Sex, Guilt, “Sin” and Social Control

By Corey Gilkes
March 28, 2011

Bride and groom join hands at a Hindu weddingThis is a somewhat expanded version of an article I wrote for a Ghanaian-based website dealing with issues relating to women’s sexuality (WHY Good Christian Girls “Shouldn’t Have Sex”: The Issue of Virginity). It was actually in response to a blog comment dealing with abstinence. Looking at the comments by some of the readers it was really astounding to see just how alike we are — albeit in this case, I would have liked if it were not so.

Maybe I read too much into things but some of the responses in some of the articles on that website really struck me with the apparent deep convictions of those who engaged in premarital sex that what they did made them fall short in the eyes of god. The very words used to describe their experiences were quite instructive, particularly the word “impure.” I’ve long known this word to be linked to sexual interaction but it’s always sobering to see it still wielding the power it did all through the centuries. Sexual interaction, including intercourse, is by far a most wonderful way of expressing one’s love or emotional closeness to someone else. Apart from achieving closeness with someone you love — or even just like — sexual and erotic intimacy is linked to a wide array of feelings which in turn are linked to mental and physical well-being, relieving stress and not to mention providing a very pleasurable way of burning off calories.

Sex, however, has also been a very good way of exercising social control. When twinned with religion, it is a most powerful way to keep subjected people compliant with whatever claims to hegemony one may have, legitimate or not. Steve Biko said the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed while Carter G Woodson said in Mis-Education of the Negro that when you control a person’s mind you don’t have to control his actions. So it is with sex and the control of women. For thousands of years proponents of patriarchal ideas have used sex to suppress attempts by subjected peoples and specifically women to assert themselves socially, economically and politically.

Of all the emotions employed by patriarchists to keep people subordinate, perhaps none has been as effective in keeping people in line as guilt. Guilt manipulation has been by far one of the most effective means of keeping subjugated peoples from being fully self-confident to the point where they challenge established rules, conventions and other attempts to deny the taking control of their destiny. Whether it was enslaved Africans plotting revolt on the plantations, colonised Africans challenging white minority/absentee rule or corrupt local rule, or workers agitating for improved conditions. In these and more scenarios, apart from the direct violent weapons possessed by the coloniser, the psychological weapons used to maintain “order” were embedded in a foundation of guilt, reinforced by imposed ignorance and self-doubt.

Without a doubt religion was the principal vehicle conveying those feelings of guilt. In the Caribbean colonial schooling was controlled by the same people who controlled religious instructions — Europe/Euro-American missionaries. Practically every one of them came imbued with the same negative (yet double standard) attitudes about human sexuality. The same schizophrenic, misogynist attitudes they used to repress sexual interactions among their fellow Europeans were increased tenfold when applied to African and Afri-Caribbean peoples (the differences were noticed when the first waves of Afri-Caribbean immigrants settled in postwar England and noticed that churches were not only sparsely attended but that both men and [albeit more discreetly] women were a lot less sexually conservative than most colonised subjects were made to be).

Now I do not dismiss in any way the legitimate and very real health issues connected with sexual activity particularly in a liberated, non-monogamous environment and I am certainly not in support of any unprotected sexual activity. However, looking at some of the messages geared toward curbing the spread of STDs, oftentimes attempts at reaching out to people the guilt factor more than the medical factor is used utilising themes developed in religious circles which were developed to make their target audiences feel guilty about having sexual desires, particularly when these desires overstepped the prescribed narrow confines of pre-marital and extramarital sex and intimacy. It may be that this is because many of the places where HIV/AIDS are the highest are the same places where traditionally the peoples there had very sex-positive worldviews and so the original intention could have been innocent.

All well and good were it not for the fact that these same religious teachings are what lay beneath the ignorance many possess about sexuality in the first place. It’s small wonder why one Rev Joseph Fletcher, an official of the Episcopal Theological School, reportedly said that “the Christian Church must shoulder much of the blame for the…..ignorance and guilt which surrounds sex in Western culture…” Barbara G Walker in The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets said “it is hardly possible for anyone brought up in….Western (culture) to comprehend the ancient world’s opinion of sex as an experience of divine pleasure or a preview of heaven without deliberate, laborious intellectual progress toward such an opinion.” Much of the guilty feelings we express or feel concerning pre/extramarital sexuality are products of very ancient superstitions and misogynist biases in patriarchal ideology that was erroneously projected as universal ideology and dressed up and made palatable by calling it morality. Of course there are those who would argue that the strictures against pre and extramarital sex, polyamory etc are in keeping with Christian teachings. They will as usual quote biblical passages to buttress their argument; passages that are divinely inspired — and you certainly cannot argue with god. Again, all well and good.

Except that these passages were not inspired by any divine, mystical force, they were created by ordinary men and I am arguing. This view of sex became firmly embedded in human consciousness for hundreds of years before Judaism, Christianity or Islam came into existence and so informed the ideas of morality of the priestly elites in these faiths.

If one wishes to choose abstinence or exclusive monogamy on the basis of religious injunctions, by all means. I’d feel somewhat better, however, if those religious beliefs were buttressed and properly informed by the historical and sociological facts. The guilt felt after (or before) thinking about/engaging in pre- or extramarital intimacy against the Christian teachings have very little to do with any god and more to do with certain feelings of insecurity and inadequacy a few men held thousands of years ago that they then reversed and projected onto the very group they had issues with: women. All religion did was provide justification that supposedly could not be questioned or challenged.

Apart from the economic factor already discussed, male hunter/warriors in Eurasia had other issues with the more open sexual lifestyle of the older matricentric societies. Sex in most patricentric cultures was idealised as mysterious, dangerous and polluting. Scholars like Cheikh Anta Diop, Charles S Finch and Marilyn French have shown that the roots of this belief are in the fatalistic, unsentimental mindset Eurasia clans developed as coping mechanisms for the extreme conditions in Eurasia at that time. They saw life as a miserable period of probation and that the physical world, made up of matter which was subject to decay, was therefore subject to decay and contamination. One had to fight and sacrifice to get anything and that meant often denying oneself relaxation, sensual pleasures that distracted from and so threatened the rigid, almost unifocal militaristic and hunting lifestyle that was essential for the clans’ survival. Women were specifically targeted as being the controllers of that sexual power. Because of the association with sex and procreation, sex was seen as a quality inherent only in females; it was not a human — read male — characteristic.

Some scholars further argue that the differences between male and female sexual abilities also contributed. It is believed that the differences between male and female sexual arousal, the energy drained from men upon climaxing, frequency of orgasms, the feelings of terror apparently evoked upon the sight of a blood-soaked penis withdrawn from a menstruating woman — related to the confusion over a menstruating woman bleeding like the animals they wounded on the hunt yet not dying like them — all seems to have contributed to their ideas of sex as something mysterious yet dangerous.

Hunter/warriors developed bonding and coping mechanisms that created images of invincibility. Many aspects of sexuality threatened this aura that they created. To deal with these feelings of trepidation and inadequacy ancient patriarchists re-directed these feelings onto women. Because men’s sexuality was not necessarily the same as women, and because sex became idealised in terms of power relations, women’s sexuality was devalued and demeaned. Women were made to internalise some of these ideas (using myths and religious teachings as vehicles) and so eventually came to see their own bodies the way patriarchists saw them: as shameful displays of temptation for the warrior protectors. This notion never fully changed even though populations expanded, consciousness developed, civilisations grew, economies changed and societies evolved. Values continue(d) to be defined in keeping with ancient militaristic, competitive ideologies. The Greek thinkers contributed much to “genderising” honour; for men it was through their open, aggressive displays of bravery, assertiveness, competitiveness and sexual prowess. Women on the other hand, were expected to show their honour by how well they guarded and hid their marks of shame: their bodies (use of clothes to conceal necks, arms, legs, hair and especially breasts and vulvas) and their very selves (by remaining at home, by being silent when in the home, by being obedient to men’s authority).

To break just one of these restrictions was to “prove” that the woman was sexual, thus promiscuous, thus shameful and not an “honourable” woman. It meant that she was once again her natural self and so a slave to base, animal nature. All this was reflected in the philosophical writings of Hesiod, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and diffused to Roman thinkers, the philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment, down to our own times.

Most importantly, however, it influenced the thinkers who developed the Jewish and Christian tenets. Hellenised Jews who were already influenced by patriarchal Babylonian culture and Levite priests drew from Greek literature. Greek and Roman urban social customs and ideas served as the templates for their social structure and ideas. So too did the Christian theologians who followed them. St Jerome warned Christian devotees to “regard everything as poison which bears within it the seeds of sensual pleasure. Tertullian said chastity was “a means whereby a man will traffic in a mighty substance of sanctity” while Augustine, who more than anyone else, established the core ideologies of Christian doctrine, held the conviction that no sex was sinless even within marriage. His ideas not only came from Greek prejudices but also from Manichean teachings. Mani’s central doctrine was that the physical world was the work of the devil, who invented sex to entrap the souls of the righteous in the prison of the flesh. Compare that belief to the feeling expressed by the author of 1 John 2:15 when he writes “Love not the world, neither things that are in the world…for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father.”

If we closely examine many of the vernacular expressions denoting sexual interaction we can see how tightly interwoven into our collective consciousness is the patricentric belief that sex is sinful, dirty and contaminating: it’s “the nasty,” the “guilty” or the “forbidden” pleasure, the “deed.” Those who refrain, however, are considered “pure” (as opposed to having sex which is “impure”). And has anyone picked up on the fact that the most obscene words like “fuck,” “cunt,” “boob,” “cock” are the words that either denote sex, sexual contact with a woman or happen to be a reference to some part of a woman’s anatomy?

Even in this so-called Age of Information it is clear that much work and discussion still needs to be done. Those beliefs we hold were developed at a time and place where the realities of travel, consciousness, urban and rural interaction were completely different to what exists today. There is much to examine and deconstruct. Some of those beliefs of course will be retained but by and large it is high time we rethink a lot of what we call “morality.” We who through Western “chain-up” pride ourselves on being superior to “savage” tribes — let alone all of Africa itself — should perhaps take a second look at some of them. More informed minds are already aware that the freer the attitude towards sex the less likely the chance of sexual deviancy and violence — not to mention dangerous acts due to ignorance. But it is often good to see concrete examples. Brolinslaw Malinosky in the early 20th century lived among the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia and among other things looked at the social and sexual interaction of the people since infancy. He reported that from infancy children were exposed to and familiar with sexual intercourse. The homes had very little provision for adult privacy, yet, outside of harsh commands by the parents to children to cover their heads with a mat — which itself was only because they did not wish to be interrupted — there were no special steps taken to prevent their children from witnessing sexual encounters. Childhood play involved as much sexual exploration including genital touching and yet the attitude of adults, including parents was either indifference or outright encouragement on the grounds that that was perfectly natural. Indeed, the only taboo rigidly enforced is that of incest.

Adolescent life is typified by much more deeper sexual encounters including more “exclusive” premarital pairing. Teens often pair off at social gatherings and engage in erotic, often even more sexual romancing and yet there is no disapproval from adults. Occasionally issues of jealousy reportedly did arise but not in the possessive sense that it arises in our own cultures. Pairings did occur but there was almost no expectation on the part of either party of being exclusive (I refuse to use more loaded terms like “faithful”). There is or was also the custom of women engaging in sexual interaction with visiting traders from neighbouring islands. Malinowsky recorded witnessing traders landing on the beaches to conduct business, at the end which women from the community would come onto the beaches and engage in very erotic interactions with the visitors — with no social repercussions or stigma. It was believed that much of the trading and the sexual liaisons that went with them, were principally about creating or maintaining strong political and social networks among the islands. Wilhelm Reich, commenting on Malinowsky’s findings, noted that because of this lack of sexual repression voyeurism, sexual violence and many other sexual deviances rarely if ever existed among the Trobriand islanders.

Married life was a bit more exclusive which led Reich to argue that here is an example of patriarchal ideology intertwined with matricentric values — which is not unusual. But what was clear from the evidence was that during the critical formative years, the attitude towards sex, eroticism and intimacy were virtually the exact opposite of what we were taught from children and so with less of the mental and physical ailments that arises from a culture of guilt and repressed sexuality. From an early age children, encouraged to engage in what turns out to be normal genital exploration, reportedly turned out to be less curious, more aware of their sexual selves and, through informed guidance, more enlightened in the ways to sexually satisfy one’s partner. Another blogger, who has his own site showed similarities in Africa like the Swahili Mafia peoples and among other ethnic groups where there are, as he called them “sexual instructresses,” often her aunt or her grandmothers, who helped her through the various rites of passage including menstruation and the ways to sexually stimulate men. Reich in his own book commented on Ethiopian and Swahili people and the “buttock-dance” among women (no men were allowed to witness) that often went on for hours and hours. From other descriptions it appears that that buttock dance is essentially what we call ‘wining.’ The point here is that in these cultures that either are matricentric or have been able to retain significant vestiges of matricentric customs, there are/were much more open and informed approaches to sexual awareness.

How unlike our sexual guilt-ridden culture; sex-ed (provided it is taught at all) is usually done in a wider context of the old closed exclusivist “genital private ownership” that got us in this mess in the first place. Both sexes are still socialised into thinking that “good” girls are still not expected to be sexually assertive, to approach the person dat dey (secretly) marking, to wait until they are approached and then be coy when/if it happens (I have a very dear friend, very intelligent but somewhat sheltered who once told me in near shocked tones about a man who complemented her on her looks when she was walking, the mere fact that he flirted had her uneasy!!).

All this of course is backed up by a predominant Arab Islamic and Hindu and especially Western Christian narrative where sex is still considered something not spoken about in “decent” gatherings because in spite of all the talk now coming from the churches that it is good and natural, it is still considered dirty, naughty, and shameful. The mere fact that we are now hearing from religious circles that it is natural unwittingly betrays that they have been saying for years, for centuries, exactly the opposite. And we wonder why a couple years ago some survey listed Caribbean men among the worst lovers. More importantly, is it any wonder why so many people are walking around harbouring serious stresses and feelings of guilt because they either find themselves thinking sexual thoughts of someone they are not married to or went ahead and “gave into” their sexual/erotic desires before or outside of marriage?

Further, that our religious teachings rely so much on guilt, sin, images of offending the Almighty as the main tool to keep people in line, shows us that in truth and fact it is the religious writings, morals and the secular customs that feed off of them (and fed into them), that are what’s really unnatural. And so, being unnatural, has to maintain its power and influence by being constantly projected onto our psyches by every subtle and explicit way imaginable, flooding our minds with messages and images forcing us to conform to a code of sensual restraint on the grounds of “righteousness,” “respect” and “morality” that were hijacked for completely different purposes thousands of years ago.

In 2011, with the ravages of AIDS/HIV and other STDs plus the ever present sexual deviancy and violence — almost always traceable to sexual repression and/or ignorance — we need to deal with this and quick too before we screw up (pardon the pun) yet another generation.

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3 thoughts on “Sex, Guilt, “Sin” and Social Control”

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I actually came across this at a crucial time in my own life dealing with such issues. I completely agree with all you have said. However, it is so true that the best prison is the one in your mind. Still ‘de-programming’ from societal teachings etc… especially as a woman.

  2. This is an amazing article! I was raised by two very sexualy repressing people. My Grandparents had their own church and I was taught from a young age that sex was only good in marriage and to feel guilty for sexual feelings. Still fighting the guilt!

  3. Thank you for the kind words Ms Lewis and I am humbled if this was helpful to you in the way you are indicating.

    Keep at the de-programming, one day at a time

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