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The Weight of History: Why the West’s Convoluted Relationship to Sex and Gender Still Screws Us Up

I’m pretty sure that there’s no one in Western culture, whatever their perspectives on these issues, who wouldn’t say that the West is deeply troubled about sex and gender. And that trouble impacts every one of us throughout our lives, muddying the waters of an important area of life. This is the legacy of a particular path of cultural programming, and it is only by understanding that program and its alternatives that we can begin to deal with it.

Relations Between the Sexes

We start at the beginning, the cultures that originated Western programming on gender and sexuality, Ancient Greece and Judaism. Both were sedentary agricultural societies with patriarchal family organisation- the inheritance was passed through the male lineage. Any culture where this occurs begins to impose social controls and restrictions on women, who become viewed to some degree as breeding stock for the production of male heirs, and therefore must be kept “pure” to guarantee the inheritance. But these two cultures went further than many others. The reason was that each produced a negative dualistic view of women.

Anyone who’s read Aristotle probably has some idea of how the Greeks, or at least the Athenians who became the cultural centre of Greece, tended to see women. Women were inherently weak, inferior, servile, impulsive and irrational, needing male supervision. In Athens, to be a wife, especially in the upper class, was to be shut away from male society. To associate with men was to be either a prostitute or a courtesan- the latter being the main route to cultural participation for Athenian women.

In ancient Judaism, as one author has pointed out, the role of the man was delineated by duties- sacrifices, charitable works, other religious and social roles- and the role of women was delineated by prohibitions. They were limited in their ability to associate with men, had to observe numerous taboos, their sexuality was tightly controlled by men, and they had few property or other rights.

Christianity, although emerging from Judaism, afforded a remarkably prominent role to women in the first few centuries of its existence, as attested by the large number of extremely popular female saints during that time. Of course, when the Emperor Constantine decided to use Christianity as a means of unifying the fragmenting Roman Empire, Christianity went from a persecuted minority of committed believers to an official church, and had to welcome the social establishment into the fold. With them, they brought Greco-Roman attitudes about the place of women in society. Women were increasingly restricted, and their role in the church declined.

In the West, Augustine of Hippo’s explanation of sin and the fall posited that the ascendance of the rational mind over the emotions and the body, of male over female and of spirit over matter was the natural order of the universe, and that the “lesser” half of each pair was naturally predisposed to sin. As the most influential writer in Western theology, his ideas were passed down and magnified into even worse forms.

Nevertheless, the Middle Ages were not the low point for women. That came with Enlightenment, the era when the family declined as an economic unit and formal learning (exclusive to men) displaced informal study. The result was a bifurcation of society into a rationalised, masculine public sphere stood and a domestic, family sphere.


The Mediterranean world two thousand years ago was extremely ambivalent about sex. On the one hand obsessed to the point of paranoia with the danger of letting respectable women (that is women who are or will be married or are part of a sacerdotal order) associate with men in case they might lead them into temptation, the Greco-Roman world had no such expectations for men, which meant unequal divorce and adultery laws and a preoccupation with female virginity.

Into this fraught environment came various religions such as Manichaeism which saw sex itself as the source of evil. Augustine, a former Manichaean, imported the idea of sex, specifically sexual pleasure, as the means through which original sin was passed on to each new generation, a cornerstone of Western theology.

Christianity, which had inherited the sexual ambivalence of Judaism, quickly imported the ideal of celibacy from the many existing ascetic philosophical cults, notably neo-Platonism. Neither Eastern nor Western Christendom every developed a satisfactory anthropology of sexuality, with the result that the most restrictive and paranoid elements often carried the day. With the women, in good Greek fashion, seen as the source of temptation, it was they who were more and more tightly controlled.

The more rules piled up, the greater the transgression. When Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century enforced complete celibacy for all Catholic clergy for the first time, he created an untenable situation in which clergy, and especially higher clergy, were virtually expected to have mistresses. The famous example of Pope Alexander VI who sired a number of children as a cardinal and carried on an adulterous affair as pope was far from an isolated case. Only pressure from the Protestant Reformation caused a return to strict enforcement of celibacy, which as we see from the current crisis of clerical celibacy in relation to child abuse, was nothing more than a facade anyway.

But the real question for our culture is the value of romantic relationships, and of marriage in particular. In the Greco-Roman world, no spiritual value could be assigned to marriage, and the Augustinian position that marriage exists to propagate the species is likewise unhelpful. Marriage thus became simply a biological relationship. Our current fixation on romantic love, inherited from the tradition of courtly romance, values the crescendo of emotions and desires in the moment, but is ephemeral. Until we are able to restore spiritual meaning to romantic love, we will not have resolved the basic emptiness that underlies sexual repression in our culture.

The Result

The legacy of all of this historical baggage has been to afflict whole populations with guilt over their sexual drives and to complicate relations between men and women with an extremely fraught layer of sexual politics.

Each and every one of us has run into this at some point- flaming misogyny against women who aren’t fulfilling what we still somehow feel are their “natural” gender roles, difficulties in relationships coming from those roles, pervasive sexual shame. Restriction, especially restriction that interrupts basic elements of human nature, gives rise to transgression. Restriction and transgression alternate their way through Western history- the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, the philandering Regency period gave way to the restrictive Victorian era, the fifties gave way to the sixties. Lurching from one extreme to another, our civilisation has yet to find balance.

For some more insight into the emotional damage done by this approach and how to undo it, have a look at this Ted Talk by Sheila Kelley:


Signposts on the Road to Balance

Things weren’t always this way, and don’t have to be. Hunter-gather and pastoral societies are often much less restrictive than what we would consider their “civilised” counterparts. Even my Celtic and Germanic ancestors didn’t have a lot of this baggage, and there are societies in this world that have come up with more creative ways to negotiate these issues.

One thing is certain: equality is not enough, and sexual freedom is not enough. Real relationship, meaningful relationship between the sexes on the basis of equal partnership, whether in a romantic relationship or in everyday life, is a skill that much of our society has yet to rebuild. Without shared values, shared endeavour, there can’t be real connection, real meaning to the relationship between the sexes. And that is the fundamental problem that allowed this stupidity to go unchecked for so long.

One suggestion from Authentic Ancient Traditions is that each sex has something to learn from the other. In the Orthodox tradition, female saints are often described in terms that in Greco-Roman culture were stereotypically male- strength, warriorship, perseverance, wisdom, courage and so on- while male saints are often noted for stereotypically feminine virtues- gentleness, humility, compassion and so on. Without affirming the stereotypes, the idea of seeking balance and completeness in this way, and thus overcoming the dualistic view of gender, is an interesting one for our society.

But to truly resolve the dilemma of sexual desire probably requires a Tantric approach, in which desire, rather than being treated as the enemy, is focused and reframed into an avenue for enlightenment.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger