Sex and Religion
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Sex and Religion

Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths

Dag Ølstein Endsjø

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eBook - ePub

Sex and Religion

Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths

Dag Ølstein Endsjø

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About This Book

Sex and religion are inevitably and intricately linked. There are few realms of human experience other than sex in which religion has greater reach and influence. The role of religion, of any faith, to prohibit, regulate, condemn, and reward, is unavoidablyprominent in questions of sex—namely with whom, when, how, and why. In Sex and Religion, Dag Øistein Endsjø examines the myriad and complex religious attitudes towards sex in cultures throughout the world.

Endsjø reflects on some of the most significantly problematic areas in the relationship between sex and religion—from sex before or outside of marriage to homosexuality. Through many examples from world religions, he outlines what people mean by sex in a religious context, with whom it's permissible to have sex, how sex can be a directly religious experience, and what consequences there are for deviance, for both the individual and society. As Endsjø explains, while Buddhist monks call attention to gay sex as a holy mystery, the Christian church questions a homosexual's place in the church. Some religions may believe that promiscuity leads to hurricanes and nuclear war, and in others God condemns interracial marriage. Sex and Religion reveals there is nothing natural or self-evident about the ways in which various religions prescribe or proscribe and bless or condemn different types of sexuality. Whether sex becomes sacred or abhorrent depends entirely on how a religion defines it.

Sex and Religion is a fascinating investigation of mores, meanings, rituals, and rules in many faiths around the globe, and will be of interest to anyone curious about the intersection of these fundamental aspects of human history and experience.

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Defining Sex and Religion

How can we define the proper Christian relationship to sex? Or the correct Muslim one? Or the proper Hindu? We are constantly hearing that this or that is forbidden to Christians or Buddhists or Jews, and then, just as often, we hear people saying something quite different. Then comes the argument about who is right and who is wrong. In other words, confusion can set in the moment we enter the field of religion and sex. But perhaps it is in this very disunity that many of the answers lie.
All believers like to see themselves as true Christians, true Muslims, true Hindus, true whatever it may be. No one can argue with that. Yet because of the multiplicity of traditions, the perception that one can be a true Christian, Muslim or Hindu poses a dilemma. If Mona, who is a proper Jew, believes such and such, what is Hanna, who perhaps does not believe such and such? Is she not just as much a Jew? We find exactly the same dilemma when it comes to what religious believers understand as constituting correct sex. Each religion is so diverse in itself that it becomes difficult to draw any absolute conclusions about its relationship to any form of sex.
Many religious people like to speak on behalf of all their fellow believers, making statements that this or that is forbidden to Christians, Muslims or Hindus; what they overlook, consciously or unconsciously, is the huge diversity that exists within every religion. And it is not only the current state of affairs they are overlooking: it is also their history. All the great religions both condemn and defend homosexuality, for instance, in spite of claims that it has always been condemned by most religions.
Within any given religious tradition there will always be a host of different authorities a believer can fall back on – authorities that frequently say different things, and will not necessarily give unambiguous answers. The extent to which individual believers will follow what an authority says will depend partly on the choices the individuals make for themselves and partly on the level of compulsion and sanction that they are subject to. But as long as individuals consider themselves to be members of one religion or another, or at least retain formal membership in a denomination, they still have to be considered as Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and so on. The fact that so many people behave in ways that are different from the way their religious authorities want them to behave does not mean they have broken with the denomination as such but that they are expressing their religion in a new way. Given the permanent disunity within religions about the relationship between sex and religion, the answer to the question of what is truly Muslim, Christian or Hindu sexual behaviour is always going to be open to multiple responses.
Not everything is relative, however, and some authorities – certain sacred writings and leading religious figures, for instance – are more central than others. There are also clear trends visible in the interrelationship between authorities, with certain of the prohibitions in the sacred writings being given much more weight while others may be virtually ignored. It is important to examine both what is emphasized and what is ignored because this can demonstrate how much of expressed religion is the result of conscious or unconscious choices. We can also see that there are clear tendencies with regard to how or whether believers obey or ignore one or another prohibition or injunction. We shall look more closely at some of these issues when we attempt to map the religio-sexual landscape.
There are many people who select their sources carefully in order to come up with absolute claims. They pick out specific sections of the Bible or the Koran and use them to prove that Judaism, Christianity or Islam takes such and such a view of a particular sexual variant. This kind of selection shows how even core sources cannot be used to give conclusive answers about a religion, even though such claims may frequently represent religious convictions and traditions. In the Gospels Jesus totally prohibited divorce but the majority of Christians nowadays think differently. This does not, however, make either the supporters of divorce or its opponents any less Christian.
This leads us on to the question of which sources we should rely on when investigating the relationship between sex and religion. We cannot use, for instance, sacred texts alone for the simple reason that believers themselves choose to interpret them in such different ways. In attempting to paint a picture of the relationship between sex and religion it will therefore be necessary to use a variety of sources. The reading of religious texts will have to be set against what members of the various faiths believe today and what they have believed through the course of history. Statements made by religious leaders cannot be understood without considering the extent to which believers act according to such injunctions. Religious ideals will have to be compared with what is actually practised and tolerated, and what emerges in terms of sanctions and reactions when people find themselves in the border zone of the acceptable.
It is also essential to ask what the limits of religion actually are. For many religious people, particularly today, sex is not included in what they would consider to be religion. There are others, however, who see certain rules about sex as central to their religion whereas other rules are seen as culturally determined. And there are things that started off as religious injunctions and prohibitions that have since become so internalized that they are now perceived as being ‘natural’. Even when religious people define the whole or parts of their sexual lives as completely outside the sphere of religion, their attitudes to sex will nevertheless remain relevant to a study of sex and religion simply because such people still view themselves as religious.
Huge cultural and regional differences further complicate the picture – both within any particular religion and between different faiths. In the whole of the Mediterranean area, for instance, there is a common traditional pattern in sexual matters whereby men, more or less, can do whatever they like, whereas women’s sexuality is subject to strict controls. This pattern remains essentially the same whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam or other religions. The question then is whether this is a matter of religion, culture or both. Since this is a general pattern that has survived for thousands of years and through many religious changes, there is good reason for thinking that it represents a fundamental cultural trait that goes beyond religion. But if you ask individual Christians, Jews or Muslims about it, you are likely to get different answers: even though very few of them would argue that there is a religious explanation for men being permitted to generally do what they like, most would see the strict control of female sexuality as closely associated with religious beliefs. Once a pattern of this kind becomes internalized in a specific religion, it becomes part of it.
There are some countries in which, for religious reasons, the state attempts to impose strict controls on the sexual behaviour of its citizens. This will inevitably affect the degree to which citizens adhere to the traditional religious rules governing sexual conduct. Though an increasing number of states are permitting citizens to make their own choices in sexual matters, the actual ability of the state to impose controls has increased as its apparatus becomes ever more extensive and effective. Generally speaking, it would seem that religious injunctions and prohibitions were stricter in the past than they are now, but religious and state authorities had much less power to ensure that they were adhered to.
In other parts of the world we shall find cultural patterns that cross religious boundaries: the patterns of sexual behaviour among young Jews, Christians and Muslims in New York or Berlin will have more in common with one another than with those of their young co-religionists in villages in Kerala or Ethiopia. Economic and other non-religious factors are involved here: it is obvious that the levels of social and religious control are very different in situations where an unmarried individual can operate independently and in places where being rejected by one’s family means economic and social ruin. The small, economically independent nuclear family capable of moving to another part of the country provides a very different set of circumstances for an individual than the extended family in which, even as an adult, you cannot escape the scrutiny of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. It is factors of this kind that explain why more Muslims and Hindus live in accordance with traditional religio-sexual rules than Christians and Jews: fewer Muslims and Hindus live in societies in which individuals have the opportunity to exist independently of their families and other tight-knit social networks. There is little or nothing in any of these religions themselves to account for such major statistical differences. In all religions we can find the whole spectrum of sexual behaviour, from extremely strict rules to relaxed attitudes.
All in all it is difficult to provide conclusive answers with regard to how any particular religion relates to sex. Religions are not clearly defined units: they are categories whose boundaries are often notably unclear. The various beliefs have also changed greatly through the course of history. And each of these faiths embraces a wide spectrum of very diverse religious convictions. All this needs to be kept in mind when we study the relationship between the different religions and sex.

But What is Sex?

In any consideration of the attitudes various religions take to sex, it is relevant to have a clear idea of what actually constitutes sex, and that is not always easy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sex means ‘sexual activity, specifically sexual intercourse’. A more common understanding of sex is that it is an activity involving the sexual organs and some level of excitement. When we move into the field of religion we do not find any particularly precise understanding of what sex is: rather the reverse. All religions recognize that heterosexual vaginal intercourse is sex, but once we go beyond that we find that the limits of what is understood as sex vary enormously between different religions and, indeed, within any one religion.
In the history of religion a great deal of effort has been put into regulating what are commonly considered to be sexual frontier zones. In Judaic law, for instance, the concept of yichud refers to the necessity of keeping unmarried men and women physically separate. Even though this principle is no longer as widespread as it was, it nevertheless appears in new forms. Separate buses for men and women are becoming more common as a result of the demands of ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews, and on a number of routes where such segregated buses do not yet exist, women have to sit at the back of the bus in order to prevent the fundamentally indecent behaviour represented by contact between the sexes. Women have occasionally been beaten up by ultra-Orthodox men, because they refuse to sit at the back of the bus.1 Similar ordinances to keep men and women apart are to be found in conservative parts of Islam. The Saudi-Arabian laws forbidding women to move around outside the home without a male chaperone are just one of many modern examples. But men are targeted, too: in the winter of 2008 57 young men were arrested in a shopping centre in Mecca for wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music and dancing because they were allegedly behaving in this manner to attract the attention of women.2 In the autumn of 2008 a group of imams in Oslo turned up at public Norwegian-Somali festivities, protesting loudly against men and women who were not family relations being present together.3 Hinduism, too, is not short of similar attitudes. Tourist information for Hindu Nepal warns foreigners to avoid public kissing and cuddling, ‘especially between men and women’.4 The radical Hindu political group Shiv Shena has created its own Valentine’s Day traditions in India: heterosexual couples whom the activists deem too intimate in public have their faces blackened and their hair forcibly cut, while businesses that celebrate Valentine’s Day have been vandalized.5
As far as Christianity is concerned, Jesus himself insisted that it is possible to be guilty of sexual unfaithfulness without physical contact: ‘But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’6 According to Thomas Aquinas, historically speaking probably the most important Roman Catholic theologian, touching and kissing between people of different sexes are not mortal sins in themselves but, depending on the motivation, can easily become so.7 There is a long tradition within Christianity that unfulfilled desire can in itself be a sexual sin. When Christian missionaries went forth and preached that such sexual thoughts were sinful, it was an utterly novel concept to many of the peoples they came in contact with.8
It is in the same spirit that Muhammad believed that looking at forbidden things, or looking at someone with desire, was adultery of the eye and talking about forbidden things, or about what one desires, was adultery of the tongue.9 There is also adultery of the ear when people listen to things of a sexual nature, and adultery of the hand when people touch what they are lusting after. Rather less sublime, perhaps, is adultery of the feet, which means walking to the place where one is planning to commit adultery.10 Muhammad does, however, seem to be more tolerant of human desire than Jesus, so long as it remains unfulfilled: he does not propose any religious consequences for unfulfilled desires.
Desire per se is also a problematical sexual category for Buddhism, but here it is a matter of desire in itself being a greater challenge than sex in itself. The problem with desire is linked to all the senses, each of which in its own way holds us back in passion. As with other religions, however, Buddhism also sometimes operates with an extended concept of sex: the mere fact that men enjoy looking at women, even just pictures of them, is sometimes understood to be a sexual act.11

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