Why are Some Religious Groups Sexually Oppressive?

Planning to have sex on your wedding night?  Not if you’re a member of The Word of Faith Fellowship, a protestant, non-denominational church headed by Pastor Jane Whaley, and located in Spindale, North Carolina.

According to a recent news report, members of the church, even on their wedding night, are permitted no more than a “godly peck on the cheek” before they are required to roll over and go to sleep.  And don’t expect the next night to be any better:  Whaley and the other pastors of the church can take months, even a year, to grant a couple permission to have sex.

When permission is at last granted, it’s still no party: “Love-making is limited to 30 minutes, no foreplay is allowed, the lights must be turned off and only the missionary position is sanctioned.”

Well, at least you get to have kids, right?  Sure you do — just as soon as the church leadership grants you permission.

And that’s just some of the draconian rules.  The Word of Faith Fellowship has others too, and the punishments for disobeying any of them are reported by former members to be severe and include harsh beatings.

Reading about The Word of Faith Fellowship in the news, my mind made the jump from that particular church to religions in general, and I began to wonder why they are so often sexually oppressive?

Of course, that question is far too general.  For one thing, religions are not always sexually oppressive.  Shinto, Taoism, most of the species of Paganism that I’ve come across, traditional Chinese folk religions, and many others are to my admittedly limited knowledge not sexually oppressive.  Even Confucianism, which I believe to oppress women, does not oppress sex itself.

Then again, even in those religions with a reputation of being sexually oppressive, there are widely varying degrees of it depending on the branch, sect, denomination, or the congregation one looks at.  So making generalizations is a bit hazardous.  Perhaps the best we can say is that some religious groups are in various ways, and to various extents, oppressive.

That is enough, however, to prompt the question of “Why?”

At first, I thought that was a fairly easy question.  After all, doesn’t the leadership benefit from sexual oppression by using it to further and consolidate their control over people?  But how exactly does that work?

In one way, it’s easy enough to see how it works.  All you need do is watch Pat Robinson (1) rile people up about “the threat to Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness” posed by some one or another sexual issue — abortion, transgendered people using the “wrong” public restroom, etc — and then (2) solicit monetary donations from his now frightened and angry audience.

The more I think about that, however, the more I suspect there might be something deeper afoot.   What Robinson and so many other religious leaders do does indeed work, but why?

Put differently, what is it about human sexuality that makes it easy for so many of us to believe it can, in some ways, pose a genuine threat to “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”?   To my ear, saying there is something about our sexuality that can make it a threat to those things is like saying there’s something about popcorn that can make it a threat to those things.  I don’t get frightened and angry.  I smile and shake my head.

But apparently to a certain kind of person it does make sense to say that human sexuality can threaten those things.   He or she is not only quite willing to get out their checkbook or credit card and sacrifice a portion of their wealth to oppose what they imagine to be the evils of our sexuality, but they are also willing to seek out and follow — often enough blindly follow — any leader who sees things as they do.

It’s all too easy and misleading to dismiss such people as “stupid”.  I have known many such people in my life, and enough of them are smart to give the lie to that dismissal.  So what is it about them that makes it plausible to them that our sexuality can topple worlds?

I think a possible answer to our question might be found in Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, and its gist is that we humans are born equipped with at least six psychological foundations for making moral judgments.  These foundations can be to some extent thought of as spontaneous moral feelings, or quick moral intuitions.

For instance, how would it make you feel to witness a friend being cheated at cards by an out-of-town professional gambler? Moral Foundations Theory would suggest that the fact witnessing someone being cheated might cause a negative reaction in you is the product of an inherent psychological module.  Furthermore, the fact that you might be even more outraged because the person being cheated was your friend is also the product of an inherent psychological module, a second one.  All together, there are six modules, and they are the foundations of our moral judgments, or moralities.

Of the six foundations, one is of particular importance here.  That’s the foundation referred to as “sanctity” or “purity”.   It comes into play when you judge something, such as a food, idea, or action, to be disgusting or abhorrent, perhaps because it is impure or degraded in your eyes.

Now I would suggest that our natural tendency to sometimes make moral judgments based on whether we perceive something to lack sanctity or purity can under certain conditions predispose us to seeing human sexuality as a grave moral threat.  Those conditions are met if we have been taught to view sex as shameful, impure, degrading, and so forth.  And if and when we see human sexuality as a grave moral threat, then it can become plausible to us that human sexuality — or at least the wrong kind of human sexuality — can lead to the downfall of “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”.

Put differently, it is not simply that someone is taught “the wrong kind of sexuality can destroy religion, etc.”  There’s more to it than that.  Everyone of us has heard that message through-out our lives, but most of us find it quite implausible.  Ridiculous even.  Only with some of us does it fall on fertile ground.  And I think the reason for that is that those of us who find the message plausible are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of moral judgments than the rest of us.

Indeed, when Haidt studied whether political progressives and conservatives had differing sensitivities to his six foundations of morality he found precisely that: Conservatives are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation than are progressives.

So, why are some religious groups so sexually oppressive?  Well, as I noted before, not all religious groups are.  I would like now to suggest that the sexually oppressive ones are likely to have significantly more people who are especially sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of our moral judgments than are the less oppressive groups.

Yet, I do not wish to give the impression that I think I’ve hit upon the only reason some religious groups are sexually oppressive.  I think there’s more to it than what I’ve written about here.  What’s your opinion?  Why is it that some religious groups are sexually oppressive?  Your thoughts, please.

I'd love to hear from you. Comments make my day. Please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s