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Religion and Sexuality
An Introduction to the Issues
from the Interfaith Working Group


Religious Diversity


Americans have many different religious beliefs about the nature of sexuality and the appropriateness of various sexual behaviors. Within any one religious tradition there are often multiple organizations addressing sexual issues, and people in those organizations have varying levels of agreement with the official teachings and practices of the larger religious organization. This publication is an attempt to summarize some of these varied beliefs without regard to the official positions of any of the religious traditions in question. We will use the phrase "sexual behavior" without actually defining it, because how sexual behavior is defined is one of the many differences of opinion with which people of faith are grappling.

Gender

Gender is currently one of the most divisive sexual topics in American religion. Most religious traditions in the US officially teach that gender is an integral part of human sexuality, but there are those traditions that do not promote this belief. Numerous religious institutions are currently in a state of flux over issues of gender and sexuality. Some are addressing the differences of opinion by engaging in the study of or debating questions of gender identity and sexual orientation. Many religious groups have what seem to be inconsistent or contradictory teachings and policies.

Nature and Purpose of Sexuality

While there are traditions with no official platform on the nature or purpose of sexuality, sexuality is considered by most religious traditions to represent one or more of the following: a general temptation, a general gift, a means of procreation, a way to strengthen emotional bonds between people in officially-blessed or recognized relationships, or a means to strengthen a bond between two adults. The temptation is sometimes considered an acceptable one when limited to certain relationships and or in certain forms; some view sexuality as a gift that can be misused, and some only consider it to be a gift when used for a specific purpose, but otherwise a temptation.

Is Sex Spiritual or Physical?

In some religious traditions, sexual behavior is regarded as primarily spiritual. In others it is treated as primarily physical. Some hold that sexual behavior is only spiritual (and can even be considered sacred) within certain kinds of relationships, when used for specific purposes (such as procreation), or when incorporated into religious ritual. In some traditions there is no distinction between physical and spiritual. Some traditions teach that there is a spiritual-physical or mind-body dichotomy, and that one of the purposes of sexual behavior is to bridge this gap.

Individual Sexual Behavior

Religious views on sexual behavior without a partner vary widely, and include out-right bans, discouragement, neutrality, or encouragement.

Restrictions on Sexual Partners

Restrictions religious institutions have put on sexual partners include: proscribing all sexual behavior; limiting sexual behavior to relationships blessed by the religious institution; suggesting strongly that sexual behavior be limited to partners in a loving, committed relationship; and/or teaching that sexual relationships are complicated and should only be entered into with extreme caution. Some traditions do not consider sexuality to be a specific category of human behavior, but expect people to regard sexuality using the same ethical or moral guidelines as for other behavior. A small number actively encourage sexual behavior without restriction.

Some religious organizations place different restrictions on people depending on their official roles within the organization, possibly (for example) requiring celibacy for clergy, or withholding ordination to anyone who engages in sexual behavior outside of mixed-gender marriage, while simultaneously saying that members' sexuality is a matter of conscience. Some organizations require their members to adhere to a strict code of sexual behavior. Most religious institutions require that those in official roles not engage in abusive, manipulative or sexually-harassing behavior with members of their congregation or with colleagues.

Form and Content of Sexual Behavior

Most religious organizations in the US do not have official teachings on the form or content of acceptable sexual behavior. There are some religious organizations that insist that sexual behavior be at least potentially procreative. A small number of religious traditions are very explicit in detailing specific sexual behaviors and their purposes, and there are religious traditions that have official sexual rituals.

Official Blessings of Sexual Relationships

Most religious organizations in the United States limit official blessings to couples.

Some organizations will only bless mixed-gender relationships, some have separate ceremonies for mixed-gender and same-gender couples, and some treat mixed- and same-gender relationships equally. Individual congregations and clergy, in protest of gender inequality in their parent organizations' policies or in protest of government policies, have been known to refuse to bless any relationships at all until policies are equal for all couples. For more information see Religious Support for Equal Marriage Rights.

Some organizations that bless multi-partner relationships may limit the number by gender (e.g. one man and multiple women) and assume that all sexual behavior is between individuals of different genders. Others have no such restrictions.

Other restrictions on the partners in an officially-blessed relationship can include the official membership of one or more parties in the organization, the eligibility of each individual based upon the status of other previously-blessed or legally-recognized relationships, and/or the perceived compatibility of the individuals (counseling may be required to ascertain this). Some religious institutions will not bless relationships that do not conform to that state's requirements for marriage.

While most religious institutions in the US tend to assume a sexual relationship between people in an officially blessed relationship, not all organizations make this assumption. Some do not define blessed relationships as having a sexual component, and some do not assume that sexual behavior is limited to or by official blessing.

Sexuality, Religion and the Law

While most religious organizations are content to use their own policies to encourage or enforce sexual behavior among their officers, employees and members, some have attempted to mold civil law to reflect their understanding of sexuality. Given the diversity of religious belief and practice with respect to sexuality, such attempts usually serve no other purpose than the advancement of a particular religion, the subsequent splintering of public opinion and communities, and the potential violation of the civil rights of those whose beliefs and practices do not align with those trying to effect change.

For more information see Religious Liberty: an introduction to the issues.

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