Revealed Religion and the Complexities of Human Sexuality

(This is an extract from a chapter I recently wrote on the consequences of religion on our sex lives and sexual health. It has been cross-posted to www.academia.edu as a draft for comments.)

            The struggle to free human sexuality from its religious straitjacket is a paradigmatic example of the difficulty revealed religion has in adjusting to any fact that conflicts with the way it saw the world at the time of that revelation. Because these religions claim to have received revelation from the creator of the world, who surely understands his creation better than we who live in it do, any contrary understanding must a priori be wrong. Not only do such religions refuse to listen to any counter-evidence, often they actively seek to prevent, sometimes by force, the rest of us from dealing with the world as it really is.

            Dealing with the world as it really is means accepting that Adam and Eve are a myth, and that human sexual complexity evolved just as humans evolved. Everything we are, everything we know and are continuing to learn about ourselves, our bodies, our sexuality, all our ideas about what is normal and natural, have as their only source other human beings. What too many of us still take to eternal truth dictated from On High in reality began as a limited Iron Age notion of sexuality founded on patriarchy, then was layered over with the parochial desire of some members of one ethnic group to separate themselves from their neighbors, further complicated by a localized distaste for sex, and finished off with a theological construct which relies on a total misunderstanding of the reproductive process. We should be mature enough to move beyond that by now.

            As an example of denial of reality, defenders of Humanae Vitae (the 1968 papal encyclical that denounced birth control) have taken to arguing that it correctly prophesied disastrous results from the sexual revolution and contraception. “‘The #MeToo movement, emotional wreckage, sexual disease and date rape are the realities we’ve inherited from the sexual revolution. Paul VI would not be surprised,’ said Archbishop Charles Chaput in a speech Wednesday.”[1] Not so. The reality is that #MeToo, a social media construction, targets unwanted sexual advances; men who fondle, rape, or otherwise abuse women (and men) are the least likely to be motivated by the availability of contraception–since that would require them to have some consideration for their victims.

Far from encouraging more sexual violence, the sexual revolution has encouraged more reporting of it.[2] And it is entirely appropriate that the #MeToo movement, legitimate child of the sexual revolution, has spawned its own offspring, #ChurchToo. For centuries, Catholic clergy have inflicted “emotional wreckage, sexual disease and date rape” on those who have put faith and trust in them, and then demonized their victims when they dared to come forward. Just as I was working on this chapter, a grand jury in Pennsylvania investigating Catholic diocesan abuses and coverups released a thousand-page report which, as they state, covers only those cases where they were certain of the evidence. The report charges that “despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability. Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all” (PA Courts 2018, 7). In the diocese of Scranton, for example,

a priest raped a girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. The bishop expressed his feelings in a letter: “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” But the letter was not for the girl. It was addressed to the rapist. (PA Courts 2018, 6)

And this is only the latest of such reports, from Boston to Chile. This is the same institution that claims a mandate from God to dictate to the rest of us the rules of sexual behavior. The hypocrisy of imams, rabbis, and Protestant ministers has been similarly, if less dramatically, exposed; no religion comes off well here.[3] Catholicism, however, is the most rigorously organized and hierarchical of these religions, meaning that the abuse and, more significantly, the coverup, are institutional failures rather than individual ones. Further, this abuse extends back centuries, as far back as the Catholic insistence on celibacy for its clergy, thereby providing yet another example of the damage caused by its warped view of human sexuality.

            The sexual revolution also underscores the reality that human sexuality is not “binary”; it is not “male and female created he them.” It is male, female, mixed male, mixed female, cisgender, transgender, asexual, bisexual, polysexual. And the insistence that just because the male and female cisgender variety is the most common one means that it is the only natural one is another case of unjustified universalism.[4]

            Let me put it this way: There are, as I conceive of it, two parts to human sexuality: potentiality and actualization. For the first part, potentiality, there are four aspects operating in tandem. First is sex: our biological genitalia. Second is identity: how one relates to and identifies with one’s own genitalia, as contrasted with the third aspect, orientation, which is how one relates physically and emotionally to the genitalia of others. And finally, there is gender, which I define here as the combination of the first three aspects along with the societal response to and recognition of the various combinations. Gender is where we speak of heterosexuality, homosexuality, transgender, and other varieties of the human condition as well as our reactions to them. Further, modern biology and psychology have taught us that all of these aspects are natural, and are complex and not easily defined, nor necessarily fixed over a lifetime; that is, they can be fluid to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the individual.

            The second part, actualization, can be divided into three categories: purpose, setting, and activity. Purpose includes power, reproduction, physical release, play, love, and intimacy–with the caveat that these are almost never mutually exclusive; there will be generally be more than one purpose in operation in any given setting. Setting describes the conditions under which sexual activity takes place, running the gamut from celibacy (‘setting’ in a negative sense) through hookups, one-night stands, seduction, rape, prostitution, friends-with-benefits, dalliances, summer flings, affairs, living together, domestic partnership, religious marriage, civil marriage, monogamy, open relationships, polygamy, and other combinations, while activity covers the purely physical act or acts: abstinence, cuddling, petting, masturbation (private or mutual), bondage, coitus, coitus interruptus, fellatio, frottage, etc., etc., etc., limited only by human ingenuity, physical and emotional flexibility, and imagination.

            The sexual revolution, and especially its #MeToo avatar, have made it clear that power is not a legitimate purpose, and that rape (which is essentially power) is not a permissible setting. Beyond that, we as a society are continuing to explore what the new norms should be, what are the proper boundaries, what are the best ways to express one’s sexuality, now that it has become obvious that the old boundaries not only do not work, but never have. As happens in any time of experimentation, some will go too far, and others not far enough, but there is an emerging consensus seen already on some issues: the overwhelming acceptance of contraceptives, the growing majority of Americans and Europeans who have no problem with same-sex marriage, the response to the #MeToo exposure of men (and the occasional woman) who think they have a right to other people’s sexuality without their consent.

            Let us be clear on that last point. No one has a right to have sex.[5] There is a right to give and receive informed sexual consent. After that, it becomes a discussion of the details.

            If the various religions want to properly participate in that discussion, they must first admit (as some have) that it is a discussion, that is, a conversation and exploration in which all sides have something to say, not a dictate from on high. Attempts to cut off the discussion with pronouncements along the lines of “God doesn’t like it” are not acceptable. Many religions, including many branches of Christianity, have already said that, as far as they are concerned, God is just fine with it. But that is not the point. The point is that everything that every religion has to say about sex, as about anything else, is the product entirely and exclusively of human understanding and experience along with less rational, but still human, motives. “What God told us in the Bible” is in reality a set of tribal taboos and personal prejudices that should never have been canonized as though they were commands from God.

Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trip. New York: BasicBooks.

PA Courts. 2018. “40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury REPORT 1 Interim–Redacted.” Released August 15, 2018. Accessed as http://media-downloads.pacourts.us/InterimRedactedReportandResponses.pdf?cb=42148

Pease, Joshua. 2018. “The Sin of Silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church.” Washington Post, May 31, 2018. Accessed as https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/31/feature/the-epidemic-of-denial-about-sexual-abuse-in-the-evangelical-church/?utm_term=.84f47d87f9db.

Schwab, Charlotte Rolnick. 2002. Sex, Lies, and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust. Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks.


[1] The Philadelphia archbishop was addressing a conference on the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae on April 4, 2018 ( https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/archbishop-chaput-paul-vi-would-not-be-surprised-by-the-metoo-movement-95341 ).

[2] Based on caseworker records, incest was quite common in the US between 1880 and 1960, but was often redefined as female “sex delinquency.” Women in the 1950s were frequently told by therapists that they were “fantasizing” incest and other sex abuse. “Not until the 1970s, heartened by a supportive women’s movement, were many women able to speak out about the sexual abuse they had suffered in silent agony during the 1950s. . .” (Coontz 1992, 35).

[3] Pease (2018) writes one of the many reports about abuse among evangelicals. A Houston Chronicle story from Feb 10, 2019, reports that “since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct” (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/article/Southern-Baptist-sexual-abuse-spreads-as-leaders-13588038.php). For rabbis, see Schwab (2002); an example of an imam is at (http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/elgin-courier-news/news/ct-elgin-imam-sex-abuse-plea-met-20160825-story.html).

[4] “Unjustified universalism” is a term I defined earlier, meaning the idea that what I believe or the things I feel is ipso facto what everyone must believe or ought to feel, particularly if I was told some god said so. Another example of unjustified universalism is the argument against same-sex relations that asks “Well, what if everyone were gay?” Clearly, not everyone is. Actually, the assumption that people must be either one or the other (complementarity) is a further instance of unjustified universalism; many, perhaps most, people are a complex mix of sexual interests.

[5] Except masturbation, of course.

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