Saturday, November 28, 2015

Sex and Death: Life's Anxieties & Christianity

How Sex and Death Anxiety Link to Christianity

How would you feel if you learned a friend or close relative decided to have sex to help with expenses? Earlier today, a headline news story reported on the low rates Greek women get for sex-- some just get enough to buy a meal. 

Christians often show an interest in rescuing people from sex trafficking. But not all sex workers are trafficked. And not all sex work is illegal. But sex work has a long history of condemnation and in many places sex workers are at high risk of harm. Sex work is just one example of the sex-linked issues confronting Christians who want to show compassion but may be put off by some aspects of the lives of the people they wish to help. For many Christians, sex evokes disgust.

The leaders of a group I attend on Sundays decided to study Richard Beck’s book, Unclean. Beck takes readers on a journey through the psychology of disgust and shows how we emotionally respond to disgusting experiences by avoidance and creating protective barriers. Unfortunately, disgust can lead the church away from people who act in ways that seem disgusting. Thus, the church needs to recognize the power of disgust and find ways to fellowship with those in need. In several ways, Jesus touched the lives of those considered unclean in his day. His behavior was a scandal—in fact, Beck sees the incarnation as a scandal.

Since I had written about the new research on moral psychology, I volunteered for a couple of chapters. Last week and this week has to do with sex. Thanks to Beck I have considered more about the disgust factor on church behavior than I might have done otherwise. But I also have my own thoughts dealing with anxiety and that influential Terror Management Theory, which I think expands an understanding of the trouble the church has in dealing with sex and another close source of anxiety, death.

Sex and Disgust

Christians have a long history of difficulty with human sexuality and matters linked to sex like abortion, birth control, divorce and remarriage. People in many cultures find bodily fluids disgusting. And many of these fluids link to sex. It’s no surprise that some people have problems with sexual functioning. How does anyone overcome such disgust to enjoy sex? It appears that sexual arousal is more powerful and overcomes the disgust factor (Borg & de Jong, 2012). But it also appears that some people vary in their disgust sensitivity ( Al-Shawaf, Lewis, & Buss, 2014). And women reveal more disgust than do men (Fleischman news story;   Fleischman et al., 2015). Disgust is a protective factor. Beck doesn’t want us to throw open the doors to sexual predators but he does want us to understand how disgust can be influential in the way Christians view various aspects of sex.

Given the church’s stance on things sexual, it can look like the church is obsessed with sex. The church is against premarital sex, abortion, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and pornography. It appears to be against birth control and discriminates against women in terms of permissible roles. In fairness, Christians are a diverse lot and many don’t go along with official teachings. Most Christians do use birth control and those who object do so because some forms of birth control appear to end life. Some do not want to support premarital sex so they preach abstinence only, which leaves many unprotected when they do not abstain. And recently, some churches have welcomed women as clergy and into leadership. Regardless of the changes, those who do not live up to the church’s teaching end up looking impure and contaminated. In short they have sinned and need their sins washed away to be clean and holy. But you can’t take back virginity can you? A funny thing about sex is that one incident marks a person for life. It's as if a person is contaminated. The reaction is emotional and not rational.

Sex and Death

Beck writes about disgust and death in the chapter before sex. Indeed, some aspects of corpses are disgusting and scary too—as we find in many a movie. Beck doesn’t offer a lot about the sex-death link. But the link is common in literature, film, religion, and psychoanalysis.

I think the sex-death link is most powerful when we consider the rape-war connection. The rape of women by male warriors has a long history. Only recently have records from World War II revealed the horrors in France as described by historian Mary Louise Roberts.

And there is this sex-death connection made by the FBI in their analysis of serial murder: “The majority of serial killers who are sexually motivated erotized violence during development. For them, violence and sexual gratification are inexplicably intertwined  in their psyche (p.12; Serial Murder).”

And of course there’s abortion, which in the view of many is the killing of an unborn child. Christians who take a strict view of life do not support abortion even in cases where a girl has become pregnant due to incest or other forms of sexual assault. In abortion, sex and death anxiety are co-mingled. And the imagery of an aborted baby and the medical use of aborted fetuses is horrifying and stimulates disgust and righteous anger in many.

Sex, Death, and Christianity

We might wonder how sex and death could gain some spiritually uplifting dimension. The church of course has a long history of declaring sex off limits except within a marriage relationship. The purpose of sex was to have children. And somewhere in the last few decades, Evangelical Christians decided sex could be a good thing—a blessing to enjoy—not just in the proverbial missionary position but in all sorts of ways (e.g., CT article.

But realizing the power of sex still meant keeping some boundaries in place. Virginity is still a prize for many Christians. Despite the inclusion of boys in the purity movement, the big push was to keep girls pure. So Christians created purity rings and purity balls connecting fathers and daughters. I suspect that a lot of folks meant well. But many have commented on how strange the purity movement is. I suppose being a clinician and seeing so many victims of child sexual abuse I prefer to see firm boundaries between parents and children—good friendships, yes; but no dating, please.

Virginity has an integral place in Christianity. We know about the virgin birth and the special place of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition. But you may not know that nearly one percent of U.S. women claim virgin births. And of that number, one study found 31% had signed chastity pledges (CBS news; Study details at bmj). Somewhere in here I ought to mention celibacy, which may be defined as an abstinence from both sex and marriage. 

Death is often seen as God’s punishment for various sins—including many of those banned in the Ten Commandments. What the church teaches of course is that there is forgiveness for sins and with that forgiveness comes a bonus—eternal life. So in one fell swoop, all the sexual sins are wiped away and the specter of death is defeated. Redemption brings relief from anxiety.

Christian and Existential Roots of Sex and Death Anxiety

Essentially, Christianity undoes the effects of the twin evils found in the first few pages of Genesis. In the famous garden story a scary animal (Brewer, 2001) challenges God’s Rule. The man is tempted to take a woman’s fruit then discovers his nakedness. (Read Genesis 3.)

Next, the humans find they are more like animals than heavenly creatures. They are sexual beings and mate like other animals. Unlike the animals though, they experience a sense of shame. We soon see many rules and rituals designed to hide their nakedness and control sexuality. It looks a lot like controlling sex anxiety to me.

But of course there’s another animal reminder—humans now must die. They become aware that they are finite and must always live with the reminder that death is in their future. God casts them out of the Garden so they do not eat of the tree of life and live forever. So not only must they deal with sexuality like other animals but they must also deal with their mortality, which also makes humans seem more like other animals rather than like gods. Sex and death are linked in Genesis. Both sex and death trigger anxiety but death is more powerful.

Regardless of religious belief, the elements of the Genesis narrative are with humans in sex-linked shame and death awareness. This kind of thinking provoked Søren Kierkegaard and the existential philosophers, Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts, Ernest Becker, and the founders of Terror Management Theory.

Here’s where I diverge from Richard Beck. Although I see the role of disgust as a factor separating the church from engaging people in need, I also see a powerful existential anxiety best accounted for by Terror Management Theory (TMT; see notes below). Reminders of mortality motivate action to manage the underlying anxiety. People dealing with death often seek comfort from their faith and hug their family members. And they engage in other anxiety management rituals like prayer designed to increase a sense of control and meaning amidst the chaotic events of life. Who can forget those helpless pleas of many victims: Why? Why? Why?

Things that remind us of death threaten our sense of worth and value in a profound way. Many of us are involved in life-long projects to demonstrate our worth to others now and beyond our lifespan. Low levels of anxiety motivate us to be cautious. Anxiety can be productive when we invest in families, relationships, and things that make lives better and safer for ourselves and others. Excessive anxiety results in avoidance and immobility. Refugees flee destruction. In "safe" societies people avoid people when high anxiety confines them to their homes. Others freeze--overwhelmed with fear when in certain settings. Still others become obsessed with germs and infections and develop compulsive rituals that interfere with life tasks. Excessive anxiety can be a crippling life-long impairment.

Christians Managing Anxiety

The Christian answer to sex is of course to place sex safely within a marriage relationship where sex is sanctified, holy, and controlled. This placement of sex within a life-long marriage appeared reasonable for centuries. After all, raising children—the natural products of sex, is hard work—especially when you could not control how many you had.

The advent of birth control (BC) obviously freed women from the common natural outcome of sex-- pregnancy and childbirth. Since BC, many in western cultures have worked to de-link sex from marriage. As a result, the church is losing its grip on both marriage and sex. Individuals rather than the church are making their own decisions about getting married. And having sex is often not a part of the marriage decision. 

The church has not yet come to grips with the fact that substantial percentages of the people in church are condemned as sinners by traditional church doctrine. If a church makes people aware of their sins then they risk increasing anxiety. People might leave to avoid such negativity. What would happen to church budgets if the church preached old sermons against divorce and remarriage and half the congregation left? It's safer for churches to preach purity to a captive audience of youth. So, some churches focuses on premarital sex and ignore the older audience of singles who have had sex when married or not.

Essentially, most church leaders remain silent about sexuality and in doing so, the church defers judgment about sexual morality to the congregants and their culture. Some rise to condemn easy targets like same-sex marriage, sex-trafficking, abortion, and sex among teens but the other issues are relics of the past. Perhaps church leaders also experience anxiety about sex.

I suspect a psychological factor is at work too. Familiarity reduces anxiety. Christians no longer fear the effects of divorce and remarriage or pregnant single women now that they or many of their friends and relatives have had the experience. Older people were warned about the sins of divorce and remarriage using the language of adultery. Divorcees hid their past. And adultery was often assumed to be the cause of a broken relationship. Pregnant teens were sent away, removed from school, or forced into marriage with the boyfriend. Now people are used to embracing family and friends.

The sexual freedom in relationships offered by many world cultures brings new anxieties. In some cases, there are insufficient services for those who become infected due to unprotected sex. And when sex results in a pregnancy, many suffer from the lack of support systems for single parents. Outside the church there are still safety concerns when it comes to sex. Safety in sex is not just about disease. Safety includes creating a culture of respect free from sexual harassment and counter to rape culture. A new culture of shame is developing around those who harass and those who rape and sexually exploit others. Secular society and not the church sets the new ethos.

Christians also lost control over marriage, which was the safe place for sex. Divorce and remarriage were prohibited by Jesus (Matthew 19) and his church. This was the norm for centuries. Although there was a divorce exception for adultery (sex again), many Christians questioned the validity of remarriage until a person was freed from the marriage vow at the death of a spouse. Somehow the church seems to have given up on preaching against divorce and remarriage. The teaching remains but Christians seem willing to accept divorce and remarriage as a natural part of life. In 2015 Pope Francis encouraged priests to welcome the divorced and remarried (RNS story).

The church has added premarital counseling and provided marriage enrichment seminars—good ideas to be sure yet the level of impact on national divorce rates appears minimal so far. That’s not surprising if you think about changing entire behavior patterns for a couple in 3-6 hours of a premarital counseling experience.

Recently the church has faced new challenges to marriage in the form of same-sex marriages permitted by laws in several countries and supported by some but not most churches. The explicit biblical issues of course deal with same-sex sex—not marriage per se. Although, most conservative churches also make the case that a Christian marriage is between a man and a woman. When it comes to same-sex sex, there is a disgust response (research example). But few speak openly about this factor. Regardless of the role of disgust, there is also a strong undercurrent of anxiety. The church has lost control over marriage. Some even wonder if they should give up on trying to control marriage in cultures that have redefined marriage in a way that is unchristian.

Even worse are those stories revealing sexual assault by clergy and other Christian leaders. Isn’t anywhere safe anymore? If you can’t go to church or a Christian school and be safe where can you go? What parent can ever trust a children’s pastor or youth worker? What woman can ever trust a male pastor in counseling? And what about all those victims living with PTSD symptoms for the rest of their lives? Moreover, what about those victims who can’t take it any more so they seek relief from the pain of life in suicide?

By many counts, managing sex and sex-linked issues (e.g., birth control, abortion, marriage) have not gone well for the church. But there is some evidence that the church provides a buffer against death. The blessed Christian hope is that after death comes the resurrection and a joining together with one’s ancestors and God—there is eternal life after all. And sexuality is gone- there’s no marriage as Jesus pointed out. Life and white-robed purity characterize life-after-life. The sting of death is gone. The terror is resolved and the existential anxiety that hangs over so many heads is removed. If you were close to a Christian who died you have heard the reminders that they are in a better place and they are at peace. They are with Jesus. They are looking down on us now. And for some, no doubt, these sayings bring a measure of comfort. But they don't help everyone.

There is a downside if eternal life becomes a superficial gloss that obviates responsibility in this life. For some, confronting death early in life is a wake-up call—a reminder that this life can be meaningful. Death enhances the importance of life and infuses relationships with joy and a zest for life. So Christians living solely for heaven may miss out on a rich and fulfilled life here and now--as an old saying went, they are "too heavenly minded and no earthly good."

The simple church solution to a meaningful life has long been to convert the lost (i.e., unchristian), clean them up (baptize), and get them on the road to heaven. This revivalist approach crops up from time to time amongst those focused on teachings about the end of the world. And it’s also common for some Pentecostals to think they may miss death altogether by a sudden rising up to meet Jesus in the air (called the rapture).


1. Sex and death are important life boundary experiences. All humans experience a degree of anxiety. It’s necessary for survival. Anxiety about sex and relationships as well as death are natural and probably more protective than disgust in the long run. Placing sex and death within a meaning system is vital to managing human anxiety. 

2. Christianity offers a meaningful place for sex and death. But not all forms of Christianity welcome people with certain sexual histories. And some forms of Christianity exacerbate anxiety related to sexual purity and what happens when someone dies.
3. Churches and other components of a society will always need boundaries when it comes to sexuality and relationships. Sex enhances loving relationships.  The intimacy of sex nourishes the attachment bonds foundational to happy and healthy marriages and families. Sex without boundaries has the power to destroy individuals like a river suddenly rising above its banks and destroying nearby individuals and their families.

4. Forgiveness cheapens grace when forgiveness is interpreted to mean Christians must forgive everyone qua letting other ruin their lives. Interpersonal behavior always has consequences. In a church community, behavior can evoke anxiety by disrupting relationships integral to overcoming life’s anxieties. True forgiveness releases victims from their past but does not remove boundaries critical to safety.

5. Churches ought to reach out to people who are different or who do not live according to the teaching of the church. Churches do well to affirm marriage and they do even better to provide programs supporting commitment within a marriage. Committed relationships are built on a bond of love (attachment theory for psychologists). People in committed relationships are in a better position to cope with the anxieties of life.

6. Churches need to get a grip on death and suicide. Thoughts of eternity don’t help so much when a loved one is dying or a mentally ill relative is in and out of a hospital due to suicide threats and attempts. If a church is a community then it must provide a network of support for all members.

7. It's easy to see why many social scientists see all religions as systems created by people to provide life with meaning. Others see religion as a way of coping with life's anxieties. It is natural for Christians to reject such views thinking only one perspective has to be true and all other views counted as false. But I suggest Christians may still hold to the tenets of faith and find that certain doctrines do indeed offer meaning and a way of coping with life's anxieties. And through the example of Jesus, Christian can find ways to connect with people considered unclean, marginalized, and unworthy.

8. I suspect the church has lost a great deal of credibility over the behavior of that minority of church leaders whose sexual behavior is either contrary to what they taught or destructive of young lives as in sexual abuse. The sins of sexual abuse went on for decades and were covered up by the church. In addition to apologies and restitution, churches must ensure they have protective policies in place to protect all persons from sexual harassment of any kind. 


Ernest Becker may be less familiar than the other names. Becker was a cultural anthropologist who drew on the works of the existentialists and psychoanalysts to explain the role of death anxiety in human existence. For Becker, culture is a life project that enables people to deal with anxiety. Many aspects of our lives are designed to help us extend our mortality beyond the grave- like writing this blog for example. More on Becker.

Divorce and remarriage. Pope Francis made news on the topic when he called for the church to embrace Catholics who divorced and remarried. (RNS story).

Existentialism. Several aspects of existentialism are relevant to this discussion. Regardless of religion, existentialists confront issues of anxiety, morality and death and the whole meaning of life. A helpful summary can be found at Stanford's Plato site.

Purity culture is a Christian movement focused on sexual purity meaning that young men and women will be virgins until they marry. The movement includes a strong push for abstinence and a silver ring representing a commitment. Peter Enns reviews a recent book on the topic. Earlier this year, The Independent published a story on Purity Balls.

Snakes. Geoffrey Brewer reported the results of a Gallup Poll showing snakes as the top fear. The garden animal in Genesis is usually represented as a snake.

TMT. In TMT, reminders of death motivate people to find meaning in life including a sense of order and a set of cohesive explanations of existence. TMT also motivates people to find a sense of worth and value and find a source of hope that overcomes death (Hirschberger & Pyszczynski, 2012).

Virgin Mary. Catholic teaching about the Virgin Mary does show a focus on sexuality and death. She is the "New Eve" in some thinking, which of course emphasizes the importance of Genesis to so many issues of sex and relationships. Did she escape death? I don't know. But Catholic teaching includes the assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her life. Read more at ewtn 

The Virgin Mary Consoles Eve


Beck, R. (2011). Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality. Eugene, OR: Cascade.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Hirschberger, G., & Pyszczynski, T. (2012). Killing with a clean conscience: Existential angst and the paradox of morality. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver (Eds.) , The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 331-347). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/13091-018

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g., AMAZON

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