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The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, generally view sex and sexuality as a taboo: Private matters, restricted from the public sphere (both the practice and discussion of it).

The Abrahamic religions tend to sanctify sex and sexuality as a matter between a man and a woman in a private institution. Pornography is deemed sinful. There are also many restrictions on sexual actions and relations, for example incest, homosexuality, anal intercourse, and masturbation.

This tendency is not seen among other religions. For example, in pre-Meiji Japan (before strong influences from the West) shunga pornography is a common public consumption in urban areas. Sex is understood as a worldly pleasure and should be embraced - it could be seen on how in transaction among merchants, prostitutes is sometimes offered to smooth the deal. In pre-colonial Nusantara (contemporary Indonesia), the story of Prince Puger of Mataram who performed oral sex on his recently deceased uncle is widely believed among the masses as a legitimation of his rule. Practice of homosexuality was also common in Japan and Nusantara. Kamasutra, the popular sex manual which actually also includes sexual mores, originated from ancient India, is available for public consumption and didn't draw complaints from priestly authorities.

This makes me wonder: What was the social context that provided a background for this tendency? Why does it prevail in three different religions that arose in three different eras?

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Why does it prevail in three religions that grew in three different eras?

  • You yourself referred to all three as "Abrahamic religions", so obviously they have a common core, although each evolved over time in its own way. That common core is the Bible, particularly the first five books, commonly known as the Pentateuch. In these books (although each of the faiths you mentioned has its own particular way of translating, editing and interpreting them) the History of Abraham (thus "Abrahamic") and his descendents, the original Jewish people according the biblical account, are detailed, and the core theology shared by all the Abrahamic religions is laid out. So, the three Abrahamic religions share a great deal in terms of their theology and world view, irrespective of time and the various diffences in the particulars of their respective theologies.

what social context that acted as a background to this tendency?

  • Although, you are concerned with 'social context' it is important to keep in mind a point that escapes many modern people - certainly laymen, and regrettably, even some scholars: The lives of ancient peoples were filled with 'religion' or 'superstition' or 'spiritualism' or whatever term you choose to use.

    I daresay you will not find an ancient civilization or culture that was not dominated by its priests or shamans or some similar sort of person or group - be it in Africa or the Americas or Asia or the remote Pacific. The artifacts prove it, the documents prove it, the myths and traditions prove it. Temporal power was bound to religious/spiritual power - the king was most often a godhead or descendant of one, and was often also the high priest or head of the religion - religion, politics and society at large were inexorably bound together. The notion of separating things into 'sociological' as opposed to 'religious' is to a great extent fallacious when dealing with the ancients. References and proofs of this are so abundant that I cannot even begin to cite: think of the Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and ruins, most notabley the Pyramids, the Mayan ruins, the ancient structures in southeast Asia, and North America, the Nordic myths....

So, to your question: The discussion is a long one, but the core answer is found in the biblical account of Adam and Eve and what theologians refer to as The Fall of Man or Original Sin: In Genesis 2-25, immediately after the creation of Eve, the Bible relates the following (I am translating directly from the original Hebrew text which lies before me): "And both of them, the man and his wife, were naked, but were not embarrassed (thereby)." i.e. nudity and the implied sexual relationship between "the man and his wife" were public and not a matter of shame that needed to be hidden away - quite similar indeed to the outlook held by many non-Abrahamic religions, as you mentioned in your question.

According to the biblical account, at that time God had commended Adam not to eat from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". The Fall of Man occurred when Adam and Eve partook of the Fruit of the tree of knowledge, recounted in Genesis 3-6 "... and she took of the fruit (of the forbidden "Tree of Knowledge") and ate it, and also gave to her husband, and he (also) ate". Man (Mankind according to the Abrahamic tradition) had fallen from the grace of God by violating his commandment not to eat from the Forbidden Fruit. Adam and Eve were subsequently scolded and punished by God for their transgression, as recounted in Genesis 3-16,17 and other verses there.

However immediately after eating of the forbidden fruit, there in Genesis 3-7, we find the following very provocative verse: "And their (Adam and Eve's) eyes were opened (metaphorically speaking - the intent is that they became aware of something) and they knew that they were naked, and (so) they sowed fig leaves together and made for themselves loinclothes (to cover their nakedness)". That is, they realized that their nakedness and sexuality should be private and hidden away from view.

Therein lies the key to your answer: The "knowledge" imparted to Adam and Eve by eating of the forbidden fruit was the awareness of shame - the loss of innocence with respect to their bodies and their sexuality. This is one of the most important results of The Fall of Man according to all of the Abrahamic religions. Regarding these very early and fundamental verses of the Bible, there is little or no dispute as to their meaning and import.

Now: Regardless of their varying theologies concerning redemption, etc, the Abrahamic religions agree that since the time of the Fall of Man, mankind remains with that stain and that shame that Adam and Eve suffered after they first ate from the Forbidden Fruit, and this shame will not be removed until the time of complete redemption from Man's Original Sin - the eating of the Forbidden Fruit. Therefore, all of these religions believe that until the time of Redemption (each faith according to its own definition thereof) it is appropriate-mandatory that Man/Mankind conduct themselves as did Adam and Eve - nakedness should be covered, sexuality kept private.

As you illustrated in your question, this view is not shared by the non-Abrahamic religions, whose theologies are not based on the Biblical Account of the Fall of Man and its consequences.

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Thanks for the answer, @Vector. :) There are similarities between the three religions, I agree, though I guess the core similarities needs further explanation. Regarding what I am asking, I was looking more to the social context rather than the theological context. What I meant was: what kind of social conditions (in Canaan, Nazareth, and Mecca) that served as a background to the development of such teaching regarding sexuality? –  deathlock Aug 6 '13 at 1:22
There's an example in the case of Islam, regarding Islamic teaching of zakat (charity), it is because during the time of Muhammad, Islam was challenging the status quo maintained by the Quraysh elites. Zakat was developed as a methods to distribute wealth in an egalitarian way, and to prevent wealth only distributed among the elites. That kind of social context was the one that I was asking. :) –  deathlock Aug 6 '13 at 1:26
@deathlock - the theology itself is the social context. It was engrained in their way of life and mindset from time immemorial. Do you have some proof that something 'new' happened along the way in that regard? There is no need to look any further. "The core similarities needs further explanation" - no, they do not. Trust me. This is my area of expertise. You will be hard pressed find someone more knowledgeable. I kid you not. :-) Ask any learned rabbi, priest or muslim scholar - you will hear the same, albeit each with their particular variations specific to their religion. –  Vector Aug 6 '13 at 1:30
@deathlock - if you want to make question of it, you can look through the old testament and find places where they apparently were not quite as prudish as they became later on, and ask how that came about. But your question was regarding the commonality between the three Abrahamic religions and my answer is the correct one. Also, one variation that you may find is regarding how certain Christians view original sin after Jesus arrived. I believe some of them have a bit of a different twist on things than what I laid out here. –  Vector Aug 6 '13 at 1:38
Something 'new' did happen (if that is the correct term on it), especially during the period of Islam. Unlike Christianity which developed much in urban areas, Islam started as a religion with tribe affiliation, and then developed as a, to borrow Lewellen's scheme of political anthropology, chiefdom. Though they might share similar theological basis (there are still differences to be outlined here though), they both have much different social-historical context. They developed with different ways, but successfully maintained the teaching of limiting sexuality to the private sphere. –  deathlock Aug 6 '13 at 1:44

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