Religion & Sexuality Research Paper Starter

Religion & Sexuality

Sexuality is defined as the way that an individual perceives him or herself as a sexual being as expressed through sexual attitudes and desires. The basic nature of sexual desire and the forms in which that desire is considered normal or deviant have been debated throughout history (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). Human sexuality is socially constructed and sexual desires are embedded in particular sociological and biological contexts (Tolman & Diamond, 2001) which are in turn influenced by an individual's upbringing and exposure to familial or religious interactions. Beliefs and attitudes about sexuality are not innate, but rather acquired as a person grows and matures; factors that influence sexuality include: Age, gender, cultural background and historical epochs (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). Religion plays a large role in shaping attitudes about sexuality as some religions prescribe acceptable sexual behavior. Many find that they are not able to accept such religious doctrine in light of the changes society is experiencing. Religious doctrine often resists change, and some religions like Catholicism have changed very little despite the enormous changes that people have experienced in their lives. This essay examines the intersection of sexuality and religion and the resultant attitudes adopted by different religions. This essay also discusses how sexuality and religion became linked prior to Christianity and beyond. The sociological aspects of sexuality are examined, including: Acceptance of different definitions of sexuality, religiosity, and sexual guilt. Finally, this essay examines the changing attitudes toward sexuality in the modern Catholic, Jewish and Islamic faiths.

Keywords Evangelical; Human Sexuality; Religious Institutions; Secularization; Sexual Expression

Sex, Gender


Sexual relations were never free of religious or economic regulations, but as the complexity of our culture increased, social conventions began to place restrictions on sexuality (Weber, 1922). Human sexuality can be defined as the way that a person views himself or herself as a sexual being through sexual preferences and actions. Scholarly research about male and female sexuality has focused on two different aspects of influence: Biological and socio/cultural/political (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). According to sociologists Deb Tolman and Lisa Diamond, "neither a purely biological or purely sociocultural approach can encompass the complexity of sexual desire (2001)."

  • The essentialist theory focuses on biology as the major factor in determining male and female sexuality differences. While biology is the overriding influence in determining sexuality, the essentialist theory acknowledges that social and historical influences also play a role, but a secondary one.
  • The social constructionist theory attributes gender differences in sexuality to the cultural and psychosocial processes that act upon individuals and prescribe appropriate male and female sexual feelings and behaviors. Tolman and Diamond state, "our entire experience of sexuality can be viewed as a context and culture-specific story that we come to live… [but] the sociocultural forces that shape our subjective experience of sexuality are largely invisible to us" (2001).

This essay investigates the role that different religions have played in shaping human sexuality within social and historical contexts.


Sexual Abstinence

Sociologist Gail Hawkes describes herself as a sociologist of sexuality who looks at history as a way of translating current complexities into our modern lives. In her essay "The Problem of Pleasure and the Making of Sexual Sin in Early Christianity," Hawkes reviews some of the influences that early Christianity has contributed to our socially constructed ideas about the sexual body. According to Hawkes, early Christianity focused on human sexual pleasure as "warranting special attention, but the values attached to human's sexual pleasure [were] negative" (Hawkes, 2007).

Max Weber, a noted 19th century sociologist wrote widely about the social influences of religion on different aspects of society. Weber's "Sociology of Religion" included chapters related to human sexuality and the role of religion in its influence. Weber suggests that Christianity exhibits an "anti-erotic religiosity." Hostility to sexuality was manifest in the pursuit of chastity. Abstinence was a highly regarded and extraordinary type of behavior which could be used for the "magical coercion of God" (Weber, 1922). Priestly celibacy was encouraged so that those holding church offices (clergy) would not lag behind the "supremely chaste" monks (Weber, 1922).

Sexual abstinence was seen as a central and indispensable means of salvation and was achieved through contemplative withdrawal from the world. Sexuality constituted the most powerful temptation (which linked humans with animal nature). The temptation of the body required constant vigilance, an emphasis on alertness, and self control.

Whether the inhabitant or the observer, unmediated proximity to the sexual body (as constructed by early Christianity); assured a fall from grace — a surrender to the irresistible temptations of the flesh (Hawkes, 2007, p. 2).

Appealing to the Laity

Sexual abstinence and self control were the two principals that were espoused by the Christian Church as the most certain path to righteous salvation. While these principals were practiced by clergy and monks, influencing the general population about sexuality was a more daunting task. Hawkes investigated the pre-Christian and early Christian attitudes toward human sexuality with a focus on how to "manage the problem of the body" (Hawkes, 2007). In every sense, the body represented a danger to chastity; people need to "explicitly recognize the perils" associated with loss of control over the body. Women's body's were of particular concern, as women were seen as lacking in self control and therefore posed a significant threat if they were to experience sexual pleasure (Hawkes, 2007). The theme concerning women and their lack of self control over their sexuality is a common one in many religions, and will be discussed in more detail later in this essay.

Selling the idea of complete chastity to the general populate was challenging for a couple of fairly obvious reasons.

  • First, sexual intercourse was necessary for procreation and continuance of the human race.
  • Second, people who had sex knew that it was "overwhelmingly enjoyable" (Hawkes, 2007).

The Christian faith was effective in further raising anxiety levels by preaching the sex associated with pleasure was "bad" (immoral) sex.


The institution of marriage was one way that religions could place parameters around sexuality by defining marriage as a religious sacrament. The role of marriage, according to Weber, was to eliminate all free sexual relationships; legitimization of marriage was a way to encourage monogamy which was the "hallmark of the Christian community" (Weber, 1922). Legally regulated marriage itself was regarded, not for its erotic value, but as an economic institution for the production and rearing of children. While many espoused a "direct religious obligation to beget children, the Judaic and Islamic faiths were also able to acknowledge that (procreation aside): "Sexual drivers were absolutely irresistible for the average person, marriage offered a legally regulated channel of sexuality" (Weber, 1922).

Public Shame: Sex as Sin

A growing Christian population posed challenges about how best to manage sexuality on a large scale; the answer proved to be more of the same control. Penance for sins, especially those of a sexual nature became part of the religious doctrine and provided a healthy dose of public shame. Later, private confessions took the place of public penance and served as a means to both absolve one of past sins and monitor future ones. Penitential's were handbooks that included exhaustive and detailed list of sins and their appropriate penance. The Penitential's covered all the original sins with over half the questions concerned with sexual behavior. "The detailed questions relating to how, with whom and how often one had sex were in effect training the sexual body" (Hawkes, 2007, p. 11). Throughout, the text's focused on distinguishing between moral and immoral sex; they contained as much detail as was acceptable to effectively control and prescribe what was acceptable. Ironically, the Penitential's were so detailed, that church officials realized that they were essentially giving people an erotic education (Hawkes, 2007). Centuries of examining and distinguishing between sexual practices helped to establish "internal boundaries of shame" while firmly establishing the association of sex with sin (Weber, 2007).

Sexuality across the Religious Spectrum

"Despite the widespread belief that hostility toward sexuality is a special view of Christianity, it must be emphasized that no distinctive religion of salvation has in principal any other view" (Weber, 1922). We will now look at how other religions view the theme of human sexuality. Sexual expression often seems at odds with religious practice, because many people think of sex as pleasurable and this is often counter to...

(The entire section is 4158 words.)