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Marriage and Sex Around the World

Updated on August 12, 2015

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.

Ancient Greece

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


Pacific Islanders

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.



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    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks, Sun Girl. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Sun-Girl profile image

      Sun-Girl 6 years ago from Nigeria

      Excellent article you actually shared in here.thanks.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      David, good points. History shows that as culture changes and as values change, conceptions of rights, gender, sexuality and even marriage change with them.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks, Baileybear. Yes, gender roles and the different concepts of gender are also a very interesting topic.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks, Ben. Yes, I have always found it very odd that so many think the version of marriage they are familiar with, or that happens to be common in their time and place, must be the only form that has ever been practiced, or even the "gold standard." I suppose more education is the only way to go.

    • davidkaluge profile image

      davidkaluge 6 years ago

      The idea of marriage changed as human became more aware of somethings and the spread of human right. I know of a culture where men give their wives to sleep with their friends that came to visit and spend a night in their house. They do it because its the highest gift they can give. Women now have rights that is why some muslim women are against polygamy not minding that Islamic law permitted it even in the bible men had many wives. It follows that it is us that define what is and how it should be in time.

    • profile image

      Baileybear 6 years ago

      Interesting hub. Something related to this is gender roles. Traditional Samoan culture raises feminine boys as girls - Fa'afafine

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      This was really informative, well-researched, and I myself learned a lot more from this, and as an advocate of gay marriage I can say this definitely backs up why I get so frustrated at how so many Americans automatically view marriage as a traditional Christian union. Great article.