A Fictional Review on the History of Sex

Civilization as Sexual Fantasy by P. E. Hogarth
Millennium Murlet Press, Oxford-on-Tyne, New Zealand
ISBN 0-15-671686-0
Reviewed by Tom Radcliffe

"When you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."

Dress this coarse soldier's braggadocio in fancier clothes and it says something profound about sex, society, culture, and freedom. But however profound, Peter Hogarth's insights into sex and civilization cannot be considered more than speculation. His claims have a ring of plausibility, not of truth.

Hogarth breaks his story into two parts: the first sets out a sexual structuralist account of civilization, and the second traces the history of sexuality in Europe and the Ancient Near East. The theory is based on the idea that the structure of sexual relations determines the structure of society, and begins with the observation that human societies provide their members with the means to acquire many things: food, shelter, clothing, waste disposal, and the other physical necessities of life. Peace and security of person. Companionship, friendship, and sex.

Overt, legal regulation of these things is not all that common: most of our social machinery is built upon implicitly agreed-upon standards of conduct, a small number of stereotypical roles in interactions, and an equally implicit set of standards for identifying who is playing what role in any given situation. Societies differ in two respects: what roles people are expected to play, and how rigidly defined those roles are. Historical change takes place along both these axes: gradual change tends to involve changes in rigidity (from "A gentleman would never suggest such a thing to a lady!" to any of "Not on your life!", "No thanks, I'm with her," or "My place or yours?"). More radical changes involve the roles themselves: "Will you be paying for that slave in gold or goods?" vs. "We are offering you a one-year contract, with benefits".

The means of social control — the means by which members of a culture influence others to conform to the cultural norms — are quite limited. Threats to peace and security of person are widely used, but when they become the primary means of social control it is generally taken as evidence of a society that is nearing collapse. In vigorous societies, Hogarth claims with only marginal evidence and no consideration of counter-examples, even those in subservient roles generally support the social structure that oppresses them, and constant coercion is not required.

By far the most commonly used mechanism of social control is ostracism: the withdrawal of companionship, of friendship. Almost any aspect of human behaviour can be used as a means of social control: in one of the book's most rich and detailed chapters Hogarth gives examples of ostracism based on type and amount of food consumed and the details of its preparation, on the clothes people wear, the way a person's hair or beard is cut (or not) — even on the basis of the furniture they use. But while some cultures attempt to regulate some of these, in virtually every culture the threat of ostracism hangs over anyone whose sexual behaviour does not conform to cultural norms.

Why this should be so is an interesting question: what is it about other people's sexual behaviour that so fascinates most people? The evidence for this fascination is everywhere. In a news story on Sex in America, a book reporting on "the only scientific survey of sexual behaviour in America", the commentator thankfully concludes that, given the rather boring picture the survey paints of American sexual behaviour, we can "stop worrying about what is going on in the bedroom next door".

The question is never asked: Why, exactly, should we be worried about what is going on in the bedroom next door? It is with his answer to this question that Hogarth steps beyond the bounds of social commentary and into the field of speculation.

Hogarth's answer has to do with the way the structure of sexual relations provides a basic, almost skeletal, structure to human society as such. Who is allowed to have sex with whom, and who takes responsibility for the children that might result therefrom, is the core structural feature of almost every human culture. What this means in detail I have no idea, and neither does Hogarth, despite his protestations to the contrary.

Whatever the detailed reason is — and a wide range of equally plausible, equally suspect reasons could be given — the fact remains that people have usually been pretty interested in what their neighbours are doing in the bedroom, and have used threats of withdrawal of companionship to regulate that behaviour as heavily as they can.

Having laid out the theory in part one, Hogarth takes on the history of sex in part two. This is territory that has been covered before, almost always with strong ideological intent. Hunt's Natural History of Love is probably the closest to a non-ideological survey of the subject, and even it is dominated by the now thankfully defunct Freudian view of sex.

Despite its concern with the past, Hogarth's primary focus in part two is on the future. For the last fifteen hundred years and more the West has been dominated by Christian beliefs, including Christian beliefs about sex. Mostly, Christians have held sex to be a BAD THING. Some have taken this belief to the extreme of auto-castration, and many have attempted to live lives of celibate "virtue" on the basis that the pleasures of the flesh are embargoed by words written on paper centuries ago by people who thought that the sun revolved about the earth and that flies were born from feces and geese from barnacles.

Hogarth points out that we are in the midst of a great revolution in human culture and — based on his sexual structuralist theory — a correspondingly great change in our views of sexuality. Living in a culture that is still based primarily on Christian values, it is hard to understand what might be waiting for us ahead. One way to get a better grasp of this is to look into the past, and try to understand what pre-Christian cultures thought about sex. This will at least, Hogarth argues, give us a little perspective on the problem, and show us in no uncertain terms that there have been cultures whose sexual organization was radically different from our own.

In writing about history there is always the problem that we are talking about human beings, and if we squint hard enough they look a lot like us. They have the same number of arms and legs, they eat, they sleep, they walk around. They have institutions that we call "marriage" and "churches" and we think we know what these things mean. But we don't — if we did there would not be a lot of point in the study of history. Sometimes we get sharp stabs of alienness through the fog of the familiar — a Greek parent exposing a child to die, or a peasant failing to exploit an opportunity to kill a lord whom to modern eyes clearly deserves it. These people are not like us: they look at the world through different eyes, they live according to different values. We are not like them. Sometimes we are not even like ourselves. Hogarth is clearly aware of these problems, but does not always avoid the pitfalls they entail.

The historical study of sex is made especially difficult by several circumstances: Christian hostility toward sexuality, and Church dominance of scholarship, has meant that very little sexual material has come down to us from the Classical world, and even less from the past fifteen hundred years. There are a few fragments of early pornography, Ovid's thoroughly modern manual of seduction, and the like. Even more severely limiting, what little material we have is from the upper, literate classes. And we have no way of knowing how representative even what little we have is: there are still serious problems with measuring sexual behaviour in the modern world, where we can wander around and ask people what they are doing. The best we can hope to do in the ancient world is make a few educated guesses. These limitations have rarely stood in the way of serious scholarship: true to type, Hogarth generates many bold pronouncements of "fact" regarding sexual behaviour in other times and places based on evidence that is at best suggestive.

It is clear that ancient views of sex were different from our own, sometimes radically so. The institution of temple prostitution, for instance, is something that boggles the modern mind. We know very little about it, except that it appears that sex was held to be in some sense sacred, and that various cultures of the ancient Orient, from Egypt to Sumeria, included the worship of a powerful female goddess as part of their religious life. Pantheism alone is a big enough leap to stagger the modern mind, long marinated in the wine of monotheism. But worship of this goddess — known under various guises as Ishtar or Inanna, and having many avatars, including Siduri, goddess of brewing — appears to have included sexual rites of one kind or another. Despite many attempts at scholarly inference, we know astonishingly little about them, just as we know almost nothing about the sexual aspects of the Greek mystery religions.

Hogarth at least avoids the major scholarly trap that Foucault and his followers fell into: that of downplaying literary evidence in favour of more broadly interpretable scenes on pottery. If anything, he gives literary sources too much attention, to the detriment of artifacts and archeological remains. Recent work on the probable Athenian brothel, "Building Z", for instance, is largely ignored by the author.

The best-known reference to temple prostitution in ancient literature, of which Hogarth makes much, is a passage from Herodotus which claims that every free woman in Babylon, no matter what her station in life, had to stand in the temple of the goddess once in her life before marriage, and accept even the smallest coin from whoever should choose her. Ugly women, Herodotus reports, were sometimes condemned to years of waiting. This all seems quite unlikely: Herodotus had no first-hand knowledge of the matter, he was given to recording traveler's tales along with sound geographical and anthropological information, and he was often confused as to which was which. Hogarth will have none of this, and takes the primordial historian at face value.

We know a little more from poetry, but it must be treated with great caution. Imagine scholars five thousand years from now trying to deduce the "family values" of Elizabethan England on the basis of a partial First Folio copy of Hamlet with interpolations from an equally partial copy of a Chinese translation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and you will have some idea of how suspect Hogarth's confident discussion of Sumerian literature really is.

In the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh a temple prostitute is an important figure, as are Inanna and Siduri. The prostitute is brought to the wilderness by a hunter to tame Enkidu, the wild man. Thus, in one of the earliest known literary references to sex, it is depicted as a powerful civilizing force, with non-procreative sexual congress being one of the many delights of civilization, and bringing a kind of wisdom and knowledge to Enkidu, the "natural" man. Enkidu ultimately sees this as a mixed blessing, and before he dies both curses and blesses the woman who brought it to him. The hunter he only curses.

Inanna/Ishtar is a darker figure in the epic. She takes a fancy to Gilgamesh, and is angered when he rejects her, citing her fickleness and poor treatment of past lovers. His harsh rejection of her overtures has disastrous consequences for him, for Enkidu, and for his city of Uruk. Here sexual desire is portrayed as something divisive and dangerous, closely linked with death and destruction.

Siduri, most notably in the Sumerian versions of the epic, is a woman who is both young and wise. In one of the most remarkable passages in ancient literature she advises Gilgamesh to give up his quest for immortality: to live well, to make each day a feast of rejoicing, to keep himself clean and well groomed, and to cherish his children and his wife. Here is woman as companion in a life of private joy — not until Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" do we again find the non-heroic, quiet life so movingly praised.

Christian scholars are apt to dismiss this advice as "mindless hedonism", but Hogarth argues persuasively that it is neither. Mindless hedonists don't make good spouses or parents. To non-Christian ears Siduri's creed sounds not so bad, and in it lie the seeds of one possible future.

Gilgamesh is as far back into the past as we can see. The picture becomes more varied and complex as we move forward, but it is clear that until the early centuries of the Christian era the spirit of sacred sexuality was not entirely extinguished as a cultural force. The mythos surrounding the decline of pre-Classical sexuality is thick, and we will certainly never have more than hand-waving arguments as to what happened. Some vestiges of sacred sexuality survived well into the Christian era, and nothing so simple as a conspiracy amongst the warrior men of the first dark age can explain its decline.

In keeping with his view that sex structures society, Hogarth argues that the decline of sacred sexuality had to do with the creation of large empires — large political structures required more effective social control, and the most effective way to provide that was through more rigid, restrictive rules about who could have sex with whom. Nothing conspiratorial need have happened: by simple selection, cultures that were already uptight about sex would be able to take better advantage of burgeoning military technology to expand their empires. An engineer working for Phillip II of Macedon discovered the torsion spring that made powerful siege catapults possible, and Phillip's son Alexander was the first in a long line of military rulers who based his power on artillery — the first "gunner" in history, who set us on the road to the modern world, where there are only two kinds of objects on the battlefield: artillery, and targets.

With the explosion of military technology, city walls could be breached, and large empires became a practical military reality for cultures with sufficient internal cohesion and organization to be able to pursue them. Thus, the puritan Romans of the early republic displaced the sexually omnivorous Greeks. Thus far Hogarth makes a plausible though not compelling case. His great challenge, however, is in explaining how the Christians ultimately displaced the Romans.

Christianity is an interesting test of Hogarth's theory because its empire was primarily one of social rather than overtly political control. The Church propagated itself throughout the Roman world using the Roman technical and political infrastructure, but it survived the collapse of that infrastructure in the Western Empire, and thrived in an environment of little kingdoms. It was an empire of the mind, and amongst the most powerful weapons in its arsenal was the teaching that the sexual urge is vile.

Hogarth argues that Christian sexual mores are central to the rise of "guilt" culture over "shame" culture in the West, because they are so restrictive that any ordinary person is certain to have quite a lot to be guilty about. That shame is public and guilt is private is a measure of the power of guilt: it can be felt even when no one else knows, and has correspondingly greater scope as a means of control.

The first few hundred years of Christian history — more or less the period commonly known as the Dark Ages — are rife with tales of sexual violence, both physical and psychological. Cases of auto-castration and other forms of extreme mortification of the flesh abound, and the bizarre institution of "celibate marriage" was common if not exactly flourishing.

But sex is a powerful force — for Hogarth it is very nearly Aristotle's Immovable Mover. Neither political nor technological change came to an end in the Dark Ages, and by the end of the early Middle Ages there was a class of people with sufficient leisure time that sex became a serious problem. An ordinary human being with time and wealth enough to enjoy a life of leisure has opportunities for sexual indulgences that would rarely be available to someone scrabbling a subsistence living out of hard soil or a harder peasantry. Although such wealthy individuals must have existed all through the Dark Ages, they would have been rare, and only in the twelfth century were there enough of them to become, potentially, a society.

And where there is society, Hogarth reminds us, there are rules about who can have sex with whom. In Christian society, these rules are profoundly restrictive, to the point where they might even be ineffective: after all, a person who is to be condemned regardless may as well indulge in any passing whim if it gives pleasure. And for the first time in Western Europe for many centuries a critical mass of wealthy individuals existed who might have done just that.

Instead they invented romance.

How this came about is a subject of much dispute, which Hogarth glosses over rather too lightly to be convincing. Eleanor of Aquitane, the wife of England's Henry II, is one central figure. But the "who" is less interesting than the "why", and this can never be more than speculation. Hogarth takes a quasi-Darwinian model of social change: ideas and cultures that are successful tend to dominate and absorb less successful cultures, and accident typically plays a very large role in what counts as successful. Given similar conditions, different cultures will react in different ways: Italy and England were both on the "winning" side during World War I, for instance, but Italy embraced fascism while England narrowly escaped it. Italian culture was more accepting of the strong leader, while England ultimately stayed true to its cultural emphasis on individual liberty. In neither case were the members of either culture making judgements about what would work: they were making judgments about what was right. There wasn't any economic cost/benefit analysis going on: people were making choices according to their beliefs, and when those people came into conflict one group lost, and their beliefs with them.

Applying this model to the Middle Ages, Hogarth considers two cultures amidst growing wealth. One starts to stretch its sexual wings, as is visible in works like Boccaccio's Decameron. It is bound to come into conflict with the Church, and is indeed in conflict with its members' sincere faith. The other stumbles upon a model of perfect love that is chaste, erotic, powerful, and heroic. It has the good fortune to find favour with one of the most powerful people in Europe. Guess which culture, Hogarth asks rhetorically, attracts the most adherents?

Romance in Hogarth's view is nothing more than an attempt to reconcile sexual love with Christian mores. He admits it to be a pretty good attempt; certainly much more humane than anything that appeared in the dark time before it. But it is still an attempt to mix oil and water, and as such is doomed to fail. And fail it does, Hogarth claims, as the litany of sexual violence and failed relationships over the rest of the millennium shows us. In this he does not prove his point: his much-admired, sexually-freewheeling Greeks committed crimes no less hideous than those he lays at the feet of romance. His lengthy and depressing survey of romantic failure can be passed over lightly. The only compelling point that remains amidst the bloody detail is Hogarth's question: "Is there any other pinnacle to which human beings aspire that is defined and achieved by failure?" Hogarth sees the "star-crossed lovers" as the essence of romance, and he marshals considerable evidence to show that thwarted love has always been considered "more romantic" than consummated love.

This century has seen a dramatic decline in the power of the Church over much of the world. Where this has occurred, Hogarth sees the emancipation of women as both a cause and an effect, for one of the fundamental aspects of romantic love is an enforced asymmetry between men and women. Women wait. Women demand. Women entice. Men act. Men fulfill. Men obey. This is Hogarth's ideal of romantic love: the chaste woman demanding services of her lover, who fulfills her demands as proof of his love, until she grants him the ultimate reward — or for preference dies a horrible death before his very eyes, and for which he is partially responsible, causing him to kill himself in remorse.

In the modern world, women are free as never before to act for themselves, and men are free to approach women as equals, not as noble servants or heroic conquerors. Men and women are free to mix as friends as well as lovers, but Hogarth warns us that romance is not yet dead: we are left with a unstable mixture of sexual equality and Christian legacy, in which friendship and love are considered incompatible. Monogamy still reigns because human beings seem best-suited to pair-bonded relationships — even the Sumerians had some notion of marriage — but non-monogamist, post-romantic forms of sexual love are beginning to appear, where the pair-bond is still strong but no longer the utterly exclusive relationship that romantic theory would make it.

Into this volatile mixture Hogarth points out that an electronic spark has been thrown: the Internet. Twenty years ago, if you lived in a small town, your community was the people you interacted with every day. Even in the larger cities, the only available human companionship lived within a short distance of your home, and it is likely that the community you moved in had many cross-links, making it much smaller than the city as a whole. Within such communities, the threat of social ostracism was a powerful force.

Today, no matter how unusual your tastes, you can find an on-line community that caters to them. There is no idea so strange, no practice so bizarre that there isn't a newsgroup dedicated to it, mailing lists that discuss it, and even conventions that convene on it. People who, twenty years ago, would never have known of each other's existence, now correspond daily. And from correspondence can come friendship, from friendship can come meeting, and from meeting can come all manner of things, including sex. And no one but the participants may ever know.

The book ends with a sweeping epilogue, summarizing the evidence for sex as a means of social control and the role of non-procreative sex in what Hogarth calls "culture building". He argues that despite various "New Age" movements in that direction, we are unlikely to return to the ancient world where sexuality was expressed in sacred rites, for that too was a means of social control, and social control by ostracism based on sexual practices between consenting adults is dead.

This has never happened before.

The future, he tells us in the end, is waiting to be written.