What Religious Conservatives Don’t Understand about Sexuality

Roman_CoupleReligious conservatives (I can’t call them Christians at this point) would love it if we lived in some unchanging universe, where everything stayed the same. This is not in itself a surprise. Conservatism is, after all, all about maintenance of the status quo.

But the universe steadfastly refuses to cooperate. Change is the order of the day, and has always been, since humans left the trees and took to their two feet. Now, keep in mind, even this idea is anathema to religious conservatives, who cling to the idea that humans were created in their god’s own image in the Garden of Eden, and have always looked and thought and acted as we do now.

If the Bible were right, conservatism would have a lot more going for it, because being a product of the ancient world, their so-called Holy Scripture paints an unchanging universe, where stars and planets follow fixed paths through the heavens.

This isn’t true of course. The stars move. Even galaxies move. Our galaxy moves, and it moves in relation to other moving galaxies, which are all moving. There are no fixed paths. We have known stars move since British astronomer Edmond Halley realized, 300 years ago, that they weren’t where the ancient Greeks said they were.[1] Even the moon is distancing itself from earth, and we will one day lose our only satellite as it drifts out of our gravitational pull.[2]

And someday further on, the sun will go nova. So much for an external and unchanging cosmos.

No, not very fixed at all.

And it’s not just the “everything out there” part of the cosmos, but everything here on earth as well that changes. And not simply the human body but how humans think about the their bodies, from gender categories to gender roles to sexual preferences to ideas about sex itself, what modern people think of as sexuality.

But the ancient Greeks had no word for “sexuality.”[3] How then, can we have a meaningful discussion about sexuality as though, like the cosmos for the Bibles writers, things never change, that a set of immutable laws govern our behavior?

As Marilyn Katz explains, “the nineteenth-century notion of sexual pathology was unknown to antiquity.” As she goes on to say, “[T]here is a radical discontinuity between the ancient and modern discourses on sexuality.”[4]

Likewise, the term “homosexual.” Speaking of the 19th century, this word made its first appearance only in 1869.[5] Religious conservatives argue that what they think of as homosexuality is against nature’s law – that is, it is and has always been a form of degeneracy. But how can that be when the modern idea behind the word homosexual has been with us for only a century-and-a-half?

Ray Laurence writes that, “The Roman view of sex was not the same as our division between heterosexual and homosexual. Instead, the Romans placed an emphasis upon the active penetration of others and developed a vocabulary to describe the penetration of human orifices.”[6] Needless to say, this is a perspective very different from our own.

The Religious Right would have us ignore these differences. They insist on a rigid, non-conforming nature’s God and on an innate human understanding of “homosexuality” as evil.

It is true, as Laurence points out, that the Romans had something akin to homophobia, which attached itself to men who took a passive role in the giving of pleasure: i.e. allowed themselves to be penetrated, whether it was by a another man’s penis or by a woman’s vagina. A man did not “provide” pleasure but took it.[7]

As one author puts it, for a free male citizen of Rome “to be sodomized was shameful, a betrayal of his masculinity. Anyone who was known to enjoy being buggered was scorned.”[8] The penetrator was a real man. But the 19th century terminology we use lumps both penetrator and penetrated into the same despised category as though such differences never existed.

It is one thing to say that Christianity imposed a new ,more rigid form of sexuality in the form of gender and gender roles (though that would be mistaken too) and quite another to insist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that all societies without exception have condemned homosexuality.

A culture cannot condemn something for which it has no concept.

Indeed, as Peter Brown writes, “classical attitudes toward the body seem deeply alien to later, Christian eyes, and hence to modern observers of the ancient world.”[9]

In the pagan world of the second century A.D., a market degree of tolerance was accorded to men, both on the matter of homosexuality and in their love affairs before and outside marriage.

And Brown points out that we must not assume that the only change to take place was that “from a less to a more repressive society.” “What was at stake,” he writes, “was a subtle change in the perception of the body itself.”[10]

Archaeologist Joan Breton-Connelly speaks of “presentist” assumptions – arguments based on or colored by “late twentieth -century political sensibilities.”[11] With regard to genders as “fixed” categories Breton-Connelly appeals to Judith Butler’s questioning of “woman” as a fixed category in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) in which she “exposes the ways in which traditional feminist constructs decontextualize individuals from their historical, political, and cultural settings and identities.”[12] The same can be said of “homosexuals” as a fixed category.

As Beate Wagner-Hasel observed in 1989, the debate over the status of women in ancient Greece “is not only an attempt to reconstruct a bygone way of life, it is also a discourse over woman’s place in modern bourgeois society which had its beginnings in the Enlightenment and has continued up until the present time.”[13]

And just as obviously, there was no modern “bourgeois society” in the ancient world, just as there were no modern liberal democracies that granted equal rights, and equal standing before the law, to all its citizens.

Religious conservatives not only insist on living in the past, and refuse to accept the changes wrought by 2000 years of history, but they cherry pick that past for bits they like and reject the rest. They want to stone gays but not their disobedient children, even though the latter is required by Jewish law, and they forget that the same Bible that insists the Earth is 6000 years old also says it is a flat disk and that the “waters of the firmament” hover over our heads.

Reality does not allow us to pick and choose. It is what it is, if you’ll pardon the tautology, and we must be cognizant not only of drifting stars and galaxies but of differences between the present and the past, and how ancient modes of thinking inform our own. Because, as Heraclitus of Ephesus realized in the sixth century BCE, the only constant in the universe is change.[14]

And that, if you’ll think about what Neil DeGrasse Tyson has done to conservative thinking recently, sort of puts conservatives on the outs with the cosmos, doesn’t it?


[1] http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/review/dr-marc-space/constellations.html
[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-12311119
[3] Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Blackewll, 2005), 3.
[4] Katz (1992), 92.
[5] Károly Mária Kertbeny first used the term in1869. http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/kertbeny_km.html
[6] Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (Continuum, 2009), 78.
[7] Laurence (2009), 85.
[8] Anthony Everitt, Augustus (Random House, 2006), 149.
[9] Peter Brown, The Body & Society: Men, Women, & Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2008), 29.
[10] Brown (2008), 30.
[11] Joan Breton-Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton University Press, 2007), 19-20.
[12] Breton-Connelly (2007), 22.
[13] Beate Wagner-Hasel, “Frauenleben in orientalischer Abgeschlossenheit? Zur Geschichte und Nutzanwendung eines Topos,” Der Altsprachliche Unterricht 2 (1989), 19.
[14] http://www.ancient.eu.com/Heraclitus_of_Ephesos/

7 Replies to “What Religious Conservatives Don’t Understand about Sexuality”

  1. Sexual matters drive the conservative crazy. Always in wonder if they are following the rules. Always worrying about others breaking the rules because of the repression they live under daily, but ignoring their own actions. Demanding others live like they do according to their interpretation of their gods will.

    There is no room for anyone who is different. That scares them to death and makes them wonder about their own sexuality. But to be sure, religious conservatives must have the power to regulate others lives. For the sexually repressed conservative, power to control others lives is key to their own sanity.

    The evidence of repression is if you hear of a child abuser, they will most likely be a religious conservative

  2. In his “Devil’s Dictionary”, Ambrose Bierce said it well:

    Puritanism: The fear that somewhere, someone is happy.

  3. What religious conservatives don’t understand about sexuality could fill a library, and what they don’t understand about everything in general as well. As a matter of fact libraries ARE repositories of what religious conservatives not only do not understand but simply refuse to even believe.

  4. “And someday further on, the sun will go nova.”

    You had credibility up until this point. Our sun will never “go nova”. I beg you, please so better research before posting something scientifically inaccurate when we collectively already KNOW it will red giant and then white dwarf.

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