The Human Body


There are many ways of looking al the human body. We can admire it as the noblest of God's creations, despise it as the prison of the soul, worship it as the temple of love, fear it as the source of temptation, or study it as a scientific object. Only this much is certain: Whatever we see in it will reflect our own attitudes and intentions.

Most modern societies take a rather negative attitude toward the human body and especially toward its sexual functions. This manifests itself, for example, in the great moral concern about "indecent" clothing, "dirty" books and films, and sex education in public schools. In fact, there is a widespread conviction that the world is being inundated by a flood of sex and nudity which threatens the very foundations of our civilization.

However, our Western civilization, which is now several thousand years old, has not always worried about such problems. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the nude human body was a familiar sight. Athletes practiced and performed in the nude at the gymnasium (Greek gymnos: nude). The participants at the original Olympic games (and at all other sports events) were nude. Public and private buildings were decorated with sculptures and paintings of nude men and women. The sexual aspect of nudity was openly recognized. Statues of certain deities, such as Hermes and Priapus, displayed an erect penis as the symbol of strength and fertility. Artistic representations of sex organs were worn in the form of jewelry as a good luck charm. The actors of the comic stage wore monstrous penises as part of their costume. In short, there was an open and joyful acceptance of the human body and human sexuality. The contrast to our modern world could hardly be more striking.

Many people today believe that the rise of Christianity is responsible for this unfortunate change. Indeed, some Christian writers are willing to concede as much to their secular critics. However, such a view is far too simplistic. Many supposedly Christian attitudes toward the human body are only a few hundred years old and would have been incomprehensible to the church of earlier ages. For example, the moral obsession with masturbation, or the notion that children are "innocent" and should be kept ignorant about sex, were all but unheard of before the 18th century. In the early 16th century, the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam was still able to write popular texts for children dealing with such topics as sexual intercourse before, in, and outside of marriage, pregnancy, birth, prostitution, aphrodisiacs, castration, and venereal disease (Erasmus, Colloquia Familiaria). A few hundred years later these texts were considered too outspoken even for adults.

The sense of shame or indignation at the sight of the nude human body which today pervades so much of our culture is also of relatively recent origin. In medieval Europe, nudity was not considered a moral issue. Families slept in the nude together in the same room, often in the same bed. Inns and hostels expected their guests to sleep together with strangers of both sexes. A person refusing to share his bed or to take off his clothes would have been suspected of being diseased or disfigured. Public nudity was common in bathhouses, which were favorite social gathering places for men and women of all ages. At special holidays, pretty nude girls could be seen in civic parades. Occasionally, even men of the church appeared completely nude in religious processions.

It was not until after the epidemic spread of syphilis during the 16th and 17th centuries and the rise of the middle classes that nudity began to be viewed as obscene. The whole attitude toward the human physical functions changed. The former intimacy was now rejected as disgusting and unhealthy. People no longer ate from the same dish or drank from the common mug. Instead of their fingers they began to use knives and forks. The wealthy started to wear special sleeping clothes or nightgowns. Privacy became a growing concern. The bed was removed from the living room and hidden in a separate bedroom. The bathhouses were closed, recreational swimming in lakes and rivers became sexually segregated until finally public nude bathing as such was prohibited altogether. In other words, the open acceptance of the body and its functions gradually turned into prudery. By the 19th century, society had become so sensitive about bodily functions that the mere mention of sex, reproduction, digestion, or perspiration was considered offensive. Indeed, even simple words like "thigh" and "breast" could no longer be used in polite conversation. The entire human body was taboo.

As modern Western civilization conquered the world, this prudery was then often imposed by force on uncomprehending and reluctant peoples for whom complete or partial nudity had always been a way of life. Even today, certain struggling Asian and African nations are engaged in an effort to "civilize" their citizens by asking them to wear clothes to which they have never been accustomed. Ironically, in the meantime, some of the richest and most advanced Western nations have begun to revert to the less prudish standards of former historical periods. (For a more detailed discussion of these developments, see the third part of this book, "Sex and Society.")

While our modern culture has subjected us to a great deal of sexual repression, it has nevertheless made an important contribution toward a more humane life for all of mankind—the scientific exploration of the human body and its functions.

Our ancient and medieval ancestors possessed very little exact biological and medical knowledge. When they were sick, they depended largely on folk remedies, superstitions, or outright magic. Magical and mystical beliefs also governed their sexual and reproductive lives. For example, most men and women were convinced that the right "love potion" could win the heart of even the most unwilling partner. There was also a belief that certain experiences of a pregnant woman could "mark" her baby, and that coitus during the night would lead to the conception of blind children. People knew nothing about the circulation of blood, hormones, the male and female sex cells (sperm and egg), and other modern discoveries. In the opinion of the most respected scholars, not only men but also women produced some seminal fluid, and it was generally assumed that the mixing of these fluids inside the womb was essential for procreation. It was further assumed that the fetus came to life only during the fifth month of pregnancy at the time of the so-called quickening (i.e. the moment when the mother first feels the feta! movements).

These and similar misconceptions were finally laid to rest by modern science. However, the facts as we see them today did not emerge quickly and easily. Some biological laws and the causes of certain diseases were discovered only after centuries of patient observation. Occasionally, scientific research led to such unexpected results that, for a long time, people simply refused to accept them. Indeed, to this very day science continues to challenge our traditional way of thinking and sometimes even our way of life.

A recent striking example is the scientific observation of human sexual responses in the laboratory. The findings disproved many widely held assumptions. It was shown, for instance, that the sexual capacity of women is at least as great as that of men and, in some respects, even greater. Obviously, such a realization cannot remain without consequences for the overall relationship between the sexes. In this, as in other cases, scientific insight may well lead to profound social changes.

Such changes, although perhaps necessary, are not always welcome. It is therefore hardly surprising that, throughout its history, science has met with a great deal of resistance. Whenever scientists questioned the conventional wisdom they were attacked and ridiculed, and sometimes their discoveries were suppressed and ignored. Very often, however, society objected not only to specific discoveries, but to the very idea of science itself. Even today, many people feel a kind of instinctive revulsion at the humorless, merciless, shameless way in which scientists seem to "take all the mystery out of life."

Indeed, it cannot be denied that there is something sacrilegious about the scientific approach to problems. In their pursuit of knowledge, scientists not only disregard God, but also show little respect for hallowed human traditions. Questions of morality, legality, or even of good taste do not concern them. Nothing is too sacred for their curiosity, and they view everything with the same neutral detachment.

This characteristic detachment of science requires a particular emotional and intellectual discipline, a special frame of rnind which is typically "modern." In Greek and Roman antiquity and in the Middle Ages, man considered himself an integral part of the world and would not have wanted or dared to detach himself from it. He was not used to suppressing his feelings or moral concerns, but reacted to everything with his whole personality. He believed not only that he lived at the center of the universe, with the sun, the moon, and all the stars revolving around him, but also that everything in this universe had some personal meaning for him and was somehow related to his fate. Something happened because the gods or God made it happen in order to reward or punish him. For example, health was seen as the reward of righteousness; death and disease were the wages of sin. There was no differentiation between causal and normative laws. The law of nature was divine will. Explanation and justification were one and the same.

The beginning of modern science can be described as that moment in history when explanation and justification were first separated. As long as health and sickness, sunshine and rain, good and bad harvests were regarded as reward or punishment for man's conduct, factual cause and moral end were always seen together. Science became possible only when man began to disregard all supernatural influences and their meaning. From then on, he studied "nature as such," without any reference to divine intentions and human concerns.

The scientist looks at the human body "objectively," i.e., he regards it strictly as an object to be observed, weighed, and measured. He is not interested in its beauty, sinfulness, or even in its health. His only aim is to understand its functions, not to pronounce them good or bad. He does not make value judgments, but judgments of fact. In other words, the scientist tries to describe what is, not prescribe what should be. If he should find the body to be diseased, he may list the symptoms of the disease and search for its causes, but as a scientist he would make no attempt at healing. That is basically a moral enterprise, and it is undertaken by people who use scientific knowledge to help their fellow human beings. It is true that today the role of the scientist and that of the healer are often played by one and the same person, a physician, for example. Nevertheless, a good physician knows that he does, in fact, perform two separate functions and that, on occasion, he may have to keep them separate. For instance, he may know as a scientist that continued heavy smoking will kill a certain patient. As a healer, he may suggest to the patient that he give up his cigarettes. This suggestion would, of course, be based on the moral (not scientific) judgment that the value of life is higher than that of smoking pleasure. However, if the patient held the opposite values and preferred to die rather than stop smoking, the physician would find himself restricted to his role as a scientist who simply observes the effects of smoking on a dying man. (A dramatic example is the case of Sigmund Freud. As a scientist, he knew that his smoking would kill him. As a healer, he could have acted upon this knowledge and given up his cigars. As a patient, he refused to do so and died of cancer of the jaw.)

Nonscientists often find it difficult to appreciate the scientific point of view. Particularly in the early days of modern science, the majority of people mistook the scientist's suspension of moral judgment for callousness and indifference, if not frivolity. For example, when in the 16th and 17th centuries scientists first dissected human corpses for the sake of anatomical knowledge, their contemporaries were horrified. It would never have occurred to them to "donate their bodies to science." On the contrary, they often prohibited this kind of research altogether. As a result, many anatomists had to keep their work secret and pay criminal "body snatchers" to steal corpses from the cemetery or even right from the gallows. (In our own time, some sex researchers have also had to begin their work in secrecy and to pay prostitutes to serve as objects of study.)

Nevertheless, over the centuries people realized that the objective investigation of the human body and its functions could bring them great benefits. Although the essence of science itself is moral neutrality, scientific; knowledge can very well be used for moral purposes. The healing and prevention of diseases is only the most obvious example. Equally important is man's liberation from needless fears and narrow superstitions which prevent him from realizing his full potential. Thanks to science, man has made great progress toward that goal. Indeed, every new scientific discovery adds to his ability to master his own fate.

In recent decades, the advance of sex research has been especially dramatic. Almost every day scientists add to our understanding of the human sexual and reproductive functions. In the past, these functions were firmly linked, and people had little control over them. Sexual intercourse led to reproduction, and reproduction was impossible without sexual intercourse. Unless they were abstinent, sexual partners were unable to limit the number of their children, and many women died of exhaustion after too many births. On the other hand, those couples who remained childless had to accept their infertility as the will of "nature." In the meantime, reproduction has become a matter of conscious choice. Scientific insight into the reproductive process has made it possible to develop effective methods of contraception, and today unwanted pregnancies can easily be avoided. Furthermore, many formerly hopeless cases of infertility can now be treated successfully, sometimes by means of artificial insemination, i.e., without any direct sexual contact. Now for the first time in human history, the sexual and reproductive functions can be completely separated.

These modern developments have far-reaching social consequences as they lend support to the growing demand for full sexual equality. Traditionally, the biological differences between the sexes have always been used as a justification for forcing men and women into different social roles. Thus, men chose to believe that "nature" had destined women for motherhood, and that this "natural" calling made them unfit for any other task. (For some unexplained reason, fatherhood was not considered to have the same crippling effect.) However, now that women have become free to embrace or reject motherhood as they please, such notions are difficult to maintain. Indeed, the belief in the "natural" inferiority of women is now being exposed as nothing more than the ideology of men who want to justify their position of privilege.

We can be certain that continued scientific research will eventually also disprove many of our present beliefs, no matter how self-evident they might seem. Especially when it comes to sex we are not always as detached and objective as we think we are. Very often our observations are colored by unrecognized prejudices and unquestioned moral assumptions, and thus we are still in danger of confusing value judgments with judgments of fact. In short, where our own interests are involved we are as likely as ever to mistake convention for "nature." However, we can learn from the history of modern science that, in the long run, our self-interest is best served by strict objectivity. Science began when man started to disregard the divine and human aspects of everything he studied. Paradoxically, this very disregard then opened the door to deeper understanding. Only if we are prepared to transcend our narrow personal concerns, can we hope to find out the truth about ourselves and thus become really free.

Thanks to the mass media, new scientific insights into the human bodily functions can now be shared by a greater number of people than ever before. Most men and women today know more about anatomy and physiology than any ancient or medieval doctor. Yet in spite of all their theoretical knowledge, many of them are ill at ease with themselves. Unlike their ancestors, they feel alienated from their own bodies, i.e., they experience them as unfamiliar and strange. Indeed, it seems that the very same historical developments that enabled modern man to look at himself with scientific detachment also robbed him of his former self-acceptance.

Our technological society imposes a great deal of discipline on all of us. We are usually not allowed to express our emotions, follow our impulses, or devote our energies to the pursuit of pleasure. On the contrary, in the interest of our work we have to adjust to fixed timetables for activity and relaxation, always appear even-tempered, suppress any sign of spontaneity, and deliberately dull our senses. In short, we are forced to transform ourselves into well-functioning instruments of labor. As a result, we have become used to treating the human body as a machine, and our increased understanding of its functions is mainly used to add to its "efficiency."

Many people also carry this attitude over into their sexual relationships. This becomes apparent, for example, in their great concern with youth and physical vigor. Thus, they are often quite eager to try any new diet, experiment with any new drug, use any new gadget or device, and train themselves in any new technique that promises to strengthen their erotic capacities. Furthermore, there are now countless sex guides, love books, and marriage manuals which discuss the technical aspects of sex in great detail and thereby hope to turn the reader into an expert lover.

There is no doubt that such books can indeed be very helpful. After centuries of repression, a frank description of human sexual functioning and the possible variations of sexual intercourse can free men and women from unnecessary inhibitions. Unfortunately, some of them also gain the false impression that sexual happiness is a matter of great expertise and athletic ability, and since they themselves seem to lack either talent or practice, they end up feeling inadequate. In fact, even many of those who succeed in mastering all erotic skills discover that the mere mechanics of sex leave them unsatisfied. Eventually, they realize that the desire to control and manipulate their bodies for the sake of performance cripples them as human beings. It depersonalizes all their relationships, and finally renders them incapable of true enjoyment.

It is for this reason that, in recent years, more and more people (especially the young) have abandoned the mechanistic approach to sex and have developed a less demanding attitude toward the human body. They are beginning to understand that the modern world of discipline and competition has distorted their perceptions, and they try to regain the sensual awareness of former historical periods through "sensitivity training." Thus, they literally get back in touch with themselves and arrive at a point where they can accept and appreciate their own bodies without exploiting them.

At the same time, most young men and women today have again become able to look at the nude human body without embarrassment. Indeed, for many of them nudity is now once more a familiar sight to which they do not attach any exaggerated significance. However, it is unfortunate that there also continues to be widespread and persistent ignorance about the bodily functions, especially those that have to do with sex. Indeed, there remain not only some prudish members of the older generation, but also a few of the new one who are uninformed or even seriously misinformed about the physiological processes underlying their behavior. It therefore seems both justified and necessary to take advantage of the welcome new climate of sexual candor and to offer an unobstructed, if somewhat limited, view of the subject.

The following pages provide some basic information about the sexual aspect of the human body, especially the male and female sex organs, the human sexual response, reproduction, contraception, and abortion. In addition, there is a brief discussion of some physical disorders that can impair normal sexual functioning. The psychological aspects of human sexual behavior are discussed in the second part of this book, "Human Sexual Behavior."


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Differentiation] [The Sex Organs] [Sexual Response] [Human Reproduction] [Physical Problems] [Sexual Behavior] [Sex and Society] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]