It’s that time of year when many of us take time to reflect on our faith and get into the “holiday spirit.” I’ve recently given significant thought to how faith, religion and spirituality can impact and shape the idea of sexual liberation, and reached out to a few people of different faiths and sexual identities to get a sense of their thoughts and experiences for a broader perspective.
I grew up in “The Church.” I was in church every Sunday, went to youth fellowship on Fridays, vacation Bible school in the summer, Bible study, all of that. My maternal family has deep southern Christian roots, and if it ain’t about Jesus, it ain’t right. My mother (who identified as lesbian and was quite liberal in the way she raised me) stayed rooted in some of the spirituality in which she was raised. She was open in her discussions of sex and sexuality, and I credit her with shaping my rather fluid sexual paradigm.
My grandmother and aunt were primarily responsible for my church involvement and I was indoctrinated early into charismatic Christian traditions. With that came all of the messages against premarital sex, homosexuality, and pretty much anything that seemed to make life sexy or fun. While adults were in the sanctuary getting their praise on, teens were in the church stairwells and bathrooms getting to know each other Biblically.
Over the years, I attended different churches where many of the members were gay, yet the pastors preached damning fire-and-brimstone sermons against homosexuality (some while having extramarital affairs with single women in the congregation). The hypocrisy made me cynical, but I eventually connected with “saints” who helped me focus more on the spirituality than the dogma, on the idea of God rather than the (wo)men who speak for God or in God’s name.
My ultimate reconciliation has been that whatever created us—however the Creator is called or thought of—made us to be exactly who we are. Nowadays I encourage everyone to make informed and healthy choices when it comes to sexual behavior. This means being mindful of the impact of sexual activity on one’s spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health. If something feels like it goes against your understanding of spiritual righteousness, you’re not wrong for avoiding it.
That said, you shouldn’t automatically feel ashamed for enjoying certain sexual acts or kinks because you were taught they go against your faith’s beliefs. There are still people who believe masturbation is a sin… and, well, how can you teach someone else to “know” you if you don’t “know” yourself? Amen? Amen.
Plus, times are changing. A 2002 study found that by age 44, 95% of Americans had premarital sex. Even of those who abstained until age 20, 81% had premarital sex by age 44. Simply put, folks just aren’t waiting for marriage to have sex anymore. Does this mean people are any less faithful to their God? Not at all; I argue that it’d behoove churches to facilitate modernized discussions about sex and sexuality, if for no other reason than to encourage people to be safe and rational in their choices. Condemning people for having premarital sex alienates and shames them into “secret” behavior that most people engage in. Maybe they’re not discussing it but they’re certainly doing it, and that’s what we ought to focus on, because secrecy often leads to unsafe and unhealthy sexual practices.
Jessica*, an Black atheist in a polyamorous relationship with a married couple says, “Being an atheist further reinforces that my sexuality is mine to own, express and explore how I see fit. It further enables me to fight against the double standards and negative associations with sex that I and many other women have been raised to believe and perpetuate. Since god is man-made, so too are its biased ‘rules.’ Therefore, I’m free to question, critique and dismiss them.”
Aaliyah*, a practicing Muslim, says, “I waited forever to have sex because I was taught and believed I should remain a virgin till I got married, but I couldn’t find anyone I wanted to marry. When I first started to have sex, the guilt was overwhelming and I couldn’t talk to Muslim girlfriends about it. That’s the problem right there. I know there are Muslims who are taught that sex outside of marriage is a sin but do it anyway and have very few people to talk about it to.”
X.D.*, a Black gay male says, “I was raised COGIC [Church of God in Christ] and there is still a lot of secrecy in the church. It contributed to a lot of my dating issues, and I think it contributes to a lot of the ‘down low’ behavior. I’m ‘out,’ but it’s to a certain extent and around certain people. I can’t be fully sexually liberated, because in order to feel comfortable expressing yourself freely, you generally have to be around like-minded individuals. You can’t be a ‘freak’ all by yourself, ya know?”
There is freedom in feeling comfortable discussing one’s sexuality, preferences, kinks and tastes without the fear of being shamed and rejected. I believe there’s space to have a solid spiritual foundation and an open-minded approach to the expression of one’s sexuality. It isn’t simply black or white, and as spirituality varies by person, so does its impact on one’s sexual liberation.
It can be rather empowering for people to feel comfortable opening up about what they enjoy and prefer in a safe space with other people who can relate and won’t condemn them. Most religious texts discuss sex in positive ways, referring to it as a gift from God to be shared between people who care for each other. I’d like to see us move away from the restrictive limitations of the letter of the texts, which are (IMHO) severely outdated, and focus more on the spirit of the message: sex is pleasurable and we should enjoy having it!
*All names changed.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.