Sex comes in three varieties: reproductive, relationship affirming (relational), and recreational. Humans have always engaged in all three, but social and religious conservatives consider recreational sex sinful, immoral, and addictive. However, a huge majority of Americans have engaged in recreational sex—including the large majority of those who believe it’s sinful, immoral, and addictive.
Procreative: Within Marriage, Almost Universal Approval
In Genesis, God’s first commandment to human beings is to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, have sex, but only in male-female marriages. Throughout history, within marriage, almost everyone has supported procreative sex. Without it, humanity would become extinct.
Procreation resulting in lots of children made economic and cultural sense when most societies were agrarian and famine and death were constant threats. More kids meant more hands to work the fields (or forage or hunt), and each worker’s labor often produced more food than the family consumed. As a result, large families were likely to produce surplus food that could be exchanged to meet their other needs.
Relational: Within Marriage, Almost Universal Approval
Then came the Industrial Revolution, which brought factory work and urbanization. Initially, kids were sent into factories, most of which were hellholes for children—just read Dickens. Eventually, most industrializing countries enacted laws against child labor. Kids became less of an economic asset. They had to be supported, but didn’t work, and child care usually required one family member to work less than full time or not at all.
As a result, long before reliable birth control, family size declined. Couples who’d completed their families limited pregnancies using abstinence, withdrawal, abortifacient herbs (rue, pennyroyal and others), primitive contraceptives (half lemons with pulp removed as diaphragms), or non-intercourse lovemaking (hand jobs, fingering, oral sex, and for some, anal play).
As family size decreased, religious thinking evolved. Clergy continued to preach that reproduction remained God’s favorite reason for the bedroom tango, but as farming yielded to wage labor, theologians decided the Almighty also approved of relational sex to cement marriages, which kept spouses together to support the kids (and the Church).
Recreational: Controversial for Millennia
Meanwhile, Western culture has always included an undercurrent of recreational carnality: masturbation, sex work, consensual non-monogamy, group sex, same-gender couplings, and for the past several centuries, BDSM. Civil and religious authorities often tolerated recreational play as long as it remained out of sight. When it became too visible, both civil and religious authorities feared that “perversion” threatened the social order, and repressed it with fines, imprisonment, and sometimes executions.
When Alfred Kinsey published the first scientific studies of American sexuality (of men in 1948, and of women in 1953), he revealed that the large majority of Americans engaged in recreational sex, with many playing that way routinely. This shattered all illusions that Americans jiggled genitals only for God’s approved reasons. Kinsey and the parade of researchers after him found that the single most widely enjoyed type of sex is recreational—masturbation—with other recreational play fairly prevalent.
Today, recreational sex is everywhere. It’s hard to imagine literature, movies, TV, celebrity gossip, popular song lyrics, or Tinder without it. So many clergy have become embroiled in sex scandals that the pedophile priest has become a cliché. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists continue to insist that sex for fun is sinful, while cultural conservatives call it “sex addiction.”
Many people raised as religious or social conservatives feel distressed about recreational organ grinding. This group comprises an estimated 35-45 percent of Americans. They grow up hearing they should “save themselves” until marriage. But only 5 percent of Americans are virgins when they wed, which means that for most religious and social conservatives, religious and moral convictions usually yield to lust. These same folks also come of age hearing that self-sexing is a ticket to hell. But solo sex is the most popular form of lovemaking on Earth. Almost everyone strokes—many regularly, some daily or more—with many men and some women using pornography as a visual aid.
Recreational sex often provokes psychological distress—believing it’s wrong but still indulging. Sexually conflicted men often marry women who come from comparable backgrounds and feel similarly distressed about sex. When these women discover their men stroking to porn, some flip out: Sex addict!
The sex-addiction industry insists that sexual feelings and porn viewing often cause profound anxiety, guilt, and shame. When those steeped in sexual conservatism play for fun, including self-sexing, many feel deeply distressed. But their anxiety, guilt, and shame stem not from sex or porn, per se, but rather from the relentless condemnation of recreational sex by the authority figures they grew up listening to. Most studies show that the best predictor of “sex addiction” is neither sexual frequency nor the type of sex people engage in, but rather a fundamentalist upbringing that demonizes recreational sex:
- Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, compared 132 men who’d sought treatment for “porn addiction” with 569 matched controls. There was only one difference between them: The men distressed about porn were significantly more religious.
- University of Oklahoma investigators asked parents (771 men, 904 women) how they felt about porn. Those most likely to revile it held the most fundamentalist religious views—and reported the greatest anxiety, guilt, and shame about recreational sex.
- University of Texas researchers surveyed 1,913 Swedes about Internet porn. The top predictor of distress: regular church attendance.
- Baylor University investigators surveyed 2,580 adults. Those who felt the most addicted to porn were the most religious.
- Case Western Reserve scientists asked 2,279 adults about their religiousness and porn viewing. As church attendance and prayer frequency increased, so did the belief that porn is “always morally wrong.” But men expressing this view still watched a good deal of porn, which triggered severe anxiety.
Those who consider sex addiction a social crisis are mistaken. Porn watching or out-of-control or “excessive” sex is rarely the problem. The real issue is the anxiety, guilt, or shame some were raised to feel about recreational sex—particularly its leading manifestation, men self-sexing to porn.
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