Take a bunch of unmarried students of diverse backgrounds at a university in the south-west of the USA. Now which of them, do you suppose, has the raunchiest sex lives? Christians? Jews? The nonreligious? Or atheists, perhaps?
Well, the answer is... all of them!
Cindy Meston (at the University of Texas) and colleagues interviewed over 1,000 students in their survey of sexual behaviours, and found almost no difference between the different faith groups in what was reported. Virtually all of them reported in engaging in some form of premarital sex.
Women (although not men) who were Jewish or fundamentalist Christians did report a somewhat lower incidence of sexual intercourse - but apart from that pretty much anything goes.
No differences in the types of sexual activities (it was quite a, erm, exhaustive survey), in the number of partners (both in the past and the number anticipated in the next 5 years), or in the age at which they lost their virginity. If anything, Christian women lost their virginity slightly earlier than atheists.
What's more, there was no difference in the level of infidelity between atheists and the religious - more evidence that religious identification is a poor guide to honesty.
In a separate study, they looked at the frequency and types of sexual fantasies. Here there was a clear difference. Atheist and especially agnostic women (but again, not men) fantasise more often and more widely (gender bending, masochism, sadism, - you name it!).
Oddly enough, the only men to confess to having taken part in homosexual intercourse were Christian (just under 10% of Christian men) - although in the second study there was no hint of increased gender-bending fantasies. Make of that what you will.
So far this has all been about self-reported identification. Are you Christian, Jewish, Spiritualist, Non-religious, atheist, or agnostic? But what about intensity of beliefs?
Meston and colleagues also measured beliefs using some fairly standard scales - spiritual beliefs, paranormal/new age beliefs, fundamentalist beliefs, and intrinsic religiosity (how central religious belief is to your life).
When you look at beliefs, rather than identification, some rather starker differences emerge.
Broadly speaking, compared with non-believers, any form of traditional religious belief has a deadening effect on sexual activity (both the act and also fantasies, especially for women). However, paranormal and new age beliefs were linked to an increase in all kinds of sexual activity.
For men, the effect was much less. Indeed, fundamentalist Christian men actually reported more sexual partners in the past year than their non-religious counterparts! A case of get religion and get laid? Or just down to the fact that here is a relative shortage of evangelical men?
So, among these students, it seems that religious affiliation is a poor guide to sexual behaviour and fantasies, but that women (and also some men) with strong religious beliefs try to avoid even thinking about it.
But that's students! What about older folk? Well, Mark Regnerus (also at the University of Texas - it seems to be a hotbed of sex research) and colleagues have just published a study into the sex lives of older Americans.
It turns out that among oldies, too, there is very little relationship between religion and either sexual frequency or sexual satisfaction. Just as with the youngsters, however, unmarried women who were also religious were also less likely to have had sex.
But religion had no effect on male sexual activity. Makes you wonder why religion is so popular among women in the US, and yet shunned by men!
Farmer, M., Trapnell, P., & Meston, C. (2008). The Relation Between Sexual Behavior and Religiosity Subtypes: A Test of the Secularization Hypothesis Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38 (5), 852-865 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9407-0
Ahrold, T., Farmer, M., Trapnell, P., & Meston, C. (2010). The Relationship Among Sexual Attitudes, Sexual Fantasy, and Religiosity Archives of Sexual Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10508-010-9621-4
McFarland, M., Uecker, J., & Regnerus, M. (2010). The Role of Religion in Shaping Sexual Frequency and Satisfaction: Evidence from Married and Unmarried Older Adults Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224491003739993
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
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