to most people? This is stuff I've never heard discussed before.
    posted by The ____ of Justice at 10:06 AM on June 23, 2013


    >If you are religious, spiritual, or an expert in a particular religion or belief system

    You may be cognizant of this and simply not have been curious for the reasons, but lust, pornography, masturbation and unregulated sexuality (in varying degrees according to the particular action) has been seen as unfavorable under secular reasoning as well, either in philosophy (strictly considered, as an academic discipline with an ancient history, and not philosophy as a general: "What is your philosophy on life?" or philosophy equated to a belief system) or just in certain circles among popular society today.
    posted by SollosQ at 12:32 PM on June 23, 2013


    prostitution, pornography and masturbation are problematic not just for reasons of lust for christians. i think the bigger issue is the lack of oneness, no real relationship with another human being which is necessary for sex for christians. it is atomizing our sexual desire to be an itch to scratch rather than seeing sex in a holistic fashion as an integral part of a larger whole. it is the height of individualism which is a modern social construct. consequently, something like porn or prostitution is quite dehumanizing and exploitative and it is not surprising that porm fuels sex trafficking. from a christian standpoint even if someone chooses voluntarily to be a porn star or prostitute they are not really respecting their inherent worth and dignity as a person. they've divorced sex from love & marriage and turned it into a commodity.
    posted by wildflower at 1:22 PM on June 23, 2013


    See also this previous Ask Metafilter question and thread: Why are Christians opposed to heterosexual pre-marital sex?

    posted by weston at 1:37 PM on June 23, 2013


    Note: I realize secular society, individuals and various ideologies also have a problem with the above, but I'm not really interested in them for this particular thread, unless a specific and widespread philosophy in particular is being discussed.

    Thank you for the comments though.
    posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:58 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I used to think this religious concept that sleeping around is "bad" was random oppresive badness itself. As I began to sleep around I discoverd why sleeping around sucks for women. Apparently we still get raped, and assaulted and forced into unprotected sex.

    The ONLY reason sleeping around is not bad anymore is because of birth control. Sleeping around results in children without parents who are willing to stay in the same house and be there every day for the child reducing emotional resources for the child's well being.

    Despite the access of birth control we now have, single parenthood is sill growing and I'll add much of this single parenthood is happening to people who don't necessarily WANT to be single parents.

    If the growth of single parenthood were due ONLY to people who planned to have children single and had the emotional and financial and familial resources to provide to the child it wouldn't necessarily be bad (although it assumes children aren't allowed to be hurt that their fathers just abandon them which is pretty cruel to children in my opinion). But it doesn't seem to be the case.

    It's seems like the existance of birth control and decline in morality has resulted in people having sex outside of a commitment to raise children and this has resulted in single parenthood that's probably not good for either the kids or the parents. Birth control fails, people fail to use it right, and people don't always wind up feeling ok about abortion when push actually comes to shove.

    So I still think callous sexuality is a damaging force to many people. Not to mention SO many people have issues that guide them to engage in promiscuous sex against their own interests and to feed that can be very harmful. If you KNOW the person well and know that promiscuity suits them, it's one thing, but having sex with no care about where the other person is coming from or how the sex might affect them can be really harmful.

    Religious teachings tend to include more than covering your ass legally-- i.e. ACTIVELY choosing to look out for others and treat them well rather than looking at sex as inherently ok so long as you get consent out of the other person. I think we've come along way from sexual slavery- but I think we still have more growing to do as a culture to protect the vulnerable among us from sexual exploitation- and the might makes right mentality that often dominates casual sex models. Not to mention the problematic nature of applying any form of capitalist to sex which is innately problematic in that it tends to ensure women who have been abused, raped, lived through the foster system, groomed to supply men with their needs etc etc.

    I think that sex leaves many people vulnerable and takes a lot out of some people. Not all people are like this, but at the same time, many people only learn this about themselves after the fact. I think making it harder to use people for sex without caring about them-- through moral values that encourage restraint at using others to fill your sex needs without caring about their humanity or how you affect them in the long wrong-- is a great teaching. I don't think asceticism for the sake of it is good and there are ascetic strains of almost every religion. These can be harmful because they encourage unhealthy levels of self denial (of food/sleep/human interaction) and I think they are harmful teachings though I do think some moderate use of them can build skills and teach self discipline.

    Using people for sex without consideration of the long term consequence to yourself, the other person, and potential children who may be born of your choice-- is abusive and shouldn't be part of "pro-sex" ideology. We're just adding birth control to the mix, and talking about sex in more open ways that at previous points in western history so I think we're sllowy growing beyond the two polar opposites of "No sex ever, no masturbation ever" to "have whatever sex you want, who cares, no morality, don't judge!" to... maybe, hopefully developing a more nuanced an honest view of the real harms that happen to people with different kinds of sexual practice and better ways to cultivate healthy loving sexuality that doesn't cause harm whether consensual or no. (If you consent to be harmed that doesn't absolve the person you uses that against you especially if you have personal issues leading to that consent.)

    I thought about posing this question here myself because the subject is interesting... thanks for posting it and I've enjoyed the answers.
    posted by xarnop at 2:20 PM on June 23, 2013 [11 favorites]


    Why is lust, pornography, masturbation and unregulated sexuality (i.e., sleeping around) seen as an unfavorable thing for many (if not most) of the world's various philosophies and religions?

    I think the most basic reason for this is that "lust, pornography, masturbation and unregulated sexuality" center around passing on your genes (plus the patterns of your genes in and on chromosomes as well as their epigenetic modulations), whereas "the world's various philosophies and religions" strive to pass on ideas and beliefs (memes, if you will, but I think the theory of memes is fundamentally incoherent and inadequate).

    The two ends could in principle harmonize, as they arguably do to a considerable extent in some forms of paganism-- such as Wicca (mentioned above)-- and somewhat in Judaism (because certain varieties can be viewed as descent groups), but in the great proselytizing religions, spreading one's beliefs often tends to conflict sharply with passing on one's genes, especially in the early stages of those religions

    And I don't think this is coincidence.

    Proselytization very often involves, in my opinion, subversion and redirection of the energies of sexuality toward winning new converts (it also thrives on treating unrelated strangers as if they were members of your family, but that's mainly beyond the scope of your question).
    posted by jamjam at 4:35 PM on June 23, 2013


    "If I may ask, how did you acquire so much knowledge about something that is unknown to most people? This is stuff I've never heard discussed before."

    I really wish I had directly cited things in my answer but wrote it from memory away from my library, if the mods would be willing I'd be happy to edit it for posterity from home but barring that you can always memail me for specific citations. There is a whole, and not especially googleable, world of talented academics who have spent their lives working through this shit - and post Classical Greek sex is a hot topic at the moment. I can recommend some books,
    Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens - by James Davidson is an awesome, interesting, and accessible - if sometimes almost comically erudite in a mefite-esque snarky kind of way with really beautiful turns of phrase - introduction to Classical Greek sexuality that is well cited and at least makes a solid sporting effort at being academically neutral. From your question you will probably also find its clear descriptions of pre-Christian reasons for why lust and unregulated sexuality were seen as sub-optimal in totally different, and fundamentally pretty fucking alien, ways interesting. If reading about an ancient depiction of Socrates, attending one of the truly alarming number of symposia he was said to be present at, asking prying questions of a prominent hetaerae (literally companion, but in this context describes someone who would accept gifts from friends who would then sometimes then be slept with but not in exchange for those gifts) in Alexandria about exactly what the arrangement, if it could be hesitantly described as such, was interests you than this is your book.

    Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (google preview with essay titles) is a well edited collection of scholarly essays on the topic from a variety of perspectives.

    Also Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome for a more Roman centric perspective if thats what you're looking for.

    For a thorough discussion of human sexuality from a Christian perspective in a historical context Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics is now a classic that seems to get rediscovered on the internet on a roughly annual basis.
    I wrote my answer trying to strip it of any theology or even ontological arguments intending to better shape it for a not necessarily religious asker as well as the mixed audience of AskMe, but looking back I think that has done it a disservice by also removing the broader context of Paul's opposition to porneia, and the base exploitation it represents, as well as its bedrock moral foundation. In his, and his buddy Sosthenes', first surviving epistle to the Church in Corinth, easily among the greatest 'y'all done fucked up' letters of all time, he upbraids the church in this famously debauched city1 for sins like getting smashed at the communion table, tolerating someone exploiting his dead father's wife (its, possibly euphemistically, unclear if this means his mother) for sex in exchange for the economic and social support he naturally owed her, and openly assaulting pornēs but also lovingly and gently defines out a clear path for what they should be doing instead.
    1 Cor 1:18-31 - For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”*
    Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

    Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
    This whole discourse, to the mixed audience of Greek and Jewish ears they are writing to, would have been as absurd and insane as the idea of worshiping a God so weak he could be nailed naked to a tree next to common thieves and left to die suffocated by the weight of his own body in excruciating pain with his suffering and powerlessness displayed openly for all to see and his body discarded by authorities like it was excrement. This is what is generally referred to as the Scandal of the Cross and it was the source of a profound ontological realignment in the Western world. For Greeks and Romans it was a shift away from the idea that power is not only self-justifying but the only true source by which anything could be justified, to a perspective much like the one most of us have today, which recognizes the personhood of vulnerable people and sees it as a moral absolute, non-variable. To us the systematic mass rape of entire peoples and sections of society that Paul faught is fundamentally horrifying because we see the people porneia exploited as having been as fundamentally human as any of us now or any aristocrat then. However, imagine how ridiculous this, perhaps enlightened, foolishness must have seemed to someone born into a society where your value was purely based on the value that you could produce or extract.

    For Paul his opposition to sexual exploitation was just one of the many logical conclusions to the radical idea that everyone, enslaved and free, Jew and Gentile, men and women were one in anything much less that one dude who let himself get nailed to a tree while everyone watched.

    1Ancient Greco-Romans would casually use Corinthian as an adjective to describe particularly drunken or stupid or sexually liberal acts, like saying that’s so Vegas, that is if Vegas were a port city built for drunken sex tourists and sailors with three months wages to spend in a night - among other things not a happy place to be sold to.
    posted by Blasdelb at 7:05 AM on June 24, 2013 [26 favorites]


    I also wanted to point out Serene Empress Dork and xarnop's answers as especially excellent; I only really focused on what religious views of sex weren't to the exclusion of what they are and xarnop explained my feelings on why Paul's judging face for those who sexually exploit others and religion in general do still have relevance even in our modern consent based models for understanding sexuality.

    And if you liked that excessively long answer you might also like my similarly excessive super detailed assessment of the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality, discussion about how we know what we know about the life of Jesus and the first century church, and defense of why this sort of thing is still relevant today to topics like abortion.
    posted by Blasdelb at 7:30 AM on June 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


    Thank you so much for yet another meaty response, Blasdelb. WOW.

    I really appreciate all of these answers, btw. To avoid highlighting all of them I just marked the ones that seemed to respond to the question with a greater level of detail or pointed out something new ro me.

    Thank you all!
    posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:24 PM on June 24, 2013


    It's amazing how much birth control and medicine have changed our perceptions in so short of time.

    A hundred years ago, this would have been a ridiculous question, the equivalent of, "Why do moral systems frown on a practice that frequently leaves girls pregnant, with no means of supporting themselves and their child? (When they don't die in childbirth.) Why does the church take a dim view of the people spreading syphilis in our town?"

    There's more to it, of course, but a hundred years ago there were some pretty obvious, tangible ways that promiscuity hurt people.
    posted by straight at 11:36 AM on June 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


    A beautiful quote I heard once in a Pagan circle:
    "When sex is Sacred, rape is Blasphemy"

    I'm sure that's an ideal, rather than the reality, unfortunately.

    But still, that really sums up a lot of sex positivity, and also what constitutes sexual misconduct.
    posted by Elysum at 4:20 AM on July 28, 2013


    Here is my answer with hyperlinked references added and with its basic argument tightened up some amount. Many of its improvements are indebted to thoughtful criticism from some of reddit's local AskHistorians after it got a bunch of attention ending up on the front page on /r/bestof. Also, ALL KINDS OF TRIGGER WARNINGS AHEAD FOR GRAPHIC FIRST HAND DEPICTIONS OF OF CLASSICAL AND ANCIENT SEXUAL EXPLOITATION
    I can only really speak to why it is so for the early Christian church, but I think the dramatic example there should generalize at least somewhat effectively and put the concept into a different more helpful focus.

    When English translations of the New Testament bible talk about 'sexual immorality' they are really translating the greek word porneia (πορνεία), it’s used almost every time the topic of sex comes up and often when talking about the worst sins in general. If you can really grok what Paul was talking about as he uses the root for the word over and over again (it appears 32 times in the New Testament) then the rest falls into place. Now porneia has always been translated into Latin as fornication, while being understood by many conservatives to just be a 1:1 stand in for 'any sexual expression not between husband and wife'. However, Porneia in post-classical Corinthian Greek did not mean generic sexual sin, or even sex outside of marriage, at all and neither did fornication in actual Latin.

    The word family of porneia as the Greeks actually used it was related to the verb to sell, and was only ever used in one context. A porneon was a house of forced prostitution, pornos (πόρνος) were those who sexually assaulted those forced into prostitution, pornois (πόρνοις) were more than one, the pornēs (πόρνης) were specifically those prostitutes who were sold for a pathetic sum to any taker, and itinerant sex traffickers were called pornoboskoi, a singularly unpleasant combination with the verb that described the herding of livestock such as cattle. The word porneia itself is a pretty weird conjugation and only has four attested uses before Christianity, each time referring to the general concept of one's body being sold as a sexual object. Paul used the word repeatedly in his Epistles while making two primary assertions, that the ubiquitous system of porneia (πορνεία) fed by war, poverty, and callousness was fundamentally not OK, and that a laundry list of examples were pretty much the same thing as porneia. This fundamental position on heterosexual sex, that it is something that even could, much less must be divorced from exploitation was profoundly radical and novel for the time - even if it is hard to see today being the water we swim in. Paul was clearly very concerned about sex, so much so that he comes from an almost totally ascetic perspective, and indeed with modern eyes that he was such a large part of giving us sex was one of the most fucked up aspects of the world he lived in, where the scale on which it was fucked up is truly unimaginable to us modern readers of the historical records we have.

    Lest you think there is significant doubt about what the concept meant to the Classical and post-Classical Greeks, the porneia word family communicates one of the more thoroughly defined ideas that we have from their lexicon, as the ancient greeks were so legally concerned, as well as facetiously fascinated, with it. To really understand it requires a little bit of context. Under the laws of Draco in ancient Greece (621BCE), where we get the term draconian today, any man who caught another man sexually violating (adultering, μοιχεία) his wife could legally kill that man with the same immunity as an athlete who accidentally killed someone in competition23.53. Consent, or even any action or feelings on the part of the woman in question, were perfectly immaterial to the crime that one man committed against another that this was. This meant that, in addition to being able to just get some friends together and safely jump him while he was taking a shit Pulp Fiction style as Draco allowed, the cuckold could also capture the adulterer and inflict whatever tortures he imagined so long as he didn't use a knife59.67. In practice however, this usually resulted in the aggrieved man privately extracting exorbitant amounts of money from the adulterer in exchange for publicly forfeiting that immunity, but it also formed the basis for some really fascinating trials. Under the laws of Solon (594BCE), as well as later codes, this legal vengeance only applied to wives (as well as concubines kept for the purpose of producing free children) and explicitly not to women available for sale59.67, pornēs or those like them such as flute players, two-obol women, bridge women, alley walkers, or ground beaters. Thus we have solid records of those accused of adultering wives aggressively defending themselves by declaring the objects of their attentions to be pornēs - while very precisely defining the term as describing women available for sale to any john, particularly if at a fixed price.

    Its important to keep in mind what sexual immorality - porneia - meant for the society that Paul was advising his churches on how to live in. Before Paul, porneia was seen as a totally uncontroversial part of life, a public good, tradition even held that Solon the lawgiver even opened a brothel in Athens himself as an act of public servicePhilemon, Frag. 3; Athenaeus, Deipn. 569d. The systematic rape of the vulnerable that the institution represented was regulated by cities in the same way that roads were, as a lucrative and essential public utility. Indeed the task of overseeing the institution was given to the Astynomoi, who were entrusted with tasks associated with maintaining thoroughfares such as ensuring the reputable disposal of shit and abandoned corpses from the streets. A price caps of two drachmas was established to protect 'consumers' and the same officials who enforced it would also adjudicate disputes over women (by the drawing of lots of course, the women themselves were not to be consulted), pimps were given licenses to ensure quality 'product', and districts to operate in (generally near docks or city gates) to manage the noise, filth, and brawls over women that were inherent to the whole business. The 'trade' was also clearly not small, much less a small part of life in the world early Christianity was addressing. While it is very unclear what the exact percentage of women could be described as pornēs would be in any western society before the advent of the modern census, it is clear that at the time it was at least astonishingly large - particularly after military victories against foreigners when cities were flooded with more cheap pornēs than they could rape at any price. It is also important to consider that every woman in that era had the threat of being sold into porneia hanging over her head, as women who lost the social status granted to them by a man for whatever reason could always be sold or abducted for 'scrap value.' This would have been true to varying degrees whether that status was by virtue of being somewhere on the sexual-partner-to-a-man spectrum from 'wedded wife according to the laws,' kept as part of a relationship with her father's family and for the purpose of producing heirs, to disposable girlfriend to sexual chattel or by virtue of being maintained as a daughter or sister or cousin. Losing that connection through shifting political winds or sexual disinterest or familial indifference or military defeat could mean losing everything. Demeas in Menander's play Samia describes, in detail that would make the vilest MRA blush, what will happen to his companion (hetaera) when he kicks her out of the house for supposed adultery:
    "You think you're so fine. Go to the city and you will see what kind of woman you really are. They live in a different world those other women, paid a paltry ten drachmas for running to dinner parties and drinking neat wine until they die, and if they hesitate or demure, they starve. You will learn the hard way like everyone else, and recognize the mistake you have made."
    Indeed a comic character later expounds on this idea:
    "Apart from that its easier, isn't it, to get along with a 'married' hetaera than with a wedded wife. Of course it is. A wife stays indoors, her haughtiness licensed by law, a heteaera, on the other hand, knows that if she wants to keep her man she must pay for him with good behavior, or go and find another one."
    Women had reason to fear the life of a pornēs in a kinētērion (Classically translated as fuckery or fuck factory), according to Eupolis 99.27,
    "They stand virtually naked, lest you be deceived; take a look at everything. Perhaps you are not feeling up to the mark; maybe you have something on your mind. The door's wide open; one obol's the fee. Pop in! No coyness here, no nonsense, no running away, but without delay the one you want, whichever way you want her. You come out; you tell her where to go; to you she is nothing."
    He isn't being entirely serious in his salesmanship as he makes clear soon afterwards when he describes the girls as being "the ones Eridanos (then an open sewer that the waste of Athens flowed into) refreshes with its pure waters." I should also note that while I am taking into account Appolodorus' famous distinction between cortesans and companions (hetaeras) as well as wives - I am ignoring, as Paul did, the megalomisthoi (great hetaeras) who often wielded considerable influence in society and politics as women exercising their own agency performing sexual favors when they pleased for those who gave them gifts and their inherent complexity.

    This is all some pretty disturbing shit but, you might ask, doesn't the way Paul uses the word pretty clearly have a jargon meaning specific to the communities he was addressing? Indeed he practically invents the conjugation, being such a weirdly female centric construction from a Classical Greek perspective. Paul does also clearly both put on his judging face and use the word porneia when describing examples of things like adultery or sex outside of marriage, even when there are no pornoboskoi or porneon in sight and no one is exchanging money much less anything as pathetic as the two obols commonly exchanged for pornēs. It is also important to keep in mind that Paul was not himself Greek, and neither was much of his audience that he was writing to, even if he was writing in Greek; thus we have to consider that Paul and the communities that wrote the gospels might have really been meaning the underlying Hebrew root זנה (znh) when they discussed porneia.

    However, Paul's reactionary asceticism cannot be meaningfully judged outside of the context of the society he was reacting against. Examples of economically independent women who did not rely on sex work in the Greco-Roman or Hebrew world were very few and far between, and almost exclusively widows or only daughters still attached to dead men. In the world that Paul was trying to change, the magnitude of male privilege was such that women were fundamentally unable to exist economically independent of men. Sex outside of the commitment of marriage really was functionally very much like porneia, and was a clear path to the bare naked thing. If we take Paul at his word that he, unlike his contemporaries, felt that women were no less than men in Christ then his position on porneia becomes just a logical extension of the inherent dignity of women through Christ.

    The Pauline model for marriage is about avoiding porneia and the laundry list of examples of things he gives as being just like it. Without Pauline marriage there was no protection from being used by a partner until old and discarded to the elements; Paul stipulated headship but also repeatedly, inescapably, and radically mandates that men place their wives before themselves, that apostasy and misconduct are the only appropriate reasons for divorce, and that women are no less than men before God. The early church was flooded with women attracted by this radically feminist message that women were actually people with dignity that was inherent to them and needed to be respected by men. Even today porneia is by no means gone, in absolute numbers there are more women in sexual slavery today than there have ever been at any point in human history. However, most of the women who aren’t will be able to avoid it into a Pauline model marriage, some variety of post-Pauline marriage, a functionally equivalent model, or into a world made safer by them.

    Christianity developed in a world where for women, or vulnerable men, who you slept with determined who served as your source of protection from omnipresent sexual slavery. Mandating that men pick a wife and stick with her, among other things, stabilized life for women, served to combat sexual exploitation in general, and was indeed a pretty decent way for not-shitty people to interact with the laws of Draco. I am no theologian and won't pretend to have some moral authority to tell anyone how they should think about sex, much less the mixed audience of ask metafilter, but this strategy seems like it is just as if not more valid in our not so different age of disposable partners, and excuses for violent men, and shame for exploited women, and ubiquitous sexual assault.
    posted by Blasdelb at 10:18 AM on November 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


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