Human Sexuality and Religious Norms


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a inactive to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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121 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Just starting to read this, but first just want to say good to see you posting FP, KC.Report

  2. Avatar bookdragon says:

    I think part of it has to do with evolving understanding of what constitutes divine revelation vs. what is based on the interpretation of (largely male) theologians reading scripture through the lens of medieval social norms.

    For instance, afaik, the Aquinas’ ‘every sperm is sacred’ argument holds sway today only in Catholicism (and explains a lot about why ex-Catholics out number cradle Episcopalians in my parish by more than 2:1). While procreating is seen as a blessing by most faiths, conservative or not, the other religious conservatives with which I’m familiar acknowledge pleasure (between spouses of course) as an equally important aspect. Indeed, while Orthodox Judaism holds procreation very high in the list of mitzvot, if pregnancy posed a significant risk to your wife’s health or life, using contraception would not be a sin but a moral obligation. (Living together in celibacy would be something only those crazy Christians would even consider ;D).Report

    • Avatar Plinko says:

      years later, thanks to him, my dear, I can wear whatever I want on my John Thomas. And Protestantism doesn’t stop at the simple condom. Oh, no! I can wear French Tickers if I want.
      Mrs Blackitt: You what?
      Mr Blackitt: French Ticklers, Black Mambos, Crocodile Ribs… Sheaths that are designed not only to protect but also to enhance the stimulation of sexual congress.
      Mrs Blackitt: Have you got one?
      Mr Blackitt: Well, no… But I can go down the road any time I want and walk into Harry’s and hold my head up high, and say in a loud steady voice: ‘Harry I want you to sell me a condom. In fact, today I think I’ll have a French Tickler, for I am a Protestant.’
      Mrs Blackitt: Well, why don’t you?
      Mr Blackitt: But they! They cannot. Because their church never made the great leap out of the Middle Ages, and the domination of alien episcopal supremacy.

  3. What would Aquinas think of Natural Family Planning?

    I ask this question not as snark or as a gotcha–in fact, I suspect there’s a way that those who endorse NFP reconcile it with Aquinas-esque premises and elaborations–but rather because I think no matter how fixed a position or practices seems, the lived experiences of those positions, even when those who hold them believe them to be informed by revelation as much as by reason, meet new challenges. I find it hard to believe that Natural Family Planning would be understandable in an age without reliable birth control.

    I don’t know the history or the contents of the Roman Catholic magisterium, but I suspect that what today seems like fixed positions dating back as far as Aquinas or even St. Augustine are actually part of a series of ongoing elaborations and amendments. It may be the case that as early as Aquinas, it was posited that the sexual act must be engaged in only when it be open to generating life and that the unborn, at least after “quickening,” was endowed with a soul. But the real aggressive assertions of these positions seem to have come only when safe(r) and (more) reliable birth control and safe(r) abortions were available.

    My bias when it comes to history is to see continuity when others see change. But I do think every new generation reinvents and reconfigures what came before it, even if the overall structures change only gradually.

    All this is to say I think the sexual conservatism you describe, or at least the enthusiasm with which some embrace it and insist upon it, is of recent (say, last 100 years) vintage and might adapt. I do say “adapt” and not “progress” because it might “adapt” in ways that I might not approve and maybe in ways that are more restrictive or more grounded in what I would consider arbitrary distinctions. But I suggest this conservatism is not fixed in or by claims of revelation. I strongly suspect it is intrinsically contingent on the time(s) and place(s) in which it is articulated.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      Good question, Pierre. I’m not familiar enough with Aquinas’s theology of sexuality to know where he stood on abstinence during fertile periods in itself, if he had an opinion on it at all. I’ll ask around.

      What we call NFP is to some extent a modern technique, as it 1) relies on scientific knowledge about reproductive systems and fertility signs 2) has moral support from the more contemporary upholding of the unity of the spouses as part of the meaning of marriage. To me, NFP seems perfectly consistent with the Thomistic teleological approach because couples who use it to regulate births are not actively frustrating procreation, but rather abstaining, i.e., not having sex, when the likelihood of pregnancy is high. They not doing something rather than doing something.Report

      • Thanks for the answer.

        It seems to me, though, that NFB practitioners are engaging in a positive act along a schedule and during a window of time that they believe plausibly lessens the chances of conception (assuming they’re are trying not to conceive).

        Or to put another way, the refraining from doing something is done as part of a larger plan to do something only when conception is less likely.

        I imagine this issue has been debated endlessly and my insights aren’t particularly new. I also suppose that I could keep drawing ever finer distinctions in an effort to deconstruct what appears to be the Thomist position into oblivion. Finally, I admit there’s a certain point where my doing so falls more on the hyper-argumentative, uncharitable side of the debate.

        Still, the Church’s position bothers me because I have a hard time with the abstention vs. positive action distinction. I’ll admit I’m probably not consistent on this distinction, and the issue shouldn’t bother me anyway because I no longer profess the Catholicism I was nominally raised in. But what I see as the potentially more intricate elaborations that this portion of the magisterium seems subject to, incline me to suspect that the ulterior, maybe even less than conscious, reasons for the Church’s adamantly conservative stand on such issues as birth control might have more to do with antipathy to the sexual actors and to revisions of what is felt to be some primal norm that I’m unwilling to sign on to. I realize that if I carry my suspicion too far, I’m engaging in rank ad hominems of the sort that accuses the Church of “hating women,” but I’m not sure where to go with it.Report

    • Avatar Dana in NYC says:

      Besides which it doesn’t work. My fundy Christian niece got married in March after a no sex courtship and they were going to do NFP. She’s due in February.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Great post Kyle.

    “Every sexual act must, in principle, follow a form that is open to life, whether or not the couple’s union is fertile, infertile, or sterile.”

    The parish I grew up in had about ten families with 8 or more children. Lots of families with four children. There were three of us but if my mother had carried all of her pregnancies to term there would have been five. I guess my point is that apparently a lot of the couples were taking the concept you outline to heart. It certainly made grade school interesting.Report

  5. Avatar Shazbot2 says:

    “So long as these religious conservatives begin their understanding of human sexuality on the premises of revelation, they’ll not change on the basics. To make such change would indicate that the meanings of sex and of revelation are not truly fixed”

    Do you agree with this Kyle? Can’t sex have a “fixed meaning” (and I find a lot of this discussion about meaning to be unfortunately vague) if we give up on religion or if we give up on using religion to inform us about the role of sexual relationships in life?

    It seems to me like you want to defend a certain religious viewpoint, and that the religious conservative view on sex is not as bad as it used to b, and it could be made into a good view. Correct me if I’m wrong,

    “We’re unlikely to witness such a sweeping change, especially given the position of religious conservatives, who stand not passively against the waves of secularism, but seek actively to turn the tide and win converts to their cause.”

    Sure, it’s hard to deny that, but I might add a caveat. It’s really, really easy for a religious group to turn around a say that they have a new interpretation of their religious text and it can sometimes happen fast, or fast as far as important historical chages go. Mormons turned on polygamy -previously a central aspect of the religion for many- real fast, in historical terms. Religious rules are interpreted in a largely arbitrary way, so if the pressure is their to change the rules, they’ll change fast. IMO.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      Sexuality can have a fixed meaning without religion, sure. You just need something on which to fix it.

      You can see religious groups reinterpret their texts and traditions with relative quickness, but I think in the case in question, such change, if it will come, will need more time, especially with religious groups which would suffer severe internal inconsistency by changing their teachings on human sexuality. To admit error about human sexuality would be to admit error about the sacred texts and traditions. You’re not going to see the papacy, for example, go that route.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot2 says:

        But you can always interpret the text a new way and say the text is still true.

        “Usury” can be any loan at any interest or loans at too high an interest.

        “I formed in you mother’s womb.” Can mean a person exists at the moment of contraception or after.

        “Thou shalt not kill” can prohibit euthanasia or not.

        But the commands against homosexuality, masturbation, etc. are clear you say? Well It can turn out that Biblical dietary rules and prohibitions or fashion rules are not moral rules at all. And so it can turn out that sexual rules were just like rules of fashion or dietary commands.

        Or maybe the context is missing. Maybe the Bible means to say that it is wrong to engage in homosexual sex if you are heterosexual. That is, maybe the commands against certain kinds of sex have exceptions and are only true in rare contexts. Or maybe they were true for ancient societies, but not ours.

        Really, you can make up anything you want to explain away the appearance of a rule condemning any sexual practice in any religious text.Report

  6. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Great post, KC.

    This post reminded me of some literature I was given last week at the VVS by one of the conference exhibitors. The name of this organization was Modesty Matters, and as I read their stuff it hit me that the reason seculars and religious conservatives can’t have a meaningful conversation about sex to build from is that neither side’s concept of sex even translates from one group to the other.

    Here, for example, is a “letter from our readers” kind of quote from this publication, on the subject of sleeveless dresses and hemlines to the knees:

    “Thanks so much for teaching about modesty! My men’s Bible study group talks frequently about controlling our lust, thoughts and eyes. Yes, the problem and responsibility our ours, but is it really reasonable for the women of our church to make it THIS difficult for us? The only place that I can go on a regular basis where I am so overwhelmed by half-clothed women is CHURCH! How backward is that??? I want to run up to the microphone and yell “Yes, you’re beautiful, now go home and put on some clothes!”

    I’m not quoting this to mock it, or say “what a prude!”, but simply to say that none of this – absolutely none of it – translates to me on any level, even an intellectual one. I can’t even wrap my head around what the issues are that this person is trying to deal with. And I have to think that if I were to write a letter to the editor of some publication about something related to sex or the way women look, it wouldn’t translate at all to that guy either.

    Again, not a “who’s right or wrong” comment, just reflecting the vast distance we need to overcome.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      The only place that I can go on a regular basis where I am so overwhelmed by half-clothed women is CHURCH!

      Clearly not a Fox viewer.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon says:

      That makes me think of a conversation I once had with my grandmother. Apparently in her day if a woman who admitted to enjoying sex – even within the confines of marriage – she might as well have admitted to being a harlot. ‘Good girls’ did not like sex; it was something they put up with in order to have babies and/or make their husbands happy.

      I wonder if this still exists in VVS circles? The letter certainly seems to express the male side of that particular view of sexuality.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon says:

          I’m aware of that, which just makes the anti-sex attitude among so much of the religious right today and in my Grandma’s day all the more strange, especially since it bled into the rest of society.

          I mean, when I was a kid a teacher who became pregnant was expected to leave before she started to show. After all, it was evidence that she’d had sex! Think of the children! And there was the movement to get babies on formula because God forbid women do what they’d done for centuries and breast feed. Because, beasts! in public!

          The middle of the last century was a really strange era. Maybe it was the product of urban/suburbanization. Farm kids know about sex – they know where more livestock comes from and only the dumbest don’t connect the dots to humans at least by early puberty. Somehow, living apart from that, things got weird.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      This is very insightful, Tod, and illustrates why public reason is an illusion. This reader suffers from shame and guilt (and laziness, misogyny, and repression) in part because he clings to a value system about his own sexuality, one that isn’t widely shared and so is difficult for others to comprehend. His struggles make sense given what he believes and values, but as others don’t share his particular values and believes, he baffles them.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      I knew a fellow with similar issues way back in my Lutheran days. The thing was — the fault wasn’t sex. It wasn’t short skirts. It wasn’t lack of obediance to the Bible.

      Every woman on earth could have worn burkha’s, and he still would have lusted and still would have blamed them.

      It wasn’t religion, it wasn’t secular society — the dude had issues, and like the man above he paid lip service to the fact that he might be at fault — but with every word out of his mouth you could tell he didn’t mean it.

      Sure, he was a sinner — but pity the poor sinner surrounded as he was. Who wouldn’t be tempted? Who could really blame him? Those girls, the way they dress….

      The guy wielded the Bible and his theology like a sword, attacking the world for his own sins.

      Felt sorry for him. Wished he’d had seen a therapist or something, because Jesus alone wasn’t cutting it.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      Simple solution go a step further than that represented by 100 + year old churches where the sexes sat on different sides of the church. Put up a partition so you can’t see from one side to the other and you are done.Report

  7. Avatar Tim Kowal says:


    Thanks for writing this. I was thinking about these issues just yesterday, randomly, as I drove home. I believe, as I think you suggest here, that Christianity, and perhaps even Catholocism, more particularly, is doctrinally consistent when it comes to sexual morality. Whether you agree with the doctrine, it takes a view about what man is (God’s creation), what he is for (to glorify God in all things, even sex, and to abide His injunctions), and from that it follows that certain sexual activity is in line with those things, and others not. I am both a Christian and strongly predisposed to favor logical consistency. But, I must admit, I do not hold myself to these standards in practice. I do not attempt to justify them. They are just issues I wrestle with personally.

    So I cannot support a view that says sexual matters have no moral content. And if they have moral content, then they arguably are matters for dispute in society and even in politics and the law. And yet, I cannot comport myself to my own intellectual and religious views on these matters, so how much clarity could I hope to expect when discussing them in social/political/legal discussions?

    It’s a hard debate to have: The issues are closely bound up in the human condition, and setting no public standards about them would deny that important fact. But purporting to set any standards about them seems hypocritical, and maybe a little undignified, bringing a deeply personal and spiritual struggle into the open.Report

    • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

      “Whether you agree with the doctrine, it takes a view about what man is (God’s creation), what he is for (to glorify God in all things, even sex, and to abide His injunctions)…”

      What’s interesting is the difference between the Jewish interpretation of how sex glorifies God, and the Christian one. For the Jews, pleasure during sex is part of the mitzvoh, along with married procreation (although the married part isn’t quite so strict: see Noah, David, et al). At some point, Christians decided that almost all pleasures were sinful (alcohol is certainly NOT a Bad Thing until well after the death of Christ), sex being one among them. Several gay activists wonder if one reason that evangelicals speak out so strongly against homosexuality (far more so than much more serious sins) is because they think that gays are having too much fun.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I think the late early Christians adopted a lot of these views to make the break from Judaism more complete especially the ones who were arch-disciples of Saul the Traitor.

        “Several gay activists wonder if one reason that evangelicals speak out so strongly against homosexuality (far more so than much more serious sins) is because they think that gays are having too much fun.”

        A Puritan is someone who lies awake at night worrying that someone, somewhere, is having a good time-HL MenckenReport

      • Avatar bookdragon says:

        ” For the Jews, pleasure during sex is part of the mitzvoh…”

        The first time someone explained that difference to me I very nearly converted on the spot. 😉

        I think it tends to be more a symptom of religious conservatism though, since I’ve never met a religious liberal whose theology seemed to be formed by the ‘fear that someone, somewhere was having fun’.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Also Judaism is in many ways an archly pragmatic religion. We have our esoterics and contradictions like all religions but we also like things to make a reasonable amount of sense.

        There is also the fact that Judaism lacks the concept of original sin.

        Sex is pleasurable and feels good. Why would God make the procreative act pleasurable? To encourage it. In Judaism, it simply does not make sense for an act that causes pleasure to be bad. Maybe there should be restraint and moderation but not full on shame and repression.

        IIRC, I read that a lot early Christian theology was created as a rejection of rational and legalistic Judaism of the time.Report

        • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

          “Also Judaism is in many ways an archly pragmatic religion. We have our esoterics and contradictions like all religions but we also like things to make a reasonable amount of sense.”

          And thus was born the pilpul (an intense discussion on the intricacies of morality). “Do unto others” was only the first part of ??Hillel’s?? credo — the others “the rest is commentary” and “go and learn more” are as important: the trappings of religion aren’t terribly significant — you can be a Buddhist Jew in a way that you can’t really be a Buddhist Christian — and studying how to apply DUOAYWHTDUY is the work of a lifetime.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      Appreciate your excellent comment, Tim. I can see your difficulty with the debate. For my part, I would as a rule oppose formal public standards governing sexual morality, not because sexual morality isn’t important, but because it also happens to be a realm that largely falls into the none-of-my-business territory. I also believe religion is important, but I wouldn’t want a public standards for what counts as approved religion. Sex can have public consequences, of course, but I think those consequences have to be addressed publicly when they arise, and not in the bedroom.Report

  8. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Social progressives may hold out hope that these religious conservatives will one day appreciate sex as something good outside the hard and fast rules of their religion. I think this change unlikely because it would take a fundamental paradigm shift.

    I strongly suspect that social progressives aren’t able to actuate the paradigm shift because they are unable to answer a very simple question: “So much for the old rules, but what are the new ones?”

    They have an extraordinarily hard time just speaking out loud the rule that they in fact propose: consenting adults who are mindful of possible externalities to their conduct may do as they think best. But that’s the rule, and I agree with it, and I wonder why more people don’t defend it explicitly.

    It should be noted that some religious conservatives will, in addition to approaching the reality of human sexuality from a theological position, also strive to understand its meaning from the standpoints of science, philosophy, and culture. They may accept that human sexuality is the result of millions of years of evolution, but—and this is key—they will interpret this evolutionary meaning in light of their religious doctrine.

    To which we have to ask Jesse Bering’s question: Why is the penis shaped like that?

    It’s shaped like that because for almost all of the relevant evolutionary history, group sex was the norm, in the modality of many males with one female.

    It would take more than the usual casuistry to fit this into the Thomist moral tradition. No?Report

  9. Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

    “I strongly suspect that social progressives aren’t able to actuate the paradigm shift because they are unable to answer a very simple question: “So much for the old rules, but what are the new ones?””

    I can think of three: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” and “Don’t hurt people” (which are really three ways of saying basically the same thing.) There needs to be some exception for BDSM (especially the SM part), since that DOES hurt people, but I think that pretty well covers it.

    The only thing I would add is “informed consent”: a child or someone who has a severe brain disorder can’t make an informed decision, someone who is drunk, sleeping or otherwise incapacitated can’t give consent.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      That’s basically the answer I came up with. Why do people shy away from saying it?Report

      • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

        I don’t, nor does anyone I know. Fred Clark makes a habit of saying “Don’t be an A**hole” (with regard to a number of issues). How do you know that shies away from saying something like that, and what are the circumstances?Report

    • Avatar Miss Mary says:

      I’m just going to say that an adult with an cognitive disability has a right to sex life no matter the severity of their brain disorder, as you put it.Report

      • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name says:

        It would depend on the severity of the disability. If the person can truly make an INFORMED consent, then, sure. But any time there is diminished capacity of any type, the parties need to tread carefully. The more diminished the capacity, the less likely the consent is freely given.Report

  10. Avatar NewDealer says:

    My issue is not really what religious conservatives believe. If they believe that sex should only exist in the realm of marriage that is fine as long as they don’t tread on others.

    The issue as you note is that there is a wide gap between what many religious conservatives preach and what they practice when it comes to sex.

    There has always been pre-marital sex and always will be pre-marital sex. I don’t think the levels of pre-marital sex have changed but what has changed is the taboo is gone and we can now engage in it without shame. Also we talk about it a bit more.

    Many religious conservatives seem to want a return to taboo and stigma and as far as I can tell don’t practice what they preach.

    Porn Consumption is higher in red states. Teenage Pregnancy Rates are higher in Red States. Plus it seems like there are always a few news stories every year about a male, socially conservative preacher or politician getting caught with a male escort. I’ve read articles from sex workers in New York who claim that some of their biggest clients are Orthodox and Haredi Jewish men who use prostitution to have sex with non-Jewish women. I can’t verify the last story but it would not surprise me.

    Clearly all of these contortions damage the body and psyche. I don’t think we need to go poly or full on return to our pagan routes. I am not poly. Polyamoury often gives me a headache and most poly couples I’ve met seem to end poorly. However, it should not be a radical notion that sex can be 100 percent recreational and happen before marriage. It always has and always will.

    Of course what I am really curious about is that a lot of these social conservatives are also small-government types. How do they expect to create their preferred social order with small government? I knew someone who grew up in Communist Poland during the 70s and 1980s and he told me how easy it was to obtain pornography in Poland during a time of really big government.Report

    • Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

      I saw a news story just prior to the Republican convention about the strip clubs and prostitutes gearing up for the conventions. Apparently the Republican conventions were about three times as lucrative for the sex workers as the Democrats. I don’t know whether to chalk that up to a more wealthy client base, higher male to female ratio, or just pent-up demand, but we can’t a priori discount rank hypocrisy.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I see the same article every four years.

        Though my favorite was the billboard that Welcomed Republicans and proudly stated that the Mayor of Tampa and the entire city council were Democrats.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        Did you see the follow-up articles? There was no boost in business.

        And yes, there are regular stories about hypocrites revealed. But there are two problems with that. First of all, it’s not exactly a secret that people fall short of their self-expectations. Secondly, since the sexual antics of non-hypocrites aren’t newsworthy, there’s always going to be a distortion in coverage.Report

          • Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

            Any follow-ups to this follow-up? Was it the hurricane? Or was the Tea Party contingent less inclined than the normal business-oriented Republican of yore?

            Look, I drive all over the lower 48 and I can tell you for a fact that 90% of the big porn emporiums on the interstate are in Red/bible-belt areas. I dunno, maybe they haven’t heard of the Internet yet.Report

            • Avatar Pinky says:

              I dunno. Look, all I can tell you is that on a Google search, most of the articles were about how there was going to be a boost in business, and a couple that there wasn’t one. I couldn’t find anything about there actually being one. It’s intellectually dishonest to accuse Republicans of, I don’t know, I can’t even think of the tense for it – some people thinking there was going to be a thing that didn’t happen.

              As for the red state stuff, well, states aren’t red or blue. The split in America is between urban/metropolitan and outer suburb/rural. Massachusetts is redder than Mississippi, if you’re looking at the outlying areas of Mass versus Jackson.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              I’m from a large or largeish southern urban area, the city votes blue but outside of the city and select suburbs it’s pretty red. Most of the porn emporia and strip club warehouses are outside of the city. The reasons for this, though, are mixed.

              First, there are a fair number of regulations that make it harder to set up shop in the city than elsewhere. It must be x-miles away from churches, schools, etc. The more density, the harder this is to accommodate. Most of the strip clubs in the city are grandfathered. The city also outlawed smoking in strip clubs, while the surrounding areas didn’t.

              I think that once you push these outfits out to the suburbs, a few things happen. Land is cheaper, so it’s easier to go bigger. Especially when people are driving out a ways to get to it, you want to give them as much as you can. I’d think, anyway. The other is that I think they tend to locate in large numbers where they can. There’s a strip of these places in unincorporated county. Most likely surrounded by Republicans, and giving the impression that the locals are their clientelle when they are not, necessarily.

              Having said all of this, I doubt that there is a whole lot of difference in party affiliation if you control for gender. If you don’t control for gender, right-leaners probably account for more. If you do, it could go either way. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still tilted Republican for a variety of reasons, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it tilted the other way due to other demographic selectors (Republican men being more likely to be married and have children than Democratic men, for example). It’s hard to say.Report

  11. Avatar Jim Weaver says:

    You start off with the assumption that there is something deficient in the way sex is treated by most Christian and Jewish traditions. As if the progressives with the idea of “free love” and do whatever you want is somehow more enlightened and better for an advanced society. Given the general state of decay in Western society since the 1960, when progressive sexual ideas were normalized I’d say that assumption is not valid. Sure you can have all the free love and group sex you want, if you want to live in a grass hut as a primitive. All advanced societies got to be advanced societies by having some means of channeling and controlling the sexuality of both men and women. I can’t think of a “free love” society that ever advanced past hunter-gatherer. How we are designed or what evolution adapted us to is irrelevant if you want to live in an advanced society. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean that it is good for you, or for the community of people around you. There are, of course, moral arguments to be made about this but I wanted to present a simple secular argument showing how important those pesky religious norms are to society. The religious conservatives are not wrong about this. They will be talking about it long after the progressives have killed themselves off.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

      What decay?

      I mostly see improvement.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I find it curious that the Kennedy-Nixon race was the start of decay. Maybe he can even place the exact start somewhere in early November 1960.Report

        • Avatar Jim Weaver says:

          Improvement? How many children are raised in traditional mother and father families now? How many marriages last for life? What are the crime rates now compared to then? How many people are in jail? Are we still putting people on the moon or have we put people on Mars? Hows the job situation now? What about literacy rates? Drug use? Do you know all the folks that live near you? Would you trust them to watch your kids? You dog? How many school shootings before 1960? How about the number of obese people? How much would you trust a stranger now?
          We have better technology now, things are cheaper, and people can travel more, but really when it come to how we relate to each other decay is the only word that makes sense. How has there been improvement?
          NewDealer: Umm no. I have no idea what you are talking about with the Kennedy-Nixon thing. It really has nothing to do with this discussion.Report

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

            Sure seems like life is better for my black, gay, and women friends.

            All I can say is have fun thinking progressives are goig I die out. It is important to have a healthy fantasy life when one can’t far reality.Report

          • Avatar bookdragon says:

            Hmm. I don’t know you, but it seems pretty clear from that you are white, straight and male. Probably also WASP.

            In counter I’d have to ask for today: Is discrimination still legal? How many blacks are lynched or forced to attend segregated schools? How many women and minorities are now going to college? How many women have careers and aren’t stuck in bad marriages because they have no means of supporting themselves or their children if they leave? Is hitting your wife still acceptable or is it a crime now? Do we stand up and object when a pedophile priest abuses a child?

            I could go on. But I’ll also say that I know my neighbors and have several I could ask to watch my kids or my house and my dog. Also, putting a man on the moon was *after* 1960 and we have rovers sending info back from Mars. And social conservatives have only hurt that effort.Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 says:

            Who is advocating “Free Love”? I don’t think I have even heard that term since Laugh-In was on the air.

            I think it is a victory for “traditional marriage” when the biggest goal of the LGBT community is to join it.

            I’m actually a citic of our societies heavy emphasis on personal gratification and narcisissm ; I do agree that community social mores that promote and reward selfless devotion to family and community are a good and positive thing.

            I just don’t see a sudden “decay” in our society; and looking at your laundry list of ills, I think you overstate your case by a mile- (Why don’t we have Moonbases and flying cars? Its the fault of those gay men! And the economic crash- Damn those porn actors!).Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        Sure you can have all the free love and group sex you want, if you want to live in a grass hut as a primitive. All advanced societies got to be advanced societies by having some means of channeling and controlling the sexuality of both men and women. I can’t think of a “free love” society that ever advanced past hunter-gatherer.

        Now that’s interesting.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon says:

          Question: Can you think of any ‘free love’ societies? I can’t. Not by the definition of ‘free love’ that I recall from the 60s/70s (maybe you guys have a different definition?)

          In fact, every living-in-grass-hut society I can think of tends toward the sort of patriarchy were women’s sexuality is very strictly control.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            Hi bookdragon, I don’t have it at my fingertips right now (it’s in the car) but ‘Sex At Dawn’ (not a perfect book, but an intriguing if flawed one) describes several ‘grass-hut’ societies that, while not necessarily ‘free love’ (depending on definition thereof), are not as patriarchal and controlling of women’s sexuality as you might think.Report

            • Avatar bookdragon says:

              I meant the question honestly. Well, I’m an engineer, not an anthropologist, so my knowledge in that area is limited.

              I’ll put that book on my reading list.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Question: Can you think of any ‘free love’ societies?


    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      You start off with the assumption that there is something deficient in the way sex is treated by most Christian and Jewish traditions.

      Not so. I made no judgment call about whose approach was better–the religious conservative’s or the social progressive’s. My interest was not in deciding between them, but rather outlining the obstacles that hinder religious conservatives from embracing a sexual revolution in the footsteps of social progressives.Report

      • Avatar Jim Weaver says:

        The obstacles that hinder religious conservatives from embracing a sexual revolution in the footsteps of social progressives is reality and human nature. Why should conservatives who have been following the same rules for generations embrace a destructive fad that started in the 1960s? If conservatives embrace the sexual revolution they wouldn’t be conservatives anymore and we would be headed to the grass huts and tribal warfare.Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

          Whether religious conservatives should embrace a sexual revolution is an important question, but it’s not the one I’m asking or analyzing.Report

          • Avatar Jim Weaver says:


            What are you asking? What is going through a conservatives’ mind that keeps them from embracing something they know is destructive? History has also shown it to be destructive see the improvement comment above for details. Maybe the answer is your looking for is common sense.Report

            • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

              Well, I’m not really asking a question so much as explaining one reason why it’s unlikely that religious conservatives will embrace the “new normal” when it comes to sex.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Okay. Embrace incest and cheating and all of that. Go on, enjoy the same rules that have been instituted for generations.


          • Avatar Jim Weaver says:


            I don’t think the “new normal” will last very long.


            Ok because incest and cheating rules are built into …. what are you talking about?Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

              It is ok it will last way longer than you. We don’t worry about convincing you as we already convinced all the young people.

              IE the future.Report

              • Avatar Jim Weaver says:

                Nope. The conservatives have more kids and the liberals have eaten through all the tax money they need to brainwash them. The wave will crash or our society will degrade to the point Islam takes over, and Islam is not free love or free anything.Report

              • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

                You conservatives sure have dark imaginations.

                Still if apocalyptic horror is your favorite genre who am I to judge? I mean I love the walking dead.Report

              • Avatar bookdragon says:

                Your holding conservative Islamic societies up as the type you think will succeed. Seriously?Report

              • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

                Don’t take his fantasies away from him. He already has to endure a second Obama term.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                MuslimMatters has talked in great depth about the levels of pederasty in Islamic countries. It’s apparently a really, really big problem.

                Bottling up sexuality makes more babies.

                Aren’t you guys concerned about inbreeding yet?

                Doesn’t take liberals to brainwash people, you’re projecting. Freespirits can’t be brainwashed. That’s why they turn liberal. Just like the Hellraisers.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot2 says:

                A brainwashing program would be a good use of stimulus funds.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Yes, free love killed societies.
      Now we have birth control.
      Big difference.Report

  12. Avatar b-psycho says:

    Social progressives may hold out hope that these religious conservatives will one day appreciate sex as something good outside the hard and fast rules of their religion.

    “hehheh…he said ‘hard and fast'”

  13. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I find it easy to think about these things by swapping out the word “social” for “religious” (that’s atheism, for you).

    This means that “something should be done to glorify God” (or however its phrased) should be read as saying “something should be done because we’ve found it useful to this point”.

    Which brings me to remember Skinner’s pigeons and how whatever behavior they were doing just before the food came rolling down the food pellet chute, they did more of. When it came down the next time, whatever they were doing before that, they did some more of…

    And whether the behaviors are actually useful or whether they’re institutionalized pigeon dances… and whether we have a bias to believe that they’re one and not the other and the various prices associated with being wrong on that and wondering what happened to other societies that abandoned this or that or this other particular taboo.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I think I’m becoming a behaviorist.Report

    • Avatar Robert Greer says:

      Yeah, it seems inappropriate to abstract from religious norms when talking about the evolutionary basis of sex when religion is a major component of human history. Cultural analysis has long been a poverty of evolutionary psychology (especially as applied to human sexuality), and so religion’s vast experience in the cultural realm might give it an epistemic edge there. I don’t understand why human sexuality researchers don’t use religious teachings about sex as a kind of research program — it seems like it would not only be less divisive to try and learn the strengths of religious prescriptions, but would also be more scientifically fecund than trying to extrapolate from bonobo behavior or human testicle size or whatever.

      Also, I think it’s weird to make fun of religious people who say procreation is the purpose of sex, when biologists are notoriously bad at avoiding teleological language.Report

      • Avatar Jim Weaver says:


      • Avatar Chris says:

        I don’t like being the person to defend evolutionary psychology, but your comment makes me wonder what such a research program would look like. I mean, one of the nice things about comparative psychology is that it’s fairly simple and straightforward: we don’t always know precisely what the conditions were that intervened between our common ancestors with bonobos, but we can look closely at the relationship between human and bonobo behavior, and maybe some other nonhuman primates (or hell, even mice), and then formulate some testable hypotheses, which we then go out and test.

        With religious prescriptions related to anything, but particularly related to sex, we’re stepping into a huge mess, both in terms of behavior today but also in terms of the historical origins of those prescriptions. Forgetting for a moment that many of them arose in highly patriarchal societies where women were viewed as property or worse, and that certain prescriptions likely had to do with the fact that reproduction was important in small groups competing with other groups for land and resources, it is very difficult to separate out what about these prescriptions are historical artifacts and what about them might tell us something about the nature of human sexuality.

        That said, there is a fair amount of research on the relationship between religion and sexual behavior. Maybe that’s a starting point?Report

  14. So long as these religious conservatives begin their understanding of human sexuality on the premises of revelation, they’ll not change on the basics. To make such change would indicate that the meanings of sex and of revelation are not truly fixed. What we might see in time is some of these religious conservatives changing the starting point of their approach to sex and sexual norms from religious premises to secular ones, beginning, for example, without the assumption that human sexuality has an immutable divinely-given meaning, but rather a fluid evolutionary one.

    First, I have to recommend Michael Dowd’s book Thank God for Evolution. I think he makes a compelling case for why Christians can’t ignore public revelations of evolution in favor of private religious ones.

    Second, I have to point out that the actual meaning of sex is not fixed, morally, religiously, scientifically or legally. By this, I mean something really, really basic: what makes a man a man? What makes a woman a woman?

    It matters a great deal. We’ve legally defined marriage as between one man and one woman through the Defense of Marriage Act, but nowhere in United States Code are “man” and “woman” actually defined.

    For most of us, the answer is self-evident enough. Perhaps 99% of human beings fall into an easily classified binary sex based on the simple presence of testes or ovaries.

    But the Bible doesn’t tell us if people with ovotestes are male or female. There’s no guidance given by any scriptures that I know of regarding whether a person’s sex is based on their chromosomes, their genitals, their secondary sex characteristics or other features of their anatomy. Is a person born with a penis and ovaries a man or woman? What about someone born with XX chromosomes in some cells and XY chromosomes in others? The existence of such genetic chimeras is particularly problematic to theology. Most Christians believe that human life begins at conception when a unique new soul is embodied in a genuine miracle. Mormon theology in particular holds that God assigns a sex to each soul even before it is incarnated.

    So what do they make of those babies born as XX/XY tetragametic chimeras, formed by the fusion of two unique fertilized eggs during an accident of mitosis? Such chimeric individuals pose far bigger theological problems than those of mere sexual propriety. If a new soul is really embodied in a single fertilized egg, it implies that such chimeras have two souls fused in one body. Does that mean God really intends for one person to bear responsibility for the salvation of two eternal souls? Why? Surely he could have mentioned this somewhere in that big book.

    There’s a basic scientific definition of the sexes that is of some use for secular purposes: the male is the member of the species who produces a large number of small, highly mobile gametes (sperm) and the female is the member of the species who produces a small number of very large, immobile gametes (eggs).

    That definition works just fine when talking about sex as reproduction. It won’t work as a legal definition of identity though, unless we are willing to deny a large number of people any right to a sexual identity (or are willing to invent new sexes).

    The lack of definition makes DOMA a lost cause in the long run. I don’t see any quick resolutions to the theological dilemmas regarding intersex anatomies either. If God creates intersex people with the intention that they cannot morally have sex with anyone, but still gives them sexual urges, that makes him a sadist. If his intention is that intersex people should be allowed to have sex, then he needs to ‘splain exactly what parts of their anatomy count when determining their “opposite” sex.Report

  15. Avatar Miss Mary says:

    This makes me sad for all those poor people not having great sex all the time. On purpose!

    How is there not more input from women on this post? I don’t have anything significant/intelligent to add but you would think some women would.Report

  16. Avatar Dana in NYC says:

    If god designed human sexuality only for human procreation then one has to be able to explain the design flaw of the clitoris. The female organ whose only function is pleasure. Pleasure not linked to any ability to procreate. God must have meant “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” but to compensate I want you to have a really good time.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      I feel like I saw a documentary once that talked about a number of biological features that were unique to either humans or higher order primates that were specifically and exclusively related to sexual pleasure. The conclusion was that humans enjoy sex in a way that most/all other animals don’t; we evolved to enjoy it. I’m no scientist so I can’t speak to the validity of the theory or even remember the details of it.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I dunno, I kind of assume that animals enjoy it to some extent or another. Some of them are quite… emphatic on the subject (and on pillows, among other things…).Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I think all animals enjoy it – what Kazzy is probably thinking of is the fact that humans need not be fertile to be aroused/engage in sex (most animals only, or primarily, engage in sex when the female is in heat/estrus).

        This is quite rare and I think only some of the cetaceans are similar (dolphins in particular IIRC, and they also mate belly to belly, which again is something mostly done only by humans).Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          I said ‘all animals’ but I should modify that to ‘most animals’, since in many species insemination is forced/violent and I don’t wish to speculate on what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that (look up flatworm or bedbug reproduction in particular – yeesh).Report

  17. Avatar Ahunt says:

    S’okay Glyph…sometimes males get eaten after copulation…and I don’t want to speculate about that either.

    I think that implicit in the discussion is how sexual behaviors change over time. Let’s face it….the majority of folks do eventually settle into the basic traditional/religious framework of sexuality, because we grow up.

    Historically, religion may have codified the social boundaries of heterosexual behaviors, but I believe that humans are naturally inclined towards pair bonding, and yes, yes… with the threat of the mistress and the sneaky !u(#*?… ever in the background.

    My own theory is that the rules are made up for the young ‘uns, because even post-extended adolescence…who has time?Report

  18. Avatar Dana in NYC says:

    50 million humans at the beginning of the Christian era and currently 7 billion and counting. A bigger planet or some inhabitable neighbor planets should have been created if birth control was off the table. Annie Dillard has written about the “horror of fecudity” but she was talking about insects. We are the plague of locusts now.Report