Allergic to sex? On book pulping and pursed lips

Religion does a disservice by trying to leave sex out of the human/divine equation.

Allergic to sex? A number of major organized religions seem to be. This week the severe separation of sex and religion came dramatically to light once again, and from a somewhat unlikely direction.

Penguin India, it was widely reported, agreed to recall and destroy all copies in India of the 2009 book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by highly respected American scholar Wendy Doniger. (Full disclosure: Penguin India published one of my own novels.)

Alarm at this action has strongly focused on the limiting of free expression, which is indeed a hugely important aspect of the case. Less noted is the fact that this decision further widens the sex/faith divide. The two subjects were already segregated and not just in India. Beyond tersely declaring sex as just-for-marriage or just-for-babies, “the church,” in virtually all of its many forms, seems to have a serious aversion, in practice, to discussing the subject.

While the offended Hindu group has many objections to Doniger’s book, one of the main ones, according to Time magazine, is “the juxtaposition of sex and Hinduism.” The leader of the organization that successfully campaigned for destroying the book says that Doniger’s particular portrayal of sex and Hinduism insults the gods and goddesses and the whole of the book “hurt(s) the feelings” of Hindus.

In contrast, The Times of India says the book “appears to make the case that sex was treated by Hinduism as a natural, beautiful part of life.” Hinduism is a religion that — once upon a time — produced a substantial amount of erotic art (and didn’t pronounce it heresy); the sculptures at Khajuraho, for example, and the famed Kama Sutra, the ancient Sanskrit guide to living a loving, pleasurable, and virtuous life.

The Judeo-Christian religions have never been so open-minded on the subject.

If Hindu protesters are able to quash a book of the intellectual heft of Doniger’s, what’s the hope for a conservative church’s Sunday school class having a useful discussion, something that goes beyond finger-wagging and labels of “naughty-naughty?” What’s needed from churches is attention to the ethics of sexual activity, the emotional realities, the ramifications, frustrations, fears, drives, day-to-day decisions. Spirituality includes bodies as well as souls.

If our chief promoters and guardians of virtue can’t handle a subject so large and pervasive, who can?

The subject is, of course, innately private and can be embarrassing to talk about. I get that. Our churches have a moral obligation to toughen up and open the subject anyway.

I’ve recently had emails from Christian ministers making the same comment. (Full disclosure: I write novels that intertwine explicit sexuality and religious faith, two of them involving Hinduism.)

As is so often the case with novelists, I write on my particular subjects not out of conscious choice but because they rise to the surface and won’t be ignored. Sex does rise to the surface in churches as well; the minister running off with the soprano is a cliche. And as one minister recently wrote to me: “I had no clue as an idealistic young pastor how dangerous our vocation is. … Spiritual intimacy and sexual intimacy cannot be separated.”

We’d do well to more widely acknowledge that. Religion does a disservice by trying to leave sex out of the human/divine equation.

(Peggy Payne is the author of the novels “Cobalt Blue,” “Sister India,” and “Revelation.”)

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