Sacred hearts: What is the relationship between sex and religion?

“I have a sexual attraction and fetish for religious objects and people who get off on having sex or masturbating while in a religious setting. People might think that this type of fetish is an act of deliberate blasphemy, complete with visions of Linda Blair ramming a crucifix into herself while mocking a priest” (quote supplied by ‘The Goddess’)

Sex and religion have always had a somewhat uneasy relationship. When the two intersect there is often controversy, heated debate, and/or scandal. A book chapter by David Steinberg on sexologist Alfred Kinsey (in Russ Kick’s 2005 edited collection Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong) noted that:

“The publication of Kinsey’s study in 1948 [on male sexual behaviour] was the opening salvo of a monumental battle that has been raging ever since between science (factual information) and religion (moral judgment) on the subject of sex. [There is an] ongoing conflict between secular and theological forces for control of sexual desire and behavior in America”

In the same book, Joseph Slade also made the interesting observation that talking about pornography is a lot like talking about religion: Nearly everyone brings to the subject assumptions that color the debate”. When I started researching material for this article I came across a really interesting historical aside in relation to religion and fetishes. Dr. AnilAggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices wrote that the word ‘fetishism’:

“…arose from ‘fetish’, a term used in anthropology for an object believed to have supernatural powers. Early Christians frequently attributed magical and metaphysical powers to such objects as skulls, bones of saints, severed and mummified fingers and arms, etc. These objects were referred to as ‘fetiches’ (sic). When 15th century Portuguese explorers arrived in West Africa and discovered that local people had their own fetiches in the form of religious carvings and other inanimate objects, they began to refer to those inanimate objects as fetiches too. The French writer Charles de Brosses (1709-1777) coined the term fetishism in 1756 (in an anthropological sense) and developed the concept of religious fetishism in his 1760 [book] Duculte des Dieux Fétiches, where he discussed the worship of material objects such as amulets and talismans among ancient and contemporary African populations. De Brosses called this cult ‘fétichisme’ after ‘fétiche’ derived from the Portuguese trading term ‘feitiço’, which designated the small objects and charms on which European merchants would take oaths in sealing commercial agreements with Africans”.

Dr. Aggrawal then noted that when early sexologists were looking for a term to describe sexual fixation on inanimate objects, they borrowed from the Portuguese term because – like a religious fetish – an erotic fetish “also possessed magical powers” (i.e., it had the capability to sexually arouse emotions in those who otherwise seemed asexual).

“If a person who could not be aroused by normal erotic stimuli (say, a nude woman) could be aroused by an inanimate object, say, a sandal or a shoe, the object did have a kind of magical power on that person, and was thus a fetish”.

However, there are small numbers of people who are allegedly sexually aroused by religious artefacts, rituals, and/or behaviour. For instance, hierophilia was defined by Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices as a sexual paraphilia in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and sexual arousal from religious and sacred objects. He also made reference to teleophilia (i.e., those individuals who derive sexual pleasure and sexual arousal from religious ceremonies). Aggrawal reported that elements of sexual sadism were present in several Western European medieval religious ceremonies involving flagellation. For instance, in an early 15th-century Catalan painting (The Flagellation of Christ), those inflicting pain on Jesus appeared to be deriving sexual pleasure from their activities.

Dr. Brenda Love in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices described hierophilic acts as including masturbating with crosses or masturbating on church pews. She also notes that someone from Austin, Texas (US) wrote to her to say they had broken into churches at night to have sex on the altar. She also reported that:

‘Many of the early goddess religions revered sex and included it as part of their worship. Statues, animals, priests, and priestesses were all provided for congressants’ sexual gratification at one time or another”.

A 2005 book chapter by Dr. Jenny Wade (also in Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong) makes some interesting connections between transcendent sex and religion. More specifically she says:

“The fact is, the ordinary act of lovemaking can be the most widely available path to higher consciousness for most people. People who have experienced a transcendent episode during sex usually believe they have tapped into divine forces, even if they are atheists or agnostics. These experiences are so extreme, they change people’s views of sex and spirituality…This provides an explanation for the sexual-spiritual basis of most ancient religions by showing that mystical experiences happen every day in the bedroom to a significant portion of the population. Sacred sex is still going on…The act of lovemaking can trigger intense episodes that feature the identical characteristics found in the highest spiritual states documented in such diverse religions as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as those cited in the annals of yoga and recent research on shamanism”.

In a previous blog examining genital self-mutilation (GSM), I noted that some research had indicated that some males who engage in GSM do so for religious reasons. GSM as part of a religious belief are typically diagnosed as having Klingsor Syndrome. This was derived from the character Klingsor in Parsifol (a Wagner opera) who engaged in an act of self-castration to gain entry into the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Holy Grail. According to Samir Shirodkar and colleagues in the Saudi Medical Journal, group genital mutilation is a custom of a sect of Australian Aborigines where the blood is drunk by the infirm (who believe it restores their health).

A speculative online essay abut hierophilia written by ‘The Goddess’ made a number of claims about the behaviour although there was no empirical support to support her claims. The said that:

“The majority of those who reportedly practice hierophilia are in fact deeply devoted to their religion. Theories as to why a person may develop this unusual fetish go to both biological and psychological levels. Frequent churchgoers are often subjecting themselves to a very highly charged atmosphere (such as a religious revival) that tends to get emotions running high among the congregation. These joyous emotions can often manifest themselves into sexual arousal, especially if the members of the congregation have very close bonds to one another…It is not difficult for one to make the connection between religious settings and sexual arousal. Over a period of time, a hierophiliac becomes conditioned to respond to religious icons or locations with feelings of sexual excitement, or even begin to associate the act of sex itself as a religious experience”.

The article also claims that hierophilia is far less common among atheists. She also speculates that the hierophile derives sexual pleasure from the objects or in the places of their particular religion, but is simultaneously overwhelmed with the guilt that their sexual behaviour is sinful and that they are an evil person for having such thoughts. Because of this, the hierophilic behaviour is claimed to be sexually masochistic.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Gibson, I. (1978). The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After. London: Duckworth.

The Goddess (undated). My strongest proclivities: Religious sexuality.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Love, B. (2005). Cat-fighting, eye-licking, head-sitting and statue-screwing. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.122-129).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

Shirodkar, S.S., Hammad, F.T. & Qureshi, N.A. (2007). Male genital self-amputation in the Middle East: A simple repair by anterior urethrostomy. Saudi Medical Journal, 28, 791-793.

Steinberg, D.  (2005). Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin: Alfred Kinsey and the breaking of sexual silence. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.57-60).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

Wade, J. (2005). Transcendent sex. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong (pp.13-17).  New York: The Disinformation Company.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on October 12, 2012, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Mania, Obsession, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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