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Sex and love; the secular and religious

Posted By Sunny On 3rd October, 2007 @ 1:56 am In Humour, Moral police | 37 Comments

I quite like [1] this article by Alex Stein on CiF, in particular these paras:

Religious people often lazily argue that the secular world is obsessed with sex, citing the soft porn that seems to have permeated every corner of popular culture. But the truth is the reverse. It is the religious world that is obsessed with sex. As a result, it dangerously misunderstands it. The secular world is actually quite comfortable with sex, although this comfort often manifests itself in unpleasant ways. Maybe that’s knowledge for you.

Religion starts from the belief that sex is a fundamentally holy act, one that should be performed (if at all) only by a married heterosexual couple. This creates an extraordinarily high level of expectation regarding the sexual act, one that is often impossible to attain. In contrast, secular culture emphasises the carnality and banality of sex. It is able to reach heights that can sometimes only be described through the metaphor of spiritual language, but often it doesn’t. And that’s OK. Sex is great even when it doesn’t “transcend”.

The problem is that religion encourages an unhealthy attitude to sex. By holding it just beyond the reach of the practitioner, it becomes an obsession, a dangerous weapon being sinfully flaunted by non-believers.

I broadly agree with this although it’s a bit Abrahamic religions centric. Hinduism in contrast places huge emphasis in understanding and de-mystifying sex. It’s a shame the current generation has forgotten all that too.


37 Comments To "Sex and love; the secular and religious"

#1 Comment By douglas clark On 3rd October, 2007 @ 4:13 am

Bloody hell Sunny, if the above two posts are representative, you have an entirely new audience.

#2 Comment By douglas clark On 3rd October, 2007 @ 4:29 am

Who, or what, is “Beriilosal”, by the way? It is probably yet another sexual perversion I’ve missed out on. I hate being naivé and old. You miss so much.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to take this new direction on board, Mariella Frostrup no longer has a USP.

#3 Comment By Julaybib On 3rd October, 2007 @ 6:40 am

“It is the religious world that is obsessed with sex.”

Well, I’m only a religious studies graduate, so what do I know. But in my view, and certainly in the view of the prevailing views in academe, talking about “the religious world” is such a daft notion, it has me on the floor as I type, hysterical with laughter. Funny how you can be against have one Muslim org representing us to gov., but support an article that lumps the billions into a homogenous mass!

#4 Comment By Desi Italiana On 3rd October, 2007 @ 7:39 am

-”Religion starts from the belief that sex is a fundamentally holy act…This creates an extraordinarily high level of expectation regarding the sexual act, one that is often impossible to attain. In contrast, secular culture emphasises the carnality and banality of sex.”

Where the hell has Alex been living these days?
That whole piece up there is just gross generalizations without any back-up.

-”Hinduism in contrast places huge emphasis in understanding and de-mystifying sex.”

Yup. And that’s why Manu Smriti and Arthashastra were so nice to women with regards to sex in the ancient times, and Hindu mythologies are laden with symbolic messages that de-mystify sex and promote understanding, like Ram not believing in Sita’s fidelity because she just might have been raped by Ravana and thus not ‘pure’ anymore, and subsequently making her walk on coals, for which Aag saved her, proving her sexual fidelity. Then there’s the Bhagvad Gita talking about how pre-marital sex and “relations” with those outside of your caste is pollution, and not monitoring women will lead to a social disorder and disruption because they, being vessels vis a vis the sexual act, hold the key to propagating the correct social order. Too bad the current generation forgets all of this old, orientalized messages of Hinduism which is way more loose when it comes to sex.

Sunny, you know I love you, but why do you assert such generalizations?

#5 Comment By Desi Italiana On 3rd October, 2007 @ 7:52 am

“I broadly agree with this although it’s a bit Abrahamic religions centric. Hinduism in contrast places huge emphasis in understanding and de-mystifying sex. It’s a shame the current generation has forgotten all that too.”

This is simply not true. How do you think the caste system was re-inforced for centuries if not regulating it through sexual relations and stamping it with a religious meaning? Of course there was and is a lot of hanky panky going on, but there are also social strictures that keep people from engaging in pre-marital sex and especially with the wrong kind of person, too (less so in urban centers).

Yes, there are those temples with pornographic sculptures that people like to point to when they say, “Look, Hindus are so open to sex” and perhaps it was the Victorian ideals that made Indians really frigid and rigid when it comes to sex, blah blah blah. This is not entirely true either.

And yes, there was the Kama Sutra, and the art of courtesanship. This is not strictly a Hindu phenomenon; in Muslim harems, for example, courtesans were taught the ways to please their master through artistic skills (poetry, music, intellectual conversation, etc) and sexual skills.

And how is sex “de-mystified” in Hinduism?

I ain’t no Hindu scholar, so feel free to shed light…

#6 Comment By sonia On 3rd October, 2007 @ 10:44 am

finally a thread we can all get our teeth into.
religion is obsessed with sex - aint that the truth.
-
i suppose if hinduism was supposed to have de=mystified sex, these indians in the sub-continent must have all been influenced by the muslims and christians since they’re all pretty much the same when it comes down to it - such a taboo subject and one everyone is obsessed with at the same time.
all those disgusting uncles i tell you. pretending to be holier-than-thou. that’s whats so disgusting about the whole thing. what is so disgusting is the fact that on the surface its all so preachy and we’re so pure, we dont have boyfriends and allow casual sex like those people, and the reality is much worse than boyfriends and casual sex which are more likely to be consensual. no, the problem is much deeper - sex is tied in with negative emotions, with domination, with the idea of deviancy.

bollywood is so sociologically revealing, as are these rape scenes in bengali cinema.

schizophrenics!

#7 Comment By sonia On 3rd October, 2007 @ 10:48 am

good point desi.

personally i think hinduism as much as islam and christianity and all religions pretty much - regardless of whatever construct of divinity they may subscribe to - really ends up reflecting human male patriarchal attitudes to sexuality - and certainly that seems to encompass the idea that female sexuality - is something very dangerous and that needs to be controlled.

an interesting example in islam is the fuss about paternity and lineage - that’s one reason (excuse) men are allowed to take 4 wives and so effectively can have multiple sex partners, but women must have only one.

#8 Comment By sonia On 3rd October, 2007 @ 10:56 am

anyway, again, not knowing anything about theology, it doesn’t take a very observant person to realise the entire sub-continent for the most part is hidebound about sex, in fact as someone pointed out the other day, we are across the board extremely conservative in that way. things are changing in the last 100 years or so but is someone really claiming that in the 18th century, Indians were any less confused about sex? given that there always has been the split between fulfilling your family’s ambitions and desires for you - and - related to that - who you should marry - and what your own desires may be - its even more of a schizophrenic reality.

and whilst Islam likes to pretend its more enlightened than christianity about sex, but personally i can’t see it. from the man’s perspective maybe, seeing those wonderfully holy medieval scholars could gorge themselves on slave flesh and it was perfectly permitted ( HOW SMART WERE THEY!!) in addition to their pert 4 wives, and a Prophet with a very large no. of sexual exploits to emulate. yes when i put it like that, i suppose the medieval men clearly knew which religion to go for. But similarly, it was all about what the men could do, and the idea that all men are dawgs, and women are sex objects so we MUST cover them up so the wrong man doesn’t look at her and lust like the puppy he is.

what a bunch of sick weirdos.

#9 Comment By douglas clark On 3rd October, 2007 @ 11:07 am

Sonia @ 10,

Germaine Greer better watch out, Sonia’s a-coming!

Well said.

Patriarchy seems to be at the bottom of all religions, I think. Control of sex is fundamental to group control, in the sense that exclusive rights to the reproductive process keeps the religion ‘pure’. It also means that men get what they want.

In fact, that’s the only good arguement for religion I’ve ever heard.

Joking, joking.

#10 Comment By sonia On 3rd October, 2007 @ 11:43 am

douglas :-) thanks

you’re absolutely spot on though - religion has been used to control sexuality - and i think plenty of clerics around don’t really believe in god, but realise its a good trick for them

:-)

it also assuages a massive “king/leader/parent” complex that we humans clearly have. some desire for authority, even if its invented authority.

#11 Comment By Nyrone On 3rd October, 2007 @ 1:05 pm

I agree with Julaybib,
This is beyond stupid, lumping the entire ‘religious world’ into a single basket and then pitting them against the rest of humanity…does the writer have a complex about the impending clash of civilizations or something? I get his point, but perhaps it would have been better to start the article with ’some religious people’ rather than conducting this in binary.

Anyway, is the secular world really “quite comfortable with sex”? Ok, so a lot of so-called ‘religious’ people are idiotic, sheep perverts that are repressed within an inch of their lives and disguise this fact by lying through their teeth about stuff, but does that really us to the conclusion that the secular’s are just fine and dandy? What about the grotesque sexualization of our culture? that has reduced everything to sex? What about S&M fetish and the trillions of porn sites? Is that a healty attitude to sex?

I guess that like so many things, it’s finding a middle-ground that is important, but I would continue to think that in terms of the way sex is dealt with in this throw-away disposable society, secular folks cant pretend everything is perfect.

#12 Comment By Kismet Hardy On 3rd October, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

My theory is that dinosaurs were the first living creature that decided to see sex as something sacred, while everything else that lives on earth, be it a virus or a duck billed platypus, shags because that’s what you do when you’re alive.

But then the dinosaurs discovered god who, if my records are correct, were very much alive back then, promptly got them extinct

We’re next

As are those bible bashing pandas

#13 Comment By Kismet Hardy On 3rd October, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

I just got reminded of a memory

I got caught with stashes of porn under my bed and my very disappointed dad started the admonishment with the words:

“cum bhala na jano to?”

Which translates sort of as: You know it’s bad to cum?

It took me while to remember cum means sex in our dialect

But the scars already ran deep

#14 Comment By douglas clark On 3rd October, 2007 @ 1:50 pm

Kismet,

As a paid up member of the male half of this society, I can assure you that we have more in common with the virus and the duck billed platypus than we’d care to admit in mixed company.

I’ve even got kids. How the hell did that happen?

#15 Comment By Kismet Hardy On 3rd October, 2007 @ 2:11 pm

Ha ha. Virus’ are fascists as humans can be, but I’m yet to meet a religious fanatic duck billed platypus, although I live in hope

#16 Comment By ally On 3rd October, 2007 @ 2:37 pm

I’m yet to meet a religious fanatic duck billed platypus, although I live in hope

Hey, if you were a beaver with a duck’s bill and - for good measure - a mammal that lays eggs, you’d probably believe in God too.

Like Darwin could come up with that one :-)

#17 Comment By douglas clark On 3rd October, 2007 @ 2:49 pm

Ally,

And the wee buggers are venomous too! Did you know that they have an electrolocation sense too? Well, neither did I. Ain’t Wikipedia wonderful?

I’m astonished that they are not a mainstay of creationist ‘research’.

#18 Comment By ally On 3rd October, 2007 @ 2:57 pm

As Robin Williams said a long time ago, the Platypus is living proof that God likes to get stoned once in a while.

#19 Comment By douglas clark On 3rd October, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

ally,

Brilliant comment!

#20 Comment By Sunny On 3rd October, 2007 @ 3:15 pm

but support an article that lumps the billions into a homogenous mass!

I think there’s a direct correlation: as obsession with religion increases, so do abstinence and thus obsession with sex in general).

Yup. And that’s why Manu Smriti and Arthashastra were so nice to women with regards to sex in the ancient times,

Heh, good point. But as we both know, Hinduism isn’t regulated by one or two scriptures entirely… and the Manu Smriti and Arthashastra aren’t theorlogically important.

you’d be right in saying that in reality Hindu culture has degenerated since Manu smriti and I would agree with you.

#21 Comment By bananabrain On 3rd October, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

i see what alex stein is getting at, of course - and shmuley boteach can be (from what i remember of him) quite annoying, but the basic point he’s making is that [abrahamic] religion says that sex should only be between a married heterosexual couple, etc etc. of course, he undermines his own point by generalising and he also, despite attempting to be generous about judaism by describing it as “progressive” in this respect, fails to appreciate the nuances. but it’s the generalising that i find problematic. let’s have some home truths:

1. sex in judaism is recognised as a fact of life - and a pleasurable one.

2. of course it is “better” if the sex is between a married couple, because it should be at least loving, if not earthshaking (his assumption, not mine) sex. personally, i think affection and emotion trumps physicality. think of music - you may find frank zappa’s “the black page” a technically challenging piece of music which requires astonishing virtuosity to pull off, or you may find it meaningless, mechanical noise which lacks the emotional appeal of, say, an easy-to-play three-chord love song. i personally say it’s horses for courses and one needn’t preclude the other - he’s setting up a false dichotomy.

3. in jewish law the wife is the *custodian* of the sexual domain. it is she who says when, where, how often and whether it’s up to scratch. a wife can divorce a husband who fails to give satisfaction - and this is a one-way rule.

4. in jewish law marriage can be achieved through intercourse, but only if everyone concerned intends it - which provides for the possibility of intercourse without marriage.

5. what about concubines? hellooooooo….?

6. as i believe even shmuley points out, whatever can be done within a consenting couple to “increase intimacy” is permissible.

7. the fact that a substantial amount of talmudic argument concerns the consequences of various instances of intercourse between unmarried people suggests a quite robust popular culture.

8. the sacred stuff is incredibly important, but there are levels here. only the great kabbalists really got involved with sacralising the performance of the [marital] act. the internal mystical workings of the G!Dhead are described in what would appear to be extraordinarily prurient terms - but this is because the dynamics are so intimate; it’s the only suitable metaphor for what is considered to be occurring in the “higher worlds”. this does not mean, however, that all sex should be carried out specifically in order to “unify the Holy Blessed One and the Shekhinah”. sometimes, it can just be between the man and the woman. sonia’s point #7 above regarding *human* as opposed to Divine sexuality is particularly aposite here, given that some of the mechanics of the “Divine unifications” would be 1000% forbidden for reasons of incest if carried out by humans - hence we have no “hieros gamos”, that being a particularly gnostic short-circuit.

9. there are a number of occasions which are hinted at in the classical literature where the young and unmarried, shall we say, pair off. the “merry making of the water-drawing ceremony” of the Temple, which led to the original segregation of the sexes during prayer, is a case in point, as is the custom of the 15th of ‘av for the young girls to ask their beloved to marry them rather than the other way around.

10. either way, the dynamic is entirely different from that of christianity, where the graeco-roman idea that women are basically a sort of defective boy comes from. judaism is quite comfortable with the power of womens’ sexuality, which should be obvious from the fact that it is women that determine permissibility (see point 3. above) whereas men are assumed to require more direction and restriction.

11. nobody takes vows of chastity in judaism, because we wouldn’t understand the concept of this somehow elevating you to a higher plane of existence. to us, this is precisely where sex can get you and nothing else can, not even prayer.

12. judaism is obsessive about the details of *everything* - not just sex.

b’shalom

bananabrain

#22 Comment By bananabrain On 3rd October, 2007 @ 3:40 pm

in fact, this discussion is an extremely good example of why we should never, ever, use the term “judeo-christian”, although “judeo-islamic” might have some validity upon occasion, particularly if pig-headed obstinacy happened to be the subject of debate.

b’shalom

bananabrain

#23 Comment By Anas On 3rd October, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

Religious people often lazily argue that the secular world is obsessed with sex, citing the soft porn that seems to have permeated every corner of popular culture. But the truth is the reverse. It is the religious world that is obsessed with sex. As a result, it dangerously misunderstands it. The secular world is actually quite comfortable with sex, although this comfort often manifests itself in unpleasant ways. Maybe that’s knowledge for you.

The truth is not the reverse, the truth is EVERYONE IS OBSESSED WITH SEX secular or religious, whether society is comfortable or uncomfortable with it. Sex. Sex. Sex. The thing is in the secular world sex is much more easily and therefore far more openly exploited by advertisers and those who run the media so that they can sell things to people that they don’t really want — capitalism. And this leads to a kind of over-saturation of sexual imagery everywhere making it hard to avoid. That’s why secular culture makes sex banal and emphasises the carnal and purely physical aspects of it. Like the great Robert Anton Wilson said, they’re managed to make a porno film out of every aspect of human sexuality except for the tenderness — that essential intimacy with another human being is something you can’t really market.

Religion starts from the belief that sex is a fundamentally holy act, one that should be performed (if at all) only by a married heterosexual couple. This creates an extraordinarily high level of expectation regarding the sexual act, one that is often impossible to attain. In contrast, secular culture emphasises the carnality and banality of sex. It is able to reach heights that can sometimes only be described through the metaphor of spiritual language, but often it doesn’t. And that’s OK. Sex is great even when it doesn’t “transcend”.

This is another gross generalization. When it comes to sex being “special” or “spiritual” or whatever, I don’t think it really matters whether you’re “religious” — in terms of belonging to an organised religion — or not, I think it’s all down to your attitude towards the act itself, and maybe ultimately how you view yourself and others — and of course it matters who you’re doing it with.

#24 Comment By koppakabana On 3rd October, 2007 @ 4:40 pm

conversations are sex wind up being completely bipolar - if you are having sex, you’re a whore or a pimp. if you’re not having sex, you’re a washed-up prude.

i’m not sure society has come to a moderate, acceptable definition of what constitutes a healthy sex life.

#25 Comment By Desi Italiana On 3rd October, 2007 @ 5:55 pm

Sunny:

“Heh, good point. But as we both know, Hinduism isn’t regulated by one or two scriptures entirely… and the Manu Smriti and Arthashastra aren’t theorlogically important.”

What? Are you kidding? Manu Smriti was the law, wasn’t it?

And let’s take your point that Hinduism isn’t regulated by one or two scriptures entirely. Fair enough. But don’t you think that it was regulated by customary laws, such as the caste system and what not which were then religionized/mystified?

And what makes you think that there weren’t practices or realities that fell out of the purview of Abrahamic scriptures? Muslim kings had boy concubines. Homosexuality is banned by the Koran.

“you’d be right in saying that in reality Hindu culture has degenerated since Manu smriti and I would agree with you.”

So you think there was a singular Hinduism that was all great and perfect prior to Manu smriti that permitted more sexual liberty to ancient Desis? I thought the whole jist of your argument is that Hinduism is decentralized, and if it always has been, then prior to Manu Smriti, it is entirely possible that there was still strict enforcement of sex relations regulations. In fact, how do we know that Manu Smriti didn’t codify what was already happening?

“I think there’s a direct correlation: as obsession with religion increases, so do abstinence and thus obsession with sex in general).”

Um, NO. This is not true. People are still going to get it on, and will probably just hide it due to social stigma.

It’s also lame to create two polar camps such as the “religious world” and “secular world.” It’s equally lame that sex does not have significant meaning in “secular culture,” that there aren’t high expectations, and that people are not obsessed with it. People everywhere, regardless of whether they are religious or sexular, are obsessed with sex. Sex is what drives the survival of our species.

#26 Comment By Sunny On 3rd October, 2007 @ 10:54 pm

What? Are you kidding? Manu Smriti was the law, wasn’t it?

It’s law that was laid down by kings, but it doesn’t necessarily have theological validation. It has mostly cultural validation. The laws of Manu were smriti… but they are not shruti
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%9Aruti

But don’t you think that it was regulated by customary laws, such as the caste system and what not which were then religionized/mystified?

Agreed.

The other point is, many revivalist movements railed against the caste system from a theological point of view. Arya Samaj… Swami Vivekananda… in many ways even the abhorrent VHP crew.

They haven’t got anywhere because the economic/social circumstances remained. Now, as we see the caste system slowly collapsing in India because of globalisation, economic development and increased industrialisation, it is very unlikely that there will be much theological appetite to ressurect it.

#27 Comment By douglas clark On 4th October, 2007 @ 12:56 am

Anas @ 23,

You’ve probably nailed it.

#28 Comment By kELvi On 4th October, 2007 @ 1:02 pm

Desi Italiana,

What? Are you kidding? Manu Smriti was the law, wasn’t it? There’s nothing in it that suggests it was the law. Hindu injunctions are simply post-facto codifications of practice. Every community (at an even finer level than the jati) has its own custom. There are also eight prescribed rites of marriage that range from the arranged alliance all the way through the Gandharva Vivaha, which is simply cohabitation by mutual consent. Now that is also “law”? The Arthas`astra, is more concerned about statecraft and right through exhibits a remarkable dislike for any organized religion. The VHP/RSS/BJP are all but permissive on sexual matters. If you disagree talk to Ashok Row Kavi.

#29 Comment By sonia On 4th October, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

ok so humans are obsessed with sex - its natural. whats so natural about saying thats a sin and anyone needs their head examined if they really think victorian attitudes towards sex didn’t lead to a lot of people being seriously repressed.

and .. yeah right anas, like your attitude towards sex isn’t going to be influenced by parents saying e.g. ‘how dare you play with yourself’ that is haram..to a little boy for example.

and for a girl - being told to on no account touch a boy - and be kept away from all men - and then suddenly being expected to leap into wifely duties - to a complete stranger - -> how is that not going to screw you up or at the very least - make things difficult??

prudish attitudes towards sex is definitely linked to sexual abuse - particularly towards children. that - YOU might not find disturbing - but i certainly do.

#30 Comment By sonia On 4th October, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

“whats so natural about saying thats a sin”

i mean that it is natural to think about sex but not natural to go around basing everything on the fact that its a sin/a sin if you’re not doing it with the designated partner/( which when you’re not allowed to choose your own partner is pretty controlling)

#31 Comment By sonia On 4th October, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

you’re going to go to hell if you’ve had sex before marriage.

like hell that doesn’t seriously affect a human being!

#32 Comment By sonia On 4th October, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

and never mind sex, religions like Islam make such a big issue about affection. oh you cant hug your male cousin.

#33 Comment By Desi Italiana On 4th October, 2007 @ 6:08 pm

Kelvi:

“There’s nothing in it that suggests it was the law.”

I stand corrected, if this is true. You are also right that the Arthashashtra was not too concerned with
religion, and so thank you for pointing that out.

However, there’s nothing that suggests that it wasn’t law.

So let’s take what you and Sunny (who got his claim from Wikipedia) assert, that Manu Smriti and Arthashashtra were not laws did not really have an impact on society at the time, and (BTW, it’s not only statecraft; you can read some of the thoughts on women and sex). So are you saying that Hinduism is really much more free and permissive with regards to sex and 2) there were really no regulations of sex through the prism of Hinduism?

If yes, then I completely disagree. I don’t concur on the idea that Hinduisim was one way (much more generous towards sex, “demystified” it, etc. I think those who have argued this tend to romanticize Hinduism and with a sort of orientalist take). IMO, it is people who construct religion.

#34 Comment By Desi Italiana On 4th October, 2007 @ 6:10 pm

“IMO, it is people who construct religion.”

Meaning, it is people themselves who construct religion.

#35 Comment By Sunny On 5th October, 2007 @ 2:12 am

So are you saying that Hinduism is really much more free and permissive with regards to sex and 2) there were really no regulations of sex through the prism of Hinduism?

I think you’ll have a hard time defining ‘Hinduism’ anyway… even if you just take the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagwad Gita into account. There is far too much diversity on issues of sex. The problem is that nowadays this culture of prudeness towards sex has taken hold.

I’m not saying there was no regulation. I’m saying in some areas there was… in other areas, no.

#36 Comment By Desi Italiana On 6th October, 2007 @ 8:18 am

“I think you’ll have a hard time defining ‘Hinduism’ anyway… even if you just take the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagwad Gita into account.”

Yes! So if Hinduism is difficult to define, then why say, “Hinduism in contrast places huge emphasis in understanding and de-mystifying sex.” If Hinduism is difficult to define, it’s difficult to delineate what you are asserting above.

“I’m not saying there was no regulation. I’m saying in some areas there was… in other areas, no.”

Want to go back in time to see if this was true or not?

#37 Comment By Alex Stein On 6th October, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

Hi Sunny - glad you liked. You are right that it was Abrahamic-centric, the simple truth is that I didn’t know enough about other religions to include them.

Re. points about grand simplifications - I plead guilty, unfortunately that’s par for the course when you have so little room to develop an argument.


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URLs in this post:
[1] this article: http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/alex_stein/2007/10/demystifying_sex.html
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%9Aruti: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%9Aruti