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A review of the past record of societal beliefs about the sexuality of blacks reveals an attitude that paints the Negro as representing the sexual instinct in its raw state. Moreover, the folk view or the myths surrounding the sexuality of African-Americans is often hard to distinguish from what appears in the scientific literature. To the extent that myths explain why something exists or happens, they may disguise the truth as well as disclose truths. This makes them potentially destructive, particularly when legends become institutionalized. For example, writers such as DeRachewiltz, Jacobus, Purchas, and others have asserted that (1) black men and women are guided by "bestial instinct"; (2) the black man is more animalistic in bed; (3) the black man's penis is larger than the penis of the white man; (4) the black man is a sexual superman whose potency and virility are greater than the white man's; (5) the black man's reproductive capacity is colossal; (6) black men are obsessed with the idea of having sex with white women; (7) all black women want to sleep with anyone who comes along; (8) black women respond instantly and enthusiastically to all sexual advances; and (9) blacks are more permissive in their sexual affairs.

Where do these notions about the sexuality of blacks originate? In part, they derive from 16th century English accounts of West Africa that, according to Jordan, were replete with images of the lewd, lascivious, bestial black man. The sexual attributes that were embodied by the word "bestial" had a greater impact on the Elizabethan English than they would have today because of the popular belief in demon possession. Demon-possession theory was an all-encompassing concept that could explain all sorts of human tribulations. In particular, the sexual possession of humans by a (male) incubus or a (female) sucubus would lead to "monstrous" birth defects, because incubi and sucubi were not human, hence sexual intercourse with them was likened to bestiality—intercourse with animals. These images of the black man are consistent with what one would expect to find among people who perceived blacks as heathen, savage, beastlike men. This notion is further evidenced by a section in Samuel Purchas's work that describes how these views were interrelated in the minds of Englishmen. He states that

they [blacks] have no knowledge of God; those that traffique and are conversant among strange Countrey people are civiller then the common sort of people, they are very greedie eaters, and no less drinkers, and very lecherous, and theevish, and much addicted to uncleanenesse: one man hath as many wives as hee is able to keepe and maintaine.
In other words, the sexuality of blacks was as to be expected among truculent people. However, the idea of the potent sexuality of the African went far beyond the conceptualization of blacks as savages. Indeed, the notion of blacks as lustful and venerous was well established in European literature long before the first English contact with West Africa.

The medieval writer, Leo Africanus (Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zaiyati), in his work History and Description of Africa, provided the most influential and authoritative accounts of little-known lands that must have appeared to the European as most exotic and forbidden. Africanus described the African black man as living a "brutish kind of life," devoid of any religion or law and surrounded by swarms of harlots. Another early commentator, Jean Bodin (1530-1596), after reviewing the writings of ancient authorities, concluded that concupiscence was characteristic of the Ethiopian race. Jordan concludes by saying that "depiction of the Negro as a lustful creature was not radically new, therefore, when Englishmen first met Negroes face to face. Seizing upon and reconfirming these long-standing and apparently common notions about Africa, Elizabethan travelers and literati spoke very explicitly of Negroes as being especially sexual."

By the early 1600s, the Englishmen who met the first slaves to arrive at Jamestown had already acquired a viewpoint of blacks that was based on custom and earlier European contacts with Africans. The conception of the libidinous black man was transported to the New World and was well entrenched in the American psyche by the end of the 17th century. These beliefs were carried by plantation owners who used blacks as breeding stock, as well as by prominent thinkers of the period, such as Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote that "they [black men] are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation." Jefferson also accepted the popular belief that blacks desired sexual relations with whites and even believed in a "beastly copulation" connected with blacks—the copulation of black women with orangutans.

Eighteenth-century science pictured the Negro-ape association as a link in the "chain of being" and argued that male apes are closest to the black race, so it is natural that they be attracted to females of the next evolutionary step. Some of the more striking commentary can be extracted from the work of late 19th-century anthropological writings, in particular the work of the pseudonymous Jacobus. Jacobus was a surgeon in the French army who served in various colonial outposts, particularly North Africa, during the 1880s and 1890s. Because he was a physician, he had the opportunity to examine the organs of many males and females. Thus, Jacobus writes:

In no branch of the human race are the male organs more developed than in the African Negro. I am speaking of the penis only and not of the testicles, which are often smaller than those of the majority of Europeans.

The genital organ of the male is in proper proportion as regards size, to the dimensions of the female organ. In fact, with the exception of the Arab, who runs him very close in this respect, the Sudanese Negro possesses the largest genital organ of all the races of mankind.

The penis is almost as large when flabby as it is in a state of erection. It is among the Muslim Sudanese that I found the most developed phallus, and notable one of the maximum dimensions, being nearly 12 inches in length by a diameter of 2 1/4 inches. This was a terrific machine, and except for a slight difference in length, was more like the penis of a donkey than that of a man. The unfortunate Negro who possessed this "spike" could not find a Negress large enough to receive him with pleasure, and he was an object of terror to all the feminine sex.

Jacobus seems to change his position about this donkey-sized penis. He continues:
The Negro is a real "stallion Man," and nothing can give a better idea (both as to color and size) of the organ of the Negro, when erect, than the tool of a little African donkey. The absence of hair on the pubes, which the Negroes remove, makes the resemblance more complete. Nor is it confined merely to color and size; for the penis of the Negro, even when in complete erection, is still soft like that of the donkey and when pressed by hand feels like a thick India-rubber tube full of liquid. Even when flabby, the Negro's yard still retains a size and consistency that are greater than that of the European, whose organ shrivels up and becomes soft and limp.
Jacobus also made observations about the female vulva. He states that:
The vulva of the African Negress is black at the entrance, but becomes a bright red in the vagina. It is the same with the lips and the mouth. The pubis is completely hairless. In the adult Negress the vulva is placed very low and descends almost vertically, as does also the vagina, which is much longer but more narrow than in the European woman. The small lips assume, at an early age, an immense development and considerably exceed the great. Is this caused by repeated pulling, or is it a peculiarity of the race? The clitoris of the young Negress is very much developed, often the length of the little finger of a child, for after the nubile age it increases greatly.
Accompanying these organs of such monstrous proportions, it was believed there must also be a sexual appetite that is second to none. Jacobus states that:
In order to spend [ejaculate] the black requires a very prolonged rubbing and the receptacle is large and well lubricated. A Negro is therefore able to make the act of coition last a long time before he spends and can even, if he likes, keep back the supreme moment by modulating his thrust. He can thus accomplish amorous exploits which would knock up a European....

The Negro takes a much longer time before he spends than the white man does. I should estimate that he is, on an average, quite three times as long in finishing a copulation as the white man is; and I am not exaggerating. The reasons for this are very natural. Firstly, the sensitiveness of the genital apparatus is much less in the black man than in the white, for the same reason that the generative parts of the Negress are endowed with a less acute sensitivity than those of the white woman. It would be abnormal and contrary to the laws of physiology for the black man to accomplish the venereal act as rapidly as a European, while the woman of his race is very slow in coming.

The Negress requires a "man stallion" to make her feel the proper physiological sensations, and she seldom finds him except in the male of her own race. Added to this, her nervous system is not so delicately organized as in the white woman. Her mucous membranes are drier, especially as regards the genital organs. To obtain the sensation of voluptuousness under these conditions, the Negress required a slow copulation which only the black man, with his huge penis, can give her. It is certain that a well-fed, circumcised Negro can perform on a woman nearly the whole night and only spend five or six times.

As late as 1901, these conceptions were still being expressed. W. H. Thomas wrote:
Soberly speaking, negro [sic] nature is so craven and sensuous in every fibre of its being that negro manhood with decent respect for chaste womanhood does not exist.... Women unresistingly betray their wifely honor to satisfy a bestial instinct.... [S]o deeply rooted in immorality are our negro people that they turn in aversion from any sexual relation which does not invite sensuous embraces.... Negro social conditions will, however, be but dimly understood, even in their more conspicuous phases, unless we are prepared to realize at every step in our investigation that physical excitation is the chief and foremost craving of the freedman's nature.
Even Havelock Ellis, the noted pioneer in sexology, reported in 1913 that:
I am informed that the sexual power of Negroes and slower ejaculation are the cause of the favor with which they are viewed by some white women of strong sexual passions in America and by many prostitutes. At one time there was a special house in New York City to which white women resorted for these "buck lovers." The women came heavily veiled and would inspect the penises of the men before making the selection.
The French author Remy de Gourmont stated that "one knows that a cat's tongue is rough; so is the tongue and all other mucous surfaces of Negroes. This roughness of surface notably augments the genital pleasure as men who have known Negro women testify." Shufeldt, in his book America's Greatest Problem: The Negro, quotes William Lee Howard as follows:
Nature has endowed him [the Negro] with several ethnic characteristics which must be recognized as ineffaceable by man... especially the large but flexible sex organ which adapts itself to the peculiar sex organs of the female and her demands.... These ethnic traits call for a large sexual area in the cortex of the Negro brain which soon after puberty works night and day.... The chief, the controlling primal instinct in the African is the sexual.
Neither Ellis's nor Howard's view is supported by scientific evidence of a connection between penis size and the cortex of the brain or pigmentation and sexual passion.

At best, these views describing the sexual nature of blacks were superficial and misleading and at worst supportive of racist ideologies. Genovese noted that "the titillating and violence-provoking theory of the superpotency of [the] superpenis, while whispered about for several centuries, did not become an obsession in the South until after emancipation, when it served the purposes of racial segregationists." That is, the notion of the black's supersexuality became the obverse of the racist belief of black biological inferiority, providing legitimation for racial segregation. Many of these notions are extant in our society today. A contemporary author, Norman Mailer, in The White Negro, stated that "the Negro male lives in the present, subsists for the kicks of Saturday night, gives up the pleasures of the mind for the pleasures of the body to the character and quality of his existence in his music." The views espoused by Shufelt and Mailer support and perpetuate the belief that the black man is nothing more than a hypersexual walking phallus of such priapean dimensions that his intellectual abilities are secondary to his lascivious nature.

Griffin, in her study of the relationship of psychosexual security, self-concept, and endorsement of ancient sexual beliefs about black men, on the one hand, and white supremacists' attitudes, on the other, hypothesized that black men would be described as taller than the average man and that the black male's penis would be described as greater in length in erect and nonerect states. Her sample of 197 college-educated white men supported her hypothesis. Griffin chose these particular subjects because they were older than the typical college student, more sophisticated, and presumably had more life experience. She believed they would have developed more stable attitudes and would be likely to engage in the self-examination required to complete the lengthy test battery.

Other investigators, such as Christensen and Johnson, Houston, Reiss, Staples and Roebuck, and McGee, have suggested that blacks are more sexually permissive than whites. However, these studies are difficult to compare because different criteria were used to determine permissiveness. The studies do indicate that blacks as compared to whites engage in coitus at earlier ages and are less likely to masturbate or perform fellatio or cunnilingus. Black males are more likely to experience their first ejaculation during coitus rather than through masturbation, and black females are likely to reach orgasm more frequently in premarital coitus. These findings are usually the basis by which blacks are judged to be more permissive than whites.

The preceding overview clearly demonstrates the depth of the European's, and eventually the Euro-American's, perception of the libidinous nature of blacks in general and the black man in particular. These perceptions represented philosophical positions rather than empirical, sexological evidence; and much of the purported sex research involving blacks today has been a recycling of the cultural beliefs about the sexuality of blacks couched in scientific terminology and interpreted through the veil of white middle-class values. As Noble said, "Philosophical assumptions determine the scientific investigation of psychology. Certainly particular people cannot be meaningfully investigated and understood if their philosophical assumptions are not taken into account." If our theoretical or conceptual starting points are flawed, then our end results will be flawed as well. Indeed, some researchers have suggested that the white researcher, with his "Eurocentric perspective," lacks the sensitivity and ability to understand or to document the black experience. This Eurocentric perspective all too often leads the researcher to look at whites as though they are the control group to which blacks are compared. As described above, it has been reported that black males as compared with white males begin sexual intercourse at an earlier age and have more sexual partners. It would be just as accurate to say that white males as compared with black males begin sexual intercourse at a later age and have fewer sexual partners. Furthermore, the proposition that blacks are more permissive in their sexual affairs as compared to whites can be restated just as accurately that whites are more prohibitive in their sexual affairs. The difference depends on who is doing the interpretation and what philosophical assumptions underpin the analysis.

Examination of the lives of blacks must be principled upon "Afrocentric" philosophical assumptions. For example, the religious traditions of African-Americans reflect African philosophical assumptions, which do not rely on mind-body duality as a guiding principle. Indeed, traditional African cosmology does not separate mind from body. It is the unity of spirit and flesh that provides a sharp contrast between Western and African theological systems of thought, which in turn may account for a different worldview that blacks hold. Without these philosophical assumptions as a theoretical foundation, much of the purported sex research involving blacks, as well as future research, will simply perpetuate myths and stereotypes that both whites and blacks have about black and white sexuality.

Finally, review of the research literature shows such a lack of current material that a Kinsey-like survey needs to be conducted to discover the sexual attitudes and behavior of a broad spectrum of black Americans, using systematic research. This survey should not merely imitate the Kinsey survey methods (e.g., counting frequencies of various sexual acts) but should provide a theoretical framework (Afrocentric) that takes into account the philosophical assumptions of the people under investigation. Then and only then can we know if our historical views regarding blacks are valid or in need of revision. Perhaps instead of images that have been distorted by the figments of the imagination of others that often disguise the truth and are potentially destructive, black Americans will become a people of substance and thus, made whole.


Africanus, L. The History and Description of Africa and of the Notable Things Therein Contained. (1562) London: The Hakluyt Society, 1896.

Belcastro, P.A. Sexual Behavior Differences Between Black and White Students. The Journal of Sex Research. 21 (1985), pp. 56-67.

Bell, A. P. Black Sexuality: Fact and Fancy. Paper presented to Focus: Black American Series, Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., Oct. 1968.

Christensen, H., and L. Johnson. Premarital Coitus and the Southern Black: A Comparative View. Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 40 (1978), pp. 721-32.

DeRachewiltz, B. Black Eros: Sexual Customs of Africa from Prehistory to the Present Day. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1964.

Edwardes, A., and R. E. L. Masters. The Cradle of Erotica: A Study of Afro-Asian Sexual Expression and an Analysis of Erotic Freedom in Social Relationships. New York: Julian Press, 1963.

Ellis, H. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Philadelphia: Davis, 1910-13.

Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Genovese, E. Roll Jordan Roll. New York: Viking, 1972.

Griffin, A.M. The Relationship of Psychosexual Security, Self-Concept, and Endorsement of Ancient Sexual Beliefs about Black Men to White Supremacist Attitudes. Ph.D. diss., New York Univ., 1979.

Houston, L. Romanticism and Eroticism among Black and White College Students. Adolescence, Vol. 16 (1981), pp. 263-72.

Hunt, M. Sexual Behavior in the Seventies. New York: Dell, 1975.

Jacobus, X. Untrodden Fields of Anthropology. New York: Falstaff Press, 1937.

Jefferson, T. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Jordan, W. D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Ladner, J. A. Tomorrow's Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

Mailer, N. The White Negro. San Francisco: City Lights, 1957.

Masters, R. E. L. Forbidden Sexual Behavior and Morality. New York: Julian Press, 1962.

Purchas, S. Haklutus Posthumus, or Purchas His pilgrimes: Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and Others, by Samuel Purchas. (1625) Glasgow: Maclehose, 1905.

Reiss, I. L. Premarital Sexual Permissiveness among Negroes and Whites. American Sociological Review, Vol. 29 (1964), pp. 688-98.

Reiss, I. L. The Social Context of Premarital Sexual Permissiveness. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.

Roebuck, J., and M. McGee. Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex and Sexual Behavior among Black High School Girls. Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 13 (1977), pp. 104-14.

Rogers, J. A. Sex and Race. 9th ed. New York: Author, 1967.

Shufeldt, R. W. America's Greatest Problem: The Negro. Philadelphia: Davis, 1915.

Thomas, W. H. The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

Wilkinson, C. B. The Destructiveness of Myths. American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 126 (1970), pp. 1087-92.

Zelnik, M., and J. F. Kanter. Sexuality, Contraception and Pregnancy among Young Unwed Females in the United States. In C.F. Westoff and R. Paske, Jr., eds., Demographic and Social Aspects of Population Growth. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972.

Herbert Samuels


Rape is a violent act that deliberately violates, humiliates, and degrades its victim, usually a woman. Rape is a crime of violence using sex as the weapon. Although sexual in nature, it is not predominantly a sexual act. Issues regarding power, control, helplessness, and degradation of the person being violated have a higher valence in most cases. Use of force, or threat of force, either of a psychological or a physical nature, may be present. Many would argue that psychological threat is always present. Feminists would argue that rape is a political act, a power play, designed to keep women in a frightened, subservient, powerless state.

The chances that a woman will be raped over the course of her lifetime, estimated between 1 in 4 to 1 in 6, exceed her chances of contracting breast cancer, which affects approximately 1 in 10 women. In spite of the fact that women between the ages of 15 and 24 constitute the highest-risk group, no female is safe from rape. Instances of rape have been recorded across the life span, from infancy to old age. Rape is a grossly underreported crime; 90 percent of rapes are never investigated, and only 5 percent of those investigated are successfully prosecuted and result in a jail term. Though males constitute approximately 10 percent of all rape victims, mostly in penal settings, this article addresses rape in relation to women. Many of the same physical, emotional, and psychological issues have to be dealt with by any person who has been raped, regardless of gender.

No other crime places so much blame or responsibility on its victim. Rape victims often feel treated as if they were the criminal. The antecedents for this behavior lie in the past. Throughout recorded history, women have been regarded as possessions. To rape a virgin was to deprive her father of untarnished goods, and reparation had to be made by the rapist. Rape is facilitated by viewing women as objects, properties, and possessions to be bought or sold or stolen: an object to be acted upon rather than self-volitional; an object to be subjugated to men's wills; an object to be taken from another man as a sign of his defeat and humiliation; an object to be shared with other men in a spirit of male bonding and camaraderie. The legacy from the past, then, is a view of the male as the aggressor and of the woman as the more passive object. This perspective still permeates the contemporary socialization of the sexes. From the moment of birth, babies receive differential treatment according to sex. Sex-role stereotyping delineates and defines behaviors as appropriately masculine or feminine. Little boys are socialized to be aggressive, active, physical, nonemotional, tough, rugged, achievement- and outward-oriented. In contrast, little girls are socialized to play the complementary role; that is, to be passive and to be economically and emotionally dependent on men. Little girls are also taught tearfulness and inhibition as core components of femininity. Traditionally, the female role is to project both attractiveness and unavailability.

While the female is instructed in the appropriate feminine ways, her male counterpart is taught his role: to pursue and seduce that which might be attainable if he is persuasive enough. Both sexes are instructed as to the role the other will play. All the potential components for a rape are present: woman as the seductive but passive object to be pursued and attained, man as the aggressor, convincer, and potential owner of the woman. Part of the way in which women and men have been taught to relate to each other is gamelike. The woman is to be passive and reluctant; the man is to be persuasive and coercive. It is an interesting irony that the weaker sex has been and is held responsible for setting the limits for a sexual encounter. The etiology for this seemingly contradictory behavior is found in the myths concerning women and rape. Some of the more popular myths suggest that a woman has a weaker sex drive than a man, so it is easier for her to control the extent of the sexual interaction. Another popular myth suggests that because a woman can enjoy a fantasy of rape in which she has control of the cast of characters and action, she therefore secretly wants to be raped. When this myth is coupled with the belief that a woman cannot be raped against her will, it is easy to see why the onus is on the victim in this crime of violence. Perhaps the most onerous rape myth is that of victim precipitation. Somehow, either as a function of how she is dressed, where she is, her state of sobriety, or her previous relationship with the male, the woman is held responsible for precipitating the crime. It is difficult to know which sex is more maligned by this assumption: the woman, who is represented as an irresponsible agent precipitating a crime of violence against herself, or the male, who is portrayed as unable to think or reason in the grip of his raging hormones.

One of the most dangerous rape myths suggests that the crime is most often committed by a stranger. This is untrue. Only about 20 percent of all rapes are committed by strangers. The majority of rapes fall into the acquaintance-rape category, which subsumes both marital and date rape. Acquaintance rape is usually defined as forced rape between people who already know each other regardless of how casually. Since women have also been raised to believe in the myths of rape, it is not uncommon for a woman in an ongoing relationship to be unclear that a rape has occurred. She is liable to wonder whether she led the man on or had the right to say no after saying yes up to a point, whether the way she was dressed "gave the man the wrong idea," or whether, if she had been drinking, it really was her fault for not being in better control. Men seem similarly confused. They often hold the view that they were only doing what the woman really wanted; that if she had not been interested, she should not have placed herself in compromising circumstances; and that it is the man's role to overcome the token resistance offered by the female.

Women who are the target of acquaintance rape are judged quite harshly by their peers and society. The respectability of the woman and her social role, occupational status, prior sexual history, marital status, perceived careless or provocative behavior, prior knowledge of the rapist, and previous rape experience, as well as the sex of the person making the judgment, all influence the way the rape victim is perceived and judged. Perhaps the only class of women judged more harshly are the victims of marital rape. In most states, definitions of rape specifically exclude the marital relationship. How can one be doing something illegal by taking what is theirs? Beginning with the passage of property from the father of the bride to the groom, the woman in a marital relationship is too often seen as the possession of the male. In the traditional marriage ceremony, the bride is given away by her father or father substitute to the groom. If this does not presume property ownership as well as a need to protect the weaker sex, it is hard to know what would. Access to the wife's body, whether invited or not, is seen as the right of the husband. It is little wonder that these women often have difficulty knowing that they have been assaulted.

During an assault, victims of rape experience extreme fearfulness, followed by numbness and disbelief, disgust, and revulsion. Only 10 percent or less report feeling angry during the attack. Individuals who have been raped experience great emotional and psychological damage, rape trauma syndrome, or posttraumatic stress disorder, which can be long lasting. Generally, immediately following an assault, the individual experiences a state of disorganization characterized by multiple affects. Fear and self-blame are the most frequently expressed emotions, with anger, humiliation, and embarrassment also experienced. Somatic reactions are common during this period. Women routinely experience gastrointestinal distress, insomnia, loss of appetite, or increase in appetite, nightmares, and general tenseness. The woman's overall reaction to the rape may fit the cultural stereotype and be "expressed": the affect is present verbally and nonverbally, or "controlled," where affect was not present or visible. During the syndrome's middle phase, outward adjustment, the victim appears to be returning to normal. She is least amenable to therapy at this time and may incorrectly assume she has worked through the issues surrounding the rape. This is a period of pseudoadjustment in which the emotional issues have been put away rather than worked through. It is important to give a thorough explanation of this to the woman so that when feelings begin to reemerge in the last stage of integration and resolution, the woman will understand what is occurring. Therapeutic work can occur during this stage. The woman can work to incorporate the rape into her life and her view of herself. During this time, she will review and critique her response to the rape. Did she do enough to prevent it? Did she fight hard enough? Is she somehow to blame for what has happened to her? Under conditions of extreme fear, a person becomes concerned with self-preservation and may freeze in response to sudden, unexpected violence. The fright experienced borders on panic, particularly when the individual feels her life may be in danger. This "frozen fear response" seems to offer an intuitively correct explanation for the observation that normal, healthy women who should be able to resist their attackers may offer no resistance at all and even appear friendly and cooperative. A woman who has a frozen-fear response will be especially vulnerable to these questions.

Nightmares, making changes in her life, concern with the reaction of a husband or boyfriend, and working out her feelings toward the rapist are some of the tasks of this stage. It is critical that the woman be helped to develop a sense of autonomy and choice over decisions in her life as soon as possible. Not all women who are raped are able to work through the psychological issues. Some have a "compounded reaction," in which they develop severe depression, psychosomatic disturbances, or psychosis or even attempt suicide. Another group of women develops a "silent reaction." They have usually been assaulted in the past and say nothing to anyone. They may continue to be silent and blunted or have a compound reaction to the present assault.

Rape is neither harder nor easier to claim than any other crime. Societal attitudes toward men and women, along with traditional sex-role stereotyping, would have us believe differently and reflect the depth of misogynist beliefs. The responsibility for a crime rests with the criminal, not the victim. Rape is a crime.


Bond, S. B., and D. L. Mosher. Guided Imagery of Rape: Fantasy, Reality, and the Willing Victim Myth. Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 22 (1986), pp. 162-83.

Brownmiller, S. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Burgess, A. W., and L. L. Holmstrom. Rape: Victims of Crisis. Bowie, Md.: Brady, 1974.

Estrich, S. Real Rape. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987.

Finkelhor, D., and K. Yllo. License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1985.

Growth, A. N. Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender. New York: Plenum Press, 1979.

Katz, S., and M. Mazur. Understanding the Rape Victim: A Synthesis of Research Findings. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979.

Susan B. Bond


Formal or Informal Values
Natural or Unnatural Sex
Control Mechanisms
Two World Views
Western Sexual Values

In most cultures and societies religion is a primary, or at least among the more powerful, force in establishing and maintaining sexual attitudes and regulating sexual behaviors. Religions draw their strength from a belief system that includes the authority of a divine spiritual being (or beings) who is believed to have created this world, to govern it and to control its destiny. Because this spiritual authority controls the individual destinies of all humans in this life and rewards or punishes them in some kind of life hereafter, religions usually deal with some sort of revelation, contained in a sacred text or passed on through a chosen representative. Such revelations and sacred texts often contain regulations for sexual behaviors, establishing the norms of who can have sex, with whom, under what circumstances, when, how, and for what reasons. These sexual regulations, along with other regulations unrelated to sexual behavior, are interpreted by male priests, rabbis, imams, shamans, or other individuals who claim either direct contact with the divine being or delegation by the supreme being as his representative and interpreter.

Formal or Informal Values

Official public statements by religious authorities, or by official teaching bodies, about the status, roles and relationships of men and women constitute what ethicists and sociologists term a formal value. However, the attitudes and behaviors of individual members of a religious group may deviate from or even contradict such formal values. Individuals whose informal values contravene the formal values may have to deal with guilt or shame for not conforming to the accepted norms. They may also have to deal with the threat of punishment here or hereafter. The Puritans, for instance, formally condemned premarital sex, even though most of them accepted it as a natural outcome of courtship in a rural frontier society where fertility of the bride was an overriding concern. When enough believers endorse an informal value that counters the formal value, religious leaders may either reinterpret the formal value or create a schism by expelling the deviants. This occurred when the early Protestants rejected the Roman Catholic emphasis on the primacy of celibacy and its denigration of sexual pleasure. Similar shifts have occurred within Protestantism when a variety of social factors led to the acceptance of divorce despite certain apparently clear rejections of divorce by Jesus and, more recently, with the acceptance of homosexuals and their ordination.

Natural or Unnatural Sex

According to early Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers, sexual passion distorted a man's reason. The sole moral justification for sexual relations, in their view, was procreation. This view of the nature of sex was developed and expanded by early Christian thinkers, particularly Augustine of Hippo (c. 300 C.E.). Medieval Christian theologians adopted and extended this early view, classifying sexual acts as either natural or unnatural. Fornication, rape, incest, and adultery were considered illicit indulgences in sexual pleasure because they occurred outside marriage and did not provide for the rearing of offspring. However, because they could result in procreation, they were considered as natural sins. Masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex were much more serious violations of the natural order because they were contraceptive, hence unnatural, as well as illicit. This distinction between natural and unnatural sexual behavior comes up most often in religious debates about homosexuality, contraception, and monogamy.

Control Mechanisms

The mechanisms religions use to control sexual behavior are similar to those used in secular societies. Judaeo-Christian religious beliefs rely on a sense of personal conscience, personal guilt, and on fear of divine punishment. Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism rely on the sense of shame and responsibility to one's kin to assure conformity to sexual mores.

Two World Views

The Fixed World View
The Process World View
General Comparisons

For well over 2000 years, two quite different world views (Weltanschauung) and belief systems about the nature of creation have coexisted and developed in Western thought. Since the time of the Iranian religious philosopher Zoroaster (c. 600 B.C.E.) and the early Greek and Roman philosophers (c. 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.), Western thinkers have chosen to picture our world in one of two ways. Some religious thinkers and doctrines have interpreted the world in terms of a fixed world view with unchangeable laws of nature and the nature of every creature established in the beginning by the creator. Others have pictured a world in the process of evolving with the nature of all things fluid and ever changing as creation continues. The fixed world view, with its unchanging abstract archetypes, and the process world view, with its emphasis on the reality of ever-changing environments and unique developing individuals, represent two ends of a broad spectrum from which have been derived two different and opposing sexual value systems.

The Fixed World View

At one end of this philosophical spectrum, adherents of the fixed world view claim that when God created the first humans he established the unchanging nature of male and female, gender roles, marriage, and heterosexual morality for all time. The biblical story of Genesis describes all humans as fallen from an original state of perfection and grace because of the rebellion of Adam and Eve. This corrupt nature can only be overcome by self-discipline, mortification of the flesh, and by avoiding any indulgence in pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. With Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God established the heterosexual nature of our sexuality, the primacy of the male over the female, and monogamy. The command "increase and multiply" identified the true and only purpose of sexual pleasure and relations (Table 1).

Hasidic and orthodox Jews, orthodox/fundamentalist Muslims, and fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants commonly draw on this world view in articulating their sexual values. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Vatican adheres with unswerving vigilance to a natural law position as interpreted by the Magisterium, the hierarchical teaching authority. Advocates of the fixed world view commonly condemn contraception, masturbation, oral sex, premarital sex, divorce, consensual extramarital sex, women in positions of authority, and homosexuality, although individuals and some groups may be more tolerant in one or more of these areas.

The Process World View

At the other end of the spectrum is the process view of the world in which human nature is viewed as still evolving, still being created with human cooperation. The basic assumption in this world view is that human nature has never been without flaws. Physical and moral evil are the unavoidable dark side of our struggle to grow as persons to our fuller potential. Good and evil are linked together as we explore and discover new, deeper expressions and meanings of our human potential and sexual nature. Certain general principles of what is right and wrong in human behavior are acknowledged, but specific decisions about what is right and wrong depend on applying those principles to the ever-changing situation and context (Table 1).

A 1987 statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Northern New Jersey highlights the quite different role divine revelation, sacred texts, and traditional teachings play for people who adopt the process view point:

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is a tradition precisely because, in every historical and social circumstance, the thinking faithful have brought to bear the best interpretation of the current realities in correlation with their interpretation of tradition as they have inherited it. Thus, truth in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is a dynamic process to be discerned and formulated rather than a static structure to be received.

The Bible is misunderstood and misused when approached as a book of moral prescriptions directly applicable to all moral dilemmas. Rather, the Bible is the record of the response to the word of God addressed to Israel and to the Church throughout centuries of changing social, historical, and cultural conditions. The Faithful responded within the realities of their particular situation, guided by the direction of previous revelation, but not captive to it.

Few religious groups or individuals adhere completely to either one or the other of these two philosophies or world views. Most fall somewhere along the spectrum between the two extremes and shift back and forth along the spectrum, holding to a fixed world view on one issue and maintaining a process world view on another issue. Despite this variation, overall, religious groups and individuals tend to favor one or the other perspective and set their sexual values accordingly.

In the cognitive and moral development models proposed by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, religions based on a fixed or absolutist world view tend to stress specific acts, rules, and commandments while religions that draw on a process world view tend to emphasize the uniqueness of persons, the character of their relationships, and universal ethical principles.

General Comparisons

Several generalizations can be made about the sexual views endorsed by the great religions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These comparisons focus on beliefs about human nature, the origins of evil, the role of sexual pleasure, and the connection between sex, transcendence and the divine.

Cosmologies and religious myths dealing with the origins of the human race are intimately linked with beliefs about human nature and the origins of evil. The Christian interpretation of the Genesis myth talks about an original sin that corrupts and distorts human nature. This belief is quite compatible with the dualistic anthropology of body and soul that entered Christianity from Platonism through Augustine. It is also compatible with the dualistic view that portrays the male as rational and spiritually inclined and the female as dependent, emotional, and a threat because of her connection to sex and reproduction. For the Christian lay person, as well as for many Christian clergy and writers, original sin was (and is) linked with sex. This belief requires a form of redemption in which denial of the body with its emotions and sexual impulses is primary.

Eastern religions do not talk about an original sin, but rather of natural disharmonies or the polarity of two tensions that need to be balanced in every creature. In the East, the female principle is active and the woman the "initiatrix." The male and male principle are passive. Yang and Yin—the principles of masculinity and femininity, active and passive, cold and hot—are complementary polarities found in different balances in both men and women. This view does not try to explain the tensions of life by attributing what is viewed as positive to males and what is seen as negative to females, although the Eastern religions are as patriarchal as those of the West.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, transcendence of human limitations and mortality is achieved by integration and increased awareness of the totality of one's mental, sensual, and erotic experiences. In much of Christian mythology, sex is a barrier to be overcome. Mortality is transcended and salvation achieved by redemption and ascetic denial of the senses, especially one's sexual impulses.

Christian views have generally been very uncomfortable with any form of sensual pleasure, especially erotic and sexual pleasures. In the West, sexual pleasure is disruptive and dangerous to both the individual and society. It is a monster in the groin, which, if unleashed, could drive men to uncontrollable indulgence and destroy society. Work, not play, is redemptive. Sexual pleasure is moral when it leads men and women to undertake the burdens and responsibilities of raising children. In this view, sexual relations are immoral and sinful whenever they are indulged in outside marriage or without an openness to procreation. Thus orthodox Judaism, official Catholicism, and Protestant fundamentalists condemn masturbation and all forms of nonmarital, nonreproductive sex. Also unacceptable are alternate sexual behaviors and relationships— playful/recreational sex, gay unions, pre- and co-marital sex, and intimate friendships.

In contrast, Hinduism celebrates sexual pleasure as a value in its own right, to be enjoyed for what it brings the participants. Kama, "the pursuit of love of pleasure, both sensual and aesthetic," represents one of the four goals of life in the Hindu tradition. In Hindu philosophy, Bhoga (sexual pleasure) is viewed as one of two paths leading to nirvana, the Buddha, and final deliverance. Yoga, spiritual exercise, is the alternate, and more demanding, path to liberation and the merging of the individual with the universal. In the Tantric yoga tradition, a man or woman can even practice channeling his or her sexual energies from the lowest chakra to the highest and achieve cosmic awareness and transcendence in solo sex or masturbation.

Western Sexual Values

The roots of Western sexual values are a tangled jungle of two ancient opposing traditions, the sex-conflicted Hebraic tradition and the dualistic, sex-denying stoicism of syncretistic Greco-Roman philosophy. In much of the Jewish tradition sexuality is simply another, but highly valued piece of human experience, a part of divine creation. This is evident in the erotic love poem, the Song of Solomon. Judaism did not divinize sex as the orgiastic fertility cults did, or turn it into a holy sacrament as Catholicism has. Nor has Judaism demonized sex as it was in Stoicism and much of the Roman Catholic tradition. Judaism has never endorsed sexual asceticism or celibacy. Although coitus is generally approved only within marriage, the Jewish tradition has (consistently and unambiguously) valued sex for the sheer joy and pleasure of it within marriage.

But Judaism is also a very patriarchal Semitic religion. Genesis 19:1-11 and Judges 19 tolerate and accept rape of women as preferable to homosexual rape, and grants men but not women the right to initiate a divorce. The Torah (Deut. 21:15) approved of polygamy and concubinage. The Mishna (200 C.E.) and the Babylonian (300 C.E.) and Jerusalem (400 C.E.) Talmuds provide quite elaborate guidelines for polygamy. The Ashkenazim Jews of Eastern Europe adopted monogamy in the early medieval period, after Rabbi Gershom ben Judah of Worms urged Jews to give up the practice of polygamy to avoid the wrath of the Gregorian campaign against married clergy in the Western church. Only in the mid-20th century did the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel extend Gershom's ban on polygamy to the Sephardic Jews of the East.

An ongoing essentialist conflict within Judaism gives it a Jekyl and Hyde contradictory character. This conflict is inherent to Jewish biblical cosmology. It appears first with the contradiction between the mythic statement in Genesis "Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness" and the Jewish belief that God has no body and no sex. Add to this conflict Yahweh's mandate of "increase and multiply" and the Semitic belief that semen is polluting, even when discharged in marital intercourse. Finally, the Jewish tradition contains pervading sex-negative concerns about maintaining ritual or cultic purity, inherited by the rabbis from the early priests who probably adopted these beliefs from neighboring Semites. Contact with menstrual blood and semen renders any man ritually unclean and unfit for cultic service until he undergoes a cleansing rite. Before the exodus from Egypt, Moses required the Jews to abstain from sex for three days (Ex. 19:15). An emission of semen required bathing and rendered whomever it touched unclean until evening (Lev. 15:16ff; 22:4). (This belief is found in Islam also. The Qur'an requires a man or woman who has engaged in sexual intercourse to wash before leaving the house.) Menstruation rendered a woman unclean for seven days and did the same for anyone who had intercourse with her or touched her during that time (Lev. 15:19ff).

The syncretistic civil religions of Greece and Rome that developed alongside Jewish and early Christian belief systems were a mishmash of collected gods, rituals, and philosophies. Despite their diversity, the Greco-Roman religions shared an understanding of personhood that involved an essentially platonic dualism in which an exiled soul, implanted in a body (tomb), awaited liberation. In this anthropology the spark of divinity is the soul and the body its impediment, even its defilement.

"Do nothing for the sake of pleasure" the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote in his letter. For the Stoics, the poisoned breath of sexual passion and emotions were the enemy of man's rational, spiritual nature. The so-called "missionary position" was not the invention of Christian missionaries to Africa or the South Pacific but advocated by the Greek Stoic philosopher Artemidorus (c. 200 C.E.) who taught that the face-to-face male-on-top position for intercourse was the only moral position. He also condemned oral eroticism as "an awful act." The Stoic notion that sex has to be a procreative act, but otherwise has to be looked up under the negative heading of pleasure, not under the heading of love, has left an enduring imprint on Christianity.

During the first three hundred years of Christian history the dualistic philosophy of human nature and the sex-negating tradition of the Stoics were adopted by the Gnostic Christians, who then waged an all-out polemic that led to its triumph over the sex-affirming tradition of the Hebrews and Jesus in orthodox Christianity. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, provided the main theological articulation of this sex-negating anthropology that would dominate Christianity until the Protestant Reformation.

In the early Middle Ages as well as before the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the start of the Dark Ages, homosexuality appears to have flourished and been widely tolerated among the Catholic clergy. Boswell (1990) concludes from this that social and economic factors may at times be more influential than religious doctrine when believers choose to ignore or selectively enforce biblical strictures against certain sexual practices such as homosexuality.

Although scattered voices affirmed the sensuous and erotic throughout the medieval period, their volume and authority increased in the sixteenth century until the Protestant Reformation shattered Rome's universal and autocratic grip. Sexual laxity in the papal office and among the clergy was widely denounced, even as the Reformers rediscovered Christianity's Jewish roots. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther almost singlehandedly revived Christianity's interest in the holistic Jewish anthropology. Lawrence claimed that the "Reformation was a defeat for salvation through sublimation or suppression of the sensuous and the sexual, and a victory for the body and sex and for a religion that affirms both."

Subsequent to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the Western world was radically divided between the Roman and Protestant religions. Both camps experienced the cultural and philosophical movements known as the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement, the privatization of sex, and the rise of secular thought. In the twentieth century the role of religion in formulating sexual values and regulating sexual behavior has been radically altered by the sexual revolutions of the 1920s and the 1960s, a new scientific understanding of sexuality, effective contraceptives, a greater tolerance for pluralistic values and behaviors, a vigorous campaign for civil and gay rights, and since 1981, the crisis of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought serious challenges to the Vatican's condemnation of contraception and its requirement of clerical celibacy. In subsequent decades, the majority of Catholics came to endorse informal values that quietly rejected the Vatican's formal condemnations of contraception, abortion, masturbation, premarital sex, and homosexuality. Reformed and conservative Jewish communities and mainstream Protestant churches were openly challenged by gay and lesbian persons seeking recognition, acceptance in the community of believers, and even ordination.

By the 1990s, every religious community in the Judaeo-Christian tradition was being challenged to reinterpret their biblical traditions and teachings on sexuality and to reject the traditional patriarchal structure of sexual relations that is linked with pornography, sexual violence, and the exploitation and exclusion of heterosexual women, unmarried people, gay men, and lesbians. In the 1990s, debates over the ordination of active gay men and lesbians to the ministry, the acceptability of premarital sex, and recognition of alternates to sexually exclusive monogamy are creating major tensions in many churches, especially the Episcopal, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches. Even the conservative Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has been confronted by fundamentalists seeking to reestablish the church's original practice of polygamy.

These challenges have raised new and perplexing questions about whether certain biblical texts that traditionally have been interpreted as forbidding certain sexual behavior or relations need to be reinterpreted in their historical context and in the light of new medical and psychological understanding of the nature of sexuality and gender orientations. In recent years, several church task forces and special commissions have faced this challenge by urging the appropriateness, even necessity, of such reinterpretations. Such reinterpretations generally concur that the stories of homosexual gang rape in Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11) and heterosexual gang rape in Gibeah (Judges 19) focus on sexual assault and violence and should not be interpreted as condemning homosexual relations as such. Similarly, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are said to speak not to the unnaturalness of same-gender relations but to the issue of cultic purity and the "abomination" of Jews engaging in any activity including sacred prostitution that was associated with the pagan cults. In the New Testament, Romans 1:23-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 have likewise been subject to careful linguistic and contextual analysis. Instead of focusing on homosexuality, as previous interpretations have done, these recent studies stress that Paul, the author of these texts, was attacking lifestyles of licentiousness and lust common in the Greco-Roman world. These texts, it is claimed, do not speak to the Christian gay and lesbian community today, which values committed and loving relationships based on mutuality and respect for one another. These recent interpretations suggest that Paul condemned men and women we now describe as heterosexual who deliberately and freely gave up "natural" sexual relations for an "unnatural" homosexual depersonalized lust for novelty. Since Paul and the whole of Christian tradition knew nothing of homosexual orientation as a constitution condition, the nature and morality of homosexuality lay outside Christian tradition and theological consideration altogether.

Historically, religions have had much to say about the sexuality, sexual values, and the sexual behaviors and relationships of adults. Religious views and strictures that have been applied to children and adolescents have been derived from doctrines and guidelines articulated for adults. This may be due to the fact that childhood and particularly adolescence as we experience these today are social phenomena that emerged only in the past century or two.

In conclusion, it can be said that all the "great religions of the world," Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have an essential patriarchal bias that puts women in a subordinate position and role. Eastern religions often portray their gods and goddesses in ritual sexual intercourse (yab-yum) and present women as the sexual experts and initiators. However, as these religious views have been expressed in Eastern cultures, the social role of women is very much inferior to that of the male. Much the same holds for the Islamic tradition, which is still expressed mainly in male-dominated tribal cultures where women have few, if any, rights. Judaism, Protestantism, and Christianity have inherited different contradictions. While Jesus violated important patriarchal values of the Jews and told his disciples that in his kingdom there would be no distinction between male and female, the patriarchal interests of his disciples quickly overpowered this effort towards gender equality. Early Christianity and Catholicism established sexual abstinence as the hallmark of the spiritual life. Both Mary and Joseph, the mother and father of Jesus, were portrayed as virgins; and married couples were urged to have sex only for procreation within otherwise celibate "brother-sister" marriages. Protestants rejected this repression of sex in marriage and in recent years affirmed the equality of men and women by ordaining women to the ministry. Each of the great religions has some sex-positive aspects, but none of them is without conflict on this issue.

However, despite the patriarchal and predominantly antisexual biases of these religions, the history of cultures clearly suggests an important positive outcome of the Judaic and Christian views of sexuality. First, a unique cultural emphasis on and respect for individualism emerged in ancient Greece and Rome. In two thousand years this valuing of the individual, reinforced by Judaic and Christian perspectives, has been a major factor in our recent sexual revolutions and move toward gender equality. Second, Greco-Roman scientific interests combined with the biblical directive for man to "master and rule the earth" to inspire Western cultures to objectify, analyze, and control nature. In recent years, environmentalists have stressed the negative side of this disrespect for nature as promoting a consumerist industrial depersonalized culture and a disastrous exploitation of our environment. At the same time, feminists and others have denounced the patriarchal, anti-sex, and anti-woman biases of Judaism and Christianity. Together, these same secular and religious traditions have combined in Western cultures to create a frontier society unique in human history and unique in the history of human sexuality. The industrial Western cultures increasingly value the individualism and equality of males and females, enable women to move closer to economic independence and equality with men, increasingly recognize and respect the individual man and woman's right to sexual fulfillment, increase our control over the reproductive functions of sexual intercourse, and continue to expand the health, leisure, basic securities of life, and life span of individual citizens. The present and future consequences of these trends for society and for individuals cannot be all on the positive side. However, the balance appears to be more positive than negative as age-old tensions and conflicts between sex and religion lessen.

In analyzing the relationship between religion and sex, it may be well to recall that every religion, like every social system, appears to be built on contradiction and is in some sense at war with itself over the nature, purpose and control of that basic human reality we term sex and sexuality.


Boswell, J. Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980.

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Bullough, V.L., and J. Brundage. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo: Prometheus Press, 1982.

Bullough, V.L., and B. Bullough. Sin, Sickness, and Sanity: A History of Sexual Attitudes. New York: New American Library, 1977.

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Francoeur, R.T. Sexual archetypes: Transitions and Insights into the Future. ICIS (International Center for Integrative Studies) Forum, Vol. 20 (1990), pp. 19 - 27.

Francoeur, R.T. New Dimensions in Human Sexuality. In R.H. Iles, ed., The Gospel Imperative in the Midst of AIDS: Towards a Prophetic Pastoral Theology. Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse Publishing, 1989, pp. 79-98.

Gardella, P. Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.

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Gupta, B. Sexual Archetypes, East and West. New York: Paragon House, 1987.

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Ranke-Heinemann, U. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Thayer, N.S.T., et al. Report of the Task Force on Changing Patterns of Sexuality and Family Life. Newark, N.J.: The Voice (Episcopal Diocese of Northern New Jersey), March 1987.

Robert T. Francoeur


Clinical Examples

"Sex is a force that permeates, influences and affects every act of a person's being at every moment of existence. It is not operative in one restricted area of life (that is, simply physical intercourse) but it is at the core and center of our total life response." This statement by an American theologian reflects a truth and a value that, while it is shared by many, calls to attention a view about human sexuality that has taken many centuries to develop.

Western Judeo-Christian society is the inheritor of 2,000 years of tradition about the place and role of sexual experience and expression. Early attitudes were themselves influenced by still earlier pagan and non-Western philosophies. An overview of these historical roots places our modern understanding of human sexuality in better context.

If we use the Bible as a starting place, it is interesting to note that the biblical Hebrew and Greek texts had no word to express the concept of human sexuality that we use today. The Bible was not a code book of sexual ethics, and it regarded sexuality as one aspect of life within the context of the whole community. The ancient Jews saw sex as a natural and good part of living. There was an emphasis on procreation for the good of the community. Sexual practices of pagan cults were strongly reacted against as a way of keeping the Jewish people free of outside influences.

The early Christian attitudes about sexuality also reflected a reaction against pagan influences. But early Christian writers were influenced by popular Greek and Roman philosophy that reflected a distrust of passion and desire. This Stoic philosophy suggested an indifference toward things sensual. A result was seen in a neo-Platonic dualism that viewed a split between the body and the spirit. Self-denial and the taming of sexual passion were seen as virtuous. Sexual desire was eventually seen as sinful, and celibacy, virginity, and chastity were aspired to as virtuous. Sex became a matter of procreation, and, by the Middle Ages, even intercourse within marriage was regulated. Sexual pleasure within marriage was not untainted from some sin. It is not difficult to imagine how such a sex-negative attitude over the centuries resulted in ingrained feelings of guilt and shame about sexual activity. This guilt about sex is part of Western mankind's religious heritage.

Since people in Western culture traditionally have been raised to resist biologically normal responses in the name of religious teachings, many people have difficulty in making the transition to a sexual union that is blessed by church and society. Psychoanalytic writers have repeatedly made the point that anxiety and fear generated from early attitudes and sexual experiences can contribute to adult sexual dysfunctions. Religious orthodoxy was one of the common causative factors for treatment failure cited by Masters and Johnson in their original work on sexual inadequacy. Sin and shame could be seen as interfering with natural biological responses.

Kaplan has described how religious attitudes, particularly those of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism, with their prohibition of most sexual expressions outside marriage, have contributed to the development of systems of sexual anxiety in her sample of patients. Kaplan also noted the connection between religious beliefs and negative consequences for sexual desire. However, other authors caution us not to oversimplify the relationship between orthodoxy and sexual dysfunction, for there are many devout people who are sexually functional, and there are many sexually dysfunctional people who are not religious.

If we can extrapolate from the findings of these researchers in human sexuality, we can in many cases be sure that there is still in our culture a continuing underlying dualism between body and spirit. There is still an underlying assumption, particularly for those with a religious background, that the body and its natural needs and expressions are somewhat suspect, and matters of the spirit are elevated or better or more pure. Religious and cultural role models still exist that emphasize chastity and abstinence (apart from prudent undertakings to avoid disease and pregnancy) as well as the implied and often stated belief that humankind's spiritual journey would be effected by transcending our bodies and sexual nature. This realization of the erotic nature of human beings has consequences even within sexual unions sanctioned by churches. People report to therapists a sense of guilt and discomfort about sexual feelings, sexual desire, and sexual pleasure that are not related to other emotional problems. These negative feelings are usually related to behaviors that traditional religion has viewed with disapproval but yet are common practices in the human experience. For example, masturbation, artificial contraception, homosexuality and abortion, though not equivalent practices, often cause considerable conflict. A literal understanding of religious teachings is usually at the basis of guilt feelings. A thorough exploration of the particular religious understanding is often helpful in clarifying significant issues.

Clinical Examples

One of the fundamental areas in which sexual difficulties can be attributed to religious experience is that of sexual desire. A primary task of psychological development is becoming aware of one's sexual feelings and understanding them as natural, with the result being acceptance of sexual feelings as a part of the sense of self. While sexual feelings are biologically programmed, it is the socialization and control of them by religious and cultural norms that cause the experience, acceptance, and expression of sexual feelings to be filled with special meaning. It is the meaning, or personal psychological value, given to sexual desire that can prompt so much confusion in people.

If we feel that sexual desire equals sin, then sexual desire can become a natural experience that can lead to anticipatory anxiety rather than to pleasure. What can result is an internal repression of sexual feelings, with the consequent inhibition of sexual desire. In other words, a person can be uncomfortable with internal sexual desire, label it as morally wrong, and feel guilty for what is really a genetically programmed phenomenon. As a result, sexual expression can be repressed or the pleasurable value can be denied. If sexual behavior is engaged in, guilt often accompanies the activity.

In some situations, the conflict over sexual feelings can manifest itself in the development of sexual dysfunctions: inhibited desire, erectile failure, rapid or retarded ejaculation, female anorgasmia, vaginismus, and dyspareunia (painful intercourse). As suggested above, for some people, sexual desire and its consequence, sexual arousal, can be a catalyst for anxiety and guilt rather than pleasure. For example, many women complain of being anorgasmic. Upon evaluation of their complaint, in some cases it is apparent that these women are shutting down their sexual response by interpreting their natural level of sexual arousal with anxiety rather than with pleasure. Not only has their distrust of their own pleasure interfered with their sexual functioning, but their inability to respond often leads to guilt about not responding to or even satisfying their sexual partner. The experience is not too different in men, but their dysfunction can be more dramatic when erectile or ejaculatory difficulties are involved. The impact of these difficulties on the couple is also more dramatic if the sexual dysfunction is the cause of an inability to conceive. In such cases, the guilt toward the spouse can compound the earlier religious guilt. One can argue from a psychodynamic perspective that a person punishes himself or herself for having forbidden sexual desires by causing the sexual failure and subsequent interpersonal disappointment. As a caution, this interpretation is a speculation and cannot be proven.

The development and maintenance of sexual problems are complicated and subject to many variables, including learned experiences and anxiety that is the result of earlier failures. Some sexual problems become functionally autonomous and many continue even after therapeutic intervention has uncovered an underlying cause that may have been rooted in religious teachings.

Thus far, we have focused on the early stages of the sexual response cycle and how religious influences could negatively affect the phases of desire and arousal. The final phase of the cycle is sexual satisfaction. It is in this final phase of satisfaction that problems are being experienced by people who have no complaints or dysfunctions in their patterns of desire, arousal, or orgasm. Essentially, while no true sexual dysfunction is present, these people complain that their sexual encounters are unsatisfying.

While a dysfunctional relationship is frequently the cause of such a complaint, at other times the problem represents an example of guilt about pleasure and fear of letting go sexually. For some people, the act of letting go sexually involves a focus on the self rather than the partner. This behavior is often labeled as a form of self-centeredness, or even self-love, and can itself inspire guilt, because the person may feel that he or she is using the partner as a means to achieve his or her own sexual satisfaction. This scenario is a good example of the tendency of some religions to emphasize a selfless love over a love that desires fulfillment.

Clinical sex research has shown that sexual difficulties are often more disruptive of relationships than actual sexual dysfunctions. For example, sexual difficulties arise in relationships in the form of disagreements about sexual habits or practices, the amount of foreplay before intercourse, and even an inability to relax during sex. Guilt about pleasure is at times overcome by some people by embracing their particular denomination's teaching about the positive aspects of a blessed marital union. To some extent, this approach sanitizes sex and perpetuates the disembodiment of sexuality from spirituality.

For many believers, the official teachings of their faith stress the existence of certain moral absolutes; beliefs that cannot have exceptions. Therefore, certain actions are forbidden and are seen as morally evil in themselves. Such personal moral beliefs can result in sexual difficulties and can present a barrier to the treatment of some sexual problems or dysfunctions because of the forbidden nature of the acts. For example, treatment that uses masturbation, active sexual fantasies, sexually explicit materials, sexual surrogates, abortion, sterilization, or in vitro fertilization to achieve treatment goals may be excluded from possible use on religious grounds.

There are positive notions today in which some theologians view human sexuality in a more holistic fashion that stresses men and women as equals and views sexual expression as leading toward wholeness. Such views seek to demonstrate that man is a sexual creature as created by God and that a more sex-positive model can replace the traditional dualistic and natural-law approach that placed humankind at odds with its sexual nature. The goals of sexuality as seen holistically are not exclusively procreational but include pleasure, mutuality, and a respect for the other in loving, committed relationships. Such a philosophy of sexuality is inclusive and allows for the development of conscience based on faith, reason, tradition, and experience.

We can see that religious teachings need not lead to guilt and sexual problems. Even within the framework of traditional religious backgrounds, many people are able to incorporate new understandings about their sexuality into their belief system in a positive and growth-producing fashion. At times, only a better understanding of specific church teaching is all that is necessary to gain freedom from old modes of thinking about sexuality. Erroneous beliefs, once corrected, can lead to a new sense of involvement and exploration of one's sexuality.

Finally, whether the person is a committed believer, casually observant, or a nonbeliever, the influence of religion on the attitudes of "Western Judeo-Christian culture is significant and cannot be ignored. A close examination of these roots can lead to a clarification and even rediscovery of meaning for many in a secular society where religious mores are constantly evolving.


Frank, E., et al. Frequency of Sexual Dysfunction in "Normal" Couples. New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 299 (1978), pp. 111-15.

Kaplan, H.S. Disorders of Sexual Desire. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1979.

Kaplan, H.S. Sexual Aversion, Sexual Phobias, and Panic Disorder. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1987.

Kosnick, A., et al. Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

Leiblum, S., and R. Rosen. Sexual Desire Disorders. New York: Guilford, 1988.

Masters, W., and V. Johnson. Human Sexual Inadequacy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Nelson, J. Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978.

Nelson, J. Religious Dimensions of Sexual Health. In G. Albee, ed., Promoting Sexual Responsibility and Preventing Sexual Problems. Hanover, N.H.: Univ. Press of New England, 1983.

Slowinski, J. Sexual Adjustment and Religious Training: A Sex Therapist's Perspective. In R. Green, ed., Sexuality and Medicine. Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel/Kluwer, 1991.

Yates, W. The Church and Its Holistic Paradigm of Sexuality. SIECUS Report, Vol. 16 (1988), pp. 4-5.

Julian W. Slowinski


Charity Eva Runden, born October 1, 1910, received her Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1951. Her career spanned the years 1943 to 1985. At the heart of her 40-year career has always been a concern with psychology, sociology, and especially human sexuality. Always, Runden has been an innovator, a pioneer, and a professional who has been completely devoted to the issues that concerned her and the world around her: namely, health care, human sexuality, sex education, women's issues, and issues of aging. Although Runden has partially retired from her positions as college professor and director of the Runden Institute, she continues to lecture and to consult in all the areas of her interest.

Runden is presently professor emerita at Montclair State College, Montclair, New Jersey; was acting dean of the Graduate School at Western Illinois University; and was professor of psychology, sociology, and education at the University of Kentucky and at Indiana University. She was Dean of Women and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Montclair State College. Runden was founder and executive director of the Educational Foundation for Human Sexuality at Montclair State College (1967-1979), where she was responsible for establishing an M.A. degree program in educational psychology, with a specialization in human sexuality. She has also been a health-education consultant and was a consultant for venereal disease programs during World War II.

Notable among her written work is a study she conducted of "Fifty Happily Married Women." She is currently completing three books on female sexuality and continues to write a series of booklets on family life education, one of which is on sex education for parents of the exceptional child. Runden's reviews appear regularly in Library Journal and in Voice of Youth Advocates. She is also an accomplished and published poet.

Runden was a board member, secretary, and treasurer of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSSS). She was a charter member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) and of the American College of Sexologists, a fellow of the American Public Health Association and of the Masters and Johnson Institute, and a member of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS); she is a recipient of the SSSS Award for Distinguished Scientific Achievement.

For the last 45 years, Runden has been married to John P. Runden, professor of English literature at William Paterson College. Given the major interests of this remarkable woman's career, theirs has been an exemplary relationship.


Runden, C.E. Selected Readings for Sex Education. Berkeley, Calif.: McCutchan, 1969.

Runden, C.E. Sex Education for Parents of Exceptional Children. Montclair, N.J.: Runden Institute, 1979, 1983.

Runden, C.E. To Be a Woman. In H. Silverman, ed., Marital Therapy: Moral, Sociological and Psychological Factors. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1971.

Runden, C.E. Twentieth Century Educators. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965.

Leah Cahan Schaefer

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