Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sexual Deviation to 500 AD.

Hamlet:  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene V -- William Shakespeare

Whether modern Western society considers the sexual variations discussed in this blog ‘deviations’ or not, understanding where psychiatric diagnosis comes from requires consideration of how sexual variations have been construed in the Western tradition. For much of history, ‘variation’ has meant  ‘deviation.’  For a large number of up-coming posts, this story is going to look like the 'great man theory of history,' as biographies of various thinkers and their contributions are presented.  This means a lot of white men, and a very European profile.  But the start of this story looks a great deal more like a Western Civilization class.  That is because the Western ideas about kink and conventionality are embedded in a very Western context.

"Look here upon this picture, and on this; the counterfeit presentment of two brothers."  The Bedroom Scene in Hamlet

When I was in school back in 1980AD, I had room and requirement for only two cognates in my Clinical Psych grad program.  I chose Comparative Family Systems, an Anthropology course about family structure as one of them.  On the first day my professor announced that in an Anthro Department ethnographic database, U of M had entries on over 500 cultures.  There were almost no cultural universals, with the exception of some sort of incest taboo.  97% of the database cultures specified that some group of people couldn’t engage in some sort of sexual activities with another group of people.  These groups were almost always defined by genetic relationships or marriage ties.  But the prohibited activities and which relationships were defined as incestuous were all over the map.  Incest taboos were still maintained in monogamous and in polygamous (mostly polygynous, men taking multiple wives) cultures--there were only a handful of mostly south Asian cultures that practiced limited polyandry (the practice of a woman taking multiple husbands).  Later I would learn of some of the great scams and errors of ethnography, and come to recognize that reports to outsiders had no guarantee of accuracy, so 97% constitutes a very high mark of universality.  It is fair to say that some social definition of sexual deviation is part of every society.   This will prove a serious problem for sexual libertarians who would like to argue that individual freedom is a natural condition abused by modern societies.  Whatever the merits of sexual freedom, the historical and cross-cultural evidence suggests that it has been a prerogative of the powerful few, rather than the historical norm for most.

The Mask of King Tut, who married his half-sister.
If deviation was nearly universal, socially approved practices were widely various, and many things that, for one reason or other, I suspected were likely to be universally prohibited were nonetheless practiced somewhere.  My understanding of evolutionary biology suggested incest taboos functioned to insure exogamy and protect from the consequences of genetic inbreeding.  This did not stop the Egyptians from marrying brothers and sisters (Tutankhamun, for example, married his half-sister) to keep power in the family, an occasional practice among the Inca and other societies where rulers were thought to be divine.   
A Papuan longhouse circa 1922 taken by Australian anthropologist Frank Hurley.  New Guinea has many tribes and varied coming-of-age customs, but separate gender residences are common.

Modern notions of child sexual abuse aren't universal.  Certain tribes in Papua New Guinea perform coming-of-age rituals in which male members of the tribe attain their majority by fellating their potency from tribal elders, who graciously gave up semen to make men out of their charges.  These tribes tend to have very restrictive relations between the sexes, with men and their wives sleeping separately, the men in longhouses; the women in family huts where they care for the children.  These Melanesians had strong beliefs surrounding spiritual practices that must be kept secret from the other sex.  You might have sex with your wife anytime, but you would never sleep with her lest she learn your gender secrets while you slept!  Stories like these are outliers, but great sexual diversity is just as much the rule as definitions of deviance.

Oedipus by Ernest Hillemacher, 1843
In Western antiquity, many ideas that are now highly conventional existed side by side with practices that are not.  The obvious example is the Golden Age of Greece, where homosexual attraction between men and boys was regarded by male writers as the highest form of love, (Sappho notwithstanding, very few female writers left work for later scholars to pore over.)  However this Greece also gave us the myth of Oedipus, and his inadvertent but catastrophic story of patricide and mother-son incest.  Freud would later seize upon this mythology selectively.  Classical Greece had notions of sexual deviance.  Some look like ours today, others do not.

The Andrians (Bacchanalia) by Titian 1488

In the Roman period, the Greek polytheistic religion, Judaism, and Christianity existed side by side. Before 331AD, Jews and Christians were persecuted.  Following the Christian conversion of Constantine I, in 337, Christianity became much more influential, aided by the migration of the Roman capitol to Constantinople.  Early roman sexual customs were much more various than accepted traditions today, including slavery, Dionysian orgies, and sacred prostitution.  Modern notions of sadomasochism make little sense where society sanctioned sex with slaves and routinely granted unlimited coercive power to their owners. 
In fact, fellatio among the Papuans, sacred prostitution, homosexual love between Greek youth and their mentors, or transgendered shaman among certain Native American cultures had fundamentally different meanings than modern subcultural sexual variation has.  Some critics have gone so far as to say that these ethnological examples are not really about sex or gender as we understand them.  I am unwilling to go quite that far, but in many ways, modern ideas of sexual variations are not contiguous with these examples.  Rather they show the breadth of human social and sexual variability, and demand further explanation of how our approach to sexual diversity serves power in modern societies.  And that will bring us to discussion of the thinking of Michel Foucault.

Foucault's Pendulum  Unfortunately, that was invented by Leon, not Michel!  As far as I know, they are not related.

© Russell J Stambaugh, May 2013, Ann Arbor, MI.  All Rights Reserved.

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