Religion and sexuality

Sexual morality varies greatly over time and between cultures. A society's sexual norms — standards of sexual conduct — can be linked to religious beliefs, or social and environmental conditions. Sexuality and reproduction are fundamental elements in human interaction and society worldwide. Furthermore, "sexual restrictions" is one of the universals of culture peculiar to all human societies. Accordingly, most religions have seen a need to address the question of a "proper" role for sexuality in human interactions. Different religions have different codes of sexual morality, which regulate sexual activity or assign normative values to certain sexually charged actions or thoughts.


The views of religions and religious believers range widely, from holding that sex and the flesh are evil to the belief that sex is the highest expression of the divine. Views on sexuality may not even be shared among adherents of a particular sect. Some religions distinguish between sexual activities that are practiced for biological reproduction (sometimes allowed only when in formal marital status and at a certain age), and other activities practiced for sexual pleasure as immoral.

Although a popular hypothesis holds that a high degree of societal religiosity correlates with lower rates of non-monogamous sexual activity, a 2005 summary of various studies found that rates of sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and early adolescent pregnancy are in fact lower in secular societies.

Abrahamic religions and sexuality

Different-sex sexuality, and specifically procreation, is currently viewed as the ideal by some members of the Abrahamic religions. They sanction monogamous and committed heterosexual relationships within marriage. The Jewish Hebrew Bible prohibits adultery and heterosexual intercourse during the period of Niddah or menses.

Judaism and sexuality

Traditional Judaism prohibits sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage, maintains biblical strictures on relations within marriage including observance of Niddah, a prohibition on relations for a period including the menstrual period, and Tzniut, requirements of modest dress and behavior. Traditional Judaism views adultery, incest, and male homosexuality as grave sins. See Jewish views of homosexuality. Judaism permits relatively free divorce, with Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism requiring a religious divorce ceremony for a divorce to be religiously recognized. More liberal branches of Judaism have adapted perspectives more consistent with contemporary general secular culture.

Levels of modesty required according to Orthodox Judaism

There are several levels to the observance of physical and personal modesty (tzniut) according to Orthodox Judaism as derived from various sources in halakha. Observance of these rules varies from aspirational to mandatory to routine across the spectrum of Orthodox stricture and observance.

Orthodox Judaism also maintains a strong prohibition on interfaith sexual relations and marriage.

Orthodox Jews tend to have a lower intermarriage rate than their Conservative and Reform counterparts. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodox Jews alone had a lower intermarriage rate in the 18-39 age category (3%) vs. the 40+ category (10%), compared with 37% vs. 10% for Conservative Jews, 53% vs. 10% for Reform Jews, and 72% vs. 39% for secular Jews. A Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs report showed that Orthodox Judaism had doubled among synagogue-affiliated Jews in the United States, from 10% in 1990 to 21.8% in 2001, and that most of this growth was in the stricter Haredi Judaism as opposed to Modern Orthodox Judaism. It speculated that this trend may have been related to a general trend towards greater religious and social traditionalism, as well as due to earlier marriage and higher birth rates in Orthodox families consistent with more traditional sexual behavior. Orthodox Judaism, alone of all the Jewish denominations, retains relatively mild traditional disabilities on divorce, including a Biblical prohibition on a Kohen (priestly descendant of Aaron) marrying a divorcee or a women who has engaged in certain types of sexual misconduct. These strictures, while observed, are generally regarded as matters of personal status rather than morality. An Orthodox bill of divorce is required for a divorce to be recognized.

In Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism, consistent with its general view that Halakha (Jewish law) is a binding guide to Jewish life but subject to periodic revision by the Rabbinate, has lifted a number of strictures observed by Orthodox Judaism. In particular, in December 2006, Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards adopted responsa presenting diametrically opposed views on the issue of homosexuality. It adopted an opinion restricting a prior prohibition on homosexual conduct to male-male anal sex only, which it declared to be the only Biblical prohibition, declaring all other prohibitions (e.g. male-male oral sex or lesbian sex) rabbinic, and lifting all rabbinic restrictions based on its interpretation of the Talmudic principle of Kevod HaBriyot ("human dignity"). While declining to develop a form of religious gay marriage, it permitted blessing lesbian and gay unions and ordaining openly lesbian and gay rabbis who agree not to engage in male-male anal sex. It also adopted two traditionalist opinions, an opinion upholding all traditional prohibitions on homosexual activity, also adopted as a majority opinion, and a minority opinion urging homosexuals wishing to live as religious Jews to seek treatment. The approach permits individual rabbis, congregations, and rabbinical schools to set their own policy on homosexual conduct. It reflects a profound change from a prior blanket prohibition on male homosexual practices. It acknowledges a sharp divergence of views on sexual matters within Conservative Judaism, such that there is no single Conservative Jewish approach to matters of sexuality. Conservative Judaism currently straddles the divide between liberal and traditional opinion on sexual matters within contemporary American society, permitting both views.

Conservative Judaism has maintained on its books a variety of modesty requirements and prohibitions, including a requirement that married women observe the laws of Niddah (refraining from sex during and shortly after their menstrual period and immersing in a Mikvah prior to resuming relations) and a general prohibition on non-marital heterosexual conduct. On the same day as the CJLS released its homosexuality responsa, it released multiple opinons on the subject of Niddah including a responsum lifting certain traditional restrictions on husband-wife contact during the niddah period while maintaining a prohibition on sexual relations. The permissive responsum on homosexuality used the Conservative movement's approach to Niddah as an analogy for construing the Biblical prohibition against male homosexual conduct narrowly and lifting restrictions it deemed Rabbinic in nature. The responsum indicated it would be making a practical analogy between an approach in which male homosexual couples would be on their honor to refrain from certain acts and its approach to Niddah:

We expect homosexual students to observe the rulings of this responsum in the same way that we expect heterosexual students to observe the CJLS rulings on niddah. We also expect that interview committees, administrators, faculty and fellow students will respect the privacy and dignity of gay and lesbian students in the same way that they respect the privacy and dignity of heterosexual students.

The responsum enjoined young people not to be "promiscuous" and to prepare themselves for "traditional marriage" if possible, while not explicitly lifting or re-enforcing any express strictures on non-marital heterosexual conduct.

In Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism

Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism do not observe or require traditional sexuality rules and have welcomed non married and homosexual couples and endorsed homosexual commitment ceremonies and marriages.

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism are more tolerant of interfaith marriage, and many rabbis in both communities will perform one. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism also do not require a religious divorce ceremony separate from a civil divorce.

It has been speculated that the more tolerant attitudes of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism towards both sexual diversity and interfaith marriage may have contributed to the rise in their popularity during the 1990s, from about 33% of affiliated households to 38%, making it pass Conservative Judaism as the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. . The original Koine Greek word translated as fornication is porneia. The Greek term is used by the church since the time of Christ to include any form of sexual misconduct and there is no debate as to the precise meaning of the word, which in Classical Greek refers specifically to the use of a prostitute for homosexual or heterosexual activities in the Hellenized communities.

Catholic and Orthodox Churches

The Catholic Church affirms the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death. The Church believes that each person is made in the "image and likeness of God," and that human life should not be weighed against other values such as economy, convenience, personal preferences, or social engineering. Therefore, the Church opposes activities that they believe destroy or devalue divinely created life, including euthanasia, eugenics and abortion.

The Church teaches that Manichaeism, the belief that the spirit is good while the flesh is evil, is a heresy. Therefore, the Church does not teach that sex is sinful or an impairment to a grace-filled life. "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." then the human body and sex must likewise be good. The Catechism teaches that "the flesh is the hinge of salvation."

However the Church does teach that sexuality outside of marriage is a capital sin because it violates the purpose of human sexuality to participate in the "conjugal act" before one is actually married. The "conjugal act" aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul" (Catechism 1643) since the marriage bond is to be a sign of the love between God and humanity (Catechism 1617).

Pope John Paul II's first major teaching was on the Theology of the Body. Over the course of five years he elucidated a vision of sex that was not only positive and affirming but was about redemption, not condemnation. He taught that by understanding God's plan for physical love we could understand "the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life." "The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates that sexual relationships in marriage as ''a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity'' and lists fornication as one of the "Offenses Against Chastity" and calls it "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action" because "use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose."

Islam and sexuality

Islam discourages celibacy as a form of religious practice, and considers marriage as the best form that regulates the sexual relationship of human beings.

Qur'anic verses made it legal for Muslim men to marry women from other Abrahamic religions (i.e. Jews and Christians), provided that the women are faithful (adherent) to their own religious beliefs. Contemporary scholars have upheld this ruling, but many view inter-faith marriages as unwise (as it leads to many problems such as determination of religion of children, etc), albeit legal.

A Muslim woman, on the other hand, is only allowed to marry a Muslim man, one of the reasons being, to marry a non-Muslim man would mean that the children would grow up as non-Muslims. A marriage contract between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is traditionally considered illegal and void, and hence legally an adulterous affair. The same holds true for a marriage contract between a Muslim man and a woman from a faith scholars of shari'a regard as non-Monotheistic, such as Hinduism or possibly Buddhism.

The Qur'an states the following conditions for men with regard to marriage:

4:22 And marry not women whom your fathers married save for what is past: it is shameful and odious--indeed an abominable custom.

4:23 Prohibited to you (For marriage) are:- Your mothers, daughters, sisters; father's sisters, Mother's sisters; brother's daughters, sister's daughters; foster-mothers, foster-sisters; your wives' mothers; your stepdaughters under your guardianship, born of your wives to whom ye have gone in,- no prohibition if ye have not gone in;- (Those who have been) wives of your sons proceeding from your loins; and two sisters in wedlock at one and the same time save for what is past; for God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

4:24 Also (prohibited are) women already married. Thus hath God ordained (Prohibitions) against you: Except for these, all others are lawful, provided ye seek (them in marriage) with gifts from your property: desiring chastity, not lust, seeing that ye derive benefit from them, give them their dowers (at least) as prescribed; but if, after a dower is prescribed, agree mutually (to vary it), there is no blame on you. And God is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

4:25 If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess. And God hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable. They should be chaste, not lustful, nor taking paramours: when they are taken in wedlock, if they fall into shame, their punishment is half that for free women. This (permission) is for those among you who fear sin; but it is better for you that ye practice self-restraint. And God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

4:26 Allah doth wish to make clear to you and to show you the ordinances of those before you; and (He doth wish to) turn to you (In Mercy): And God is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

In particular, adultery warrants severe punishment. Pre-marital sex is also considered sinful, albeit less severe. All shari'a laws regulating sexual conduct apply to both men and women equally, apart from those concerning menstruation (see below).

Most forms of sexual contact within a marriage are allowed. Sex is considered a pleasurable, even spiritual activity, and a duty. At least one hadith explicitly states that for a married couple to have sex is a good deed rewarded by God. Another hadith suggests that a man should not leave the proverbial bed until the woman is satisfied, a reference many say points to orgasm.

Forbidden sexual contact includes genital contact with a woman while she is menstruating. In such case, other sexual contact (such as kissing) is explicitly allowed. Anal sex, whether it be between a married couple or not, is forbidden by all scholars. Other forms of sexual contact, such as oral sex, are also forbidden in islam. Temporary marriage (''Mut'a'', marriage designated for a preset period of time) is not allowed by the majority Sunni schools, but is allowed by Shia schools. Debate continues on its validity.

There are dissenting views on the topic of masturbation. While some scholars consider it unlawful and thus prohibited according to Islamic doctrine, others (such as those of the Hanbali doctrine) believe that those who masturbate out of fear of committing fornication or fear for their bodies have done nothing wrong and are not punished if (and only if) they are unable to marry. According to some Hadithes however, men are encouraged to fast in order to avoid fornication and tempting oneself with sexual thoughts or conversations with opposite sex outside marriage is strongly discouraged.

Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam; acts of sodomy are explicitly punishable by death in accordance with the Hadith: "Whomever you find doing the deed of the People of Lot, then kill both the doer and whomever he is doing it to." The four Caliphs upheld this ruling, as did all of the Prophet's companions. Sodomy is a capital crime in Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan, and Mauritania.

Hinduism and Sexuality

Unlike other religions, in Hinduism views of sexual morality differ widely depending on the region and sect. Hindu scriptures themselves are often vague about sexuality. There are temples depicting sexual activity openly (examples include temple complexes at Ajanta and Ellora) and sexual imagery is not sacrilege, but sexual self-restraint (as well as in other aspects of life) are considered essential to a Hindu's well being and dharmic/karmic duties.

Religiously speaking, Hindus begin life at the Brahmacharya or "student" stage, in which they are directed to chastely advance themselves educationally and spiritually to prepare themselves for a life of furthering their dharma (religious duties) and karma (right earthly actions); only once they reach the Grihastya or "householder" stage can they seek kama (physical pleasure) and artha (worldly achievement, material prosperity) through their vocations.

In general, however, Hindu society has been influenced by Islamic and colonial British viewpoints to reflect their quite conservative attitudes in matters pertaining to sex. Many contemporary Hindus (especially in large cities within India and/or second-generation immigrant communities in developed countries) have accepted Western notions like pre-marital sex, "love" marriages (compared to the more traditional arranged marriage), and homo-/bisexuality. Among more traditional elements of Hindu society, though, such concepts are still anathema.

Most culturally-sensitive Hindus adhere to sexual standards akin to Victorian morality, with both pre-marital and extramarital sex perceived to be immoral and shameful. In the religion's teachings, the prohibition against sex outside of marriage is largely related to the prescribed life stages Hindus are bound to follow if they are to attain moksha (the same as the Buddhist concept of nirvana, or enlightenment of the soul).

Indian law (influencing the highest concentration of Hindus) considers married heterosexual monogamy to be legal, heterosexual live-in relationships are legal with limited respect of Domestic Violence (although several court interpretations have defined "long" monogamous live-in relationships equivalent to marriage) and India does not recognize same sex unions. Additionally, while there are no restrictions on particular kinds of sexual activity, it is considered a highly private affair. Most Hindus are quite averse to openly address anything related to sexuality as such discussion or publicly romantic displays are viewed as extremely distasteful.

The Kama Sutra (Aphorisms of Love) by Vatsayana, widely believed to be just a manual for sexual congress, offers an insight into sexual mores, ethics and societal rules that were prevalent at that time (ca. 5 CE). Shrungara Ras (Romance, one of the nine rasas or emotions). A drama in Sanskrit, Shakuntalam by Kalidasa, is cited as one of the best examples of Shrungara Ras, talks of the love story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala.

Buddhism and sexuality

Asian socities shaped by Buddhist traditions takes a strong ethical stand in human affairs and sexual behavior in particular. However, unlike most other world religions, most variations of Buddhism do not go into details what is right and what is wrong in what it regards as activities of life. Details of accepted or unaccepted human sexual conduct is not specifically mentioned in any of the religious scriptures. The most common formulation of Buddhist ethics are the Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path, one should neither be attached to nor crave sensual pleasure. These precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings, not divine mandate or instruction. The third of the Five Precepts is "To refrain from committing sexual misconduct.. However, the "sexual misconduct" is such a broad term, and is subjected to interpretation relative to the social norms of the followers. In fact, Buddhism in its fundamental form, does not define what is right and what is wrong in absolute terms for lay followers. Therefore the interpretation of what kinds of sexual activity is acceptable for a layperson, is not a religious matter as far as Buddhism is concerned.

Buddhist monks and nuns of most traditions are expected to refrain from all sexual activity (Japanese Buddhism being a notable exception), and the Buddha is said to have admonished his followers to avoid unchastity "as if it were a pit of burning cinders."

A core teaching of Buddha's foundational first sermon is that "one should not pursue sensual pleasure (kama-sukha), which is low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble and unbeneficial." (Samyutta Nikaya V:420, Sutta Pitaka). This is reinforced in many passages of the Sutta Pitaka, such as the Simile of the Quail (Sutta 66 of the Majjhima Nikaya) where Buddha teaches that sensual pleasures are "filthy, coarse, and ignoble" and "should not be pursued, developed, or cultivated; they should be feared."

In addition, the second of the Four Noble Truths states that the ultimate cause of all suffering is attachment and unquenchable desire (tanha), and the third states that the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate attachment and desire. Sexual practices are characterised as both attachment (kama-upadana) and desire (kama-tanha). Sensual desire (kama-cchanda) is also the first of the Five Hindrances, which must be eradicated if one is to progress spiritually. Of the three kinds of cchanda, kama-cchanda is the one that is ethically immoral.ref

Neopaganism and sexuality

Neo-Pagan religions tend to be positive about sexuality, and are almost unanimous in their acceptance of same-sex relationships as equal to heterosexual ones. Most Neo-Pagan religions have the theme of fertility (both physical and creative/spiritual) as central to their practices, and as such encourage what they view as a healthy sex life, consensual sex between adults, regardless of gender or age. Specifically in the Wiccan tradition of modern Paganism, one of the widely accepted pieces of Craft liturgy, the Charge of the Goddess instructs that "...all acts of love and pleasure are [the Goddess'] rituals", giving validity to all forms of consensual sexual activity for Wiccan practitioners.

In the Gardnerian and Alexandrian forms of Wicca, "The Great Rite" is a way of expressing love through sexuality. The ritual is not an excuse to have sex with someone, nor is any sexual activity in a properly consecrated circle a Great Rite. Any sexual acts dealing with Wicca, whether literal or symbolic, is encouraged to take place between two consenting adults, even more so with two involved lovers.

The Charge of the Goddess, says in the words of the Goddess, "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals".

The Wiccan attitude about sexuality as wholly natural, and goes on from there to seek a fuller understanding of masculine-feminine polarity and of how to make constructive use of it - both psychologically and magically. Sexuality freed from the shackles of obligatory breeding is what makes us specifically human.

Wicca, like other religious philosophies has a spectrum of adherents including those with conservative views to liberal views. However nothing in Wiccan philosophy prohibits sexual intercourse outside of marriage or relationships between members of the same sex. On the contrary, the Wiccan Rede "An it harm none, do as thou wilt" is interpreted by many to allow and endorse responsible sexual relationships of all varieties.

Bahá'í Faith

In the Bahá'í Faith, sexual relationships are permitted only between a husband and wife. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith in his book of laws, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, forbid extramarital sexual intercourse. The Baha'i understanding of sex is that chastity should be practised by both sexes before marriage because it is commendable ethically and that it leads to a happy and successful marital life. The Bahá'í Faith recognizes the value of the sex impulse, but that its proper use is within the institution of marriage; Baha'is do not believe in the suppression of the sex impulse but in its regulation and control.

Spreading sexual morality to non-adherents

Many cultures attempt to codify their prescriptions concerning individual sexual behaviours. Such codifications are frequently enacted as laws, extending their application beyond the culture to other cultures under the purview of the laws, including dissenters.

Most of the Islamic world has strict rules enforced with sometimes violent punishments to enforce Islamic moral codes, including sexual morality on their citizens, and often attempt to impose it on non-Muslims living within their societies. The same was true of various European Christian regimes at some stages in history, and many contemporary Christians support restrictions on the private expression of sexuality, ranging from prohibitions of prostitution to restrictions on oral sex and sodomy. Haredi Jews in Israel use various verbal and print media (newspapers, books, radio shows, websites, etc.) to try to encourage other Jews to follow the Jewish laws of sexuality.

See also


Further reading

In Buddhism

In Judaism

Critical perspectives

External links

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