Conventional wisdom insists religion is sexually repressive.
Without even asking whether it is true, much of today’s armchair Freudian philosophizing suggests any limitation on sexual expression harms the healthiest ideal.
But is any of this true?
My research based on the Baylor Religion Survey suggests that, contrary to widely held belief, religious people report better sex lives, and married religious couples have more frequent and better sex than others (non-married religious people, intuitively, have less sex). These results were supported by one study that found religious British people reported more satisfying sex lives. A separate BYU study, published by Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, found similar results for married couples in the U.S. while another found that highly religious people had higher sexual “passion” than more moderately religious people (nonreligious people also reflected higher “passion” levels).
Some of these findings may be because of religion’s benefits for married couples — the first BYU paper tried to parse this out and concluded that increased commitment between partners and greater spousal time helped explain why religious people had higher sexual satisfaction. The fact is religion has been shown to have myriad benefits for marriages and mental health. It’s plausible these benefits trickle down into a couple’s sex life.
Among other things, these findings challenge our status quo conversation about sex in America.
For instance, those who believe the constraints religion places around sexuality are a detriment must grapple with the benefits of marital sexuality. While the media typically depicts sex as something that young, unmarried people do, the fact is that married people have more sex than single people.
It may well be that the most sexually active campuses in the U.S. aren’t the famous party schools, but rather the more religiously conservative schools with more married students.
Whatever the case, the belief that religion dampens sexuality in couples is not only not supported by the evidence, but research appears to suggest the opposite.
Whether it’s John Paul II’s celebration of marital sexuality in his famous Theology of the Body lectures, Jewish law’s Onah, which addresses the requirements for men to satisfy their wife’s sexual needs, or Islam’s Hadiths that celebrate marital sexual passion, traditional religion has typically worked within the assumption of lived sexuality.
Even the Puritans, a group popularly associated with anti-sex attitudes that the term “puritanical” has entered our lexicon as a descriptor of repressive sexuality, were actually quite aware of sexual desire. Renowned sociologist Rodney Stark notes early New England divorce courts “upheld the view that women had a right to expect ‘content and satisfaction’ in bed.”
It is true that sexuality is not the end-all from a religious worldview, that religion imposes boundaries on sexuality, and that, in some cases, devout religious people make the decision to forego the sexual in their life, whether it is a Catholic or Buddhist priest, or just a single person who believes that sexuality should be reserved for marriage.
Yet it seems clear that religion has often worked with, and not against, sexuality, and the benefits of religion for a sexual life appear to be supported by data. And for people who practice sex within the paired, coupled boundaries traditionally emphasized by faith, far from being a buzzkill, the influence of religion appears to add great sexual satisfaction to life.
Stephen Cranney is a nonresident fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion and teaches at The Catholic University of America.