An extract from my forthcoming book on spirituality, and a critique of traditional religious dogma. This topic covers… well… that’s obvious!:
Sexuality and many topics associated with it often form a large part of religious belief, or at least of religious practice. Unfortunately, no matter how many times we discuss these various issues, there is seldom any real answers. While it likely comes down to the very basic idea of control, it is not as easy to come up with any other explanations like we have with some of the other questions presented in this book.
Maintaining Power over Women
A large number of sexual references in religion are intended (or at least used) to put men in a position of control over women. The number of references in the Bible to men having unreasonable power over women are too great to list, which really says something all on its own. But to stick to the topic of this chapter, we will only look at those of a sexual nature.
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father 50 shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” (Deuteronomy 22:23,24)
There are almost too many elements in this verse to dissect here: a woman who is raped must marry her attacker, the attack can be measured in financial terms, financial compensation is due to her father, not to her. Clearly, there is little concern for the woman herself.
In another very blatant commentary about a woman’s role versus a man’s, Peter declares:
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives…” (1 Peter 3:1)
One possible reason for pushing marriage is that it gives an opportunity to assert further dominance over women. If nothing else, this passage will encourage men to marry within a religion once they realise that their wives must obey them without question in order to please their God.
The topic of birth control is one such example, since it prevents a woman from taking responsible care for her own body. Though this is a very contentious issue mainly within the Catholic Church only, there really isn’t much in the Bible about it at all. Ironically, the vast majority of Catholic women do use birth control even though it is expressly forbid in Church doctrine. Even though it is a rule no one follows, it still continues to spur legal and political debates across the world.
Why there has ever been such a high value placed on virginity we will never know. But this concept goes beyond religions and is a dominant theme throughout many cultures of the world. Many religious rules and regulations differ between virgins and non-virgins. Of course, since you are supposed to stay a virgin until marriage, it is presumed than any non-virgin is a properly married person. Or a promiscuous whore!
As long as virginity is held in such high (and pointless) esteem, the attitude towards sex will remain restricted, particularly when it is outside of marriage. A woman’s value should never been in question based on whether or not she is a virgin.
Many religious texts are very concerned with modesty, and present various rules and regulations about how believers (usually women) have to be covered up when in public.
The main reasoning for expecting modesty is that women will tempt men simply by seeing too much of her exposed. But doesn’t that mean the problem is the men’s lack of self-control rather than the women’s choice of dress? Even by today’s social standards, this argument still stands, though the level of ‘acceptable’ modesty can vary from culture to culture.
There is less of a driving force in Christianity today, though the Bible does want women (but not men) to dress modestly:
“I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” (1 Timothy 2:9)
Unfortunately, the idea of ‘modesty’ is extremely subjective and is always up for interpretation and personal opinion. Many different Christian sects have taken the above verse literally and to varying degrees of severity.
When it comes to modesty, you cannot leave Islam out of the discussion. We’ve all seen Muslim women dressed in long flowing robes that sometimes go so far as to cover up the face, in some countries, even their hands and feet. This is all meant to be in the name of modesty. The reality is that the Quran makes the same generic statements about modesty as you would find in the Bible. One verse on modesty (it’s quite long so only the first portion is being quoted):
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what would ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers (….)” (Sura 24:31)
While this is a bit more detailed than the similar verse in the Bible, it is still open to interpretation. The use of full-body cover-ups has developed through tradition and culture rather than true religious practice.
Sex within marriage seems to be the only acceptable form of intercourse according to the main mainstream religions. To varying degrees, other sexual relationships are forbidden. Again, it’s all about control. By putting strict limits on what should otherwise be a normal and natural activity, religion maintains further power over your life. Why else would God have a problem with 2 people having sex? Though marriage is touted in many places, you can see a very obvious reference here:
“Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2)
That pretty much sums it up. You are only allowed to have sex in marriage. And this version does also make it clear that this only includes male/female relationships. Same-sex couples aren’t included, and they are severely frowned upon:
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (Leviticus 20:13)
While that certainly gives a clear and dramatic message, it needs to be remembered that just a few lines earlier in Leviticus, it also states that anyone who curses their father or mother must be put to death. Though that verse is never mentioned in modern society, the one about homosexuality is mentioned quite a bit. Statements against homosexuality are also found in the Quran:
“Lo! Ye come with lust unto men instead of women. Nay, but ye are wanton folk” (Sura 7:81)
Now, the many rules that stand against incest are very reasonable in today’s age though you may have to wonder how prevalent these relationships were in the past that it was necessary to explicitly forbid them. However, this did not stop Lot’s daughters getting their father drunk, sleeping with him and bearing sons by him:
“One day the older daughter said to the younger, ‘Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.’ That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up. The next day the older daughter said to the younger, ‘Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.’ So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up. So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father.” (Genesis 19:31-35)
The same would apply to sex with animals:
“If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he is to be put to death, and you must kill the animal.” (Leviticus 20:15)
It’s most likely that certain relationships were frowned upon for cultural reasons – as they are today – and written into various texts for that reason alone, rather that because any Deity has an actual problem with them.
Concubines and Multiple Wives
With so many restrictions on sexuality, this stands out as an unusual point. Both the Bible and the Quran have repeated mentions about concubines, multiple wives and married men having children with servants. It’s the one big exception to the marriage-only rules – and of course it only applies to men. Muhammad himself had around 12 wives (the exact number is not known) and the youngest one was only 9.
Granted, many instances are simply historical reporting rather than being actual instances of teachings for us. But should these events be taken as directives from God or just ignored as being part of a different time? If you do write these views off for those reasons, then how can you justify keeping the other edicts about sexual relationships and marriage?
And we can’t forget the issues of whether or not a priest should be allowed to have sex. Though this is a practice seen mostly among Catholics, there are other spiritual groups that hold to celibacy as a sacred calling. Buddhist monks also abstain from sex. But for the Catholics, it was a decision made by the leaders of the church many hundreds of years after the death of Jesus to start restricting marriages of the clergy, as a way of keeping control of church property. That eventually led to the requirement of celibacy. It’s not a Biblical mandate at all, but a remnant of a millenia-old power grab that no one has thought to reverse. The cases of pedophilia amongst the clergy are well-documented, as a result of these archaic, pointless rules.
A Non-Mainstream Look
As you can see, this topic has covered the 3 monotheistic faiths almost exclusively, so a few words about other viewpoints need to be included.
Buddhism and Hinduism are generally not that restrictive when it comes to sexuality and have few actual dogmatic problems with it. Buddhists do try to diminish any attachment to material pleasures but sexuality is not explicitly regulated.
Modern neo-Pagan religions embrace sexuality as a normal part of life and actively use the theme of fertility in many of their sacred beliefs and rituals.
There are no reasonable answers presented by religion, other than the need to control a population of believers. By allowing such normal and natural acts such as sex, love and relationships to be regulated by religion, the leaders of these organisations are simply able to establish a greater level of power and control over their flock.
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