Friday, March 10, 2017

Ritual or Habit

by Jean Roberta

Sigh. It’s hard to be the caboose on the train, the person who posts last in a fortnight, or two-week period. What to say that hasn’t been said before?

So far, no one has discussed short vs. long in terms of sexual relationships. Whether you prefer to spend a few hours with a beautiful stranger or date for a few months or bond for many years and many children is more than a personal choice.

There are various terms for a sexual encounter between strangers who never met before, and don’t intend to meet again. For centuries now, this type of relationship has been considered low-class, immoral, and especially repulsive to “nice girls” or respectable women.

What this actually means is that female-identified people get blamed more than those on the butch end of the gender spectrum for engaging in hookups or one-night-stands. If the girl/woman/transwoman gets paid for her service, in some jurisdictions, she and her customer can both be charged with a crime. Before Christian values came to dominate Western culture, things were different.

Let’s consider the reasons for this.

Stranger-sex is often compared, at least implicitly, with marital sex, which is/was presumed to be blessed by God. Yet marriages are not necessarily based on personal attraction, and until very recently they were male-dominated by law. Abuse in marriage (including forced sex and pregnancy) is generally harder to escape than a hit-and-run assault by a stranger.

Luckily, marriages can be legally dissolved in the modern world, and this is a good thing for the victims. Conservative Christians generally disapprove of civil marriage, divorce and abortion (or even contraception) on grounds that marriage was originally intended to be a sacrament, a lifelong commitment which included a promise to God, and was a context in which to raise “legitimate” children who could inherit property from their fathers.

There is a theory that the sex trade as we know it developed from a most un-Christian ritual in which a priestess or devotee of the goddess of love, pleasure and beauty would wait in the temple to offer sexual service to any passing stranger. The stranger who was blessed in this way would be expected to make an offering, usually in cash, to the temple and indirectly to the goddess herself.

The principle involved is not hard to guess. Sex between strangers, especially if one of them is a professional pleasure-giver, trained and motivated for that purpose, can be a celebration of sexual energy as a good thing in itself, unmixed with the baggage of a personal relationship. It can be a generous sharing of sensual joy, a way to give thanks for the privilege of living in a sensitive human body.

The degradation of this kind of exchange into a secret, illegal and widely scorned activity didn’t happen by accident, nor as an inevitable result of historical progress. Stranger-sex was deliberately discredited in the past, as it is now, by those who don’t want sexual pleasure to be separated from heterosexual marriage and childbearing.

More recent and more credible evidence than the temple-sex theory suggests that the pagan (pre-Christian) people of Europe held spring festivals, including sex parties, for centuries before the Christian establishment managed to drive such practices underground. A child with an unidentifiable father, conceived in an orgy on May Eve, was called a “merrybegot.” This term sounds more respectful than “bastard,” a patriarchal term which is still used as an all-purpose insult almost independent of its original meaning.

Aside from, or in addition to, a general sex-party was another sex ritual now called the Great Marriage, in which a tribal king or chief would mate with a woman representing the Goddess or the land or the natural world to ensure the general welfare of the tribe for the coming year. This ritual still holds great appeal for psychologists, anthropologists, and fantasy writers because of its symbolic value.

A lot of what passes for “morality” in Christian-based cultures has morphed into concepts of “mental health.” Even among people who don’t use Christian terms, stranger-sex is still widely considered unhealthy as well as dangerous, especially when contrasted with the security of long-term relationships. (Ha.)

Now that stranger-sex no longer carries a whiff of hellfire, it gets criticized because it doesn’t last. This seems to me to be an implied comparison of apples and oranges, or edibles that aren’t even in the same family.

The claim that hooking up with a stranger is not an adequate substitute for personal love seems self-evident to me. Even in ancient times, did anyone really have to choose between those two extremes? As far as I know, the Great Marriage was never meant to replace more ordinary sexual relationships, nor was the ecstasy of Beltane or May Eve meant to replace sex in a context of shared personal history. I suspect that those who still celebrate May Eve in the old way don’t deprive themselves of sex or companionship for the rest of the year.

Even for those who hope to find a soul-mate and live “happily ever after,” long-term monogamy might not be bearable. And even though the internet has made it possible for one seeker to find hordes of potential mates from outside the seeker’s immediate vicinity, dating burnout is likely to set in at some point. Who wants to go through the ritual of speed-dating or exchanging text-messages with hordes of strangers in the hope of meeting a dream lover? I wouldn’t. (And a good thing too. My spouse would divorce me.)

I’m not sure that anyone has found the perfect combination of sex, love, and companionship, but I know that most of what I was taught in my youth about sexual “love” is a pile of manure. Stranger-sex is far from “casual” in many cultures, and long-term commitment was not even expected to be an expression of personal love before the Renaissance.

I don’t care who gets it on in which ways with whom else or for how long, and I would love to believe that Western culture (especially in cities) has become sophisticated enough to accommodate a variety of sexual relationships. What concerns me is the ongoing contempt for those (especially the female-identified) who engage in stranger-sex. Hookups happen a lot, as apparently they did in ancient Babylon and Greece, but now they don’t usually include the mutual respect of people who recognize a spark of the divine in each other.

If there is still a sense of reverence between people who interact sexually, but who don’t (yet) have a personal relationship, I suspect this happens only in a context of BDSM, or in cultures that have somehow been isolated from Christian prudery. Pity.


  1. If Mary Renault knew what she was talking about in The King Must Die (and I've come across the same bit of historical mythology elsewhere), there was a variation of the Great Marriage in which a stranger passing through was chosen to mate with the female ruler/representative of the Goddess and, when his duty was done, was sacrificed with suitable deadly rituals. I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of story was made up by patriarchal societies to malign earlier female-centric religions, but maybe not.

    As far as paying for sex goes, I'd imagine that in ancient times, especially when marriages were strictly economic and dynamic matters, if a man couldn't get it for free from his slaves he'd be willing to pay for it from someone a notch above slavedom, and if he were rich enough he could set up a skilled courtesan in style, which would, in a sense, be paying her. Upper class Greek men are said to have had a different arrangement as mentors and sexual dominants for young men and boys, if they were so inclined--"For children, a wife, for love, a boy" (I'd better look up that quotation.) In any case, it wasn't paid sex, exactly, although there were certainly valuable gifts given. The relationships weren't short-lived, but not permanent, either, since boys will only be boys for a limited time.

    1. Argh! Dynastic matters, not dynamic. If they'f been dynamic enough the men might not have looked elsewhere.

  2. You might be last, Jean (and probably we should discuss shuffling the order--being first is no picnic, either!) but I love your take on the topic.

    I have always found that stranger-sex can be as profound as a committed relationship, in its own way. I wrote a post about this phenomenon a few years ago for the ERWA blog, called "The Romance of the One Night Stand":

    Do you really think "stranger-sex" became unacceptable only with the advent of Christianity, though? After all, the patriarchal pressures and the treatment of women as property clearly predated the Christian eradication of pagan customs. I suspect that sacred stranger-sex was one thing; having a fling with a passing wanderer might have been quite another, especially when preventing pregnancy was so difficult.

  3. Sex is perhaps the most intense communicative connection we can make with another person, whether stranger or close friend, for the better or not. That's the reason I hold sex in such high regard and at least make an attempt to take it at face value. Problems arise when expectations are at cross purposes.

  4. I'm sure there have always been rules regarding sex (who can do it with whom else, when, in what circumstances). For the past few centuries in Western society, though, marriage as an unbreakable bond has been held up as superior to any other sexual relationship. I've explained to various friends (mostly leftists & feminists) that my husband of the 1970s treated me much worse than either of the two pimps I worked with or for in the 1980s, and I get reactions of disbelief. Often my listener has pointed out that my husband was my HUSBAND, so he must have had good intentions and love in his heart, no matter how he behaved. On the other hand, I've been told that all pimps are coercive (not in my experience) and much worse than anyone else who wants to make a profit in a capitalist society. Even among those who claim to be radical critics of Western culture, there seems to be an unshakeable belief that committed relationships are essentially wholesome, whereas one-time-only encounters are sordid and unhealthy by definition. At least in ancient times, or so we're told, a planned one-time-only sex ritual might be respected. Your mileage may vary, but I've given up trying to reason with most of the people I know in real life about the relative status of marriage vs. tricking (paid and unpaid).

  5. God, I love this post, Jean. Glad to have read it, despite coming to it in the 11th hour.

    I particularly noted this bit: A lot of what passes for “morality” in Christian-based cultures has morphed into concepts of “mental health.”

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who's noticed that.

    So appreciate everything you've said on this subject.