Issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity emerged from the Religious Discrimination bill as two distinct items. But first, let’s start with the basics so as we’re all on the same page.
Sex refers to a person’s gender, male or female. The distinguishing features are genitalia; a male has a phallus and the female a vagina.
Modern thought acknowledges these two binaries do not adequately suit all people. The range of possibilities between male and female has become known as non-binary or other. A person who identifies as being within this range may have more or less male or female physical attributes. In cases some people are born with duel reproduction organs (intersex), while for others, the non-binary aspect of their identity is more nuanced and is not always easily defined by obvious physical markers.
The term non-binary was invented in the 1990s but it’s only really been in the last decade or so it’s established itself as real thing. When I say “thing” I mean enough scientific studies have been done to give credence to the concept that has allowed it to become part of the fabric of generalised human consciousness. These studies include retrospectively looking back over history and identifying evidence to support the notion that humans don’t always neatly fit into the two discrete categories of male and female.
My introduction to non-binary came about when I was studying Visual Arts at university, in 1996/7, and I was researching a *female* artist who had a beard. I cannot recall this artist’s name, but I distinctively remember learning about their challenges and inner conflicts. They said they felt like a freak of nature. They were raised as a typical girl because that was what their outwards genitalia dictated, however, as they entered adolescence facial growth spontaneously appeared. Needless to say, they were bullied by peers for the “abnormality”. In one of their interviews (recorded on film slides), they spoke of their journey of learning to accept their individuality which included going through a phase of religiously shaving their stubble every morning to avoid judgment. Eventually they came to embrace their uniqueness by keeping their breasts (instead of having them surgically removed) and growing a beard. What a brave soul. Thanks to activists like this artist, children born today with similar physical non-binary gender traits have a better chance of being met with understanding and acceptance.
There are also some people who have no outward physical indicators of being a variant of male or female, however, they have an inward feeling or knowing that these two binaries do not suit them. In some cases, these people can have operations so as to alter their outward appearance to match what they believe is their inner gender. Commonly, these people are called transgender. Other variants can include men dressing as women and vice versa without having operations.
People who openly embrace their non-binary nature are vulnerable to persecution by members of the public who judge them for going against “nature”. Christianity is a group known for being prejudice towards expressions of identity that differ to strict guidelines of masculinity and femininity, however, as discussed in relation to the plebiscite, this is not all Christians. Correspondingly, individuals of other faiths (especially Islam) or of no religious standing can also have discriminatory attitudes.
Classical thought views sexual intercourse as being a reference to the male phallic entering the female vagina. Sex between two binaries has a generalised focus on reproduction that may occur through the male sperm fertilising the female ova.
The degree to which attitudes in traditional sexual intercourse have encompassed an acknowledgement that the act can simply be done for pleasure varies according to culture, customs, social etiquettes, and other variables.
Contemporary thought has a broader version of the sex act. While vagina penetration is still a large focus area, other factors such as arousal, organism, sensual experience, and tactile sensations can also be viewed as variants of intimate relations. By expanding the parameters of sexual intercourse to sexual interactions, acts performed by lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, and queers can be more easily acknowledged. Essentially, love making can look different depending upon individual tastes, preferences, and circumstances. Moreover, the sexual interactions are not depend upon binary genitals or gender. Whatever rocks your boat, as the saying goes.
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for whom they’d like to have intimate experiences with. The two biggest categories are heterosexual (male and female) and homosexual (male and male or female and female). The other major category is bisexual – a combination of heterosexual and homosexual.
Sexual orientation is not dependant upon outer indicators of sex/gender. Kind of like you don’t know what colour a chocolate clinker is on the inside until you bite into it. Okay, maybe that’s not the best analogy. The point is, the gender a person is attracted to has many faucets. I could get all touchy feely about emotions and attractions, etc., but at the end of the day, it’s up to each individual to decide who his/her/they are attracted to. For a lot of people the journey of discovering what feels authentic to them and what they desire in a partner is a windy road. Those who have to change course, take a u-turn, pay speeding fines, mis-read Google maps, etc., sometimes get a little frustrated by those who are able to take a straight and narrow road to their destination … the vehicle (i.e., gender/binary/non-binary/other) one drives can impact how obstacles are navigated.
Discussions of sexual orientation would not be complete without also acknowledging asexuals. These people have little to no interest in sexual interactions with anyone.
The Dark Side of Sexual Orientation
It’s also possible for some people to have sexual orientations in which they desire to have intimate relations with minors, and/or rape and incest. These latter categories are unambiguously forbidden by contemporary laws because they infringe upon human rights and cause physical, mental, and emotional harm. Understanding the impact of abusive sexual relations is a relatively new concept – Freudian theories that persisted for a lot of the twentieth century gave approval to incest, harassment, and sexual violence (i.e., Freud claimed that when a woman says “no” they really mean “yes”, and then there was all that junk about male homosexuality being a condition that needed to be cured by confronting sexual desire for one’s mother. And let’s not forget how Freud called fourteen year old Dorothy a hysteric because she didn’t feel excitement while being harassed by her father’s mate … hmmm, and that was considered revolutionary psychological development ?).
Sex and Sexual Orientation in Antiquity
Antiquity is a big place, filled with distant places and an assortment of beliefs and practices. Some generalisations can be made, but at the same time, there was much variation. I’m primarily concerned with Australian culture and Christianity, which means looking back at our colonial founders in Europe. As is often the case, all roads lead to Rome. Although, the Romans really just laid down the bitumen over the dirt paths made by the Greeks, so that’s where we’re going first.
Ancient Greece is a rather small blot on the modern Australian atlas. Personally, I learned very little about their culture when I was at school, however, as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate that it was a once a great influencer (if they had an instagram they would have been everyone’s friend).
One of the greatest pieces of dirt about Ancient Greeks (in amongst their wonderful achievements) is that adult men sodomised young males over the age of twelve on a regular basis. I’m not going to pretty this up. It was almost a social expectation that older males who mentored young males were privy to sensual intimacy as sideline activity.
It’s also worthy to note that in Greek society, males were not considered “grown men” until they were covered in hair and/or they were about the age of 30. Athenian men would often marry around this age, to girls who had just started menstruating, 12-16. Spartans had slightly different customs, with both males and females usually being in their early twenties when they took marriage vows, although there are still reports that males practiced sodomy prior this, and 30 was still considered to be a bench mark for taking on positions of responsibly in society.
History has a habit of neglecting herstory, so relations between females aren’t well documented. The status quo of married Ancient Greek women was to be kept locked up in the home with their needlework, however, there is also evidence to suggest some women had choice and freedoms. In regards to sexual orientation, the greatest indicator of female and female relationships comes from the poet Sappho. She wrote so many love sonnets about women that the contemporary words “lesbian” is a derivative of Sappho’s home town, Lesbos.
In lieu of insufficient information, the remaining discussion mainly focused on male and male relationships of antiquity.
Greek men did not perceive engaging in anal intercourse young males to be a homosexual act (the Greeks didn’t have a word for homosexuality) because in their society, as described by Paul Chrystal, (author of In Bed With the Ancient Greeks), a man’s phallic was the main focus of sexual acts, as opposed to a boy’s phallic. “Proper” sex involved an active penetrator and someone being passively penetrated, irrespective of gender. Pederastic sodomy met this requirement by the older male being the dominant and the young man being the passive, just like was expected between a man and a woman. Once the youth became a man, the intimate relations were expected to cease because the dominate versus submissive dynamic was no longer present. To summarise: men sodomising men was not okay, but men sodomising young boys was fine because penetrating young boys was similar to penetrating a women … the logic behind these values can be better understood if “spiritual” factors are seen to have predominate Greek thought over physical attributes, i.e., young boys and women had similar soul attributes, that is they were both considered inferior to a man’s soul.
The Greek concept of boys being like women may seem odd to the contemporary mind, however, it was not that long ago this idea completely diminished. All the way up until the 1900s, young males could be called girls without any offence because “girl” simply meant “child”. The differentiation of young people’s gender only gradually began to emerge from the 1300s onwards.
Sex and Semen
Given that males have a long standing history of believing they are superior to women, it’s not that surprising that male semen was viewed as being more important than the “inferior” female cum. In many instances, male semen was perceived as being the next best thing to sliced bread, not wait, not bread, the invention of wine, no that’s not right either, I mean blood; semen was the next best thing to blood, and blood in the ancient world was very important.
What I’m getting at here is that the ancients view of the world was very different to what it is today. For instance, sperm was understood to be made by blood. Aristotle even went so far as saying something about the best sperm being made by the blood that circulated around the eyes … eyes were seen (pun intended) as being really important conduits for supernatural, I mean “natural”, phenomenon, hence Aristotle’s wisdom also included the report that the glance of a menstruating women could make a copper mirror go cloudy. Personally, I have quite a few concerns about Aristotle’s biology lessons but, nonetheless, many have accepted them verbatim …
To summarise, the “natural” order of life in ancient times was no comparison to modern science. Understandings of gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation, and sexual interactions were not the same as contemporary considerations of preferences, consent, etc. And well, if you believe the myths, then the common person’s knowledge of reproduction included the belief that virgins could become pregnant … need I say more?
Romans copied a lot of Greek customs, including the initiation-like practice of men sodomising boys. In some instances, the boy could be castrated to keep them more effeminate. You’re not having sex with a man if they have no penis! Before anyone attempts to declare the pagans were barbarians by enforcing a transgender-like procedures, I’m going to be spoiler and mention Christianity made it’s fair share of eunuchs all the way up to the 1900s (more about that in a future blog).
If interpreted literally, the Torah/Old Testament gives approval to sexual activities such as rape, incest, and polygamy. However, Judaism also carries the previously mentioned traditions of sexual relations only being recognised as valid if done between the binaries of male and female, and are conducted in matrimony for the purposes of reproduction. The question therefore arises, did Jews interpret their scriptures literally or symbolically? I suspect, there were people in both camps, but mostly symbolically. Those who saw Biblical male and female sexual interactions as allegories did not see need to copy such behaviours in real life (see The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology for an Egyptian based explanation of how allegorical genderism works in literature).
Outside of Ancient Europe other cultures performed sexual acts contemporary societies judge as abomination, for instance the Sambia people of Papua New Guinea perform ritualised homosexual acts as part of their warrior’s initiation process.
Women, Sex, and Hysteria
In many respects, the realities of the ancient world are that it was a brutal place in which sex and sexual orientations do not match contemporary understandings. Sexual acts we consider to cause harm and trauma could be conducted with either cultural approval and/or perpetrators of sexual violence having less repercussions than today. Being a woman made matters even more nuanced because women could be demonised for their sexual behaviour with much greater ease than men.
Presumably, there have always been assertive women who were upfront about their sexual needs, however, these personalities are not well documented in his-stories of Greek, Rome, or Judaism. As a general rule, sex, moreover sexual pleasure, was a man’s thing. Women were expected to be “pure” and virginal. Not only were females expected to be subvert and submissive (once a son had reached manhood, they were also considered superior to their mother), women were expected to be happy about this status.
If women showed signs of depression, anxiety, or emotional distress they would be labelled hysterical. Greek medicine men (i.e., Hippocrates – who is acclaimed as being the father of modern medicine) believed hysteria was caused by the womb being out of place. A common cure for this condition was to recommend intercourse so as to put the womb back in its rightful place. The theory was dressed up with “scientific” explanations that referred to the cold and dry vagina needing a penis’ warmth and wetness in order to balance the “humours” and make the woman happy again. This “natural” order was correlated with the theology of four elements of fire, air, water, and earth. Alternatively, a woman’s hysteria diagnosis could be treated by advising they abstain from sex completely. Either way, curing hysteria was related back to sexual activity.
These types of theories and practices relating to women’s anatomy and emotional wellbeing endured for 2500 years! Christian doctor’s who followed Hippocrates’ textbook were more likely to advise abstinence or have midwives massage a woman’s private parts. The only significant challenge to the notion that women needed sex to cure their dysregulated emotional states (now understood to be trauma responses or PTSD) was that they were possessed by demons – a predisposition men supposedly didn’t have because their soul’s were more spiritually advanced than women’s.
For a succinct overview of women’s reproductive organs being viewed as problematic, see Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health by Cecilia Tasca and associates.
A few months ago, I watched the 2011 movie Hysteria, which is by no means academic reference. Nonetheless, it made me wonder if, for most of history of many men been absolutely clueless about feminine sexuality and pleasure? Or perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested, there was just a period of time and/or certain cultures in which men were so focused on the so-called importance of penises and semen that they overlooked feminine experiences? It is something I leave for further pondering.
Now we’ve got the basics out of the way we can discuss Christian sex … Dear Australians #2.4: Jesus and Women …
This blog is part of a series that I hope will encourage deep, thoughtful, respectful discussions about issues relating to the Religious Discrimination bill. If you’d like to be kept up to date, subscribe to receive notifications of new posts by email.
Dear Australians #2.2: Australia and Human Rights
Dear Australians #2.1: We Need to Have a Heart to Heart Conversations About the Religious Discrimination Bill. I’ll Start …
How to Party Like an Animal | Psychology Today Australia. (n.d.). http://Www.psychologytoday.com. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/hide-and-seek/202001/how-party-animal
The History and Psychology of the Orgy | Psychology Today Australia. (n.d.). http://Www.psychologytoday.com. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/hide-and-seek/201707/the-history-and-psychology-the-orgy
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