I’ve enjoyed reading your answers and history of nude swimming. And the topic of masturbation. I am happy that you shared your positive opinions concerning this issue. My question here is: Do you believe that the prohibitions in the Old Testament no longer apply to Christians today? Concerning same sex marriage – are Christian men free to practice anal intercourse, and is it no longer considered a sin?
Warning: some explicit images
Frank answers: Men have been practicing anal sex with one another since time immemorial. In some societies, both among traditional tribes and in classical civilizations, it was a part of initiation into adult manhood. It was believed by traditional tribes in New Guinea and Melanesia that an older man imparted virility into a young man by injecting his semen into the lad. Military societies like ancient Sparta and the Germanic tribes practiced it as a form of initiation. Anal sex continues to be practiced among gay men around the world, although not all gay men enjoy it. It can also be a man-woman practice. Does the Bible, particular the Old Testament, condemn the practice?
The “prohibitions” of the Old Testament fall into two broad categories: cultic and moral. The early church decided that the cultic laws, many of which related to the Temple sacrifices, no longer applied to Christians because Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices by his once-for-all sacrifice of atonement on the cross. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Romans in 70 AD, the sacrificial cult ceased and Jews and Christians thereafter referred to prayers as “spiritual sacrifices.”
On the other hand, the church fathers taught that the Old Testament moral laws, which include the Ten Commandments, still applied to Christians. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus intensified the commandments by giving them an interior as well as an exterior application. Hence, it is not enough to let your brother go on living (“You shall not murder”); you must also not hate him (Matthew 5:21-26). Hatred toward others can lead to murderous intentions which are sometimes acted upon. Or again, committing adultery is not just being unfaithful to one’s spouse; “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28). Lust can lead to desire or fantasizing that is sometimes acted upon. The Old Testament moral law is not abrogated by Jesus; it is internalized.
Your question deals with whether anal sex is considered a sin. The Bible does not speak of “anal sex” as such, although conclusions are reached that that is the act several texts refer to. Anal sex was considered a sin (venial, not grave) by the Catholic Church because, following St. Augustine of Hippo and other church fathers, it taught that the purpose of sex is procreation. Sexual activities just for for pleasure, even between a husband and wife, were not looked upon favorably. Ejaculation that “spilled the seed” (semen) instead of planting it in the vagina would be regarded as sinful. This would include masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex. In more recent times this venial sin would also include use of contraceptives, because these severed the relationship between sex and procreation. Obviously this judgment would apply also to gay sex since it is not related to procreation and focuses on giving and receiving pleasure.
During the middle ages the Catholic Church launched a war on any sex that wasn’t between a husband and wife in the so-called missionary position with the intention of producing an offspring. Early medieval penitential books listed every conceivable sexual act as a sin that should be confessed, including anal sex between a man and a woman and between a man and another male. At the same time the church was trying to enforce clerical celibacy. Among monks and priests (and bishops), being deprived of sex with a woman necessarily turned them to other men for sexual release. Penalties for confessing “the sin the cannot be mentioned” ranged over various penances. But as ascetic moralists pushed for reform of the life of the church, they came down harder and harder on sodomy. As people identified plagues and natural disasters as divine punishment for sodomy (like what happened to Sodom in the Old Testament), homosexual sodomy became a crime severely punished by the state as well as a sin absolved with penances. It reached a point by the late middle ages where the only three crimes for which people could be burned at the stake were heresy, witchcraft, and sodomy.
One of the most horrible examples was the punishment inflicted on a 15-year old boy named Giovanni di Giovanni. Here’s the description of what happened from James Neill, The Origin and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies.
The prosecution of Giovanni di Giovanni (c. 1350 – May 7, 1365?) occurred as part of the campaign against sodomy waged in 14th-century Florence on the heels of the Black Death, the bubonic plague epidemic which had ravaged the city two years earlier. Some of the most influential people of the religious establishment, such as Bernardino of Siena, blamed sodomites for having brought the wrath of God down on the heads of the populace. The “remedy” they promoted was to purify the city of evil by means of fire, such as God used to destroy Sodom. This led to burnings at the stake and other punishments (red-hot iron) such as that suffered by Giovanni di Giovanni. The 15-year old Giovanni was labeled “a public and notorious passive sodomite” and convicted by the Podestà court of being the passive partner [bottom] of a number of different men. His punishment was to be paraded on the back of an ass and to be publicly castrated. Finally, he was to have his anus burned with a red-hot iron (or, as the sentence read: “[punished] in that part of the body where he allowed himself to be known in sodomitical practice”). It is presumed he did not survive the ordeal.
It has been proposed that required clerical celibacy played a role in the increasing persecution of homosexuals during the high and late Middle Ages. Many clergy and monks deprived of women released their sexual energy on boys and other males. Late medieval reformers wanted to eliminate the possibility of engaging in sodomy by eliminating sodomites.
Church moral teaching should be based on evidence in the Bible and also on “reason” based in natural law. Protestants especially would look to the authority of “scripture alone” for authoritative guidance in matters of faith and morals. The Bible’s lack of specifics on sexual practices like masturbation, anal sex, and oral sex means that church authorities supplemented this with social views and cultural customs.
Let’s look at instances of what might have been anal sex in the scriptures and be careful about reading our own social and cultural prejudices into the Bible. That can cause us to see more in Scripture than the evidence warrants. For example, the Bible says nothing about homosexuality as we understand it today as a same-sex orientation. The word didn’t exist before the 19th century. We will look at this more closely down below.
Sodomy in Sodom
Anal sex has been called “sodomy” in reference to the intended actions of the men of Sodom who wanted to “know” the two “men” (they were actually angels) who were the house guests of Lot (Genesis 19). The point of the story was to demonstrate the depravity of Sodom to justify God’s decision to destroy the city. The two angels were checking out just how depraved the city was.
While the desire of the men of Sodom was to commit what we would call “gang rape,” it is not likely that the men were “homosexuals” as we understand that clinical term today. In fact, Lot even thought he could divert the men from their desire to “know” the angels by offering his two virgin daughters instead. We make suppositions about this story that the angels looked like men (angels are without gender) and that “knowing” them (i.e. having sex with them) would involve anal sex. Since Lot had greeted the two angels by bowing down to the ground, one wonders if there wasn’t something about their appearance (androgynous?) that aroused the men of Sodom. Did they even know how they could “know” the two strangers? Did they even want to “know” the two strangers in a sexual way or just know who these people were whom Lot, a non-resident, took in?
Later Scriptural references to Sodom refer to the inhospitality of the Sodomites (see the words of Jesus in Luke 10:1-12).
The angels rescued Lot from a tense situation by pulling him back into his house and showed their power by blinding the people of Sodom so that Lot and his family could make their escape before the sulfurous rain of fire fell on Sodom, destroying the city.
Male-on-male sex in the Old Testament
The Holiness Code lays down the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Is this verse a blanket condemnation of male-on-male sex or is something else implied by saying that the Lord regards it as “an abomination?”
The term “abomination” in the Old Testament usually applies to pagan cultic activities. This verse is preceded by the prohibition on offering your children to Molech. The verse following prohibits sex with animals. The rubric over the entire Holiness Code is, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes” (18:3). The reference to “statutes” suggests activities regulated in law, including sexual activities such as sacred prostitution.
Cult prostitution or sacred sex was rampant in the Ancient Near East for fertility purposes, even in the land of Israel itself. Male Israelites also got jobs as cult prostitutes in goddess temples. They were condemned for their connection with idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:17–18 forbids Israelites, men and women alike, from becoming sacred prostitutes, and states that their wages must not be used for paying their vows (tithes) to the Lord. The sentence in Deuteronomy 23:17 is traditionally translated as: “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel.” However, this translation is not accurate. The words rendered as “whore” and “sodomite” are the female and male versions of the Hebrew word for sacred prostitute (qedesha and qedosh). There were male and female prostitutes in Israel and Judah during the monarchy, and in Judah they were, from time to time, the object of royal decrees of expulsion (see I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:47; II Kings 23:7; Hos. 4:14).
Sacred prostitution, because of its association with idolatry, was the object of numerous attacks in the Bible, especially in the historical and prophetic books (see, e.g., II Kings 23:4–14; Jeremiah 2:20; Ezekiel 23:37ff.). Terms connected with harlotry are used figuratively to characterize unfaithfulness toward the Lord (Number 25:1–2; Judges 2:17; 8:27, 33; Jeremiah 3:6; Ezekiel 6:9; Hosea 4:12), usually by turning to other gods.
The widespread practice of cult prostitution, including male-on-male sex, suggests that the “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22, as well as the penalty of death in 20:13 for both partners, could be referring to this practice. But why is male-on-male sacred sex singled out as an “abomination” (if that’s what is intended) and not other forms of sacred sex (male-on-female, female-on-female)? Does “a man lying with a male like with a woman” imply anal intercourse, and is that the offending “abomination?” Or does it imply spilling the seed of Israel in the service of a pagan cult?
The Torah can be infuriating because it commands or forbids practices without always saying why. But it appears that anal sex was practiced in the ancient Near East as a form of contraception. Ancient societies such as Israel had an existential concern about replenishing their populations in face of early deaths of children and adults. In Israel’s case there was the promise of descendants as well as land, and sexual practices apart from opposite-sex coitus could have been regarded as putting the Lord to the test.
Anal Sex in the New Testament and in Greco-Roman Culture
Anal sex is undoubtedly implied in 1 Corinthians 6:9 where St. Paul uses the specific words malakoi, which suggests someone taking the submissive role in sexual intercourse, and arsenokoitai, which suggests someone taking the dominant role, to refer to those who, among others (the list is long!), will not inherit the kingdom of God. It is totally unwarranted to translate these two terms as “homosexuals,” “perverts,” or “homosexuals perverts,” as several English versions do. Ancient Greek men did engage in same-sex practices, especially in the mentoring of boys. That did not necessarily imply homosexuality as we understand it today as an exclusive same-sex orientation, although some Greek men preferred same-sex love. The presumption was that the boys would be initiated into sex and taught social skills that enable them to take their places as citizens of the city, married with children. Then they in turn as adults would have their own boy to mentor.
Arsenokoitai is a neologism, which means it is a unique word. Why Paul would use a made-up word when Greek terms referring to male-on-male sex were generally available? Some commentators have suggested that Paul is trying to find a Greek equivalent for the Hebrew term in Leviticus 18:22, which refers to male-on-male sex as an “abomination.”
Again, cultic prostitution could be the issue. The city of Corinth had a huge temple to Aphrodite in which sacred sex was practiced. Paul could have been referring to this. Or, he could be referring to male prostitution in general in which the submissive (bottom) person is the male prostitute and the dominant (top) person is the paying customer. A port city like Corinth had many brothels. Boys and young men would be desirable sex objects for men. These “call boys” would be malakoi, “soft ones,” i.e. boys or youth. (Again, the translation “effeminate” is misleading.) A further issue, especially with regard to temple prostitutes, is that slave boys were sometimes given to the temple for this purpose as a contribution by temple benefactors, which brings in a moral issue.
Pederasty could also involve anal sex. It was widely practiced in ancient Greece and was socially accepted. It had been a cultural practice for centuries in ancient Greece for men to become mentors to boys and initiate boys into adult sexual practices. But the expectation was that boys would marry and assume their roles in society as husbands and fathers. They would become mentors in turn to a boy. There are explicit drawings of pederastic relationships on ancient Greek urns. Neither the male prostitutes nor those who used them, nor the Greek boys or their adult mentors, were necessarily “homosexual,” as we understand that term today as meaning an exclusive same-sex orientation.
Anal sex may also be an issue in Romans 1:26-27, which many commentators use as a bulwark for theories of natural law. This passage evokes the debaucheries of Roman high society, in which those whom we would call heterosexuals (both women and men here) “exchanged their nature” to have sex with persons of the same sex, or worse. It doesn’t refer to those whom we call homosexuals being attracted to their own kind, according to their own “nature.” The term physis doesn’t mean “nature” in the biological sense but in the sense of “customary behavior,” as when St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that it is degrading according to “nature” for men to let their hair grow long. (Actually, it is biologically natural for hair to grow long unless, following cultural style, we cut it.)
The whole problem of men and women “exchanging natures” from the perspective of Roman society was that free men should not take a submissive role in the sex act and women should not take a dominant role in the sex act. These sexual positions for men (dominant) and women (submissive) continued to be taught by the medieval church as the proper sexual roles for husbands and wives! Poor Giovanni in Florence, in addition to be charged with sodomy, was charged with being “submissive” (what gay men would refer to today as a “bottom” who received penetration rather than doing the penetrating).
The Warren Cup in the British Museum, dating from the Julio-Claudian dynasty (first century CE), has two scenes of male-on-male pederastic sex sculpted onto its sides.
The top figures shows a bearded adult having anal sex with a beardless slave boy who is lowering himself onto the adult’s penis by holding onto a strap. The bottom figures show a clean-shaven younger Roman adult having anal sex with a slave boy. Roman law forbade pederasty with free born boys. The Roman man must always be in the dominant position and can engage in anal sex only with an inferior. This was a Roman cultural expectation, although not always observed, as St. Paul’s indictment in Romans 1:27 indicates
Who engages in anal sex?
Anal sex is not just a homosexual practice. Statistics from sexuality studies ever since the Kinsey report in 1948, which have been refined in more recent studies, show that the percentage of men having male-on-male sex is much higher than the number of men who self-define as exclusively same-sex. This not only argues for sexual fluidity, but also that a number of men who would not regard themselves as homosexual practice anal sex. This is notorious in prison populations where men are cut off from women.
Is Anal Sex a Sin?
Where does that leave us in terms of your question? Is anal sex a sin in the Bible? Is pleasure in sex off limits for Christians? The Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century who disavowed celibacy discovered the joys of sex as they experienced married life and they spoke of sex with its pleasures as a gift of God. I’m not aware that they made any pronouncements about anal sex within marriage, although sodomy was punishable by death even in Protestant countries. Even after the death penalty was no longer applied in Protestant England (the last two men hanged for “buggery” occurred in 1835) those accused of sodomy could still be imprisoned (such as Oscar Wilde in 1895). In states in the U.S. sodomy (and oral sex) was a crime punishable with imprisonment, whether performed on men or women, into the 20th century.
However, some Catholic as well as Protestant ethicists in recent times have allowed for anal sex as foreplay before the married couple settles into the standard positions for sexual intercourse. That means that these ethicists do not consider anal sex to be a sin in as of itself or else they would categorically condemn it.
Issues with Anal Sex (gathered from research)
[The following information is gathered from online research, conversation with a gay friend who enjoys anal sex, and common sense.]
Let’s start with the most important consideration. The anus is an area where a lot of bacteria accumulates. Unprotected anal sex can transmit diseases. Use a condum.
Then there’s the “ick” factor. It’s from that orifice that we defecate. Anal evacuation and use of a condum would be recommended. Health considerations include using a douche or enema, wiping the whole anal area using baby wipes with alcohol or disinfectant if rimming is to precede anal insertion.
The penis (or any other object) inserted into the anus can tear tissue if the sex gets too rough. Anal sex requires the use of lots of lotion. Use gloves when inserting a hand. Finger nails can tear or scratch tissue.
Inserting a hand (even the arm up to the elbow in some instances) is called fisting. It is a practice identified with gay men, but in fact it can be practiced by straight as well as gay men, women and men, or women on women. As I wrote above, the anus is a powerful erogenous zone. And for men, anal insertions can massage the prostate and often cause ejaculation. It’s not a practice enjoyed by everyone, to say the least.
Anal sex between couples
Now on to love-making issues. Many couples enjoy achieving climax simultaneously. That’s not usually possible with anal sex. In both male-on-female anal sex and male-on-male anal sex the climax for both partners would most likely come by withdrawing from the anus and moving to another practice such as coitus or (for gay men) mutual masturbation, so that a mutual climax is possible. In this case anal sex ends up being foreplay. However, if the penis has been in the anus it should be cleaned before going into the vagina.
Let’s also recognize that not all gay men, much less straight men, are comfortable with anal sex. Anyone who has had a proctoIogical exam knows that anal penetration can be uncomfortable or even painful. That’s why those receiving a colonoscopy are usually given a mild anesthetic. For many men and women, being anally penetrated is not a pleasant experience.
Among gay men there’s the issue of top/bottom positions. Some in the gay culture regard some men as tops and others as bottoms. The tops are the inserters who thrust their hand or penis into the anus. The bottoms are those on the receiving end of the insertion. The assumption is that bigger men are tops and the slighter men are bottoms. Some may even have a preference. But many gay men who practice anal sex say that the positions are interchangeable.
Moreover, the top-bottom positions in the so-called “comboy” position is reversed since the giver is on the bottom and the receiver is on top, literally sitting on the penis (like the top Greek figures on the Warren Cup).
What this adds up to is that anal sex has to be discussed and planned for ahead of time. With all the hygiene preparation required and finding a comfortable position, this can be a distraction from the flow of passion. Retaining an erection for anal sex could present another problem, and the result can be disappointing.
Finally, while the number of nerve endings in the anus makes that area pleasurable to the touch, is anal sex pleasurable for both partners? Since the male sex organ is external to the body, men (whether gay or straight) tend to externalize sex. They go for the climax and ejaculation more than the time spent being intimate with one’s partner, which women prefer. Does anal sex, especially with women, increase the sense of distance between the partners and decrease the feelings of intimacy in the sex act? Or is it experienced as a loving act?
My pastoral counsel is that sex of any sort should be an intimate act that expresses the love of the partners/spouses for each other as well as pleasure. Sex should be agreeable and pleasurable to both partners, both generally and in the moment. Sometimes a partner will engage in a sexual activity that he or she isn’t particularly fond of but that one’s partner is, just to please him or her. That shouldn’t be the assumed practice every time the couple has sex. But trying something different and varying the routine goes a long way toward making sex interesting and the relationship playful and enjoyable.
Pastor Frank Senn