Women seeking to connect with the transcendent have more sex, more sexual partners, and are less likely to use a condom.
That’s one way to read the results of a finding from a recent study from the University of Kentucky. Now, most of our empirical knowledge in psychology comes from experiments on white mice and undergrads, and this study is no exception: it was performed on 353 students “attending a large public university.”
Of those students, 88 percent were Caucasian, 82 percent were Protestant or Catholic, and the mean age was 20, with nobody over 29, so we’re talking about a young, predominantly white, predominantly Christian sample.
Given that kind of sample, it seems like a stretch to generalize this study into a catchy headline like “Spiritual Women Have More Sex” (like LiveScience did) or “Is Spirituality Harmful to Women’s Sexual Health?” (like Science and Religion Today did). Nonetheless, it is an interesting study.
Here are the findings, in all their academic glory:
Consistent with previous literature, religiousness was negatively associated with participants’ lifetime number of sexual partners and frequency of vaginal sex. […] Spirituality, on the other hand, demonstrated consistent and positive associations with female participants’ number of sexual partners, frequency of vaginal sex, and frequency of sex without a condom.
In non-academic speak: young women who are religious have less sex, but young women who are spiritual have more. After hearing about this study, my initial reaction was that spirituality was probably associated with other behaviors—drinking, drugs, etc.—which were really accounting for the difference. That’s certainly the impression my college experience has left me with. The researchers in this study were apparently thinking the same thing, though, because they checked for that. Even above and beyond these other factors, spirituality and sex seem to go hand in hand, whereas religiousness seems to repel sexual partners. So if religiousness and spirituality lead to opposite sex lives, what’s the difference between religious and spiritual takes on sex?
The measure of someone’s religiousness was based on test containing questions like this: “My religious beliefs lie behind my whole approach to life.” That question would be rated from 1 (not at all true) to 5 (totally true). The goal of this test is to figure out how much someone adheres day-to-day to their practices and beliefs.
The spirituality questions, on the other hand, measured a “personal search for connection with a larger sacredness.” Questions were things like: “In the quiet of my prayers and/or meditations, I find a sense of wholeness.”
So “religiousness” here is a measure of adherence to some set of standards, whereas “spirituality” here is searching for connectedness, a sense of universality, or an expectation of prayer fulfillment. According to this study’s data, it’s that first part of spirituality—connectedness—which the women seem to be searching for in both spirituality and in sex. That connectedness is unique to spirituality as opposed to religiousness: people who rated high in “connectedness” rated low in religiousness, but those who rated high in “universality” and “prayer fulfillment” also rated high on religiousness.
Like religiousness, universality and prayer fulfillment seemed to put a damper on the amount of sex: apparently women expecting “Dear God” to work in the church don’t work the “Oh God” in the bedroom.
By the way, the story for the men in this study is quite a bit different—spirituality has no association with the number of sexual partners or condom use, and is actually associated with less frequent sex. The paper’s authors find this unsurprising since “having sex to achieve emotional intimacy and union is relatively unique to women,” a fact that’s surprising to this emotional-intimacy-and-union-seeking man.
What do you think of the findings?
Image by Gisela Giardino.