So far in this series of articles about sexual shame, I have covered what shame is and how societal pressures can impact it. This time I will explore what in my clinical opinion is one of the deepest roots of sexual shame…religion.
I took a poll when I decided to do this series and asked the question identifying what impacted their sexual shame the most and the majority of the responses stated religion. Growing up in central Texas, the predominant religion around me was Christianity. My family was practicing and influenced a lot of my early understanding of sexuality and what was ‘appropriate’. In fact, my upbringing is directly related to my career choice. I couldn’t understand growing up how, sex, something so instrumental in an intimate relationship was a topic that was avoided and could cause so much harm.
Before I get too deep into part 3 of the series, I must write there is absolutely nothing wrong with being religious, and having faith in a higher power. Having faith is a terrific way to overcome anxiety, depression, and traumatic events.
In this article, it is giving attention to some of the ways sexual shame and religion connect. It can impact sexuality in a negative way when instead it should be something that is supportive and works together to enhance one’s sense of self.
Sexual Shame Religion Has 4 Triggers
Emphasis on Virginity
In many religions, such as Christianity and Islam, maintaining virginity is paramount. Hebrews 13:4 teaches that sex before marriage is immoral and therefore creates room for punishment: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
Maintaining ‘purity’ is pious and indicates family honor in the Islamic faith, and not having purity makes you subject to an eternity in hell and disgrace from peers. When taught that your sexual experiences can define, literally, who you are as a person and what your afterlife will be like, how could you not feel pressure? So many of my clients experience a deep sense of loss and shame thinking no one will ever want them after having been with someone else.
I asked a good friend who was raised in a religious home how this impacted her. She said that “the constant analogies of being a crumpled flower, torn paper, or a lock opened by too many keys come to mind. That I’m an object that someone has to be given ownership of and not worthy of a relationship if I’m not pure. Where from that do I get the message that sex can be good?”
Culturally we might as friends or partners when they ‘lost’ their virginity and even that is a further proponent for shame. It continues to create the narrative that sex is something we ‘give’ to another person and therefore need to be overtly mindful of who is receiving that gift. Was it your spouse getting your gift on your wedding night?
If not, shame on you for not picking your partners wisely! Sex should be an experience shared when you desire it and with a partner/s you want to share it with, not something we place anxiety on and fear being judged by.
I encourage my clients, and you, to consider viewing your initial sexual experience as a sexual debut. Asking questions afterward such as…was it a good and consenting experience? If not, how can you learn from it to make it closer to what your ideal sexual experience would be?
Shaming of Sexual Orientation
If you asked anyone what they felt most religious texts said about the LGBTQ community, you’d almost unanimously have them reply that it is a sin. In 2019 there was a public outcry when a Bishop tweeted:
“A reminder that Catholics shout not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote culture and encourage activities that are contrary to the Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful to children.”– Bishop Tobin, Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island
Yikes. The Bible does not specifically condemn the LGBTQ community, however, the translation has continued the narrative that sexual identity should look only one way, a man married to a woman, and anything else is terrible and again can send you to hell.
Traditional readings of the Qur’an also appear to be unsupportive of same-sex relationships and the Islamic population is the lowest percentage of LGBTQ members who would feel comfortable being public ‘out’ in a religious institution. Judaism texts sometimes state that sexual intercourse between males as a to’eivah, or something abhorred or detested.
An article written by The Church of Jesus Christ reports that “sexual relations are to be limited to marriage between a man and a woman. Heavenly Father intends that sexual relations in marriage be used to create children and to express love and strengthen the emotional, spiritual, and physical connections between husband and wife”.
With so many individuals in the LGBTQ community, it is easy to see how religion can give pushback to enjoying sexuality. The days of conversion camps were not long ago, and we currently see the religious impact going on regarding the World Cup. Many often learn religious teachings long before doing identity work themselves, so when exploring sexuality it can be traumatic and anxiety-filled when you reconcile religious teachings with your own sexual identity.
Gender Roles and Rules
Many of my clients are leaving organized religion and wanting to explore a healthier viewpoint with sex this is based on what they were taught is appropriate roles and rules within relationships. For example, in some Christian branches, wives are taught to submit to their husbands and let them be the leaders of the household. The same is generally true within other organized religions such as Judaism and Islam as well.
Sex should be given freely whenever requested by your husband as it is your role as a wife to provide sex. This role is confusing as prior to being married, you are immediately told that you should not be sexual at all or in any way, yet are now expected to be a pillar of sexual performance post-nuptial.
Recently, I was told how someone I know was struggling with sex in their marriage and asked their pastor’s wife for feedback. She responded by saying that this person should “turn off the lights when having sex so your husband can’t see you cry.” This type of feedback reinforces that the role played within the marriage is more important than the kind of sex you do, or do not, want to be having.
Another friend shared that in her family it was common knowledge that her uncle consumed porn but that it was acceptable because his wife was sick and wouldn’t be able to meet his needs. Although if the roles were reversed no matter how sick her husband may be a wife cannot get her sexual needs met using porn.
Additionally, there are religious standards that are applied outside intimate relationships as well. I can’t even being to count the number of times I have heard someone tell me or other vulva owners that we need to monitor what we look like in order to not be tempted or place sinful thoughts into the minds of others. When it is rare for boys or penis owners to be admonished for harassment.
It is not supported to have friendships with people of the opposite sex once you are in a committed relationship. If you are taught this it is especially not okay to even have relational intimacy in some capacities, it is going to be difficult to have sexual intimacy as well.
Masturbation and Lust
Historically religion has not placed emphasis on the enjoyable parts of having sex but instead focuses on it being within the confines of a marriage and with the goal of procreating. I asked a friend about her sexual messaging growing up in a religious home and she recalled her step-sister asking what a blow-job was and being told in response that sex can be painful and messy. Instead of getting information on pleasure, the response was essentially it is not good! If taught sex is about creating children, how would masturbation or experiencing solo pleasure fit into it?
The Talmud states that when a man masturbates he “kills his own, and he spills very much blood”, equating sexual pleasure to causing death. Catholic teachings state that “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose”, and therefore sexual organs should not be used whatsoever without a spouse.
There are no specifics of masturbation mentioned in Islamic texts, however, scholars state that it is essentially the lesser of the evils (in comparison to adultery). Furthermore, there is even more emphasis on not having lustful thoughts while masturbating. This is covered more in the porn section of last month’s article, but the takeaway is that you should not consume anything lustful in nature as that is a sin.
Essentially, pleasure itself can be reduced to shame!
During the holiday season, you might notice more emphasis on family and religious beliefs. This is the most stressful time of the year for many of us. You might notice judgment from family members for not adhering to religious norms, or for living a life outside of what religious beliefs recommend.
There could be pressure to attend religious services that can deny your identity or make it challenging to connect with your partner. It would be helpful to identify the shame as it comes up and decide if it is something that you believe in for yourself!