Friday, 20 May 2011

Sex and Secularism

A new report called Sex and Secularism is, inevitably, being promoted as 'Atheists have better sex!' but, also inevitably, it's a bit more complicated than that.

The report, by Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown, is based on a survey of 9500 completed questionnaires by people over 18 who had 'lost' their religion and become secular/atheists. Most of the respondents were American but the survey covered 94 countries. Nearly one in five respondents were ex-Catholics but 20 religions and denominations were represented.

The report counters the possible objection that respondents were not really properly religious in the first place and details the struggles many had before losing their religion. Getting accurate, honest information about sex is harder than running a survey on which supermarket people use and there are ethical issues around this kind of research too. The findings are based on self-reporting by a self-selected group but significantly, they are consistent with data from a wide range of other research.

One quibble though is that the authors confuse/conflate atheism with secularism.

The central finding of the research was that religious people do pretty much everything the non-religious do but they feel much guiltier about it. People who grew up in the most religious homes reported feeling guilt nearly 80% of the time compared with 26% of non-religious. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But they kept doing what they were doing anyway. Biology trumps doctrine every time.

Many religions see human nature as something bestial to be tamed, risen above or battered into submission. Sex is a necessary evil to keep the human race going but it would really be an awful lot better if we could do without it. It's not just Catholics who have a hard time squaring nature and faith according to the survey: Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostalists and Baptists have it worse while Unitarians and some Jews have a better time. One interesting little note is that people leaving New Age religions also report better sex after so tree hugging and tantric crystals aren't necessarily the path to good sex.

Despite many religions preaching the evils of masturbation, the message doesn't seem to be getting through. The Bible has the cautionary tale of Onan, damned because he shed his seed upon the ground. It doesn't have anything to say about women masturbating, perhaps because we're not wasting any eggs or perhaps because the writers of the Bible were all male and couldn't conceive of a woman having pleasure without a man. Assuming we're allowed to enjoy our bodies in the first place. Which we're not.

The survey found that 87% of the non-religious were masturbating by age 15 and 93% by age 18 (I'm rounding the percentages). Of the most religious, the figures are 83% and 90% - very little difference even though a fifth of them had been 'shamed or ridiculed' by their parents about it.

48% of the least religious had started petting by 15 and 84% by 18. For the most religious, it was 44% and 81%. (Petting is kissing, rubbing and touching - you may be old enough to remember when swimming pools had signs saying 'No running, no bombing, no petting').

Then the survey asked about oral sex - for some people a substitute for the 'real thing' to avoid pregnancy although still a potential source of STIs. For the non-religious in the same age brackets, it was 20% and 63%, for the religious 19% and 55%. What the survey doesn't say is whether boys are giving as well as receiving.

The religious start using porn a little later but their use was almost the same as the non-religious by age 25. The report found that the most religious US states and those with the most restrictive sexual legislation have the highest porn use.

The religious also fantasise nearly three times more than the non-religious and are nearly eight times more likely to feel they are doing something wrong. It's probably no surprise to many people that all these things are going on but the rates of incidence are more than might be expected. Which must make for some interesting sessions in the confession box and an awful lot of penance.

Finally, 18% and 62% of the non-religious had intercourse and 16% and 53% of the most religious. By age 21, it's 88% non-religious, 84% religious. So although they may be starting a little later, the religious are soon making up for lost time. The report also states that 95% of Americans have sex before marriage and it seems unlikely that the remaining 5% are all Baptist ministers. This of course raises the issue of hypocrisy, making very many allegedly upright religious people nothing but whited sepulchres.

One concern raised by this data is that the more secular got far better sex education than the religious. Instead of getting fact-based information, young religious people are getting far more knowledge from personal experience, porn and the internet. Sex education isn't all it could be but religion doesn't make it any easier for young people to get the facts or to explore and enjoy their sexuality safely.

The findings also reinforce existing data that abstinence teaching doesn't work; it delays first intercourse by a few months at best and increases the incidence of unprotected sex.

As a side bar: The Guttmacher Institute's survey of American women found that contraceptive use by Catholics and Evangelicals, is the widespread norm, not the exception, and only 3% of married Catholic women use natural family planning (the rhythm method) to avoid pregnancy.

So instead of teaching/forcing people to avoid any sexual activity, all that the strictest forms of religion do is breed ignorance, guilt and hypocrisy. You'd think they'd call in some marketing experts; any other corporate body that found its product was failing to reach its target market would rebrand and repackage, and find a new USP. The trouble is that sex has a much deeper market penetration than any religious message.

Back to the survey: the good news is that, after leaving their religion, guilty feelings about all things sexual decline very quickly and 60% of the formerly most religious felt every aspect of their sex lives had improved while 28% changed their sexuality. The assumption that a highly religious anti-sex upbringing will scar you for life doesn't appear to be true.

All of this is probably no consolation if you're a non-believer (or a secularist) with a lousy or non-existent sex life but at least the possibility of having much better sex is some consolation for burning in hell for all eternity.

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