Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Religion and sexuality are cohabitors in history and across cultures (see Weber 1946:343-350). Sexuality and sexual practice are regulated by religious belief and doctrine; religious ritual may prescribe sexual activity including intercourse with gods or their earthly representatives; gods may be seen in myths as engaging in sexual work leading to the creation of the world or a particular people. The fecundity of the earth and the sexual fertility of humans are linked in cultic prostitution and orgies; other times and places understand the higher worship of god or gods to be possible only by celibate virgins. The parameters differ, but the underlying relationship remains; it is the human experience that the mystery of human sexuality demands religious response.

Sex and the Sacred

Sexuality plays a role in the explanation of deity, divinity, and sacredness in much of what the world terms religion . Consider, for example, the creation myth of Japanese Shinto, which teaches that Japan, the sacred land of a sacred people (in Shinto), was created by the sexual union of two kami, Izangi (male) and Izanami (female). Their intercourse produces all other gods, including Amaterasu, the great sun goddess whose descendants are the emperors of Japan. The births, deaths, and sexual activity of the early Japanese deities suggest that cultic worship practices concerned with food and sex abounded in the islands' ancient past (see Reader 1991). Sexuality is an integral component in the sacred standing of these deities.

The absence of sexuality and sexual activity also can be important in asserting divine privilege and power. We need look no farther than the Christian assertion of the virgin birth to understand more fully the insistence on purity, celibacy, and chastity. The sacred scriptures of Christians, and the earliest creeds of Christianity, known as the Apostles and Nicene, assert that Jesus's mother, Mary, "had not lain with a man" and that Jesus was "born of a virgin." While claims of virgin births were not restricted to Christians in the first century B.C.E., the scripture passage that Joseph "knew her not until after" the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25) had, by the Middle Ages, become understood in popularized Christianity to mean that Jesus passed through the birth canal without destroying Mary's physical virginity—nor did Mary ever, in fact, engage in sexual relations at any time. In the nineteenth century, this led to the Roman Catholic pronouncement that blessed Mary was "ever virgin" (the "perpetual virginity") and herself conceived "immaculately" (Warner 1983). Contrast this image with that of the biblical Eve, the seductress who is sexually insatiable.

Religion and the Practice of Sex

Today, religious teachings of all sorts officially pronounce and proscribe many beliefs about sexuality and sexual practices. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, for example, believes that sexuality belongs correctly within marriage, that sexual intercourse must be free to bring another spirit being, waiting in another place, to physical birth in this world. Large families are the norm but are the decision of the couple. Artificial birth control is rare, but not completely banned, as in official Roman Catholic teaching. Roman Catholics are to engage in intercourse if conception is possible; sexual practices among heterosexual couples such as mutual masturbation and oral and anal intercourse, which are not procreative by nature, were once prohibited and even now are discouraged. Many of the more conservative branches of Judaism, and most of Islam's sects, ban nonprocreative sexual practices.

All of these groups, of course, find homosexuality and its sexual practices incompatible with religious teaching. Gay and lesbian believers, on the other hand, often express dissatisfaction with equating moralistic or cultural values with religious commandments. Religious teachings in each of these Western, monotheistic traditions are used today to condemn and affirm, prohibit and bless, homosexual activity, orientations, and unions.

Sexuality can be dictated, studied, and even suggested by religious teachings and institutions. Cults and communes of the 1960s and 1970s, too numerous to name or classify, often practiced group sex to bind together members or to bind women followers to a male leader. The nineteenth-century Oneida Community practiced a marriage of all believers in such a way that all were available sexual partners to all opposite sex members of the group. In practice, the founder and leader, John Humphrey Noyes, seems to have regulated who engaged in sexual union with whom and, it has been suggested, even engaged in an early form of eugenic breeding in his planned couplings (see DeMaria 1978). The Shakers, on the other hand, lived a celibate lifestyle but incorporated such energetic ritualized dancing in their worship as to be suggestive of orgiastic frenzy.

Sex can be understood by religion as necessary but evil, as among the people of Inis Beag, a small island off the coast of Ireland. These people shroud sexuality in ignorance and guilt, discuss sex rarely and never joke about it, discourage nudity, proscribe sex until after marriage, practice quick intercourse, in private and without much expectation for women to achieve orgasm, and believe that for men, the sex act drains the body's natural energies. Inis Beag is heavily Roman Catholic. Among the Mangaia people located in the Polynesian chain, by contrast, sexuality is active, vigorous, and of lengthy duration, and partners are committed to mutually pleasurable experience. Young people are encouraged to masturbate; more experienced partners educate and provide practice for youth in sexual pleasuring. These people live in small huts, and sexual intercourse takes place in the presence of the young woman's family, who politely ignore the couple. Male prowess is much discussed and compared among the women of Mangaia. Affection and love are thought to develop from satisfactory sexual relations. Human sexuality and pleasure are connected to the fertility of the island surrounding the community, and religious ritual can include sexually charged events, including the younger people before marriage (see, for both cases, Gagnon 1977).

Sex and Procreation in the Religious View

Religious involvement in defining appropriate sexuality can extend to modern medicine's ability to achieve procreative goals without intercourse. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, prohibits artificial insemination when a couple cannot naturally conceive because it is an "unnatural act," and terms the use of donor sperm in a controlled medical setting an act of adultery. Such sexually charged language can hardly be accurate when describing a medical procedure, in a clinical setting, where the sperm is deposited by a syringe guided by gloved medical hands into a woman's vagina. Nevertheless, a pregnancy occurring after a rape is considered "natural."

Until the end of the eighteenth century, virtually all sexual practices in Western societies were governed by religious values. "Sex was an impulse of the flesh [and] it came to represent a fall from grace." Sex's one purpose was procreation, and often celibacy held higher religious value even among Protestants. In Victorian London, there were 40,000 prostitutes, but "good" women were only the infrequent sexual partners of their "proper" husbands (Blumenfeld and Raymond 1993). Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century, confronted by sexual practice in many Pacific regions where rear vaginal entry of the female by the male was preferred, condemned such activity as against God, who prefers, they taught, what became known as the "missionary" position of the male lying atop and facing his female partner (a name that has stayed with this position to the present day, completely outside that religious context).

Religious teaching preaches an image of sexuality when speaking on creation, marriage, fertility, divinity, and the sacred order. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate an understanding of humanity's sexual nature as either good or evil from religious roots in many, if not all, traditions. Appropriately, the study of sexuality in its cultural context requires an understanding of religion and religious practices to provide full meaning to the prevalent sexual behaviors and attitudes in any culture.

Barbara J. Denison


W. J. Blumenfeld and D. Raymond, Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Boston: Beacon, 1993)

R. DeMaria, Communal Love at Oneida (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1978)

J. H. Gagnon, Human Sexualities (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1977)

G. Parrender, Sex in the World's Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)

A Profile of Faith [video] (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1993)

I. Reader, Religion in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991)

M. Warner, Alone of All Her Sex (New York: Random House, 1983)

M. Weber, From Max Weber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).

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