I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty. ~John Waters
The Catholic hierarchy is obsessed with sex: who does it, when, how, with whom, and for what purpose. In fact, I might argue that one of the most fundamental ways conservative religion hooks people is by creating deep psychological hang-ups about sex, for which it then claims to offer a solution.
Sexual intimacy and sexual pleasure are two of humanity’s most cherished experiences. A recent study showed that sex makes people even happier than religion does. The Church knows that. It also knows that forbidding something we crave—making it taboo—can make the craving even stronger. It’s the perfect set-up for an institution trafficking in guilt and redemption.
Most people, including most lay Catholics and many clergy, recognize that the senescent men running the Vatican hold some archaic and ignorant notions about sex. People also know that (mercifully) some toxic teachings have gone by the wayside. What we often don’t recognize, though, is how many of our own sexual hang-ups come from religion. Even if you are secular you likely have been infected with noxious ideas that come straight from the Ancient Near East and Medieval Europe by way of the Catholic Church or derivative Protestant sects.
If you want to live by your own values when it comes to sex, it might help to ask yourself which of these ideas and messages have gotten inside you in some form–and then check them against reality.
1. Sex is for procreation, which means sex for “mere pleasure” is bad and safeguarding against ill-conceived pregnancy makes you cheap. If you don’t want a baby in nine months you should keep your legs together or your zipper up.
Catholic “pro-life” theologian Monica Miller recently earned herself a Facebook meme when she said that Planned Parenthood should get no federal funding because “the kind of sexual ethic that Planned Parenthood promotes is sex for recreation, sex for mere pleasure.” If Miller spent more time studying biology instead of theology, she might not have made herself a laughingstock. Research shows that sex for “mere pleasure” improves mental and physical health, strengthens pair bonds and eases conflicts between partners, and it does so in a wide variety of species, not just humans.
2. Sex without marriage is “fornication”—the kind of evil sin that, if you are unrepentant, can send you straight to hell.
I honestly don’t know how adults can think eternal torture is a proportional punishment for anything, let alone consensual sex. Seriously. Some Christians need to get a handle on their warped moral sensibilities.
Morality is meant to prevent harm and promote wellbeing. Our moral emotions and intuitions evolved because we humans are social animals. To survive and thrive, we need to get along with each other. Maybe in the Iron Age sex without a legal contract risked real damage to social structures that helped people survive in the fragile desert environment of the Ancient Near East. (See Point 3.) Or maybe it just threatened the power of patriarchal males who wanted to control female sex for the same reasons lions and chimps do. Either way, it’s worth asking yourself which is the greater evil:
- A teen having sex with their high school sweetie.
- Telling a high school kid they are going to be tortured forever because they had sex with their sweetie.
- Actually torturing them forever.
3. Girls should stay “pure” until they get married.
Abstinence till marriage was designed for the Iron Age, when our ancestors had no other way to manage their fertility and society was structured around paternal genealogies. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe” didn’t cut it. So, it makes sense that Iron Age males came up with a model of marriage that treated a fertile female the way dog breeders treat a purebred bitch: Keep an eye on her till she’s sexually mature. When she’s ripe and ready, sell her. Keep her away from stray males. If one rapes her, make him keep her. You break it, you buy it. That’s the model in the Bible.
Mercifully, a few things have changed in the last 2,000 years. We no longer think of a woman’s womb as an economic asset belonging to first her father and then her husband. We also have far better options for preventing pregnancy—abstinence sure, if you like, but also condoms and Pills, and even IUDs and implants that effectively flip the fertility switch to “off” till you want it on. Unlike our Iron Age ancestors, we can enjoy sexual intimacy and still ensure that babies get born into families that are ready to welcome and care for them. It’s true that sex can be emotionally complicated, and sometimes abstaining is wise. But the sex rules in the Bible were designed for a technologically-primitive society that no longer exists.
4. Sex is dirty. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then what could possibly be less godly than cum or period blood and vaginal goo.
Sex is nasty when you’re not into it (and sometimes even when you are), and the people who made up the sex rules for the Church lacked access to modern hygiene, so it was even more slimy back then. They couldn’t shower or douche or rinse with a bidet. They lacked deodorants and wipes. The sheets, or whatever passed for bedding, had to be washed by hand. Rubbers weren’t rubber. Even Cleopatra had to rely on shoving crocodile dung up her vagina to prevent pregnancy.
So what. Something can be squicky and still be a pleasurable, cherished, important, or admirable part of life. Giving birth, for example. Breastfeeding. Cooking the flesh of other animals. Drinking from a cow. Composting. Doing surgery. Caring for a sick child. Having an abortion. Organ donation. Cremating the dead. Whether or not something triggers our “yuck factor” has little to do with moral virtue or the value that it adds to our lives.
5. Masturbation is degenerate and damaging, and Someone is watching every time you get off.
Hair on your hands as a punishment for masturbation? Warts? Blindness? Like God doesn’t have anything better to do than hide in a dark corner with a stick and wait for us to wank or twiddle?
Masturbation is a very normal part of what it means to be a sexual being. It is the first way that most children experience sexual pleasure and a part of life for over 90 percent of people. It can help relieve stress, migraines, insomnia, or menstrual cramps. That said, it does mean less time thinking about Jesus. Or maybe not. How did Jesus get to be so hot?
6. Anal sex is called “sodomy” for a reason—God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by raining down fire from heaven.
As odd as it might sound to a modern audience, many Bible scholars think that the fatal sin in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is inhospitality, not anal sex.
But theological debates aside, we’re talking about a story from a sexual dark age. In the Old Testament, a man can freely fuck his wife’s slave or keep a harem of his own, including girls he acquired as war booty. Israelite soldiers collect foreskins the way renegade soldiers collected trophy ears during the Vietnam War. Women who can’t get pregnant eat mandrake roots, like in Harry Potter. A guy gets his descendants permanently cursed by seeing the dick of his passed-out-drunk father. God is cool with a clan of Semites deceiving and then killing all the men from another tribe because one is too interested in their sister.
Is that really where you want to look for guidance on anal sex or queer love?
7. Virginity is a thing. In fact, it’s the thing, since only a girl with a pristine vagina could possibly be good enough bear the Son of God.
According to the Cult of the Pristine Vagina, your first sexual encounter changes you as radically and permanently as a grub’s metamorphosis into a dragonfly—only in reverse. Dragonfly or grub, lollypop or licked lollypop, gum or chewed gum. Virgin or slut. Take your pick.
The Catholic obsession with virginity has all manner of unintended consequences: Evangelical and Catholic youth, desperate to keep those vaginas immaculate, are turning to the lesser sin of Sodomy, hilariously spoofed in the Garfunkel and Oats song, “God’s Loophole.”
In Quebec, most Catholic girls are given the middle name of Marie, in honor of a possibly mythic female who, we are told, was impregnated by God at age 13 without ever having done the nasty and who has been known for at least 1,500 years as “The Blessed Virgin.” But what does the Virgin Birth Story say to our daughters about the value of their brains (or character) as compared to their hymens? It sure doesn’t communicate what I want to say to mine:
Sexual purity is a made-up social construct—far too small to define us. You are your ideas, your values, your dreams and your loves. You are your sorrows and joys. You are what you experience and what you create. You are how you live and who you serve. Sticking something in your vagina has about as much power to define you as sticking something in your ear.
8. Women come in three models: Virgin, Madonna, and Whore; she’s a cherry ripe for the picking, a beatific mother, or a slut.
The Garfunkel and Oat song about Catholic virginity, “God’s Loophole,” may be funny, but for generations the cult of female virginity has devastated lives. The Irish used to commit “fallen” women to institutions called Magdalene Asylums where inmates provided slave labor for profitable laundries run by the Church. The movie, Philomena, starring Judi Dench, is based on the true life experience of a teen who was sent to one of these institutions and later spent years hunting for her son. By the time the practice ended in 1996, over 30,000 women had been imprisoned, some for life, simply because they were raped or unmarried and pregnant, or judged promiscuous.
No, that date wasn’t a typo. The last Magdalene laundry wasn’t closed till 1996. How old were you? I was 36, with a graduate degree, two healthy daughters, and a husband I loved—living the life of my dreams in part because I had been free to explore my sexuality, manage my fertility and end an unhealthy pregnancy without being disowned or imprisoned.
9. In men, sexual abstinence is a moral virtue and a sign of a good spiritual leader.
The idea that sexual abstinence confers virtue isn’t unique to Christianity—think Buddhist monks or Hindu sadhus—but it is messed up any way you look at it. We have absolutely no reason to believe that men who don’t have sex are more compassionate, or smarter, or wiser than other men; or more kind or curious or discerning; or more devoted to love and truth (the two virtues most esteemed in the Bible). And we certainly have no reason to think they are better positioned to help guide ordinary people through the practical moral complexities of everyday life. In fact, we have every reason to think that priestly abstinence fueled the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal.
Denying yourself pleasure has little to do with caring about the pleasure or pain of others. In fact, it can be distracting, creating a false sense of virtue when none is actually merited. Teetotalers of various kinds have a reputation for being self-righteous and judgmental, and sexual teetotalers have a remarkable track record of hypocrisy—not exactly spiritual virtues.
10. If a man is really devoted to God, then abstinence is no problem.
For the record, clergy who exploit their power and authority to molest children must be held accountable for their own behavior, and stopped. Even so, at some level, pedophile priests, along with the tens of thousands they have molested or raped, are victims of cynical Church teachings motivated at least in part by greed.
In the Middle Ages the Vatican saw priestly abstinence as a way to prevent the offspring and wives of clergy from being entitled to support or inheritance from Church coffers. Absent contraception, sex with adult females is financially inconvenient because, when women get pregnant, resources get divided among their offspring. The Church may be willing to impose this financial cost on desperately poor families, but God forbid that the Vatican’s vast wealth and real estate holdings get dispersed to the children of clergy.
11. Female consent is not a big deal: A virgin should be given in marriage by her father, a slut always wants it, and a married woman has no right to deny her husband his due.
Why have Christians and Christian-dominant cultures gotten mutuality and consent so wrong for so long? One reason is that the Bible never says that a woman’s consent is needed—or desired—before sex. In fact, like many ancient myths, the Bible accepts and even condones nonconsensual sex. Imagine how different Christian history (and derivative modern cultures) would be if the Ten Commandments said, “Don’t have sex with anyone who doesn’t want to.”
The fact that a modern man can’t trade his daughter for a goat, as happened in Old Testament times, does mean things are moving in the right direction, but that’s exactly why we need to keep talking about consent.
Our cultural agreements and norms are in flux, and that garbles social signals: A father may not hover over his daughter, but that doesn’t mean her body is up for grabs. A teen may dress like a hooker; that doesn’t mean she is asking for sex. The fact that a college student agreed to “Netflix” doesn’t mean she has agreed to “chill.” A sexually-experienced woman can be just as traumatized by rape as one with no experience. And nothing kills arousal—or turns attraction into revulsion—faster than service station sex; so if conservatives want people to stay married, recommending that women simply roll on their backs is a really bad idea.
The only way to navigate the evolution of sexual norms with a minimum of harm is to talk—a lot. Even then people are going to get things wrong, but that doesn’t mean we should retreat into the Iron Age.
12. As a woman, if sex or menstruation or childbirth hurts or a pregnancy test comes back positive at a bad time, accept your lot in life. Que será, será. Go with the flow. Let go and let God. And blame the misery on that uppity female, Eve, who just couldn’t resist eating from the tree of knowledge.
No. No. No. No. No.
Sex shouldn’t hurt, painful periods can be treated, childbirth doesn’t need to be hellish, and you are right to have dreams and aspirations. Being born female is not a punishment. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean simply accepting your lot in life; it means shaping it.
This world needs women who are strong and visionary, inventive and courageous, playful and bold—not women who are hobbled by miserable monthlies and unmanaged fertility that make their future (and that of their families) a crap shoot.
13. Having sex under less than ideal circumstances is going to ruin your life as well as your afterlife and vagina because you reap what you sow.
Virtually every adult has had sexual contact they regretted. Sometimes it hurts, physically. Sometimes it messes with your head—and a really bad sexual encounter or relationship can do damage that needs healing. Sometimes—afterwards—we need a good scrub or a good cry or STI treatment, or the morning after pill or an abortion or a therapist. But bad sex, stupid sex, or even assault doesn’t have to ruin your life. Most of the time we learn from our mistakes and heal our traumas, and then we move on to experience intimacy that feels wholesome and right for us.
14. Sex is sacred, even sacramental—so important that it’s worth scripting your life around having the right kind and avoiding the wrong kinds.
Yes, sex is wonderful. Orgasm is a pleasure unlike any other, and sexual intimacy releases powerful feelings of wellbeing and connection. There’s a good evolutionary reason for that. But honestly, life offers many other forms of intimacy and pleasure. Those of us who aren’t jacked on adolescent hormones or else devoting major psychic energy to sexual repression have better things to do most of the time—things like being kind, curious, imaginative, industrious or nurturing—or savoring one of life’s other delights. Just because the Church is obsessed with sex doesn’t mean we all are.
15. Children born outside of wedlock are illegitimate bastards. This means, biblically speaking, that they are not real sons (Hebrews 12:8) and that their mere presence can somehow taint their surroundings (Deuteronomy 23:2).
Enlightened societies judge a person by character, not paternity, and modern people generally think it’s wrong to punish a child for something their parent did wrong, even something so horrendously bad as having sex without marriage.
For 200 years Americans have been fighting to bring our society into alignment with our founding ideals—that all of us are created equal—regardless of the circumstances of our birth. No child is illegitimate. Nobody’s birthright should depend on the marital status of their parents. When the moral consciousness of the Church lags behind civil society by centuries, maybe that should tell us something about where to look for inspiration.
When it comes to sexuality, many religious authorities are stuck in a set of scripts optimized for the Iron Age, literally, and adapted during the Dark Ages. Some Church teachings about sex, like priestly celibacy, are so harmful that they threaten the whole institution, while others simply harm us as individuals. But the old conservatives at the top are terrified of change, afraid that if they lose their grip on sex and reproduction they will lose their grip, period.
Religious authorities will adapt only if forced to do so by empowered women who take charge of their own bodies and destiny, and men who cherish creative equality, and queer folk who invalidate archaic binaries simply by living and loving. So, be one. Or partner one. Or raise one.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.