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Sex And The Silk Road

A Look Into The Salacious History of the Trade Route

By Jessica BuggPublished about a year ago 5 min read
Photo by Boris Ulzibat:

As a lover of all things history, I found myself listening to a documentary about the travels of Marco Polo, the famous explorer. I was surprised to hear of his rather racy experiences while traveling the Silk Road. So surprised, that I thought you, dear reader, may be interested in hearing about some of the more explicit goings on for the famous trade route.

So today, we explore the more entertaining aspects of being a merchant trader along the Silk Road.

Let’s get started.

What Was The Silk Road?

Throughout the Indian Ocean basin, Asia, and going into the Mediterranean, the Silk Road was a network of trading posts, markets, and merchant centers.

While almost any commodity known was traded along this route, the Silk Road’s largest claim to fame was the trade of . . . you guessed it, silk.

A merchant could travel from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to the interior of China if they chose, and could make quite a fortune trading silk, spices, and other piece du jour. Most merchants, however, chose to only trade a certain “leg” of the silk road and relied upon a relay system of sorts to get other goods.

And as we have seen in our previous dives into history, where one has money, access to travel, and plentiful food/wine sources, there will also be a lot of sex.

The Han Dynasty Opens Trade To The Roman Empire

Imperial China was renowned for centuries for their silk fabric. But they remained closed to outsiders for quite some time.

130 B.C. is notable because that is when the Han Dynasty officially opened the trade of silk (and other items) up to the West.

This was huge not just for trading fabric, but for trading culture, information, and even medical advancements between societies. The opening of the Silk Road (which would remain open and thriving for over 1,500 years) allowed for unprecedented cultural exchange that ultimately benefited societies in both the East and the West.

With every positive advance, it seems there is also a drawback. The Silk Road which aided in cultural advancements and trade, also would have a more sinister side including the trafficking of slaves and the sex trade.

Air BNB’s Silk Road Predecessor, Where You Could Get A Room AND Sleep With The Wife of The Host

In modern times, if you need a place to stay on a trip, you might decide to rent a room on Air BNB. You know, the travel site where people rent out rooms in their homes or maybe their entire house, like a hotel.

The Silk Road had their own version of Air BNBs where homeowners would rent out their spare bedrooms, carriage houses, etc but you might also receive some unexpected hospitality.

Marco Polo writes that it was not uncommon for the wife of the house to be offered up for “additional services” such as companionship or a romp in the bedroom. Anything to show wealthy merchants the most top notch experience in hospitality.

When a traveler would arrive, Polo says, that the traveler was allowed to “enjoy the wife’s society” and the men of the house took great pride in this and it was considered a bragging right to have a wife that the travelers enjoyed.

Most accepted this custom as just a part of the culture. I found it ironic to discover while researching this piece that the Mongols of all people, HATED this trend of “extra hospitality”.

Cathouses, Same Sex Companionship, and Roman Influence

In the Roman empire, there always seemed to be blurred lines between the sexual relationships of masters, slaves, concubines, and the like. Also, in the Roman Empire was an acceptance of same sex companionship, particularly amongst males.

This more relaxed attitude towards same sex relationships spread throughout the Silk Road.

Ghenghis Khan is even said to have “slept in blankets with other men”. He was quite the busy man.

Islamic culture, however, viewed same sex relationships as improper at least when it came to public life. That same attitude cannot be said for what happened behind closed doors especially along the Silk Road.

The Advantages of Being A Eunuch

It’s hard to imagine someone signing up to become a eunuch given the “cutbacks” involved. But in history, there were tremendous advantages to being a eunuch.

Eunuchs were used as high level ambassadors and diplomats particularly in Roman times.

In China, eunuchs were viewed as “unthreatening” and were able to get access to the imperial court and use their influence there.

Many merchants viewed having a eunuch under their employ as a great advantage due to their ability to gain access to those in power.

Genghis Khan and the Perception of Sex As Power

Genghis Khan is thought to have over 16 million descendants. He believed that copulation was a way to show power and vigor. Marco Polo details the behavior of Khan by saying that he was known to take any beautiful woman into his bedchamber.

Kublia Khan, Genghis Khan’s successor, took after his father.

Every year, 100 beautiful maidens were sent to the palace of Khan. There, they would study under old ladies in the arts of pleasure and entertainment. Those deemed worthy would be selected to attend to the emperor.

These ladies were sent in groups of six and their “shift” would last three nights and three days. The ladies would cater to the Khan’s every desire and wait on him hand and foot. They were instructed to “serve him in any way”.

Once their shift was over, they would be replaced by a fresh stock of a new six ladies who would follow suit.

Trading Silk, Spices, and People

The trading of silk and spices along the Silk Road was a given. But, people were also traded. It was not uncommon for the Silk Road to act as a transportation system for slaves and concubines.

In Ancient times, it was not uncommon for hotels to contract the services of locals for everything from translation to sexual service. Historians have even found contracts for female slaves that state an owner is allowed to do whatever he wishes with the purchased female. While sex is never directly mentioned, it is assumed.

Medicine and the Kama Sutra

The Kama Sutra compiled in the 3rd and 4th centuries, it details with instructions and illustrations, a “how to” for sexual positions and intercourse.

Tenets from both the Hindu Kama Sutra as well as Tantric Buddhism which has its roots in the benefits of achieving ecstatsy spread along the Silk Road.

While the other religious practices from both Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism were not embraced, this erotic works most definitely were.

Final Thoughts

This was just a brief dive into the history of the Silk Road and the writings of Marco Polo that I wish to explore deeper in the coming months. Particularly, how the influence of this trade route helped shape the societies that it reached.

One thing is certain, wherever there is money and affluence, one will find a more relaxed attitude towards sexual activity.


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    Jessica BuggWritten by Jessica Bugg

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