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?
Frank answers: 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 it is referring to in several texts, which I will consider below. 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, as in masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex. Obviously this judgment would apply also to gay sex that is not related to procreation, which was usually referred to as sodomy. In more recent times it would also include use of contraceptives, because these severed the relationship between sex and procreation. I’m not aware of other Churches that officially pronounced anal sex as a sin.
Church moral teaching is based on evidence in the Bible and also “reason” based on natural law. Protestants especially would look to the authority of “scripture alone” for guidance in faith and morals. So let’s look at instances of what might have been anal sex in the scriptures. But we need to 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.
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?
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 and fire fell on Sodom, destroying the city. Further references to Sodom in the Bible do not dwell on the particularities of the attempted sexual sin but on the actual sin of not recognizing and receiving the divine visitation (Jesus in Luke 10:1-12).
The angels blind the people of Sodom
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.
We are not aware of sacred prostitution being practiced in Egypt, but attitudes toward sexual relationships in ancient Egypt were tolerant. The above painting looks like same-sex love.
On the other hand, cult prostitution or sacred sex was rampant in the Ancient Near East for fertility purposes. In Israel the sacred prostitutes were condemned for their connection with idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:17–18 forbids Israelites, men and women alike, to become 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?”
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.
This 4,000-year old Babylonian clay tablet show a female and male couple having anal intercourse.
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, will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By the way, it is totally unwarranted to translate these two terms as “homosexuals,” “perverts,” or “homosexuals perverts,” as several English versions do. “Homosexuality” is a clinical term invented by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886 to distinguish same-sex orientation from opposite sex, which he termed “heterosexuality,” and is a concept totally unknown in the Bible. It suggests the way one is rather than the acts one performs. The ancient Greeks engaged in a lot of same-sex practices, but that did not necessarily imply homosexuality as we understand it today as a same-sex orientation.
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.
This etching shows a man bartering with a young man for his services.
Pederasty could also involve anal sex. It was widely practiced in ancient Greece and was socially accepted. It would also cover both terms (both submissive and dominant roles). It had been a cultural practice for centuries in ancient Greece for men to become mentors to boys and initiate boys into adult sexuality. But the expectation was that boys would marry and assume their expected roles in society. 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 a sexual orientation.
Adult “mentor” initiating his young man into sex.
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.)
Roman orgy painted by French illustrator Edouard Henri Avril.
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!
Two pederastic figures on the Warren Cup in the British Museum, dating from the Julio-Claudio dynasty (first century). The top figures shows a bearded Greek adult having anal sex with a boy who is lowering himself onto the adult’s penis by holding onto a strap. The bottom figures show a clean-shaven Roman adult having anal sex with a boy who is probably a slave. The Roman man must be in the dominant position and can engage in anal sex only with an inferior.
Detail of a painting by French illustrator Edouard Henri Avril showing the Emperor Hadrian having anal intercourse with his concubine Antinous.
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.
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. (Let us recognize that some heterosexual couples have experimented with anal sex; it’s not just a gay thing.) 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.
I have no experience of anal sex. But I know that 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 position so that a mutual climax is possible, such as vaginal intercourse or mutual masturbation. In this case anal sex ends up being foreplay.
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 the opposite sex.
Let us 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. Unprotected anal sex can transmit diseases. The penis (or any other object) inserted into the anus can tear tissue if the sex gets too rough. There’s still the whole issue of top/bottom positions among gay men. And there’s the “ick” factor. It’s from that orifice that we defecate. It’s a place where bacteria accumulates. Anal evacuation and use of a condum would be recommended. Retaining an erection while getting into position for anal sex could present another problem.
The number of nerve endings in the anus makes that area pleasurable to the touch. But is it pleasurable for both partners? Since the male sex organ is external to the body, men generally 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 increase the sense of distance between the partner and decrease the feelings of intimacy in the sex act?
My pastoral counsel is that sex of any sort should be an intimate act that expresses the love of the spouses for one another. Sex should be agreeable 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