I see many people whose sexual problems stem directly from their upbringing. Often they are completely unaware of how religion has impacted them, which is not surprising given they are taught these confusing values from an early age. 

It’s difficult to grow into a healthy sexual being when you are told by religious parents and/or church leaders that ‘God created sex to be something beautiful, and pure but it should only be enjoyed in marriage’ — and only between a man and a woman. And that you have to be a virgin, preferably having no sexual activity before marriage, no masturbation, and definitely no homosexuality. 

Almost all religious groups over the ages have condemned masturbation, claiming it inhibits self-control and promotes sexual promiscuity. The many myths and outdated beliefs surrounding masturbation remain hard to shake. For instance, ‘do not masturbate because it leads to blindness’, ‘masturbating will make hair grow on the palms of your hand, ‘or masturbation causes impotence later in life and premature ejaculation’. The latest false claim is it leads to sex addiction.

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One of the most destructive emotions a person can experience is guilt. It’s not as if this guilt makes people abstain from forbidden sexual activity. No, it just makes them feel bad and depressed. Given these negative messages, it’s not surprising that there are still feelings of shame and embarrassment about this very natural and healthy activity. 

One of my clients felt guilty using his hands to masturbate and from an early age did so by lying face down on the floor or his mattress, which puts excessive pressure on the penis. These sensations are not easily replicated and he now has great difficulties enjoying sexual intercourse with his wife.

In 2006 U.S. marriage counselor and sex therapist, Dr Marty Klein, wrote the book ‘America’s War on Sex: The Attack on Law, Lust and Liberty’. He explains how the religious right faction is successfully censoring what people should read, hear, and see; by limiting access to contraception; legislating ‘good’ moral values, and brainwashing teenagers to believe that God hates premarital sex.

“Sexuality is religion’s worst nightmare because it offers the possibility of personal autonomy. Anyone can be sexual — rich or poor, old or young, tall or short, educated or not. 

Religion attempts to seize sex as its own domain, claiming a monopoly on morality which primarily is about limiting sexual expression (rather than ethical or rational decision making). Religion’s ideas about sex centre on ‘don’t do this and don’t do that.”

‘Just Say No’ has been the sex message from the United States government to teenagers since 1996. The American government has spent millions of dollars on education programs to preach that abstinence is the way teenagers should treat their sexual desires. So it comes as no surprise that religious and other conservative groups have joined in what have become full-blown campaigns with the result that teenagers are feeling more vulnerable than ever.

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However, for a woman, another disturbing side effect of ‘saving’ her virginity is the possibility of ending up with a condition called vaginismus. There are no known statistics available on how many women suffer from this condition but in my practice, I see at least about three or four women every month.

Religious institutions vary widely in their views on birth control, but the Catholic Church has banned artificial contraception for as far back as can be historically traced. Successive popes have strongly opposed any relaxation of church policy.

It was only in 2009 that Pope Benedict on a trip to Africa, claimed — in defiance of all medical opinion — that condom use could actually make the AIDS epidemic worse by increasing sexual activity. The timing of his remarks outraged health agencies trying to halt the spread of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22 million people are infected

And the new, more enlightened, Pope Francis has dismissed a question about whether condoms can be condoned in the fight against AIDS by saying there are more important issues confronting the world, like malnutrition, environmental exploitation, and the lack of safe drinking water. At least he has a more open view on homosexuality, saying: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”.

I tell my clients who believe in a religion and are overwhelmed by feelings of sexual guilt, that I do not believe God would have created men and women with sexual organs that can give them pleasure if they were simply supposed to be used for procreation.


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This post originally appeared in The Huffpost Australia Edition and was published on September 14, 2017. This article is republished here with permission and updated on January 15, 2021.