On Sexual Purity Taboos and STIs

Piotr Stojanow's avatar

Piotr Stojanow


Lot And His Daughters by Meester van de Verloren Zoon
Lot And His Daughters by Meester van de Verloren Zoon

Scott Alexander in his latest sequence on cultural evolution speculates that “STIs played a role in the cultural evolution of taboos against promiscuity and homosexuality”. I doubt this claim.

From the History of sexually transmitted infections, we learn that:

In ancient times they [STDs] were taken for an individual punishment for a blasphemic conduct of life or as a consequence of low sanitation and hygiene.

And only in the medieval ages:

the relation to sexual activities was recognized, but the diversity of clinical symptoms was seen as variations of one disease, depending on the stage of the disease and the general health condition of the diseased person.

This is crucial because sexual taboos in the Western world have their origins in the Bible. This means that they evolved well before the relation between STD and sex was discovered. History of venereal diseases from antiquity to the renaissance confirms this time frame:

During the Middle Ages, numerous physicians and surgeons from Europe as well as from Arabic countries wrote on local diseases of the genitals, describing chancres, condylomata, erosions, pustules, urethral and vaginal discharge, and their treatment. Some were aware that the alterations were connected with sexual activity.

We may find confirmation on when purity taboos occurred in the Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism:

The rabbis’ interest in the matter may be seen in the massive body of legal materials on purity, their working out in precise detail just what is impure and what is pure. Ordinary folk certainly believed sexual taboos were valid and obeyed them1

And here is Jacob Neusner on what was considered clean and unclean:

Uncleanness served as a metaphor for sexual misdeed, idolatry, or unethical behavior. Cleanness was compared to sexual purity, service to one God alone, and correct action2

Purity taboos didn’t restrict coitus to one partner. Laura Betzig in Medieval Monogamy notes:

in the Middle Ages, as in other ages, powerful men married monogamously, but mated polygynously. Both laymen and church men tended to have sexual access to as many women as they could afford3

This is in line with what we know from the Bible. Even though there are warnings against venereal diseases in the Old Testament4, it’s full of powerful men with more than one woman. For example, Abraham or Solomon with his modest harem of a thousand women. The “punishment” for raping a virgin was payment5 and a shotgun wedding. That’s God’s morality for you.

In the New Testament, Jesus didn’t care that much about sex as Paul the Apostle, who claimed that your body belongs to God6, premarital sex is immoral7 on an equal level as adultery (homosexuality included)8.

If purity taboos were established before the discovery of the relation between sex and STIs, then what was their purpose? Let’s bare in mind what Laura Betzig writes:

besides being young, virgins have at least two advantages with respect to fitness: They are unlikely to be carrying sexually transmitted diseases, and they are unlikely to be carrying other men’s children9

We could equally argue that purity taboos are a way to:

  • prevent false paternity (Scott agrees with this)
  • secure a legitimate wife, heir for financial and political reasons10
  • restrict women’s sexual access by powerful men to just themselves11

While purity taboos are evolving, the relation between them and STIs is absent in the Bible. Yet, the link between power and sex is noticeable.

powerful men-patriarchs, judges, and kings-have sex with more wives; they have more sex with other men’s women; they have sex with more concubines, servants and slaves; and they father many children. Bible authors knew that sex and power went together (…) Throughout the Old Testament, people act on a mandate to reproduce12

Christian Rome “outlawed bigamy, restricted the legal grounds for divorce, and made it legally impossible to keep a wife and a concubine at once”13. Later the medieval physicians recognised the link between STIs and sex. Yet men kept mating polygynously as long as they could afford it. Purity taboos failed to stop the spreading of STIs.

Sara Moslener in her book Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence proposes a different hypothesis. Analysing the history of purity movements in America she observes:

sexual purity is most compelling at points in history when evangelical beliefs and values appear the most viable explanation for and solution to widespread cultural crises.

Relying on the work of historian Angela Lahr, Moslener argues:

the cultural and political influence of evangelicals is directly related to their ability to effectively address widespread fears. For nineteenth-century purity advocates, it was the ability to address the fear of declining Anglo-Saxon privilege; for twentieth-century fundamentalists, threats of nuclear destruction and communist invasion; and for later evangelicals: the excesses of the sexual revolution coupled with lingering Cold War fears. In each case, sexual purity rhetoric proved an asset to evangelicals seeking to maintain political and cultural influence. By asserting a causal relationship between sexual immorality, national decline, and apocalyptic anticipation, leaders shaped a purity rhetoric that positions Protestant evangelicalism as the salvation of American civilization.

The lack of STIs from the above list cannot go unnoticed. Proposing that sexual purity is compelling whenever there was a large-scale cultural crisis may prove to be yet another hypothesis on the evolution of sexual purity taboos.

Scott also claims that it’s “pretty likely” that STIs influenced the cultural evolution of taboos against homosexuality:

It wasn’t until the rise of Christianity that homosexuality became definitely taboo in Europe (mostly around 1000 or so), and not until Europeans took over other places that those places became equally strict.

I have to mention that the history of the Catholic Church and homosexuality starts with the Church Fathers and early Church Councils. Christian Rome passed laws condemning homosexual men to public burning and later public castration and execution. And it was, in fact, Justinian I who introduced the concept of divine punishment for homosexual acts14. In the Late Medieval Period, homosexuality was indeed considered a “sodomy”15, the most abominable of sins.

Even Scott himself admits that the evidence that STIs lead to homosexuality taboos is pretty circumstantial. Strong taboos against homosexuality existed before the first recorded outbreak of syphilis in Europe (1494)16. He speculates:

One plausible story is that there were relatively weak prohibitions on homosexual intercourse (as long as there was limited role versatility) during the period when STIs were rare and weak. Once syphilis started spreading in the late 1400s, these became much stronger. But honestly the strengthening of taboos in Europe was closer to 1000 or 1200 than to 1500, so I don’t know.

The Catholic Church had much better reasons for creating sexual taboos. While the Old Testament is stacked with polygynous men, Jesus disapproved of adultery and divorce17. The Church discovered that by following the teachings of Jesus they can control marriages and by proxy have political power and authority in the medieval feudal society.

From this point of view establishing sexual taboos against homosexuality is just the extension of controlling all sexuality to gain the power that comes from being the highest moral arbiter. After Anna Clark:

By persecuting sodomites as well as heretics, the Church strengthened its authority and credibility as a moral arbiter18

The accusations of sodomy and homosexuality proved to be useful when dealing with political opponents. That was the case in 1307 during the Trial of the Knights Templar19 - the world’s first multinational corporation20.

It’s worth repeating as Scott himself admits that prohibitions on homosexual intercourse happened before syphilis started spreading. What we instead observe is the correlation with the Catholic Church gaining political power. To list just a few events: the Investiture Controversy in 1076, the rivalry with the Holy Roman Empire, Crusades, the formation of the Inquisition in the 12th-centuary.

The above relation is echoed in Christie Davies’s conclusion of Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries:

on the basis of a comparative examination of a large number of Western societies and institutions, it is clear that the strong taboos that exist against homosexuality, bestiality, and transvestism in the West are the result of attempts to establish and defend strong ethnic, religious, or institutional boundaries. Where such pressures are weak or absent the taboos against these forms of sexual deviance are also weak or absent. (…)

if religious, military, or political leaders decide out of ideological commitment, organization necessity, or a sense of external threat to strengthen the boundaries of their group, people or institution they tend in consequence to impose harsh penalties on forms of sexual behaviour that breach social or symbolic boundaries. In many cases this is because they are seeking to maintain the identity and boundaries of their group by instilling in its members a code of belief and conduct that emphasizes the need to maintain boundaries of all kinds, including those between humans and animals and males and females. In the case of rigidly hierarchical all-male political, military, or ecclesiastical organizations, homosexual relationships are banned because they might be formed between a person within the organization and another outside or between persons of markedly different rank. Sexual relationships formed across crucial social and organizational boundaries in this way are seen by the leadership as subversive of morale and discipline. (…)

in any particular social situation deviant sexual behavior or relationships may be seen as threatenig more than one social boundary. In these circumstances the severity with which infringements of the taboos against such behavior are regarded will reflect the sum of the perceived threats to various boundaries which a breach of the taboo produces21

I cannot but agree with Scott that the evidence that STIs played a role in the cultural evolution of taboos against promiscuity and homosexuality are circumstantial. As of now, there is no evidence that serious STIs predate sexual purity taboos (apart from maybe gonorrhea)22. I remain unconvinced especially since there are competing explanations that are yet to be falsified.


  1. Jacob Neusner, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1975), pp. 15-26, p. 22

  2. Ibid., p. 24

  3. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 181

  4. Willcox, R R. “Venereal disease in the Bible.” The British journal of venereal diseases vol. 25,1 (1949): pp. 28-33

  5. Exodus 22:16-17 NIV

  6. 1 Corinthians 6:13 NIV

  7. 1 Corinthians 6:18 NIV

  8. 1 Corinthians 6:9 NIV

  9. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 192

  10. Sex, succession, and stratification in the first six civilizations: How powerful men reproduced, passed power on to their sons, and used power to defend their wealth, women, and children by Laura Betzig

  11. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 183

  12. Betzig, L. (2005). Politics as Sex: The Old Testament Case. Evolutionary Psychology

  13. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 192

  14. Michael Brinkschröde, “Christian Homophobia: Four Central Discourses,” in Combatting Homophobia, p. 166

  15. Haggerty, George E. (2000). Gay histories and cultures: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, pp. 470-471

  16. Origins of syphilis and management in the immunocompetent patient: Facts and controversies by David Farhi and NicolasDupin

  17. Matthew 5:31-32 NIV

  18. Anna Clark, Desire: A history of European Sexuality, p. 74-75

  19. G. Legman “The Guilt of the Templars” (New York: Basic Books, 1966): 11

  20. Ralls, Karen (2007). Knights Templar Encyclopedia. Career Press. p. 28

  21. Christie Davies, Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 87, No. 5 (Mar., 1982), pp. 1032-1063, pp. 1060-1061

  22. Gerd Gross, Stephen K. Tyring (2011), Sexually Transmitted Infections and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, pp. 3-4