Being honest about who’s having sex

Bah, there have been a whole bunch of good articles and blog posts that I’ve wanted to comment on over the past couple of weeks, and I haven’t had the time! So for the next couple of days, I’m going to try and crank the posts out, so that my comments end up only being slightly dated. ;)

The first thing I want to do is share with you a thought experiment that Greta Christina stole from Darrell Ray. In this post, Greta was explaining how the research on sex shows that religious people (who have multifarious rules about sex) have just as much sex and break just as many of those “rules” as non-religious people.

Believers and atheists have about the same kinds of sex at about the same rate: they’re just about as likely to have gay sex, have extra-marital sex, have kinky sex, watch porn, masturbate, etc.

This is true. For example, 95% of Americans have had premarital sex. This is morally wrong according to much more than 5% of the country, but we do it anyway, and we’ve been doing it since at least the 1950’s.

So religious people have made up these rules for themselves, but they by-and-large do not follow them! And what Darrell Ray has provided is an interesting way of picturing this. According to Greta, Ray was giving a talk at an atheist conference last month, and he asked the audience, “How many of you masturbate? How many of you have had extra-marital sex? How many of you have watched porn?” Most people unabashedly put their hands up. Ray then pointed out that this absolutely would not have happened if he’d asked the question at any church, synagogue, or mosque. However, we know from research on sexual activity that the answers would have been the same! Just as many people would have been required to put their hands up! The main difference between the religious and the non-religious isn’t what sexual acts they engage in, but the fact that former feel ashamed for doing it.

This is a powerful image for me. I imagine a speaker asking these questions at mass at the church I used to go to, and the vast majority of the adults in the room raising their hands. I say to myself, “Most of these people think they’re wrong for having done this!”

But are they? If you’re religious, imagine this scene at your own place of worship. The people raising their hands are your friends, family members, and neighbors, people who do good things in their personal lives and in your community. Is there really a problem with this picture? Have they really done anything that they should be ashamed of?

I would say “no.” There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex for its own sake… with a friend, with a fling, or with the love of your life. What matters is whether or not you treated the other person well (and why wouldn’t you? You’re a good person!) What matters is being honest, communicative, thoughtful, and giving towards your partner. That’s what real morality is all about.

So how about we all just admit that we like sex, and that’s okay. Then we can start talking about how to treat others well, and making sure we’re treated well in return.



Filed under Atheism, Morality, Religion, Sex

2 responses to “Being honest about who’s having sex

  1. StregaNona

    “We know from research on sexual activity that the answers would have been the same” is a bit confusing to me. From my experience, super religious people would be quite unwilling to share that kind of information–even in an anonymous survey.

    Saying that in today’s day and age extra-marital sex isn’t the biggest deal might be accurate (self-respect and love and respect and love of others being of greater importance). However, it also makes sense that within a context that considers a sexual union to be holy and binding or whatever, that those admitting that they respect that context wouldn’t want to disrespect it by flaunting that kind of action.

    • StregaNona: Respectfully, your experience doesn’t mean much when the studies have already been done! Studies have already shown that religious people are willing to tell us what types of sexual activities they engage in, and how frequently. The results consistently show that they do not sexually restrict themselves any more than secularists do.

      Perhaps one reason for their honesty is that these surveys tend to pose to respondents many questions, and so the contradiction, if you will, between one’s religious affiliation and one’s sexual history may not be foremost on respondents’ minds. That’s just a guess.

      Also, scientists can acquire certain kinds of information without relying on self-report. For example, states with greater numbers of evangelical Christians have higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and teen parenthood than the less evangelical states of the US. This is not what we would expect if the evangelical Christians in those states were successful in following the rules they set for themselves. We know the data is accurate because abortion rates are based on medical records that we know are veridical.

      So the point remains that if one were to ask one’s congregation “How many of you masturbate? How many of you have had extra-marital sex? How many of you have watched porn?”, most people should be required to put their hands up. This is interesting because, despite all the religious claims that chastity is important and that it is improper to enjoy sex for pleasure’s sake, these people are living just the same as the most Godless among us – the only difference being that they feel ashamed about what they are doing, and the rest of us simply enjoy it as one of the pleasures of life.

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