The Curious Interaction of Sex and Religion 

When religion claims to have a mandate to lead based on a moral authority, it deserves special scrutiny.

The curious and sometimes sordid relationship of sex and religion continues. In mid-June, Lorene Rouse of San Leandro held a news conference outside the Catholic diocese offices in Oakland, alleging that she was abused as a young girl by a priest at Our Lady of Good Counsel church in San Leandro. Rouse alleged that she was repeatedly molested while helping to clean the church more than thirty years ago, and that the abusing priest told her that she was "a special little girl."

Such stories have become depressingly common. It is especially painful to see devoted Catholics being asked to pony up for the mounting legal and settlement costs of this bloodcurdling abuse of young girls and boys by Catholic leadership. Fortunately, the American legal system has begun to attend to some of these abuses, since the church itself has conducted a ferocious and shameful cover-up of these transgressions.

On top of this abuse, sexual pots are boiling in Catholic, Muslim, and evangelical Christian communities. In Miami, a popular Catholic priest, Father Alberto Cutie, known as the "Catholic Oprah" for his relationship advice on Telemundo and in a newspaper column, was caught cavorting on a beach with a young lady. Cutie, who had preached abstinence and was the author of a book called Real Life, Real Love, got too real with his girlfriend, now wife, and has had to leave the Catholic Church.

It may seem unfair to single out religion's convoluted relationship with sex, since one could make a similar claim to almost any area of society. The recent Argentinian escapades of the darling of the Republican right, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, is but one example of the tango of politics and sex. But when a sector like religion claims to have a mandate to lead based on a moral authority, it deserves special scrutiny.

In the Muslim world, the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan recently enacted legislation that codifies proper behavior for Shiite families in the most intimate detail. It requires women to submit to the sexual demands of their husbands unless ill or menstruating. It seems that if the wife refuses the sexual demands of her husband, the husband can starve her until she relents.

An emphasis on sex is growing in conservative Christianity as it fights for relevancy in an increasing unchurched world. But it is causing heartburn for some. Mark Driscoll, the pastor of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, has become a YouTube sensation with his sermons on sexual topics as explained by biblical passages. A recent one concerns whether it is a sin to masturbate. According to Driscoll's biblical interpretation, masturbation when done as part of a mutual sexual experience in marriage is just fine, but is problematic in other contexts. Anal sex and the use of sex toys occupy a similar status, he counsels.

One of Driscoll's most controversial sexual admonitions is his argument that the biblical Song of Solomon requires women to perform fellatio on their husbands. According to a recent story in the Baptist Press and a transcript of his sermon floating around on the Internet, Driscoll said, "Men, I am glad to report to you that oral sex is biblical. ... The wife performing oral sex on the husband is biblical. God's men said, 'Amen.' Ladies, your husbands appreciate oral sex. They do. So, serve them, love them well. It's biblical. Right here. We have a verse. 'The fruit of her husband is sweet to her taste and she delights to be beneath him.'"

In May, Driscoll was censored by Christian radio. According to the Baptist Press, Driscoll was scheduled to appear on the syndicated national radio program of the Family Life ministry, which is broadcast on several radio stations in the East Bay. Learning of his stance, the distributor cut the program off in mid-show and banned him from future broadcasts.

Driscoll also directs his flock to a web site called Christian Nymphos, which describes itself as a group of Christian women with "excessive sexual desire for our husbands." The Christian Nymphos web site, subtitled "Married Sex: Spicy, the way God intended it to be," is chock full of sexual advice. It includes a "Position Page" where you can find detailed instructions for "The Italian Chandelier" or "A Guy, a Girl, and a Poang Chair." And, of course, there is the ever religiously popular "The Praying Position." Links direct men to literature of "excellent guides for cunnilingus." They also suggest online sex games for Christian couples, and pages where you can see the positions acted out, with the actors in swimsuits.

Sex and religion have many reasons to be entangled. Both can and are often abused in ways that pit the powerful against the powerless. When you look at these examples of religion and sex, it is hard not to look at who benefits from the ability of religious leadership to couch men's "needs" in an unassailable cloak of scriptural requirements. The ones who benefit are the men in charge. For me, when women seem in charge of the sexual agenda, such as appears to be the case with the Christian Nymphos, I feel much more charitable toward it.

But sex and religion do not have to have an exploitative interaction. Both sex and religion speak to consciousness and sensuality in a deeply human way and provide humans with great joy and meaning. Each expresses a longing and desire that is irrepressible in the human psyche and can be the strongest and most wonderful affirmations of love. Both address areas that often seem not to be "rational" in our cost-benefit descriptions of the meaning of rationality, but clearly are part of our cognitive process. And both are passions that can be pursued without worry about financial matters being front and center; they are two locations that our country's money fetish has a very hard time controlling. The poor can get as much joy from their sex and religion as can the wealthy.

Finally, for those who pray, I appreciate the advice given by the authors of the book Staying Close, which is promoted on the Family Life web site. The authors counsel couples to pray aloud in the "afterglow" of the sexual experience. I cannot think of a better time to pray. Shorn of exploitation, sexuality is sacred.

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