A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 24

Sexual repression as an instrument of class domination

The ruling classes of the early state societies had written legal codes that “legitimized” their power, property and privileges, and that circumscribed and curtailed the rights of their subjects. Behind these legal documents stood what gave the laws their teeth: the threat of physical force, up to and including death, for violations. The mere existence of the rulers’ “armed bodies of men” was usually sufficient to guarantee “obedience” by the masses. But history also records examples of popular armed rebellions against the king’s bullies.

In Part 21 of this series we noted that the tenets of patriarchal religions brought a message to the masses that male supremacy and economic and social inequality were the natural order of things. A separate but similarly motivated message had to do with sexual relations. Religious challenges to the idea that sexual relations were a natural part of life and something to be enjoyed figure most prominently in the history of Christianity as it evolved from a rebellious sect into a powerful instrument of exploitation and repression for use by the European ruling classes.

Sexual repression as religious doctrine

Patriarchal religious doctrine provided a complimentary and highly efficient resource for ruling-class control. To the external threat of physical repression, Christianity and other patriarchal religions added an internalized “conscience” of what was “moral” and what was not. In James Neill’s “The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies,” we find a concise description of the evolution of Catholic Church teachings on sex and marriage: “A common characteristic of the clerical reformers who began assembling the ecclesiastical opinions, penitentials, patristic writings, and the edicts and decrees of church councils into the first collections of canon law was an undisguised horror of sexual activity. … The ascetic reformers … were convinced that to achieve salvation it was necessary to be freed from the evil of sex. They not only took a vow of chastity, but strove to eliminate even sexual thoughts from their minds. …

“‘[The reformers] were not merely suspicious of sex, but hostile to any sexual activity at all, save for marital relations undertaken expressly and consciously to conceive a child.’ In their zeal for sexual purity, the reformers went beyond even the asceticism of the early church Fathers, and were determined to limit marital sex to the absolute minimum, and on penalizing extra-marital sex as harshly as possible.” (p. 361)

Neill writes that the Catholic Church’s campaign to abolish marriage among priests and nuns was hard fought over several centuries. “Marriage by members of the clergy, theoretically forbidden since the 5th century, was singled out for condemnation in statutes passed by the Council of Mainz presided over by Pope Leo IX in 1054. [Pope Gregory VII’s] statute forbade non-celibate priests from officiating at mass, prohibited clergy who were still married from having any sexual intercourse at all, and required that married clergy who did not immediately separate from their wives be defrocked. …

“Resistance to the church’s efforts to abolish clerical marriage and enforce celibacy among the clergy was fierce and widespread. Defiance of the ban, in fact, would persist for nearly two centuries before it was established with finality across Europe.” (pp. 370-371)

The pitiless implementation
of sexual repression

If the Vatican’s view of connubial bliss among the heterosexual laity and clergy was harsh, its posture with regard to sex outside of church-sanctioned marriage and especially with regard to homosexual acts proved, in practice, to be global and genocidal.

Taking from Neill’s detailed account just a sampling from the church’s centuries-long campaign against “sodomy,” we read: “The fourth Lateran Council, convened by [Pope] Innocent III in 1215, brought one of the largest ever assemblages of church leaders to Rome.” The decrees passed at this church council included the establishment of what would become the Office of the Inquisition, a requirement that Jews wear special identifying dress, a crusade “to restore the Holy Land to Christian rule,” and a restatement of the demand for celibacy.

“The end result of the initiatives undertaken by Innocent III was the creation by the late 13th century of a religious tyranny overseen by the papacy, and enforced not only by the Inquisition, but by the newly organized mendicant orders [church groups whose members were sworn to poverty], who made it their business to seek out and punish sexual nonconformists, intellectual dissidents or anyone else who fell outside of the papacy’s vision of a Christian society ruled by God’s law as dictated by the pope.” (p. 378)

Neill describes in detail numerous examples of the horrors that befell hapless individual victims of the Inquisition, but the campaign also included mass killings, as happened, for example, with the massacre of an estimated 7,000 men, women and children in the French town of Beziers. The town was known as a center of the Cathar heresy. The Cathars were one of a number of mass movements in medieval Europe that challenged the anti-sex doctrines of the Catholic Church. These groups appear to have maintained pre-patriarchal religious beliefs and practices, including ritual sexuality by members of the same sex. Therefore, they were special targets for Vatican repression.

Sexual repression had a class basis

Unfortunately, Neill offers only a psychological basis for the crimes of the Catholic Inquisition. He is undoubtedly correct that sexual repression is an important source of psychopathology. But the roots of the European anti-sex campaign were not to be found in the pathology of one or a handful of deranged individuals. The Vatican clearheadedly oversaw a continent-wide organization and was Europe’s prime landowner in this period. Rome at times competed and at other times cooperated with the secular nobility of Europe. Its motive was to continue amassing wealth and preserving its political power. It used both organized violence and the internalization of sexual guilt, by which means it weakened the ability of the masses to unite and resist its harsh rule.

But is our focus on the Catholic Church, with its center in Rome, and Christianity in general an example of a one-sided Eurocentric analysis? We think not. The anti-sexual doctrines of Roman Catholicism at first represented an attack on the social/sexual living patterns practiced by the European masses. Finding them useful in controlling the people, the rulers then had the same sexually repressive doctrines exported all over the world by Catholic and other Christian missionaries as the imperial powers of Europe sought world conquest.

What follows is a small sampling of the crimes perpetrated on an almost global basis by the self-appointed representatives of Jesus Christ, who were, in reality, obvious servitors of the European colonial masters.

Ramón Guttiérrez’s book, “When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846,” documents the great harm caused to the Indigenous peoples of then northern Mexico by the Spanish invaders’ religious fanaticism (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991). In the section of his book titled “Franciscan Evangelism,” he writes: “If the [Pueblo] Indians were to reach God, they too would have to be led through purgation, illumination, and union. This clearly emerges when the friars outlined their mission in New Mexico as that of leading the Indians ‘out from the darkness of paganism and the somberness of death’ and into the ‘Father of Light.’

“The purgation of the Indian’s soul began with a systematic repudiation of Pueblo religion. The Indians had to renounce Satan, banish his earthly assistants (native chiefs), and forsake their superstitious beliefs and idols. To assure that the Indians did not cling to their idolatry the friars raided homes, confiscated katsina dolls, ceremonial masks, prayer sticks, and fetishes. …

“Once the visible forms of idolatry had been destroyed, the friars turned their attention to the wretched sins of the flesh. Sex in Pueblo society was a positively valued activity that assured social and cosmic reproduction. Few restrictions were placed on sexual pleasures, and certainly guilt and remorse were not associated with such activities. …

“The Puebloans practiced serial monogamy and polygamy, and seemed undisturbed by sexual variance. The main distinctions the Christian lexicon had to describe Indian sexual practices were those of sin. Thus the Pueblo ‘berdaches,’ those half-men—half-women who symbolized cosmic harmony, were simply ‘putos’ (male whores) and ‘sodomitas’ (sodomites) to the Spanish. Even the position in which the Indians copulated was ‘bestial.’ …

“The laws of God commanded chastity before marriage, fidelity within the nuptial state, life-long indissoluble monogamy, and modesty and shame in all bodily matters. Men and women who practiced ‘bestial’ activities, who wallowed in their pagan promiscuity, violating Christian laws of sexual morality, had to be publicly whipped, placed in stocks, and sheared of their locks.” (pp. 71-73)

Missionary malevolence in Kenya
and Tahiti

In the book-length collection of essays edited by Peter Drucker titled “Different Rainbows,” we find Kenya-born John Mburu’s contribution under the title “Awakenings: Dreams and Delusions of an Incipient Lesbian and Gay Movement in Kenya” (London: Millivres Ltd., 2000). On the subject of sexual freedom, he writes: “It is evident that the notion of exclusive heterosexuality in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa is not borne out by the evidence. Though same-sex practices were not met with social approval in all African societies, it is clear that in many communities same-sex relations were closely interwoven in the social fabric. In some cases, as with the institution of ‘jin bandaa,’ transvestite homosexuals played a significant role in the community.

“With one of the fastest growing church populations in the world, Africa is pervaded by the influence of Christian doctrine opposed to homosexuality. Early evangelizing missions surreptitiously meshed traditional African customary belief systems with biblical scripture. … African practices that were considered an abomination — such as levirate, a practice in which widows would marry their deceased husband’s brother; female circumcision; woman-woman marriage; and homosexuality — were stamped out or driven underground. …

“Kenya’s archaic penal code dates back to the era of British colonial rule. While in Britain penalties against ‘crimes against nature’ were repealed in 1967, these vestiges of Kenya’s colonial past still remain intact.” (pp. 182-184)

Another example of missionary interference in the social/sexual lives of Indigenous peoples comes from Niko Besnier’s contribution to the book “Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History” (edited by Gilbert Herdt. New York: ZoneBooks, 1996). Besnier writes: “For Europeans of the Enlightenment and early Romantic era, Polynesia, one of the last frontiers of colonial expansionism, was the embodiment of a paradise.” (p. 288)

“But soon enough, European perceptions of Polynesia changed course. Particularly as the London Missionary Society was being established in Tahiti, vanguarding massive missionary endeavors throughout Polynesia for years to come, the island turned, in the eyes of foreigners, from the New Cythera [a name given Tahiti by a French explorer] to ‘the filthy Sodom of the South Seas.’ … Besides infanticide, human sacrifice and adultery … one feature of Tahitian society particularly captured the missionaries’ attention. … The Tahitians’ ‘predilection’ for ‘sodomy’ had already been amply described in seafarers’ journals. … George Hamilton, surgeon on the British frigate ‘Pandora,’ who spent three weeks on the island, had remarked in 1791 that young men were kept ‘for abominable purposes.’” (pp. 290-291)

“British seamen and missionaries of the Georgian era evaluated the practices of which they caught glimpses in Tahiti through a specific framework of moral reference. In the late eighteenth century, ‘sodomy’ had become the focus of particularly virulent revilement in England. As is well documented, sodomy was an ‘utterly confused category’ into which fell many ‘unnatural practices,’ principally homosexual and heterosexual oral or anal intercourse and bestiality.” (p. 293)

Much more documentation for the dissemination of anti-sexual propaganda and repression throughout Indigenous North America, South America, Africa, Oceania and Asia on the part of professional proselytizers for patriarchal religions is available. But in the next installment, we turn our attention to the rise of capitalism in the metropolitan centers of Europe and elsewhere and its effects of the institution of marriage.

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