On the surface, major religions discourage primal impulses (1). They speak out against violence— and unbridled sexuality. Despite prohibiting homicides, religious societies can be quite violent and warlike. Are they any better at controlling sexual impulses?

No one questions the religious emphasis on controlling sexual impulses. Whether it involves sexual modesty in dress, hostility to extramarital sexuality, or opposition to homosexuality, religious people accept many restrictions on free expression of sexual impulses. The question is whether such restrictions are effective.

Why might religious restrictions on sexual behavior prove ineffective? One problem is that humans are not entirely rational creatures. If an devout person wants to eliminate all sexual thoughts as potentially sinful, this is much easier said than done.

The basic problem is familiar to research psychologists. Tell someone not to think about a white bear and they cannot do it (the white bear effect, 2). The image of a white bear haunts their consciousness.

Really cracking down on sexual thoughts is remarkably tough and can have the opposite effect of feeding sexual obsessions (3). Constantly on their guard against the perceived danger of sexual thoughts, early Christian monks believed they were possessed by evil spirits—their own variant of the white bear effect.

Research on sexuality and religion

Researchers have assembled evidence that modern religious folk have plenty of trouble in restraining sexual impulses. Findings are generally very different from what would be expected if religious people were true to their “family values” precepts.

One controversial early study of casual sex in public restrooms found that the typical participant was married and religious (4).

Residents of highly religious states also spent more on cyber porn than less religious states (5). The connection between religion and pornography was no fluke. Indeed, agreement with various religiously conservative positions was predictive of pornography use. States that banned gay marriage had 11 percent more porn subscribers. The level of agreement in a state with the statement that “Even today miracles are performed by the power of God” was also associated with higher pornography consumption. States claiming to have old-fashioned values about family and marriage purchased substantially more adult-content subscriptions.

The greater sexual interest of religious people is not just a matter of pornographic fantasy or casual sex. It turns out that teenage women are much more likely to have unwanted pregnancies if they live in more religious states (even with state poverty statistically controlled, 6). This is a complex phenomenon, however. Inadequate sex education and lower use of contraception are plausible underlying reasons for the higher teen pregnancies in more religious states.

Public scandals

So the research evidence suggests that, contrary to their principles, religious people are unusually bad at restraining their sexual impulses. They are more impulsive, suggesting a hotter sex life. Perhaps those who seek to repress their sexual impulses, spend more time thinking about sex. Hence the fascination with pornography.

Whatever the underlying psychology, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that religious and political leaders who emphasize family values in their public pronouncements behave very differently in private. Examples of prominent conservative politicians and public figures whose lofty statement of values in sexual matters was cruelly undercut by their own actions include: Larry Craig; Newt Gingrich; Mark Foley, Jimmy Swaggart; Bob Livingston, Henry Hyde, Ted Haggard, and Bob Packwood, among scores of less recognizable names. (Of course liberal leaders have their share of scandals also). A darker side of such hypocrisy is represented by the activities of serial child rapists amongst the clergy.

Contrary to what might be expected from their statements on family values, religious people are vulnerable to highly impulsive sexual behavior.

Perhaps religious people are poorly equipped to deal with the reality of their own sexuality. Or maybe their attempts at banishing sexual thoughts call in the white bear.

1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/

2. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.

3. Barber, N. (2012, June 9). The sexual obsession. Blog post: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201206/the-sexual-ob...

4. Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Chicago: Aldine.

5. Edelman, B. (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209-220.

.6. Strayhorn, J. M., and Strayhorn, J. C. (2009). Religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States. Reproductive Health, 6, 14-19.

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