In today’s society, sex sells. Look in any magazine aimed at teenagers and young adults and a plethora of ads with half naked, goddess-like women and Herculean men with perfectly sculpted biceps shout from every page. But why is this? What is it about sex that can make the most innocent women blush and can make the most unruly men bounce off the walls? The reason could be that sex is a wonderful act of great emotion between two people, yet it is a very private matter. Sex arouses people and often times it can make people do things that they normally would not do or would not speak about.
Even though the act of sex may mean the same thing to everyone, its role, and how it should be applied in society differ greatly among people. Very conservative people believe sex should be confined to marriage, very liberal people do not care why or how it is performed, and those in between the these two positions think that the only criteria for sex should be a love between two people. These views have characterized society as a whole and over time, some beliefs have taken precedent over others. This phenomenon is directly related to the unique nature of sex.
Different views of sex can be likened to a pendulum swinging from left to right. On one side there is the conservative view and on the other side is the liberal view. This pendulum shows the degrees of openness or standoffish behavior the world is holding, regarding sex. For example, in the 1950’s, America was extremely conservative, but then as the sixties and seventies rolled around, America took a very liberal view on sex. Then came the eighties and conservatism was back in style, but now in the nineties it seems as though the pendulum is swinging back to the liberal side. This unique action shows that people’s view of sex is ever changing.
This idea of the pendulum swinging can be seen throughout time. As seen with the Greeks, they were very liberal about sex. Then the Romans came, and they seemed a little less liberal and then the Catholics came and they were very conservative. Knowing this, it makes sense why St. Augustine wrote his book, The Confessions, and put a very conservative slant on sex. He was responding to a very liberal age, an age where there were very few limits on sex. Furthermore, when looking at Augustine’s life, the reader of The Confessions notices that Augustine’s own beliefs and ideas were on the pendulum swinging from the very liberal side in the beginning of his life and ending up on the very conservative side after he found God.
After reading his book, it is easy for one to make an equation of sin with sex. In every instance Augustine talks about sex, he implies that it was wrong or at least the reasons for having sex were wrong. However, it seems that he takes this belief a little too far. Maybe this stems from his studying with the Manichees and their belief that the body was the cause of evil or maybe it stems from his interpretation of Catholicism and the Bible. What ever the case may be for completely speaking out against his own sexual life though, many people have been influenced by his beliefs. That is why the critic who said, "the equation of sin with sex which has characterized many periods of Western Civilization (such as Puritanism) can be traced back to Augustine," was right. Truly, Augustine is the first writer to show a change from a liberal view of sex to an extremely conservative view of sex and show the benefits that it did for him. Even though his book is clearly Catholic propaganda, he shows himself as lost sheep found, a reformed sinner; and that is a powerful message for many people.
The equation of sin with sex is evident throughout Augustine’s writing. For example, in his recollection of sin, he speaks these words about sex, "I intend to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God" (Augustine, 24). If one analyzes just this one sentence, he or she can see how he looks unfavorably on his sexual activity. He uses words like "past foulnesses" and "carnal corruptions" to show that his sexual behavior was something so vile, that its very essence was corrupting and rotting his very being. A special note must be made here; Augustine did not condemn sexual activity, but he did condemn the reasons why people did it. In fact Augustine goes on to note the difference between, "love’s serenity and lust’s darkness" (Augustine, 24), showing he knew there was a difference. However, most everything to Augustine seems to be characterized as "lust’s darkness." This is where many religions and people get the idea that sex is equated with sin.
The reason why these groups and people find the root of sex being a sin with Augustine is because they cannot find this equation anywhere else. St. Augustine provides the first example of equating sex with sin. This is a very unique situation for all those who followed his writings. Most of the religions that incorporate Augustine’s writings are based upon the Bible. To them, the Bible is even more important than his writings. However, in the Bible, there are relatively few places that even mention sex being sinful. Only three parts of the Bible really point to this, and they are: the sixth commandment: "Thou shall not commit adultery," the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the story of Jesus saving the woman from being stoned. This is ironic because most people would believe that the Bible would be the book that decides that sex is a sin, not The Confessions.
However, in terms of Augustine, these stories are rather light in their equation of sin and sex. The sixth commandment just says to keep away from other people’s lovers, but is a little shadowy on having a lover who is not married. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah shows that God does not like it when sex is taken to extreme (i.e. sodomy and rape). Finally, Jesus saving the woman shows that God can find mercy for those who commit adultery. On the other hand, Augustine says that everything he did with sex was bad. The part that shows this extremely well is his story of the woman he had relations with for seven years and remained faithful to. Even though they were faithful to each other, he says that they were sinning in the eyes of God because they were not married. This is very extreme though; Augustine should have questioned if marriage makes a loving relationship or if a loving relationship makes a marriage.
St. Augustine’s belief that sex equals sin is in complete contrast to all of the Roman and Greek literature that we have encountered. For example, in the Lysistrata sex was used as a bargaining tool, In the Symposium sex and knowledge went hand in hand, and in Ovid’s The Art of Love sex and seduction were seen as a natural pastime, a game where one could even get instructions. It is in comparing this last book, The Art of Love, where Augustine’s The Confessions clearly shows the equation of sin with sex.
If you compare two similar passages between these two authors, you can see how much of a different mindset each author had about sex. For example, we can identify Augustine’s views on sex by looking at the passage that deals with his "adolescent stirrings." In this passage he describes his vice (sex) and his need to compete with his friends. It follows: "What is more worthy of censure than vice? Yet I went deeper into vice to avoid being despised, and when there was no act by admitting to which I could rival my depraved companions, I used to pretend I had done things that I had not done at all, so that my innocence should not lead my companions to scorn my lack of courage, and lest my chastity be taken as a mark of inferiority" (Augustine, 28). From this passage, we see why Augustine speaks out so vehemently against sex. In his childhood, by his adult standards, he was sinning by having sex and what made it even worse was that he was pretending to have sinned just to please his friends. He lost all modesty. Now when we compare this to Ovid, we see that sex is not equated to sin because there is still modesty involved in love and sex.
We can see the harm of slandering sexual behavior in Ovid’s story of people who lie about having sex. He warns against immodest people saying, "Beware…let no Kiss-and-tell gossip come near…. Some fabricate stories…claim there’s no woman they have not slept with"(Ovid, 210). Then he goes on to explain why this is bad and what happens after a ladies name is smeared. "Though the flesh escape defilement, repute is tarnished. What’s left secure when her name’s fair game for ‘adulterers’ who work to convince the world of what never took place? Myself, I remain discreet about my erotic encounters even when they’re true: keep such secrets under seal"(Ovid, 210). Even he acknowledges that the improper use of sex is bad. He even notes that it is the verbal adulterers who are the evil ones because they lie to the world and this is exactly what Augustine was doing; he was committing "adultery," going against God’s commandment. Also, Ovid keeps his sexual encounters "under seal" and thus keeps the modesty that is attached to sex. Augustine did not do this and "chaste modesty did not stand a chance"(Ovid, 61).
Even in some other writings of his, we see how Augustine tries to recapture the modesty that he had lost as an adolescent. In The Rule of St. Augustine he gives rules on safeguarding Chastity, and Fraternal Correction. In one of his rules he says, "Although your eyes may chance to rest upon some woman or other, you must not fix your gaze upon any woman"(The Rule of St. Augustine, 3). Then he goes on to say this is bad because "you cannot say that your hearts are pure if there is immodesty of the eye, because the unchaste eye carries the message of an impure heart. And when such hearts disclose their unchaste desires in a mutual gaze, even without saying a word, then it is that chastity suddenly goes out of their life"(The Rule of St. Augustine, 3).
Ovid on the other hand, is open with sex and looking into another’s eyes. He tells us: "You must never fail to attend the theatre when she does, gaze at her beauty- from the shoulders up she’s time most delectably spent, a feast for adoring glances, for the eloquence of eyebrows, the speaking sign"(Ovid, 181). Clearly, he knows the power that the eyes can hold, and knows that seeing is one of the most natural things a human can do. Clearly Ovid and Augustine have different beliefs on this subject, but I believe most people would agree with Ovid and his beliefs. Augustine tried to subdue what is natural; he took the fun out of the hunt in the game of love.
This simple example of the eyes shows us how Augustine could equate sin with sex and be so obsessed with sex. From his early adolescence he was engaging in what he would later call immoral activity. Most people would say that what he did was natural, but he only saw the bad in it. After he found God, he decided that he would no longer have sex and thus save himself from further sinning, a very extreme reaction. I can say this for him, it worked in his special case, but as he tried to turn other people away from sex through his writings he seemed to become obsessed with the idea that sex is equated with sin. He no longer wanted people to find their own path in life; he wanted to guide them down the path he took after he found God. This might work for some people, but for others it does not. He took a natural act and tried to make it unnatural and put restraints on it. In doing this, he blew it way out of proportion; he tried to have law govern sex, not love. As my friend down the hall said, "he showed that sex was bad."