January 14, 2010

Spirituality vs. Religion in the Bedroom

Culture, Faith, Research 2 Comments

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.

Robert

Robert Fischer is our in-house theologian and spiritual scholar. Behold the sacred and the profane -- he’ll shy away from nothing. Well-versed in mathematics, computer science and religion, this man is a bona fide intellectual whose musings on sex and culture are delicate as they are incisive. How could we resist? How could you?

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  • Bruce N. Stein

    I don’t think it’s at all surprising to find that individuals who adhere more strictly to a philosophy that restricts sex to a morally select few situations have it less often than those who have beliefs with no such codified set of restrictions.

    Similarly, I am not at all surprised that those who identify with a religion that states eating a certain kind of food is wrong eat less of that food tan those who are “spiritual”. Religion is largely about about the precise rules and conduct laid out for that religion, otherwise you wouldn’t be part of that religion. Hence, it tends to foster less, or at least more specific, activity than non-adherents.

    Certainly, it’s possible that one can be “spiritual” and have even greater restrictions on sex or other activities (I’d venture a guess to say that those who are more “spiritual” also tend to be more vegan) but, by and large, the people I’ve met who at one point in time identified as such seemed to have much less stringent sexual rules.

  • http://twitter.com/RobertFischer Robert

    Let’s take a deeper look, Bruce: there’s more here than you seem to be seeing. Note that it’s not simply religious vs. not — it’s religious vs. spiritual. That extra dimension is what complicates matters.

    The easy distinction between religious and spiritual (which doesn’t surprise you) is exactly what I found so fascinating. In this particular case, we see a place where not only are religion and spirituality distinct, but they are in fact diametrically opposed to each-other and predictive of opposite behaviors. And this is true even in a group predominated by self-identified Christians! (For the record, another ~8% identified as a non-Christian religion.)

    This shows just how thoroughly religious and spiritual ideas have grown apart. It’s also interesting because it shows how thouroughly ascetical ideas have fallen out of spirituality (at least for women), even though they were traditionally associated much more with the spiritual/mystical tradition than with the mainstream religious practices. (Perhaps an ascetical undertone to masculine spirituality accounts, in part, for men having less sex?)

    Another interesting consequence is the fact that less spiritual young women have less sex: the inverse of the catchy headline. Which goes directly against the idea that nihilism or non-spirituality is a risk factor for dangerous behaviors like sex with many partners without a condom: it’s been a running assumption in many circles that spirituality is part of the solution for self-destructive behaviors.

    Getting back to the mens’ part of the study—note that what you consider obvious only seems to hold true for women. While it’s true religious men have less sex than non-religious men, the fact that spiritual men have less sex than non-spiritual men is really a bizarre curiosity to me, particularly when put in contrast with the increased sexuality of spiritual women.

    So there’s a whole lot here.

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