I’ve just returned from teaching in Croatia and Germany. While culturally similar in many ways, their differences with regard to sexuality are instructive—especially for Americans.
With the enthusiastic support of its Catholic Church, Croatia just took a giant step backwards, terminating what little sex education public schools used to offer. It’s now actually illegal for any school district to offer a sex education program. Germany has plenty of Catholics, too (why else would the Reformation have started there?), but it has a vigorous public sex education program through both schools and the healthcare system.
Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany (and seven other European countries). Prostitutes are far safer on German streets and in German brothels than they are in most other countries. However, there is still some social stigma around the profession, and prostitutes themselves often continue living a double life to protect themselves or their children from social judgment. Prostitution is illegal in Croatia, and prostitutes are regularly arrested and harassed.
Although it has one of the largest mosques in Europe, only 1.5% of Croatia’s population is Muslim, following the ethnic wars of the 1990’s that destroyed Yugoslavia. In contrast, there are almost 5 million Muslims in Germany (about 5% of the population), half of whom are German citizens. These people typically desire to keep their own customs, language, and family structure as distinct from Germany’s. Increasingly politically powerful, they are often against sex education, prostitution, and equal rights for women. While Germany does have its conservative Christian population, the Muslims tend to be the real cultural conservatives.
One could say that Muslims in Germany play a similar cultural role as Catholics in Croatia, seeing sexuality as problematic, the domain of men, and needing to be controlled.
Here in America we have both—conservative Catholic and conservative Muslim populations. We also have a conservative Evangelical population. Religious people, of course, are not the only ones who are culturally conservative when it comes to sex. For example, left-wing feminists sometimes oppose prostitution, pornography, or both. In America, activists such as Gail Dines and Melissa Farley even falsely conflate these two issues with sex trafficking, deliberately creating confusion among the public and policy-makers.
But those who believe that religion has special insights about virtue or morality when it comes to sexuality need to think again. In Croatia, the “morality” of Catholicism is being used to keep a generation of children ignorant of the information and life skills they need to live productive and safe lives. In Germany, the “morality” of Islam is being used to segregate the genders, reduce the use of contraception, and punish female sexuality. In both countries, the “morality” of religion empowers people to ostracize and attack gay men and women.
In America, the “morality” of both religions is used to suppress sexual expression, sexual health, and sexual education. As a pluralistic democracy, we’re all responsible for supporting the rights of a great diversity of human expression. And as a pluralistic democracy, we should be vigilant that no group can successfully assert that religious beliefs have a special place in the marketplace of ideas—especially regarding something as personal and subjective as sexuality.