O.P. Recommends – The Good Wife: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages, by Peter Adamson

Young Lady Writing in an Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

One of Peter Adamson’s most recent podcast episodes for his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps particularly delighted me, in the surprises sprinkled richly throughout and its thoughtful yet lively and sometimes humorous exploration of a wide range of religious, social, and literary topics. The history of sexuality and gender attitudes in the medieval Western world was more varied than we might realize, both in sacred and secular contexts.

And don’t stop with this one, by any means: every episode I’ve ever heard of Peter’s multitudinous podcasts are fantastic! Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Sexual Purity: A Dirty Idea

So have you ever heard of a purity ball?

It’s sort of like a prom, but with a twist: daughters are accompanied by their fathers, instead of their boyfriends. There, they enjoy music, eat, drink, and dance… and then these young girls pledge to remain sexually abstinent, or ‘pure’, until their wedding day.

Other than sounding weirdly out-of-date, like bride-prices and trousseaus, anything else bother you about this concept?

What does this concept of ‘purity’ mean?

The idea seems to be that if you’ve never had sex with someone, you’re more virtuous, more worthy, more desirable, more ….clean.

But what does this imply? That if you do have sex with someone, you’ve become, somehow, ‘impure’? That it makes you dirty, less desirable, less worthy, less virtuous, less worthy of respect, maybe even less valuable as a person?
This idea, that engaging in one of the most social, most cooperative, most intimately friendly actions that human beings enjoy with one another can ever make you ‘impure’, has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I began to question what the idea of sexual purity, like the Cult of the Virgin, really stands for. For ages, human belief systems have equated virginity, especially of women, with sacredness. The stories of the birth of Horus, of the Buddha, of many of the Greek gods, of Jesus, all illustrate this obsession many of the world’s cultures, and especially religions, have had with virginity. (The virgin birth of the Buddha seems to be a later addition: early Buddhist texts honor the Buddha’s father, as his natural father, as well.) These gods and heroes are made out to be more special, better than mere ordinary human beings, at least partly because their mothers didn’t create them with the help of another human being. Gods and saints have been more revered, and brides’ dowries have been higher, so long as they or their mothers are virgins.
So what does this say about our attitude towards human beings?
‘How about respect?’ one might ask. ‘How about the idea that we should practice self-control, that we should respect each other’s bodies, and not ‘use’ each other for our own selfish pleasure?’ I answer: this is both an important issue, and an entirely separate one. Sexuality, for human beings, is generally a deeply emotional thing, unlike most other animals (so far as we know). For us, it’s intertwined with the need for closeness, for intimacy, for feeling more alive, for just plain feeling good. In short, it’s one of the most richly sociable activities we engage in. And we can easily hurt each other through sex, when we lie to our partners, when we make promises we don’t keep, when we profess love to get what we want only to show indifference afterwards, and worst of all, when we inflict pain and violate their right to self-determination through rape. We expect each other to practice sexual self-control, and we are right to condemn ‘using’ anyone as a mere tool for our exclusive pleasure.

But sex outside of marriage is more often friendly, affectionate, respectful, mutually exciting, and consensual than not. Most of the time, it’s a good and valuable thing, not only for its own sake, but for what it can teach us about being good partners not only for the evening, but for life. And even when it’s not, when we use our sexuality selfishly, or to harm or deceive others, our bad behavior has no impact at all on their integrity or worth. We may be said to make ourselves ‘impure’ through our disrespect, dishonesty, cruelty, or violence; we may metaphorically be said to sully our own moral characters by wronging anotherYet we don’t have purity balls in which we pledge not to sully ourselves by lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. There’s no Cult of the Honest Woman, no god or prophet honored by virtue of their mother’s never haven stolen anything. And we don’t ever imply that we can be made impure if others lie to, steal from, or cause harm to us. It’s sex that’s been so widely singled out and associated with the concept of transmissible purity and impurity in so many of the world’s ideologies, cultures, and religions, for reasons that are no longer useful, and no longer morally defensible.

When I look at the belief systems that sacralize virginity, it seems the common denominator is the inheritance of values from tribal, patriarchal cultures, in which life was wrested out of the land with great difficulty, where infant mortality was high and competition for territory was fierce. Keeping tight control over women helped ensure one’s bloodline was unmixed with that of competitors, and worthy of protection by the head of the household and the tribe. The mythology of purity and impurity, of ritual, superstition, and prohibition surrounding human sexuality is perceived as such effective method of social control that they persist in many cultures and belief systems even to this day (though sexual assault statistics over the decades reveal that liberal, secular societies generally have lower rates of sexual assaults than more sexually repressive ones). Over the years, the justifications have changed, but attitudes remain the same.

Yet most of the world’s population has long since left that harsh ancestral world behind, and we are in an age in which personal liberty and individual human worth and dignity are valued like never before. Murder, theft, assault, and sexual coercion and violence are vilified and illegal, and most societies now go out of their way to ensure individuals can express their personalities and pursue their own goals as much as possible, in safety and security. We also care to understand how and why our social institutions and practices can enrich and beautify human life, and to celebrate them, from conversation, humor, and storytelling, to music and fine arts, to dining with friends, family, and allies, to sex itself, as countless scholarly volumes, scientific studies, and works of art and literature attest.

I argue that this view of human nature, in which human beings are understood as both individually valuable and thoroughgoingly social, doesn’t have room for this concept of sexual purity and impurity. In fact, to say sex with another human being can ever make you impure is just about the most personally insulting and antisocial idea one can express: the claim that the touch of another human being can make you dirty is an attack on human dignity itself.

It undermines the concept of personal responsibility, in which we are morally accountable for what we do and not for what a person does to us. It treats sex as a thing that is corrupt and evil outside of a narrow context, in a way totally divorced from what we’ve discovered about the history, evolutionary biology, and psychology of human sexuality. It reveals a deep scorn for human nature, in which sexuality is as basic a component as rationality, language, the need to survive, to feel pleasure, to matter, and to find love and companionship. And it implies that human beings are innately corrupt, dirty, wicked things, redeemed only through distancing themselves from their own humanity.

Just as I reject all of these, so I reject the idea of sexual purity. And I think you should, too, if you believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of respect for their own sake.

* Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog


Recently, I read a post on Facebook where my cousin’s wife woefully reported that my cousin’s new anti-pornography site had to be taken down due to a huge negative reaction (though he received much support as well). The site is (was?) called ‘Her Name’, and it’s a forum where you assign a name (first name only) to a woman whose dignity had been affronted through pornography: women you know, women you’ve seen but not met, and so on. By naming these women, their humanity, their individual worth is re-affirmed, and all are reminded that each woman a life and a story beyond the simple object of gratification that pornography portrays them as.

That was what I was able to gather from the description of the website and from  my cousin’s wife’s post. But I didn’t find many details of why many objected strongly to the website, in the blog review and discussion of ‘Her Name’ I found on Patheos, nor on Facebook. Nor was I able to discern clear arguments in support of the claim that women are, in fact, dehumanized or injured in other ways by pornography.

Here’s what I gathered about the nature of the angry comments: by providing a forum to name these women, my cousin was (inadvertently, I believe) also creating a handy tool for ideologues to shame women taking part in pornography, or to ‘out’ women who want to keep their porn careers private. And here’s what I gathered from the discussion overall: pornography is bad, especially for women, period.

I’m glad that my cousin feels passionately about the issue insofar as he is concerned with promoting the dignity and freedom of women. And I’m glad that he’s taking part in the public discussion that we should all continue to have about pornography. It’s such a complicated subject, to which the blog reviewer doesn’t do justice: she offers no arguments to support her assertion that porn dehumanizes women. She simply claims that it’s a tool of the devil to destroy souls by denying their existence without explanation as to why or how.

Another thing: the overall characterization of porn, on the site and the blog post, was almost exclusively about the victimization of women, yet both sexes are involved in its production as well as the consumption, to one degree or another. I presume that the assumption is that men are making most or all of the decisions, and the women are all victims and dupes. I have serious doubts about both of these claims, if they really are such. Be that the case, let’s keep in mind that while I offer primarily offer women as examples in the discussion here for consistency’s sake in comparing the arguments, most of the points made apply to all sexes involved.

Based on his replies to the blog review comments, my cousin’s objections also appear to be based primarily on his religious beliefs: lust is sinful, tempting another to lust is sinful, sexual intercourse outside of marriage is sinful, and so on. These claims will have little meaning for those not adherents to particular dogmas. Yet we can infer broader points from what he has to say. For one, the anonymity and secrecy surrounding pornography, of the actors and the viewers, indicate that shame, an instinctive reaction to pornography, indicates there’s something wrong with it. Secondly, porn, by its very nature, dehumanizes the participants by reducing them to a collection of parts that have no purpose other than to gratify sexual desire. And thirdly, supporting the sexual gratification market that is porn, also supports awful practices as sex slavery and rape by validating the general idea that it’s okay to view some women, or all women, as nothing but objects of lust.

Those who subscribe to the ideas of the growing sex-positive movement, however, would not recognize this wholly negative portrayal of pornography. Sexuality, they say, is not only natural, but as valuable a characteristic of the human personality as reason or creativity. It originates from the best parts of human nature: empathy, sympathy, cooperation, our rich emotionality, the urge to create new life. It’s one of the most exciting ways that humans can bring each other joy, and unite in one of the most emotionally intense, intimate ways that we can. In short, sex is beautiful, and the ways in which we enjoy it can be, and should be, as variable as is the range of human personality itself. It’s precisely because of patriarchy and religion, in fact, that human sexuality has been shamed, perverted, twisted, and portrayed as ugly and exploitative in all contexts outside of the confines of male-dominated monogamy. That type of sex-negative religious view, in turn, is a regrettable inheritance from our evolutionary ancestors, who felt the need to exert control of women’s sexuality in the competition to successfully procreate with limited resources. When religion and patriarchy lose their influence, sexuality can again be freely expressed in all its joy and beauty, and the religiously-imposed shame will melt away. After all, as Mark Twain says, ‘Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.’ 

Pornography, then, in this view, is to sexuality as academia and the scientific community are to intelligence, and sculpture and novels are to creativity: an expression of our sexual nature. There’s bad pornography, and good pornography, just as there are harmful scientific theories such as eugenics, and clunky, tacky, poorly written novels such as ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘Naked Came the Stranger’, and lousy art such as Dan Lacey’s pancake and unicorn paintings (though hilarious!)

So why is sex the one part of the human nature whose expression and gratification we consider most taboo even as it’s most alluring? Why single it out this way? We don’t consider gratifying hunger and thirst as shameful, nor other needs and desires such as art, music, or intellectual stimulation. What is it about sex that engaging in it, and portraying it, is considered dehumanizing in all but the very narrow context of marriage, when it’s such a very human thing for all to do and to desire? Why is considered so good and yet so bad? 

Let’s explore the problem of treating sex differently than other aspects of human nature by considering a rather extreme example. I read an opinion piece the other day about Somaly Mam and her apparently now-dubious credentials as an advocate against sex trafficking. The author makes what I think is an excellent point: Mam would ‘liberate’ sex-workers only to place them in what many might call ‘honest’ work: jobs in the apparel industry, where in Cambodia, as in many other places where sex-trafficking is a big problem, it’s a free-for-all. There are few to no human rights protections or regulations, and the women work long, back-breaking hours for little pay in awful conditions. It’s that, or starve, so there’s no real choice for most of these women. So what makes the sweatshop job more ‘dignified’? In both cases, the women have little to no autonomy, and are treated with contempt (perhaps, one might argue, more so in the sweatshop job, since the woman is not even considered a ‘possession’, and therefore of some personal value to the owner!) Is it the only the fact that it’s there’s sex involved that makes the latter condition of miserable servitude somehow better than the former? We would probably hear many on the anti-pornography side of the argument say that, of course, both are examples of terrible behavior of the slavers and of the sweatshop owners, but I would wager that they would not be impassioned advocates of labor unions, minimum wage laws, and regulations as they might be anti-sex-work activists.

The porn industry does not, for the most part, resemble the terrible practice of sex slavery, so considering them side by side is only useful insofar as it helps us recognize our own often inconsistent attitudes about sex and respect for our fellow human beings. So let’s return to a less dramatic example, where autonomy is not in question. Does the dehumanization lie in portraying a woman in such a way as to present only one aspect of her nature for the satisfaction of the audience, in this case her sexuality? How about when she is ‘reduced’ to another aspect of her person, say her physical appearance? Let’s take the example of a model for fine art, or for fashion photography. She is chosen because she is beautiful (or interesting-looking, for fits the chosen profile, or whatever), and is paid to stay still while the artist captures the outward appearance of her body, and is dismissed when the work is complete. Is she dehumanized then? How about any interaction in which a human being is only considered in the light of the narrow role they play in the other’s life in that moment, the waiter, the conversationalist at the bar, the cashier, the barista, the taxi driver, the person who makes the clothes one buys, the arms dealer? They are anonymous, or will be except during that particular transaction, and they will never be seen again. Are they dehumanized too? Why is it that interacting with another person in only their role as a sexual being more dehumanizig than interacting with them only insofar as they play a different role?

One may reply, that sex is deeply intimate and meaningful, where a painting a portrait is not (necessarily, anyway), nor is ordering food or coffee or buying stuff, nor chatting up a stranger at a bar. But why must sex always be intimate and meaningful? Just as conversation can be intimate and meaningful, it can also be casual, or meaningful but not lasting (that fascinating, intelligent fellow traveler on an overnight flight who shared the best stories and ideas you ever heard which stayed for you for life, while you never see them again), or baby talk that the infant will not remember, or part of the larger conversation a committed pair have over their shared lifetime. Yet all of those types of communication are an important part of a full life. So it goes with all other parts and products of human nature. Just because it can be deeply intimate and meaningful and long-lasting, doesn’t mean it has to be; there’s room for simple, easy, non-committed encounters as well, isn’t there?

Again, what’s so special about sex?

For the last half-dozen paragraphs, I’ve offered arguments and counter-examples from the sex-positive perspective against the anti-pornography view I (admittedly briefly) summarized at the outset. (Since I outlined only those arguments I could muster that have a broader-than-religious applicatio, it was necessarily relatively brief). Intellectually, I sympathize with the latter, since they not only harmonize best with a naturalistic philosophy most informed with verifiable evidence, but are more consistent with the values of autonomy and liberty. Yet anti-pornography advocates makes some valuable points, too, as we shall see.  

Thus far, we’ve considered arguments in favor of anti-pornography and pro-pornography (or at least anti-anti-pornography) ideas. But how do they play out in real life? Is pornography really as nasty, destructive, and shameful as some say, or as pro-human, life-affirming, nature-celebrating as others say? What does porn really look like out there, and what is its actual effect?

Here’s where I think the anti-pornographers have a point: much of the actual, mainstream pornography doesn’t seem to celebrate the same degree of respect for autonomy, diversity, and positive-body-image values that the sex-positive community has. Mainstream porn seems to chew women (and men) up and spit them out in the same way as Hollywood and the tabloids do (and these days, even Fox News and CNN!). The only people that are considered sexy enough to be featured are the hard-bodied, perfectly evenly tanned, straight and/or blonde haired, fake-white-teeth, heavily made up, simultaneously tiny-waisted and big-titted (or -cocked) stars of Barbie and Ken’s dreams. If you want to be a porn star and aren’t born with this set of attributes, under the knife and chemicals you go! There is porn made for people with other body types who wish to act in it, but as of yet, it’s generally of the boutique, Good Vibrations variety (G.V. is like Whole Foods, for the socially-conscious and horny). As of now, the body-positive attitudes celebrated in those wonderful You-Tube manifestos have not yet influenced the mainstream porn industry, just as they have not influenced Hollywood or news outlets.

I wish the porn industry overall actually looked more like the sex-positive activists’ vision, I really do! One day it may, when people grow tired of the monotony of seeing people of a only very few body types represented. Real-girl-next-door, all-natural, widows, Wallendorf Venuses, seniors, divorcees with empty nest syndrome, all of these may one day be represented as widely, and more personally, in mainstream porn as they are in people’s actual day to day fantasies and moments of curiosity. But I doubt it will happen anytime soon, if beauty magazine covers and increasing rates of plastic surgery are any indication. When it comes to body-shaming, it seems the narrow conception of beauty that informs mainstream pornography, as in all those other aforementioned public arenas: the only beauty that is celebrated is of such a rare type, and so many slice and paint themselves to artificially achieve it, that most women and girls are left to feel self-conscious and in some way not valued, since most don’t look like that standard. So they binge and purge, cut and paste, and smash themselves into ill-fitting clothing and tottering shoes.

Yet it’s not all bad news with mainstream pornography. When women are supposedly more dehumanized than ever through its unprecedented consumption as well as its extreme appearance standards, it’s also the era of unprecedented levels of legal protection of pornography actors, and of moral attitudes against the their oppression, in all categories of sex work. State by state, country by country, developed nations are instituting health regulations, labor unions, and laws that protect sex workers from the disease, exploitation, coercion, and violence that plagued them as long as sex work as existed (as the ‘oldest profession’, that’s a long time!). Sex workers, from pornography actors to prostitutes, need to worry less and less that they will be further victimized by the police or by the courts when they report crimes done against them, and sex trafficking, sex with minors, pimping, and other crimes of coercion (and patriarchy!) are less and less morally and legally acceptable than the sex-for-pay itself. 

So on the whole, I find must side with the sex-positive community in the matter of pornography. Their arguments, as I interpret them, are not only more logically consistent with what we observe in human nature and behavior, but are better aligned with what we actually see happening when it comes to protecting and caring for women and everyone else in porn. But we must keep in mind the nastier elements that are still very characteristic of the market overall, that I think my cousin and some others in the discussion recognized. There is a significant level of disrespect for our fellow human beings in the industry at large, and we must keep up the good fight against all manner of body-shaming, violence, exploitation, and coercion that are still endemic in porn.

P.S. It may seem odd that, throughout this post, I never refer to my cousin and his wife by their names, though they made their names public in the blog post discussion. My purpose is (somewhat smart-alecky, my apologies if my little joke offends!) to illustrate the point: perhaps it’s best to let people make their names public when and if they want to, when it comes to such a still-delicate subject. While it’s true that many porn actors have published their names, it’s often with the understanding that the only people likely to notice are in the porn-making and porn-watching communities, not likely to be seen by grandmas and co-workers who may not understand or agree with their choices due to the stigma that remains. The choice should be left to the porn actors publish their names more widely; it’s up to the rest of us to make the public sphere a more welcome, less harmful place to do so.


Sources and inspiration:

– Thanks to my cousin and his wife for starting such a fascinating and complex discussion of pornography in the context of naming versus anonymity, which brings to bear so many important and practical issues: human nature, sexuality, morality, the meaning of dignity, autonomy, and so much more

– My husband Bryan, whose intelligent conversation inspired and informed this piece throughout, besides being the most beautiful and sexy man I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold both naked and clothed.

– My sister Therese and my dear buddy Kristin, who also offered valuable insights, and patiently put up with my pestering them with counterexamples and devil’s-advocacy

– Dan Savage http://www.savagelovecast.com/

– Greta Christina http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/

– All whose work I linked to throughout the article