How did different eras in time treat sex?

I’d like to spend April doing some romps through history looking at how we’ve seen libido, the role of sex in marriage and culture, women’s sexuality, and more. Sometimes we get to assuming that our way of thinking about sex is just “the way things are”, and just “that’s the way our bodies are made.”

But when we see from other points  in history that it actually wasn’t assumed to be that way, then we can understand how much our culture has also played a role in shaping how we see sex!

We’re going to start this series looking at sex in Roman times.

I picked that time period because that was the culture into which Paul was writing, and in which Jesus was living (though Jesus focused more on the Jewish culture of His day than the Roman side of it). That can help illuminate what Paul may have meant by different passages that he wrote about sex, too!

I asked Connor to comb through the history sites and books on hand and find out a few facts that we may not realize about how the Romans saw sex! Now, Connor wants you all to know that he’s not a historian, but he only including stuff here if he found it from multiple sources! So let’s take a look at 8 things he discovered, and then I have a big overarching thought I want to share.

But first, here are my girls in front of the colosseum several years ago!

Italy Colisseum

#1. Prostitution was common

In certain periods of Roman history, visiting a prostitute was considered normative for men, even if they were married, so long as it was a legitimate establishment. Brothels would often be located near upper class residences for convenience.

#2. Prostitution shared a stigma with other professions

While prostitution was common, it was not prestigious. Being a prostitute carried a negative stigma with it, but prostitutes were not alone in this. Any profession where one made a living by using their body to entertain was in the same category as prostitution. This included stage actors and gladiators.

#3. Sex was considered one-sided

Sexual gratification was considered to be reserved for the husband in a relationship. For wives, their consolation prize was the opportunity to produce offspring. Wives were also expected to remain faithful while allowing their husbands to philander with any unmarried and agreeing women or boys they desired.

#4. Same sex intercourse was common, but not considered homosexual

The Romans did not look at people in terms of sexuality, but in terms of sexual roles. So long as a man was only ever the penetrator, and never the penetrated, he was still considered strong and masculine. But in the eyes of the Romans, if a man was on the receiving end he was adopting the role of the woman, and was reviled as effeminate.

#5. Sex was about power

Because sex was generally framed in this dynamic of dominant and submissive roles, which carried social implications and ramifications, power differentials were baked into the fabric of sexual life. A man with status had a lot of license to engage in sexual liaisons outside of his marriage with anyone who held a lower place in society. In fact it is generally the most powerful people in Roman society who have the longest list of varied exploits and specific fetishes. Even wealthy women are reported to have had sexual appetites for lower-order men like dancers and gladiators.

Our family in the stadium in Ephesus in 2012.

#6. Romans may not have been as debauched as it seems

Most of the knowledge we have about sex in Roman culture is from the viewpoint of wealthier, upper-class citizens, since they were more likely to be literate, to have the time and inclination to write, and to have other people care enough to preserve their writings. The image we sometimes get from these accounts is that everyone was having sex with everything all the time right out in the streets. But there is historical evidence suggesting that many of the common people looked down on the sexual debauchery of the higher classes, and that the non-wealthy majority had far more reserved sexual practices. Which makes a kind of sense. If extramarital sex is reserved mostly for using those far below you in social status, then people at the bottom of the hierarchy would not have the same array of sexual outlets.

#7. Rape was taken very seriously. For some.

As much as sex involved power differentials, rape was strictly prohibited, and victims (either male or female) were found blameless, and received no stigma. In fact, rape was one of the few things automatically punishable by execution, with no statute of limitations. All of this being said, of course, with one major caveat: It only applied to the rape of Roman citizens in good standing. If a slave was raped, it was charged as property damage, with reparations paid to the slave-owner.

#8. Sex toys existed

There are plenty of rumors and myths about ancient sex toys, including the idea that Cleopatra would fill a vessel with bees and use it as a vibrator, but the source of these stories are often iffy (and Rebecca says–“I seriously hope that’s not true, because that is one part of my anatomy I would not want anywhere near bees!”). With the Greco-Romans, though, there are plenty of illustrations and literary mentions of–how shall we put this?–things which mimic the male anatomy 🙂 . They could be made a number of ways, including stuffed leather, stone, and even carefully shaped bread! Since the culture only conceived of sex as a penetrative act, the expectation was still that whoever assumed the female role was going to at some point need to have something penetrating them.

If we could sum up what all of this means, it would be this: In Roman times, there wasn’t an expectation that sex and intimacy would be linked. 

Sex was about power, and about animal appetites, and even about spirituality or attaining a new state of being. But it wasn’t about cementing intimacy in the way that we would think today.

It isn’t only that upper class Romans were promiscuous (we know less about the lower classes!), but that this idea of an intimate marriage is somehow missing. Marriage was a contract of convenience that allowed property rights and status, but not relationship. 

And when intimacy is divorced from sex, then ideas like power take over.

That’s a good reminder to us of the gift that we have in our heritage–that sex is an ultimate “knowing”, as it’s talked about in Genesis 4. Sure, we may have gotten that really messed up, and the Old Testament patriarchs certainly were not great examples of real intimacy. But we see in the Bible these glimpses of how things were supposed to be. 

When sex is focused on power, ugly things happen and intimacy flees. That’s a good lesson from the Romans. And tomorrow, let’s see how Paul’s words about sex, written to this culture, would have rocked them!

8 Weird Things about Sex in Roman Times

Does anything stand out to you? What do you think our biggest similarities are? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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