Sexual intimacy and pleasure are some of humanity’s most cherished experiences. The so-called “best things in life” include natural beauty, fine dining, the arts, thrilling adventures, creative pursuits and community service. But love and orgasms are among the few peak experiences that are equally available to rich and poor, equally sweet to those whose lives are going according to plan and to many whose dreams are in pieces.
Religious conservatives think that these treasured dimensions of the human experience should be available to only a privileged few people whose lives fit their model: male-dominated, monogamous, heterosexual pairs who have pledged love and contractual marriage for life. Some true believers—especially those in thrall to the Protestant Quiverfull Movement or the Vatican—would further limit sexual privileges even within hetero state-licensed, church-sanctified marriages to only couples who are open to intimacy producing a pregnancy and a child. Take your pick: it’s either reproductive roulette or no sex—although you might be able to game God by tracking female fertility and then bumping like bunnies during the low-risk times of the month.
Why Christianity Is Obsessed With Sex
To be clear, I’m not saying that Christianity’s sex rules are only a function of patriarchal Christian privilege. During the Iron Age, from whence Christianity’s sex rules got handed down, society was organized around kin groups, and the endlessly warmongering clans of the Ancient Near East were more at risk of extinction than overpopulation. Legally enforced monogamy created lines of inheritance and social obligation, clarifying how neighbors should be treated and who could be enslaved.
Also, hetero sex necessarily carried the risk of pregnancy, which made it adaptive to welcome resultant pregnancies. Children do best in stable, nurturing families and communities, and in the Ancient Near East, “No marriage? No sex!” may have served to protect the well-being of mothers and children as well as the social power of patriarchal men. But in today’s mobile, pluralistic societies with modern contraceptive options and social safety nets, God’s self-appointed sex police have little credible excuse save their own compelling need to bully and boss and stay on top.
It should come as no surprise that Church authorities want an exclusive license to grant “legitimate” sexual privileges. Over the centuries, religious authorities have sought to own and define virtually all of the experiences that touch us deeply: the birth of a new person (christening, bris), art (iconography), music (chanting and hymns), eating, morality, mind altering substances, community, coming of age, family formation, and even our dying process. In each case religious authorities seek to legitimize some forms of the experience and denigrate those that don’t fit their model. Powerful people and institutions want to control valued assets so they can leverage those assets to get more power. And controlling sex is powerful!
The Egotism and Cruelty of God’s Self-Appointed Messengers
Religious authorities like Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan or Evangelist Franklin Graham or Religious Right icon Pat Robertson quote the Bible and talk as if their self-righteous sex rules came straight from God, which of course is hooey. Set aside for the moment the fact that declaring oneself a spokesman for God is stupefyingly egotistical. Anyone who claims to know the mind of God is simultaneously making a rather bold claim about the superior infallibility of his own mind. The same can be said for anyone who boldly declares that the Bible is literally perfect and that he knows what God was trying to say.
But beyond egotism, telling people they can’t have sex based on Iron Age rules collected in the Bible or medieval rules pontificated by some kiss-my-ring Pope is just plain mean. It’s cruel and selfish and heartless, because the sex rules that served Hebrew patriarchs 2,500 years ago and that helped the Vatican breed more tithing members 500 years ago deny sex to a whole lot of people who would otherwise find sexual pleasure and intimacy precious.
No Sex for the Weary
Who would men like Dolan, Graham and Robertson (or their predecessors like the Apostle Paul, Augustine, or Martin Luther) exclude from the privilege of sexual intimacy? Most of humanity—including, probably, you and a lot of people you love. The list is limitless:
- College students who face long years of study before being ready for partnership and parenthood.
- Parents who want to commit their finite emotional resources to the children they already have.
- Young singles whose bodies are at peak libido, but who aren’t ready to form families.
- Queer folk.
- Those who, whether married or not, want to commit their lives to some form of calling that isn’t parenthood.
- People who perceive balance within the web of life as moral or spiritual imperative, whose conscience guides them to limit childbearing for the sake of other species and future generations.
- Poor people who want to get a step ahead instead of (or before) having a child.
- People who are saving up for marriage.
- Cohabiting couples who don’t buy into the traditional marriage contract.
- Empty nesters who are rediscovering why they like each other.
- Travelers whose mobile lifestyle makes it impossible to offer a child a stable nurturing community and whose opportunities for intimacy flit past.
- Unmarried soldiers.
- Loners and eccentrics whose personal qualities or desire for solitude make partnership and/or parenthood a poor fit.
- Puppy lovers.
- Elderly widows and widowers for whom remarriage doesn’t make sense.
- Famine-plagued women whose hungry bodies can ill sustain the risks of pregnancy or demands of incubating a healthy child.
- The ill or those at risk of illness, who must navigate love in the time of chemo or love in the time of Zika.
- War zone civilians and refugees who may not know whether they’ll survive or how, but know there is comfort in each other’s arms.
I could go on but I suspect there’s no need. Under what set of delusions is the world a better place because people like these are denied the pleasures of intimate touch, or the respite of a sexual interlude, or the acute pleasure of orgasm?
What the Sex Police Really Want
Wait a minute, a reader might say. Don’t overgeneralize. A minority of lay Christians believe that married couples must give up sex if they don’t want a(nother) baby—even if that is the official word from the pulpit for Catholics and some Protestants. So, this fight is really about people who want sex without marriage.
True. Well, partly true.
It goes without saying that conservative Christians want above all to deny sexual intimacy and pleasure to people who are single—especially girls and women. That is because the Bible’s Iron Age Sex Rules were meant, first and foremost, to ensure that females, who were economic assets belonging to men, produced purebred offspring of known paternity, who were also economic assets belonging to men. The Bible sanctions many forms of marriage and sexual slavery but all converge on one point: they guarantee that a man can know which offspring are his. That is why, after the slaughter of the Midianites in the book of Numbers, only virgins can be kept as war booty. It is why, in the Torah’s legal code, a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods.
The Old Testament prescribes death for dozens of infractions (you yourself probably belong on death row). But when it comes to sex, the death penalty is for females who voluntarily give it up (or who don’t scream loud enough when they are being raped). The meanest, sickest part of this archaic and morally warping worldview is the idea that, for women, sex itself should be a death penalty—or at least a roll of the dice. It’s simply divine justice that sex should sooner or later lead to the pain and potential mortality of childbirth, because that’s the punishment God pronounced on uppity Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” Genesis 3:16 NRSV.
There you have it. Female sexual pleasure and intimacy without the risk of labor pain and death is cheating God—as well as the male who rules over her.
Control at Any Price
The ways in which God’s Self-Appointed Sex Police try to obstruct intimacy and orgasms are legion. Denying young people information about their bodies, promoting sex negativity, fostering a cult of virginity, spreading lies about masturbation—and above all shaming, shaming, shaming anyone who might dare to have sex without their approval. But the surest way the sex police can stop single females from cheating their way out of Eve’s curse is by making sex risky, which is why the religious right is obsessed with denying women access to birth control and abortion.
Globally, today 215 million desperate women want modern contraception and are unable to get it, thanks in part to American Religious Right politicians who explicitly excluded fertility management services from international HIV prevention. Church induced hang-ups about sex mean that reproductive empowerment gets left out of conversations where it is fundamental to wellbeing: family prosperity, early childhood development, mental health—even education of girls and career advancement of women.
At home, the U.S. squandered almost two decades and 1.5 billion dollars on abstinence-only “sex ed” that was an abject failure. Over the last three quarters of a century, conservative Christian obstruction of sexual literacy and family planning programs has driven humanity to the verge of collapse and has devastated families, condemning desperately poor people—like those who trusted Mother Teresa (who in turn trusted the Pope)—to lives of even deeper desperation.
Righteous men with access to the halls of power thwart sexual agency and then make criminals of women who abort the resulting ill-conceived pregnancies—all for the sake of maintaining their own authority and that of their institutions. And if the campaign to stop single women from having sex makes things hard for some married folks—the refugee couple, for example; or the poor parents trying to take care of the kids they already have; or those facing the prospect of a Zika baby with calcified and deformed brain structures—so be it.
The Small and Large of It
Think of the suffering as collateral damage—a form of collateral damage that is relatively benign by the standards of ecclesiastical history.
During the peak of Christianity’s political power, the Dark Ages, the Vatican launched a crusade against a sect of French Christians, the Cathars, who the Pope had declared heretics. When the crusaders arrived and began their slaughter, local people fled into churches, and sorting out who counted as a real Christian got confusing. So an inquiry was sent to the abbot, asking who should be killed and who spared. He replied by messenger: “Kill them all, God will know his own.”
By contrast with medieval butchery, collateral damage in the form of intimacy denied, or lives burdened with shame and stigma, or unwanted children born into the world with the odds stacked against them, seems minor.
But that is the only standard by which denying people sexual intimacy and pleasure is trivial. As I said, these are among humanity’s most treasured experiences. There are few freedoms that we value more than being able to form the love bonds and families of our choosing. In Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—and even among immigrant Muslims in the West—young people risk and lose their lives for love.
Going for Broke
Religious authorities fight to maintain monopoly control over sexual privileges precisely because these privileges are so valuable—so to the heart of who we are as human beings. Sexual pleasure sweeps over us; it can bring us to our knees. Sexual intimacy allows us to transcend the boundaries of time and space, body and psyche—to lose the self in the other.
If these seem like religious terms, they are. It is no accident that vocalizations during carnal ecstasy sounds a lot like prayer or that erotic music often has religious overtones: Take me to church; I’ll worship like a dog. . . . In your temple of love . . . halleluja (Hozier; Rod Stewart; Leonard Cohen). Or vice versa: You hold my hand and hold my heart; I give it away now, I am on my knees offering all I am (Parachute Band). The Church hierarchy’s determination to define and control “legitimate” sex may be cruel and transparently self-serving. But it is smart. Sex endlessly attracts and compels us, making sexual guilt the perfect currency for institutions trafficking in sin and salvation. When religious authorities hold exclusive power to forgive sexual transgressions and then dole out (or deny) sexual privileges, they can redirect sublimated love and loyalty and yearning and passion into the kind of peak experiences that religion itself has on offer—experiences like spiritual ecstasy, selfless service, or mystical union with the Divine—all scripted and doled out by the very same religious institutions and authorities, of course.
But God’s self-appointed spokesmen are losing their grip. If their proclamations seem crazier and their political maneuvers seem transparently cruel—as in recent bullying of transgender kids—that is because they are desperate. People are noticing that the cage door is open and that the world outside offers a rainbow of possibilities.
Sex and love that are not controlled by the Church compete with the Church. If individuals who are young and elderly, stable and transitioning, queer and straight, partnered and single, parenting and childfree, claim the right to pleasure themselves and each other and to form intimate bonds based on no authority save their own mutual consent and delight, the Church is screwed.