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Marriage and Sex Around the World
Sex and marriage in human cultures
Although many believe that monogamous heterosexual marriage is the norm or standard sexual arrangement in human society, nothing could be further from the truth. Marriage and sex have been practiced in a variety of ways across time and across cultures.
In many ancient Greek cultures, sexual relationships between older men and younger, usually adolescent, men were socially accepted and even celebrated as a kind of ideal. Male and female prostitutes, catering overwhelmingly to a male clientele, were legal and recognized as a normal part of society like other professions. Men from all social classes employed the services of prostitutes, who fell into a hierarchy ranging from slaves and others employed by pimps, to high-class "companions" who provided a variety of sexual and nonsexual services.
In ancient Greece a woman was usually married as a teenager to a man years her senior. A 16-year-old woman marrying a 30-year-old man was typical. Like in other cultures, the girl's parents played the major role in finding a husband for her. Before marrying, the vast majority of men had sex outside of marriage with prostitutes or with younger men
Islamic sex and marriage
In Islam since the time of Muhammad, men have been allowed to have multiple wives as long as they can provide for them equally. Muhammad himself is said to have married eleven to thirteen women of various ages, in various circumstances. Nevertheless, polygamy is somewhat controversial in the Islamic world, and frowned upon or even outlawed in some Muslim areas. Women do not have the option of multiple husbands in Islam.
Shiite Islam recognizes temporary marriage, in which a man and woman are "married" for a pre-planned fixed period of time. The terms of the marriage are negotiated beforehand, in accordance with various Islamic regulations, and upon the expiration of the marriage, the participants go their separate ways. The woman is typically given a "dowry," like in a traditional marriage.
The temporary marriage is openly supported and encouraged by many Shiite authorities as useful for sexual release for unmarried young people, and in circumstances of travel or domestic problems with one's spouse--all within Islamic regulations. Thus the temporary marriage essentially provides a veneer of godly legitimacy to prostitution, adultery and casual sex behaviors that technically are prohibited and, in Shiite Iran, punishable by severe penalties such as death by stoning.
A similar phenomenon is practiced among Sunni Muslims, known as the "Misyar" marriage. It is utilized mostly by married men, often on vacation for a limited period of time. The "husband" and "wife" give up some of their traditional rights as a spouse, continue to live separately, but are able to have sexual relations within a legitimate framework. The Misyar marriage is less tolerated within the Sunni world than the temporary marriage is within the Shiite world, and is considered by most to conform to the letter, if not the spirit, of Islamic marriage law.
Polygyny and polyandry
Polygyny (a man with multiple wives) has been practiced for thousands of years across many human cultures, and still is today. It was mostly utilized by wealthy or powerful men, such as kings and emperors, who not only had multiple wives but often various courtesans and mistresses as well. Mainstream Mormonism once recognized polygamous marriages, but today the practice is confined to fundamentalist Mormon communities. Islam also allows polygynous marriage.
Polyandry, a form of polygamy in which a woman has multiple husbands, is a common traditional practice in rural areas of Tibet, and has also been found in areas of South Asia, Africa, pre-Roman Europe and among some groups native to North and South America. Polyandry often entails brothers sharing a single wife. It has often been practiced out of a desire to maintain property inheritance within the family.
Polygamy laws around the world
Some of the most interesting and unusual sexual practices, relative to our world, are seen in the Pacific islands prior to European contact. In Hawaii, religious laws regulated eating and diet more strictly than sex. Women, for example, were not allowed to eat pork and other foods, and women and men were not permitted to eat together in certain situations, under penalty of death. In the absence of western Christian ideas of shame or guilt associated with sex, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders took a much more casual and playful attitude toward it.
Children were readily educated and informed about sex by adults without hesitation, and children were allowed to play with and explore themselves and each other sexually. Adolescents from a relatively young age were expected to be sexually active, including with older adults. Any rules concerning "marriage," including female virginity standards, applied to the ruling upper classes. Otherwise, official pairings or explicit declarations of partnership were very rare. People mostly had consensual sexual relations whenever they wanted.