understanding the misery of sexless and married men

beautiful woman, sexless men

In 1195, Lotario dei Segni, a young man of privilege and achievement, wrote De miseria humanae conditionis (On the misery of the human condition). The status of De miseria humanae conditionis as a masterwork of medieval rhetoric has tended to obscure its contribution to the literature of men’s sexed protest. De miseria humanae conditionis recognizes the natural burden of men’s lustful nature and the misery of sexless and married men. Public policies that better accommodate men’s natural burden can lessen gender inequality and increase the happiness of women and men. Men’s misery is everyone’s misery.

Within its extensive description of human misery, De miseria humanae conditionis marshaled wide-ranging authorities on men’s misery in sexlessness and marriage. The relevant chapter begins aphoristically:

Only as fire does not burn, does flesh not lust
{Si potest ignis non urere, potest caro non concupiscere} [1]

The chapter then provides a biblical figure. Like the Jebusite in Jerusalem, lust is an aboriginal inhabitant in the land of humanity.[2] The chapter further adds non-Christian authority from an epistle praising rural life to a city-loving friend:

You may drive nature out with a pitchfork,
But she will come back again. [3]

Wisdom, holy scripture, and pagan authority make for a weighty argument. Condemning men’s lust means condemning men. Lust is an inextricable part of men’s human nature.

Socially recognized states of celibacy and marriage regulate men’s sexuality. For men burning with lust, the normative course is to turn formally from celibacy to marriage. De miseria humanae conditionis forthrightly acknowledged men’s subordination within marriage:

She {a wife} wants to master, and will not be mastered. She will not be a servant, she must be in charge. She must have a finger in everything. [4]

De miseria humanae conditionis influentially described three mundane problems that promote homelessness among married men:

There are three things which keep a man from staying home: smoke, a leaky roof, and a shrewish wife.

De miseria humanae conditionis incorporates material from Theophrastus’s golden book on marriage. However, reversing Jerome’s gynocentrism, De miseria humanae conditionis transformed the various ways that men attract women into various ways that women attract men.[5] Jerome sought to dissuade women from marriage. Given men’s natural burden of lust and the miseries of marriage for men, dissuading men from marriage is the more important task.

De miseria humanae conditionis describes the dilemma of a husband with an adulterous wife. Men’s natural lustfulness leaves them without appealing choices as husbands:

the burden of marriage is heavy indeed, for “He that keeps an adulteress is foolish and wicked,” and he is the very protector of shame who conceals his wife’s crime. But if he puts away the adulteress he is punished for no fault of his own, since while she is alive he is forced to be continent. [6]

Being forced to be continent oppresses men. Yet living with an adulteress-wife is also difficult:

Who could ever calmly put up with a rival? Suspicion alone tortures the jealous man, for although it is written, “They shall be two in one flesh,” a man’s jealousy will scarcely tolerate two men in the flesh of one woman.

Upon divorce, gender-biased family courts commonly deprive men of custody of their children and impose crushing monthly payments that ex-husbands must make to their ex-wives. To promote gender equality, some men today are learning to support their adulterous wives within marriage. Yet educating men to embrace adulterous wives falls short of overcoming the effects of anti-men gender bias in family courts. The lustful man gets married at his peril.

De miseria humanae conditionis includes delightful elements of self-consciousness and satire. After a lengthy, lengthy enumeration of sinners of specific types, Lotario adds “and finally those ensnared in all vices together.” In a chapter on compassion, Lotario speculates that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus “perhaps because He had called the dead man back to the miseries of life.” Lotario, who was a priest, declares that lust assails even priests:

who embrace Venus at night, and then worship the Virgin at dawn. … At night they excite the son of Venus on a bed, at dawn they offer the Son of the Virgin on an altar. [7]

Some medieval Christians idealized those who restrained from sex within marriage.[8] In De miseria humanae conditionis, Lotario titled a chapter “De miseria continentis et coniugati” (“The misery of those restraining from sex and married”). Given Lotario’s keen recognition of men’s natural burden of lust, perceiving satire in that chapter title isn’t anachronistic.[9]

While anti-men gender bias in family courts and forced financial fatherhood must be addressed, broader policy initiatives are needed to lessen men’s misery from their natural burden of lust. Governments and employers should extend benefits and support to married men’s mistresses. Public provision of affordable prostitutes through a modest expansion of the civil service should be explored.[10] More funding should be allocated to research and development of sex bots. Many men many times a day experience the emotional and physiological burden of having an erection. Special, low-cost, subsidized nutritional supplements should be made available to men to help them recover from the labor of their erections. Persons — women and men — who dress in ways that could trigger a man’s erection should carry trigger-warning signs. De miseria humanae conditionis could become the text for a new national conversation about lessening misery, especially the misery of sexless and married men.[11]

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[1] Lotario dei Segni, De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17 (De miseria continentis et coniugati), from Latin trans. Dietz (1960) p. 19. Here’s a Latin text. The context makes clear that Lotario is addressing men. On Lotario dei Segni and the broader context, see my post on De miseria humane conditionis.

[2] Genesis 10:16, Numbers 33:50-3, 2 Samuel 5:6-10.

[3] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17 (De miseria continentis et coniugati), trans. Dietz (1960) p. 19, quote from Horace, Epistles 1.10.24. The subsequent line from Horace’s epistle declares that nature will “secretly burst in triumph through your sad disdain.”

[4] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17, trans. Dietz (1969) p. 20. The subsequent quote is from id. Maccarrone (1955), p. xli, attributes the material in 1.17 to John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus 8.11. The material quoted above, however, is in neither Theophrastus’s golden book on marriage, nor in John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus.

As Pope Innocent III, Lotario dei Segni recognized and affirmed gynocentrism. He described himself as married to the church and described the church as “mother and teacher {mater et magistra} of all the faithful.” “Fatherly severity” generated fear, while love for “the mother church” created “a more profound bond.” Shaffern (2001) pp. 73, 83. This gendered understanding has regrettably contributed to anti-men bias in child custody decisions and relatively little social concern for violence against men.

[5] Jerome’s construction of Theophrastus’s book states:

One man entices {another’s wife} with his figure, another with his brains, another with his wit, another with his open hand. Somehow, or sometime, the fortress is captured which is attacked on all sides.

Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 847. De miseria humanae conditionis, in contrast, observes:

One man is attracted by a woman’s figure, another by her charm or humor or personality; one way or another she is taken, since she is besieged on all sides.

1.17, trans. Dietz (1969) p. 20.

[6] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17, trans. Dietz (1969) p. 21. The subsequent quote is from id., with an embedded quote from Genesis 2:24. Under Christian church law, a man could not have sex outside of marriage and could not remarry until his spouse died.

[7] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17 (“On the universality of lust”), trans. Dietz (1969) p. 49. The previous two quotes are from 3.1 (“On the damnable exit from the human condition”), id. p. 68, and 1.25 (“On compassion”), id. p. 28.

[8] The Christian practice of refraining from sex within marriage is ancient. For a poignant example of the misery that such practice can impose on a husband, consider Margery Kempe’s husband. Sexless marriages are probably much more common today and bear no relation to Christian ideals. On sex differences in lust and the misery of lack of sex for men, Baumeister (2010), pp. 221-9.

[9] Dietz (1969) obscures the satirical reading by mistranslating the title as “Of the misery of married and single people.” The chapter is clearly addressed to men. For readers today, being single does not imply not having sex. Moreover, continentis is not necessary a characteristic disjoint from marriage. The two participles continentis and coniugati have genitive singular masculine/neuter forms. Moreover, satire is an aspect of the text. On satire of the Roman Curia in De miseria humanae conditionis, Moore (1981). The ambiguity of et (“and”) is a significant aspect of the title. 

[10] In sixth-century Athens, Solon reportedly established municipal brothels (dicteria) to increase men’s opportunities for sex. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae Bk. 13, Ch. 25 (ll. 569d3-f4).

[11] As Pope Innocent III, Lotario dei Segni strongly supported clerical celibacy. Smith (1951) Ch. 5. However, he showed his appreciation for the burden of lust with his policy toward female prostitutes. In a Papal Bull dated April 29, 1198, Pope Innocent III declared:

it is necessary to ask women who live voluptuously and permit anyone indifferently and without concern to have relations with them to contract a legitimate marriage in order to live chastely. With this thought, we decide by the authority of these presents that all who will rescue public women from brothels and marry them will be doing an act which will be useful for the remission of their sins.

Trans. Fliche (1994) p. 70. Marrying a former prostitute probably lessened the risk of a man suffering from a sexless marriage.

Innocent III’s willingness to engage in policy experiments is apparent in his response to Francis of Assisi. After a single meeting, Innocent III granted Francis and his brother penitents permission to follow lives of poverty, itinerant preaching, and physically rebuilding churches. See, e.g. Cunningham (2004) pp. 30-5. Innocent III responded to the needs of the times. A key need of our time is to support men’s sexuality.

[image] Marginal drawing of a woman, detail. From manuscript instance, dated 1200, of John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus. Royal MS 12 F.viii, f.69r, British Library.


Baumeister, Roy F. 2010. Is there anything good about men? how cultures flourish by exploiting men. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, Lawrence. 2004. Francis of Assisi: performing the Gospel life. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Dietz, Margaret Mary, trans. and Donald R. Howard, ed. 1969. Lothario dei Segni. On the misery of the human condition. De miseria humane conditionis. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Fliche, Augustin. 1994. “The Advocate of Church Reform.”Pp. 55-72 in Powell, James M. 1994. Innocent III: vicar of Christ or lord of the world? 2nd ed, expanded. Washington, D.C: The Catholic Univ. of America Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Maccarrone, Michele, ed. 1955. Lotario dei Segni. Lotharii cardinalis (Innocentii III) De miseria humane conditionis. Lugano: Thesauri Mundi.

Moore, John C. 1981. “Innocent III’s De Miseria Humanae Conditionis: A Speculum Curiae?” The Catholic Historical Review. 67 (4): 553-564.

Shaffern, Robert W. 2001. “Mater Et Magistra: Gendered Images and Church Authority in the Thought of Pope Innocent III.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. 4 (3): 65-88.

Smith, Charles Edward. 1951. Innocent III, Church defender. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

One thought on “understanding the misery of sexless and married men”

  1. The problem with men being sexless in marriage has to do with the fact that the kind of sex men offer is not the kind their wives need and want. If men would offer their wives the kind of sexual connections they long for – which is different from the kind men crave, want and need – then the wives would make themselves happily available to their men because they’d know they’d be deeply fulfilled in the process as well. What we have to begin to understand is that men and women have different needs when it comes to sex and sexual fulfillment, which is an area Western science has of yet to tackle in order to give us answers.

    In regards to the above statement: Lust is an inextricable part of men’s human nature – is incorrect. Lust is of animal nature. The trick for husbands is to not place their instinctual, sexual lust upon their wives and to learn instead, how to entice her to want to have sex with him. Once husbands know what their wives need in order to want to have sex with them, then they will be fulfilled at the same time their wives will be fulfilled. The whole sexual experience is supposed to be a win win situation for both people within a marriage, not just the man and not just the woman.

    Again, it takes being ADULTS! Men need to be able to freely communicate with their wives about what their wives’ needs are in order to feel sexually fulfilled. Many women (although this might seem strange) will have no idea what that is because women have not had a chance to freely explore their whole sexuality. Currently, only the lust-type of sexuality is known to men and women. But eventually, due to hormonal changes, many women will lose the lust-driven sex drive that men will continue to experience. Therefore, a different kind of sexuality has to be explored in order to continue to provide sexual fulfillment to the wife, which will, in turn, provide sexual fulfillment to the husband as well.

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