Synopsis: Exploring the radical change in social and religious attitudes towards sex, this award-winning documentary takes a look throughout history and traces the shift in social attitudes and practices. Terry traces an unexpected route of how sex got from strict social repression to the full-frontal glossies of today.
eyelights: its overview of sexual mores through the ages.
eyesores: its brevity.
I’m a big Monty Python fan, so I’m naturally drawn to anything that involves its members. Some, like John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, have had a larger presence post-Python, so it’s easier keeping track of them. Eric Idle and Graham Chapman have kept working but the fruit of their labour isn’t that easy to pick.
Terry Jones is the worst of them, however: he’s tended to either stay behind the camera, working on projects with a lower profile, or he’s indulged in his fascination with history, hosting a series of shows about the Crusades and so forth. It’s not that I’m not curious about his oeuvre, but historical documentaries are hardly my thing.
Still, when I stumbled upon a DVD called ‘The Nature of Sex’, which features four specials from the Discovery Channel, including a Terry Jones-hosted special called ‘The Surprising History of Sex and Love’, I was immediately curious. I wondered how he would tackle such a subject: Would it be dry or would he pepper it with humour?
It’s interesting to note that Jones’ personal life has also influenced my decision: From my understanding, he was in an open relationship for much (if not all) of his marriage – which, sadly, ended after nearly 40 years. This unconventional relationship model made me wonder what perspective he would have on human sexuality.
‘The Surprising History of Sex and Love’ is a television special that poses the question “Why are we so repressed when we’re surrounded by sex?” and attempts to provide an answer. Over the course of 48 minutes, with the help of historians and visual aids such as statues, fertility objects, architecture, …etc., it does exactly that.
Jones goes back to ancient Egypt, explaining how sex was normalized and genders were equal then. This was due to their mythology: one of their creation myths involved Atum creating the universe by masturbating (a quick online search finds contradictory information on this, so I can’t possibly confirm on factual this data is…).
He also tells us that early Israelites worshipped a divine couple, not just a male God, so their beliefs weren’t initially so andocentric. It’s suggested that it’s with the book of Genesis that the tables turned, transforming women into troublemakers and making sex shameful. Sadly, this would have repercussions up until this day.
Then came the age of steel with the Greeks and the Romans; it was an extremely andocentric culture and being gay was actually in vogue then. Interestingly, the Romans decided that blondes were more fun when they tired of their spouses and turned to their more exotic slaves – after which their spouses and daughters started wearing wigs.
But sinfulness didn’t exist before the fourth century, after which St. Paul set a new tone, being against non-married, non-heterosexual sex. And yet Christianity was originally against marriage; it wasn’t until the 15th Century before it became a ritual. And it was decided that there had to be 11 degrees of separation in blood relations.
Naturally, in small towns, this was a massive problem.
This eventually impacted science: scientists, being under the influence of Christianity, tried to explain sin scientifically. Women obviously suffered the most from their contrived conclusions and this carried on into the 20th century. It got so nutty that John Kellogg infamously invented Corn Flakes in the hope of preventing masturbation.
(Heh heh… he must be spin in his grave every time Tony the Tiger pops up.)
Jones also delves into other cultures, showing us 12th century Indian temples that were pagan, covered with erotic sculptures. One of them was thought abandoned, but it was discovered that pre-Christian pagan rituals are still celebrated there – even though sex is now repressed in India (you couldn’t even see kissing on screen until recently).
He also discusses sexuality from a woman’s perspective, with Eleanor of Aquitaine, who tried to reverse rampant sexism by creating the The Court of Love in Poitier, where courtly love was encouraged. Jones also suggests that she had andocentric tales were rewritten from a female perspective; the whole notion of romance spawned from there.
Jones’ conclusions are sometimes dubious, however. For instance, there’s a moment when he’s looking at a statue of Pan fornicating with a goat and he assumes that this was perfectly okay in society at the time. Except that it could be a fringe thing that wasn’t acceptable; our society is rife with underground art that isn’t representative of society as a whole.
Still, although some of the data in ‘The Surprising History of Sex and Love’ may be biased by its host, it was an interesting look at our modern social mores; I loved getting a sense of where it all began. I just wish that the special had been longer and more in depth, because it’s really just a quick overview of something that’s far more complex.
And utterly fascinating, if not surprising.
Date of viewing: February 17, 2016