Religions are usually uncomfortable with sex. They keep it under strict doctrinal control and often block it as a portal for transcendence. Sex may saturate our society but not just because it’s being exploited to sell products. It’s always been central to human longing, relationships; it’s a fascinating topic and along with clean air, food, water and shelter, a necessary and primordial need.
Much of our discomfort around sex goes back to Manichaeism. The Persian philosopher Mani taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology that pitted a spiritual world of light (good) against a material world of darkness (evil). Light is gradually removed from the our world and returns to the world of light from where it came thus leaving the world of humanity dominated by materialism, darkness and evil. This philosophy wildly influenced and even dominated most religions for centuries, including Christianity. The simplistic dualism between light and dark, good and evil, and spirit and flesh depicted sex as debasing the “higher” human spirit.
Though Christianity condemned Manichaeism it maintained an attachment to the underlying duality between flesh and spirit and was further developed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Sex thus became a necessary evil, fraught with occasions for sin. Its approval was only as the means to perpetuate the human species. Everything from masturbation, to contraception, to premarital and extramarital sex, to homosexuality been part of the “dark side” and therefore introduces evil and sin into society.
Today we have a greater understanding of the complexity of human sexuality. It is no longer viewed as a static given, as being born with fingers and toes. Religions are thus no longer justified in promoting simplistic explanations to limit its use in seeking spiritual transcendence. Let’s look at the four major aspects of human sexuality: biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
Most children are born either clearly male (XY) chromosomes or female (XX) and are easily identified by their external genitalia. Yet some children are born anatomically intersex. Their external and/or internal genitalia are not typically formed. No dominant biological sex is immediately evident. Often such children are assigned a sex by surgeons. Complicating the intersex child is that they also often have a mixed chromosomal makeup of both XX and XY. Then there’s the interesting and rare Klinefelter’s disorder where a boy is born with an extra X chromosome (XXY) which brings up a host of challenges including gender identity confusion and sterility.
Boys and girls usually grow up viewing themselves as either masculine or feminine. Their “insides” match their outward appearance. Some boys and girls however look in the mirror and feel as if God played a trick on them. Their bodies clearly say one gender while their emotions and inner convictions tell them they are the opposite gender. These transgender or transsexual individuals can now receive gender reassignment therapy and surgery in order to bring their inner and outer lives into alignment. Chaz Bono is a recent example, a male trapped in a female body.
Men and women generally adhere to societal cues as how they ought to dress and behave according to their sex. This varies widely throughout history and cultures. All humans also have characteristics from the opposite sex and sometimes they are so strong that they need to be expressed outwardly: androgyny. This expression is often through cross-dressing. Otherwise masculine men and feminine women have a deep need to dress partially or fully as the opposite sex, and act accordingly, while still retaining their original gender identity. Some cross-dressers become successful as entertainers. Most however are ordinary citizens like you and me with a secret collection of masculine or feminine garments. They are also usually heterosexual, and often married with children.
Alfred Kinsey’s study in the 1940’s on sexuality developed a scale that ranges from 0 to 6 regarding orientation. Those who would identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with their same sex were at 0. Those who would identify themselves as exclusively homosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with those of the opposite sex were at 6. Those who would identify themselves with varying levels of desire for sexual activity with either sex, including “incidental” or “occasional” desire for sexual activity with the same sex varied between 1 and 5. These findings seem to indicate a great deal of fluidity in sexual orientation, not as an ethical choice, but as self-identification.
Despite these broad variations in human sexuality many religions still maintain a static, dualistic view. Men should love and marry only women and act masculine (whatever that means according to particular cultural norms.) Women should love and marry only men and act feminine (according to an often much broader set of cultural norms). There is little or no toleration for variation in biological sex, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation in this view.
Why do religions do this? Perhaps they think that keeping rigid sexual definitions will “stabilizing” their concept of a “traditional” family, usually defined as one man married to one woman and producing children born of both parents. I wonder though:
–How long have so-called traditional families actually existed?
–What if human sexuality is so complex that any attempt to define it narrowly actually does violence to consciences and spiritualities?
— May it be possible that individuals experience transcendence, a real connection with God and others, because of the variations in their sexualities?
–How can the judgment, fear and abuse from religions regarding the fluidity of sexuality help their cause or promote respect for anyone?
There’s been much defensiveness and political correctness around the area of sex and sexuality across the spectrum. We’ve lost sight that each case is a person—a child, a brother or sister, a man or woman—with the right to seek and find transcendence as they define themselves, as long as it’s not abusive to the common good.
If religions are serious about transcendence they will have to learn to open themselves to current understandings of the variations in sexuality among their members. They must also withhold judgment and acknowledge the beauty, love, faith, and commitment that their members may enjoy precisely because they don’t fit into traditional norms. Now that would be an act of true radical justice.
Next: Making Friends with Eros
All art is copyrighted by the artist Michael Monti Parise