HOW WAS sex education before Christianity?

Many would think of bacchanalian instructions and phallic exercises to please promiscuous Olympian gods. But this picture better belongs to the Greek Homerian period and to some brazen Roman emperors’ reign, and does not reflect the sexual mores of the Graeco-Roman Classical Age (4 B.C. to 2 A.D.). Sexual standards were close to Christianity’s already, historians like Pierre Hadot, K.J. Dover, and Michel Foucault would point.

Foucault, in his three-volume History of Sexuality, says that idealization of marriage was surprisingly so popular and “already so ‘Christian’ that the Christians took them up.” Pagans thought power must come with tough discipline, even in sex.

While present values on sex fixate on just doing it, the Classical Greco-Romans thought mere sex was wanting without its pleasure packages of good health, family, and romance.

First there was “dietetics” or the sexual diet. The gymnasium would teach athletes to sweat abstinence and conserve their “seed” to prime up male energy. Like Manny Pacquiao who abstains from lovemaking months before his boxing match, Plato’s Laws tells of the Olympic victor Iccus of Tarentum, who “never touched a woman during his entire intensive training.” The weakness felt after sex meant for these Greeks that less is more. Self-control was macho.

How could men abstain? The physician Galen gave a censor’s counsel: “Refrain completely from spectacles (of sex), do not tell stories or recall memories that could stimulate desire.”

Monogamy was introduced as a rule in household management. Men learned the hard way that keeping wives and concubines created jealousies and tensions between the partners and their children, sometimes ending in murders. The best example was the household of Zeus. Warrior-historian Xenophon advises in Oeconomicus that a couple must live like a pair, devoted to each other until old age. Philosophers like Aristotle exhorted men to follow the monogamous ways of wolves, elephants, and lovebirds. Sexual flings were thought to spread diseases. True love came to mean as lifetime partnership, that by the time of Rome’s Justinian Code, marital fidelity was enshrined and grounds for divorce were abolished.

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To use contraceptives will unnaturally break procreation and sex, Musonius Rufus argues in Reliquiae. Sex is so pleasurable, Plato’s Laws explains, not for pleasure’s sake, but because nature has to overshoot its goal of procreation. Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, suggests in Aphorism the mucus natural family planning method. “Women in whom the cervical os is cold and thick tend not to conceive easily,” he writes. Hippocrates cautioned against the contraceptive pennyroyal for its toxic effects and made the famous oath against abortion.

Proving to one’s love interest that he or she is “worth the wait” turned into a romantic ideal, too. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations would boast he had “preserved (his) adolescence,” he “did not become a man before the proper time,” he “even took a little longer.” Popular novels like Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon and Heliodorus’ Ethiopica cast virginity as sexy. The greatest test for lovers is for them to save themselves for each other.

While Graeco-Romans had not much qualms getting attracted to both sexes, there were debates between the lovers of boys and the lovers of women. Charicles in Pseudo-Lucian says males and females must be complements; nature authorized this match through procreation. Plato held that biology may not have designed same sexes as right mates, but they can be soulmates, thus the term “Platonic love.” He wrote in the Symposium the story of the virtuous Socrates, who did not touch the hunk Alcibiades even when he seduced him through the night.

These pre-Christian texts tell how pockets of two great civilizations spiced up their family, sex, and love life via education. Christianity would later develop and codify their principles. If indeed their virtues made the Greeks and Romans glorious and grand, then theirs must be the right lessons we need.

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