The Intimate Link Between Sexual Shame and Religiousness
This post was written as part of the Honours Students Workshop “Blogging in Science”.
Jola Szymańska is a Polish journalist and youtuber. On her channel, she explores the topics of literature, mental health, and activism. I have been following her channel for the last couple of years and have observed an immense change in the type of content she creates. She started off as a self-proclaimed “hipster-Catholic”, publishing videos on faith and Church. As time went by, however, she became more critical of the role of the Church in society and decided to quit publishing faith-centred content.
I remember two videos she created, both discussing the Catholic idea of sexual purity. In the first one, published around four years ago, Jola shows her appreciation of the concept of sexual purity and explains why she considers it an important value (watch the video here; in Polish) . The other one, published in 2019, focuses on an article published in “Tygodnik Powszechny” (a Polish Catholic social-cultural magazine) depicting the stories of people who feel harmed by the destructive image of sexuality conveyed by their religious communities (watch the video here; read the article here; both in Polish). The video started a debate on the links between religion and sexual shame.
As behavioural and social sciences students, we cannot overlook the psychological and cultural dimension of the ongoing debate. What is the nature of the link between sexual shame and religiousness, and what does it mean for social scientists and mental healthcare professionals?
The Nature of The Link
As Marcinechová & Záhorcová (2020) noted, there appears to be a positive relationship between religiosity and sexual shame, as well as a negative relationship between sexual shame and sexual satisfaction. Murray and Murray-Swank (2007) indicated that highly religious women experience increased sex guilt (Fox & Young, 1989). They suggested that sexual expression is hindered by religion, with guilt being the mediating factor (Murray and Murray-Swank, 2007). The study by Murray and Murray-Swank (2007) included Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish individuals, as well as those with other religious affiliations, agnostics, and atheists. The results indicate that spirituality and religiousness are negatively linked to supporting the use of birth control, accepting sex education, and accepting sexual practices such as masturbation.
There appears to be a positive relationship between religiosity and sexual shame, as well as a negative relationship between sexual shame and sexual satisfaction
The picture, however, is not as simple as these findings might suggest. For example, a study by Abbott et al (2016) found no significant correlations between either religious commitment and sexual self-esteem or between religious fundamentalism and sexual self-esteem. McFarland et al (2011) reported weak to absent relationships between religious integration and emotional satisfaction in a relationship. This research does, however, link religious integration to higher physical pleasure from sex – which means that two measures of sexual satisfaction (emotional satisfaction and physical pleasure) obtained varying results.
The Perspective of Sexual Minorities
The discussion on religiosity and sexual shame becomes even more nuanced when we consider the perspective of sexual minorities. The feelings of sexual shame may be especially prominent among religious queer individuals (Sherry et al., 2010). Heteronormative sexual behaviours might be sanctioned by the Church if they aim at reproduction; however, in the case of same-sex couples, this condition cannot be met. According to a study by Sherry et al. (2010), conservative religious beliefs were positively linked to shame, guilt, and internalized homophobia. The qualitative part of their study revealed that conflict between religious beliefs on the one hand, and sexual identity, oppression, trauma, and rejection on the other, were recurring themes in participants’ experiences regarding religion and sexual orientation. Based on the discussed findings, it can be concluded that sexual orientation is a factor that may help us to disentangle the link between religiosity and sexual shame.
Sexual orientation is a factor that may help us to disentangle the link between religiosity and sexual shame.
One reason why research findings are mixed, may have to do with the way religiosity is measured. As noted by Murray and Murray-Swank (2007), the number of items measuring religiosity is relatively limited and focused on more “practical” aspects of religiosity (such as church attendance), rather than the feelings of transcendence experienced by religious individuals. I suggest it might be beneficial to include items measuring such feelings, in order to obtain a more complete picture of spirituality. Focusing on “demographic” measures, such as being part of the religious organization, might convey an incorrect image of the relationship between religiousness and sexual shame. This is especially visible in countries such as Poland, where around 90% of society is formally part of the Catholic church, and events such as baptism or first communion are customary, serving primarily the family-integration function. The number of true believers might be much lower than the official statistics indicate.
Mental Healthcare Professionals
Of course, the implications of findings on sexual shame and religiousness are not limited to the research setting. Mental health professionals need to be aware of the association with religiousness when discussing the sexual concerns or problems of their clients. A basic background knowledge regarding a given religion’s position on sexual topics might allow the therapist to better understand the perspective of the client, the conceptual and ethical framework they are operating within. Addressing religion in the context of sexuality requires a degree of cultural sensitivity and openness on the part of the therapist. However, the rewards are rich, as increased understanding will lead to a better therapeutic relationship.
Image credit: photo by Lisa Ruokis; licensed with CC BY 2.0.
Abbott, D. M., Harris, J. E., & Mollen, D. (2016). The impact of religious commitment on women’s sexual self-esteem. Sexuality & Culture, 20(4), 1063-1082.
Fox, E. & Young, M. (1989). Religiosity, sex guilt, and sexual behavior among college students. Health Values, 13(2), 32-37.
Marcinechová, D., & Záhorcová, L. (2020). Sexual satisfaction, Sexual attitudes, and Shame in Relation to Religiosity. Sexuality & Culture, 24(6), 1913-1928.
McFarland, M. J., Uecker, J. E., & Regnerus, M. D. (2011). The role of religion in shaping sexual frequency and satisfaction: Evidence from married and unmarried older adults. Journal of Sex Research, 48(2–3), 297–308. doi:10.1080/00224491003739993.
Murray, K. M., Ciarrocchi, J. W., & Murray-Swank, N. A. (2007). Spirituality, religiosity, shame and guilt as predictors of sexual attitudes and experiences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35(3), 222-234.
Sherry, A., Adelman, A., Whilde, M. R., & Quick, D. (2010). Competing selves: Negotiating the intersection of spiritual and sexual identities. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41(2), 112.