email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
269 Amazing Sex GamesA History of MarriageA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyActionAll the WayAlways Forever MaybeAmerica UnzippedAmerica UnzippedAmerica's Sexual TransformationAmerican EugenicsAmerican GirlsAmerican HookupAn Interpretation of DesireAnarchism & SexualityAnatomy of a BoyfriendAnatomy of LoveAnthony GoicoleaAnticlimaxArt and HomosexualityArt/PornAssuming a BodyAutoportraitBachelors and BunniesBecoming OrgasmicBehind the Red DoorBest Sex Writing 2005Better Sex Through YogaBetter Sex Through YogaBetter Than EverBetween Mom and JoBeyond Diversity DayBeyond SexualityBeyond SpeechBeyond ToleranceBig Porn IncBill HensonBodies in DoubtBody ImagesBonkBoys Don't CryBreasts - A DocumentaryBrothelBuying SexCase Studies in Communication about SexCase Studies in Sexual DevianceCaught in the WebCelibaciesChildren and SexualityChildren and the Politics of SexualityChildren with Sexual Behavior ProblemsChildren, Sexuality and SexualizationChristy ReportClay's WayClinical Manual of Women's Mental HealthClose toYouClumsyCold HitCollege SexComing of Age in AmericaConfessions of the Other MotherCybersexCyborgasmDare... to Make Love with 2, 3, 4... or MoreDare... to Try BisexualityDating: Philosophy for EveryoneDeadly ButterflyDebating Same-Sex MarriageDeep GossipDeparting from DevianceDesire, Love, and IdentityDigital DiariesDilemmas of DesireDirty MindsDirty StoriesDisorders Of DesireDisorders of Sex Development:Doing ItDoing ItDoing It Down UnderDown and Dirty Sex SecretsDude, You're a FagEarly Embraces IIIEmerald City BluesEmotionally InvolvedEnjoying Guilty PleasuresErotic CapitalErotic InnocenceErotic PassionsEthics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about ChildrenEveryday PornographyEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorExploring TranssexualismFade to BlackFagbugFaking ItFamilies Like MineFast GirlsFinal JeopardyFinding H. F.Fire on the Mountain DVDFor Lesbian ParentsFor The Bible Tells Me SoForbiddenFrictionFrom Disgust to HumanityFrom Shame to SinFuckologyGay, Straight, and the Reason WhyGender in the MirrorGender OutlawsGeography ClubGetting OffGetting RealGetting the Love You WantGirls & SexGirls Gone MildGirls Gone SkankGLBTQGoddess WorshipGoing DownGood GirlsGood PornGood Sex IllustratedGreat Answers to Difficult Questions About SexGuide To Getting It OnHandbook New Sexuality StudiesHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHard to GetHardcore from the HeartHear Us Out!HeterosyncraciesHit & MissHomosexualitiesHookedHooking UpHow Sex Became a Civil LibertyHow Sex ChangedHow Sex WorksHow To Be GayHow to Do Things with Pornography How to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Have Magnificent SexHow to Make Great Love to a ManHow to Make Great Love to a WomanHow to Make Love Like a Porn StarHow to Think More About SexHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenHysterical MenI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'll Be Your MirrorIf Men Could TalkImpotenceIn a Queer VoiceIn Praise of the WhipIn the Mood, AgainInsatiable WivesIntense Games DVDInvestigating Young People's Sexual CulturesIt's Perfectly NormalIt's Perfectly NormalItís Your HourJane Sexes It UpJock SturgesJust Between UsKama-Sutra--The Secrets to the Art of LoveKids Gone WildLegalizing ProstitutionLegalizing ProstitutionLet's Get This StraightLets Talk about SexLetters to Penthouse Vol. 50Likely to DieLittle ChicagoLoose GirlLosing Matt ShepardLoveLove and DesireLove and SexLove JunkieLove Lust DesireLove SickLustMad for FoucaultMagical ThinkingMaking American BoysMaking Babies the Hard WayMaking Chastity SexyMaking Peace with PornMaking ScenesMale SexualityMalefemaleMaster BreastsMating in CaptivityMedicalized MasculinitiesMelancholia and MoralismMenMental Health Issues in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Communities MiddlesexMoney ShotMoral Panics, Sex PanicsMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy HeartbeatMy Horizontal LifeName All the AnimalsNatural BeautyNerveNerveNew Sex Now DVDNightswimmingNone of the AboveNormalNormalNot GayNot My ShameNot The Marrying KindNot Under My RoofNothing PinkOedipus WreckedOn Being RapedOne Hot SecondOne Hour in ParisOpenOrgasmOrgasm Inc.OrgasmologyOrgasmsOver 100 Truly Astonishing Sex TipsOverexposedPeekPeriod PiecesPervPhilosophizing About Sex Philosophy of Love, Sex, and MarriagePhilosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An IntroductionPin-up GrrrlsPINSPlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPolicing SexualityPolyamory in the 21st CenturyPornPorn NationPorn StudiesPorn UniversityPornifiedPornlandPornographyPornographyPornographyPornography, Sex, and FeminismPosition Of The Day PlaybookPray the Gay AwayPredatorsPremarital Sex in AmericaPrinciples and Practice of Sex TherapyPrivate Dicks - Men ExposedPrivate Practices DVDProblem GirlsPrudePsychopathia SexualisQueer PhilosophyRapeRape Is RapeRated X - A Journey Through PornRazmatazRecruiting Young LoveRedefining GirlyRedefining RapeRegulating SexRelax, It's Just SexRethinking Gender and Sexuality in ChildhoodRethinking RapeRunning with ScissorsSatan's Sex BookScreening SexSelling Sex ShortSexSex & Single GirlsSex (Ed)Sex and SpiritSex and the American TeenagerSex and the SoulSex and the Soul, Updated EditionSex and WarSex at DawnSex by NumbersSex DetoxSex Fiends, Perverts, and PedophilesSex in AntiquitySex in CrisisSex in the World of MythSex ObjectSex OffendersSex on the BrainSex PositionsSex Q & ASex, Family, and the Culture WarsSex, or the UnbearableSex, Therapy, and KidsSex, Time and PowerSextasySexting and Young PeopleSexual ArtSexual Boundary ViolationsSexual DevianceSexual DisordersSexual EcstasySexual EthicsSexual FluiditySexual IntelligenceSexual Orientation and Psychodynamic PsychotherapySexual Orientation and School PolicySexual PleasureSexual PredatorsSexual Teens, Sexual MediaSexuality in AdolescenceSexuationSexyBookShameShamelessShy GirlSlutWalkSmall FavorsSmutSocial Control of Sex OffendersSome Assembly RequiredSplit ScreenStir-FryStraight to JesusStrange BedfellowsStripped BareSurviving Sexual ViolenceSymptoms of Being HumanTalkTalk to Me FirstTechniques of PleasureTestosterone RexThe Anthropology of SexThe BabiesThe Better Sex Guide to the Kama SutraThe Big Book of PornThe Birth of the PillThe Blue Moon Erotic Reader IIIThe BodyThe Breast BookThe Breath of Tantric LoveThe Busy Couple's Guide to Great SexThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Chemistry Between UsThe Clitoral TruthThe Dangerous Art of Blending InThe Education of SophieThe Emergence of SexualityThe End Of AliceThe End of SexThe Erotic EdgeThe Erotic Lives of WomenThe Essential KamasutraThe Evolution of BeautyThe Fate of GenderThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Gay Baby BoomThe Good Vibrations Guide to SexThe Happy Hook-UpThe Hite ReportThe Humble Little CondomThe Illustrated Guide to Extended Massive OrgasmThe Illustrated Story of OThe Incurable RomanticThe Love CureThe Madness of WomenThe Men They Will BecomeThe Mirror of LoveThe Miseducation of Cameron PostThe Moral Panics of SexualityThe Naked Truth About SexThe Nature of Sexual DesireThe New Erotic PhotographyThe New Gay TeenagerThe Notebook GirlsThe Only Girl in the CarThe Order of the Poison OakThe Origins of SexThe Other HollywoodThe Other PlaceThe Other Side of DesireThe Perils of MasculinityThe Perversion of YouthThe PervertThe Phenomenology of Sex, Love, and IntimacyThe Philosophy of PornographyThe Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary ReadingsThe Pleasure's All MineThe Politics Of LustThe Porn TrapThe Pornographer's GriefThe Pornography IndustryThe Praeger Handbook of TranssexualityThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Purity MythThe Real Truth About Teens and SexThe Right to Be ParentsThe Secret Lives of GirlsThe Sex Addiction WorkbookThe Sex Lives of TeenagersThe Sex MythThe Shared HeartThe Sleep of ReasonThe Smart Girl's Guide to PornThe State of AffairsThe Story of SexThe SurrenderThe Ten Minute Sexual SolutionThe Tenth CircleThe Transformations of GwenThe Transformations of GwenThe Trauma MythThe Ultimate Guide to Sex and DisabilityThe Vagina MonologuesThe ValleyThe Violence of CareThe Virgin BlueThe Virginity ClubThings Tom LikesThinking KinkThinking XXXToo Hot to HandleTransTransTransgender Children and YouthUltimate JudgementUltimate SexUndoing GenderUnlikelyUntangling the WebUntrue VirginVirgin NationVirgin Sex for GirlsVirgin Sex for GuysVirginity LostWhat Does Consent Really Mean?What Women WantWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for BoysWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for GirlsWhat's Happening to Tom?What's Wrong with Homosexuality?When Jeff Comes HomeWhen Sex Goes to SchoolWhen the Piano StopsWhere Do We Fall When We Fall in Love?Who Has What?Who's Been Sleeping in Your HeadWilhelm ReichWired for IntimacyWomen and Child Sexual AbuseWomen and MadnessWritten in the FleshYou Know Me WellZen Sex
Over the course of a mere four centuries, Rome witnessed a revolution in sexual attitudes. At the height of the empire, the untimely death of the male beloved of an emperor brought mourning for the loss of the "god" from their midst and worship across the breadth of the empire, even as poor women and slaves suffered routine sexual exploitation. Emperors four centuries later were torturing and mutilating men caught in same-sex relations and affirming the moral dignity of women, however lowly their social status. Kyle Harper, Associate Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma, in his new book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, traces the organic unfolding of the Christian revolution that transformed sexual attitudes, arguing against the popular caricature that credits Christianity with the relatively sudden erasure of centuries of virtually uninhibited pagan freedom of the body.
In the tradition of Michel Foucault, Harper affirms that the changing history of sex involves an infinitely subtle and complex field of dynamics among a multiplicity of aspects of socio-historical reality, rather than the simple shifting balance of permissiveness and restriction imposed by a repressive Christian foundational logic upon an ancient, crumbling world. Following Peter Brown (Body and Society, 1988), Harper allows that the revolution of sexual attitudes over the closing centuries of the Roman Empire evidence a changing set of inner values, rather than shifts imposed externally by repressive laws. The changes in sexual attitudes across late antiquity and the budding Christian world evidence that people came to embrace a changing understanding of the human being in the cosmos and changing ideas about the nature of human agency. Harper shows that the triumph of Christianity's norms and its prohibitions on specific sexual acts expanded across the empire slowly and haltingly, finding their way into law only with the sixth century. By the time that Christian ideas about sexuality took the seat of power in the late Roman Empire, sexual renunciation outside the marital bed and the cardinal virtue of chastity evidenced the triumph of the notion of free will in human agency and the completion of the shift in social attitudes from the classical to the Christian sexual culture.
The source of earlier interpretive errors of this "revolution" Harper attributes to the dedicated focus on mere culture in earlier studies. He contends that "[w]hen sexuality is flattened into a web of [cultural] meanings, a symbolic system that resides in cultural artifacts and creates moral subjects, fundamental changes introduced by Christianity are rendered invisible" (p. 4). Rather, he explains, we should understand culture as "a set of values and representations of the world that impinge on behavior, that strike real human flesh in various ways" (p. 5). It becomes Harper's task to trace the various ways that real human flesh and ways of exercising agency in the late Roman world are marked and moved by changing experiences of self and world. Patterns in the experience of eros, like a range of other social phenomena, arise always within networks of power. Thus Harper sets out to trace the laws, the demographics, and the economics of power that explain the revolution in the sexual economy of the late empire that regulated reproduction, dispensed pleasures, and wove together the complex fabric of the early Christian world of sexual ideas and relations.
In short, Harper's argument is that Christian culture did not decide sexual behaviors; Christian ideas drove profound cultural change, creating new values, new norms, and a new relationship between sexuality and broader social practices. The movement of archaic ideas about shame toward Christian ideas about sin grants us one more opportunity to witness the constructed nature of social worlds. From Shame to Sin reconstructs for us the history of the changing ideas that resulted in the worldview and the sexual economy of prohibitions and prescriptions familiar to us today, where forbidden sexual acts among forbidden partners are considered not merely shameful (inappropriate and ignoble behavior, subject to censure from one's fellows in the city) but sinful (evidence of an errant will that rejects the law laid down in the cosmos), and where individuals, always subject to the discerning eye of the almighty, are held morally accountable for their (errant or appropriate) desires.
Harper calls to witness his account of the revolution in sexual ideas an eclectic armory of sources: laws, literary works, scientific treatises, moralizing sermons, and erotic art--but his preference is for novels of the era; " a heady synthesis of comedy, love poetry, travel literature, and philosophy" captures the spirit of classical and Christian eros, because "novels are the quintessential cultural expression of a civilization with a mature tradition of speculation on human sexual experience" (p. 9). Stories intimate not only governing commandments regarding social proprieties, but they weave together the strands of ideas and practices that compose the patterns of social life. Harper sets out to learn what is to be gained from considering the evolving spectrum of the cultural stories of this era, considering both what is said and what is not said, the themes and the silences that intimate the truths and paradoxes that people of the late Roman Empire held in tension in their daily lives.
What we come to appreciate, through Harper's careful analysis, is that the history of sex in antiquity is not a linear tale of slow but steadily increasing repression of free pagan sexuality. Eros flourished in the high empire, but as it became caught up in the great sciences of the day, the sexual body became entangled in broader conversations about the human body and the human place in the cosmos--destiny, sovereignty, free will, the desiring soul and the fleshy body. Moreover, the early church's focused concern with matters of human volition placed Christian philosophy and its early themes of the desiring, embodied subject, as an individual agent with free will standing naked before an all-knowing god, squarely in the midst of the liveliest debates of imperial Greco-Roman philosophy. Orthodox Pauline notions of sexuality ultimately triumphed over other ideas, and sexual preaching within an expansionary church slowly evolved from informal remonstrance to formal regulation that inserted itself into daily lives and ultimately into the bedroom.
Harper's compelling study reveals that the "revolution" in sexual morality that most people understand as a steady triumph of Christian ideas over pagan sexual freedom, as the church gained political ground in the late classical era, was born of philosophical seeds firmly rooted in an ancient thought-world that only slowly collapsed in on itself. "The intellectual assumptions that undergird Augustinian theology, or the patterns of state and society that are presumed by Justinianic law, are in important ways closer to the philosophers and legislators of the second century . . . than to the monks and kings who would inherit the ruins of the Roman Empire" (p. 238).
From Shame to Sin is a fascinating study, beautiful written and argued. Any reader with a wish to better understand the philosophical and political architecture of their own modern ideas about sexual propriety, free will, and the desiring subject will have their self-understanding subtly enhanced by Harper's careful history of the development of these ideas across the ancient and into the medieval world. This would be a valuable text for undergraduate or graduate level studies in classics, literature, or philosophy, but any educated reader will appreciate its beautiful form and original argument.
© 2014 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Professor of Liberal Studies, North Carolina A&T State University