Why Is Society So Afraid and Ashamed of Sex? Short Answer: Religion.

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I’ve been thinking about this one, because it comes up a lot. Sex is something that raises eyebrows and it’s because people are really terrified of sex before it happens and really ashamed of it after it does. Of course, I mean mostly in the public light.

Before I get into too much detail, let’s do a little thought experiment. What would sex look like if we could start society over with a clean slate (a la The Sims) with what we know now? Well, we know that sex is enjoyable and everyone is capable of it, so I think we could start by seeing it in a very positive light. Then, we’d talk about thing like consent to ensure people have ownership of their own bodies and to discourage things like rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. We know that there are possible consequences like unwanted pregnancies and STIs, so we’d probably promote using protection and frown upon having a crazy number of anonymous sexual partners. We’d recognize the deep level of emotional connection that is possible with sex and its ability to serve as a foundation for a family, so some level of commitment (though not necessarily monogamy) would be valued. And we’d also recognize that sexual relationships can be disruptive—in the workplace, for example—so there might be a certain extent to which we’d value a certain level of discretion and privacy. But I think that’d be that.

Ian McKellenSo why is sex so taboo in society? The only answer I can see is religion. I think Ian McKellen said it best in his recent interview:

Why should I take the judgment of a declared celibate about my sexual needs? He’s basing his judgment on laws that would fit life in the Bronze Age. So if I’m lost to God, organized religion is to blame.

For hundreds of years, the most holy men in society were those who were committed to celibacy. Sex had this entirely spiritual meaning that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a secular light. And let’s not forget that women had like no rights. They were property. Our sexual values were totally set off-course by the bizarre values of the Church, and those archaic values persist in modern America.

Take a look at some stories that I’ve written about here. Parents in Illinois protested their children reading about sexual behavior in animals in a sophomore honors class (11/3/09). Newsweek wrote recently about the future of abstinence-only sex ed, conceding, of course, that it doesn’t work (10/27/09). A study found that the most religious states have the highest teen birth rates (9/17/09). The AFA called “safe sex” a mythical message that deprives American teens of their “sexual innocence” (9/10/09). They also published a book called Truth For Youth that promotes “sexual purity” (8/28/09). And let’s not forget that Proposition 8 and Question 1 both passed because of intimidating lies about “teaching homosexuality” in our schools (11/4/09).

What are “sexual innocence” and “sexual purity” except rhetoric that paints sex as something to feel guilty and dirty about? There is nothing foul about sex (it’s pretty great, actually), and the only guilt comes from betraying the religious values that discourage any kind of sexual behavior. And this makes people so sensitive about sex that people are totally afraid of learning anything about it at all! And of course we always have to keep private parts censored because even thinking about another person in a sexual way is “unclean.” (It’s obviously impossible to be attracted to somebody or even turned on by them without “coveting” them.) This is all absurd circular reasoning that deprives many young people of the opportunity to truly learn how their own bodies work! It’s not just fear; it’s paranoia that is only driven by commitment to values preached by the church.

Carrie PrejeanAnd then, when sex does happen, OH THE SHAME! Let’s talk about Carrie Prejean again for a little. Do we really care that she had some nude photos taken or that she made a few sex tapes (eight) for her boyfriend? I don’t think so. I mean, we live in an age where every computer and phone comes with a camera; I’m sure there are PLENTY of people out there who have taken photos or made videos intended for private viewing only. It’s not a shameful thing to do; it’s just private, so it’s embarrassing if they get out. I honestly don’t think there is anything wrong with anything she did. As my good friend (not really) Josh Malinaactor Josh Malina tweeted recently:

Leave Sister Helen Prejean alone! The woman’s done some wonderful work. I say if she wants to diddle herself on camera, she’s earned it.

The scandal comes in when you look at her integrity. See, Prejean has made an icon of herself for preaching hateful conservative sexual values. By promoting these archaic sexual values, she set a standard for herself to meet them. Any hint that she might be a sexual being would be in complete opposition to her rhetoric. If she had been totally open and supportive of the gay community instead of walking this Christian hard line of morality, we probably wouldn’t see this documentation of her sexuality as negative or scandalous. We’d say, “Good for her! It’s probably embarrassing those got out, but she has nothing to be ashamed of!” That is not the case. And as I wrote last week, this happens time and time again with moral conservatives who talk a talk that does not match the walk they walk. (Meghan McCain sees the hypocrisy, but promotes a bit of it herself.)

So what’s the deal with sex? I think sexual liberation is still something we need to fight for. There are some people doing some amazing work at the National Sexual Resource Center to promote sexual literacy:

At NSRC, we focus on a positive, integrated and holistic view of sexuality from a social justice perspective. We believe that every person should have the knowledge, skills and resources to support healthy and pleasurable sexuality—and that these resources should be based on accurate research and facts. We examine how race, gender, culture, ability, faith and age intersect with and shape our sexual beliefs. We know that sexuality education and learning should be lifelong. We call this sexual literacy.

I think it’s admirable work that goes far beyond simple “comprehensive sex education.” We should be able to fully understand and explore our bodies without being told to feel guilty about it. Religion continues to work against this freedom in ways I think terribly damage our society. Until we recognize that there is no reason for fear, guilt, or shame, we cannot attain true sexual literacy, and I think that’s a damn shame.

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