Social scientists often talk about the effects of religion on sexual behavior as though the dogmas of a church were automatically practiced. Evangelicals are the largest religious grouping in America and they are extremely anti-sexual. What about their conduct?

Reining in sexuality: What could possibly go wrong?!

Telling people that they must be sexually abstinent is rather like insisting that they go on a diet. Biology gets in the way.

The abstinence project was undertaken by fourth-century Christian monks in the Egyptian desert. Even there, the experiment did not go well. Many monks succumbed to the temptation of homosexuality and got expelled from the monastic community. This problem manifested itself among female monks as well as males (1).

Some male monks hallucinated sexually attractive women. This phenomenon was interpreted as a demonic trick devised to bring about their spiritual ruin. Interestingly, this is the first time in Christian theology that Satan was depicted as taking a female form (1).

When tempted in this way, monks were told that if they recognized the temptress was really a demon, evil would be defeated (1). Yet, this convention of devotional writing whereby saints always triumphed over sex may be overly optimistic.

Just as hungry people are haunted by visions of delicious food, those who are sexually deprived may be haunted by sexual obsessions so persistent that some ascetics thought of them as a form of spirit possession.

In an earlier post, I pointed out that there is a White Elephant Effect whereby it is impossible to not think about something, whether it is an elephant or a sexually attractive person.

Thanks to the White Elephant Effect, people who try to repress their sexual thoughts for religious reasons are singularly unsuccessful, prompting all manner of impulsive sexual conduct. This phenomenon may be illustrated by the higher consumption of pornography amongst religious conservatives (2). More religious states also have far higher rates of teen childbearing (3).

Then there is the long string of sexual scandals involving politicians like Larry Craig who support a “family values” platform and reject extramarital sexuality. They include: Newt Gingrich; Mark Foley, Jimmy Swaggart; Bob Livingston, Henry Hyde, Ted Haggard, and Bob Packwood, among scores of less recognizable names.

Sexual problems of evangelicals

That brings us to the sexual problems of young evangelicals. This group promotes premarital abstinence and opposes contraception. During a period when the sexual debut gets earlier and marriage gets delayed, this is a tall order. In practice, evangelicals are sexually active from an early age.

Among unmarried young adults (ages 18-29) 80 percent of evangelicals say that they have had sex compared to 88 percent in the rest of the population (4). They are unlikely to use contraception and almost a third of unmarried young evangelical women become pregnant (30 percent) and about 30 percent of these have an abortion.

What is most striking about these data is that evangelicals as a group differ very little in their sexual behavior from the rest of the population despite the fact that their religion is so hostile to premarital sexuality. The reason, of course, is that they interact with other young Americans.

Commanding young Americans to be sexually abstinent is a bit like King Canute commanding the tide to go out. The evangelical community recognize the problem and are quietly reconsidering their opposition to contraception seeing it as preferable to abortion. Sanity may finally have surfaced.

1. Brakke, D. (2006). Demons and the making of the monk: Spiritual combat in early Christianity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

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

4. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (2009). Special tabulations of the national survey of reproductive and contraceptive knowledge. Accesed at:

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