Weird History What Sex Was Like For Nomads Traveling The Silk Road  

Melissa Sartore
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The Silk Road was a network of markets and trading posts throughout Asia and the Indian Ocean Basin that extended from the eastern Mediterranean to the interior of China, and it earned its name thanks to the most valued commodity on the route: silk. Because of the large number of travelers making their way down the road, the different cultures that came into contact on the route, and the luxury goods that were being exchanged, sex on the historical Silk Road was an interesting, complicated, and nuanced cluster of encounters.

Silk had been exchanged for centuries, but in the 3rd century, the Han Dynasty in China used silk as its chief commodity with an increasingly interested and willing-to-pay outside world. Contact between Romans and the Han – and all groups in between – allowed for cultural and commercial exchange on an enormous scale. The Silk Road was used for over 1,500 years with varying popularity, reaching its height under the Mongols during the 13th and 14th centuries.

The merchants, diplomats, travelers, and missionaries who traveled along the Silk Road rarely traversed the whole route but rather participated in a relay system. Mostly men, these individuals took part in sex on the Silk Road, naturally, but over the extensive land mass and lengthy time period that the Silk Road was used, ideas about sex, sexuality, and gender varied. This was not a bad thing, however, because there was a lot of influence and exchange that affected sexual practice and principle for the better. From brothels and prostitution to sex manuals and genetics, the blending of influences that informed sex along the Silk Road had a little something to offer to everyone.

Hosts Along The Road Let Travelers Sleep With Their Wives

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Photo:  Per Honor et Gloria/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Marco Polo, when travelers stayed at the house of a stranger, the host was often willing to let the visitor sleep with his wife.

Polo wrote that when a traveler arrived:

"the host is delighted, and desires his wife to put herself entirely at the guest's disposal, whilst he himself gets out of the way, and comes back no more until the stranger shall have taken his departure. The guest may stay and enjoy the wife's society as long as he lists, whilst the husband has no shame in the matter, but indeed considers it an honour. And all the men of this province are made wittols of by their wives in this way. The women themselves are fair and wanton."

Marco Polo indicated that the Mongols were not particularly thrilled about this activity, but they left the men to their shame and their "naughty practice."

Sex Slaves And Sex Workers Bookended The Road

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Photo:  Jackson, Thomas Graham, Sir/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Roman attitudes about slaves, prostitutes, and concubines were not always clear, and sexual relationships between male owners and female slaves were common. In the Byzantine Empire, women sold themselves into prostitution to survive, and, despite the modest Byzantine disposition, sex was the preoccupation of many. With the importance of silk in the Byzantine Empire, the Silk Road was traversed by Byzantine traders who had extensive contact with other merchants. Brothels were present throughout the Empire, which was the western terminus of the Road. 

Same-Sex Relationships Were Common

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Photo:  Attributed to a Chinese painter/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

During the early days of the Silk Road, Roman influences were heavy, particularly on the western end. As a result, Roman ideas about same-sex relationships were extended along some of its length. The history of male companionship in the Mediterranean is long and storied, but historians find that the Mongols engaged in homosexuality in China as well as in the Russian khanates. There are accounts of Ghenghis Khan, whose given name was Temujin, sleeping under blankets with other men, and while this doesn't mean they were in a sexual relationship, it's impossible to know either way. That said, in the Mongol world, there was a heavy Islamic influence, which punished sodomy severely. 

Eunuchs Did Lots Of Political Work – Specifically Because Of Their Sexlessness

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Photo: dericafox/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eunuchs were commonly used as diplomats and court officials by the late Roman and Byzantine Empires, as well as by Chinese dynastic leaders. After castration, a eunuch could be a hot commodity for a merchant within both empires. Being a eunuch was shamed in the Roman and Byzantine worlds, but as neutral and harmless men, eunuchs often received privilege and prominence in social and political settings. The stigma abetted during the Byzantine period, and young male slaves were increasingly castrated for political purposes.

In China, eunuchs were similarly deemed unthreatening and found their way into the closest and highest imperial circles. Diplomats and explorers such as Zheng He used the Silk Road to extend Chinese dynastic contact and influence, neither a threat to ladies nor distracted by his man parts along the way.