April 2, 2021

It was 20 years ago today. On 1st April 2001, same-sex marriage became legal in the Netherlands. The Dutch, liberalism’s most celebrated trend-setters, had done it again. Where they led, others quickly followed. Scenes of gay couples cutting wedding cakes and spraying champagne over each other became common around the world. Today, same-sex marriage is recognised as legal in 29 countries. What even 30 years ago would have seemed to most gay people an impossible dream has come to be widely accepted — and not only by gay people — as entirely normal. The most startling thing about the institution, it can often seem, is that people ever found it startling.

Except, of course, that there are large stretches of the world where the idea that men might legally marry men, or women legally marry women, continues to be seen as abhorrent, grotesque, immoral. The list of countries that license same-sex marriage is a highly distinctive one. All of them, with the sole exception of Taiwan, are culturally Christian. All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, have witnessed a decline over recent years in church-attendance. In many of them, indeed, this decline has been precipitous.

The temptation, then, might be to cast the legalisation of same-sex marriage across much of the West as a decisive repudiation of Christian assumptions. If countries like Sweden or Canada have blazed a trail yet to be followed by countries like Iran or India, then that, so the presumption goes, is simply because the decline of religion has further to go in the non-Western world. How long, though, can its ultimate collapse be put off? Reason, progress and tolerance, it might be hoped, cannot forever be bucked. Surely, then, given time, we shall see bearded couples cutting wedding cake in Qom?

What, though, if the prevalence of same-sex marriage in culturally Christian countries is due less to the repudiation of Christian assumptions, and more to their enduring influence? What if it is in truth a bloom with roots deep in a very particular seed-bed? Even in the bedroom, after all, we are shaped by the past. Much that we take for granted is relative, and much that we assume to be “human nature” is in truth the result of decades, centuries, millennia worth of cultural weathering.

The category of “homosexuality”, far from being something that has been universally recognised, is of very recent origin. Like “television”, it is a portmanteau word coined to define a concept that would have baffled previous generations. Although formed out of Greek and Latin, neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a word for it. Suetonius, in his biographies of the Caesars, noted as interesting foibles that Claudius only ever slept with women, and Galba only ever slept with men — but he did not dwell upon it.

To the Romans, a preference for fucking males over females no more defined a man than did a preference for brunettes over blondes. The sword-stab of a penis was, of course, precisely what the female body had been shaped by the gods to receive; but the male body, too, was not lacking in orifices. A thrust or two, deep and quick, like the stabbing of a sword into the guts, and the business was done. Whether into the vagina, the anus or the mouth, it made no real difference — just so long as it was masterful.

Only one crucial qualification, one crucial safeguard, had to be respected. Free-born Romans, male and female both: these were strictly, absolutely off-limits. Conversely, it was the duty of slaves to serve a master’s every conceivable sexual need. They knew, as a matter of course, that the threat of rape might be realised at any moment.

All of which, of course, is liable to seem unfathomably alien to us. Why, though, do we find it shocking? Because, over the course of the centuries, Christian teachings on sex and marriage served radically to rewire the sexual imaginings of the ancient world. Paul, as a Jew, believed that every human body was created in the image of God, and therefore to be respected as such. Nevertheless, on his conviction that to rape was to offend against the divine, he put a novel spin.

The only acceptable sexual relationship, he argued, was one in which a man played the part of Christ, and the woman the part of the Church — which in turn left the head of a household no leeway to force himself on housemaids or pageboys. For Roman converts to Christianity, this required a radical recalibration of their most fundamental assumptions about sex. It was a recalibration from which we, in the West, have never turned back.

Something else, however, followed from Paul’s insistence on marriage between a man and a woman as the only acceptable sexual relationship. Almost incidentally, in his letter to the Romans, he paired men sleeping with men and women sleeping with women as comparable actions. Here was an acorn from which a mighty oak was destined to grow. Never before had the category of same sex relationships been defined in quite this way: as a unity.

It is the measure of how novel it was that it took centuries even to coin a word for it. The word “sodomy”, which began to be used in the 11th century, signified not what we call “homosexuality”, but rather a deviant sexual act. It might just as well refer to anal sex between a man and a woman as to anal sex between two men, or indeed to bestiality, or to masturbation. It was a sinful act that, by definition, required from the person who committed it a surrender to sin. That was why it stood condemned.

Then came Darwin. The functioning of natural selection, as developed in The Origin of Species, depended on reproduction. The mating habits of humans were therefore no less legitimate a field of study than those of the birds or the bees. Here, for scientists, was a licence to investigate the entire range of human sexual behaviour. In 1886, when a German psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing published a survey of what he termed “pathological fetishism”, the sheer scope of his research rendered his book a focus of interest far beyond the scholarly circles at which it was aimed.

One word in particular stuck out. Homosexualität had originally been coined in 1869, to serve the writer of a pamphlet on Prussian morality laws as shorthand for sexual relations between people of the same gender. This, of course, was precisely the category of behaviour that Paul, in his letter to the Romans, had so roundly excoriated, and which the Church had come to define as “sodomy”.

Nevertheless, in the 19th century as in the Middle Ages, the word had remained a slippery one. Now, though, with the precision of an anatomist pinning down a kidney for the benefit of watching students, Krafft-Ebing had succeeded at last in identifying with a single word the category of sexual behaviour condemned by Paul.

Only a medical man, perhaps, could have done it. Krafft-Ebing’s interest in same sex relations was as a scientist, not a moralist. Why — in seeming defiance of Darwin’s theory — did men or women choose to sleep with people of their own sex? The traditional explanation, that such people were lustful predators whose failure to control their appetites had led them to weary of what God had ordained as natural, increasingly appeared to psychiatrists inadequate. Much likelier, Krafft-Ebing believed, “homosexuals” were the victims of an underlying morbid condition.

Whether this was to be viewed as something degenerative, an ailment passed down the generations, or as the result of an accident suffered in the uterus, it was clear to him that homosexuality should be regarded, not as a sin, but as something very different: an immutable condition. Homosexuals, he argued, were the creatures of their proclivities. As such — Christian concern for the unfortunate being what it was — they deserved to be treated, not with contempt, but with generosity and compassion.

Most Christians, it is fair to say, were unpersuaded. Yet if Krafft-Ebing’s research represented a challenge to Christian assumptions about sexual morality, then so also were they a fortification of them. His conclusions were not nearly as clinical as either his critics or his admirers cared to think. Raised a Catholic, he took for granted the primacy of the Christian model of marriage. The great labour of the Church in fashioning and upholding monogamy as a lifelong institution was one that he deeply valued.

“Christianity raised the union of the sexes to a sublime position by making woman socially the equal of man and by elevating the bond of love to a moral and religious institution.” It was not despite believing this, but because of it, that Krafft-Ebing, by the end of his career, had come to believe that sodomy should be decriminalised. Homosexuals, he ringingly declared, might be no less familiar with “the noblest inspirations of the heart” than any married couple. Huge numbers of them, inspired by his researchs, duly wrote to him, sharing their most intimate yearnings and secrets. It was on the basis of this correspondence that Krafft-Ebing was able to arrive at a paradoxical conclusion. The sexual practice condemned by the Church as “sodomy” was perfectly compatible with the ideal that he saw as Christianity’s great contribution to civilisation: lifelong monogamy. Homosexuality, as defined by the first scientist ever to attempt a detailed categorisation of it, constituted the seamless union of Christian sin with Christian love.

In cool and dispassionate language, Krafft-Ebing served to put the seal on a revolution in the dimensions of the erotic without parallel in history. Paul, by twinning men who slept with men and women who slept with women, had set in train a recalibration of the sexual order that now, in an age of science, attained its apotheosis.

But “homosexuality” was not the only medical-sounding compound of Greek and Latin to which Psychopathia Sexualis introduced the world. There was a second as well: “heterosexuality”. All the other categories of sexual behaviour that Krafft-Ebing had identified — sadism, masochism, fetishistic obsessions with silk, or mourning ribbons, or gloves — were mere variations of the one great and fundamental divide: that which existed between heterosexual and homosexual desire. Categories which had taken almost two millennia to evolve were now impregnably defined. Soon enough, people came to forget that they had ever not been there.

All of which, for the Churches today, presents an agonising dilemma. Should homosexuality be condemned as sodomy or praised as love? Should same-sex marriage be slated as an abomination against God’s creation or cherished as a sacrament? Should an entire conceptualisation of sexual behaviour, unyoked as it has been from the theology that gave it birth, be repudiated by Christians as a bastard mutation or embraced as their own?

None of these questions is easily answered. Among those who take them seriously, they have ensured endless and pained debate. Among those who do not, they have provided confirmation that popes and pastors are not merely irrelevant but malign. Certainly, seen in the broad perspective of Christianity’s history, there is nothing paradoxical about the legal blessing given by so many Christian countries to an innovation that has put churches painfully on the spot. Nor does it seem very likely that there will be same-sex marriages in Qom any time soon.