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Why Those Most Hostile to Sex May Enjoy It Best

The puzzle of religion and sex.

Key points

  • Religions have both negative and positive attitudes toward sex.
  • Surveys find that religious people frequently enjoy sex more than secular ones do.
  • The group that shows the highest levels of sexual satisfaction is that of unmarried couples living apart.

"Give me chastity and continence, but not yet." —Saint Augustine

Religious attitudes to sex outside of marriage, and as an end in itself, are often hostile.

However, studies indicate that religious rather than secular people enjoy sex most. How does this make sense?

Religion and sex

“Religion does not stop adolescents from having sex; it only makes them feel bad about the sex they do have.” —Darrel Ray

The connection between religion and sex is intriguing, both because of their centrality in our lives and because religious attitudes are commonly hostile toward sexual pleasure. According to many religions, love is considered one of the most meaningful and sublime human expressions. Though central to romantic love, sex is conversely often seen to involve vulgar and humiliating activities that degrade the partner into a commodity. Accordingly, religiosity often adopts a negative attitude toward sex for its own sake (for instance, casual sex), limiting the value of sex to a specific purpose, such as marriage and reproduction.

But where does this dismissal of sex for its own sake come from? In given limited circumstances, could sex, for the sake of sex, be viewed favorably by religious institutions? There are differences within various religions concerning this question, though two attitudes are common: (a) God created everything to be very good, and this includes sexuality; (b) sexuality is negative in many extreme circumstances. Hence, chastity and continence, which are the virtues that moderate the sexual appetite and enhance self-control, are highly recommended, while promiscuity is highly condemned.

These assumptions are expressed in the Catholic Church’s claims that sexual intercourse has two major positive purposes: unitive and procreative. Great value is given to chastity, and priests and nuns commit themselves to a life of celibacy. In the Jewish tradition, sexual satisfaction is limited to the purpose for which it was created: sex within marriage. Hence, while sexual promiscuity is vehemently forbidden, sex for its own sake is not forbidden since it enhances marriage. Accordingly, the Jewish religion includes the commandment that obligates husbands to have sex with their wives, even when there is no hope of reproduction.

Empirical findings

How do the discussed religious attitudes toward sex influence sexual satisfaction among religious people?

The 2019 World Family Map suggests that religious “dosage” (the level of a couple’s religious involvement) can play a role in reported sexual satisfaction. Thus, women and men in highly religious relationships (couples who pray together, read scripture at home, attend church, etc.) were twice (in the case of women) and four times (in the case of men) as likely as their secular peers to report being sexually satisfied.

In a recent study, Nitzan Peri-Rotem and Vegard Skirbekk (2022) found that religiosity is linked with overall higher levels of sexual satisfaction. Religious individuals are more likely to view sexual intimacy within marriage as having divine properties, and this is likely to enhance both the frequency and quality of sex among religious married couples. Religious couples who perceive their marriage as sacred are more likely to hold attitudes and invest in practices that enhance the quality of their relationships. These include greater commitment, choosing behaviors that maintain the relationship (e.g., expressions of kindness, love, and affection), and investing in time spent together, which in turn contributes to marital sexual satisfaction.

Hence, the relationship between the frequency of sex and sexual satisfaction is neither simple nor straightforward. Too little or too much sex has been associated with lower sexual satisfaction, suggesting that an optimum frequency exists in relation to higher satisfaction levels. In this sense, people are typically more interested in the quality rather than the quantity of sex (Peri-Rotem & Skirbekk, 2022).

What about secular couples?

“A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after.” —Gloria Steinem

The issue of sexual satisfaction is more complex among secular couples, most of whom accept the value of casual sex and other forms of sex outside marriage. Nevertheless, the increased meaningfulness that religious lovers give to sexual activities within their relationship, a major reason for sexual satisfaction, can be expressed in secular couples as well.

Elyakim Kislev (2020) found that in the general population, marriage is not necessarily beneficial for sexual satisfaction. In fact, married couples score relatively low in this regard. In contrast, unmarried couples living apart generally showed the highest levels of sexual satisfaction. Hence, it is not marriage that is beneficial to sexual satisfaction as opposed to having a partner. The decreasing value of marriage in the secular population explains the reasons for low sexual satisfaction. Kislev further argues that studies of long-term and serious relationships show women attest to experiencing a higher level of sexual satisfaction, rather than men. This shows that women give greater value to long-term relationships than men.

The importance of the lovers’ attitude toward sexual activities can be seen in the role of intimacy in sexual satisfaction. I have argued that being good in bed necessitates two central qualities: knowledge-based technique and emotion-based intimacy. Knowledge-based technique refers to physical factors, such as when, how, and where to touch your partner, as well as mental factors, such as when, how, and what to say to your partner. Emotion-based intimacy is more complex and includes deep closeness associated with feelings of mutual belonging.

Lack of intimacy is often associated with low sexual satisfaction. Intimate sex does not merely involve penetration; it also entails a positive connection between partners (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

Concluding remarks

“Sex without love is merely healthy exercise.” —Robert A. Heinlein

It seems that those who pray together do not merely stay together but also enjoy greater sexual satisfaction. This is due, among other things, to the great value meaningfulness has on romantic love and sexual satisfaction. The value of sexuality does not mainly depend on the activity itself but rather on the meaningful attitudes associated with this activity. Everyday events are more meaningful for religious people, who perceive them as expressing God’s will and intention. The belief that God commands sex to take place within marriage makes such sex more meaningful and, hence, more intense and profound. This, of course, does not mean that secular people cannot be highly satisfied with their sexual relationships, but they should share other sources of meaning, such as great intimacy, associated with sexuality.


Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Kislev, E. (2020). Does Marriage Really Improve Sexual Satisfaction? The Journal of Sex Research, 57, 470-481.

Peri-Rotem, N., & Skirbekk, V. (2022). Religiosity, sex frequency, and sexual satisfaction in Britain. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-23.

2019 World Family Map. Institute for Family Studies and Wheatley Institution.…

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