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In many places around the globe, this is a time to celebrate and to wish for better days and new beginnings. Many of these customs are deeply-rooted in our world religions, which have the capacity to greatly influence our ways of being, including our sexuality. This month, we’ve set out to briefly explore Sex and Religion: what views do the world’s major religions hold on sex and sexuality? And how might they have determined the way we think of sex today?
 

Why Sex and Religion?


When we say religion influences sexuality, we aren’t being glib. According to a sociological study published in the Journal of Sex Research, “One component of older adults’ lives that may influence both sexual decision making and satisfaction is religiosity.” Getting to understand the way we relate to religiosity and spirituality can provide us with valuable insights into the way we experience our sexuality. 

“Most world religions have developed moral codes that have sought to guide people’s sexual activities and practices. The influence of religion on sexuality is especially apparent in many countries today in the long-debated issue of gay marriage,” points out Lumen Learning in their course about gender and sexuality. 

Sex’s Purpose


Religions differ in the ways they regard sex on fundamental levels: while some consider sex a right and a joy, others view it as a sin, some consider it a perfectly natural human experience, and yet still others prize it for creating a powerful energy that we can use in our favor.

Jewish and Islamic traditions lean toward the sex-positive side. According to My Jewish Learning, “Judaism is generally very positive about sex, regarding it as a divine gift and a holy obligation—both for the purposes of procreation and for pleasure and intimacy…The Talmud specifies not merely that a husband is required to be intimate with his wife, but sources also indicate that he is obliged to sexually satisfy her.” In an excerpt from Tranquil Hearts, Enon Mansor, Fatimah Eunos & Osman Sidek mention that in Islam, “The exquisite sensations of sex are testimony to the Infinite Ingenuity of Allah in His Act of creation and His Mercy in sharing with us His Limitless Pleasures.”

Catholicism on the other hand sees in sex the original sin. According to Author Daniel Kohanski, it is possible that this seemingly negative perspective on sexuality that lives at the core of Catholicism is profoundly connected with other beliefs within the religion. For example: historically, the belief that God would return to Earth to take his followers with him to heaven, where there would be no need for more human beings, might have shaped a preference for celibacy. “Adam and Eve were supposed to populate the human race by rational action, producing ‘desirable fruit without the shame of lust,’” says the author.
 
Buddhist and Hindu traditions, which tend to overlap in certain respects, suggest a more naturalized view of sexuality; sexuality is either thought of as a natural human experience, and sometimes even as an energy that can be used to achieve enlightenment. Allan Badiner, Master of Buddhist studies and practitioner of Zen in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, states that “Buddhism is not inclined to deny the reality of basic human impulses, including sexuality. As sexuality is a normal, healthy, and necessary aspect of human existence, Tibetan tantric Buddhism even includes techniques for bringing mindfulness and practice to it.”

Most religions, regardless of their views on intimacy and the enjoyment that one should (or not) derive from it, share a common perspective of sex as a means for procreation. 

Sex And Marriage


Premarital sex ranges from undesirable to forbidden across most of the major religions. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, in Jewish Law “Sex is permissible only within the context of a marriage.” Sex outside of marriage “is considered to be improper and immoral, even though it is not technically a sin,” since it is not explicitly prohibited in the Torah. Mark Hay in Aeon magazine explains that, while the Quran emphasizes different values, there are “admonitions against sex outside of marriage and endorsements of public modesty and chastity.” Thus, in Islam, “sexual relationships should be restricted to marriage between a man and a woman. Meetings between unmarried couples are traditionally chaperoned,” points out the BBC. According to Dave Armstrong, in Catholic practice “sexual fulfillment must occur in the act of love with one’s spouse of the opposite sex.”
   
In Hinduism, “During the first ashrama [stage of life], chastity is encouraged and both men and women are traditionally expected to be virgins when they marry,” the BBC explains, however, this is thought to be more of a “social taboo” than a religious one, as stated by the Living Together project, which also notes that, “The attitude of Buddhism is that the sex between two love-bearing people, whether married or not, is moral. Sex before marriage, conducive to spiritual development from the Buddhist viewpoint, does not violate the third Precept (not to engage in wrong sexual behaviour).”
 
The BBC points out that “Marriage is also viewed by many Hindus as the right place in which to enjoy sexual pleasure, which is allowed as part of the life aim of kama [understood as desire, pleasure or enjoyment of the material world],” though the Human Rights Campaign highlights how “According to the Dharma Shastras, marriage has distinct functions, including Prajaa, or procreation.” In Buddhism, however, marriage is seen as an individual matter and choice and not as a requirement or religious duty, as pointed out in BuddhaSasana, and cohabitation—unlike in Hindu practice—is allowed. According to the BBC, “Most Buddhists believe the purpose of marriage is to unite with someone they love or who is a good partner in other respects, have children and/or create a sound basis for their extended family, including their parents.”
Did you know? The Torah states that a Niddah, a menstruating woman, cannot have sex with a man until her ‘seventh clean day’ (a week after the last day of her period)?

Contraception


When contraception is permitted, most of the religions explored have a preference towards Natural Family Planning (also known as fertility awareness or the rhythm method). The reasons, however, vary across religions. According to the CDC, “Fertility awareness-based (FAB) methods of family planning involve identifying the fertile days of the menstrual cycle, whether by observing fertility signs such as cervical secretions and basal body temperature or by monitoring cycle days.”

In Judaism, it is considered that God’s will is for procreation to happen per Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Aside from that, My Jewish Learning states that “The Shulchan Aruch rules that it is forbidden to spill seed [sperm] needlessly, calling it a sin more severe than any other in the Torah and tantamount to murder.” Thus, birth control isn’t banned, but anything that blocks the passage of the seed is, meaning condoms are not an accepted method of contraception, while the pill is “well-recognized as an acceptable form of birth control under Jewish law,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library. In Catholicism, contraception is thought to be “degrading to both human nature and to the institution of marriage,” notes the American Life League in the Pro-Life Activist’s Encyclopedia, since it is thought that sex’s purpose is procreation to fulfill God’s command of ‘being fruitful and multiplying’.
       
On the other hand, “The Quran does not prohibit birth control, nor does it forbid a husband or wife to space pregnancies or limit their number,” remarks Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, senior policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau. “While procreation is expected in marriage to maintain the human race, sexual relations in marriage need not always be for the purpose of having children,” he adds. More so, Roudi-Fahimi explains that “From the Islamic point of view, when procreation takes place, it should support and endorse tranquility rather than disrupt it.” 

Neither Hinduism or Buddhism ban birth control either. The Living Together project notes that some Hindu scriptures may even encourage the use of contraceptives, and instances of negative regard for them are usually rooted in concerns about extramarital relationships. 

Other Considerations


The situations listed above are not the only ones that religious beliefs and law can regulate. Self-stimulation under some religious perspectives can be viewed as unholy, like in Islam. The Islamic Marriage Handbook states that “A wife may stimulate her husband’s penis till the emission of semen, and a husband can stimulate his wife’s vagina till orgasm,” but one may not self-pleasure. In Judaism, self-pleasuring is generally frowned upon for males while female masturbation is viewed as less problematic given ejaculation doesn’t result in ‘spilling seed,’ as My Jewish Learning points out.  

According to the Pew Research Center, “Islamic law forbids homosexuality, and the practice of homosexuality is a crime in many Islamic countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.” The BBC points out that “Many Orthodox Jews oppose homosexuality,” considering it unnatural and a cause for childless couples—which goes against God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply,” though “Most Liberal Jews support the view that God also created gay people, so both male and female homosexuality can be considered natural.” Similarly, in Hinduism homosexuality can be viewed as unacceptable and it might be regarded as opposed to dharma (religious duty), however, according to the BBC, “Many Hindu communities deal with the issue largely by ignoring it.” There’s no consensus in Buddhism either, though it might be argued that “as long as the relationship is based on love and suffering is avoided, homosexuality is a perfectly acceptable practice.”   

Learn More About Each Religion’s Views On Sex:

Judaism

Islam

Catholicism

Hinduism

Buddhism

Did you know? Tantra was born out of Hinduism and Buddhism! Here is some further reading about this spiritual practice and way of life:

Carnal Theory

 
“Healing work is pleasure work.”
— Trauma and Sex Therapist, Rafaella Fiallo. 
 
  Click here to listen, and here to watch her episode. 
This is a good moment to circle back to our interview with therapist Rafaella Fiallo, who very fittingly reminds us how our dominant narratives around pleasure tend to tell the story of specific groups in society: “cis, heteronormative, thin folks,” (at least in Western society), and how this impacts our relationships to pleasure. 

Do not miss out on this Carnal Theory episode for an opportunity to explore what pleasure can look like to you by dropping harmful narratives that no longer serve you.  

More of a Visual Learner? Check Out Our YouTube Playlist! 


Every month in 2021 we’ve added to our resource center on YouTube a new playlist with educational content about every one of our themes. We’ve curated several videos to help you gain a better understanding of non-monogamy, abortion, tantra, and this month: Sex and Religion

Get comfy and hit play to learn more about the intersection between sex and religion

Writing Prompts:


Talking about religion and how it intersects with sex and sexuality creates an opportunity to reflect on our unique sexual stories. Given religions are closely related to power structures, they can impact our every decision (sometimes—not always—positively or negatively). 

Embracing and/or healing from this influence is crucial to understanding our sexual selves, and to writing the sexual story we are most eager to lead. That being said, get comfy, grab a pen and paper, and consider the following: 


📝 Self-care and Religion 📝
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do your sexual thoughts, feelings, and practices align with your religious (or non-religious) convictions?
  • Have you left any sexual exploration untouched due to religious expectations? What’s an example of this?
  • How do you value both yourself and your faith simultaneously?
📝 Sexual Integrity 📝
  • What words would you use to describe sexual integrity?
  • Do you practice sexual integrity?
  • For what reasons would you choose to practice (or not) sexual integrity with your partner(s)?
  • Is there a correlation between your sexual integrity (or loyalty) and your faith? Why?
📝 Religion and Your Sexual Story 📝
  • Do you believe God has the perfect person in mind for you? Why?
  • Do you have any sexual partner(s) right now? If not, are you willing to wait until marriage to have sex?
  • How do you keep your beliefs aligned with your sexual needs?

These voluntary monthly prompts invite you to explore your sexual biography.
Tips on exploring: Set aside 20 minutes with your phone on silent and relax in a comfortable space with a pen and paper. Go slow. Start with what comes to mind from your first read of the prompt. Continue writing from your stream of consciousness. 

Mantra of the Month


I get to choose what sacred looks like to me. This month, I will honor my body through my spiritual practice.     

Researching Our Sexual Biographies:


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