Religion and Sexual Shame

James A. Haught

The World Health Organization once estimated that more than 100 million couples around the globe make love during a typical day. Sex is a powerful human force: it’s natural, healthy, normal and wonderful. However, Western religion has spent millennia tainting it with shame, guilt and punishment. Holy men equated sex with “sin.”

The Bible contains 96 verses denouncing “harlots,” “whores,” “whoredom” and the like – branding many females as vile temptresses. It decrees that brides who aren’t virgins shall be taken to their fathers’ doorsteps and stoned to death (Deut. 22:21). It mandates that adulterers—both male and female—must be killed (Lev. 20:10). For gay males, it commands: “They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Lev. 20:13).

Today, a few evangelists such as Colorado preacher Kevin Swanson still declare publicly that gays should be killed.

Early church leaders ranted against lovemaking. In Sex In History, Reay Tannahill wrote:

“It was Augustine who epitomized a general feeling among the church fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally disgusting. Arnobius called it filthy and degrading, Methodius unseemly, Jerome unclean, Tertullian shameful, Ambrose a defilement.”

Christian father Origen of Alexandria reportedly castrated himself to halt sexual temptation.

The earliest known papal decree, by Pope Siricius in 386, forbade church elders to make love with their wives (but it had little effect).

Medieval cardinal Hughes de St. Cher wrote: “Woman pollutes the body, drains the resources, kills the soul, uproots the strength, blinds the eye, and embitters the voice.”

For centuries, punishments for unapproved sex were backed by the church. When Puritans under Oliver Cromwell ruled England in the 1600s, death was decreed for adultery.

Just over a century ago, Anthony Comstock and his Committee for the Suppression of Vice prosecuted sex in America. Around 2,500 people were jailed on morality charges. Margaret Sanger was locked up eight times for advocating birth control.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared unwed sex and birth control “intrinsically evil.” In my town (Charleston, WV) two brave nuns, Patricia Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, joined protests against church taboos and were forced out of their order. They wrote a book, No Turning Back, which says:

“The church really hates the idea of people having sex for fun…. There is something prurient and dishonest about the church’s loathing for the body.”

Legendary newspaperman H.L. Mencken put it this way:

“Christian endeavor is notoriously hard on female pulchritude.”

Philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote that a “morbid and unnatural” aversion to sex is “the worst feature of the Christian religion.” He added: “Monks have always regarded Woman [sic] primarily as the temptress. They have thought of her mainly as the inspirer of impure lusts.”

But religious domination has retreated greatly in Western democracies today. Since the 1960s, the sexual revolution has wiped out many bluenose taboos in America’s culture. The Supreme Court struck down bans on birth control and mostly wiped out puritanical censorship of sex. Unwed couples now live together without stigma, and sex is common in movies, magazines, cable television and books.

However, the fundamentalist “religious right,” aided by Republicans in Congress and state legislatures, still tries to suppress this basic human urge. Hidebound conservatives demand that sex education classes in public schools teach “abstinence only” instead of preparing teens to avoid pregnancy and disease. They try to boycott sexy television shows and remove certain books from school libraries. Psychologist Dr. Marty Klein wrote a book about it titled America’s War on Sex.

Meanwhile, the Islamic world inflicts grotesque sexual suppression, with harsh laws against unmarried lovemaking or even hints of sex. Ten Muslim nations decree the death penalty for gay sex. Stoning of women is reported periodically. Girls who are raped are treated with hatred. In Somalia in 2008, a 13-year-old rape victim was stoned to death by 50 self-righteous men.

Millions of Muslim girls suffer genital mutilation to deaden their sexual pleasure and keep them “pure” for husbands. Daughters suspected of flirtation or promiscuity often suffer “honor killings” by their own relatives. Imagine being so hostile to sex that you kill your own daughter–it’s hideous.

After fanatics under the Ayatollah Khomeini seized Iran, censors laboriously blacked out women’s faces in Western magazines. In Gaza in 2005, a Muslim “vice and virtue” patrol shot a young woman to death because she sat in a parked car with her fiancée without a chaperone.

After Iran suffered earthquakes, the BBC reported in 2010 that a holy man, Hojjat Sediqi, delivered a sermon at a Tehran mosque, warning:

“Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.”

There you have it:  Religion not only teems with sex-hating, but it’s also stupid.

James A. Haught is Editor Emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  He can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at  He recently joined the United Coalition of Reason as a Writer-in-Residence. If there are some topics you’d like Jim to consider writing about, email him your ideas!

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