The Sex Taboo

By Edward Carpenter
 

Adam and Eve In the course of the last few chapters I have spoken more than once of the solidarity and continuity of Christianity, in its essential doctrines, with the Pagan rites. There is, however, one notable exception to this statement. I refer of course to Christianity’s treatment of Sex. It is certainly very remarkable that while the Pagan cults generally made a great deal of all sorts of sex-rites, laid much stress upon them, and introduced them in what we consider an unblushing and shameless way into the instincts connected with it. I say ‘the Christian Church,’ on the whole took quite the opposite line—ignored sex, condemned it, and did much despite to the perfectly natural instincts connected with it. I say ‘the Christian Church,’ because there is nothing to show that Jesus himself (if we admit his figure as historical) adopted any such extreme or doctrinaire attitude; and the quite early Christian teachers (with the chief exception of Paul) do not exhibit this bias to any great degree. In fact, as is well known, strong currents of pagan usage and belief ran through the Christian assemblies of the first three or four centuries. “The Christian art of this period remained delightfully pagan. In the catacombs we see the Savior as a beardless youth, like a young Greek god; sometimes represented, like Hermes the guardian of the flocks, bearing a ram or lamb round his neck; sometimes as Orpheus tuning his lute among the wild animals.”[1] The followers of Jesus were at times even accused—whether rightly or wrongly I know not— of celebrating sexual mysteries at their love-feasts. But as the Church through the centuries grew in power and scope --with its monks and their mutilations and asceticisms, and its celibate clergy, and its absolute refusal to recognize the sexual meaning of its own acclaimed symbols (like the Cross, the three fingers of Benediction, the Fleur de Lys and so forth)--it more and more consistently defined itself as anti-sexual in its outlook, and stood out in that way in marked contrast to the earlier Nature-religions.

[1] Angels’ Wings, by E. Carpenter, p. 104.

 

It may be said of course that this anti-sexual tendency can be traced in other of the pre-Christian Churches, especially the later ones, like the Buddhist, the Egyptian, and so forth; and this is perfectly true; but it would seem that in many ways the Christian Church marked the culmination of the tendency; and the fact that other cults participated in the taboo makes us all the more ready and anxious to inquire into its real cause.

To go into a disquisition on the Sex-rites of the various pre-Christian religions would be ‘a large order’—larger than I could attempt to fill; but the general facts in this connection are fairly patent. We know, of course, from the Bible that the Syrians in Palestine were given to sexual worships. There were erect images (phallic) and “groves” (sexual symbols) on every high hill and under every green tree;[1] and these same images and the rites connected with them crept into the Jewish Temple and were popular enough to maintain their footing there for a long period from King Rehoboam onwards, notwithstanding the efforts of Josiah[2] and other reformers to extirpate them. Moreover there were girls and men (hierodouloi) regularly attached during this period to the Jewish Temple as to the heathen Temples, for the rendering of sexual services, which were recognized in many cases as part of the ritual. Women were persuaded that it was an honor and a privilege to be fertilized by a ‘holy man’ (a priest or other man connected with the rites), and children resulting from such unions were often called “Children of God”—an appellation which no doubt sometimes led to a legend of miraculous birth! Girls who took their place as hierodouloi in the Temple or Temple-precincts were expected to surrender themselves to men-worshipers in the Temple, much in the same way, probably, as Herodotus describes in the temple of the Babylonian Venus Mylitta, where every native woman, once in her life, was supposed to sit in the Temple and have intercourse with some stranger.[3] Indeed the Syrian and Jewish rites dated largely from Babylonia.  “The Hebrews entering Syria,” says Richard Burton[4] “found it religionized. by Assyria and Babylonia, when the Accadian Ishtar had passed West, and had become Ashtoreth, Ashtaroth, or Ashirah, the Anaitis of Armenia, the Phoenician Astarte, and the Greek Aphrodite, the great Moon-goddess who is queen of Heaven and Love.” The word translated “grove” as above, in our Bible, is in fact Asherah, which connects it pretty clearly with the Babylonian Queen of Heaven.

[1] 1 Kings xiv. 22-24.

[2] 2 Kings xxiii.

[3] See Herodotus i. 199; also a reference to this custom in the apocryphal Baruch, vi. 42, 43.

[4] The Thousand Nights and a Night (1886 edn.), vol. x, p. 229.

 

In India again, in connection with the Hindu Temples and their rites, we have exactly the same institution of girls attached to the Temple service—the Nautch-girls—whose functions in past times were certainly sexual, and whose dances in honor of the god are, even down to the present day, decidedly amatory in character. Then we have the very numerous lingams (conventional representations of the male organ) to be seen, scores and scores of them, in the arcades and cloisters of the Hindu Temples— to which women of all classes, especially those who wish to become mothers, resort, anointing them copiously with oil, and signalizing their respect and devotion to them in a very practical way. As to the lingam as representing the male organ, in some form or other—as upright stone or pillar or obelisk or slender round tower—it occurs all over the, world, notably in Ireland, and forms such a memorial of the adoration paid by early folk to the great emblem and instrument of human fertility, as cannot be mistaken.  The pillars set up by Solomon in front of his temple were obviously from their names—Jachin and Boaz[1]--meant to be emblems of this kind; and the fact that they were crowned with pomegranates—the universally accepted symbol of the female—confirms and clinches this interpretation.  The obelisks before the Egyptians’ temples were signs of the same character. The well-known T-shaped cross was in use in pagan lands long before Christianity, as a representation of the male member, and also at the same time of the ‘tree’ on which the god (Attis or Adonis or Krishna or whoever it might be) was crucified; and the same symbol combined with the oval (or yoni) formed THE Crux Ansata {Ankh} of the old Egyptian ritual—a figure which is to-day sold in Cairo as a potent charm, and confessedly indicates the conjunction of the two sexes in one design.[2] MacLennan in The Fortnightly Review (Oct. 1869) quotes with approval the words of Sanchoniathon, as saying that “men first worship plants, next the heavenly bodies, supposed to be animals, then ‘pillars’ (emblems of the Procreator), and last, the anthropomorphic gods.”

[1] “He shall establish” and “In it is strength” are in the Bible the marginal interpretations of these two words.

[2] The connection between the production of fire by means of the fire-drill and the generation of life by sex-intercourse is a very obvious one, and lends itself to magical ideas. J. E. Hewitt in his Ruling Races of Prehistoric Times (1894) says (vol. i, p.  8) that “Magha, the mother-goddess worshipped in Asia Minor, was originally the socket-block from which fire was generated by the fire-drill.” Hence we have, he says, the Magi of Persia, and the Maghadas of Indian History, also the word ‘Magic.”

 

It is not necessary to enlarge on this subject. The facts of the connection of sexual rites with religious services nearly everywhere in the early world are, as I say, sufficiently patent to every inquirer. But it IS necessary to try to understand the rationale of this connection. To dispatch all such cases under the mere term “religious prostitution” is no explanation. The term suggests, of course, that the plea of religion was used simply as an excuse and a cover for sexual familiarities; but though this kind of explanation commends itself, no doubt, to the modern man—whose religion is as commercial as his sex-relationships are—and though in CASES no doubt it was a true explanation—yet it is obvious that among people who took religion seriously, as a matter of life and death and who did not need hypocritical excuses or covers for sex-relationships, it cannot be accepted as in general the RIGHT explanation. No, the real explanation is—and I will return to this presently—that sexual relationships are so deep and intimate a part of human nature that from the first it has been simply impossible to keep them OUT of religion—it being of course the object of religion to bring the whole human being into some intelligible relation with the physical, moral, and if you like supernatural order of the great world around him. Sex was felt from the first to be part, and a foundational part, of the great order of the world and of human nature; and therefore to separate it from Religion was unthinkable and a kind of contradiction in terms.[1]

[1] For further development of this subject see ch. xv.

 

If that is true—it will be asked—how was it that that divorce DID take place—that the taboo did arise? How was it that the Jews, under the influence of Josiah and the Hebrew prophets, turned their faces away from sex and strenuously opposed the Syrian cults? How was it that this reaction extended into Christianity and became even more definite in the Christian Church—that monks went by thousands into the deserts of the Thebaid, and that the early Fathers and Christian apologists could not find terms foul enough to hurl at Woman as the symbol (to them) of nothing but sex-corruption and delusion? How was it that this contempt of the body and degradation of sex-things went on far into the Middle Ages of Europe, and ultimately created an organized system of hypocrisy, and concealment and suppression of sex-instincts, which, acting as cover to a vile commercial Prostitution and as a breeding ground for horrible Disease, has lasted on even to the edge of the present day?

This is a fair question, and one which demands an answer.  There must have been a reason, and a deep-rooted one, for this remarkable reaction and volte-face which has characterized Christianity, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, other both earlier and later cults like those of the Buddhists, the Egyptians, the Aztecs,[1] and so forth.

[1] For the Aztecs, see Acosta, vol. ii, p. 324 (London, 1604).

 

It may be said—and this is a fair answer on the SURFACE of the problem—that the main reason WAS something in the nature of a reaction. The excesses and corruptions of sex in Syria had evidently become pretty bad, and that very fact may have led to a pendulum-swing of the Jewish Church in the opposite direction; and again in the same way the general laxity of morals in the decay of the Roman empire may have confirmed the Church of early Christendom in its determination to keep along the great high road of asceticism.  The Christian followed on the Jewish and Egyptian Churches, and in this way a great tradition of sexual continence and anti-pagan morality came right down the centuries even into modern times.

This seems so far a reasonable theory; but I think we shall go farther and get nearer the heart of the problem if we revert to the general clue which I have followed already more than once—the clue of the necessary evolution of human Consciousness. In the first or animal stage of human evolution, Sex was (as among the animals) a perfectly necessary, instinctive and unself-conscious activity. It was harmonious with itself, natural, and unproductive of evil. But when the second stage set in, in which man became preponderantly SELF-conscious, he inevitably set about deflecting sex-activities to his own private pleasure and advantage; he employed his budding intellect in scheming the derailment of passion and desire from tribal needs and, Nature’s uses to the poor details of his own gratification. If the first stage of harmonious sex-instinct and activity may be held as characteristic of the Golden Age, the second stage must be taken to represent the Fall of man and his expulsion from Paradise in the Garden of Eden story. The pleasure and glory of Sex having been turned to self-purposes, Sex itself became the great Sin. A sense of guilt overspread man’s thoughts on the subject. “He knew that he was naked,” and he fled from the voice and face of the Lord. From that moment one of the main objects of his life (in its inner and newer activities) came to be the DENIAL of Sex. Sex was conceived of as the great Antagonist, the old Serpent lying ever in wait to betray him; and there arrived a moment in the history of every race, and of every representative religion, when the sexual rites and ceremonies of the older time lost their naive and quasi-innocent character and became afflicted with a sense of guilt and indecency. This extraordinarily interesting and dramatic moment in human evolution was of course that in which self-consciousness grew powerful enough to penetrate to the centre of human vitality, the sanctum of man’s inner life, his sexual instinct, and to deal it a terrific blow—a blow from which it has never yet recovered, and from which indeed it will not recover, until the very nature of man’s inner life is changed.

It may be said that it was very foolish of Man to deny and to try to expel a perfectly natural and sensible thing, a necessary and indispensable part of his own nature.  And that, as far as I can see, is perfectly true. But sometimes it is unavoidable, it would seem, to do foolish things— if only to convince oneself of one’s own foolishness. On the other hand, this policy on the part of Man was certainly very wise—wiser than he knew—for in attempting to drive out Sex (which of course he could not do) he entered into a conflict which was bound to end in the expulsion of SOMETHING; and that something was the domination, within himself, of self-consciousness, the very thing which makes and ever has made sex detestable. Man did not succeed in driving the snake out of the Garden, but he drove himself out, taking the real old serpent of self-greed and self-gratification with him. When some day he returns to Paradise this latter will have died in his bosom and been cast away, but he will find the good Snake there as of old, full of healing and friendliness, among the branches of the Tree of Life.

Besides it is evident from other considerations that this moment of the denial of sex HAD to come. When one thinks of the enormous power of this passion, and its age-long, hold upon the human race, one realizes that once liberated from the instinctive bonds of nature, and backed by a self-conscious and self-seeking human intelligence it was on the way to become a fearful curse.

A monstrous Eft was of old the Lord and Master of Earth;
For him did his high sun flame, and his river billowing ran.

And this may have been all very well and appropriate in the carboniferous Epoch, but WE in the end of Time have no desire to fall under any such preposterous domination, or to return to the primal swamps from which organic nature has so slowly and painfully emerged.

I say it was the entry of self-consciousness into the sphere of Sex, and the consequent use of the latter for private ends, which poisoned this great race-power at its root.  For above all, Sex, as representing through Childbirth the life of the Race (or of the Tribe, or, if you like, of Humanity at large) should be sacred and guarded from merely selfish aims, and therefore to use it only for such aims is indeed a desecration. And even if—as some maintain and I think rightly[1]--sex is not MERELY for child-birth and physical procreation, but for mutual vitalizing and invigoration, it still subserves union and not egotism; and to use it egotistically is to commit the sin of Separation indeed.  It is to cast away and corrupt the very bond of life and fellowship. The ancient peoples at any rate threw an illumination of religious (that is, of communal and public) value over sex-acts, and to a great extent made them into matters either of Temple-ritual and the worship of the gods, or of communal and pandemic celebration, as in the Saturnalia and other similar festivals. We have certainly no right to regard these celebrations—of either kind—as insincere. They were, at any rate in their inception, genuinely religious or genuinely social and festal; and from either point of view they were far better than the secrecy of private indulgence which characterizes our modern world in these matters. The thorough and shameless commercialism of Sex has alas! been reserved for what is called “Christian civilization,” and with it (perhaps as a necessary consequence) Prostitution and Syphilis have grown into appalling evils, accompanied by a gigantic degradation of social standards, and upgrowth of petty Philistinism and niaiserie. Love, in fact, having in this modern world-movement been denied, and its natural manifestations affected with a sense of guilt and of sin, has really languished and ceased to play its natural part in life; and a vast number of people—both men and women, finding themselves barred or derailed from the main object of existence, have turned their energies to ‘business’ or ‘money-making’ or ‘social advancement’ or something equally futile, as the only poor substitute and pis aller open to them.

[1] See Havelock Ellis, The Objects of Marriage, a pamphlet published by the “British Society for the Study of Sex-psychology.”

 

Why (again we ask) did Christianity make this apparently great mistake? And again we must reply: Perhaps the mistake was not so great as it appears to be. Perhaps this was another case of the necessity of learning by loss.  Love had to be denied, in the form of sex, in order that it might thus the better learn its own true values and needs. Sex had to be rejected, or defiled with the sense of guilt and self-seeking, in order that having cast out its defilement it might return one day, transformed in the embrace of love.  The whole process has had a deep and strange world-significance. It has led to an immensely long period of suppression—suppression of two great instincts—the physical instinct of sex and the emotional instinct of love. Two things which should naturally be conjoined have been separated; and both have suffered. And we know from the Freudian teachings what suppressions in the root-instincts necessarily mean. We know that they inevitably terminate in diseases and distortions of proper action, either in the body or in the mind, or in both; and that these evils can only be cured by the liberation of the said instincts again to their proper expression and harmonious functioning in the whole organism. No wonder then that, with this age long suppression (necessary in a sense though it may have been) which marks the Christian dispensation, there should have been associated endless Sickness and Crime and sordid Poverty, the Crucifixion of animals in the name of Science and of human workers in the name of Wealth, and wars and horrors innumerable! Hercules writhing in the Nessus-shirt or Prometheus nailed to the rocks are only as figures of a toy miniature compared with this vision of the great and divine Spirit of Man caught in the clutches of those dread Diseases which through the centuries have been eating into his very heart and vitals.

It would not be fair to pile on the Christian Church the blame for all this. It had, no doubt, its part to play in the whole great scheme, namely, to accentuate the self-motive; and it played the part very thoroughly and successfully. For it must be remembered (what I have again and again insisted on) that in the pagan cults it was always the salvation of the CLAN, the TRIBE, the people that was the main consideration; the advantage of the individual took only a very secondary part. But in Christendom—after the communal enthusiasms of apostolic days and of the medieval and monastic brotherhoods and sisterhoods had died down—religion occupied itself more and more with each man or woman’s INDIVIDUAL salvation, regardless of what might happen to the community; till, with the rise of Protestantism and Puritanism, this tendency reached such an extreme that, as some one has said, each man was absorbed in polishing up his own little soul in a corner to himself, in entire disregard to the damnation which might come to his neighbor. Religion, and Morality too, under the commercial regime became, as was natural, perfectly selfish. It was always: “Am I saved? Am I doing the right thing? Am I winning the favor of God and man? Will my claims to salvation be allowed?  Did I make a good bargain in allowing Jesus to be crucified for me?” The poison of a diseased self-consciousness entered into the whole human system.

As I say, one must not blame the Christians too much for all this—partly because, AFTER the communal periods which I have just mentioned, Christianity was evidently deeply influenced by the rise of COMMERCIALISM, to which during the last two centuries it has so carefully and piously adapted itself; and partly because—if our view is anywhere near right—this microbial injection of self-consciousness was just the necessary work which (in conjunction with commercialism) it HAD to perform. But though one does not blame Christianity one cannot blind oneself to its defects --the defects necessarily arising from the part it had to play. When one compares a healthy Pagan ritual—say of Apollo or Dionysus—including its rude and crude sacrifices if you like, but also including its whole-hearted spontaneity and dedication to the common life and welfare—with the morbid self-introspection of the Christian and the eternally recurring question “What shall I do to be saved?”—the comparison is not favorable to the latter. There is (at any rate in modern days) a mawkish milk-and-wateriness about the Christian attitude, and also a painful self-consciousness, which is not pleasant; and though Nietzsche’s blonde beast is a sufficiently disagreeable animal, one almost thinks that it were better to be THAT than to go about with one’s head meekly hanging on one side, and talking always of altruism and self-sacrifice, while in reality one’s heart was entirely occupied with the question of one’s own salvation.  There is besides a lamentable want of grit and substance about the Christian doctrines and ceremonials. Somehow under the sex-taboo they became spiritualized and etherealized out of all human use. Study the initiation-rites of any savage tribe—with their strict discipline of the young braves in fortitude, and the overcoming of pain and fear; with their very detailed lessons in the arts of war and life and the duties of the grown man to his tribe; and with their quite practical instruction in matters of Sex; and then read our little Baptismal and Confirmation services, which ought to correspond thereto. How thin and attenuated and weak the latter appear! Or compare the Holy Communion, as celebrated in the sentimental atmosphere of a Protestant Church, with an ancient Eucharistic feast of real jollity and community of life under the acknowledged presence of the god; or the Roman Catholic service of the Mass, including its genuflexions and mock oblations and droning ritual sing-song, with the actual sacrifice in early days of an animal-god-victim on a blazing altar; and I think my meaning will be clear. We do not want, of course, to return to all the crudities and barbarities of the past; but also we do not want to become attenuated and spiritualized out of all mundane sense and recognition, and to live in an otherworld Paradise void of application to earthly affairs.

The sex-taboo in Christianity was apparently, as I have said, an effort of the human soul to wrest itself free from the entanglement of physical lust—which lust, though normal and appropriate and in a way gracious among the animals, had through the domination of self-consciousness become diseased and morbid or monstrous in Man. The work thus done has probably been of the greatest value to the human race; but, just as in other cases it has sometimes happened that the effort to do a certain work has resulted in the end in an unbalanced exaggeration so here. We are beginning to see now the harmful side of the repression of sex, and are tentatively finding our way back again to a more pagan attitude. And as this return-movement is taking place at a time when, from many obvious signs, the self-conscious, grasping, commercial conception of life is preparing to go on the wane, and the sense of solidarity to re-establish itself, there is really good hope that our return-journey may prove in some degree successful.

Man progresses generally, not both legs at once like a sparrow, but by putting one leg forward first, and then the other. There was this advantage in the Christian taboo of sex that by discouraging the physical and sensual side of love it did for the time being allow the spiritual side to come forward. But, as I have just now indicated, there is a limit to that process. We cannot always keep one leg first in walking, and we do not want, in life, always to put the spiritual first, nor always the material and sensual.  The two sides in the long run have to keep pace with each other.

And it may be that a great number of the very curious and seemingly senseless taboos that we find among the primitive peoples can be partly explained in this way: that is, that by ruling out certain directions of activity they enabled people to concentrate more effectually, for the time being, on other directions. To primitive folk the great world, whose ways are puzzling enough in all conscience to us, must have been simply bewildering in its dangers and complications. It was an amazement of Fear and Ignorance.  Thunderbolts might come at any moment out of the blue sky, or a demon out of an old tree trunk, or a devastating plague out of a bad smell—or apparently even out of nothing at all! Under those circumstances it was perhaps wise, wherever there was the smallest SUSPICION of danger or ill-luck, to create a hard and fast TABOO—just as we tell our children ON NO ACCOUNT to walk under a ladder (thereby creating a superstition in their minds), partly because it would take too long to explain all about the real dangers of paint-pots and other things, and partly because for the children themselves it seems simpler to have a fixed and inviolable law than to argue over every case that occurs.  The priests and elders among early folk no doubt took the line of FORBIDDAL of activities, as safer and simpler, even if carried sometimes too far, than the opposite, of easy permission and encouragement. Taboos multiplied—many of them quite senseless—but perhaps in this perilous maze of the world, of which I have spoken, it really WAS simpler to cut out a large part of the labyrinth, as forbidden ground, thus rendering it easier for the people to find their way in those portions of the labyrinth which remained. If you read in Deuteronomy (ch. xiv) the list of birds and beasts and fishes permitted for food among the Israelites, or tabooed, you will find the list on the whole reasonable, but you will be struck by some curious exceptions (according to our ideas), which are probably to be explained by the necessity of making the rules simple enough to be comprehended by everybody—even if they included the forbiddal of some quite eatable animals.

At some early period, in Babylonia or Assyria, a very stringent taboo on the Sabbath arose, which, taken up in turn by the Jewish and Christian Churches, has ruled the Western World for three thousand years or more, and still survives in a quite senseless form among some of our rural populations, who will see their corn rot in the fields rather than save it on a Sunday.[1] It is quite likely that this taboo in its first beginning was due not to any need of a weekly rest-day (a need which could never be felt among nomad savages, but would only occur in some kind of industrial and stationary civilization), but to some superstitious fear, connected with such things as the changes of the Moon, and the probable ILL-LUCK of any enterprise undertaken on the seventh day, or any day of Moon-change. It is probable, however, that as time went on and Society became more complex, the advantages of a weekly REST-DAY (or market-day) became more obvious and that the priests and legislators deliberately turned the taboo to a social use.[2] The learned modern Ethnologists, however, will generally have none of this latter idea. As a rule they delight in representing early peoples as totally destitute of common sense (which is supposed to be a monopoly of us moderns!); and if the Sabbath-arrangement has had any value or use they insist on ascribing this to pure accident, and not to the application of any sane argument or reason.

[1] For other absurd Sunday taboos see Westermarck on The Moral Ideas, vol. ii, p. 289.

[2] For a tracing of this taboo from useless superstition to practical utility see Hastings’s Encycl. Religion and Ethics, art. “The Sabbath.”

 

It is true indeed that a taboo—in order to be a proper taboo—must not rest in the general mind on argument or reason. It may have had good sense in the past or even an underlying good sense in the present, but its foundation must rest on something beyond. It must be an absolute fiat—something of the nature of a Mystery[1] or of Religion or Magic-and not to be disputed. This gives it its blood-curdling quality. The rustic does not know what would happen to him if he garnered his corn on Sunday, nor does the diner-out in polite society know what would happen if he spooned up his food with his knife—but they both are stricken with a sort of paralysis at the very suggestion of infringing these taboos.

[1] See Westermarck, Ibid., ii. 586.

 

Marriage-customs have always been a fertile field for the generation of taboos. It seems doubtful whether anything like absolute promiscuity ever prevailed among the human race, but there is much to show that wide choice and intercourse were common among primitive folk and that the tendency of later marriage custom has been on the whole to LIMIT this range of choice. At some early period the forbiddal of marriage between those who bore the same totem-name took place. Thus in Australia “no man of the Emu stock might marry an Emu woman; no Blacksnake might marry a Blacksnake woman, and so forth.”[1] Among the Kamilaroi and the Arunta of S. Australia the tribe was divided into classes or clans, sometimes four, sometimes eight, and a man of one particular clan was only marriageable with a woman of another particular clan—say (1) with (3) or (2) with (4), and so on.[2] Customs with a similar tendency, but different in detail, seem to have prevailed among native tribes in Central Africa and N. America.  And the regulations in all this matter have been so (apparently) entirely arbitrary in the various cases that it would almost appear as if the bar of kinship through the Totem had been the EXCUSE, originating perhaps in some superstition, but that the real and more abiding object was simply limitation.  And this perhaps was a wise line to take. A taboo on promiscuity had to be created, and for this purpose any current prejudice could be made use of.[3]

[1] Myth, Ritual and Religion, i, p. 66.

[2] See Spencer and Gillen, Native Tribes of Australia.

[3] The author of The Mystic Rose seems to take this view. See p. 214 of that book.

 

With us moderns the whole matter has taken a different complexion. When we consider the enormous amount of suffering and disease, both of mind and body, arising from the sex-suppression of which I have just spoken, especially among women, we see that mere unreasoning taboos—which possibly had their place and use in the past—can be tolerated no longer. We are bound to turn the searchlight of reason and science on a number of superstitions which still linger in the dark and musty places of the Churches and the Law courts. Modern inquiry has shown conclusively not only the foundational importance of sex in the evolution of each human being, but also the very great VARIETY of spontaneous manifestations in different individuals and the vital necessity that these should be recognized, if society is ever to expand into a rational human form. It is not my object here to sketch the future of marriage and sex-relations generally—a subject which is now being dealt with very effectively from many sides; but only to insist on our using our good sense in the whole matter, and refusing any longer to be bound by senseless pre-judgments.

Something of the same kind may be said with regard to Nakedness, which in modern Civilization has become the object of a very serious and indeed harmful taboo; both of speech and act. As someone has said, it became in the end of the nineteenth century almost a crime to mention by name any portion of the human body within a radius of about twenty inches from its centre (!) and as a matter of fact a few dress-reformers of that period were actually brought into court and treated as criminals for going about with legs bare up to the knees, and shoulders and chest uncovered! Public follies such as these have been responsible for much of the bodily and mental disease and suppression just mentioned, and the sooner they are sent to limbo the better. No sensible person would advocate promiscuous nakedness any more than promiscuous sex-relationship; nor is it likely that aged and deformed people would at any time wish to expose themselves. But surely there is enough good sense and appreciation of grace and fitness in the average human mind for it to be able to liberate the body from senseless concealment, and give it its due expression. The Greeks of old, having on the whole clean bodies, treated them with respect and distinction.  The young men appeared quite naked in the palaestra, and even the girls of Sparta ran races publicly in the same condition;[1] and some day when our bodies (and minds too) have become clean we shall return to similar institutions. But that will not be just yet. As long as the defilement of this commercial civilization is on us we shall prefer our dirt and concealment. The powers that be will protest against change. Heinrich Scham, in his charming little pamphlet Nackende Menschen,[2] describes the consternation of the commercial people at such ideas:

“ ‘What will become of us,’ cried the tailors, ‘if you go naked?’

“And all the lot of them, hat, cravat, shirt, and shoemakers joined in the chorus.

“ ‘AND WHERE SHALL I CARRY MY MONEY?’ cried one who had just been made a director.”

 

[1] See Theocritus, Idyll xviii.

[2] Published at Leipzig about 1893.

 



 

 

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The Sex Taboo