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Long perceived as major sources of social, political, economic, and even esoteric power, sexuality and religion are logical partners for sociological study. The key connections between these two powerful social institutions lie in religious ritual, social structure and social control, and boundary creation and maintenance.
Although much of the study of religion has focused on belief, to individual members of a religion practice is often most central. This holds especially true in the context of sexuality, which is generally practiced – or not – depending on the teachings of a religious group and the practitioner’s position within that group. Some religions practice rites that directly involve sexuality. More common than sexual rituals, though, are ritual restrictions on and purifications of sexuality, and important rituals regulate sexuality in the broader culture as well as within a religion – particularly marital rites and the religious practice of celibacy. Several religions consider either women or (more commonly) men to be better suited to abstinence and therefore to advanced spiritual development; religion thus becomes an important determinant of gender roles along with attitudes toward sexuality.
Religious beliefs and practices shape sexual practices, beliefs, roles, identities, and norms; they are a key factor in the social construction of desire. Religion can also provide a site for powerful challenges to an existing social-sexual order. In a number of societies sexual and gender norms are closely intertwined, with deviation from expected gender roles – especially on the part of men – implying an accompanying deviation from expected sexual roles. In most cases this has little to do with religion, but especially in cultures where religion is diffuse, there is often overlap. Marriage is also an important point of intersection for religion and sexuality. The most prominent of such intersections in most western countries currently may be the legalization and religious recognition of same-sex marriage, but questions of religious intermarriage and spousal conversion have been of concern in a number of religions for quite some time. Finally, political organizing by religious groups, both conservative and liberal, in the US has increasingly focused on sexuality issues since the 1960s.
Sexuality, politics, and religion intersect not only in secular spheres but also within religious organizations – and that intersection is increasingly global. As women, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals demand inclusion and rise to leadership positions within an increasing number of religious groups, those groups with international membership are forced to grapple with questions of human sexuality whose answers are often culturally bound. Furthermore, the creation and violation of personal sexual boundaries becomes a religious issue not only when religions are responsible for defining those boundaries, but also when religious leaders use their power and prestige to gain illicit sexual access to followers. Religion and sexuality have also conspired in the creation of boundaries and the construction of Others in ways that fundamentally shape the processes of colonialism, decolonization, and globalization – such as the religious and, later, academic construction of colonized peoples through sexual and gendered metaphors and stereotypes. As countries around the world gained independence from European colonial powers, another important sexual and often religious symbol came to the fore: the use of the human body, and especially the bodies of women, as a metaphor for the nation.
Under conditions of globalization, the cultural tensions that arise between immigrant communities and their hosts also link religion and sexuality. Concerns over western sexual mores and sexual identities sometimes attend the immigration of westerners into non-western countries, and every immigrant community struggles some way with the differences in (often religiously based) sexual morality between the home culture and the host culture.
- Machacek, D. W. & Wilcox, M. M. (2003) Sexuality and the World’s Religions. ABC-CLIO, Goleta, CA.
- Moon, D. (2004) God, Sex, and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
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