Is sex sinful? Growing up in a conservative Christian home, I sure thought so.
Sex was one of those “taboo” topics that no one talked about. Sure, when I entered puberty, a book mysteriously appeared on the family bookshelf: Everything Your Teen Needs to Know About Sex — but I was too shy to read it. For all I could tell from my family’s silence, I was harvested from the cabbage patch.
No one in church talked about sex.
No one in our Christian high school talked about sex.
I can only remember one time that my Dad made an attempt at sex ed. I must have been only 10 or 12. I was hanging out with him at his evening job in a mechanical shop where he assembled rubber-encased copper line sets for the air conditioning systems on yachts.
I would help him by rolling out the long copper tubing into the assembly track. While he cut it to the appropriate length, I would hand him the end fixtures.
I learned that some fixtures were “male,” and some were “female.”
“Why are they called that?” I asked.
Dad looked vaguely uncomfortable. He took the pipe fittings in his hand and demonstrated how the elongated male fixture screwed into the round, open female fixture.
“It’s like, well, uh, one goes inside the other,” he explained. “Do you get it?”
Suddenly I felt terribly interested in getting back to work. I was ashamed for asking. Over the next years, as I studied in Christian schools and went on to Christian college, I never received a single formal class in sex education or the Biblical principles of sex.
Only a vague demonstration in a mechanical shop with nuts and bolts.
Obviously, these avoidance measures led to feelings of anxiety about sex. This was what my family and church had modeled to me. Any time I even saw the word “sex” written somewhere, I felt polluted and dirty.
How does this happen? Why do Christians develop the idea that sex is taboo?
In this article, I’m going to share with you 4 causes for the idea that sex is sinful, bad, or immoral. We will discuss:
- Not talking about sex
- Overemphasizing the evils of sex-gone-wrong
- Sexual abuse by a religious leader
- Anxiety from religious OCD
Is Sex Sinful? Christianity’s Null Curriculum
In the field of education, teachers learn how to put together a curriculum. This is the blueprint of everything they plan to teach during the school year or semester.
And everything we learn growing up in the Christian church comes to us through a curriculum, too.
Only, not all aspects of the curriculum are planned. Some things are taught on purpose, and other things are taught by accident.
There are three types of curriculums:
- The Overt Curriculum: this is what pastors plan to teach in his sermons and what Christian authors plan to teach you in their books.
- The Hidden Curriculum: this is content that is not “taught” but “caught;” all the things you absorb simply by being in a Christian environment. Churchy lingo, unwritten dress codes, how to respond (or not) during the sermon, etc.
- The Null Curriculum: this is content that is not taught, sending the message that this information is not important, not relevant, or not appropriate to believer’s lives.
In many cases, sexuality forms part of Christianity’s null curriculum. It is something that is often avoided in religious discussions.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some faith communities are very intentional about discussing Biblical sexuality and teaching their young members to apply Biblical principles in their romantic pursuits.
But if you are a Christian but find yourself wondering, “is sex sinful,” you may be suffering the effects the null curriculum.
- Did I grow up in a home and/or church where any mention of sexuality was avoided?
- Did adults in my life suppress healthy displays of affection for each other in my presence (touching, holding hands, kissing, cuddling)?
- Were Biblical references to sexuality, such as the Song of Solomon, explained to me in an allegorical way?
- Did I receive blank looks or uncomfortable excuses when I asked questions about sex?
- Was I provided with classes, books, or other explanations about healthy sexuality, or was it assumed that I would learn on my own?
If you’ve experienced these kinds of avoidant behaviors about sexuality, then there’s a good chance that you might develop the idea that sex is sinful.
(Spoiler alert: when done right, it’s not.)
But there are at least three other reasons you may get anxiety about sex being sinful. Let’s take a look at another one.
Is Sex Sinful? Overemphasizing the Evils of Sex-Gone-Wrong
It’s possible to so overemphasize the evils of sex-gone-wrong that the whole issue becomes shaded in embarrassment and disgust.
People have gone to great lengths to decry the evils of our sexually liberated society.
They write books stating that marital sex is only appropriate if you’re doing it to make babies and books introducing intensely regulated forms of dating (ahem — I meant to say “courting”) in order to avoid any form of impurity.
They denounce hidden sexual innuendos in advertising campaigns and even children’s TV shows.
This overemphasis on the evils of sexual impurity led to the rise of what has been called “Purity Culture,” which Rachel Welcher critiques because of “its idolization of virginity, its mixed messages about modesty and lust, and its promise of a healthy marriage and great sex for those who follow the rules.”
Purity Culture (which was in its heyday during my teen and young adult years) not only emphasized the evils of sexuality outside of marriage but also condemned emotional romantic attachments.
Traditional dating was said to “give away pieces of your heart” which would render you permanently incomplete for your future spouse. “Good Christians” were to strive not only for physical virginity but also for “love virginity,” never falling in love with anyone except that one single person they would eventually marry.
Needless to say, Purity Culture has had its critiques.
The patriarch of the movement, Joshua Harris (author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) reevaluated the views he promoted after receiving overwhelming evidence that it caused harm to many devotees. (His public apology can be found here).
Overemphasizing the pain and problems that come from licentious living can cause you to develop a mindset that fears sexuality and views it as sin — even within its proper context. If you are anxiously wondering “is sex sinful,” as yourself the following:
- Did I grow up in a home where chastity, virginity, and emotional purity were frequently discussed?
- Did I commonly hear sermons, or was I commonly provided with books on the topic of sexual purity?
- Did I grow up in an environment where unmarried mothers, cohabiting couples, and non-heterosexual people were judged, ostracized, or avoided?
- Did I have friends or family members who told sexual victimization stories to encourage others to strive for purity?
- Did my Christian school or Christian parents have a no-dating policy?
- Did my family commonly shame me for wearing clothes that might cause “lust,” even though I felt I was dressing far more modestly than most people?
- Did my family commonly shame me for harmless or unintentional sexual acts, such as masturbating as a toddler or having nocturnal emissions?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, it’s possible that the overemphasis on sexual purity has led to anxiety about if sex is sinful.
Sex isn’t sinful. It’s a beautiful gift from God, but Satan has done a lot to push us to extremes.
But there are at least two other reasons why you may feel that sex is sinful. Let’s look at the next one.
Is Sex Sinful? Sexual Abuse by a Religious Leader
One of the most tragic and devastating crimes that can happen in a church is sexual abuse.
But it happens. A lot.
Statistics suggest an average of 4% of clergy sexually abused children during the last half of the twentieth century. Dr. Thomas Plante argues that although this statistic is horrific, it is still lower than other workers who have consistent access to children (schoolteachers and coaches abuse kids at a rate of 5 – 7%).
But sexual abuse by clergy is particularly damaging, because it constitutes a physical, mental and spiritual derailing.
Pastors, priests, Christian camp counselors, Bible teachers, Sunday school leaders, even church bus drivers — these are people that little minds associate with God.
They are workers for God.
Representatives of Him.
To be sexually molested by church workers of any kind creates severe damage in our understanding of who God is and what sex means.
This can easily lead to the conclusion that sex is sinful.
One isolated incident in the Sunday school classroom or choir loft can leave you with sexual shame for the rest of your life. It can disrupt healthy sexuality in your marriage. It can leave you confused about how to understand the morality of your natural bodily functions.
Even as an adult, it is possible to be sexually abused by clergy. Due to the power differential between religious leaders and their congregants, it is not possible for there to be sexual consent in the same way that is possible in a relationship with equal power dynamics. The power and authority of religious leaders has a tendency to break down inhibitions and boundaries that keep us safe from inappropriate advances.
In the book Song of Solomon, the Bible celebrates the beauty of human sexual love. The characters in this love ballad — the shepherd girl and her lover — display a certain equality.
It is not merely the man expressing his intents and desires with the woman submitting silently.
The woman voices her feelings, too. She declares her lovesickness and passion and delight. They are equals in their decision-making and equals in their love.
This kind of sexual power equality is not possible when a religious leader engages sexually with one of his congregants.
If you have a chronic feeling that sex is sinful, ask yourself the following:
- Was I ever touched, fondled, petted, or undressed by someone I looked up to as a spiritual leader?
- Was I ever raped or molested by someone on church grounds or someone with spiritual authority?
- Did someone I viewed as a spiritual leader ever make me touch him/her in a way that made me uncomfortable?
- Did someone I viewed as a spiritual leader ever show me nude pictures, describe sexual activities, or tell me about a sexual act he/she would like to perform with me?
- As an adult, has a clergy member used power or manipulation to receive sexual favors from me?
- Do I have memories of a sexual encounter with a spiritual leader that is shrouded in confusion about whether or not I consented?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, it’s highly likely that your unwanted sexual experiences have contributed to these feelings that sex is sinful.
We’ve looked at three reasons why you may experience aversion to sex. Let’s look at one more possibility.
Is Sex Sinful? Sexual Anxiety from Religious OCD
I was recently talking to a new acquaintance and I mentioned that I blog about scrupulosity — that is, religious OCD.
He was quiet for a moment, then said, “I didn’t know that was… a thing.”
Yep, it’s a “thing.”
Anywhere from 5 – 33% of people with OCD have religious obsessions and compulsions. This statistic is higher in fundamentalist countries, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia reporting up to 60% of OCD cases involving religious anxiety.
Typically, scrupulosity causes intense, repetitive, and intrusive anxiety about activities that “might” be wrong.
- Is it bad to clock in two minutes late to work if I also clock out two minutes late when I leave?
- Is it sinful to eat glazed donuts?
- Will I go to hell for painting my nails?
- Is it possible to lose my salvation if I feel convicted to make a public prayer and I don’t do it?
- Is it sinful to get an erection, to enjoy sex, or to feel desirous thoughts for my spouse?
Sex, as a general topic, has long been shrouded in doctrinal confusion. In the early centuries of Christianity, many monks dedicated themselves to a life of celibacy and asceticism. This form of desert monasticism was seen as the most foolproof way of gaining God’s favor.
But not all theological giants of the past had an easy time with the “celibacy” part.
Saint Augustine, that great fountainhead of Christian theology, struggled immensely against his sex drive. It is largely from him that negative Christian attitudes about sex became part of the church’s hidden curriculum.
In his writings, Augustine spoke of sexual desire as mud, a whirlpool, chains, thorns, a seething cauldron, and an open sore that must be scratched.
Augustine had some pretty odd ideas about sex. He believed that Mary and Joseph had a sexless marriage, that orgasm is problematic because one cannot be in a state of prayer at the same time, and that Adam and Eve were not sexually active until after the fall because sex can only take place when one loses control of his/her will.
We aren’t talking about a cult leader or a theologian in a corner, folks. Augustine’s writings form some of the bedrock of Christian theology.
Purity, chastity, celibacy…these are considered holy.
Sensuality, pleasure, lust…even within marriage, are they ok?
We aren’t always sure.
The scrupulous person will take these uncertainties and struggle with them intensely. He or she may engage in voluntary celibacy or have spiritual anxiety about being sexually active. They will continue to experience doubt and fear despite recognizing that sex, within its Biblical boundaries, is appropriate.
Or, like this man who blogs openly about his struggles with scrupulosity, they may feel convinced that God has called them to a life “of celibacy and agonizing loneliness.”
See, that’s the thing with religious OCD. It injects repetitive, cyclical doubts about questions you’ve answered a million times.
Ask yourself the following:
- Do I cognitively believe that sex is a biblical gift from God yet continue to feel spiritually repulsed by it?
- Do I get repetitive, unwanted thoughts that my sexual drive is evil?
- Do my partner’s sexual advances trigger feelings that my salvation, moral purity, or relationship with God are in danger?
- Do bodily fluids related to sex make me feel morally contaminated?
- Do I get unwanted, intrusive thoughts or images of inappropriate sexual encounters with God, Jesus, Mary, animals, or strangers, which cause me intense anxiety and fear?
- Do I experience irrational, repetitive fears that God will punish me for my sins in some sexual way?
These kinds of repeated thoughts can be signs of religious OCD.
OCD is not an adjective. It is a serious mental health disorder that affects about 2% of the world’s population. And sometimes, it hijacks our faith, causing us to see sin in places where there is no sin.
If you’ve never heard of scrupulosity before but answered “yes” to some of these questions, I would recommend that you take a free scrupulosity quiz to probe further into this possibility.
How to Stop Viewing Sex as Moral Contamination
Change takes time.
Although a thorough study on Biblical sexuality can convince you — cognitively — of the rightness of sex, your feelings may take time to catch up.
You’ve been building neural networks for years that support your current ideas. Those networks are infinitely changeable, but bending them will take time and consistent effort.
And in many cases where there is a deeply entrenched sense that sex is sinful, the causal factors may have been deeply traumatic.
Nevertheless, your brain is one of the most malleable substances in the universe. It has powers to adapt almost infinitely.
You just need to retrain it.
This retraining will look different depending on which mindset you believe has done the most to contribute to your sense of sex-as-moral-contamination:
- Not talking about sex
- Overemphasizing the evils of sex-gone-wrong
- Sexual abuse by a religious leader
- Anxiety from religious OCD
If you feel that sex is sinful because it was always a taboo topic, the way to change is to start talking. Start researching. Read books about Biblical sexuality. Study your Bible. Don’t be boxed in anymore.
If you feel that sex is sinful because you grew up as a victim of Purity Culture, the answer is to recognize that this was a fundamentalist pendulum swing against the sexual liberation in the mid-twentieth century. It was more reactive than it was Biblical. It made some really good points — but it overstepped its Biblical boundaries. And as you study more about this, resist the urge to swing back to the other extreme. Find the Biblical balance and stay there.
If you feel that sex is sinful because of abuse suffered at the hands of a religious leader (or any person, for that matter), get professional care from a therapist who understands power differential abuses. If you’re worried that you may have consented to the act, read this informed consent parody form. It darkly highlights the reality that there can be no such thing as “consent” between powerful figures like therapists/clergy with the people they claim to serve.
If you feel that your patterns of fear and aversion to sex are somehow related to religious OCD, the way to change is actually to not resist the thoughts but rather ignore them. Obsessive-compulsive disorder thrives off attention and will continue presenting more “what if” doubts to fuel the OCD engine. Getting professional help from an OCD specialist or coach can go a long way to helping you recover from the feeling that sex is sinful.
(Find out if we are a good fit to work together on your scrupulosity!)
For a Christian to feel that sex is sinful is not a good thing.
First of all, because it’s not true.
Second of all, because it shows contempt for God’s creation.
Third of all, because it can damage relationships.
And fourth of all, because it makes you miss out on the gifts that God intends to give His children.
Rooting down to the cause of your uncomfortable feelings about sex can be the first step to moving beyond them. If you’re experiencing any of these 4 causal factors, you’re probably missing out on some of the most beautiful aspects of God-given human relationships and love.
But you can change that through His power and grace.
How about you? What has been your experience with feeling like sex is sinful? How did you realize the cause behind it, and how were you able to move on?
Best wishes on your journey!