Saturday 31 March 2012

Six Degrees of Abstinence

Since I was thinking about medieval attitudes towards sex, I remembered this particular little list.  It was developed by John Cassian who was obsessed about wet dreams and was on a crusade to eradicate them since they were evidence of an untamed libido.  If he was still alive, I’d be worried about him.  He came up with six stages of chastity, a set of goals for those seeking to live a virtuous, lust-free life.  Interestingly, this list only applied to men since Cassian believed it was impossible to eradicate lust in women.  So a pre-step for this list would be to remove oneself from the company of women, i.e. to a monastery.

Step one: Not succumbing to temptations of the flesh while awake.
Step two: Rejecting voluptuous thoughts.
Step three: Sight of a woman is no longer arousing.
Step four: No longer has erections when awake.
Step five: Reference to sexual acts in the holy texts are no longer arousing.
Step six: “Seduction of female fantasies does not delude him while he sleeps.”

So many possibilities for commentary.  I feel like John Stewart after Dick Cheney accidentally shot another man in the face while duck hunting.  It just feels too easy.

But I think I’ll stick with the psychology rather than venturing into the ever-so-easy condemnation of the hypocrisy.  It’s interesting that a complete lack of sexual interest was considered a desirable state in a grown man or young boy.  I think there’s an interesting parallel in our condemnation of male sexual interest in modern society.  We talk about how boys are “bad” for wanting sex (although we praise them for getting it) and warn young women about them.  We lecture boys on how they must never allow their sexual impulses to overwhelm them lest they become rapists.  Although we don’t come out and say it, asexuality is still implied to be an approved state, at least in youth.

I actually feel sorry for the men who struggled to suppress their sexual instincts based on this list.  It’s the same situation as chronic female dieters.  The message they received was that if they just tried a little harder, they would achieve their goal.  The flaw was in them, not in trying to overcome a couple million years of evolutionary imperative.  I imagine a class of men who were the sexual equivalent of anorexics, denying themselves physical release but mentally obsessed with the act of sex and arousal (a brief stroll through medieval religious literature shows an incredible obsession with sex and sex acts). 

Anger and resentment over continued failure would eventually turn outward as blame.  Blame placed on women.  It’s not that I’m a bad or sinful man, it’s those darn women’s fault.  And in a society which still accepted external influences on personal actions and impulses, i.e. spells and curses, it’s only a short step from ascribing blame to ascribing evil intentions.  I have no real evidence for this particular train of events but it seems like a plausible emotional trigger for society.  And the Inquisition and Witch Trials are recorded history. 

The majority of people were probably quite reasonable about sex.  The same as today.  But the ideals held up for us to emulate are different.  The ideal of wildly adventurous and carefree sex is just as unrealistic as complete abstinence.

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