The damaging effects of shame-based sexual education

Sarah* and her husband both always believed that God was not ok with premarital sex. They grew up in the "purity culture" and believed that sexual pleasure would naturally be a part of a godly marriage if they waited. Sarah believed anything more than kissing would make her a slut. She had never even heard of masturbation until college, and even then, it took her 5 years to achieve orgasm on her own. She is now in her 30's, and to this day, has never had an orgasm by anyone other than herself.

Lucy* was the ideal Christian. For most of her adolescent and adult life, she suppressed most of her sexual urges. No dating. No fantasizing. No touching. She was pretty much asexual and clueless. Then she fell in love. She and the young man fully intended to marry and they did the things that most young lovebirds do - held hands, put their arms around each other. But Lucy felt arousal and with the arousal came guilt. She either had to stop what was causing the feelings or shut down. She has needed ongoing therapy to get over the shame and guilt associated with arousal and it is clear to hear that had she married that young man, they would have had a completely dysfunctional sex life. She did everything she was told, she followed the rules and now has faced years of sexual dysfunction born out of deep rooted shame, fear and guilt.

Sam* grew up hearing about the dangers of pornography and masturbation. If boys look at naked pictures of women or see videos of people having sex, they will obviously masturbate and then they will never again be able to have a normal sex life. He also was warned about lust. A lustful thought is any thought about a woman's body or any sexual thought about any woman other than your wife and if you think about other women while masturbating, you're committing multiple sins. These messages so crippled him that every time he would get a tingle of arousal after glancing at a woman, he would berate himself and ask God for forgiveness. The built up guilt and shame followed him into marriage. He still looked at porn and masturbated, and he still got turned on by other women, but he was constantly ashamed. This shame created a growing rift between him and his wife. He experienced sexual dysfunction but was unable to talk about it for lack of a working vocabulary. He is now free from the foundational religious beliefs but continues to fight against the feelings of shame that are tied to his own sexuality.

*actual stories, names changed for anonymity.

Sex, sexual orientation, gender identity: these are all very personal elements of an individual's life; yet they continue to garner a massive amount of public opinion and legislation, especially in the religious world; which, is completely mind-boggling, and fantastically entertaining.

We're not talking about outlawing bestiality or child pornography here. We as a society have come to the (completely justified) consensus that those things are wrong and should be legislated. Nope. The kinds of things religious leaders get REALLY riled up about are sexual positions between mutually consenting adults, at what point a person "should" have sex (typically, not until after marriage), what gender your sexual partner is, and the scariest one of them all *cue ominous music*...MASTURBATION! *gasp.

In fact, masturbation is apparently so heinous, conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and many other devout religious groups go so far as to create public service announcement campaigns and religious education curricula to make sure their followers' hands stay busy flipping through the Bible or clasped in fervent prayer.

Anti-masturbation campaigns are generally aimed at men, but lately, word has gotten out that women are in on the fun sin, too. Alright ladies, which one of you spilled the beans? Thanks a lot! We were doing just fine hiding under the covers, vibrators in hand, quietly pleasuring ourselves and now you went and ruined it for all of us!

Exhibit A: The Mormon powers-that-be take masturbation so seriously, they're going to war. It's a war against self-pleasure! In a video released by Brigham Young University, it's suggested that when people report their masturbating and porn-watching friends to religious authorities within the Mormon hierarchy, they are to be commended in the same way a soldier should be honored for dragging a wounded comrade off the battlefield. No joke.

Exhibit B: Have you seen the error of your ways? Have you taken the bold step to stop masturbating forever? Proclaim it to the world with this...T-shirt! The Passion for Christ Movement (P4CM) sells an "Ex-Masturbator" t-shirt to help take God's message against self-pleasure to friends and strangers everywhere. *Speechless*

Exhibit C: If God's disappointment isn't enough to motivate you to avoid masturbation, perhaps the threat of being pretty much like a gay person will. Seattle mega-church pastor, Mark Driscoll - a buff, tattooed, swearing guy who yells a lot, and frequently talks about sex - has an ebook available that claims jacking off is basically the same as "the sin of homosexuality" if a woman isn't in the room. Well then. Now you know.

Exhibit D: And then there are the Jehovah's Witnesses who released a sign language video (and yes, the sign for masturbation is as awesome as we all want it to be) warning that Jehovah is disgusted by masturbation, making it an evil act. This video was apparently worthy of an R Kelly and 50 Cent redub.

Holy Book texts discussing sex and sexual orientation, and these examples of modern religious fervor interfering in the sex lives of individuals are hilarious, unless you've gone through sexual maturation in the midst of that world. The shame and guilt permeating all things sex-related in conservative religion is horrifyingly oppressive, and often has long-lasting negative consequences even for the people who break free of religion later in life.

Aside from the myopic cisgendered heteronormative bias perpetuated in all conservative religious expressions, the pervasive problems of shame-based sexual teaching are vast.

Conservative religious expressions idolize virginity, especially in women. North American Evangelical Christian youth groups hold purity conferences and encourage teens to sign "purity pacts", swearing they will not engage in any sex acts until after marriage. Girls often get "purity rings" from their dads as visible signs that they are "married to Jesus" until their wedding night, at which point, their husbands essentially get to play the man-god figure in their lives.

Girls are told (using these exact words) that having sex before marriage makes you "damaged goods", "like drinking a cup of spit", "a used piece of chewing gum": the more it gets chewed, the worse it tastes until eventually, you have to just throw it away. Girls are also held responsible for the sexual purity of the boys around them. They are admonished repeatedly to use caution when choosing what to wear so they don't "tempt their brothers" into the sin of lust.

Boys aren't off the hook either. The focus for boys is on their "visually stimulated" arousal, and they are shamed into avoiding any thoughts about sex with a massive focus on the dangers of pornography of any kind.

It is drilled into pre-teens and teens, that they aren't allowed to be sexual beings, have sexual thoughts or do anything sexual until after they're married - at which time, they are expected to be sexual powerhouses. The women in particular are supposed to be amazing at pleasing their husbands because if they're not, their husbands will probably have an affair and it will be their fault.

A recent study found that while religious people engage in the same types of sexually-related behaviors (having sex, viewing/reading porn, masturbating) and have sex as often as nonreligious people, the deep-rooted guilt and shame present in the religious group prevents them from enjoying it as much. The more devout the the religious people were, the less happy they were with their sex lives whereas people who "lost their faith", reported a far more satisfying sex life as a nonbeliever.

Shame and guilt are not good foundations on which to build personal ethics about one's sexuality and it is becoming increasingly obvious that religious institutions are hurting young people with their teachings. Even if people aren't explicitly told they are "damaged goods" if they have sex before marriage or that masturbation is a sin or that you aren't allowed to think sexually about anyone until you're married, those messages are there in the subtext and the shame and guilt seep in.

If you were religious at some point, did you struggle with this issue? Did you feel guilty of your own natural desires? How did your early sexual education in a religious setting affect your relationships later? Reply to this email and we might publish your story on our website. Please note if you wish to remain anonymous.

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