Religion Shutting Down Sexuality

Religious sexual repression

Religious sexual repression

Harmful messages about sexuality are too often transmitted by conservative religions of all stripes.

The Christian woman quoted below is talking about how much she shares with another Christian woman’s experience:

“I suppressed most of my sexual urges.” YES. Hell yes, I did. “I was more or less asexual.” YES. I didn’t have a sexual thought, didn’t have a sexual fantasy, didn’t have a sex drive. I’d suppressed these things out of existence.

Sorry to say that I, too, can relate.

Christians — and Jews

Not surprisingly, repression is threatening marriage — and conception — among Orthodox Jews, too.

The marital bed is a blessing filled with God’s light, say rabbis. Yet too often women feel disgust and pain instead of desire, and recoil from their husbands.

Occasionally, rabbis refer cringing wives to counselors, like Bat Sheva Marcus, who has put a lot of work into dealing with her own repressed sexuality.

As a young woman Dr. Marcus could not talk about sex or even say the word “breasts.” But while working on her masters degree she finally broke through her fear. Now she’s an Orthodox sex counselor who told the New York Times that the women she meets with “have zero — zero — connection to pleasure.”

One woman had not known where her clitoris was until after bearing her third child. Even then, her rabbi cautioned against clitoral stimulation, relenting only after learning that it was necessary for arousal.

— and Muslims

Fundamentalist Muslims are also — surprise, surprise — affected. Egyptian journalist, Mona Eltahawy, writes about her struggle to accept her body and sexuality in the face of the guilt and shame she absorbed. In her book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why The Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution, she worries over a purity culture that leaves so many women disgusted by sex and remaining lifelong mental and emotional virgins. Yet oddly, they are also held responsible for the physically and emotionally painful rapes that they are all too often victimized by.

Even though the religious and nonreligious alike engage in the same sorts of activities: masturbation, oral sex, affairs, porn, the missionary position… the religious feel guiltier about it all and enjoy it less. So say Kansas University researchers, Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown, who surveyed more than 14,500 people.

The more conservative the observer, the more shame. Mormons ranked highest with a score of 8.19 out of 10. Close behind were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists. Who experienced the least shame? Atheists.

Strange that a (God-given?) gift of sexuality is so shrouded in shame.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on April 11, 2016, in psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. At my very Christian junior high and high school I experienced this shutting down all too much. We had countless speakers and teachers literally preaching “premarital sex will send you to hell”. They didn’t even sugar coat it. It kind of brainwashed me so much that in my pre-teen years and as an early teenager I remember swearing to myself to save my virginity for my husband on my wedding night and even wanted to get myself a purity ring. I am still very much a Christian, but I also don’t think anymore that God is gonna send me to hell for having sex with my boyfriend. I’m happy my views have changed, but that initial misinformation I was given at a young age really did affect how I viewed myself and my sexuality in a negative way. It made me self-conciously feel ashamed and dirty.

  2. Brian Neumann

    I have always been surprised at how repressive religions become when it comes to sexuality.

    The first quote perfectly summed up how unnatural it is to suppress one’s sexuality. Again, women are stripped of their right to self-express and enjoy the natural given attributes of sex. This is another double-standard, because men in different religions do not face the same pressure as do women. On the contrary, men are more likely to be “allowed” to enjoy sex, yet women are not. Therefore women are easily seen as “objects” that only serve for men’s pleasure — if different religions deny sexual pleasure to women, then the act of sex becomes completely one-sided. Mona Eltahawy — from her own experience — described this as a “struggle to accept her body and sexuality in the face of the guilt and shame she absorbed.” The guilt that these different religions instills into its “followers” are more so endured by the women. It is not difficult to believe that yet another avenue of human life, which is also undermining women again, is socially constructed.

    • And sometimes men are allowed to rape/”Have sex” because it’s the woman’s fault — she wasn’t covering herself properly (She let a little bit of hair show and what man could resist?)

  3. I can so relate to this ! I love in a house that is predominately Christian and my grandpa is a pastor . In our household we are expected to know the values of a conservative Christian life and women and men have their roles. Man is the breadwinner and the woman a stay at home mom doing everything wishing that they can do something in life. But these expectations also have sexual interruption as who your identity is . In my house sex was talked about but only as a sacred moment that men and women had to wait till they got married if not they were not pure and in that case It didn’t take long to process that feeling of being shunned or felt disgusted by myself or my family that I had sex before marriage . Religion pretty much snapped the mind and behavior of this household but I was never raised with my dad’s side of the family so I was never use to it, and as I stayed in their home I did more and more things they didn’t like that I was simply use too . In the religious view I was not pure and was kinda left aside while the family got together . My sexuality as a straight man didn’t make a difference the point is that I felt outcasted and I didn’t feel human to wait till I got married to have sex . I feel like it’s human nature that just drives us by instinct and feeling that makes us complete. Though religion enforces values I feel like they are too double standard and too gender co trolling at times .

  4. One thing that I also find disturbing is that religion forbids women of knowing basic human anatomy that should be taught to everyone. Like this article implies, most women are forbiden to do clitoris stimulation and in doing so, some women do not even know where their clitoris is. How is it that men are allowed to know things that women do not? Keeping half the population from learning basic teachings is not only harmful to that population but the entire world. Women are just as capable as men when it comes to learning, and in neglecting them and focusing them not to learn the basics of their own body is wrong and may lead to even bigger health factors. Usually simple health factors can be solved at home if give then correct information. Education should be a widely given resources since in order for our societies to advanced into a greater entity as a whole, we must first pick up each other.

    • And one advantage men have is that the penis does make itself more obvious — it is larger and more noticeable, there is more stimulus in the world to get it going, and it’s workings seem to be a bit less mysterious. So it is especially important for women to explore their bodies.

  5. It’s sad to think that religion can make you feel dirty and unpure for sleeping with your husband. After years of saving yourself and neglecting your sex drive, you are left with the feeling of regret and unsatisfaction. I don’t say that everyone who saves themselves will end up this way, but I can imagine the handful of people already dealing with this. I personally admire the idea of purity rings and saving yourself but I also agree that intercourse is one of key points to exploring you and your partners universe. Many religions talk about remaining pure for your partner and to avoid any genital stimulation. Doing so prevents you from further understanding your body and it’s capabilities. It also develops into a feeling of shame about your sexual experience. All in all, it’s crucial to accept and understand yourself sexually and physically in order to resist the shame and repression.

    • I experienced particularly large barrage of factors. But even among women don’t, Women seem to lose interest in sex with her husband is much more quickly than their husbands lose interest in sex with them. That quite likely is due to cultural sexual repression which leaves women meeting much more to be interested.

      And a lot of women are affected I things that stem beyond religion, which helps to understand why nearly half of women have experienced sexual dysfunction.

  6. Personally I was brought up as a Catholic and never really understood most of the teachings provided in that religion. I want to say that I am atheist, but I do believe that there is something bigger than us that we can not yet fully understand. That being said, and I know that was off tangent but coming from that belief, I generally find myself understanding that the world is one. Meaning we are all connected. I wouldn’t want my female sisters to feel like they are evil for doing things that human nature has given us impulses to do to survive and flourish as a species. Its natural to have these desires and condoning half the population and not another basically means you are condoning half of yourself since we are all connected as one living entity. I have a firm belief that women can do anything a man can, and should do anything a man does. I also do believe that their are genetic difference that WILL separate one another’s abilities but that is getting into detail. Our society treats women bodies as sexual objects, and that, in itself, should be a sin in all religions. Religion, in my opinion, is meant to teach morals not day by day routines since a book written 5000 years ago has little to no relevance now in the 21st century.

  7. I was raised Catholic- not just Catholic, but Mexican Catholic. We Mexicans have a special affection for La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary. I was taught that premarital sex was a sin, and a woman must remain pure for her husband. Sex made a woman impure, and I wanted to remain pure for as long as possible. My virginity was a source of pride. I waited until I was eighteen to have sex, and when I finally did, I thought this was the guy I was going to spend the rest of my life with; that’s how I justified premarital sex. Eighteen was old compared to all my friends, who began having sex freshman and sophomore years. I stayed in that relationship for much longer than I should have simply because this was the guy I had lost my virginity to. That relationship finally ended, so my new rule was that I would only have sex with someone I was in a serious committed relationship with. Casual sex was absolutely not ok. Then I took a sexual psychology course, and learned about the virgin whore dichotomy- it was a revelation, to say the least. All the damage done by Catholicism was undone, the shame over my sexuality gone. My self-worth didn’t depend on my virginity and the amount of sexual partners I had. I had casual sex for the first time with someone I wasn’t in a relationship with. My only rule was a mutual respect and attraction. I still have a special affection for the Virgin Mary, but I’ve created a new narrative for her: she had an extramarital affair, and fearing stoning or however people were punished during those times for adultery, she came up with the best lie in the history of mankind. Or, Joseph knew, but went along with the lie to protect her. Because, let’s be real, immaculate conception is biologically impossible. I’m also no longer a Catholic, but vacillate between agnostic and atheist.

    • I’m a fan of Mary, myself. At the least, I like seeing female power recognized, honored and even deified. I’m glad that you were able to let go of the repression. For some of us it’s not so easy.

      Religion isn’t the only problem. And people often don’t recognize how much they are repressed. Nearly half of women in the United States experience sexual dysfunction. And even those who can reliably orgasm often need a vibrator. That’s not natural. It’s a sign of repression.

  8. Growing up in the traditional Catholic faith, I internalized repressive psychosexual norms in early childhood. Fortunately, progressive secondary schooling encouraged me to unlearn these false notions- many of which shamed women for their sexual decisions. I started to embrace my sexuality as part of my humanity instead of letting it define my existence- the latter still not uncommon for modern women (i.e. Kylie Jenner, select social media supermodels.) The beauty versus brains dichotomy hurts us all- a penchant for short skirts does not detract from quantitative ability, for example. Misogynistic assumptions keep women from recognizing and nourishing their full potential, with dire economic consequences for patriarchy. Countries (often developing) with rigid gender binaries tend to exclude women entirely from the workforce, consequently underutilizing over half of human capital. (Recent implementations of micro-financing have gradually reversed this trend with varying consequences.)

    The relationship between religion and sexuality can be a tricky balancing act- while God wields immense power over His (questionable?) followers, more progressive sects of Judeo-Christian faith champion critical, individualized interpretation of Biblical-like text. I would hope more monotheistic religious types culturally distinguish between internalized sexual repression and religious politics- as one should advocate civil rights (including reproductive justice) without fearing excommunication.

  9. James Tuakalau

    I don’t believe it is my place to try and change the thought of this blog but my opinion is valid and I hope that it will give you some insight as to why we strive to control our sexual desires rather than let em run wild. Growing up in Christain, specifically Latterday Saint faith or known as Mormon, we were taught to always treasure the gift of sex for the one who you are going to spend eternity with your spouse. The reason was simple because it was a commandment from God. As in all teachings, some commandments, require an exercise of faith on one behalf. Over the years, I was able to wait and do as was commanded of me and have seen the blessing of doing so. I come from a big family and growing up in a home with my brothers I feel it is fair that I use them as a comparison. There is me who did as told and tried to control my sexual desires and then there was my brother who lived most guys dream of being able to sleep with countless girls of his own choosing. Yes, I testify that it was hard to sit there and control myself while watching my brother enjoy sexual pleasure. But I feel the damage was done more on the women side than his. I’ve witness insecurity, disgust, shame, broken hearted, abortion and a real life situation suicide from these girls that slept with my brother. It was saddening to me to see that. In short we as Christians are taught eternal principles while the world teaches quick satisfaction. As in sex, we are taught to not be disgusted by sex but to treasure the God-given gift for your eternal soulmate. Oh, how sweet it was knowing that me and my wife both waited for each other.

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective. Here is my perspective on your perspective.

      It’s actually possible to advise — or decide — to wait until marriage to have sex, yet still stay sex-positive. It may be tricky, but it is possible. Unfortunately, religions often encourage waiting till marriage BY focusing on sexuality as sinful (until marriage). But then after you get married, too often no sexual impulse is left — or it is very low. I should know. I attended a church that was like that, and I’ve had a lot of problems in this area — as have many, many other church-goers.

  10. I encountered this in an interesting way once, when I and my roommate at the time discovered a Christian-centered dating advice book for women, which was left behind in our apartment by a previous tenant. The most memorable section cautioned the reader against masturbation, for two primary reasons. First, that by giving herself pleasure, she would be usurping God’s role, which was to give her the greatest pleasure–or something like that (this was several years ago so unfortunately I can’t remember the exact wording). Second, that if she gave herself pleasure, she would ultimately be disappointed by the inevitably lesser pleasure given to her by her husband. They acknowledged and at the same time accepted as normal and acceptable that intercourse with men is often less pleasurable for women than masturbating–and the only solution offered to this problem was “don’t masturbate”! My roommate and I laughed quite a bit at this section, and I still think it’s funny, but after having time to digest it, I also find it incredibly disturbing. It’s really heartbreaking to think of the women of faith who read that book and took its messages to heart.

    • Unfortunately I know a lot of those women who took the message to heart. It ends up not being very good for marriage because the women aren’t interested and the men are, Which causes a lot of conflict and hurt feelings, And just an overall want of pleasure and connection.

  11. This blog post is similar to what a friend once told me. She is a christian and although she DOES have sex, she feels guilty because shes “not suppose to have sex until marriage”. I feel like sex is a human right, and there shouldnt be any feeling of guilt during sexual intercourse. It sucks to hear that some feel ashamed and cant be as pleasured!

  12. This is a great example of why the world needs to direct itself toward sexual freedom for everyone. Having a religion is totally respectable and can be very beneficial, however other implications like this play into both the patriarchal and sexist nature of many societies that exist in the world today.
    The idea of sexual freedom/pleasure may be scoffed my such religions, but change needs to come. Aspects of life like this may seem less threatening on the surface but in fact play a huge role in the demonization of women’s sexuality and freedom.

  13. I think it’s sad to think that women cannot express such a natural urge and are so shamed into thinking that sex is such a horrible thing. I believe that’s why women are seen to be sexual objects, because we are told that having sex is a sacred thing and that our body parts are supposed to be covered. Men just see our body parts as sexual objects and not for their main reason of reproduction. Religious women are shamed for wanting to feel pleasure, so they are less likely to want it and just mostly block it out as an option all together. “Even though the religious and nonreligious alike engage in the same sorts of activities: masturbation, oral sex, affairs, porn, the missionary position… the religious feel guiltier about it all and enjoy it less”. Its sad that women can not enjoy the same pleasure as men and have to feel guilty about engaging in sexual encounters, even if it with themselves.

  14. It is a nice topic to read. Because of the religion, female rights have been deprived. The sexual problem may not the only one shutting down by religions. Religion is not mandatory institutions, having no rights to control people’s mind. Religion is a tool to advocate people what not to do and what you can do. People’s sexual behaviors should be human rights. Nowadays the society is willing to announce people to have free love and free sex. And for couples who have good sexual relationships will have better effects for their marriage. If the Religion let people passively get a sexual view, rather than to accept actively, that is not fair to human being.

  15. Religious conservationism of the extreme kind as stated here, that allows religious prescriptions to dominate personal lives, is apparently on the wane, at least among younger generations in most of the countries in spite of resolute attempts by clergy in abrahamic religions to keep the orthodoxies alive. While it is all well to preach moderation in matters of sex, asking the laity to suppress natural urges is indicative of sickness of the mind bordering on obscurantism. Just the other day, I read about a local bishop exhorting young women in his diocese to give priority for getting married at a young age and thereafter pursuing their careers. It is up to each individual to consider the permissible allowance for religious orthodoxies vis-a-vis free will in his or her life, or tag on entire living to the rusty tenets of religion and antiquated practices within communities.

    • It’s on the wane in some places but still pretty strong in a lot of places. And the thing is that I have lived through this myself and know that you can’t just decide to not listen to the messages. They sink in and can become a very strong part of how you experience the world. Although on average there is some recovery if people leave religion. I surveyed my students on how sex positive they were and I also asked them about receiving negative messages from their religions. Those who had received negative messages tended to have much more difficulty with sexual pleasure.

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