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Sex, therapy and religion

July 30th, 2007

Dr Petra

One of my sexology heroes Paul Joannides recently circulated a feature from the LA Times that focuses on a Muslim sex therapist’s work as a sex educator in Egypt.

‘Frank talk from Muslim sex therapist’ describes the views and work of Heba Kotb who educates the public about orgasm, sexual problems, sexual frequency and the role of marriage. Her views may be familiar to Muslims (and also to other religions), with the promotion of sex within marriage, and a willingness to tackle sexual difficulties – but a negative view towards sex outside marriage, masturbation and the use of sex toys.

Kotb feels that it is an obligation for couples to enjoy a fulfilling sex life within marriage, but that sex outside of marriage is not only morally wrong but can cause other problems in both society and people’s sex lives. She believes that masturbation (which is not explicitly addressed in the Koran) is only acceptable in moderation and if no alternative is available – and presumably should not be practised within marriage. Sex toys and pornography are viewed negatively as they may discourage a person from seeking a relationship with a partner.

The interview with Kotb is thought provoking and at times challenging. Clearly a woman discussing sex openly in any religious culture is to be admired and welcomed. However, Kotb’s views are not necessarily in step with wider evidence on sex. For example there’s evidence that masturbation is not only helpful (and a form of safer sex) but it is particularly empowering for women. Although sex toys can be overly promoted by those with only commercial interests at heart, they can also have a place within improving people’s sexual experiences. Sex before marriage or in a partnership where a couple are dating or living together may be commonplace in many cultures and may not cause any more problems than for married couples.

Yet much of this evidence comes from Western researchers working with Western populations where the moral, religious and cultural standards differ. Those outside the West often look at our problems with teenage pregnancy, high levels of sexually transmitted infections, increasing divorce levels and homosexuality and see it as evidence of sexual promiscuity or immorality. They have little incentive to follow our advice or theories on sexual behaviour.

This can often lead to differences in how sex is researched, therapy delivered, and how sexual health care is provided. Tensions can emerge between providing sex advice that’s based on evidence and religious or cultural views – which leads to ethical dilemmas.

Is it acceptable if your prevailing culture believes that sex outside of wedlock or homosexuality is a sin, to only discuss sex within a context of marriage and promote homosexuality as a disease or mental illness? If your religion forbids (or does not discuss) issues like oral sex or masturbation is it right to avoid teaching people about these issues even if they could offer pleasure – and potentially could be safer than other sexual practices? What does it mean if you’re a sex educator or therapist and you do not speak out if your country endorses (or does not seek to prevent) ‘punishments’ of stoning, public beatings or hanging for pre or extra marital sexual activity or homosexuality; or female circumcision?

Some feel that it is perfectly okay to offer sex education, research or therapy within a specific religious or cultural context – sticking to giving information to those who are married, keeping the genders clearly separated (so women don’t talk to men and vice versa), and to promoting a view of sex that is within the context of a heterosexual, monogamous and married life.

Others feel this is either a compromise or is unethical – since it panders to the prevailing moral or religious culture that often discriminates against women, homosexuals or those who are not having relationships that fit within a marital ideal. They criticise how some sex therapy in orthodox religious communities can make allowances for men who have extra marital activities, but not for women. Or that attempts are not made to empower women generally that may lead to them having both greater human and sexual rights.

Some sex therapists, health professionals and educators believe that it’s best to keep their teachings based on religious texts (e.g. the Bible or Koran). They do not believe in teaching widely about sex as they worry it encourages sexual activity outside of the marital ideal. Others believe more problems will result if you do not teach people – particularly young people – about homosexuality, contraception, sexual pleasure and what actually happens during sex.

With the blurring of global boundaries and the influence of the West on other parts of the world there are worries that media sex messages will have a negative effect. People will be recieving more than the standard state or religious approved sex messages and may have many more questions about sex than are currently being answered.

We know without adequate training those offering sex advice may well give people misleading information – albeit with good intentions. However there are major issues to be addressed around what information is acceptable within different cultural and religious contexts – and whether information should be delivered within a cultural context, and with or without compromise.

While there are amazing sex educators globally giving advice that answers people’s questions on their sexual health, there are some educators or therapists that give very bad sex advice informed by religious views that may not always truly reflect religious teachings.

Internationally the study of sex, and education or therapy offered varies widely. We need to encourage wider debate, discussion and research to establish what are the needs of our communities – and how best to deliver the sex information they need within the restrictions or opportunities offered by our different faith based or secular societies.

While I respect different religions and feel religion and spirituality have a part to play in sex education and therapy, I am increasingly concerned when religion is used as an excuse to not talk about sex or provide poor sex advice. Just as I’m concerned when secular or commercial approaches also give us misleading information.

It’s uncomfortable to challenge different cultural or religious views as you do not wish to be seen as imposing Western ideals. But we still have to be brave and question if key messages aren’t right.

As more countries open up to discussing how they deliver sex advice and therapy we need to listen to what’s being provided, not be afraid to challenge when we see messages that may not always be accurate, positive or empowering. But to celebrate when we see good work being done.

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