Since time immemorial, religious people have been weird about sex. But which came first? Are they weird about sex because they’re religious or are they religious because they’re weird about sex? The science is inconclusive, despite a data set comprising of the entirety of human history.
It goes way back, presumably to before recorded history. But by the fourth century there were already signs that religious devotees had a sexual screw loose. In Egypt, the Pachomius of Tabennisi banned the showing of knees, in case the sight of them led the monks to fuck each other. They were also banned from lending each other books or, more reasonably perhaps, from oiling each other’s bodies.
Fast forward to Iraq 2006 and you see similar thoughts at work. Outside Baghdad, shepherds were forced by Islamic militants to put their sheep in diapers, in case the sight of their orifices proved too tempting. Naturally, they killed the shepherds who would not comply.
Needless to say, most people fight the temptation to have sex with men on the basis of their knees and many are even capable of catching sight of a sheep’s anus without wishing to fuck it. It’s tempting to conclude that religious people might just be more sexually confused than the rest of us, and that these strange rules reflect their own perverse inclinations. If so we could expect to find evidence of a more frantic sexual desire among religious believers.
Despite the entirety of human history providing potential examples, the scientific data is actually very limited. But that which we do have throws up some pretty interesting observations about the god-fearing and their willies.
A 2009 study of US porn users in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that states where more people agreed with the statement ‘I never doubt the existence of God’ have more subscribers to online pornography. The same held true for states where more people agreed with the phrases: ‘I have old fashioned views about family and marriage’, ‘AIDs may be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behaviour’ and ‘Even today miracles are performed by the power of God’.
States which had enacted conservative legislation on sexuality or implemented defence of marriage amendments also had higher rates of porn subscription.
There was no particular increase in subscriptions in states where people regularly attended religious services. But there was something else interesting about those states: A smaller proportion of people began their porn subscription on Sundays. The correlation is quite strong. A one per cent increase in the proportion of people who regularly go to church corresponds to a 0.10% reduction in Sunday subscriptions. This is a sign of something we will return to later: religion is very bad at discouraging sexual behaviour. Its effect is minimal and short-lived.
It also compares rather satisfyingly with a study by Deepak Malhotra at Harvard, which found religious people were more likely to give to charity on Sundays, but on every other day of the week they were statistically identical in their generosity to non-believers.
In 1972, Laud Humphreys came to comparable conclusions when he wrote the wonderfully titled Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places.
Humphreys had a problem. He wanted to find out more about the lives of men who met up anonymously in public toilets for sex. His solution to this problem was ingenious and completely unethical. He took the role of the ‘watch queen’ – a lookout who alerts the participants to the arrival of suspicious outsiders. This allowed him to stay out the business end of the interaction but blend in enough to avoid affecting the behaviour he was studying.
Then – and here comes the really unethical part – he would take down their licence plate number, look up their names and addresses and send researchers to visit them under the guise of conducting a social health survey. Weren’t the 70s wonderful? They had all the science and none of the responsibility. Humphreys duly took 50 surveys from the men having sex in public toilets and 50 from a control group.
Researchers noticed something about the homes of the public sex group. More often than not, they had an American flag on the wall and a Bible on the mantelpiece. Their answers confirmed the trend. They were more conservative on economic, political and civil rights issues than the control group. And they were, of course, more religious.
But by no means all studies conclude that religious people are more sexually excitable than the rest of us. Actually, one of the biggest studies of the subject – survey of over 14,500 people by Kansas university in 2011- found religious people’s sexual behaviour is almost identical to that of non-believers. The only difference between religious people’s sex lives and non-believers’ sex lives was that religious people enjoyed it less.
The study comes with some pretty significant health warnings. For a start, it’s a self-selecting group. Most respondents arrived at the survey through a link at a site called Pharyngula, a blog which purports to offer ‘random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal’. You can imagine the sort of readers it has. Gays, lesbians and women were overrepresented. Respondents were typically younger and better educated than the general public. Nevertheless, the data is robust and very interesting.
The most important finding is this: people did the same thing, whether they were religious or not. They masturbated, they had oral sex and they had intercourse. Even being a teenager living with religious parents made no difference, once the child entered adult life. The only difference was guilt. They were drowning in it.
80% of religious respondents felt guilty while engaging in normal sexual activities, compared to 26% of non-believers. The more extreme the religion, the more guilty they felt. Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists were the most heavily guilt-laden. Unitarians, Jews and Buddhists were the least.
Interestingly, religious guilt has remarkably little staying-power. Just 16.6% of those who left religion behind continued to feel guilt about sex. Meanwhile, 61.6% of those who eschewed religion said their sex life greatly improved. Again – religion is simply not very good at affecting human behaviour. And the guilt it gives people can be erased fairly easily once they give up their faith.
The data seems contradictory. Are religious people more sexually imaginative and guilty about it – or sexually run-of-the-mill and guilty about it? The answer is beyond us, or beyond any reasonable assessment of the available evidence, but it’s probably the latter. After all, searching for anonymous gay sex in the 70s was a necessity in a time when going to a gay bar could result in police or public attention. Checking out online porn is now about as interesting as eating cereal. Perhaps there is a slight uptick in sexual desires among the religious. But we’ll never really know if they embrace religion because of their uptick or if they experience the uptick because religion makes it more attractive by forbidding it.
It’s possible that religion enhances desire by putting restrictions on normal human impulses, like someone squeezing a balloon. Or maybe those who are already somewhat hyper-sexualised grasp for religion as a way to ward off feelings they don’t understand. Religion is so deeply entrenched in society, so intertwined with our history, that it’s impossible to untangle the causal strings.
Just to confuse the matter further, it’s worth quickly mentioning a 1992 study by the University of Chicago, where researchers interviewed 3,432 Americans about their sex life.
Bewilderingly, and against every intuition you may have, they found religious women were more likely to orgasm. Only a fifth of non-religious women always orgasmed with their partner, compared to one third of protestant women and 27% of Catholics. “Religion may be independently associated with rate of female orgasm,” the researchers were forced to conclude.
Make of that what you will. I find it completely baffling. But just in case I’ve bought a Bible. It’s the most perverse thing I can do.