Sexuality is a broad ranging and complex term that is difficult to succinctly define and is inextricably linked to the social, cultural, political and religious contexts surrounding it. Sexuality is most often concerned with notions of the body and encompasses ideas such as self-esteem, body image, sensory communication and intimacy. Traditionally female sexuality has been narrowly defined either in only biological terms or in response to male sexuality, however, “a woman’s sexuality is an expression of mutuality, involving not only physical gratification but also a sense of herself as a woman in the context of her life, her relationships, and emotions”.
Religion as a universal human foundation is humanity’s attempt to establish a ‘system’, ‘structure’ or ‘framework’, which underpins the existential ground on which human beings live their lives. It is evident that throughout history patriarchal interests have dominated this pursuit and continually “tried to repress female sacredness or subordinate it to male control.”Consequently the natural and free expression of female sexuality has been repeatedly silenced and suppressed in all major world religions including both monotheistic traditions in the West and those of the East.
In her study of the ancient goddess traditions of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, Denise Carmodyexplores evidence that the attitudes towards the role of women in religious practices were in ancient times closely linked to a worship of the earth and subsequently the sacredness of the body. Her wide ranging study parallels European goddess traditions with those of the Middle East and Asia and she ultimately proclaims that “the more we learn about the archaic roots of virtually any ancient culture, the more we are to find female sexuality a potent presence.”In non-literate and prehistoric times a more holistic worldview existed particularly in relation to the human being’s relationship to the natural world and unlike the tendency of most of the world religions that have evolved since, did “not separate body and spirit or matter and mind.”
The old European Goddess traditions abound with female divinity symbols such the snake and bird goddesses and vulva representations as well as the more commonly found pregnant goddesses as symbols of mother earth, all of which indicate the importance of the female in fertility practices and sexuality. Sexuality at this time it seems, at least from the modern religious perspective, was revered by these cultures as sacred. “It seems that the goddess cultures felt very strongly that sex and sexual intercourse were holy — heirophanies: revelations of the sacred, ways to union with the sacred…the sexual activities of the temple women, the goddess’s closest devotees, were acts of worship, not debauchery.” Though the ritual of ‘prostitution’ in relation to the temples of ancient goddess traditions such as that of ancient Sumeria, often has a negative connotation in its rejection by the male dominated religions that arose around and beyond it, it has been argued that “in ancient Mesopotamia, all prostitution was by definition sacral because the sexual act was a natural force working for the well being of the human race and was a power personified in the goddess Inanna / Ishtar.”
Sexual freedom for women has largely been eradicated with the arrival of literate societies and the establishment of formal religious settings though one curious ethnic minority culture in the south west of China has for almost two millennia retained a sexual freedom and liberation from the construct of marriage that dominates all major world religions as one form of control over women’s sexual lives. The Mosuo people of China, some might argue, exists outside of the realm of the major world religions though Buddhism is still widely practiced in the region. Quite remarkable is the fact that the Mosuo have retained their tradition “in startling contrast to the traditional Chinese patriarchy as primarily matrilineal and matrilocal.”For women in this tradition sexuality is viewed separately from family life and after an initiation ceremony at age thirteen, it is at the free discretion of the female to receive any sexual partner she wishes within the constraints of a nightly, private visit in her own room. Contemporary marriage is not practiced in this tradition and men and women are free to have multiple partners if they wish as the children belong to the household of the female. The most unique and extraordinary aspect of the Mosuo relationship to intimacy and sexuality from a contemporary perspective is “the equality and autonomy it afforded women over their sexual and reproductive lives. Mutual desire alone governed romantic and sexual unions for women and men alike…They do not suffer the nearly universal double standard that regulates women’s sexuality elsewhere. Mosuo culture does not venerate female chastity or judge women’s sexual behaviour differently from men’s.”
Not surprisingly in more recent times in the West out of necessity and despair many women have reinterpreted ancient goddess practices and rituals in relation to healing attitudes towards the body and the earth itself in order to find a way of accessing the body and sexuality through a religious or spiritual lens. In doing so they have highlighted what has been lost by the monotheistic religious quest to separate and “subordinate nature to a wholly good transcendent being.”
The matrilineal freedoms afforded to women in the Mosuo kinship of southwest China starkly contrast other major religious traditions of the East, most notably that of Hinduism. In the Hindu tradition that arose in the Indus Valley civilisation around 2500 BCE and still thrives today, marriage is the assumed position for all women and within a religious context her only role is to serve the male members of her family. “A woman must be subject to her father in childhood, to her husband in youth and to her sons when her husband is dead; she must never be independent.”Hinduism, in its exaltation of the path to liberation through renunciation and the yogic and meditative paths to moksha “or release from the material flow of existence (samsara)”, insists upon purity of the body, mind and soul and whilst a multitude of feminine forms are acknowledged in the body of goddesses representing the feminine face of God, ‘Shakti’, Hindu women are to be protected from any impurity through the strict control of marriage and must at all times submit to their husbands. “Women are not to have any independent sexuality outside of marriage…the practice of child marriage underscores women’s lack of control over their own sexuality.”
As the primary goal of the Hindu religion is sought through renunciation, “sex, as the fulcrum that links both the physical and social dimensions of worldly existence…is regarded as the principle obstacle that stands in the way of salvation…(and) since woman was, for man, Nature’s normal means for the satisfaction of his sexual impulse, she became synonymous with Desire.”
The Vedic traditional texts and dharma books of Hinduism primarily address men, as women have no real role to play in the religious tradition outside of marriage. In one 18thcentury dharma text however, women are portrayed as “dangerously lascivious and in need of control by men (and) it commends the wife who follows her husband in death by burning on his funeral pyre. The word sati, meaning ‘true woman’, is applied especially to a wife who shows this extreme form of devotion.”Restriction therefore of women’s sexuality is fundamental to maintaining the status of men in Hinduism and their insistence on the purity of their women.
In many contemporary New Age circles and popular cultures of spirituality, there has been a fascination with Tantra and Tantric practices that arose out of the Hindu tradition and have been loosely defined as ‘sacred sex.’ Like all other religious practices in Hinduism, Tantra also aims ultimately for liberation through a highly controlled practice that “seeks to harness “desire” for the attainment of enlightenment.”Whilst some scholars have argued that Tantra affords more sexual freedom for women than other religious traditions, the reality seems to be that in most Tantric practices the woman is merely used as a vehicle to activate the male’s sexual potency and thereby transform his sexual energy into a spiritual power. “The male Tantric’s attitude towards women is, like Shiva’s, essentially that of the world’s renouncer — she is a means to an end that in the final analysis accords her little positive value.”
If the creation of patriarchy is historical and not as some religious fundamentalists argue, universal, because “woman is subordinate to man because she was so created by god,”then we can certainly see its arrival in the major Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Judaism and Christianity from their conceptions have been highly concerned with the concept of sin and its relationship to women. The need to diminish and control women’s sexuality is central to this process. “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.”
Christianity as we know it encompasses a wide range of views and forms. The tradition was first formed around 4 BCE and circulates around the figure of Jesus who was known as the ‘messiah’ or Christ. The New Testament forms the basis of Christianity’s teachings and was laid down by the disciples or followers of Jesus who gave up everything including family life to follow him. Unlike Judaism, which is heavily rooted in family life and rituals, Christianity, in its origins, was a little freer of women’s roles within the domestic sphere and in terms of procreation than was Judaism. Virginity, however, was highly prized by Christians as there was a firm belief, similar to that of Hinduism, that “the intellect or soul longs to be separated from the body, which drags it down from its true spiritual home.”The association of women to the body however, made their position somewhat inferior to men who were aligned with the mind and spirit.
By the 4thcentury CE an influential theologian named Augustine who put forth many theories concerning the nature of evil and sin, expanded on this view of women as ‘body’ and linked them to temptation and sin making their position “sexually dangerous to men,”and therefore women were urged to renounce sexuality completely in order to overcome their innate carnality which was somehow seen as more pronounced than in men. “Since she is somehow made peculiarly the symbol of “body” in relation to the male (i.e., in a male visual perspective) and is associated with all the sensual and depraved characteristics of mind through this peculiar “corporeality” her salvation must be seen not as an affirmation of her nature but a negation of her nature, both physically and mentally and a transformation into a possibility beyond her natural capacities.”For Augustine and many other Christian interpreters of the Bible such as Ambrose and Aquinas, human desire was equated with sin and loss of control, and originated “from the first human couple at the very beginning.”
The biblical narrative of Adam and Eve found in chapter 3 of Genesis has fixated on the temptations of Eve with the serpent in the Garden of Eden and given her full responsibility for the introduction of sin into the world. “From the moment it was manifested through the action of Eve, sin became part of the human make-up, and inescapable since it was injected into each individual whenever sexual relations occurred in the process of procreation. Sin and sex become inextricably linked together in this type of Christian theology.”
According to Marina Warner in her study of the history and mythology of the figure of Mary, “It is almost impossible to overestimate the effect that the characteristic Christian association of sex and sin and death has had on the attitudes of our civilisation.”Whilst “sexuality represented to them the gravest danger and fatal flaw; they viewed virginity as its opposite and conqueror.”
The two central female figures of the Biblethat carry the full weight of these projections are Eve and Mary with the events of the Original Sin in the Garden of Eden and the Annunciation respectively and their influence on the suppression and subordination of women in both Christianity and Judaism has been immense. In many ways Eve is a figure that is central to Christianity’s estimation of women and through the teaching of the Gospels, has had a profound impact on the restrictions imposed upon women in the Christian tradition. “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through child-bearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
Lilith also acts as an interesting counter figure in the quest to control women’s sexuality as she appears in the Judaic tradition; “In Lilith and Eve two types of womanhood are offered: the former is realized in terms of equality with her male counterpart; the latter in terms of subservience. That these two alternatives can exist side by side in this context suggests that gender is a social construct rather than biologically determined. Lilith is just as female in her challenge to Adam as Eve is in her submission to him.”Lilith whilst being a unique representation of the female in a sexual sense and often referred to in contemporary Judaism as a source of empowerment for women, she is only enigmatically referred to in biblical literature in a scene filled with divine wrath; “it shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and fins a place to rest.”Known as the first creation of woman for Adam in the Hebrew Scriptures, her refusal to lie beneath him but rather to insist to be on top indicates again the potency of women’s sexuality in ancient traditions and potentially signifies an early equality that was swiftly replaced by the creation of Eve.
In our contemporary context the consequences of growing up within religious traditions that aim to control and suppress the sexuality of women continues to be felt. Women’s sexuality is inextricably connected not only to biology, but all aspects of cultural, social and religious life. “So integrated are social and biological factors in all women’s experience of desire and pleasure that it is difficult to tease them apart…joy, like its loss, is not only biologically but culturally grounded.”Guilt, shame, fear and sexual paralysis continue to be ”the overwhelming legacy of religious teachings about women’s sexuality.”As religion is so fundamental to humanity’s need to assess and contextualize it’s moral and spiritual actions and reactions, including feelings about sexuality, the absence of accounts of pleasure and freedom in women’s sexuality from the religious discourses in all major world religions, in order to affirm and support the values and power of the patriarchy, has done a great deal of harm in shaping the sexual identity of young girls and women throughout the world. “The absence of sexual joy in so many women’s lives is in part a consequence of the way ‘good sex’ has been constructed in Christian moral traditions. While there is some room for women’s delight along the fringes of this sacred canopy, it is not highlighted under the big tent.”
Contemporary Western Spirituality movements such as Neo-Paganism and Wicca have attempted to reframe female sexuality and “negate the rules and regulations imposed on women’s sexuality both by Christianity and Judaism and by traditional patriarchal societies in which women are seen as men’s possessions.”They seek to affirm sexuality as a natural and sacred aspect of the Goddess tradition and the revival of the ancient pagan festival of Beltane with it’s signature maypole dance is a potent and evocative symbolic representation of a celebration of the freedom and equality they espouse around sexuality. “The dance symbolizes the sex act as men and women holding brightly colored ribbons weave in and out. The maypole is envisaged as a phallic symbol that is placed in the hole of mother earth.”
It is clear that women’s experience of sexuality has been profoundly affected by the religious and associated cultural doctrines of the major world religions of our time. Female sexuality has always been a powerful and potent force that is fundamental to all of creation, yet patriarchal interests of domination and supremacy have, in the forming of all major world religions of both the East and West, led to the suppression and control of this force deeming it dangerous as best and at worst, evil. As women’s participation in religion continues to be significant in that it creates a sacred and social arena in which to articulate the existential questions and deep experiences of their lives, it is the work of our time to uncover, eradicate and heal these mechanisms of control of female sexuality both psychologically and in the world arena.
Allen, Michael ‘Introduction: The Hindu View of Women inWomen in India and Nepal, ANU, Canberra, 1982.
Anderson, Leona M. and Young, Pamela Dickey, Women and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, Canada,2004.
Bernhard, L.A, ‘Redefining Sexuality From Women’s Own Experiences.’ NCBI Review, 1986.
Carmody, D. ‘Women in Primal Societies’, in Women and World Religions, Denise Lardner Carmody. 2ndEdition. Englewood Cliff, N.J. 1989.
Danulik, J. & Browne, N. ‘Traditional Religious Doctrine and Women’s Sexuality, Women and Therapy’, 31:1, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1300/02703140802145284
Gerder, L., ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’, Oxford University Press, New York. 1986.
Lambert, W.G, 1975: ‘The Cult of Ishtar of Babylon’. 1992: Prostitution. In Volkert Haas (ed.): Außenseiter und Randgruppen. Xenia, Konstanzer Althistorische Vorträge und Forschungen 32. Konstanz: Konstanz Universitätsverlag. Pp. 127–157
Leslie, Julia. “The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman According to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan”. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989
Ridgeon, L, ‘Major World Religions’, Routledge, New York. 2003
Ruether, R. ‘Feminist Theologies: Legacy and Prospect’, Minneapolis. 2007
Sawyer, Deborah. ‘Women in the First Christian Centuries’, Routledge. London, 1996.
Stacey, Judith; ‘Unhitching The Horse From The Carriage: Love and Marriage among the Mosuo’, Journal of Law and Family Studies, Utah, 2012.
Warner, M. ‘Alone Of All Her Sex, The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary’. Picador, London. 1985
Wolf, Naomi. ‘Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood.’ New York: Random House, London. 1997.
Bernhard, L.A, ‘Redefining Sexuality From Women’s Own Experiences.’ NCBI Review, 1986
Carmody, D. ‘Women in Primal Societies’, in Women and World Religions, 1989, pg 21
Ibid, pg 19.
Lambert, W.G. ‘The Cult of Ishtar of Babylon. 1992: Prostitution. In Volkert Hass, p.127.
Stacey, Judith; ‘Unhitching The Horse From The Carriage: Love and Marriage among the Mosuo’, Journal of Law and Family Studies, 2012. Pg 242.
Ibid. Pg 244.
Carmody, D. ‘Women in Primal Societies’, in ‘Women and World Religions’, 1989, pg 35.
Law of Manu 5, 147–8
Allen, Michael ‘Introduction: The Hindu View of Women’ in Women in India and Nepal, 1982,pg 2
Leona M. Anderson and Pamela Dickey Young, Women and Religious Traditions, 2004, pg15.
Leslie, Julia. “The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman According to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan”. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989
Leona M. Anderson and Pamela Dickey Young, Women and Religious Traditions, 2004. Pg 16
Allen, Michael. ‘Introduction: The Hindu View of Women’ In Women in India and Nepal, Canberra, 1982, pg 13.
Gerder, L. ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’, 1986. Pg,16
Leona M. Anderson and Pamela Dickey Young, Women and Religious Traditions, 2004, pg 188
Ibid, pg 182.
Ruether, R. ‘Feminist Theologies: Legacy and Prospect. Minneapolis, 2007, pg161
Ridgeon, L, ‘Major World Religions’, Routledge, 2003, pg 183.
Sawyer, Deborah. ‘Women in the First Christian Centuries’, Routledge. 2014. Pg 134.
Warner, M. ‘Alone Of All Her Sex, The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary’, Picador 1985,pg 50.
1 Tim. 2. 12–15.
Sawyer, Deborah. ‘Women in the First Christian Centuries’, Routledge. 2014. Pg 145.
Ibid, pg 138
Wolf, Naomi. ‘Promiscuities: The secret struggle for womanhood.’ New York: Random House, 1997. Pg 34.
Danulik, J. & Browne, N. ‘Traditional Religious Doctrine and Women’s Sexuality, Women and Therapy’, 31:1, 2008. Pg 136.
Jung, Patricia B. ‘Sexual Pleasure: A Roman Catholic perspective on women’s delight.’ Theology and Sexuality, 2000. Pg 33. Cited in Danulik, J. & Browne, N. ‘Traditional Religious Doctrine and Women’s Sexuality, Women and Therapy’, 31:1, 2008.
Leona M. Anderson and Pamela Dickey Young, Women and Religious Traditions, 2004. Pg 312.
Berger, Helen A. ‘A Community of Witches: contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States.’ 1999. Pg 17. Cited in: Leona M. Anderson and Pamela Dickey Young, Women and Religious Traditions, 2004. Pg 312