What About Sex?

I am honored to have been invited to speak to you today. Since we will be talking about religion, I will start with a confession.  I will not follow the guidelines I received. I will talk about religion only. Culture is too broad and the main aspects of culture that affect sexuality are usually linked to religion anyway.

In my presentation I plan to do three things. First, I will discuss the harmful effects of religion over sexuality. Second, I will turn to the positive side of religion. Third, I will invite you all to discuss how we can engage religion in a common front to promote a culture of respect for diversity and human rights, and the celebration of sexuality.

The urgency of dealing with religion struck me while I was preparing this speech a couple of weeks ago and was stunned by the news of the day. Shiites and Sunnis were killing each other in Iraq. Christian and Muslims were killing each other in Nigeria. I realize that religion is not the root of these deadly conflicts. But the way in which religious zeal has been co-opted and put to destructive use reminds me of a similar trend in the realm of sexuality.

Religion has a profound effect on people’s attitudes and behaviors with regard to sex. Throughout history this influence has been frequently used to harmful ends.

Religions have been keen on controlling sex in the past.

  • Early Christianity’s suspicion of sex is seen in the writings of Augustine, who approved of sex within heterosexual marriage for the purpose of procreation, but decreed that any other use of sex was bad sex, a “hissing caldron of lust”.
  • Religion’s fixation with procreation as the saving grace for the untoward act for sex is seen in the 13th century writings of Thomas Aquinas. He argued that masturbation and coitus interruptus were worse than rape or incest because they could not lead to reproduction.
  • Religion’s aversion to sex is also seen in the glorification of virginity to the point that, in the Catholic Church, the mother of the Savior was proclaimed to be a virgin.
  • Eastern religions, including many Buddhist and Hindu traditions, also hold up celibacy as an ideal for those on the path to enlightenment. And certain Tantric paths see the suppression of sexual fluids as the key to immortality.
  • Religion’s obsession with controlling sex is seen, too, in the teachings of Islam. Any sexual relations outside of the context of heterosexual marriage are strictly forbidden, and the Koran establishes heavy punishment (one hundred lashes) for those guilty of adultery or fornication.

Religions are still keen on controlling sexuality today.

  • As recently as November of last year the Vatican published the “Instruction” banning persons with homosexual tendencies from Admission to seminaries and Catholic orders. Anti-gay sentiments of course were not really new. Indeed, in 2003 the Vatican issued a document stating that: “Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law." That document was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
  • Much earlier, in 1987, in a Letter to bishops on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, he had coined the infamous phrases “intrinsically disordered” and “ an intrinsic moral evil” to describe homosexuals. It is no surprise, then, that as Pope, his response to the sexual abuse scandal was to ban gay men from becoming priests.
  • Today the abstinence-only education for youth is often infused with Christian messages, urging youth to take virginity pledges. The Silver Ring Thing, a program that has received more than $1 million from the US government, has a biblical verse inscribed on its official silver ring that states “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin.” (Thess. 4:3) Focus on the Family, an influential, right-wing Christian group, is exporting its abstinence education programs outside the United States instilling fear and shame in young people.

Religions have been cruel toward a number of vulnerable groups, particularly women.

Prominent theologians of all religions published the Genval Declaration in 1994 that acknowledges: “Many old theological texts and modern interpretations reflect cultures of male supremacy and are understood as a divine authorization for the submission of women.”

Let us look at some examples:

  • The early Christian thinker Tertuliano wrote that female pleasure was a foul trap for men, a “devil’s gateway”.
  • The apostle Paul declared that women should not speak in Church, but rather should remain submissive.
  • The Torah says nothing about adultery for men, only for women.

We could go on and on.

Religions continue to be cruel toward women today.

  • In Northern Nigeria, where Sharia Law informs the penal code, several cases of women condemned to death by stoning as punishment for adultery have made headlines in recent years.
  • As the Muslim scholar Ayesha Imam writes: “Muslim religious-right groups focus on sexuality as a source of immorality. There is the commonly state assumption that if unrelated women and men are together, they must be engaged in (illicit) sexual acts. This unrestrained sexuality is dangerous to morality and social order. However, it is women’s sexuality that is particularly responsible and culpable. It is women who must abide by restrictive dress codes that signify asexuality. It is women who must be segregated or secluded so as not to tempt men. ... In Nigeria, local state decrees penalize girls who hawk goods on the street rather than the men who harass and molest them. In areas where the honor-shame complex is found, women are killed by fathers and brothers, sometimes on the mere suspicion of having engaged in non-marital sex. Yet neither female nor male relatives of the men who are suspected of immorality find it incumbent upon them to kill their sons or brothers.”

Given these historical trends, it is not surprising that sex, and women’s sexuality in particular, have become the source of so much anxiety and suffering.

The sociologist Edward Laumann and his colleagues studied sexual dysfunction in the US. In a study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association they noted that 32 percent of the women they interviewed reported a lack of interest in sex (only 14 percent of the men made a similar claim) and 23 percent of the women said sex was not pleasurable (as compared to 8 percent of the men). 

The Professor of Moral theology Patricia Jung is convinced that this incapacity of so many women to enjoy sex is a moral problem, originating in part from and significantly reinforced by religion.

In a public opinion poll in Brazil in 1998 43 percent agreed that women should be virgin when they marry and 18 percent said men also should. There is, however, a contradiction between these statements and people’s own practices: 67 percent of those interviewed said they had sexual intercourse before marriage. When asked about the function of sex, 58 percent of the women responded: pleasure.  The same answer was given by 47 percent of the men.

Feminist theologian Wanda Deifelt sees women’s wisdom in their disagreement with the moral and religious teachings disseminated by the church.  This resistance to theological teachings does not always show up in open confrontation, but rather in a disavowal of these teachings in practice, in women’s way of living out their sexuality.

Let us turn now to the positive side. Despite a painful awareness of religion’s harmful influences, I do believe that religion can also be a powerful force to shape positive attitudes and behaviors with regard to sex and sexuality. One needs only to remember the beautiful erotic sculptures in the ancient temples of Kajurhao to be reminded that religions are themselves quite diverse in time and space.

First, I want to honor the importance of religion to our humanity.  Believers and non-believers usually agree that our capacity to think about transcendence is essential to what it means to be human.

  • At their best, religions remind us of our deep connections to each other.
  • At their best, religions seek to protect and nurture life.
  • At their best, religions inspire us to seek our own greatness.
  • At their best, religions’ highest endeavor is to endow life with meaning and hope.

Our times have seen great religious leaders and social movements:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the struggle to end apartheid
  • Liberation theology and its impact in the struggle for social justice in Latin Americ
  • These are just some of most prominent examples of the positive influence of religion.

We should also keep in mind that the perspective from the grassroots is often very different from a very restrictive view of sex and sexuality of official doctrine in some religions.  This is particularly evident in the great divide in the Catholic Church, where doctrine prohibits the use of contraception, including condoms. But a variety of public opinion polls show that a majority of Catholics in many countries (including the United States, Canada, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Spain) do not agree with church teachings on contraception.
And most religions have progressive voices among clergy, scholars and lay people. They have developed a significant body of thinking showing that a healthy and pleasurable sexuality does not have to go against an individual’s faith or deep religious beliefs. The Good Sex movement is a case in point: it mobilized a group of international, inter-religious feminist scholars to explore and redefine women’s sexuality within the context of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.

I particularly like feminist theologian Gudorf who argues that one of the major tasks of Christian morality in the present age is to claim sexual pleasure as a good. Patricia Jung goes even further saying that the experience of shared pleasure challenges the way self-other relations are constructed in our culture. Presently relationships are frequently organized as a zero-sum game; they presume we are basically created to be competitive with one another. Shared delight shows that self-love and neighbor love are ultimately congruent – we were made for communion, she concludes. 

The other point of hope is that religions and cultures are dynamic entities that are constantly changing. Jose Barzelatto and Anibal Faundes, in heir groundbreaking book on abortion note that “[Religions’] positions on specific topics, including abortion, have changed throughout history in all religions, and the opinions of their leaders at any given point in time were rarely unanimous.” This is to say that there are always openings and opportunities to change oppressive paradigms about sex and sexuality.

I have had the privilege to live and work in many different cultural and religious contexts, and I have personally experienced that religion can also be liberating.

I was both a victim and a beneficiary of religious experience.

I grew up in a deeply religious family. I would go to Sunday school every week to hear that my sexuality was something to be fiercely protected from the dirty intentions of boys and men.

As a member of a Protestant minority in Brazil, I would be warned against the customs of the Catholics who would indulge in dancing and other unimaginable sins.

Well… as I started dating in mid-adolescence, I quickly decided these were old ideas to be thrown in the garbage bin, of course.

Through all this, I kept my allegiance to a church in which liberation theology was giving meaning to my life. The church was the inspiration for my political activism until my early twenties.

Today I am a non-religious person. Still I have a great esteem for all of those in whom religion has instilled a deep respect for fellow human beings. Still I have a great admiration for all of those in whom religion has created a commitment to a just society.

Respect for fellow human beings and commitment to a just society are in scarce supply these days. But they are crucial to maintaining our hope for a world in which sexual rights are recognized as fundamental human rights and diversity is celebrated.

As director of the Western Hemisphere Region of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, I have always recognized the important role that religion plays in the debate around sexual and reproductive rights as human rights. Moreover, we are painfully aware of the negative effects of religious extremism in our work and mission.  The results of the elections in the U.S. in 2004 stressed the importance of paying attention to issues like moral values, religious beliefs and ways to build bridges with progressive sectors of the religious communities.
With this in mind, we have invited religious and human rights leaders along with sexual and reproductive health advocates to a meeting to strategize on effective responses to the challenges posed by the religious right in the US, Latin America and the Caribbean during this critical period.  We are exploring ways to incorporate a more progressive voice of religion into our own work. We are building alliances with progressive faith-based organizations.

Our aim is to contribute to the mobilization of public opinion and the design of public policies. Our goal is to guarantee that women’s rights are considered basic human rights, that sexuality is viewed as a positive and pleasurable aspect of human existence, and that women and their partners are given the information, education and services they need to make informed, responsible decisions about their lives and their sexuality.

Now, with similar goals, I would like to invite you all to discuss how we can engage religion in a common front to promote a culture of respect for diversity and human rights, and the celebration of sexuality. 

And I would like to pose some questions for your further thoughts:

How can we create a culture of true respect for diversity, including sexual diversity? How can we overturn the commonly held assumptions that difference is a threat and that uniformity is necessary to cultural and religious self-preservation? Is it this assumption that allows religions to become instruments of power and oppression? How can a sense of belonging among people be invoked without being exclusionary?

In short, how can we overturn the mentality of “you’re either with us or against us” and move toward a mentality that delights in difference as something that offers us a reflection into our common humanity? Can we conquer the hearts and minds of voters in our societies to the idea that honoring the rights of others does not necessarily encroach on our own rights? Can we recognize the rights of self-determination and freedom of religion for societies, while at the same time defending these rights for individuals?  

How can we promote a culture of gender equality and women’s empowerment? Can we allay the fears that are created by the concept of liberated women? Can we overcome the dread of insecurity that changes in gender power relationships bring about?  How can we build alliances with progressive religious communities for the promotion of women as autonomous moral beings? How can girls and women be supported in their struggle to affirm their dignity independently of their sexual choices and behaviors?

And how can we promote a culture that celebrates sexuality? In a global culture that promotes sexuality primarily as a tool for selling products set in contrast to religious cultures that seek to control sexuality, how can we promote a sexuality that is based on rights, freedom and pleasure? Can we advance the premise that the body, desire, sex and sexuality are not problematic but rather inherent to the human experience, and as such they are aspects of our lives that should be embraced, nurtured and celebrated?

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