By Rev. Debra W. Haffner
executive director, Religious Institute
On Faith recently posed a provocative question to its panelists: “Can religion handle sex?” I was impressed by the diversity of voices that responded to the question. But I was dismayed (though not surprised) at the lack of diversity in their answers.
There were differing opinions, of course. Roman Catholics view sex through a different lens than their Christian counterparts in the United Church of Christ, and different still from Reform Jews, Muslims and Secular Humanists. No, what struck me was that virtually every one of the respondents took a question about sex and focused almost entirely on sexual intercourse.
Maybe the problem was in the question itself. I would have asked, “Can religion handle sexuality?”, and hoped that the respondents would address religion’s responsibility to “handle” the moral and theological dimensions of the full scope of sexuality issues. As a sexologist and ordained minister, I approach sexuality and religion from a unique perspective. I know that sexuality encompasses not just our physical behaviors or biological sex, but also our relationships, self-identity, personal and societal values, and physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Virtually all of the world’s religions understand sexuality as a divinely bestowed capacity for expressing love and generating life, for mutual companionship and pleasure. They teach that sexuality calls for responsibility, respect and self-discipline; they honor loving, ethical relationships. They understand that sexuality may be celebrated with joy, holiness and integrity, but that it is also vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Yet, with the exception of teaching that sexual intercourse belongs only in heterosexual marriage, the majority of U.S. faith communities are mostly silent about the broader dimensions of sexuality. Most congregations do not teach their young people (or their adults, for that matter) about sexuality and ethical sexual decision making. Many do not have the policies and procedures in place to protect their children, adolescents and vulnerable adults from sexual harassment and abuse. Last year, the largest-ever survey of mainline Protestant clergy revealed that nearly half seldom or never discuss sexuality issues.
Meanwhile, untold numbers of congregants suffer in abusive or dysfunctional relationships, struggle with questions of sexual identity, raising sexually healthy teenagers or marital intimacy, or harbor histories of abuse, rape or marital infidelity. All clergy, whether they are Baptist or Roman Catholic, Muslim or Jewish or Protestant, have people in their congregations who need help dealing with unplanned pregnancies, a child who is coming out, a marriage under duress, infertility, Internet use, domestic violence in the home, and unresolved issues surrounding assault.
But we also need faith communities to move beyond their traditional “non-marital chastity” ethic, so that we can engage unmarried adults seeking to make moral decisions about their sexuality. As a 30-year-old single man recently said to me, “Rev. Debra, how can I be a good Christian and still be sexual?”
He is not alone. There are more than 75 million American adults who are single — more than at any time in history. We are marrying later, divorcing at high levels, and living longer, so more of us will be widowed. At some time in their lives, almost all Americans will have sexual relationships when we aren’t married. The Religious Institute has long called for a new sexual ethic to replace the traditional “celibacy until marriage, chastity after.” This new ethic calls for sexual relationships to be consensual, non-exploitative, honest, pleasurable and protected – whether the partners are single or married, other sex or same sex.
Can religion handle sex? It can, and it must. Sexuality is too central to our lives, too connected to our spirituality, and too potentially damaging for religious leaders to remain focused primarily on whether single adults should be having intercourse while more urgent pastoral needs go unmet.
Rev. Debra W. Haffner is executive director of the Religious Institute in Westport, Conn.