Zoroastrianism & Sexual Hygiene

by Toby Marotta, PhD

Since ancient Babylon occupied a sliver of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, its inhabitants had easy access to water. Palm trees bearing dates grew in abundance. Date wine was a favorite. One can assume that some of this wine was made into vinegar, an ancient staple known to be employed not only as a preservative, but also as an agent for healing and for cleaning. In Sex in History, without acknowledging their Zoroastrian origins, Reay Tannahill reports that taboos about menstrual blood and spilled semen existed not only among Babylonians, but also among Jews, whom Cyrus found captive in Babylon and released.

In Creation, Gore Vidal portrays Babylon as being famous for its legions of temple prostitutes. Most of these courtesans were women in service to the earth goddess known as Ishtar. But some of these prostitutes were male. Indeed, the existence of male prostitution in Babylon is the most concrete evidence we have that male homosexuality existed in the ancient world. Inside and outside of temples, Babylonian prostitution flourished for centuries. No plagues here. Would this sexuality have been so abundant if it had been associated with dread disease? Can we not can infer that it was because of a down-to-earth application of the traditional Zoroastrian approach to devilish human wastes of every kind: cleaning them up? What better way to put date-wine vinegar to use?

Even before AIDS was traced to HIV, sets of modern priests, a disparate and competitive lot, began codifying recommendations intended to prevent the spread of this disease. First of all they focused on sexuality. If not celibacy, they ordered up monogamy. Barring abstinence or monogamy, they recommended sexual activities involving no exchanges of semen or vaginal fluids. Most explicitly they equated sexual safety with condom use, in and of itself touted as "safe sex" initially. Later, as it became apparent that rubber and latex prophylactics could leak or break, condom use was portrayed as the key to "safer sex."

In 1984, AIDS was traced to a retrovirus named HIV. HIV was found to be highly concentrated in the blood of people with AIDS and sometimes to be present in doses strong enough to cause sexually transmitted HIV infections in semen, vaginal fluid, and menstrual blood. Members of the AIDS-prevention priesthood impressed with the capacities of biomedicine now spoke of vaccines to prevent the spread of HIV infections. Others became ever more adamant about equating safer sex with condom use. To prevent HIV infections from being passed via infected blood left on needles shared by intravenous drug users, anthropologists familiar with the minds, hearts, and habits of this particular at-risk population recommended needle hygiene. This variety of hygiene required either religious use of new syringes for injection purposes or reliance on recommended procedures for disinfecting previously employed needles by cleaning them with bleach.

When it came to sex, however, the watchword remained safety rather than cleanliness. For the temple of sexuality belonged to a different set of priests.

The absence of an overarching worldview, spiritual or otherwise, precluded the development of a holistic approach to prevention. Instead, in the fashion of modern science, evidence accumulated in an incremental way. Laboratory studies revealed that HIV fell apart when the pH of its environment underwent very slight changes. Factual texts pointed out that HIV was vulnerable not only to bleach, but to rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and common household cleaning agents. Oddly enough, this retrovirus was as fragile outside the body as it was indestructible once it had produced an infection in a bloodstream.

HIV infections take hold when a body is loaded with more germs and toxins than its filtering systems can clean out. Thus, for an individual to become infected with HIV, two things must happen. A bodily fluid containing enough HIV with the strength to be infectious must reach skin-linings penetrable enough to lead to blood or susceptible cells. And an immune system must be too weak to resist and eliminate this onslaught of infecting virus. One must be clear about the dynamics responsible for producing HIV infections in order to comprehend the rationale for post-sex hygiene as a prevention strategy: applying HIV-killing cleaning agents to intimate fluids deposited in bodily cavities, and then washing these fluids away, greatly reduces the chances of there being enough left virus to overwhelm an immune system and cause an infection. A second set of scientific developments attests to growing awareness that emphasizing the value of prophylactic measures like condom use need not preclude supplying options that might spare people the costs of risky behavior that has been undertaken. In the public health field, options of this kind are called harm-reduction strategies.

Gargling, douching, and washing up after sex with acidic cleaning agents protects against sexually transmitted diseases in two reinforcing ways. It removes alkaline sperm with their buffer against the natural organ acidity that kills acid-sensitive micro-organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases -- including syphilis, gonorrhea, genital herpes and AIDS. And it kills these micro-organisms outright with its own acidity.

In a short, self-published book offered for sale via the World Wide Web Green Cleaning Institute (http://www.desert.net/safest-sex/), I detail my argument for a sexual hygiene strategy of AIDS-prevention. The name of this book summarizes its essential behavioral recommendations: AIDS-Preventing Sexual Hygiene: Complement Condom Use By Gargling, Douching, and Washing After Sex.

Toby Marotta lives in Tucson. In 1978 he was Toby Johnson's guardian angel.