The History of Sex: Istanbul -- 'The Ass Is Always Bigger' -- (Chap. II, Pt. 1)

Chapter Two 
Harem Cruising and Honor Killings 
in Istanbul 

Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient… 

As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. 

--The Koran (sura 4:34), c600 AD 

While the fall of the Roman Empire left the West fumbling around in the Dark Ages, a 'Prophet of Light' appeared in the East.

By all accounts, Mohammed was happily monogamous until his wife died when he was around fifty.

At that point, he began acquiring a harem, starting with a widow… and a six-year-old girl. Grandfatherly man of God that he was, though, Mohammed waited until little Aisha was nine to consummate the marriage.

Right from its conception some 600 years after Christ, Islam was a far sexier religion than its Semitic cousins.

If the Christian deity was a God of Love, then Allah was virtually a Love God, encouraging conjugal bliss among the Faithful to help boost their numbers against the Infidel.

Whereas Jesus was God incarnate—a seemingly asexual peacenik who died a virgin—Mohammed was fully human: a man's man and warrior.

Without the Christian concept of original sin to trouble them, the 'Last True Prophet' and his followers could enjoy guilt-free sex with more than one woman.

In theory, polygamy was also a divine way of seeing to the widows created by jihad.

Allah allowed men to take up to four wives (not counting slaves and concubines), though his Messenger wound up having at least nine—then again, he had the libido of thirty men.

For the average Mo, though, keeping more than one woman happy all too often took its toll.

I hate it when that happens:
A ram spooks a copulating couple
(from Hamse-i Husrev Dehlevi, 1498)

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Prostitute as Symbol of Salvation -- (Chap. I, Pt. 15)

By 312 AD, though, even the Emperor had officially converted.

The Empire had been divided into Eastern and Western halves, and Constantine picked the East for his 'New Rome' at Constantinople.

East vs West: How Christianity split the Empire

The switch to an alien belief system undoubtedly contributed to the West's downfall, though historians still can't agree why.

Some say Christian pacifism—all that stuff about 'turning the other cheek'—meant the Romans no longer had the stomach to defend their Empire, while Christian asceticism meant they stopped producing enough bastards to fight their wars.

 The Christians also introduced the concept of a heavenly afterlife available to believers, in contrast to the pagan Greeks and Romans, who never really worked out what fate awaited them in Hades (though everyone knew the door to the Underworld was near Pompeii, amid the 'Fields of Fire').

'In Christianity, no matter how miserable your life, you had hopes and aspirations that if you did the right things, your afterlife would be a much better world,' Dr. Varone says.

'But in paganism, if you had a miserable life where you got screwed over your entire life, that was it—it ended there. You had just been screwed over for your entire life.'


In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon argued that the Christian hope of the hereafter encouraged Westerners to neglect the here and now.

However, subsequent historians have noted that the more orthodox Eastern Roman Empire actually outlived the Western half by a thousand years (there's even a contrarian argument that Christianity ensured the Empire's 'salvation' and continuity via the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches).

In any event, the new religion definitely had an impact on popular thought. In contrast to the pagans, the early Christians protested against sexual exploitation.

Around 155 AD, one of Christianity's earliest philosophers, Justin, denounced the Empire for profiting from the prostitution of children who were abandoned by their parents or even raised specifically for that purpose.

'Anyone who uses such persons… may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods.'

As his nickname indicates, Justin the Martyr didn't have much immediate success, but arguments like his eventually inspired change.

The Christianized Empire abolished Caligula's tax on prostitution and began targeting pimps—who used the levy to justify their trade—as 'degenerate and wicked character(s).' These measures weren't completely effective, but they marked the first attempts to improve the lot of prostitutes.

The question of what to do with prostitution has bedeviled the West ever since.

In the new capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul), Constantine reputedly tried to limit brothels to just one part of the city—an early red-light district—while the Church in Rome came to accept illicit sex as an inevitability (and a nice little earner).


Writing in the 1200s, Thomas Aquinas echoed the ancient Roman view of the sex trade, declaring that 'prostitutes in a city are like a sewer in a palace. If you get rid of the sewer, the whole place becomes filthy and foul.'

This take on the sex industry continues to shape public debate to this day.

Whereas pagan Romans lived by the code of 'once a whore always a whore,' Christianity introduced the concept of redemption, as epitomized by Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute who became one of Jesus' followers.

Prostitute turned saint:
Titian's take on St. Mary Magdalene

As Prof. McGinn writes, 'Whatever the internal contradictions, accommodations to practice, and continuities with the pagan world one finds in Christian moral discourse on prostitution, there is at least one important new development. This is the idea that the prostitute may be redeemed. In its extreme form, the idea represents the prostitute as an allegory of the human soul, in its fallen state, able to be saved nevertheless through the gift of divine grace.'

Dr. Varone agrees, noting that Christianity was one of many changes that led to Rome's decline.

'No empire has survived forever. They all come to an end. Christianity was just part of the history. The only empire that has lasted—at least up until now—for 2,000 years is the Catholic Church.'

* * *

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- 'Repent Ye Sinners!' -- (Chap. I, Pt. 14)

'If the inscription is true, then that is an accusation. They're pointing the finger at somebody and saying "That guy listens to the Christians."'

'And whoever it is was certainly someone who used to go to that hotel. You can interpret all sorts of things, but we can imagine that this Bovio must have been someone who used to go there quite frequently, and perhaps he converted to Christianity and used to stand outside and tell his former friends'—Dr. Varone raises his voice and waves his hands—'"No! Don't go in there, that's a place of sin! Repent ye sinners!"'

As the laughter dissipates, he switches to English for emphasis: 'But I don't know, and nobody knows.'

'So calling it "The House of the Christian Inscription" is completely wrong.'

'Yes, indeed—someone had a good sense of humor.' He pauses. 'Once Christianity began, the growth was incredible—particularly in light of the times. There's a reference by Pliny the Younger, who asked "What are we to do with all these Christians?" because it was growing so fast.'

'No religion had ever spread so rapidly in such a capillary manner before.'


Pliny's letter about the Christians came only thirty years or so after the eruption of Vesuvius (which he happened to see) and helped lay the groundwork for their persecution.

In 197 AD, the Christian writer Tertullian reported that the authorities had come up with a cruel innovation even worse than being fed to the lions: a Christian woman in Carthage had been condemned 'to the leno'—or pimp—'rather than the leo.'

Elsewhere, he fulminated about the Romans taking 'Christians to be the cause of every disaster which befalls the state—but there was no complaint of Christians when the fires from Heaven drenched the (Romans) out of the mountains at Pompeii.'

If only they had known about the Christian inscription…

The irony: a statue of Pliny the Younger...
adorning the cathedral in Como, Italy

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- Were There Christians in Pompeii? (Chap. I, Pt. 13)

According to the Bible, converts to the new religion came to be known as 'Christians' some time during the thirteen-year reign of Claudius, beginning in 41 AD—less than a decade after the crucifixion of Christ.

However, no original manuscripts of the New Testament survive.

As a result, the inscription at Pompeii represented the first record of the word 'Christian.'

'—that we know of,' adds Dr. Varone with a qualifying chuckle.

Apart from the primal juxtaposition of sex and Christianity, what makes the graffiti intriguing is the fact that one of the Church's founding fathers actually visited the Bay of Naples just a few decades before Vesuvius exploded.

The Bible notes that Paul, the Jewish Christian-hunter turned Apostle to the Gentiles, stayed for a week with Christians in a port just a few miles from Pompeii, before journeying on to Rome.

So were there also Christians in Pompeii?

Dr. Varone was the expert commissioned to answer this question in 1979 for the nineteenth centennial of Pompeii's demise.

'There are lots of reasons why there should have been Christians in Pompeii,' he explains. 'Our problem is that we have nothing concrete—they were here, but we have no proof. We know that Claudius expelled them from Rome because there was already this problem with the rise of Christianity. Also, we know that Christians were burned alive in Nero's garden.'

'The reason we cannot be sure that there were Christians here is because we do not know the manner in which the word 'Christian' was spread. We don't know what gestures or symbols were used as forms of recognition amongst them.'

Those came only in later years.

And there's another problem: Pompeii's 'Christian inscription' has all but disappeared.

 Dr. Varone shrugs and laughs. 'We don't know why—maybe the rain. It was written in carbon.'

The inscription is 'very problematic,' he notes, pointing out that the two drawings of it by Kiessling and another archeologist were made within days of each other, but they were both very different.

Kiessling, for instance, thought the only legible line referred to Nero's persecutions and read 'To the fire, with joy, o Christian.'

The first cleaning: IGNI GAUDE CHRISTIANE, or
'To the fire, with joy, O, Christian'
(The Christian Inscription at Pompeii)

However, the second cleaning changed the meaning entirely; and even then, some missing letters had to be filled in for it to make sense:

The second cleaning:


What's more, the other inscriptions on the walls imply that the building had more in common with the neighboring 'house of ill repute' than a Christian 'house of God.'

'At the so-called "Hotel of the Christians" it was easier to find prostitutes than Christians,' Dr. Varone laughs. 'It was a hotel for prostitutes—a motel.'

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- 'The House of the Christian Inscription' -- (Chap. I, Pt. 12)

For the sake of comparison, he cites a letter by Cicero, who loved visiting Pompeii (and recorded the first known reference to 'sex,' noting around 85 BC that the 'race of men' is divided by gender: in sexu consideratur).

Like many of the great and good, Cicero had a villa on the Bay of Naples, and in his letter, the statesman asks a friend who's going to Greece to buy him a small ornament for his atrium.

'And he says, "Please do not spend more than 3.2 million asses."

For that, he could have had three million two hundred thousand sexual encounters!' Dr. Varone exclaims.

'So there was no way the two worlds could possibly meet. They lived in the same place at about the same time, but they were in completely different worlds.'

Cirque de Soleil eat your heart out:
Roman acrobats perform in a lost painting from Pompeii
(Eroticism in Pompeii)

Speaking of which, I ask the Pompeianist about the name of a house facing the lupanar.

A small book I stumbled across in the British Library bills the site as 'The House of the Christian Inscription.'

Strangely, though, the treatise on The Christian Inscription at Pompeii makes only a passing reference to the fact that the place right across the way is the world's oldest 'house of ill repute.'

The map in The Christian Inscription at Pompeii
(look at Block XI)...
...and what it doesn't show you
(my detail of Block XI in the map above) 

Much of 'Balcony Street' was still entombed by ash and pumice when the German archeologist Alfred Kiessling discovered an enigmatic message scrawled inside No. 11 in 1862.

The carbon graffiti adorned the far wall of the atrium, the main focal point of the building, where it would have been plainly visible to visitors.

Excited by the find, three more experts (including the archeologist who excavated the brothel) rushed to examine the barely legible fragments.

Realizing that the carbon writing would fade anyway, they agreed to authorize a second cleaning of the wall in the hope of deciphering the message. Unfortunately, the meaning still wasn't clear—in fact, some of the letters deteriorated further—but the one key word was unmistakable:


The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Perils of Procreation -- (Chap. I, Pt. 11)

Dr. Varone also shoots down my theory that Roman erotica was designed to boost the population to defend the Empire.

A Roman menage-a-trois
'Procreation was a problem among the Romans,' he concedes. 'They provided incentives for women who had more than three children. Nonetheless, many Roman women did not want to have children.'

The grave markers at Pompeii reveal why: whereas most men lived until they were at least twenty-two (usually dying in battle), the majority of women died between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, probably from complications after childbirth.

'But don't associate recreational sex with procreation. You had a child with your own wife; it was a question of dynastic continuity. Don't confuse their marriages with our marriages. Back then, your father and my father would have picked both of us up by the scruff of our necks, married us off, and then we would have had to procreate. But they didn't really have a relationship. So you had sex with whoever you wanted to, and with your wife you just had to procreate.'

'In the vast majority of erotic scenes, we know the people depicted were prostitutes because of the way they were dressed or their jewelry. And they used to worry about getting pregnant, because if a prostitute was pregnant, she wasn't going to be able to work much. They used many things to prevent pregnancy: sponges, vinegar douches and condoms made of sheep's bladders.'


'So what was the main purpose of erotic art?'

'I think they were used for decorative purposes in the sense that they tried to create an atmosphere. Most of these renderings depicted nice environments, people who were well dressed, perhaps lovely vases in the background, and the general idea was to make people think "I'm not in this horrible lupanar, I'm in a private bachelor's pad."

There was always an attempt to imitate the world of the very wealthy. But the very wealthy and the noble were in a completely different world.'

The doubly-endowed Priapus in the lupanar at Pompeii

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- 'We Also Accept Virgins' -- (Chap. I, Pt. 10)

I ask him about a theory I've come across in a US paper that suggests the brothel had a distinct division of labor, with sexual specializations for the prostitutes.

'Promus the Fellator'
According to academics who have the time to count these things, one room in the brothel contains half a dozen mentions of fellatio, but no references to pedicatio (male-on-male action), whereas the graffiti in another cell mentions pedicatio but is tight-lipped on oral sex.

Having rigorously analyzed the graffiti, the doctoral candidate in question hypothesized that certain cubicles were reserved for specific acts. Not for nothing did whores get nicknames like 'Myrtis Who Sucks' and 'Mola Who Gets Fucked.'

Dr. Varone pinches his fingers together and touches them to his temples to indicate that the author—and I—must be crazy for even considering such a thing.

'If I'm with a beautiful woman, I'm going to do everything with her that I can—I'm not going to go into one room for a blow job and then go with her in the next room to have sex!'

He's got the whole room cackling now.

'The inscriptions were in praise of women for doing great blow jobs, or, "Oh boy, you really lick well." But that doesn't mean that that particular person only did that particular act. It doesn't mean that she didn't do other things—or that they weren't appreciated—but perhaps she was particularly good at that one thing.'

He leans back to let rip with some Latin, the lingua franca of sex lingo to this day:


He then translates it into Italian to Angela's embarrassment—and the amusement of his two assistants.

They sit and grin at her, as if to say, so how are you gonna translate that? 

'If you wanna talk about art, we can talk about art! But we're talking about erotica!' Dr. Varone jokes to her, tapping out the syllables on his desk as he translates: cunnum is "cunt," lingit is "lick," and so forth.

So what does that mean? That means that I'm a male prostitute, I'm a puttano'-- the guys at the back are snickering helplessly--'and I'm available "to lick cunt for two asses. We also accept virgins."'

He guffaws and slaps the table.

'We think the last bit's ironic. It's really unthinkable that a virgin, thirteen or fourteen, would go to a prostitute to get licked.'

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- Screw Your Own Slave -- (Chap. I, Pt. 9)

'People with any sort of wealth bought their slaves and screwed them at home whenever they wanted. With one ass, I could buy a piece of bread, a glass of wine or a sexual favor. That was the minimum rate.

Graffiti in Pompeii:
'Fortunata, (slave of) Antonius,
gives her favors for two asses'
(source: Pompeii's Erotic Songbook)
'But—attenzione—if I want a woman who's dark and lovely and perhaps Greek, I have to spend sixteen asses.'

I ask him why Easterners were so prized.

'Why are Asian women in vogue in New York?' he laughs.

But the term 'Greek love' is still used today. I'm wondering if the Romans paid more because their Greek subjects would bend over to please them.

Dr. Varone rejects this out of hand, quoting Martial, who lived at the time of Pompeii's demise and penned what must be one of the great pederastic putdowns of all time.

'He writes of a wife who finds her husband penetrating a young male slave's ass, and she starts to scream in a really loud voice. And the man says, "Why do you scream and tell me that you, too, have a bottom? What you have is two vaginas; an ass is something completely different, and it's all male."'

This cracks up the two old boys sitting behind us.

Dr. Varone peers at me through his spectacles. 'That's what Martial said, eh—not me.'

'Let Fortunata suck!'
(source: Pompeii's Erotic Songbook)
Then he grins at Angela, who's blushing in mid-translation. 'You didn't think you'd be doing this today, did you? If you wanna talk about art, we could talk about art, but I don't think that's what this guy came here for.'


As for the ins and outs of prostitution, Varone reckons the 'she wolves' prowled the streets rather than waiting for their prey to come to them.

'There were various kinds of prostitutes—females, children and males—and various sorts of homosexual prostitution going on. Including lesbian prostitution.'

'In the lupanar?' That's the first I've heard of it.

'And elsewhere.'

He laughs, explaining that the Romans used one verb to describe the masculine act of penetrating and another for being penetrated. 'Futuo is the giving end of it; nubo is the receiving end of it,' he says, and to make it absolutely clear to me, he rams his index finger in and out of the circle formed by his other hand.

'So when we see a reference to a prostitute who's called a fututrix, we know that she was a woman who would not engage in licking activities but would play the role of the man with a woman.'

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- Brothel Cruising in Nero's Day -- (Chap. I, Pt. 8)

One of the earliest Latin novels gives a good idea of the iniquities that took place in the dens of antiquity.

Written around 60 AD by Nero's fashion adviser (yes, even back then), Petronius' Satyricon is set in the area surrounding Pompeii.

Early on, the main character gets lost in an anonymous 'Greek' town—possibly Naples, the 'new city' of Neapolis—and a hag tricks him into a brothel, where he bumps into his companion, Ascyltos, who claims he was conned into the knocking shop by 'a most respectable looking person' who later 'pulled out his tool, and commenced to beg me to comply with his appetite… But for the fact that I was the stronger, I would have been compelled to take my medicine.'

Graffiti in Pompeii:
'On 9 September Quintus Postumius begged Aulus Attius to have anal sex with him'
(source: Pompeii's Erotic Songbook)
Nevertheless, the men decide to have a look around the cells, seeing 'many persons of each sex amusing themselves. They attempted to seduce us with pederastic wantonness, and one wretch, with his clothes girded up, assaulted Ascyltos, and, having thrown him down upon a couch, attempted to gore him from above.'

Having escaped, the 'hero' of the satire goes on to indulge in depthless debauchery, including a scene where he and a whore spy through a chink in a door while his male slave lover forcibly deflowers a seven-year-old girl.

A poster for Fellini's 1969 film
'A really bad, terrible movie,'
according to the New Yorker
Though far less detailed, the graffiti in Pompeii hint at similar excesses, particularly the raunchy jokes and boasts scratched into the plastered walls of the lupanar, such as FVTVTA SVM HIC: a woman declaring I WAS FUCKED HERE.

The going rate for a piece of ass (as Petronius might have put it) was, well, a couple of asses—that being the basic unit of currency in ancient Rome.

'The prices went from one to sixteen asses,' Dr. Varone explains. 'For sixteen asses, you got someone very special—but don't forget we're talking about prostitutes whose clients were slaves and the very, very lowest classes.

'Seventy-five percent of the Roman Empire was comprised of slaves and the lower elements of society. The most important need was to keep this 75% happy and to provide them with the bare necessities, including a sexual outlet.'

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Smelly Truth About Roman Sex -- (Chap. I, Pt. 7)

But the only site verified as a brothel is the lupanar: not only does it have beds and cubicles, but also sexy pictures and smutty graffiti.

'The purpose-built brothel is almost too good to be true,' McGinn writes.

In keeping with its address—the Street of the Overhanging Balcony—the lupanar is a top-heavy two-storey building that tapers to a corner.

No one knows what the upper floor was for—it's been rebuilt—but the overhanging 'balcony' may have provided shelter while the punters queued or the hookers stood on the corner, clad in colored togas (the dress code for whores).

Some brothels also advertised themselves with lamps that were always lit, not unlike the neon in modern red-light districts.

Once inside, customers were saluted by the twin erections of a doubly endowed Priapus, the crude fresco ensuring them they were about to get extra lucky.

A short, L-shaped passageway running through the middle of the whorehouse connected the five tiny rooms where the prostitutes worked, while frescoes above each doorway depicted erotic couplings on comfortable beds.


Despite these artistic pretensions, the reality of sex in the brothel would have been a far grittier affair.

Virtually every grunt, moan, queef and fart would've been a communal experience.

The hookers' cubicles were cramped and gloomy, with small built-in beds made of brick and masonry.

Besides the incessant noise of rutting, the whorehouse would have reeked of the urine the Romans used to wash their clothes, the funk emanating from the cells, the stink from the open latrine at the end of the hallway, and the gases produced by Roman 'foods of love' such as beans and onions (one regular named Scordopodonicus was renowned for his noxious wind).

Punters often complained about the whores' halitosis, and it's fair to say that the type of 'she-wolf' who worked in a lupanar was probably best appreciated by the light of the moon.

However, there's no sign of curtains or hinges on the cubicles in Pompeii, so the doorways may have been left open for paying voyeurs.

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- Greeks vs. Romans (Chap. I, Pt. 6)

The Romans liked to blame prostitution—and homosexuality—on the Greeks, who had in fact created the first system of secular whorehouses in the sixth century BC (temple prostitution goes back to the Babylonians).

As with so many other Western institutions, though, historians reckon that large-scale organized prostitution began in Rome.

Whereas the Greeks had dreamt up a poetic euphemism to describe the better class of prostitute—hetaira (a 'companion' or 'lady friend')—the Romans had a strictly utilitarian term for hookers: meretrix—an 'earner' who made money from her body.

Likewise, prostitution was a necessity to keep men from destroying the cornerstone of Roman civilization: the family.

'Cato the Censor expressly advised young men to go to prostitutes so that they would not steal other men's wives,' Varone says.

And whereas adulterous women and their lovers could be killed on the spot, there was no penalty for husbands who whored around.

An expert on prostitution in ancient Rome, Professor Thomas McGinn, notes that hookers were required to register with local authorities—not for health checks, but to keep them quarantined from honorable women. It wasn't until the reign of Caligula in 40 AD that the state effectively legitimized prostitution by imposing a tax on it.

In his quest to remake the Empire in his own morally debased image, the emperor opened a brothel in the heart of Rome on the Palatine—supposedly the very hill where Romulus and Remus had been suckled by a lupa.

Estimates of the number of brothels in Pompeii range from just a handful to as many as 46, though small-scale prostitution was on offer all over: in the bordellos, the public baths and the kerbside 'cribs' used by streetwalkers—as evidenced by the boastful graffiti found in one inn:


The History of Sex: Pompeii -- 'Roman Society was Based on Rape' -- (Chap. I, Pt. 5)

'The notion of the obscene as we use the term today did not exist,' Dr. Varone says.

Phalluses were probably just signs of good luck, and many 'dirty' pictures—such as a pygmy orgy on the banks of the Nile—were meant to make people laugh (in this case, at the debauchees' deformities).

The Romans weren't so bothered about what you did as whom you did it with.

Most importantly, though, they made this laissez-faire approach to sex work by restricting sexual freedom to the elite.

Rome's citizens loved to swing, but most people weren't invited to the party—unless they were the party, that is: the majority of passive partners in sex scenes at Pompeii were slaves or prostitutes.

For freeborn Romans, sexual rules were all about penetration: to screw was good, but to get screwed was bad—that's what they did to the rest of the world, particularly the Greeks. 'Even oral sex to give pleasure to a woman was frowned upon because it wasn't dignified for a Roman citizen.'

'Roman society was based on rape,' Dr. Varone continues. 'For example, if I'm a master and you're my slave, and I want you to give me your ass—play the passive role—you have to. It's your duty. And I can do it whenever I want. If, during the course of your lifetime you're freed, and I ask you to give me your ass, it's a good idea if you do it.'

If the idea of rape as the basis for civilization sounds exaggerated, consider the founding legends of Rome.

The king of the Latins, Romulus (who'd been suckled as a child by a wolf-bitch, or lupa) invited the neighbouring tribe to a religious celebration.

In the middle of the feast, the Latins scared off the men and raped their women.

This forced interbreeding—the Rape of the Sabines—gave birth to the Romans, who viewed their ancestors' betrayal as a simple practicality due to a lack of women.

A couple of centuries later, another rape gave birth to the Republic.

The king's son violated a noblewoman, who then committed suicide.

The subsequent infighting over the dead woman's honor led to the collapse of the monarchy.

The Rape of Lucretia, as imagined by Titian during the Renaissance
For women, the Rape of Lucretia highlighted a Roman rule of female sexuality that persists to this day in Latin culture: women were destined to be either wives—matronae—or whores.

And once a Roman lost his or her honor, it might be avenged, but it could never be fully restored.

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Secret Cabinet of Obscenity -- (Chap. I, Pt. 4)

Embarrassed by the past, the kings of Naples did what came naturally: they locked away the more extreme evidence of rumpy-pumpy at Pompeii.

The 'Cabinet of Obscene Objects' in the museum of Naples was restricted to those 'of mature age and proven morality' who had to apply for a visitor's permit.

The 'Secret Cabinet' remained closed to the public until the cusp of the twenty-first century, when—in a sign of the times—it was permanently opened to the masses (excluding minors) in 2000 as a suite of tastefully decorated rooms.

For my own grand tour of sex history, I've returned to Pompeii to speak with the resident expert on erotica—and the so-called House of the Christian Inscription.


When he's not out excavating, Dr. Antonio Varone works at what sounds like one of the most impressive addresses in the world of archeology: Via di Villa dei Misteri—Villa of Mysteries Way.

In reality, the archeologists' offices sit next to the tourists' entrance, in identikit blocks that look like trailers from World War Two.

Dr. Varone squeezes in behind the cramped desk in his office, taking a break from digging at the House of the Chaste Lovers, which tellingly gets its name from the fact that the painted amanti on its walls are just kissing; nothing more.

As you might expect of a man who wrote the book on Eroticism in Pompeii, Dr. Varone has expressive hands animated by a picaresque sense of humor.

And today he's got an audience.

Not only me and the peanut gallery—his two old-boy assistants sitting behind me—but also two female visitors, adding a certain frisson to all the sex talk: Lena the Latin South African, who's taking photographs and asking impertinent questions (wondering aloud of the statues in Naples: 'Where are all their penises?') and my interpreter, Angela, an Italian-American who's lived most of her life in Naples and dates from around the same era as the Pompeianist himself.

In his book, Dr. Varone argues that much of the ancient artwork we view as erotic probably wasn't arousing for the Romans.

That's mainly because very few acts were off limits for them (though they did have hang-ups about sex with the lights on or their clothes off and didn't like inviting fellators to dinner: not least because the Romans greeted each other with a kiss on the lips).

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Fascinating Fascinum -- (Chap. I, Pt. 3)

The modern view of the ancients tends to be that they were sexually liberated in extremis, without any of the Judeo-Christian hang-ups that afflict Western society today:

If only we could be more like the Romans—goes a popular line of thought—The Coliseum and crucifixions were a bit much, but when it came to sex, they sure did know how to have a guilt-free good time.

And it's true: the Romans didn't see anything shameful (let alone sinful) about sex per se.

Pompeii proves they were masters of sex in all its manifestations: as an act of violence, pleasure, reproduction, power, luck, religion, necessity, luxury, entertainment—and even love.

Historians had long known about the debauchery of certain emperors and the ruling elite: the scurrilous accounts of Claudius' nymphomaniac wife, Messalina, moonlighting in a whorehouse in the capital, for instance, or Tiberius indulging in lurid acts on Capri, just across the bay from Pompeii, supposedly even using suckling babes for fellatio.

But Rome and Capri were imperial pleasure centers; Pompeii and Herculaneum were just provincial seaside resorts, popular with wealthy holidaymakers and sailors on shore leave, but at their heart thoroughly ordinary, mid-sized towns.

It was only when they were excavated in the mid-1700s that the world realized just how pervasive erotica was in everyday Roman life.

Hic Habitat Felicitas -- 'Here Dwells Happiness'
(Ancient Roman for 'God Bless This House')
The Romans had a special word for the talismanic male organ—fascinum—and their variations on the theme were certainly, well, fascinating.

The penis was omnipresent: disembodied members were painted on walls, cast in bronze, molded in terracotta and carved into the volcanic building stones of Pompeii, adorning amulets, shop signs, street corners and paving blocks.

Then there were the explicit scenes on everything from pendants to public walls: twosomes, threesomes, foursomes and more-somes indulging in sodomy, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender-bending and bestiality.

The extent of this apparent perversion mortified the Romans' Catholic descendants and shocked the eighteenth-century empire-builders who idealized Rome's accomplishments.

Suddenly, aficionados of the Renaissance were confronted with not just a few isolated artefacts dug up around the Mediterranean and hidden away in the private collections of 'discerning gentlemen,' but two entire towns brimming with pornographic 'filth.'

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Flying Cock and Balls -- (Chap. I, Pt. 2)

Undeterred, a middle-aged man's-man put the guide on the spot.

'Are you familiar with the flying cock and balls?' he asked, using his hands to measure out a length of ambitious proportions.

The guide feigned confusion. Not personally, no.

'It's a penis—with wings,' the man continued, 'I don't know if you're familiar with it, but it was excavated here.' Trying to sound authoritative, like.

'Because my wife, she'd like to buy one.' I'll bet she would. 

'A little one—to wear as a necklace.' Lookie here what Hank done bought me in Italy! 

Whereas some of us lesser souls might have been tempted to tease the man further—How big did you say it was?—the guide played it straight.

'You should be able to find them in the shops outside.'

With that incentive, the sightseers went clicking and chattering to the next spot on their checklist, leaving me alone in the time-capsule silence of the bordello.

Traipsing through Pompeii with the other tourists, it was often hard to picture what the town used to look like, let alone what it would have been like to live there.

Within the confines of the lupanar, though, you knew exactly what had taken place, thanks to the visual aids above the prostitutes' cubicles. For the price of a cheap cup of wine, Greek and Eastern European slaves would serve up an 'erotic menu' for their Roman masters.

In its own way, the lifeless bordello was as poignant as the plaster casts of the men and women who perished in the fires of Vesuvius.

As the scene of so much fruitless consummation, the lupanar seemed to symbolize the decadence of the Bay of Naples, a Roman playground all but wiped out by a disaster that until recently would have been called an 'act of God.'

As I later found out, though, what was even more intriguing was the brothel's location.

Although it isn't marked and the guides don't mention it, just across from the 'she-wolf's den' is a place that once contained the first-known reference to the followers of the 'Lamb of God.'

Inside the house, archeologists found the word CHRISTIANOS on a wall: the earliest record of the word 'Christian' in Western civilization—opposite the world's oldest whorehouse—testimony to the eternal friction between sex and religion.

* * *

The History of Sex: Pompeii -- Wolf-Bitches and the Lamb of God -- (Chap. I, Pt. 1)

Chapter One 
Whores and Christians at Pompeii 

'The Roman rules by arms and vices.' 

Graffiti in Pompeii, 1st century AD 

Given that we get the word 'sex' from the Romans, it was apt that my questioning had begun in Italy.

I was in Naples researching another book when I realized I was near Pompeii, a place I'd dreamt of visiting but assumed I'd never get to see.

So I spent a morning tramping around the Roman ghost town on the rainiest day of the year, sheltering in ruined villas while searching for the signs of life left by their inhabitants.

Pompeii street shot, with Vesuvius in the background

But what I didn't know was that the volcanic ash had preserved one of its brothels almost perfectly intact.

Whether or not prostitution is the world's oldest profession, that meant the bordello must be the West's most ancient house of ill repute—a fact curiously overlooked by most guidebooks.

And whereas you can see countless Greco-Roman ruins throughout Europe, the only surviving whorehouse from antiquity is at Pompeii.

With a pitch like that, I decided I had to see it, trekking halfway across town and getting soaked in the process.

As the deluge sluiced through the streets—if only it had rained like this in 79 AD—I took refuge in the 'wolf-bitch's den,' a tiny building in the heart of the oldest part of town.

The lupanar
Erected during the last days of Pompeii, the lupanar had five rooms upstairs and five on the ground floor. Above each doorway, painted panels showed what went on inside the cubicles.

While I was trying to work out the logistics of a particularly elaborate coupling, a tour group entered, led by a greyheaded guide.

'This was a kind of erotic menu,' he announced in English with a Germanic twist. 'You could come in and say, "I want this or that," and it was more expensive the more complicated your tastes.'

Inside the lupanar
His American charges gawped at the sex paintings, the men seemingly having discovered a newfound appreciation for ancient art, pondering idly whether they might be able to convince their wives to do like the Romans (Y'know what they say, hon. 'When in Rome…), while the women mostly laughed off the 'perversion' (…but we're not in Rome; we're in Naples.)

The History of Sex: London -- 'The Woman of the Millennium' -- (Intro, Pt. 2)

Of course, it was no surprise to learn that, like most good things (ahem), the Masturbate-a-thon came from my homeland, America, though I doubt that's what Churchill had in mind when he christened our countries' 'special relationship.'

What astounded me was the Wank-a-thon's financial link with that grand-dame of family planning, Marie Stopes International, a New World-Old World match made in heaven—or hell, depending on your grasp of history.

The English poet Larkin famously joked that sex began in 1963, and invariably each generation thinks it invented sex.

When it comes to wanking, though, the first self-styled 'citizen of the world,' Diogenes the Cynic, went around Athens masturbating way back in the fourth century before Christ—without any pretensions about 'coming for a good cause.'

And as a gauge of our collective ignorance about sex, it's hard to beat Marie Stopes' reputation as a noble pioneer of birth control, a crusader for erotic freedom and Empowered Womyn who stuck it to the Man—especially the Church!


Back in 1999, readers of the Guardian inexplicably voted her the 'Woman of the Millennium.'

Not Elizabeth I, that old 'Virgin Queen,' or Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, or even Margaret Sanger, the Yank who coined 'birth control' and beat Stopes to opening the first such clinic in New York.

No, otherwise educated readers hailed Stopes, the British underdog, as 'the great liberator' who 'freed women from the drudgery of unwanted pregnancies.'

'No other woman has done so much towards freeing women from their purely biological role,' gushed one correspondent.

Never mind that Stopes—like Sanger—had some rather controversial views about reproduction; specifically, that it should be limited to married couples who were healthy, intelligent and attractive (in Stopes' utopia, 'half-castes' and other undesirables would be sterilized—she disinherited her only son for the 'eugenic crime' of marrying a woman who wore glasses).

Though now portrayed as a patron saint of women's rights, Stopes was rabidly against abortion, as well as contraceptives for singletons.


An avowed Darwinist, she criticized residual 'Christian impulses of saving and safeguarding the weak' and ranted that postwar society was 'breeding rubbish:' 'The British race has tended for too long to foster the inferior stocks.'

Lacking the power to issue 'inviolable edicts'—not unlike Hitler's—Stopes opted to campaign for birth control as a means of ensuring that her beloved 'British race' produced strong offspring for the Empire.

Who says eugenics is unfashionable?
The Royal Mail's Marie Stopes stamp,
unveiled in 2008

But what seemed most surprising to me, in light of Marie Stopes International happily reaping the proceeds from a US-inspired Masturbate-a-thon, is that Stopes herself condemned masturbation as 'self abuse' (and she wasn't keen on Americans, either).

And now, with birth rates in Western Europe in terminal decline, Ma Stopes would have been horrified to find that the organization bearing her name was encouraging the Great British Public to have orgasms in vain. 

That's why a Marie Stopes Masturbate-a-thon struck me as so outrageous: not because of moral issues, but because it seemed to reflect our boundless ignorance of sex history—the not-inconsequential question of where we come from.

With the amount of info available to us in the twenty-first century, how is it possible that we—that I—know so little about the roots of Western attitudes toward sex?

Thinking ourselves wise, how have we become such fools? Without getting all ontological about it, how on earth did we get here?

So I set off to find the 'truth'—or the closest thing to it—about our sexual past.

* * *

The History of Sex: London -- In the Beginning... -- (Intro, Pt. 1)


'On Saturday 5th August we will be making history…' the ads proclaim. Could it be a cure for cancer? A new energy source to save the planet? Or maybe another campaign to fight poverty?

After all, this is Great Britain, the land that's given the world everything from parliamentary democracy to penicillin, football, railroads, jet engines, the English language, TV and the framework for the World Wide Web.

When it comes to making history, the British have made more than most.

On this historic occasion, though, the organizers have pitched their ambitions somewhat lower than those of their illustrious ancestors: at groin-level, to be exact.

The his-and-hers posters show two shots of anonymous crotches: a man and a woman wearing Union Jack underwear… and sticking their hands down their pants for Europe's maiden 'Masturbate-a-thon.'


I first heard about the event from Lena the Latin South African, who phoned me while commuting to work. 'JR, have you heard about the Masturbate-a-thon tomorrow?'

'The whuh?'

'A Wank-a-thon! I've just read about it, and I thought of you.'

Ignoring the slur by association, I couldn't fathom the concept of marathon masturbation, let alone the fact that Lena was getting such a kick out of repeating the term in public on a busy train in London.

The Asian guy across from her couldn't believe it, either.

An office type in thick glasses, he started fingering his freesheet like crazy to find out more. Eventually, Lena leaned over and showed him the bottom of page 12.

So the Anglo-Indian man read it, shook his head and said to the Latin South African:

'It's not Britain anymore, is it?'

©J.R. Daeschner

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