Why are Religions Obsessed With Sex?

Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 11 comments



If a person were to read a religious text such as the bible or Qur’an with no preconception of what the books contained or what the religions that are based on these texts are like, you could be forgiven for thinking that, apart from praising god or Allah, the most important thing to people on earth is control over sex. From the opening moments in the Garden of Eden, where god creates man first, then woman as an afterthought, the story hinges on the one moment, the eating of the forbidden fruit. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that the fruit in the story is a metaphor for having sex, and once this perspective is placed upon the story, the rest of it becomes much a much darker tale.

If the apple in the Garden of Eden is a metaphor for the act of copulation, then all the sins bestowed upon humanity, all the pain and suffering, the wars, famine, drought, plagues that the bible blames on that moment, are all obsessed with the notion that sex is bad, unclean, impure, and the root of all evil in humanity and the world. It creates a mindset where sex and the body is something to be shunned, avoided and only used for utilitarian purposes, those of reproduction. But why should this attitude have arisen, and what have been the consequences?

The answer lies in the nature of being human, and the way we have constructed societies historically.

Before the Old Testament was written, before Judaism became a proper religion, humanity was already obsessed with sex, as an act of power, as an act of dominance, and as an act of coercion, and this is because the sexual urges within all animals are among the strongest urges we experience. From puberty, when our bodies become “sexually mature”, the drive to copulate hits us all, and brings with it the added bonus of being pleasurable. Our bodies have developed in such a way that the act of sex brings with it an immediate reward, that of feeling well, and added to that, our brains create emotional bonds between couples engaging in sex, making the possible outcome of child-rearing more likely to be shared among 2 people. On a chemical level, all sorts of changes take place during sex and sexual arousal, but the drive itself serves an ultimate purpose, that of passing on our genes to another generation. But the immediate reward of pleasure chemicals being released at the moment of climax make it not only a drive, but also a goal in itself, the seeking of this pleasure. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense, because if the act of copulation between humans was more like that which we see in praying mantises (where the female mantis eats the head off the male while still in the middle of copulation), much more thought and planning would go into this act. But because humans generally only give birth to a single offspring at a time, the evolutionary payoff for one of the couple dying during sex would be too low for this to make evolutionary sense. We are successful as a species, not because once a year we give birth to thousands of babies at a time, but because humans can get pregnant up to 12 times in a year, and the act of sex is pleasurable, meaning that we seek out sex at all times. Added to this, the male human is fertile all the time, from puberty until death, and this “ready to go” state is reflected in the way we conduct ourselves on earth.

I am aware that this analysis is completely bi-gendered, but the same thing applies to most of humanity, whether one identifies as male, female, transgender, gay, bisexual, etc. The urges and the pleasure apply to us all on some level, no matter how it is displayed in us.

Once we move past the basics of biology, past the groundwork for humanity’s sexual successes, what we are left with is the way humans deal with the facts of our own reproductive biology. This is where society comes into play. As self-aware and sentient beings, animals that are able to plan and create our own cities and futures, this awareness of sex is ingrained in every facet of our lives to varying degrees, and we are aware of how we can use it to manipulate others. One can imagine a scenario where, as humanity grew from nomadic tribes to settled villages and towns, and as the advent of agriculture developed, we found that our need for space increased. Previously, where a nomadic group might lay claim to a large hunting/gathering range, for the agriculturalist space became confined to a small plot, which grew as the village grew. In a nomadic culture, the changes of meeting another group in a large swathe of land was low, so conflict between tribes was infrequent. In an agrarian culture, one with a fixed position, conflict became more common, with the opportunistic among us trying to take advantage of the farmers, who already had everything a roaming marauder might want, including food, shelter, and the ability to have sex. In this scenario, sex as a commodity was borne out of the ability to capture and trade women and men as slaves or as partners.

Men, who are historically physically stronger, and under the influence of testosterone, were and are still the main perpetrators of the commodification of sex in humanity. The ability to overpower another meant that the sexual urge could be sated for the aggressor, but those who have been overpowered become the commodity or victory. But not all is sexual conquests and commodification of sex. The males, being stronger would have also served as the protectors of the women and children, and would be forced to sometimes fight to protect their tribe from invading outsiders. If successful, the protector would win the advantage of maintaining a family/extended familial group. Men simultaneously became aggressors and protectors, perpetrators to and victims of others.

At some point in human history, someone realised that a good way to control people was through rules, and if the rules of a society were aimed at our basics, the deepest set urges and needs, then the rules would become much more successful. Ruling kins and chiefs had control over their people and laws and rules were developed. Apart from coming to an agreement such as the barter system for trading, rules around conduct were developed. (Don’t steal from others, therefore others won’t steal from you. Don’t kill, else you might be killed.) The advantage of sticking to these are that everyone gets the same chances and rights. The disadvantages of not following the rules were shame from others, banishment, torture or death. There were many ways this was enacted, but of course these rules can only be as successful as the society they are enacted upon. Of course, with sex being the deep drive that it is, rules around sex developed, and alongside this came the shame associated with sexual “deviations” from the accepted norm. Sex and sexuality became taboo because of a need to control the actions of others.

In all this, running somewhat in tandem with the development of humanity from nomadic to agrarian societies, is the way that we as a species chose to deal with the unknown quantities of love, sex and death. Mysticism and mythology have always been used as a way to explain  how mysterious events take place, and in all cases mysticism and mythology have been shown to be wrong, a mistake in explanations, by ignorance (don’t know, don’t care), lack of knowledge (don’t know, can’t know), or by tradition (don’t know, but we have always done this). The volcano exploding can be appeased by the sacrifice of something the local people hold dear, and as important to them. Of course current day knowledge explains how and why volcanoes explode, but without current knowledge, anthropomorphised spirits seemed the best way to explain the inexplicable. To explain love, blessings were invented, permission from the spirits to become a couple. To explain death, spirits were invoked to take away the dead “soul” to another plain of existence. To explain sex and reproduction, a myriad ideas were  invented, like fully formed babies moved from the man’s chest into the woman, spirits visited in the night to place a baby in the womb, or again, a blessing from the gods. Love, death and sex, the three biggest mysteries were often given their own gods or goddesses, and the belief was that if humans pleased these deities that the deities would repay, reward and deliver everything from harvests to healthy babies. In some cultures fertility was even celebrated, in the knowledge that all life springs forth from a woman, and that women were to be treasured or revered.

As societies developed, so too did mystical teachings, tacking on explanations here and there, and at some point became formalised. The “witchdoctor”, shaman or seer, almost always a man, was replaced with a group of people, almost always men, and decrees from the supernatural, spirit world or “other side” were proclaimed to the governing bodies, and thus became rules. With a very limited knowledge of how reproduction and reproductive cycles worked, rules were imposed upon people as to how the spirits would like them to conduct themselves sexually. Things like semen and menstruation were given statuses such as semen being the vitality of a man, and menstruation being weakening in women because of a loss of blood. Nobody knew what these were, and so the mysticism of the times prevailed. The governing bodies, be they chieftains or councils recognised the added bonus of the mystical teachings in controlling the people, and therefore would consult with the shaman or priests on all manner of daily matters. Religion became tied to government very early on in human civilization.

Patriarchy, in the form of government, bolstered by a religious caste, became the norm, catering to the wants and needs of men first, with women being a secondary afterthought. Alongside the commodification of sex from a social standpoint, from a spiritual standpoint the woman was always seen as a commodity too. From men ruling over households, to men running a state, women became chattels to the goings on of the men. Women were seen as weak, impetuous, and unable to think as clearly as a man, all in correlation to the way the rulers chose to rule and proclaim laws. And as societies developed further, so too did the religions of the time, formalising the stories and laws into religions proper. Further to the shame added to the laws from the social contract on stealing, murder, etc., the religions tacked spiritual purity and wholeness onto the laws surrounding sex and sexuality. Men became strong, virile and important, while women became weak, dirty and shameful.

This all laid the groundwork for the further formalisation of religion in the form of The Torah, or early Old Testament, the documents upon which Judaism, Christianity and Islam make their foundations. This is important because in the world currently more than 55% of the world’s population is affiliated with one of these 3 religions. From Genesis, which all 3 share in one form or other, the Garden of Eden, and further stories through the religious texts of these religions, right from the very outset of explaining how the world was created, these all hinge on the one mythical event: Original Sin. In the shortsightedness of early civilised man, the best way to explain pain, suffering, disease and death, was that humanity did something very wrong soon after the world was “made”, and given the way society and religions developed in a patriarchal manner. Following this logic (or lack thereof), who was being punished more, the man or the woman? From a superficial look, the people of the times looked at the way a man bravely steps up to fight in a war and die, while the women is beset by weakness, menstruation and the pain associated, and the pain (and often death) involved in childbirth. The obvious answer then became, “it was the woman who brought this upon us.”

Everything thereafter in the religious texts radiates from the idea that the weak woman, coerced by the evil mythical counterpart to god, Satan, upon eating the mythical forbidden fruit (having sex), caused firstly the curse of pain and menstruation in women and pain of childbirth, and by egregious extension, all other “evils” in humanity. Shame became the mantra of the day; Shame that humanity was tainted by this action, shame in being human, shame in sex, and shame in women. Sex instantly becomes the shame upon which the rest of the edicts and dogma surrounding these major religions rests.

As a consequence of this shaming attitude, sex became a necessary evil (for the creation of children only), lust became a vice, and chastity (in women only) became a virtue, for if a woman was unsullied by the evil of sex, she remained pure in the eyes of God. Virginity became a commodity under religion, while sex outside of marriage (under God) became a shameful act. Any pleasure associated with sex for the sake of sex was again ascribed to God’s arch enemy (which he created, don’t forget), as a way for Satan to take hold of your soul. Add to this the idea that the sins of this life are not only for this life, but eternal and forever, and suddenly sex is completely compounded as the most evil of evils (only second to not believing, adoring, thanking etc. God).

To have sex was to be sinful, which is why priesthoods and clergies were told to be chaste, to compound their strength and piety to god, while in the female equivalent, nunneries and the like, chastity was a way to stay pure for their marriage to Christ. In the ultimate irony it seems, the church and other chaste institutions have been revealed as some of the worst sex offenders in modernity, seemingly with the chastity part of their vows being just for show. while in reality the priests go on sexually abusing the boys and girls under their care.

Today we know that sex is not only completely natural, but also provides benefits to your physical and mental health. Sexual reproduction is an imperative of all living organisms. We know how the reproductive system works, why menstruation occurs, how sperm and ova meet to create new life, and we even have some control over the reproductive cycle itself, being able to turn it on and off using hormones. We know what makes up a human being, what signals our DNA tell our bodies to react to, and we can even manipulate this to a degree. We know that the shame placed upon sex by society and religion is simply an attempt to preserve the archaic notions that the mysticism and patriarchal structures of humanity’s past have put in place. And with this knowledge of these patriarchal structures, awareness of how they came about, and the ability to change the way these structures affect us in society today, we can move forward to a more equitable and fair world.

By telling us that our core biological imperatives are wrong, dirty and sinful, religions create and reinforce the guilt/repentance dichotomy established in the Genesis story. By perpetuating this, they create a need, a niche market, a one-stop-shop for the absolution of this imperative, apparently bestowed upon us by their figurehead-god. It is in their interest to do this, otherwise their main purpose, that of absolution, ceases to have an appeal, and their own market disappears. The sooner we understand that the core of religious interest in sex is actually a marketing ploy, one that creates its own custom, and that it is set out in the opening passages of these mythologies, the sooner we can rid ourselves of this scourge of shame and guilt on the planet, and work toward true equality for all.

SEE ALSO: Why Are “Purity Balls” So Very Wrong?

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  1. Hey there.

    I like your article but you are wrong about the the Fruit of the Tree being a metaphor for sex. . (I’ve never read any version of the Bible that referred the fruit was an apple by the way. I’d be interested to know which version of the Bible you read this in.)   If you read Genesis 2 God tells the males and females he created to be fruitful and multiply, in other words have sex, procreate.  The Tree was actually called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When Adam and Eve ate from it they became “like Us’ or Godlike in that they, unlike any other animal, developed the ability to be ashamed. In fact they developed the ability to think about and do a lot of things that no other animal did. 
    I believe that rather than a metaphor for sex, this story is a metaphor for how human beings became very different to all other animals, including, among  many other things, creating religions and developing some silly attitudes towards sex.
    Other than this I think this is a great article. 


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  2. @Bronwyn  Woops. Just want to correct some terrible grammar here. I meant,…’ never heard the the fruit referred to as an apple’…. and ..’unlike any other animal developed a sense of bad and good. Hence they had the ability to feel ashamed. Sorry. Hope this makes more sense now.

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  3. @Bronwyn Thanks for your comment Bronwyn. It didn’t take much searching to find the metaphorical link between “forbidden fruit” and sex. See here for example :http://www.academia.edu/5041322/Forbidden_Fruit_Ancient_Near_Eastern_Sexual_Metaphors
    I am aware that the fruit in genesis was never referred to as an apple, but I used that description as it’s the most popular depiction in today’s world. It was much more likely a fig.
    Let me know what you think of the above PDF link. I am quite familiar with this interpretation, and have been for many years.

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  4. bronwyn”If you read Genesis 2 God tells the males and females he created to be
    fruitful and multiply, in other words have sex, procreate.”
    love the logistic of it all. They were supposed to be eternal in garden
    of eden, if on top of that they were supposed to be fruitful and
    multiply, a lot of miracle had to be involved later on for that to be
    sustainable. On top of that, apparently, god was expecting incest
    to be a normal thing… so I guess the genetic caveats that come with
    incest are post-original sin… probably another godly punishment…

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  5. martinspribble  While I understand that a lot of Genesis is borrowed from previous Mesopotamian texts, and I know that  many texts use ‘fruit’ is a sexual metaphor,  I don’t understand how the ‘fruit’ referred to in these passages of  the Bible is a metaphor for sex. If you read the passage, God has no problem with sex. As I said before he tells Adam and Eve to be fruitful, that is, have sex and produce offspring. The fruit being the result of sex, not sex itself. I think in this case the fruit is an outcome of an action.
    The fruit in the Bible in these passages comes from the ‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’.  Many people when discussing this’ tree’ seem to forget the Good and Evil bit. The ‘fruit’ this ‘tree’ produces is exactly what it title implies. If you eat of it you have a knowledge of, or rather,  an awareness of the concept of good and evil. ‘…then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ Genesis 3:5 
    When Adam and Eve ate from this tree they were ashamed of being naked. Before they ate from the tree they weren’t. So I  assume that whoever wrote this passage figured that there was once a time when human beings were like other animals, not having an awareness of right and wrong, they were innocent. Everything a human did, including having sex, was just natural, there was no hang ups until they gained this ‘knowledge’. 
    The first time Adam and Eve (or mankind which the word Adam is derived from), had sex was not after eating this so called forbidden fruit. It was knowledge that was gained after eating the fruit, knowledge that apparently only the ‘Gods’ had that was forbidden.  So I would be more likely to assume that it was this godlike knowledge or awareness that was the thing that led mankind to ‘fall’. 

    I wonder if this whole story, whoever it was originally written by, was a metaphor about how human beings went from being simple animals to the complicated human animals we are now. 

    Just for the record I’m not a Christian, (anymore), and I’m not religious. :)

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    • It could be a metaphor for agriculture and the fall of man is the moving apart from the natural world into an agricultural way of life. The works of John Zerzan and Daniel Quinn go into more detail.

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  6. @vhrcabral bronwyn  If you read these texts with your linear side you are absolutely right. Nothing really makes sense. But now cross over to your intuitive side. Read the story as a metaphor for something that didn’t necessarily happen for real but  illustrates artistically  the way human beings went from being innocent animals to animals that somehow gained ‘godlike’ knowledge. As a result these animals developed a sense of bad and good, right and wrong, good and evil.  and a sense of having to take responsibility for their actions. Just because some priest or pastor tells you the Bible was written to be taken literally doesn’t mean you have to. I wouldn’t mind betting that the author of these passages didn’t mean these passages to be taken as a solid fact.  I could be wrong.

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  7. @Bronwyn The most likely explanation for the “apple” being referred to in popular lore is the fact that in Latin “apple” and “evil” are homophones:  mâlum/malum.  The Church Fathers who wrote in Latin would have seized on that word play.

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    • Can you imagine that the reason for whole religions are bad and makes world worse than before is just because of misunderstanding and translation failures that we have made at the very beginning. That would be extremely absurd comedy. Or God’s joke. What if first prophet who was in contact with God got wrong the whole idea. Or maybe we are God and we will be able to control time with the help of technology and create ourselves again. Well, definition of “God” plays an important role of course. Linguistics again. Crazy questions in my mind.

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  8. I’m not convinced that the “fruit” is a metaphor for sex so much as it is a metaphor for the first time man (and woman for that mater) became aware of the connection between sex and procreation, the fact that they, themselves, had not always been there, and will not always be there, otherwise known as death. Good became anything that tended to preserve or extend their life and evil became anything that tended to threaten or end their life.

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  9. As an ex Catholic your piece makes blistering sense as well as being an excellent read. Nobody ever told me I was second class, but the point was made over and over in Sunday School. Thankfully after the recent horrors in Ireland, the church has lost most of its power, although the abortion debate grows more and more divided.

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  1. Today in Agnosticism, Ritual, Superstition, and Politics | Evangelically Atheist - […] If a person were to read a religious text such as the bible or Qur’an with no preconception of…

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