Why Does Religion Assign So Much Guilt Over Sex?

honeymoon couple bed

This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

Religion is credited with many things—providing a moral code of behavior for society, educating children according to a particular doctrine, creating a sense of community—but it can also seriously screw up your sex life.

Indeed, sex and guilt are often unwilling but complicit bedfellows.

As psychologist Valerie Tarico argues, “One of the most fundamental ways conservative religion hooks people is by creating deep psychological hang-ups about sex, for which it then claims to offer a solution.”

Catholics like to think they have a monopoly on the sex and guilt thing. After all, they are raised to believe that the sole purpose of sex is procreation and not pleasure. So any kind of sexual activity that promotes pleasure in any conceivable permutation—single-handedly, virtually, a deux, a trois, or a flat-out bacchanalian bukkake f*ckfest—would immediately fall under the category of sin, which would result in waves of guilt drowning out any lingering waves of pleasure. And yet, the fact that such pleasure is frowned upon, if not outright forbidden, makes one desire it even more. (Cue those shameless predatory Catholic clergy who can’t seem to keep their hands off little boys and girls. It’s highly doubtful that procreation is foremost in their minds while they are seeking sexual pleasure from sexually abusing their helpless victims.)

For an express ticket to hell, one could always compound the sin of sex for pleasure with the sin of sex outside of marriage, or fornication, which is considered a whole other level of evil, the kind that guaranteed eternal damnation.

And then there’s the whole notion of female purity, thanks to the Virgin Mary, who, Scripture has it, managed to give birth to the Son of God (through the intercession of the Holy Spirit) without ever once being sullied by the touch of her husband, a mere mortal named Joseph. Her immaculate conception inspired the template of female sexual behavior that, when you think about it carefully, completely ignores, among other things, the importance of personal agency in any decision a woman makes about her life and the idea that sex can and should be pleasurable. Instead, it promotes a distorted ideal of womanhood—virginal, submissive, and essentially nothing more than a vessel for reproduction belonging to the man who marries her.

The Catholics are not alone in thinking sex—any kind of sex outside of marriage—is dirty. The Christian Right similarly clings to similar notions, self-righteously trumpeting their fidelity to their wives, their abhorrence of homosexuality, their disapproval of premarital and extramarital sex, their distaste for pornography. And yet, they somehow seem to get caught with their pants down—literally, sometimes—in bed with their mistresses, trawling pornographic websites, signing up for an affair via Ashley Madison, or being pleasured by a rent boy in a toilet stall.

There is also a kind of warped morality at play when it emerged that the US Vice President Mike Pence—a self-described “evangelical Catholic”—claimed in a 2002 interview that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. He also said he didn’t attend events that served alcohol unless he was with his wife.

Presumably, Pence insists on having his wife present to avoid temptation, an attitude that takes its cue from what is known as the Billy Graham Rule, in which the famous American evangelical pastor insisted on never traveling, eating or meeting alone with any woman who was not his wife, after he was reportedly set up in 1950 or so after an out of town evangelical meeting by a naked woman lying in his hotel bed, “ready to seduce him and destroy his ministry,” according to a Washington Post report.

This rule was lauded by many at the time, and regarded as a sincere attempt undertaken by Graham and other men in positions of religious and business leadership “to guard their marriages from infidelity and their hearts from lust.”

While I can understand the reasoning behind such a rule, there is something Talibanistic in this day and age to simply regard women as temptresses who must be avoided at all costs. And, as Laura Turner wrote in her Washington Post piece, “It perpetuates an old boys’ club mentality, excluding women from important work and career conversations simply by virtue of their sex.”

As Christians, I suppose the question Pence, et. al. should be asking themselves is, “What would Jesus do?” If one were to take Jesus’ own life as a blueprint of how to behave around women, one would realize that he was actually quite the egalitarian. “Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including his meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day,” Turner said. “Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet he didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that his reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.”

Speaking of Jews, Shalom Auslander, raised an Orthodox Jew with a rabbi for a father, wrote Foreskin’s Lament, a painful, angry, yet darkly funny memoir of how his religion basically f*cked him up for life, manipulating him into feeling shame, fear and guilt about everything, especially sex.

It also threatened to f*ck him up in the afterlife.

“When I was young, they told me that when I died and went to Heaven, the angels would take me into a vast museum full of paintings I had never before seen, paintings that would have been created by all the artistic sperms I had wasted in my life. Then the angels would take me into a huge library full of books I had never read, books that would have been written by all the prolific sperms I had wasted in my life. Then the angels would take me to a huge house of worship, filled with hundreds of thousand of Jews, praying and studying, Jews that would have been born if I hadn’t killed them, wasted them, mopped them up with a dirty sock during the hideous failure of my despicable life (there are roughly 50 million sperms in every ejaculate; that’s about nine Holocausts in every wank. I was just hitting puberty when they told me this, or puberty was just hitting me, and I was committing genocide, on average, three or four times a day). They told me that when I died and went to Heaven, I would be boiled alive in giant vats filled with all the semen I had wasted during my life.”

His wife, whose upbringing was markedly more progressive, told him he had been “theologically abused.”

As have many of us, no matter the faith in which we were raised.

B. Wiser is the author of
Making Love in Spanish, a novel published  by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.

For comments and questions, e-mail b.wiser.ph@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.


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