Little-Known History of Human Sexual Opportunities

[In this series, “Marriage, Sex and Us” I will discuss historical and anthropological evidence of the evolution of these concepts and how sexual regulations and strictures imposed on women led to the growth of human societies and races. This study was originally done by Prof. J D Unwin of Oxford and Cambridge University and was published in his book ‘Sex and Culture’ in the 1930s. In this book, Dr Unwin Published his research findings of 80 different societies and cultural races across different geographical regions and different ages.]

Sensual Opportunity

Part 1 2 3 4

Part 1

If I ask you what is marriage? What would be your answer?

No matter how our answers differ, our perspective about marriage is a bond that gives two individuals sexual access to each other and prohibits sexual access to others outside the bond. Well, that is the ideal condition fulfilling a social bond called, marriage. But is that all?

JD Unwin, who did excellent research on human sexuality, regulations around the same and the relationship between sexual regulations and the cultural progress of human societies and races; would differ. In this aspect, he mentioned Group-Marriage that existed in ancient societies where a group of men were married to one single woman, or in other words a woman shared her sexual life with multiple men outside her permanent economic partner.

His study of sexual regulations found that strictures related to one’s sexual life is a phenomenon of every civilized society he studied and the sharing of women’s sexual life with men is an uncivilized phenomenon. In this aspect, the understanding of civilized or progressive societies is also important.

I will discuss this in another article in this series as that would need some explanation of concepts but in short, JD Unwin classified civilized societies where the society successfully built temples (or places of worships) or other complex structures, explored places and conquered other races. In other words, he considered progressive societies as those who went beyond their life’s normal boundaries and explored the new and the unknown.

In ancient societies, a young man would judge a sexual partner differently from one life partner who he would like to marry and have an economic bonding. Usually, they chose women based on their working area and character. So, even in the ancient world, a woman’s character was most valuable in selecting a potential bride.

Similarly, the criterion to judge a man as the potential marriage partner for their daughters was his hunting abilities and his wealth and power. However, studies found that very few uncivilized (savage) society wanted to restrict their daughter’s sexual freedom to only one man throughout her life. In his study, Dr Unwin found these societies to be high on ‘Uncivilized cultural scale’. [explained in an article later].

There is another interesting find in his study. There was no uncivilized society that limited a man’s sexual qualities to only one woman throughout his life and only a few civilized societies did that. The result was astonishing. He found all these societies reached the pinnacle of the cultural success in human history if they could maintain such strictures for a longer period of time.

Sexual Opportunity

Since the marriage as a custom meant different things in different societies and in different cultures, it is important to understand the sexual opportunities the two sexes have enjoyed. To understand sexual opportunity given to the sexes, it is important to study the strictures or laws that prevented or promoted different sexual acts.

So, there come three different conditions that we need to understand. These are –

  1. Exogamy and prohibited degrees of exogamy
  2. Pre-nuptial regulations
  3. Post-nuptial regulations

Exogamy and Prohibited Degrees

While discussing exogamy, the author mentioned that complete sexual freedom is denied in every society his team had studied. That means, every man and every woman who is ever born in any society is denied sexual access to all other woman or man of society. Different societies had exogamy with prohibited degrees and a mix of the exogamy and prohibition in different degrees.

The author found that such regulations on exogamy and some prohibited degrees existed in all 80 tribes he had studied.

Pre-nuptial Regulations

The author found that even in some savage societies, a bride was supposed to be a virgin and her signs of virginity needed to be visible on the nuptial mat. Study found that it was the women of the family who demanded the new bride be a virgin.

So, a society might have had different regulations in place to ensure that the bride maintained her chastity before marriage and the cases where such conditions existed, those societies were considered to have pre-nuptial strictures in place.

However, there were complications in pre-nuptial regulations in different societies as well. Like there were societies where only ‘betrothed’ women were prohibited to have sex with other males and not other women. In these societies, even males had those strictures in place. Some societies allowed pre-marriage sex but punished pre-marital pregnancy. Most often the punishment came to the man responsible for the pregnancy. He was forced to pay a fine or marry the woman. So, we see that the concept of alimony and marrying the rape victim existed even in uncivilized societies.

For example, In Tannese society allowed pre-nuptial sexual laxity, but children born out of such relationships were condemned. That is why abortion and child infanticide were common in both these societies. Similarly, New Britons allowed occasional pre-nuptial sexual violations but not with a betrothed girl. Such acts were a punishable offence for both the man and the woman.

Sexual Rights of a Clan-brother (Post-nuptial sexual regulation)

It is an interesting find of Unwin’s study that in some societies the sexual qualities of both males and females were shared, in other words, the clan had a mutual sexual-interest in one-another’s wives. Tribes like The Banyankole tribe of Uganda, the Masai of Kenya, the Chukchee of Siberia are examples of some tribes where men had a mutual sexual interest in other’s wives.

Interesting fact about the Masai people was that the warrior class lived in special villages accompanied by their mother, sisters and half-sisters and when they wanted, they would call sisters or half-sisters of other members of the same age group for sex. No girl was allowed to refuse such an invitation by a Masai warrior.

So, the existence of such freedom in any society would indicate post-nuptial sexual freedom of the clan.


The societies that had post-nuptial sexual freedom as discussed before, the question of adultery becomes complicated. Where there existed such strictures, punishment for adultery was depended on the husband. Some tribes had a funny instance when old men possessed several young wives. Those wives were allowed to have sex with other young men and could not be punished as long as they remained in the house of the old man (I am sure today men will fume at such propositions of keeping such wives in their homes).

The concept of adultery and sexual regulations also changed over time. As the author has noticed, the sexual regulations of all societies evolve over time. He found that the Roman women enjoyed more sexual freedom under the aegis of ius gentium than under ius civile. Athenian women who lived in the 4th century BC enjoyed more sexual freedom than her great-grandmother who lived in the 5th century BC. By the end of Hammurabi’s reign, the Babylonians had also eased their sexual strictures.

So, we understand that the concept and punishment of adultery has also changed over time and it is interesting to study those in different societies.

Sexual Rights Over Wife’s Sisters (Sororal Polygamy)

Some societies like those among American Indians, a man would get sexual access to the sisters of his wife. He found that there were cases where the wife was accompanied by her sisters. However, the author did not conclude anything on sororal polygamy, and he believed that access to several women for sex, didn’t mean marriage with all those women.

While discussing a man’s sexual freedom in the early societies, the author also noted that a man’s wealth in those societies was often measured in terms of how many wives he possessed. Because he found that even in those societies, women were betrothed to men only if the woman’s family found the man suitable to take care of the woman throughout her life.

The Sexual Freedom of Widows

Related to the sexual freedom of widows, their sexual power was utilized in one or different forms.

  • She became the wife of his husband’s heir (except own sons)
  • It became a duty or right of the younger or elder brother of her husband to take care of her and possess the products of her labour
  • She might be free to return to her own people
  • She was free to remain single or remarry

But how are these sexual opportunities or restrictions translated into the growth or demise of societies? The author and his team did find an interesting correlation between these as we shall see now.





Ius gentium, or the law of nations – In a ‘practical’ sense it denotes that part of Roman private law which was open to citizens and non-citizens alike, ius civile were accessible only to Romans

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