Men’s and Women’s Roles

Now let’s get back to sex...or lack thereof. The Bible consistently states that a woman needs to be a virgin prior to and sexually faithful to her husband within marriage. A man wasn’t expected to stick to either obligation. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible about whether male virginity at marriage was a rule or even desirable.

Greco-Roman culture mirrored this requirement for female virginity at marriage while including no similar obligation for males. This feels unfair from our modern perspective, but we need to understand how strong traditional gender roles were in ancient times.


Men were thought to be:           Women were thought to be:


Since women were thought to be flighty and lacking self-control, female celibacy was assumed to be a problem. Paul addresses this issue by writing that widows may remain unmarried (like Paul himself) if they have the self-control. Titus writes about the same issue, concluding that young women don’t have the self-control, so they should marry.

The ideal man in the Greco-Roman world controlled his own passion, body, and household. Women were lesser beings and were expected to be devoted to their husband and children. Women rarely learned to read and write. It was considered “unnatural” for anyone to deviate from these gender roles.

For most people in modern times, sex is a bit like a dance: there is give and take; one partner doesn’t always need to lead; and there is a mutuality about it.

In Greco-Roman times, though, you were either the active penetrator or the passive receptor. To be penetrated was to be weak, to be “playing the woman,” and to hold the inferior position in society. The world was divided into “the penetrators” and “the penetrated.”

Even more surprising to our modern thinking: that division wasn’t based on gender. It had more to do with social class. A male citizen could satisfy himself sexually with his wife, concubine, slave girls, slave boys, female prostitutes, or male prostitutes. If he was the penetrator (orally, anally, or vaginally), he was within the social norms.

Roman Sex Roles


Sex had more to do with social position than gender in Biblical times. The elite male was “active, desiring, pursuing, initiative-taking, penetrating and getting sexual pleasure.” He was the “screwer.” All non-elite men and women were passive, desired, pursued, penetrated, and giving sexual pleasure.” They were the “screwees.” 

In another deviation from our modern ideas about sex, there was no requirement for consent on the part of the wife or the slaves. It was simply their duty to comply—to be the receptor. Sex by force was the right of the elite Greco-Roman male. He had absolute authority over the minds and bodies of everyone in his household.