In our culture we hear a lot about things that are supposed to help couples have better sex, from skimpy lingerie to sex-enhancing drugs. What we don't hear a lot about is the role that religion can play in improving a couple's "sex life."
The mere suggestion that religion can improve sex will seem laughable to many. Our society has largely bought into the narrative that religion is the enemy of sexual pleasure. In the wake of the sexual revolution, many people have come to believe that someone whose sexual habits are constricted by religious values cannot at the same time experience fulfilling sexual happiness. While religious believers have often disputed these claims, only comparatively recently has science taken their side. Evidence meticulously gathered by social scientists has conclusively shown that religious people as a whole are more sexually fulfilled than any other group in Western society.
The Chicago Study
Recognizing that the findings of Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th century were methodologically flawed, in 1992 social scientists Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, and Edward O. Laumann initiated a comprehensive study into the sexual habits of Americans. They commissioned a staff of 220 interviewers, stationed at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Instead of relying on unrepresentative groups of volunteers, as Kinsey had done, these researchers selected random samples. Over a period of seven months, they interviewed 3,432 respondents and asked them questions about all aspects of their sex lives.
Much of what their study uncovered was predictable, while some things came as a surprise. The greatest shock of all concerned the relationship between sexual pleasure and religious belief.
Using objectively verifiable criteria—such as sexual responsiveness and frequency of orgasm—the study found that the people who have the most sex, the best sex, and are the happiest about their sex lives are monogamous, married, religious people.
Summarizing their findings in the monograph that followed the study, titled The Social Organization of Sexuality (p. 115), the researchers noted that
women without religious affiliation were the least likely to report always having an orgasm with their primary partner—only one in five. . . . Protestant women who reported always having an orgasm [had] the highest [percentage], at nearly one-third. In general, having a religious affiliation was associated with higher rates of orgasm for women (27 percent of both Catholic and Type I Protestants reported always having an orgasm with their primary partner.)
The authors were forced to conclude that "religion may be independently associated with rates of female orgasm."
The Chicago study confirms what researchers have found in previous, less methodologically rigorous studies. For example, research conducted by Redbook Magazine in 1970 also discovered a strong correlation between religion and sexual pleasure. Moreover, the Redbook survey found that, for women over 25, the more religious a woman is, the more likely she is "to be orgasmic almost every time she engages in sex." Conversely, irreligious women tended to be the least satisfied with the quality and quantity of their intercourse.
The findings of the Chicago study and Redbook are not alone. A 1940s Stanford University study and another study from the early 90s also discovered that women who regularly attend religious services scored higher when it came to levels of sexual satisfaction.
Rethinking the Stereotype
These findings challenge a stereotype that has been perpetuated by Nietzsche, Freud, and the promoters of the sexual revolution. The stereotype says that religious practitioners are the vanguard of a dour Victorianism that inevitably squelches sexual pleasure.
William R. Mattox, Jr., referred to this stereotype in a 1999 USA Today article titled "Aha! Call It the Revenge of the Church Ladies," noting that "the common assumption continues to be that church ladies are sexually repressed, or that they're like the blissfully ignorant women of Pleasantville who think they've got it good, but have no idea what they are missing." Mattox went on to cite the 1993 Janus Report on Sexual Behavior, which found that nonreligious people "have a tendency to focus on the more technical or physical performance aspects of sex, while the religious pay more attention to the mystical and symbolic dimensions of one's sexuality." Mattox suggested that this attention to the mystical and symbolic aspects may be a reason why religious people actually have more potential for a fulfilling sex life, contrary to the stereotype.
I think Mattox and the Janus Report were onto something when they suggested that what a couple thinks about sex makes a material difference to how they experience it, including how satisfying they find it. However, this needs to be unpacked a bit. What is it specifically about how religious people view sex that might explain why, on average, they have a better time in bed? I'd like to suggest four possible explanations.
1. Holy Sex vs. Just Sex
By its very nature, social science can only describe what is the case, not why something is as it is. But that didn't stop the Chicago researchers from offering theories to explain the connection between religious belief and sexual pleasure. They suggested that perhaps this connection derives from the belief Christians hold concerning the holiness of marriage and sexuality. They wrote: "Perhaps conservative Protestant women firmly believe in the holiness of marriage and of sexuality as an expression of their love for their husbands."
This makes a lot of sense. If we believe that sex is holy, then we will probably find it more enjoyable in the long run than if we believe sex is less than holy. Just compare the way sex is presented in The Song of Songs to the way it is presented in any number of recent television shows. Some TV programs, while not presenting sex as something dirty, commit the equally tragic mistake of completely disenchanting it. When asked about her role in Sex and the City, actress Kristin Davis commented that the goal of the show was to "demystify the whole sexual thing."
Demystifying sex removes the mystery, enchantment, and wonder from the experience, presenting it as something that is merely ordinary, if not entirely mechanical. The same problem occurs as a result of the "soft porn" that now permeates every corner of Western society. The result is that sex is turned into something impersonal, commonplace, and mechanistic, if not downright boring.
By contrast, the Bible's Song of Songs presents sexual love as something beautiful, hallowed, and filled with wonder. It isn't rocket science to realize that the latter paradigm provides greater scope for a more rewarding and fulfilling sexual experience.
2. Guilt-Free Is Best
When William R. Mattox wrote the USA Today article cited above, he suggested that "church ladies tend to be free from the guilt associated with violating one's own sexual standards—a factor that a University of Connecticut study found to hinder sexual satisfaction among unmarried college students."
Even if a person claims to recognize no sexual taboos, violating God's standards of sexual morality will inevitably tincture his sex life with guilt, if only on an unconscious level. While religious believers are hardly immune to acts of hypocrisy and sexual impropriety, few would doubt that the average religious person tends to be more sexually moral than the average nonreligious person. Exceptions notwithstanding, on average, the sexual encounters of a religious person will be less dampened by guilt, freeing him or her to experience the type of pleasure God designed for us to experience.
Another reason why religious people, on average, are more sexually fulfilled than others may stem from the connection between religiosity and modesty. While many religious people dress just as immodestly as many nonreligious people, religious ones tend at least to be more conscious of their obligations in this area. But what is the connection between modesty and sexual fulfillment? I'll answer first from the female perspective and then the male.
The Female Perspective. Some women have told me that modesty is important to them, not only because it helps men not to stumble, but also because it helps them place a high value on their own sexuality. They have told me that modest apparel affirms the true importance of a woman's sexual identity, since it proclaims that her body is not a tame, benign, and commonplace thing. Modesty affirms that our bodies in general and our sexuality in particular are special, charged, even enchanted, and too exciting to be put merely to common use. As Kathleen van Schaijik suggested in a 1999 article, "If we revere something, we do not hide it. Neither do we flaunt it in public. We cherish it; we pay it homage; we approach it with dignity; we adorn it with beauty; we take care that it is not misused."
In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues that modesty is the truly erotic option, since it makes the highest valuation of a woman's sexual identity, affirming the sacredness of sexuality and displaying a commitment to setting it apart and cherishing it. C. S. Lewis put his finger on the same principle in That Hideous Strength: "when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common." To dress immodestly is ultimately to reduce our sexuality to something commonplace, trivial, and humdrum.
Precisely for this reason, a modest woman significantly upgrades the significance of what is happening when she undresses in front of her husband. As Havelock Ellis observed (stumbling upon the truth for one of the few times in his life), "without modesty we could not have, nor rightly value at its true worth, that bold and pure candor which is at once the final revelation of love and the seal of its sincerity."
The Male Perspective. Modesty also upgrades sexuality from the male perspective. The anecdotal evidence clear shows that men whose environment is saturated with immodest women (either because of the company they keep or the images they view) are generally not oversexed, as one might suppose, but just the opposite. In Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, men are often quoted as saying that sex has become boring.
Cristina Odone observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex just does not sell products like it once did. The reason, she suggested, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal that it doesn't entice us any longer. As one 16-year-old was quoted as saying in 2004, "I'm so used to it, it makes me sick."
Frequent exposure to nudity tends to trivialize the human body, emptying it of its implicit eroticism. As someone said to me last year, when a man is exposed to too much flesh, it lowers the healthy excitement he should feel when he looks upon the body of his wife because (yawn) he sees that all the time. It therefore takes a higher sexual charge, sometimes to point of extreme perversion, to match the excitement that might otherwise be available in a normal sexual encounter. Could it be that the rise of libido-enhancing drugs is meeting a need created by the libido-squashing effects of pornography?
Another explanation has to do with marriage. On average, religious believers have a higher view of marriage than the nonreligious do, with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions going so far as to consider matrimony a "holy sacrament."
That marriage is the best context for a pleasurable and fulfilling sexual relationship emerged strongly from the Chicago study. As the researchers pointed out in their monograph:
Although popular representations of marriage often portray the dulling of mutual affection over time, the relative security that marriage provides may be a significant source of emotional satisfaction as well as a comfortable context in which to pursue physical pleasure.
But why is martial sex more enjoyable (on average) than non-marital sex? The researchers were surely right to draw a connection between physical satisfaction and the type of emotional satisfaction that is possible within a secure relationship. Sex may be a physical act, but it is also an emotional one. Without the emotional bond, the physical act can devolve into one of mere lust. And lust tends to rob a sexual relationship of mystery and anticipation, as well as to leave no room for the emotional and psychological nourishment that comes from being loved. The website chastity.com contains an important observation about the difference between lust and love:
Lust, on the other hand, is boring, because it allows no room for mystery and anticipation. Everything secret is given away. The pure have more passion than the lustful, and it is precisely their passion that gives them the ability to build a greater kind of love. They exercise self-control not because of an absence of passion but because of the presence of love . . . being loved is much more exciting than being used.
In marriage, there is time to develop this deeper type of love that is rooted in both self-control and respect for the other person. Thus, a martial sexual encounter is not a time to simply get your sexual kicks, but to engage in an experience of self-donation that is oriented toward the other person. This situates marital sexuality in a more holistic context and gives it the potential to lead to greater long-term satisfaction, both emotionally and physically.
Everything Else Added
It's still probably a good thing that the sex industry hasn't yet caught onto the fact that being a religious believer may actually be a key component to a sexually fulfilled life. This is because there is always the danger, as this type of research becomes more widely known, that people will begin looking at religion through a purely utilitarian lens.
But paradoxically, a key ingredient to happiness in life (including sexual happiness) is to strive for things other than our own short-term fulfillment. Those other things include the needs of others, and ultimately our obligations to God himself. C. S. Lewis described this paradox in Mere Christianity: "Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in." •
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