Sexual Appetite in Historical Christianity

Sexual Appetite in Historical Christianity

Guest Post by Archpriest George Aquaro 

In the last 200 years, the common Western understanding of sex has dramatically changed.  For example, the word ‘homosexual’ did not come into existence until the mid-1700s, and was not commonly used until later in the 19th century.  While many have pointed to Greek and Roman art depicting what we would consider ‘homoerotic art,’ the fact of the matter is that Greek and Roman literature does not describe anything approaching present-day homosexual culture.[i] 

While there is no denying that there was same-sex sexual activity throughout human history, the ancient world knew nothing of ‘sexual orientation’ as a defining characteristic, nor did it condone all forms of sexual activity.  Sex had a purpose, and it also presented such a risk to human communities throughout the ages that it had to be reigned in with taboos, social expectations, and laws.  There was never a time, until now, where there was anything approaching an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards sex.

The fact that we can no longer think about sex without resorting to very modern words and concepts should be cause for concern.  After all, if ‘homosexuality’ as we have defined it is so ancient, why was there no word for it?  Biblical translations often insert the word ‘homosexual’ to replace other words and concepts which we have forgotten.

In the last decade, we have seen an explosion in ‘genders’ and sexual terminology unheard of in ages past.  With all of this has come confusion and dissent, as we now see open conflict between ‘homosexuals’ and ‘transsexuals’ over the nature (and permanence) of gender and sexual identity.  We have, it seems, less knowledge than we ever had before.

Even the concept of marriage has changed from a practical arrangement necessary for human survival into an emotion-dependent living situation which has questionable necessity and constant instability.  While there are vague hints in the remaining rituals, the utter decadence of modern marriage can be summed up in the eternal vows which most moderns are willing to break… several times in a lifetime.

And, though we now see an effort to define people by their ‘sexual orientation,’ most people cannot even explain why they are sexual to begin with.  To modern man, sex is the primary source of identity, while also being the greatest source of confusion and dissatisfaction.

This paper will briefly address the notion of human sexuality in Christianity as it came to be understood into the modern era.  While the Christian Tradition brought several new ways to address the complexities of human sexuality, the basic concept of sexuality found in the Church represents an ‘evolution’ of earlier theories and narratives.

I at once must apologize to the reader for both the length and the brevity of this paper.  The average reader might find the length somewhat daunting, yet the scholar might find it unsatisfactorily short and lacking nuance.  I hope to complete a more thorough treatment of the topic, but for the time being I believe it is more important to get a brief treatment into the public to counter much of the misunderstandings which are paraded around as authentic expressions of Christian teachings.

To do this, I propose to take the reader through the ‘evolutionary line’ of Christian thought on sexuality, from the Ancient Near East (Sumerians, Babylonians, etc.) through Judaism, then to Greco-Roman thought, and finally on to Christianity.

Ancient Near East

From archaeological evidence, the most primitive religions stressed the importance of sex and fertility as an inherently important part of nature.[ii]  Sexuality was linked to reproduction, both for humans and animals.  An infertile couple would have no offspring to aid them in their struggle for survival, and an infertile domesticated animal would offer no milk or offspring to eat.

Left, Seated Woman of Çatal Höyük, 6000BC.  Middle, Venus of Willendorf, 25000BC.  Right, Venus of Hohen Fels, 35000BC.

In the Ancient Near East, sex was understood mostly in these terms.  But, there was a different ‘spin’ for the modern assumptions about reproduction.  In the modern world, we tend to see women as the ‘source’ of fertility.  Women have eggs, which are fertilized by male sperm, and sperm are seen as secondary agents.  The woman has the biological brunt of the reproductive process.

Earlier societies did not see reproduction that way.  In the ANE, sperm was seen as the ‘vital fluid’ which, like a seed in a fertile field, is sown into the woman and produces a child.  Thus, we see records of divine male being creating their offspring through masturbation, rather than a female goddess as the ‘author of creation.’  Creation epics are male-dominated because men were seen as the source of infants.[iii]  The fertility of women was seen as their attributes that nourished and protected the child, rather than causing the child to come into existence.

Thus, the most precious offering a man could make would be his ‘seed.’  Men made offerings through temple prostitutes as well as ritual masturbation.  Records suggest this was a serious affair and subject to legal regulations.[iv]

As for sex with another person, there was still a notion of a male force dominating and ‘fertilizing’ via implantation of seed a submissive female partner.  Thus marriage and sexual relations were governed by society so that the children of men could be associated with the correct father.  A woman who bore children from different men at the same time would constitute a breakdown in social order.

But, what about male-male sexual contact?  Homosexuality as we understand it did not exist.  Rather, the dichotomy was between dominant and submissive roles.[v]  Men must be dominant, and to be submissive was thus a shame.  A man would lose his status as a male by being subjugated to another male and receiving the other man’s ‘life force’ as a woman.  Sodomy was occasionally used as punishment, permanently displacing a man from his previous social standing.[vi]

The sexual ‘drive’ or appetite was never clearly explained in early texts, and one could say that it was taken for granted.  Sex felt good, and thus it is understandable that a man would want to have sex, as often as possible with as many partners as possible.  Law was the attempt to keep this from happening, and steering the male impulse towards a socially-constructive expression (monogamy/limited polygamy with reproduction as a necessity).  Excessive sex led to too many prostitutes and not enough mothers, as well as too many illegitimate children who had no role in society.  Ancient societies saw legitimate children as vital.  The drive was meant to be kept within a ‘breeding pair’ that would raise up new citizens.

A few men then chose to renounce their masculinity and take on the submissive role mostly due to the overall low rates of same-sex attraction as well as social taboos.  They were tolerated so long as they did not try to claim male privileges.[vii]  Some were temple prostitutes, thus making their desire to be submissive somewhat acceptable in society.  Men would not be considered less of a man for using another man for his sexual needs, provided he did not take a passive role.  Men were required to ‘demonstrate’ their masculinity.  Shame was in submitting.


With the divine revelation of Judaism, the ANE concept of fertile sexuality was taken a step further.  The Lord God commands Adam to ‘be fruitful and multiply’[viii], though in  the Biblical  creation account, man is not created through a sexual act.  Humanity is created to procreate, but is not created by procreation.

The male ‘seed’ causes life, and this repository of seed is passed down from father to son.  Thus all the generations from a man are in him (‘seed’ meaning both ‘semen’ and ‘offspring’), and are then distributed to his sons and so forth.

And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.
Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee. (Ge 13:14-17)

After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Ge 15:1-6)

It is clear that Abraham is the source of his progeny, not Sarah.  This notion that the ‘seed’ belonged to Abraham (through a Divine promise) rather than strictly to the men who bear children after him is hinted at in the story of Onan:

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also. (Ge 38:8-10)

Onan’s ‘seed’ was not exclusively his own, but rather to be his brother’s because of the divine order.  A man’s seed does not belong to himself exclusively, but are, in the case of Jews, the seed of Abraham and subject to the laws of the covenant rather than mere biology.  Reproduction is more than a physical arrangement, but a spiritual one.  Because the seed are the generations of Abraham, they are ‘regulated’ by the Law, explicitly the Law of Moses.

Infertility is seen as both a curse and a means by which divine revelation takes place.  Abraham and Sarah are the quintessential example of this, and the birth of Ishmael as a warning about subverting the Divine order.

Yet, unlike the rest of the ANE, the actual semen itself was not considered ‘magical.’  While the Levitical Law specifies a man and woman were ‘unclean’ after intercourse (including the bedding), the resolution was merely to wash.  Things touched by semen were not mystically defiled, nor were they enhanced or given special properties.  Thus, Jews did not ascribe to the ANE notion of semen as having such special significance that it should be given as an offering.  There is no ‘ritual masturbation’ as mentioned in some ANE texts.[ix]

The Jews did understand something of reproductive biology, and believed that the testes contained the physical ‘seed’ necessary for reproduction.[x]  However, the Jews also saw the testes as the seat of a man’s strength (noting the effects of castration, diminishing a man’s testosterone), and semen as a kind of ‘oil’ which some sociologists link to the rituals of oil anointing and the conferral of power.[xi]  Again, the Old Testament strenuously avoids the topics of both masturbation and semen as a ‘magical fluid.’ 

Castration is seen as an evil act:

“He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.
“No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (De 23:1-2)

Castration and being born of rape are topically linked because they both represent interruptions in the creation and perpetuation of the family.  Whereas castration was generally looked upon in the ancient world as a diminution of masculinity, the OT remains silent in this regard.  The Lord does not insist men demonstrate their masculinity in any other manner than to be strong and courageous in battle.[xii]

The Old Testament also begins to lay a groundwork for the understanding of human sexual appetite by delineating three ‘levels’ of human appetites.  Thus Genesis states:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. (Ge 3:6)

This tripartite division of appetites is later repeated by Plato (which we will discuss later), who delves into the matter in much more detail.  However, this brief mention of Eve’s contemplation of the fruit is important for understanding man’s inner struggle with himself.

The first perception Eve has of the fruit is a basic one, that being its desirability as meeting physical needs.  “Good for food” implies it is not just nutritious but also pleasant to taste.  This physical appetitive level comes first, just as man’s formation from the earth came first.  Eve desires the fruit to consume it in the most elementary of human appetites, hunger.

Next comes “pleasant to the eyes.”  This presents the next level of man’ desires, which one can variously think of as ‘psychological’ or ‘abstract.’  Here, the fruit takes on a less concrete value as a mere object to be consumed, but rather something having artistic beauty.  While on the one hand it is a physical experience, it indicates a higher level of appreciation.  The mere usage as food has been transcended, and now the eyes perceive a value to the fruit beyond its mere consumption.

While the notion of ‘mind’ as we understand it today does not exist during this period of human history,[xiii] we can see its origins as a concept develop here, where the physical organs of perception take on the role of thought.  And, while animals desire food like humans do, the concept of art and beauty is not to be found in them.  The higher levels of human thought are found in art and the appreciation of beauty.

The final level is “desired to make one wise.”  This is the ‘philosophical’ or ‘spiritual’ level of man’s appetites.  This is the level of appetite which elevates man beyond his human state.  More than the physical world, wisdom represents man’s ascendance into the world of the utterly abstract.  Wisdom is more than mere knowledge, but of the interconnection of the various elements of the world.

Of course, the fruit appealed to all three levels of appetite, and so Eve was hopelessly tempted by it.  The order was important: while the ‘abstract’ appetites could have stopped her physical appetites, the spiritual appetites are the final brake against sliding into self-destruction.  When all three levels of consciousness fail, then man perishes by his own actions.

This reference to “pleasant to the eyes” also shows that in ancient thought, the ‘mind’ and perception was not a monolithic process.  The senses are often identified with their organ, and thus the ‘nose smells’ and the ‘ear hears.’[xiv]  As modern people, we see the sense organs as passive collectors of data for the brain, but the ancients saw them as having their own contribution of ‘value’ to a sensory experience.  Thus, goodness or badness of a sensory experience was not decided by the brain so much as the value assigned by the organ. 

These values, such as the pleasant experience of sugar, are preloaded into the organs and thus man does not have to deliberate over whether sugar tastes good or not.  The Hebrew Scriptures seem to take these physical experiences for granted, and thus ‘sweet’ is ‘good’ and ‘bitter’ is ‘bad’ without the need for deliberation, since the tongue already knows these categories and their corresponding values.  

The indulging of appetites is not proscribed in the Old Testament, provided they are in keeping with Divine Law.  Thus a marriage and all the earthly blessings that are associated with it are not impure.  Food, wine, and sex as the preeminent physical appetites are signs of divine mercy, and the reward of forming a household.  And, thus, marriage is not so much a contract between two people as the formation of a household which is to be the place where the physical appetites are to be met, often referred to as the ‘table.’

Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways.  For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.  Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.  Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.  The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.  Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel. (Psalm 127)

And so, activities taken away from the ‘table’ of the household become forbidden.  As with Onan, non-reproductive sex is considered a violation of the household established by God. Onan was given a wife provided he raise up sons to his brother to preserve his brother’s household.  Male-to-male, as well as female-to-female, sexual contact is punished because it does not form the foundation of a household and, in fact, can destroy the home.

Thus, Judaism places both practical and ritualized limits on the appetites.  Sodom is destroyed because of the ravenous appetites of its occupants, who literally demand the opportunity to rape Abraham’s guests, and Cain is warned about his urges:

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (Gen 5:7)

Cain’s inattentive sacrifice and poor reaction  when God ignored  his offering reveal yet another level of human perception: man’s appetites are not all good. He must master them before they master him.  A man who cannot exercise discipline over himself would eventually turn to evil.  In the case of Cain, his laziness coupled with his desire for undeserved recognition drove him to murder his brother.

The Old Testament condemns not only the sin of pride, but excesses of the physical appetites.  The reminders are often that the physical senses cannot be depended on, nor can the physical appetites be indulged without discernment.

When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you; and put a knife to your throat if you are a man given to appetite.  Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.  Do not toil to acquire wealth; be wise enough to desist.  When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes to itself wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.
Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies; for he is like one who is inwardly reckoning.  “Eat and drink!” he says to you; but his heart is not with you.  You will vomit up the morsels which you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words. 
Speak not in the ears of a fool: for he will despise the wisdom of thy words.  Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless: for their redeemer is mighty; he shall plead their cause with thee.
Apply thine heart unto instruction, and thine ears to the words of knowledge.  Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.  Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
My son, if thine heart be wise, my heart shall rejoice, even mine.  Yea, my reins shall rejoice, when thy lips speak right things.
Let not thine heart envy sinners: but be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long.  For surely there is an end; and thine expectation shall not be cut off.
Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way.  Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: for the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.
Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old.  Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.
The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice: and he that begetteth a wise child shall have joy of him.  Thy father and thy mother shall be glad, and she that bare thee shall rejoice.
My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.  For a whore is a deep ditch; and a strange woman is a narrow pit.  She also lieth in wait as for a prey, and increaseth the transgressors among men.
Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.  Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.  At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.
Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things.  Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.
They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.  (Pr 23)

In this passage, we see the hierarchy of appetites in which the physical appetites must be subjected to more ‘reasonable’ ones.  Thus, a man cannot be wise in politics or social interactions if he cannot control his physical appetites.

Of the physical passions, the preeminent one is adultery.  It is consistently condemned not merely as a physical indiscretion, but as a rejection of God Himself.

That they have committed adultery, and blood is in their hands, and with their idols have they committed adultery, and have also caused their sons, whom they bare unto me, to pass for them through the fire, to devour them. (Ex 23:37)
 And there shall be, like people, like priest: and I will punish them for their ways, and reward them their doings.
For they shall eat, and not have enough: they shall commit whoredom, and shall not increase: because they have left off to take heed to the Lord.
Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the heart.
My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them: for the spirit of whoredoms hath caused them to err, and they have gone a whoring from under their God. (Ho 4:9-13)

Throughout the OT, Israel’s abandonment to its physical appetites is likened to adultery and whoredom, culminating in pagan worship and social disorder.  Sexual desires must be constrained in order to follow God, and sexual laxity is a manifestation of social chaos.

The OT also does not address the topic of masturbation.  The practice itself was known in the ANE, and played a role in religious affairs.  However, there are societies to this day that do not have words either for masturbation or even homosexuality (we will explore this concept later).  For the ancient Jews, masturbation was not part of rituals or cosmology, and so it was more than likely relegated to a relatively rare sin.  Most Jews married right after puberty and then engaged in sex often enough to guarantee frequent procreation.  Masturbation would have represented a ‘lost opportunity,’ wasting ‘seed’ and effort better spent actually having procreative sex.

Judaism also had no concept of ‘homosexuality’ as we know it today.  Prior to the late 18th century, the word did not exist.[xv]  What we know of today as ‘homosexuality,’ also called ‘same-sex attraction,’ was not a concept in ancient thought because same-sex contact was simply seen as a more amplified experience of the sexual appetite, associated with excessive sensual desires.  The examples are plentiful:

None of you shall approach to any that are near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am Jehovah…
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.  And thou shalt not lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith; neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down thereto: it is confusion.   (Le 18:6, 22-23)

 And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Le 20:13)

The term ‘abomination’ is also used to describe the ‘unclean’ foods listed in Leviticus 11, as well as other behaviors that are contrary to the will of God. 

There is no concept of ‘attraction’ found here, merely that such activity was ‘disorderly’ as were the other sexual behaviors listed with same-sex contact.  The punishment for same sex contact is not unlike that for other illicit and abominable sexual relations.  Death was the punishment not only for same-sex contact, but also adultery (c.f. Le 20:10).

In the end, the reader is left to make the conclusion that ‘homosexual’ contact was simply another form of sexual excess, no worse nor better than any other prohibited by God.  Thus, homosexuality as a distinct appetite does not exist, but is rather a manifestation of the sexual appetite which has gone ‘off the rails’ as far as Divine order is concerned.

So, we must then return to the general concept of sexuality, and the Jewish approach to it as primarily a reproductive act with benefits meant to be kept with marriage.  The sexual appetite must be hemmed in by the ascetic rules of Judaism, lest it lead to social and religious (largely the same in Judaism) disorder.

Classical Greeks

Greek thought on sex is largely in line with ANE thought.  Many of the concepts found in the Mesopotamian world connected to masculinity, sex, and reproduction are to be found relatively unchanged by time and distance.

Male sexuality was seen as an expression of dominance, and this dominance could largely be asserted on anyone without the man acquiring ‘taint.’  Legal restrictions on male sexuality stemmed from property rights over women and slaves, and cases of rape.

The early Greeks, however, took the concept of semen as a ‘magical fluid’ to a new level.  Believing that semen originated in the head (the testes being something of a storage device), it was likened to a ‘male life force.’  Castration, therefore, was the preservation of this life force and a means of achieving immortality.[xvi]

However, the Greeks also believed that semen could be used to ‘anoint’ a boy with the power of manhood, and so ritualized anal penetration became a practice among the ancient Greeks.  It was used as the culmination of a boy’s education before receiving his armor and full citizenship.[xvii]

This early practice degenerated into a common practice of pederasty, where older Greek men sought ‘romantic’ liaisons with early teen boys (once full puberty set in and a boy became ‘hairy,’ he was thought to have lost his appeal and was now a man ready for marriage and a ‘straight’ life).  While the origins of the practice were for a senior member of male society to educate and form up a boy into a proper man, Greek society had to constantly reel in men with degenerative appetites for young flesh.  At the same time, young men emerging from these relations had to be disincentivized from developing into what we would now call pedophiles.[xviii] 

In Greek literature, the notion of romantic (appetitive) love[xix], eros, was largely a topic for older men and boys[xx] (the Greek god Eros, or Cupid for the Romans, was a boy).  Greek men saw boys as having the physical attributes of women[xxi] (hairless bodies, smooth skin, etc.) but without the problems of women (babies out of wedlock, family shame, etc.).  Thus, Greek men were assumed to not have to have a special kind of sexual appetite in order to have lustful feelings for a boy.  It was understandable to them, and so a married man could have a normal marriage while also romancing a boy.  So long as he was the dominant partner, there was no loss of status.

Examples of Greek pederasty from various periods.  The beard connotes the adult man, whereas the beardless figure is a boy who has not fully developed.

The question of concern for the Greeks was of the sexual ‘identity’ (using a modern expression) of young men coming into maturity.  Laws were passed to keep young men away from boys,[xxii] as well as enforcing the old stigma against passive sex with adult males.  Greeks assumed that all men could have sex with a women, and in fact, civilization demanded it.[xxiii]  No marriages, no babies, no citizens, no soldiers… they were all interconnected.

Greek men who maintained an appetite for passive sex after maturity lost their citizenship and religious standing.[xxiv]  Men did engage in prostitution, from which we received the term porneia (πορνεία), which is the sale (perhaps rental is a better word) of one’s body for sexual activities.[xxv]

The Greek gods themselves were poor examples of sexuality.  Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus, was a serial rapist, and often took on disguises to ‘set up’ his prey.[xxvi]  Sex lacked the holiness aspect found in Judaism, and was torn between indulgence (i.e. Zeus’ many affairs and rapes) and civic duty (i.e. Zeus’ marriage to Hera and conception of legitimate offspring).  The sheer absence of restraint in Zeus left classical Greeks with a pragmatic view of sex: it is power.  Women had little role in Greek public life in part because they were naturally passive in sex, and existed mostly to be dominated.

From left, Zeus disguised as a bull (rape of Europa), as a swan (rape of Leda), and as an eagle (rape of Ganymede).

The problem of sexual desire (aside from ‘natural sex’ intended for procreation) was a concept which the philosopher’s sought to understand.  Plato elaborated on the Biblical notion[xxvii] of the three levels of appetite and went into depth to divide the human soul into three levels of appetite: the physical, the irascible, and the philosophical.[xxviii]  Sex was one of the physical appetites, lumped in with food and drink.  These ‘lower’ appetites had to be restrained in favor of the highest appetites, wisdom and knowledge.

Plato’s explanation for sexual appetites, however, was distinctly unsatisfying (which is probably why it is rarely mentioned).  Plato theorized that humans were originally created as fused twins, having two heads, four arms, and four legs.  Most humans were hermaphrodite, though a few were ‘pure male’ or ‘pure female.’  Then Zeus separated the pairs, and the sexual appetites were interpreted as mankind’s ‘search’ for the lost twin.  Men who were attracted to other men, Plato theorized, were from these ‘pure male’ pairs.[xxix]  However, in the end, Plato came to acknowledge the ancient Greek notion that marriage and procreation were central to society.  Thus, same-sex contact was not to be indulged.

Aristotle also wrestled with the concept of eros, as had other philosophers who saw in it both potentials for good and bad.  The desire for the ‘erotic’ baffled the men who sought wisdom, yet were often defeated by the powerful force of human sexual appetite.  From Plato to the pleasure-seeking Epicurians, eros was seen as a danger and sex was to be avoided if possible.

Aristotle was ‘friendlier’ towards the notion of sex and marriage, having been a devoted husband to his wife until her death, and then a long relationship with one of his slaves whom he emancipated at his death.  Rather than Plato’s almost mechanistic view of sexuality, Aristotle discussed the difference between romantic attraction and mere sexual drive, the latter being inferior and troublesome at best.  Whereas Plato’s primary theory of human awareness rested with the tripartite soul, Aristotle saw the ‘anima’ or soul defined by phantasia or ‘imagination.’  Here, the senses and memory came together with the appetites to direct living creatures into action, though humans had a far more developed and complex imagination than animals. [xxx]

The philosophers also demonstrated a lack of confidence in the trustworthiness of the senses themselves, since the senses led man to pursue his pleasures without reason.  Reason, being the highest of the appetites a man could have, had to reign in the senses through understanding and, ultimately, an ascetic lifestyle where the senses were brought to heel.


The Romans during the Republic era continued the Greek concepts of sex, but made them all the more extreme.  While Romans allowed women to have much more of a public role in society, they also made male sexuality an almost purely dominance-driven affair and about demonstrating virility.[xxxi] 

A Roman male citizen (thus a free man), not only subjected his wife to his sexual pleasures, but it was expected that he would use sex to dominate his slaves, both male and female.  Forcing male slaves into the passive sexual position was considered a normal way of reinforcing authority within the household.[xxxii]  If a husband found his wife to be having an adulterous affair, the adulterer was punished not by necessarily death, but even public humiliation of a sexual nature.[xxxiii]

The Romans also borrowed the Greek notion of pederasty, but then took it a step further.  Men would buy slave boys specifically for sexual pleasure (catamites), but then would set them free and provide for their education afterwards.  This primary interest was in the sexual indulgence, and lacked the Greek connection to ancient tradition.  Thus, free-born boys were off limits.[xxxiv]

As Roman power increased in the imperial period, so did Roman sexual indulgence.  The passive sexual position soon became acceptable for upper class Roman males to take, provided that they were not exclusively passive and were able to ‘over-perform’ in the dominant role.  Thus, Caesar could take the passive position in his private sexual pleasures because he had also bedded many women and was successful in leading the Roman army to victory.[xxxv] 

Over time (and the material success of the Empire), the upper classes of Roman society became utterly debauched, which led to the popularization of Stoicism as a ‘reformation’ of the deteriorating culture of Rome.  While Stoic philosophy, emphasizing moderation and temperance, had origins in the 4th century BC, it became much more developed and popularized through the later writings of Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism did not reject sexuality, but rather sought men to constrain their desires in favor of eudaimonia, or ‘blessedness’ which was first defined by Aristotle as the highest achievement of man.  Musonius Rufus states:

Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess; for example those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men; sometimes they pursue one love and sometimes another, and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible, and invent shameful intimacies, all of which constitute a grave indictment of manhood.  Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.  But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature. (Lecture XII: 1-3)

As with the Greeks, the Romans saw same-sex contact in a very different light than people in this era.  Position was more important, since the passive position was a sign of weakness and submission.  Masculinity was to be expressed through dominance and, later in the imperial period, indulgence.  The Stoics sought to redefine masculinity in terms of ascetic strength and self-control, hearkening back to the ancient Roman concepts of men symbolized in the gladiatorial games.

Thus, we are left with two separate categories, same-sex contact and weakness.[xxxvi]  The effeminate male was not shameful because he desired sex with men, but that he was weak.  While there may be some overlap, they were held by Romans as two distinct subjects.

The Stoics sought to redefine the categories as illicit sex (sex for pleasure rather than reproduction, regardless of gender) and lack of self-control, making them essentially the same subject with two aspects.  A weak man, or an effeminate man, is incapable of living an ascetic lifestyle and is thus shameful because he is dominated by his appetites.  He will eat and drink and have sex, all in excess.  He yearns for soft clothes and luxuries, and becomes dissolute as he finds there is no sating his appetites.

Plutarch, philosopher and critic of the Stoics, also had little good to say about weakness:

Men who through weakness or effeminacy are unable to vault upon their horses teach the horses to kneel of themselves and crouch down. In like manner, some who have won wives of noble birth or wealth, instead of making themselves better, try to humble their wives, with the idea that they shall have more authority over their wives if these are reduced to a state of humility. But, as one pays heed to the size of his horse in using the rein, so in using the rein on his wife he ought to pay heed to her position. (Advice to Bride and Groom, 138:8-1)[xxxvii]

The problem for the Stoics was a distinct lack of a coherent cosmology.  They understood the need for a Divine Being as the inspiration of man, but were stuck with a rather perverse Zeus.  Thus, the Stoics urged worship of a ‘Father God,’ and yet understood that Zeus was nothing like the virtues they sought after.

When Christianity appears during this same late period of Stoic thought, it answers Stoicism’s biggest theoretical problem.


It should not be surprising that the New Testament spends little time directly addressing the matter of sex.  Judaism had settled the matter as Divine Law (which we have already covered), and Jesus Christ was not an abolisher of the Law:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (Mt 5:17)

This is not to say that Jesus or the Apostles utterly ignored the topic, but that sexual sins were not singled out for special opprobrium.  They were often lumped in with other ‘appetites of the flesh’: 

Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?  But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.  (Mt 15:17-20)

…because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.  Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.  Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves: for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.  For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due.  And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,  without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them. (Ro 1:21-32)

And, it can be seen how fornication was likened to a form of apostasy in the New Testament just as in the Old Testament.  However, there is a significant departure in Christianity from the Jewish notions of fertility.

Judaism saw reproductive fertility as a divine commandment, yet the proclamations of Jesus and His Disciples do not bear a similar message.  Marriage is affirmed at the Wedding at Cana, and Jesus does not counsel His followers to not be married.  Yet, there is a certain ambivalence about marriage which is not found in the Old Testament, particularly in the writings of St. Paul:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman.  But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.  I say this by way of concession, not of command.  I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.  But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.  Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.  But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound.  For God has called us to peace.  Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?  (1Co 7:1-17)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1Ti 4:1-4)

In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul almost sounds disappointed with people who marry, yet to St. Timothy he specifically calls the forbidding of marriage a “doctrine of demons.”  Why the ambivalence?  St. Paul often interweaves his own personal advice with his expositions on the Gospel, but the dichotomy serves a more coherent purpose: Christians are expected not to fulfill social expectations of marriage and procreation, but think first of their ‘calling’ to a life of spiritual purity and choose what is best, neither forcing people into celibacy, nor into meaningless formal marriages.

The ‘fertility’ of the New Testament marriage is a spiritualized version: whereas Adam and Eve are commanded to “be fruitful” and “fill the earth,” the Apostles are called to to go to the ends of the earth to convert men into being the Sons of Abraham:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Ga 3:27-29)

Thus, fertility in Christianity is directly linked to evangelism.

The sexual drive itself is acknowledged, but it is also not entirely explained.  By this point in human history, the need for marriage as a public institution was beyond doubt, so the necessity of human fertility was taken for granted.  Marriage becomes not only the creation of a household (c.f. Ps 127), but the creation of a ‘church.’  Thus St. Paul speaks of the wife and husband sanctifying one another, and the commandment of self-sacrificial love comes to play as central within a marriage.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ep 5:21-33)

The relationship between Christ and the Church is often likened to a marriage, and the ‘fertility’ of this marriage being the ‘fruits of the Spirit’:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.  But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. (Ga 5:16-25)

It is interesting to note how St. Paul interweaves spiritual sins (i.e. idolatry) with the ‘physical’ sins, in keeping with divine revelation in the Old Testament.  The OT linked the pagans not only to false worship but immorality.  This could not have been lost on either Jesus or his Apostle Paul, who saw the moral decadence of the Roman Empire and necessarily linked it to their paganism.

As to the topic of marriage itself, the teachings of St. Paul also hearken back to the Old Testament.  Unlike the Greeks, who treated women as chattel and had few rights, the OT gave examples such as Sarah, who had a parity with Abraham.  Jewish women were not utterly suppressed, either by the Law or biblical example.

But, rather than attempting to delineate specific ‘rights,’ St. Paul’s depiction of marriage was more about establishing and fostering love between husband and wife, thus eliminating the need for juridical standards for marriage.  Thus, sexual relations within marriage are left to the husband and wife to arrange between themselves, provided it remains ‘at the table’ of the household rather than on the streets.

This is significant break with Stoicism and the philosophers, who tended to see sex as almost entirely a procreative act, and sexual urges to be suppressed along with all other physical appetites (à la Plato).  Judaism, while ascetic in terms of keeping the Kosher laws, does not entirely deny physical pleasure (c.f. Song of Solomon), provided that it is kept in check by moral and religious duties.  This appears to be the standard for the NT and the Church’s teachings later.  While ritual bathing after intercourse disappears within Christianity, so have all the other ‘ritual uncleanliness’ prohibitions.

The primary sexual problem in the NT is fornication, regardless of the offender’s gender or the gender of the one with whom the fornication is accomplished.  It is never excused, and placed on the level with other sins of the appetites.

All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any.  Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall bring to nought both it and them. But the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body: and God both raised the Lord, and will raise up as through his power.  Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ? shall I then take away the members of Christ, and make them members of a harlot? God forbid.  Or know ye not that he that is joined to a harlot is one body? for, The twain, saith he, shall become one flesh.  But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.  Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.  Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body. (1Co 6:12-20)

Here, food and sex are likened to one another, but fornication is given the heftier of the condemnation.  However, we see elsewhere where food sins are linked to sexual sins:

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. (Ac 15:28-29)

St. Paul appears to bend this rule in 1 Corinthians 8 regarding meat offered to idols, but does not excuse fornication or sexual liberties.  But, just as men are permitted either to eat meat or not, marriage is treated much the same.  It is left to the individual and his appetite, as we read in First Corinthians 7 (see above).

Note that St. Paul advises a couple to engage in sex in order that neither should ‘starve’ from lack of physical intimacy (“Do not refuse one another”).  It is clear that the sexual appetite cannot be utterly repressed, as the Stoics and Greek philosophers would have people do in order to attain higher levels of philosophical development.  Sexuality is permitted not as a part of Divine commandment to procreate, but an acknowledgment that the appetite is so deeply rooted in humanity that it cannot be universally ignored and suppressed.

Both Jesus Christ and St. Paul condemn the sin of ‘softness,’ or malakos. While  Jesus does not mention it, St. Paul also lists separately ‘man-bedders’ (arsenocoites) as a distinct category from being effeminate:

Or know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (μαλακός), nor abusers of themselves with men (ἀρσενοκοίτης), nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  (1Co 6:9-10)

But what went ye out to see? a man clothed in soft (μαλακός) raiment? Behold, they that wear soft (μαλακός) raiment are in king’s houses. (Mt 11:8)

Jesus, in his praise of St. John, condemns the effeminate indulgence of the upper classes in the Roman world, hence his pointing to the king’s houses as places where the effeminate gather.  St. John is not praised for being ‘heterosexual,’ but rather ascetic in the Old Testament tradition.  He is not soft, but ‘hearty’ in the sense that he carries out a severe ascetic struggle for the sake of God.  An effeminate man will not do such a thing, since he indulges his senses and thus his passions.

St. Paul also lists ‘man-bedding’ as a sin, using a phrase that does not differentiate the dominant from the passive.  In the tradition of the OT, he does not make a discernment between positions as Greeks and Romans would have.  It is clearly an OT concept, seen in how he tucks in idolatry between fornication and adultery in a way no Greek mind would have associated.  The Apostle gives no quarter to Hellenism’s comfort with male-male sexual contact.

This differentiation is important for understanding what comes to be a central theme in the Christian Tradition: men (and women for their part) are not to be ‘soft,’ but strong, so that they may carry their crosses: 

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Mt 16:24)

Effeminacy is a moral failing, and not simply a choice in ‘style.’  Jesus laments the burdens of the rich in giving up their comfort to follow Him, yet He also accepts the rich into His followers (e.g. Joseph of Aramathea), provided that they do not allow their riches to interfere with their spiritual struggle.

While ‘man-bedding’ is a specific act, ‘softness’ can take on any number of forms as various indulgences of the flesh.  While Jesus models moderation by praising marriage and not forbidding His Apostle to eat and drink, it is clear that the appetites must be bridled.

Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? (Mt 6:25)

Imperial Christianity

With the legalization of Christianity under the Edict of Milan in 313, the Roman Empire under St. Constantine gradually became a Christian state.[xxxviii]

The theological framework of Christianity resolved many of the theological problems that the Greco-Roman religion struggled with, especially in terms of modeling morality.  Greek philosophy, while still read and appreciated in later years, became outmoded as the ‘philosophical life’ became replaced with the ‘spiritual life.’  In many ways, Christianity was easier than the demands of some of the philosophers, and provided a balance between the rigorous asceticism of Greek philosophy and Roman indulgence of the flesh.

Ritual castration, temple prostitution, sexual rituals, pederasty, and gladiatorial combat all disappeared under the Christianized empire.  Marriage, once a private affair between two clans that registered the new household with the authorities, took on a sacramental significance.

A great deal of Roman law did not have to change to suit the new Christian theology.  Because Rome did not have a singular religion to exert comprehensive pressure on its legal system prior to Christianity, the advent of Christianity in the empire quickly dominated the state.  Even Julian the Apostate’s attempts to reestablish a more ‘traditional’ Roman governance ended up looking rather ‘Christian.’

During the ‘Byzantine’ period of the Roman Empire, canon law came into its own.  Marriage and divorce, as well as sexual morality, became less about the state and more religious affairs.  Yet, the state, as it had during the ascendant period of the Greeks, had concerns about too much passive-male sexuality.

The Emperor Theodosius in 390 declared:

We cannot tolerate the city of Rome, mother of all virtues, being   stained any longer by the contamination of male effeminacy, nor can   we allow that agrarian strength, which comes down from the   founders, to be softly broken by the people, thus heaping shame on the centuries of our founders and the princes, Orientius, dearly  beloved and favoured.  Your laudable experience will therefore punish among revenging flames, in the presence of the people, as required by  the grossness of the crime, all those who have given themselves up to  the infamy of condemning their manly body, transformed into a  feminine one, to bear practices reserved for the other sex, which have  nothing different from women, carried forth — we are ashamed to say  — from male brothels, so that all may know that the house of the  manly soul must be sacrosanct to all, and that he who basely   abandons his own sex cannot aspire to that of another without  undergoing the supreme punishment.’[xxxix]

Here, Theodosius actually reclaims the more ancient reticence regarding ‘soft men.’  Effeminacy was seen as a social liability, as it had been by the Greeks.  Dominant sex is not yet under specific denunciation, more in keeping with pre-Christian morals.  By the reign of Justinian, all male same-sex contact was outlawed by imperial decree, essentially codifying Christian sexual morals as law.[xl]

The Romans could not afford a city full of soft men if they wanted to expand the Empire.  However, they were also concerned about Divine punishment.  The Romans, both before and after St. Constantine, understood the world to be dominated by the Divine.  While paganism did not necessarily offer a coherent system by which the sacred enters into the mundane, there was an overall understanding that the gods were not to be trifled with.  Christianity made it much clearer for the empire to discern profanities and blasphemies, and thus the state involved itself in such violations of religious order.  We will return to canon law a little later.

As the Roman empire became more Christian, the Christians continued to be fascinated with Greek philosophy.  Julian the Apostate forbade Christians from teaching Greek literature in 363, indicating that Christians were well-versed in the ancient classics and saw value in their study.[xli]  Julian’s attempts to reform pagan culture and create a single religion of it failed miserably, and Christianity grew to supplant all of the pagan institutions, including education.  Thus, Christians shifted from being the opponents of pagan literature to its benefactors.

Greek philosophy was helpful for Christians not only for providing vocabulary in explaining the complexities of the Incarnation of the Word of God and Trinitarianism, but also in describing the mechanics of the human soul.  Thus we can read St. Gregory of Nyssa and see Platonism used to organize knowledge of the human person.[xlii]

In the collection of texts that have come to be known as the Philokalia, monks from the 4th to 15th centuries explored the fundamental ascetic problem posed by Jesus Christ:

And he said, That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man. (Mk 7:20-23)

While the philosophers knew about human appetites and the capacity for evil, they offered little in the way of practical advice on attaining the virtues they envisioned aside from sheer willpower.  The monks understood that only Divine intervention could transform a man from being a prisoner of his vices into a man free from his passions.  They also understood that man had to meet God ‘half way’ in effort, and thus they explored the inner condition of the human person through their own struggles.

Borrowing heavily from the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, the Desert Fathers took to reading Plato and Aristotle with the intention of understanding the human mind.  While they generally came to accept Plato’s tri-partite soul, they identified two ‘modes’ of human awareness: thoughts and sensory experiences.  The Fathers also intermingled the Aristotelian concept of the ‘imagination.’

Moreover, a distinction should be made between different kinds of knowledge. Knowledge here on earth is of two kinds: natural and supernatural. The second can be understood by reference to the first. Natural knowledge is that which the soul can acquire through the use of its natural faculties and powers when investigating creation and the cause of creation – in so far, of course, as this is possible for a soul bound to matter. For, when speaking of the senses, the imagination and the intellect, it has to be said that the energy of the intellect is blunted by being joined and mingled with the body. As a result, it cannot have direct Contact with intelligible forms, but requires, in order to apprehend them, the imagination, which by nature uses images, and shares in material extension and density. Accordingly, the intellect while in the flesh needs to use material images in order to apprehend intelligible forms. We call natural knowledge, then, whatever knowledge the intellect in such a state acquires by its own natural means.  (St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic.  Theoreticon, Phil. V2-39)

The ascetic struggle to be purified of the passions required the monk to understand in what ways he could be tempted and his best means of escape.  Monks needed to practice discernment, knowing what desires were ‘natural’ and which ones were ‘unnatural.’  The monk’s appetite for food could distort into more than just a hunger for sustenance, and devolve into a passionate yearning for special foods and sensory experiences that would draw him away from God.

In this passage from St. John of Damascus, we see how Plato and Aristotle were interwoven with Christian thought to provide the monk a clear vision of his ‘inner battlefield’:

As we have said already, sensual concupiscent pleasure takes a great many forms. It finds satisfaction not only in unchastity and other bodily indulgences but also in every other passion. For self-restraint does not consist only in abstaining from unchastity and sexual pleasure; it also means renouncing all the other forms of indulgence too. Hence a man addicted to material wealth, avarice or greed is also licentious and dissolute. For just as the sensual man loves the pleasures of the body, so the avaricious man lusts for the pleasures of material possessions. Indeed, the latter is the more dissolute in that the force driving him is by nature less compelling. For in all fairness a charioteer can be called unskilled, not when he fails to control a difficult and unmanageable horse, but only if he cannot control a much less spirited animal. It is quite obvious that a desire for material things is altogether abnormal and contrary to nature, and that it derives its power not from nature but from a deliberate sinful choice; he who has yielded freely to such desire therefore sins inexcusably. So we must realize that the love of pleasure is not limited merely to the over-indulgence and pampering of the body, but includes every craving and attachment of the soul, whatever the form or object of the desire. In order to make it easier to recognize the passions in terms of the tripartite division of the soul we will classify them briefly. The soul has three aspects: the intelligent, the incensive and the desiring aspect. The sins of the intelligent aspect are unbelief, heresy, folly, blasphemy, ingratitude and assent to sins originating in the soul’s passible aspect. These vices are cured through unwavering faith in God and in true, undeviating and orthodox teachings, through the continual study of the inspired utterances of the Spirit, through pure and ceaseless prayer, and through the offering of thanks to God. The sins of the incensive aspect are heartlessness, hatred, lack of compassion, rancor, envy, murder and dwelling constantly on such things. They are cured by deep sympathy for one’s fellow men, love, gentleness, brotherly affection, compassion, forbearance and kindness. The sins of the desiring aspect are gluttony, greed, drunkenness, unchastity, adultery, uncleanliness, licentiousness, love of material things, and the desire for empty glory, gold, wealth and the pleasures of the flesh. These are cured through fasting, self-control, hardship, a total shedding of possessions and their distribution to the poor, desire for the imperishable blessings held in store, longing for the kingdom of God, and aspiration for divine sonship. (St. John of Damascus.  On the Virtues and the Vices. Phil. V2 336-337)

Neither St. John nor the other Fathers of the Church spent much time exploring the topic of sex.  In part, sex was part of the other sensual pleasures of the world that monks voluntarily forsook in their quest to experience the presence of God.  Reading Plato certainly also had the effect of making sex seem to be ‘unspiritual’ in a way that the older Jewish tradition would not.  The seemingly anti-sex attitude of the Fathers was probably in part due more to the practicality of the monastic life than the influence of Greek philosophy, but it cannot be ruled out that Greek philosophy probably had some effect:

He who desires earthly things desires either food, or things which satisfy his sexual appetite, or human fame, or wealth, or some other thing consequent upon these. Unless the intellect finds something more noble to which it may transfer its desire, it will not be persuaded to scorn these things completely. The knowledge of God and of divine things is incomparably more noble than these earthly things. (St. Maximos the Confessor. Four Hundred Texts on Love. Phil. V2 93)

From this passage and the previous passage from St. John of Damascus, we see the sexual appetite lumped in with the other physical appetites.  In keeping with ancient thought, the fathers also saw the sensual experiences as properties of the organs by which they are experienced, as opposed to senses being ‘interpretations’ made by the mind.

Sexual desire diminishes in the spiritual aspirant once the body has passed its prime; but gluttony continues unless properly disciplined. You must try to prevent the disgrace of the effect by removing its cause; otherwise in the life to come you will be found lacking in the virtue of self-control and will be covered with shame. (Ilias the Presbyter.  A Gnomic Anthology.  Phil. V3 40)

Thus the dragon, the prince of the abyss, whose strength is manifest in the loins and the belly – organs of our soul’s appetitive power – sallies forth against those who strive to keep their attention in their hearts; and through the lust-loving giant of forgetfulness he hurls at them the whole battery of his fiery darts (cf. Eph. 6:16). Desire being for him like another sea and abyss, he plunges into it, coils his way through it, and stirs it up, making it foam and boil. In this way he inflames it with sexual longing and inundates it with sensual pleasure; but this does not slake it, for it is insatiable. The prince of this world (cf. John 12:31), who campaigns against the soul’s incensive power, attacks those striving to attain practical virtue. (St Gregory of Sinai. On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; On Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and Also on Stillness and Prayer: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Texts. Phil. V4 243)

The monastics represented by the Philokalia describe two directions from which temptations can come: thoughts (often referred to as logismoi) and the senses.  While the former cannot be avoided and must instead be ignored, the senses must be ‘guarded’:

The monk should shut all the gates of his soul, that is, the senses, so that he is not lured astray. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body. (St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Phil. V1 34)

Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life. It teaches us how to activate the three aspects of our soul correctly, and how to keep a firm guard over the senses. It promotes the daily growth of the four principal virtues, and is the basis of our contemplation. (St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness. Phil. V1 162)

The task of moral judgment is always to prompt the soul’s incensive power to engage in inner warfare and to make us self-critical. The task of wisdom is to prompt the intelligence to strict watchfulness, constancy, and spiritual contemplation. The task of righteousness is to direct the appetitive aspect of the soul towards holiness and towards God. Fortitude’s task is to govern the five senses and to keep them always under control, so that through them neither our inner self, the heart, nor our outer self, the body, is defiled. (St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness. Phil. V1 168)

The monastic isolation and ascetic lifestyle is thus to deprive the senses of the things they crave.  The monk seeks to suppress his lesser desires by not inflaming them with sensory input.  Thus, monks eat simply and avoid women for practical purposes rather than the often contrived accusations of misogyny.

Obviously, these texts are intended for monastics in a severe ascetic setting.  What about married people?  The Desert Fathers do not contradict St. Paul’s advice, and so we see whatever Platonist influences there were on their teachings were hemmed in by Scripture and the ancient Jewish traditions regarding sex and marriage.  Whatever misgivings the monks had about sex, it was essentially in reference to their own mode of living.

If any Bishop, or Priest, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the holy list, abstain from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, but blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him correct and purge his ways or let him be excluded from the Church. The same applies to a layman. (Ap Cn. LI)

Canon law addresses marriage and sexuality not with the purpose of defining either concepts but to provide elementary guidance for the episcopacy in establishing a) eligibility for ordination, b) impediments to marriage, c) grounds for divorce, and d) consistency in penances for sexual sins.  The subject of canon law and sexuality deserve a much more in-depth discussion than this paper can offer, but I can summarize a few points to be found in the canons which can illuminate our subject even in light of the paucity of rigorous analysis.

a) Eligibility for Ordination – the canons call for men to have been virgins at the time of marriage,[xliii] indicating that men with excessive libido are not fit for office in the Church. The prohibition against actresses is along this same line, since many Roman actresses engaged in prostitution after performances or displayed their bodies in immodest ways on stage.[xliv]

In addition, men who had castrated themselves to avoid sexual desire were banned from ordination, since such mutilation was not only proscribed in the OT but also constituted an avoidance of struggle with one’s flesh.[xlv]  True purity could not come through ‘cheats’ like potions or mutilation, which some monks were tempted to turn to to decrease libido.

A final prohibition had to do with men who had been ‘catamites’ in their youth.[xlvi]  The fact that the boy was given an education and higher standing in Roman society did not overcome the fact that he was raised in the decadent luxury of an upper-class Roman home with sexual indulgence.  Just as a former prostitute, even though repentant and reformed, could not be the wife of a clergyman, neither could a man who was used for similar purposes.[xlvii]

b) Impediments to Marriage – Marriages are ‘consummated’ not merely by the rite of Marriage within the sanctuary of a church, but in the sexual union of a husband and wife. This is in keeping with the OT concept of marriage as a union unto fruitfulness.

While a fourth marriage is often cited as being the primary marital impediment, there are a number of sex-related impediments.  Women who were raped in order for force marriage were not compelled to marry in order to avoid humiliation[xlviii] (rape was punishable under the canons as well as civil law).  On the opposite end of the spectrum, men and women with a history of sexual immorality were not banned from marriage, provided the partner had knowledge of the past and that there were no ‘secrets.’

Additional impediments were those of degree of consanguinity, which constituted a recitation of the Biblical injunctions against inter-familial marriage (e.g. incest).

c) Grounds for Divorce – fornication and adultery were valid reasons for the Church to grant divorce. In addition, if a partner withholds his or her body from the partner, this could also be valid grounds for a divorce, in keeping with the admonitions of St. Paul.

d) Consistency in Penances for Sexual Sins – Canon law provides the path of restoration to the Church and communion for those who sin. While the Ecumenical Councils and Great Councils of the Church do not provide all of the canons used by the Church in penancing sexual sins, they do reinforce the serious nature of marriage and the true nature of sex.

In the case of clergy, fornication and adultery are grounds for deposition.[xlix]  While the Councils dealt with larger issues of qualification for church service, the ‘lesser canons,’ generally those collected from renowned saints, came to be used as guidance for specific sins.  Among those, St. Basil the Great and St. John the Faster came to be recognized as authoritative sources on the topic.

In St. John the Faster, we see two topics of interest here that are not dealt with specifically in depth within either the Old or New Testaments: same-sex contact and masturbation (and, sometimes both at the same time).

Anyone having committed masturbation is penalized forty days, during which he must keep himself alive by xerophagy and must do one hundred metanies every day. (Canon VIII)

As for intercourse of men with one another, such as practicing double masturbation, it received the stated penance of up to eighty days. (Canon IX)

But for women as well, if any of them has allowed herself to be kissed and felt by man, without, however, being ravished by him, let her receive the penalty provided for masturbation. (Canon XI)

Note that St. John does not include a more rigorous penance for same-sex contact than with ‘simple’ masturbation or female-male masturbation.  The sin is a sin no matter who it is done with.  The Canon VII of St. Basil likewise does not differentiate between adultery, fornication, bestiality, or sodomy.

The question does arise as to why masturbation is not mentioned prior to St. John in the 6th century.  Part of the explanation may lie in the purpose of St. John’s canons.  Such books as the Exomologitarion and the canons of the saints come with the concern that clergy may be over-penalizing penitents.  Most of the canons do not call for overly-long periods of excommunication, even for severe sins such as incest.  Here is part of the list appended by Matthew Blastares to St. John’s canons:

If any man shall lie with his stepmother, he is to be penalized three years, fasting, that is to say, until evening, and making xerophagy his fare and doing five hundred genuflections every day.

If he lie with mother and daughter in the same place and at the same time, he shall be penalized four years, faring with xerophagy after the ninth hour, and doing three hundred genuflections every day.

If any man engage in arsenocoetia with two brothers, he is to be penalized likewise.

If any man commit arsenocoetia with his brother-in-law, he is to be penalized four years, faring with xerophagy after the ninth hour and doing two hundred genuflections every day. If any man commit arsenocoetia with his brother, he shall be penalized for eight, years, faring with xerophagy after the ninth hour and doing four hundred genuflections every day.

If a young brother undergo arsenocoetia performed by an older brother, without performing it himself, he shall be penalized for three years, faring with xerophagy after the ninth hour and doing a hundred genuflections. If any man lie with his daughter once, he shall be penalized five years; but if more than once, six years and seven, faring with xerophagy after the ninth hour, and doing daily five hundred genuflections.

If any man perform arsenocoetia upon his wife, he shall be penalized for eight years, faring the while with xerophagy after the ninth hour and doing two hundred metanies daily.

The principle for Blastares is that the closer the blood relations, the higher the penalty.  Note that a man sodomizing his wife receives double the penance as a man who sodomizes two brothers.  Why?  The penalty is severe because the man is violating the sanctity of his marriage, engaging in a sexual act that violates his wife’s biology as well as her fertility.  Again, sex within marriage is first about fertility, then about the appetite itself.

We should note here that arsenocoetia is not a term for ‘homosexual,’ but rather describes the act of anal intercourse, literally translated as ‘man bedding.’  To perform ‘man-bedding’ on a woman means to anally penetrate her as one would a man.

The sins of sexual relations with ‘irrational’ animals also appear in the canons, and are condemned as they are in the OT, but this is a much larger topic for another paper.

Returning to the topic of masturbation, the aforementioned canons are apparently addressing the use of the hand for achieving orgasm.  In the case of ‘double masturbation,’ this would mean two people (not involved in adultery, so either both are unmarried or married to one another) pleasuring each other with the hand.  In St. John’s canons, each act of double-masturbation is treated as a sin, both as an actor and as a recipient.  What is interesting is how St. John treats anal intercourse in the same way as masturbation.

Aside from masturbation being ‘infertile’ and thus violation of OT sexuality, masturbation takes on a significance in Christianity due to Jesus Christ’s condemnation of imagined sins:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Mt 5:27-28)

Self-masturbation involves imagination, which is problematic both for unmarried and married people because it either involves imagining fornication or, in the case of a married person, a completely selfish act.  Masturbation becomes even more of a problem as monasticism develops and people seek to remain ‘virginal.’  The Philokalia does not address the topic simply because it is a given that monks would not masturbate, and the greater concern is dealing with sinful thoughts and desires.

Sexuality in Light of Christian Tradition

Having reviewed the historical path of teachings on sexuality, it is appropriate at this stage to speak directly to the matter of sex itself in the modern context.  In accordance to what has been presented here, I would like to offer a summary of the Church’s traditional teachings regarding sex:

  1. Sex is one of the physical appetites of the soul, interconnected with food and drink and other sensory experiences.
  2. While memories of sexual experiences may arouse the imagination (phantasia), or even cause thoughts about sex, the sexual appetite is rooted in the body and its organs, especially the reproductive organs. It is primarily physical and sensory as opposed to ‘psychological’ or thought-based.
  3. God created man with a sexual appetite in order to foster reproduction, but also to bond a man and woman together to form a household. Thus it is not merely a physical experience the way it is with animals.
  4. Human appetites are inexhaustible and can never be entirely sated.
  5. The physical appetites are meant to be kept in check, lest they become distorted and turn into passions.
  6. Excessive sexual activity is on the same level as the abuse of food and drink, and the abuse of food and drink will lead to sexual excesses.
  7. The differences between men and women help to provide the natural counter-balance to one another to prevent excess.
  8. The family provides the man and woman with both joys and ascetic struggles, as each seeks to please and serve the other. Children further this developmental progress.
  9. All sexual activity outside marriage, regardless of the gender of the other party, is equally sinful.
  10. Same-sex contact is not the result of a different kind of sexual appetite, but rather a manifestation of excessive sexual behavior.

It is on this last point that the teachings of the Church most radically depart from modern thought on sex.  In this era of ‘sexual orientations,’ many people have come to accept that there are ‘straights’ who have only heterosexual desires, and then a whole host of other ‘sexualities.’

This belief began to develop in the late 18th century with the beginnings of psychology, which sought to make same-sex desire a mental or thought disorder.  Since that time, psychologists have tried, often in vain, to ‘fix’ people with sexual appetites outside the normative behaviors of most of society.  Instead of fixing the problem, we have seen a rapid deterioration of a common understanding of sex and its role in society.

Sex has lost its sanctity, as has marriage.  Childbirth has become the obligation of people far away, who provide developed nations with the future generations the wealthy developed nations refuse to be bothered with making for themselves.  Modern American medicine looks at pregnancy as a medical problem, and children as ‘options’ to be valued or terminated solely on the basis of the mother’s desires.

Sex is seen as strictly an experiential activity, and even one of establishing one’s identity, but its most basic function (the creation of new human life) is seen as a liability.

The danger of ‘homosexuality’ as a concept is that it makes a distinction between same-sex desire and other-sex desire.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Sexual desire is universal among all people (barring extremely rare deviances due to medical or clinical psychological problem), and is only differentiated by how intensely we experience it as a physiological experience.

Thus, the Fathers of the Church, following ancient knowledge, connected same-sex contact with excessive physical pleasure.  We can also connect it with a ‘starved’ appetite, noting how same-sex contact has often occurred between otherwise ‘straight’ men in prisons, on ships (in earlier days of square-rigged ships where men were at sea for years at a time), and even in cases where men raped other men strictly for punishment or to assert authority.  The ancient notion of a man demonstrating his virility by submitting other men is much older than the modern notion of ‘homosexuality.’

But, the experience of physical pleasure is key to understanding the mechanics of sexuality.  Take, for example, the typical male ‘homosexual’ of the modern era.  He is seen as being ‘soft’ and flamboyant compared to his ‘heterosexual’ counterpart.  The modern world celebrates, in fact, that gay men are by far more sensitive to the physical world.  They are supreme among the arts and the world of luxury.  The material world is far more stimulating to them than it is for the average man, who is relatively comfortable in a drab and slightly ill-fitting world.

The gay man of today, we can surmise from the Christian theory regarding sexual appetite, is nothing other than a man who experiences his physical world with far more sensitivity than his peers and craves it more than others.  And so, when it comes to sex, he not only experiences greater pleasure in it than most, but he desires it more.  Thus, we see in modern studies how gay men engage in far more sexual contacts over their lifetimes than ‘straight men’ do.  Of course, when you have two men with heightened libidos encountering one another, you can expect that the experiences will be far more intense and frequent than the average man and woman, who must ‘negotiate’ through one another’s different needs and desires.

In the case of lesbianism, the opposite may be true, which explains why they not only tend towards the ‘straight men’ physical culture and aren’t comfortable with the feminine aesthetic.  This would also explain the ‘bed death phenomenon’ among lesbians.[l]

Thus, we can say that ‘same sex attraction’ is a difference in sensory perception rather than a thought process as theorized by psychology.  Can a man attracted to other men be counseled out of his perceptions?  No more than anyone can counsel an alcoholic out of the euphoric experience of ingesting alcohol, or even the sweetness of sugar that every human experiences.  Yes, we all taste sweetness and know it is good, but for some that experience is so intense that they will be unable to resist it even when being ravaged by diabetes and obesity.

We are stuck with our sensory perceptions and the values associated with them that are deeply ingrained in our souls.  The Fathers teach us not to depend on the senses and, following the more ancient Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, bring them to heel through the higher appetites of the soul, the ‘irascible’ and finally the ‘rational’ or noetic.  The difference between philosophy and Christianity involves not only the latter having a more ‘balanced’ approach to the sexual appetite, but the role of Divine intervention in the transformation of man through Theosis.

It is safe to say that we do not look upon ‘homosexuals’ as some other kind of human being with different desires from other people.  They are held to the same standard, though they have a harder struggle in some ways because they cannot approach their sexual appetites the way that a married couple can.

This brings us to the modern phenomenon of ‘gay marriage.’  The obvious problem of ‘gay marriage’ is that it is, first and foremost, sterile.  While God has allowed infertility in some people, the purpose of marriage is to produce children.  The Church does not grant marriages to those who refuse to have children, and a same-sex couple cannot naturally produce offspring.  It makes the arrangement mostly about sex and companionship, which hardly requires a ‘marriage.’  Many people live together, and if one wants civil benefits afforded to married couples, the state can grant such.  However, the Church cannot bestow a sacrament on such an arrangement, since it violates the very foundations of Christian anthropology.

The second problem of ‘gay marriage’ is that it is not ascetic.  A ‘heterosexual’ marriage requires a man and a woman to understand their differences and work through them.  It is sacrificial in a way that in a way that a ‘marriage’ between two men or two women is not.  Men intuitively understand one another through common experiences, as do women.  A man and a woman must learn and grow, both affirming and overcoming the differences.

At this stage, we ought to tackle the much often heard, but rarely engaged phrase, “I feel like…”

The sensory experiences go far beyond the classical ‘Five Senses’ of Aristotle.  We know senses to include balance, pain, heat, pressure, and a number of other physical experiences.  There are some other senses which are far more abstract, which stray into the realm of emotion.

The ancient Greeks noted that the heart raced during emotions, and so the heart (kardia) came to be associated with emotions, and the lungs (phrenes) were the seat of consciousness.[li]  Physical sensations have always been associated with emotions, and visa versa.  Many physical sensations naturally have corresponding  emotional values, such as sweetness or a tickle, while other sensations are more abstract and take time for human consciousness to assign value.  In some cases, humans may also develop a liking for originally unpleasant physical sensations.

So, when someone says they ‘feel uncomfortable,’ is this strictly a thought that manifests as a physical sensation, or can one have the sensation which leads to the thought?  From an ancient perspective, the answer is yes, it could go both ways.  Sensations belonged not to the mind, but the organs in which they were experienced.  Fear was in the heart according to the Greeks, and the heart kicked the lungs when it had fear.[lii]

So, what do we make of someone who says, “I always felt different”?  The question we must ask is this, “If you always felt ‘different,’ how would you know what it is to feel ‘the same’?”  These feelings, or sensations of dread, may very well be simple errors of the brain in sensory processing.  The neurological sciences have made incredible discoveries into how the sensory perceptions of the brain can be distorted and change our thoughts and beliefs.[liii]

In regards to sex, the Christian concept of sexuality being connected with the senses means that our sexual ‘attractions’ are not a psychological process as much as a sensory one.  The sexual appetite, like all other appetites, arise from deep within a man or woman but then enter the realm of the senses and the sexual organs.  It is through these organs that the general human appetite for sex becomes differentiated between males and females.

It can also be that, if there are differences in sensitivity or sensory experience, one may develop distortions or differences in sexual appetites.  Thus, a man who ‘hungers’ for other man has a distortion in his sensory experience of sex, which leads him to believe that his yearnings for sex can only be sated by another man.

The Christian definition of sexual conduct does not bend to our desires, but actually stands in opposition to them because if the sexual appetites go unopposed, they will run rampant.  How one feels about sex matters little, because the truth is the truth whether you believe in it or not.  Bad things do not become good just because they feel good.  Lead in food makes it taste sweet… but it is still poison.

To those who find their sexual perceptions distorted, we can say that it is not in and of itself a moral failing any more than having poor eyesight or a sensitivity to alcohol is.  The moral failing comes when we ignore the known order of the world and choose instead to follow after our appetites in the manner dictated by the senses.

We see this played out in the phenomenon of ‘transgenderism,’ defined over and against being ‘CIS’ (short for ‘comfortable in skin,’ which is an obvious reference to the sensory experience of one’s own body).  The person who is convinced he or she would be more comfortable as a member of the opposite gender has one logical fallacy: the ability to accurately imagine what it is to actually be that gender versus contriving an assumption of what it would be like.  The often catastrophic results and frequent repentance of those who seek to change their genders ought to be ample warning that our assumptions are not accurate enough to merit the risk.

Again, we look at those who have significant problems in being comfortable with themselves with compassion and humility, knowing they have a significant cross to bear.  We might also blame much of our modern world, which bombards us with imagery of the ‘perfect body’ and feel wholly inadequate with who we are, and seek to rectify it by deciding to change into something more in keeping with our own self-perception of what it would be to be someone else.

The difficulties of managing self-perception are too numerous and complex to address in this paper.  All that is left to say is that we ought not cast aside those who struggle with their perceptions of themselves and the world.  After all, most if not all of us have perceptual distortions.  The ascetic life is about ignoring the senses and their promised joys in favor of the ultimate ‘sensory experience’ of encountering the Divine.

In conclusion, the teachings of the Church, I believe, are in keeping not only with the broader human experience, but also with science.  As the field of neurology makes greater progress in exploring the world of human senses and their integral role in consciousness, I believe we will see a return to more ancient observations of the human condition, particularly those found in the writings of the Desert Fathers.  Though their writings can at times be difficult to understand, if we take the time to familiarize ourselves with their context, we might better appreciate the accuracy of their observations and advice.

In a world now that seems unmoored from any notion of truth or certainty, the concept that the Church teaches a timeless and unchanging truth about an Eternal Being may appear scandalous if not outright ludicrous.  This can only be amplified when this Being sets an order to the world that demands we bend to it and not it to us.  In the luxury of this epoch, it is perhaps too easy to assume that we can overcome the world with our own will.

We certainly cannot use the force of will to overcome our sexuality.  We must deal with it as it is.  This does not mean appeasing it, because it is ultimately insatiable.  Instead, we must heed the ancient knowledge passed down to us to guide us.  The Tradition of the Church provides mankind with the best hope for managing human sexuality, especially in this age of confusion.

Archpriest George Aquaro, MDiv
St. Katherine Mission
Diocese of Los Angeles
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

The author would like to recognize the special assistance of Mat. Rachel Rassam, MA, (OCA) for her expertise in Classics, corrections to the text, and guidance with sources.



Anati, Emmanuel.  “A Question of Fertility” in  Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean: papers presented at the First International Conference on Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean, the University of Malta, 2-5 September 1985 / edited by Anthony Bonanno. Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner, 1985.  pp. 2-12.

Barton, Carlin A. Roman Honor: the Fire in the Bones. University of California Press, 2001.

Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. Yale University Press, 1992.

Cavarnos, John P.  St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Human Soul. Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.  2000.

Cummings, Denver. The Rudder (Pedalion). Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1957.

Davidson, Richard M. Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament. Baker Academic, 2015.

De Becker, Gavin and Stechschulte, Tom. The Gift of Fear. Little, Brown & Co., 1997.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking. Back Bay Books, 2019.

Hard, Robin, and H. J. Rose. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Partially Based on H.J. Rose’s A Handbook of Greek Mythology. Routledge, 2020.

Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, 2003.

Hunter, David G. Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity. Fortress Press, 2018.

St. John Chrysostom.  On Marriage and Family Life.  tr. Catherine P. Roth & David Anderson.  Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2nd ed.  1986.

Lear, Andrew & Cantarella, Eva.  Images of Greek Pederasty.  New York: Routledge.  2008.

Lorenz, Hendrik. The Brute Within: Appetitive Desire in Plato and Aristotle. Clarendon Press, 2009.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite.  Exomologitarion: a Manual of Confession.  tr. George Dokos.  Thessalonika: Uncut Mountain Press.  2006.

Onians, Richard B. The Origins of European Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Plutarch.  The Complete Works.  Delphi Classics, 2013.

Ramachandran, V. S., and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Harper Perennial, 2009.

Sihvola, Juha. “Aristotle on Sex and Love” in The Sleep of Reason: erotic experience and sexual ethics in ancient Greece and Rome / edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola.

Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind: in Greek Philosophy and Literature. Dover Publications, 1982.

    Defining any kind of sexual terminology these days is dangerous work, given the constant changes and redefinitions that characterize the arena of sex and gender.  Homosexuality, originally defined as same-sex attraction, has been challenged by ‘transsexualism’ and theories that sexual ‘roles’ are culturally defined and thus interchangible.  This calls into question homosexual attraction as an ‘absolute’ which has caused protest within the ‘LGBTQ Community’ which encompasses the whole variety of ‘sexual minorities.’  Since biology alone is no longer considered ‘enough science’ to provide a coherent explanation to human biology, and psychology has also failed in this same regard, sexuality and gender are now more matters of politics than science.  However, for the Christian, sexuality is a spiritual and moral matter.

    Anati, pp. 2-12

    Davidson, p. 90

    Davidson, pp. 324-326

    Davidson, pp.134-140

    ibid, p. 135

    ibid, pp. 137-138

    Ge 1:22,28

      Davidson, p. 324

      Onians, pp. 187-189

      ibid., p. 188

      c.f. Ps 18

      Snell, pp. iv-x

      c.f. Mt 11:15


      Onians, pp. 109-111

      Cantarella, pp. 6-8

      ibid., pp. 42-44

      ibid., p. 23

      ibid., pp. 3ff

      ibid., pp. 36-38, 46-47

      ibid., pp. 28-36

      ibid., pp. 45-46

      ibid., pp. 44ff

      ibid., pp. 48-53

      Hard, pp. 76ff

      I would like to be clear here that I do not believe there is evidence that Plato read the Old Testament, but rather that the concept as described in the OT was known in the ancient world, and that Plato inherited this knowledge.  After all, Plato does not tell his readers the source of his insight, but states his teachings as facts.

      Lorenz, pp. 13-34

      Cantarella, pp. 59-60

      Hendrik, pp. 107-121

      Cantarella, p. 98

      ibid., pp. 98-104

      ibid., p. 104

      ibid., p. 98

      ibid., pp. 156-160

      Cantarella, p. 157

      This letter is one of the best examples of practical advice on marriage from the time period, and well worth reading on its own.

      Tiridates the Great of Armenia was the first king to adopt Christianity as the official state religion in 301 AD.

[xxxix] Rom. Legum Coll., V, 3 quoted by Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, p. 176.

      Cantarella, pp. 182-185.

      Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity. New York:W. W. Norton, 1971, p. 93.

      Cavarnos, John P.  St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Human Soul. Belmont, MA:Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.  2000.

      c.f. Neo. IX

      c.f. Ap. Cn. XVIII

      c.f. Ap. Cn. XXIII-XXIV 

      c.f. Jn. Fs. XIX

      op. cit.

      Ancy. II, Ap. LXVII

      Neoc. I

      The notion of ‘bed death,’ or decrease in sexual activity within ‘long-term’ lesbian relationships, was first identified by sociologists Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz in their 1983 book, American Couples: Money, Work, Sex.  The debate continues over whether this is actually a phenomenon, though the continued writing of advice articles indicates that there is still a significant audience looking for help with ‘bed death.’

      Onians, 170

      Onians, pp. 27-28

      Ramachandran, pp. 14ff

About Archpriest George Aquaro

Fr. George is originally from Los Angeles County, California.  He attended the University of Southern California, receiving two Bachelors of Arts in Print Journalism and International Relations, with a minor in Public Administration. He also spent a semester on scholarship at the University of London, study UK and international journalism along with Soviet defense policy.

After graduation, he moved to Japan and taught English, but returned to the US and eventually enlisted in the United States Navy, where he worked as a TV journalist, primary on the island of Crete at a joint US-Greek facility. This is where he was exposed to Orthodox Christianity for the first time.

Again returning to the US, he had many questions regarding the history of Christianity, and began attending Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. His first class was in Biblical Greek, which was taught by an Orthodox Christian priest. Through that relationship, Fr. George learned about the orthodox faith and was received into the Church.

Fr. George attend saint Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York. There he received his Master of Divinity in 2001, writing a thesis which was later published as the book, “Death by Envy: The Evil Eye and Envy in the Christian Tradition.

After seminary, he was ordained to the Holy Diaconate and assigned to St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, where he served until his ordination to the Holy Priesthood in 2003. He was then assigned to St. Timothy parish in Lompoc, CA, until 2006, when he was reassigned to St. Matthew parish in Torrance, CA. In 2017, Fr. George requested assignment to St. Katherine mission, and was granted a transfer with his family.

In addition to the normal seminary curriculum, Fr. George has also attended numerous seminars on a variety of topics, including Critical Incident Stress Management, Exorcism, and continuing education seminars hosted by the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He also is a student of Canon Law.

Fr. George has traveled internationally, speaking on the topic of Christianity and addiction. He has lectured in Romania, Finland, Russia, and the Bahamas. In addition, he has visited Singapore, Japan, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Austria, and Greece.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an article may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that articles represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Patristic Faith or its editor or publisher.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletter!


error: Content is protected !!