Overview:

Although each human culture believes its sex practices are the correct ones, they're wrong. Acceptable sexuality is as variable as cultures.

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A few years ago, I watched a documentary about a remote Amazonian tribe whose sexual practices were far different from our own in contemporary, mainstream America.

A young indigenous woman on camera described a previously normal practice of her tribe to thoroughly enjoy each other with unrepressed enthusiasm at once-a-week communal sex orgies.

But that all changed, she lamented, when Catholicism had come to her village some months earlier.

She complained wistfully that clergy then ordered her once-naked tribe to cover up, and that the beloved weekly carnal gatherings were immediately banned:

“But I like having fun with my friends [at the weekly sex parties],” she complained to a filmmaker, utterly confused about why such joyful abandon was now prohibited.

St. Augustine strikes again.

Ancient church fathers like Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) condemned Eve, who tempted Adam with a forbidden apple in the Garden of Even in the Bible’s Genesis story, and ushered in the West’s historic disenfranchisement of women and designation of unmarried sex as “forbidden fruit.”

 The Yahwist (J) narrative of creation written in the 10th century BCE (Genesis 2:5–7, 2:15–4:1, 4:25) shows why women have been commonly viewed as second-class citizens since biblical times, emphatically among Christian true believers, as this Encyclopaedia Britannica passage underscores:

“[Adam and Eve] were persons of innocence until Eve yielded to the temptations of the evil serpent and Adam joined her in eating the forbidden fruit, whereupon they both recognized their nakedness and donned fig leaves as garments. Immediately God recognized their transgression and proclaimed their punishments—for the woman, pain in childbirth and subordination to man and, for the man, relegation to an accursed ground with which he must toil and sweat for his subsistence.”

And so this kind of oppressive, archaic thinking has robustly survived, piggy-backed on religion in the 21st-century world to infect the lives of indigenous Amazonian forest dwellers—as well as presumably more sophisticated city dwellers in so-called advanced societies.

In fact, distinct sexual customs are not absolute and God-given throughout humankind; different expressions of sexuality and their attendant morality are created and condoned by each individual culture’s evolving standards. As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, sexual morality is in cultural consensus.

Sexual norms and practices in ancient Rome were much different than they are today. One “rude jibe” attributed to a political opponent and directed at Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (101-45 BC), as reported by the historian Suetonius, was, “Every woman’s man and every man’s woman.”

A lot of imperial Roman cultural assumptions about sex are packed into this belittling taunt.

In highly regimented Roman society, a paramount virtue was self-control, for men and women—and this control partly manifested itself in preventing others from violating one’s person in any way and by controlling oneself from excessive personal behavior, sexual or otherwise.

So to accuse Caesar of being “every woman’s man” was to say he was a weak-willed sexual libertine who could not control his sexual appetites toward women. And, more demeaning, to accuse him of being “every man’s woman” implied that he took male lovers and accepted the shameful passive role, the one “penetrated.”

Roman men in their intensely patriarchal culture could not maintain a necessary reputation of macho strength, power, and control if they weren’t always dominant in all things, and always the penetrator, of men or women.

Canadian ancient studies professor emeritus Aven McMaster, in her Psyche essay, wrote that Romans didn’t differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual intercourse and didn’t even have a Latin word for “homosexuality.” It was all just sex. What counted in terms of male dominion was who was the lord and master over themselves, inferior other men and women, and who was always the penetrator in sexual congress.

Wrote McMaster:

“[W]e see again and again that it isn’t the genders involved or the acts themselves that the Romans cared about, but the question of who’s doing it, and who’s being done to. That’s where gender and status suddenly mattered – a lot.

“The key thing, for a Roman, was that your sexual participation lined up with your perceived gender. The essence of masculinity was to be the penetrator, while to be vulnerable to penetration was to mark yourself as nonmale. … women with women are hardly ever mentioned or depicted in Roman sources, except when they are said to use some sort of penis substitute to achieve penetration. It seems that, for Romans, if no one was getting penetrated, it didn’t count as sex.”

Who’s to say it’s wrong if everybody says it’s right? Right? As all politics are local, all sexual mores are cultural.

And then there’s the tribe of very aggressive, xenophobic hunter-gatherers, the world’s last preneolithic people, who have been living for the past 60,000 years on the tiny island of North Sentinel located west of Thailand in the Bay of Bengal on the Indian Ocean.

The Sentinelese have a long and bloody history of repelling outsiders. They are considered the world’s most isolated tribe and were virtually unheard of until a few years ago when they murdered trespassing American Christian evangelist John Allen Chau who arrived—contrary to the laws of India, which claims sovereignty over the Sentinelese—to convert them.

YouTube video

In addition to their violent proclivities, these stone-age people—they are blessedly ignorant of Christianity—also reportedly engaged in vibrant and (to modern sensibilities) rollicking sexual practices. According to an article this month in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail,

“[I]n 1970, a group of anthropologists approached the island, notebooks and cameras at the ready, and were peppered with arrows and then treated to an energetic beach sex show, described by one observer as a ‘sort of community mating . . . a frenzied dance of desire.’”

YouTube video

This sexual fluidity was also evident during exploration of the American West in the early 1800s. Meriweather Lewis and Capt. William Clark, who U.S. President Thomas Jefferson dispatched to explore the new nation’s western frontier to the Pacific Ocean, found the Indian tribes they encountered surprisingly accommodating sexually.

After a welcoming dance for the explorers broke up around midnight at a Sioux Indian encampment, they were offered carnal refreshment, author Stephen B. Ambrose wrote in Undaunted Courage, a nonfiction account of the Lewis-and-Clark cross-continental adventure.

“[Chief] Black Buffalo offered the captains young women as bed partners. Clark, who understood the meaning of the offering, wrote later that ‘a curious custom of the Sioux is to give handsome young squars to those whome they wish to show some acknowledgement to, but the captains said no.’”

Similar hospitality was offered to the adventurers by other tribes. The Indians believed that by their women having sex with the visiting whites the tribes would absorb some of the intrinsic power the Sioux believed they embodied.

Obviously, the orgy-friendly Amazonians, “community mating” Sentinelese and conjugally opportunistic Native Americans danced to much different drummers regarding sex than their white visitors.

Who’s to say it’s wrong if everybody says it’s right? Right? As all politics are local, all sexual mores are cultural.


Read: How did Christianity warp your sexuality?


While Christians agree their holy book requires chastity among unmarried males and females, the Romans, remote Amazonians, Sentinelese, and Indigenous Americans of the 19th century all embraced their own community standards regarding copulation, even if they were not written down in supposedly sacred scriptures.

After all, that’s why they say, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

“This proverb reminds us that many of our beliefs are not as absolute as we may previously have thought them to be,” the online IMP Center notes. “One example is the idea that our culture knows the ‘right’ way to cook food or to greet acquaintances. Other cultures have different cooking styles, and different ways of greeting people (from handshakes to bows). Living by the idea of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ enables us to acknowledge that we should not think that we are ‘right’ and other cultures are wrong about these things.”

It is a human tendency to view our own society’s sexual customs as the “right” ones. But we are clearly mistaken. In fact, there are no universal right ones.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...