Religion and sex have been intertwined for thousands of years. Religion often inspires guilt about sex. That guilt needs to go away.
I was raised Christian, which involved Catholic school, Baptist church and consecutive nights at Bible study. The recurring message throughout all of the teachings was that sex is wrong, wrong, wrong – unless you’re married.
When I’ve written before about the complicated relationship I have with religion and sex, people have messaged me that it’s possible to be religious and fuck. While I’m sure this is true, and there are absolutely liberal churches out there, where I was raised the rules were staunch on this: you don’t have sex until you’re married. Full stop.
Letting Go of My Guilt
I’m an atheist now, for a variety of reasons, and I’ve been working to let go of the guilt I’ve attached to sex for as long as I can remember. The guilt was a combination of my own sensitivity (I’ve always taken things to heart), and the teachings that spanned my school education and social activities. Having dated several committed Christians as a teenager, none of whom believed in sex before marriage, I’d become accustomed to not fucking. I wasn’t one of those “anything but” religious types, either. Sure, I’d engaged in plenty of dry humping, fully clothed, but I was beyond sexually frustrated well into my 20s. When my lon- term boyfriend decided that even making out was sinful, I started to wonder if this was the kind of relationship I even wanted to be in anymore.
More Than Just Teaching Abstinence
Abstaining from sex wasn’t the only thing that religion taught me about sex. Time and again in Bible study and Youth Group, the leaders got majorly specific about what was OK and what wasn’t OK. For instance, one workshop I went to in college told everyone that men could masturbate because they needed the physical release, but that women should abstain altogether. As a massive feminist, this should’ve been the only wake-up call I needed that perhaps religion was not for me, but it was years before I gradually moved away from religion and the rules that went with it. The fact is, letting go of rules that have been programmed into us from an early age can be incredibly difficult. (Read more about the author in How I Became a Sex Positive Feminist.) Friends of mine balked and broke the church rules time and again. When one got pregnant at 16, her family decided in conversation with the church that the solution was simple: she’d get married. Once she was married, she was instantly absolved of the perceived sin that had occurred. Despite the rules, people have sex. They just get shamed for doing it. (Read more in The Worst Analogy for Premarital Sex Ever.)
The Rules Totally Affected My Life
In hindsight, abiding by the rules of the church was no mean feat, and completely fucked my head up. Telling my body to deny itself, and constantly being denied the physical affection I so craved, gave me a bit of a complex about relationships. That being said, I respect anyone whose decision it is to not have sex for whatever reason. It’s all down to personal choice and being respectful of your partner’s wishes. Because religion is often an inflexible set of rules, personal wishes get lost, and this can be problematic. I didn’t have sex until I was 24. I’d previously been in situations where it was offered, but it took me a long time to untie myself from the associated guilt. Even when I stopped going to church and chose to start moving in a new direction, my old habits stuck. It was difficult to shake the thoughts, feelings, and teachings that I’d held for 20 years. It was important for me to reclaim sex for myself and separate it from the shame that so often gets applied to it by religion. Religion has a lot to say about sex. It dictates when, how, with whom, and, to some degree, how often people should have sex. As a feminist, I couldn’t live this way anymore. And I absolutely couldn’t stand the sexist doctrine that set different rules for men and women. I’m pro-masturbation, and don’t think that it should ever be separated out by gender. Repression shouldn’t rest more heavily on women, and any doctrine that says it should isn’t one I can abide by.
Breaking Free From Religious Guilt
There are some religious and spiritual traditions that have a more positive view of sexuality. In fact, in a number of cultures the moment of orgasm has been described as a transcendental experience in which one is momentarily elevated to a divine level of awareness. Instead of designating sex to an off-limits area, only talking about it in conjunction with sin or marriage, and refusing to recognize that it’s a natural and enjoyable part of life, we should celebrate it.
I don’t want outsiders dictating who I can sleep with. I’m ready to discard the shame I’ve been layered in like butter. I want to peel off my guilt and make choices that feel right for me. And I want to encourage you to do the same.
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