Sex: Skeptics Say “Who’s In Charge Here, Anyway?”

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I just returned from TAM, an annual gathering of about 1400 skeptics hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

There were scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, computer geeks—in all, an intelligent, fun-loving crowd that takes reason seriously.

And so there were a lot of atheists. And a lot of t-shirts: the Jesus fish roasting on a grill of science. “We are all Africans.” “Facts do not cease to exist because they’re ignored.” “Praise bacon.”

I spoke on “Junk Science, Moral Panics and Sex,” and was received warmly. In fact, during the course of the weekend I was approached by dozens of people variously thanking me, revealing their non-traditional sexual arrangements, or sharing their stories.

Many of those stories were about religion and its impact on their sexuality while growing up. There were tales of guilt, shame, Biblical warnings, and more guilt. By now, everyone’s heard one of these stories: “When I was a kid I was told that God hated my sexual feelings, thoughts, or desires. I learned to hate or fear my sexual impulses. I was sure everyone could tell that I masturbated or had bad impulses.” Etc.

I don’t trivialize the power of these early injunctions; as a therapist, I clean up their debris every week. But there’s another way in which religion undermines our sexuality: by stealing our sense of agency—about life in general, but particularly about sex.

For millennia, religion has colonized sexuality. Religion dictates who is eligible for sex, under what conditions, which activities, and which parts of the body in which combinations. It doesn’t matter what the rules are; what matters is that there are rules.

Whether forbidding oral sex, forbidding intercourse during menstruation, forbidding sex between unmarried people, the dynamic is always the same. Believers are stripped of ownership of their bodies and their sexuality.

Sexuality is religion’s worst nightmare, because it offers the possibility of personal autonomy. Anyone can be sexual—rich or poor, old or young, tall or short, educated or not. So religion attempts to seize sex as its own domain. Religion says that sexuality is about “morality” (rather than, say, science, art, friendship, conflict resolution, or even ethics). And religion claims a monopoly on morality: “Who would be good if they weren’t afraid of going to hell?” they cynically question, reducing all people to the moral level of three-year-olds.

So religion says “sex is our domain.” And since religion’s idea of sexual “morality” is primarily about limiting sexual expression (rather than ethical or rational decision-making), religion’s ideas about sex center on ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’

Again, the worst of it isn’t the content of these limitations. It’s the very idea that some external institution, thousands of years old, gets to enforce some arbitrary and meaningless list of behaviors that you can’t do. Religion treats every believer like a child who’s too greedy, selfish, ignorant, or violent to make rational, collaborative sexual decisions.

My patients from religious backgrounds, 40 years after their childhoods, still have trouble knowing what sexual behaviors they like, and feeling they have the right to choose sexual activities simply based on personal preference. Many couples are paralyzed by religious injunctions preventing them from cooperating or even talking about eroticism.

When it comes to sex, religion says Thou Shalt Not…think, consider, empathize, or decide. Just follow the rules.

As one t-shirt at TAM says, “Religion—together we can find a cure.”

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