Research Suggests That Religious Suppression Of Sexual Thoughts Only Creates More Preoccupation With Those Thoughts

Photo: GDJ via Pixabay, CC0

A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that the willful suppression of sexual ideas, thoughts, and fantasies only creates a stronger preoccupation with these fantasies and thoughts. The effect is pronounced in religious communities with strong sexual norms or taboos.

Yaniv Efrati, from Beit Berl College, is the author of the study. Efrati conducted the study on teens around Israel, surveying both Jewish Orthodox teens and secular teens. Efrati says that overt portrayal of normal sexual development, like masturbation and sexual exploration, as dirty or forbidden only strengthen the chance that teens will develop compulsive sexual behavior and stronger preoccupations with these topics.

Surveys Of Sexual Development

Efrati’s research consisted of multiple surveys tracking thoughts and opinions about sexual topics in both secular and Jewish Orthodox adolescents. The first survey Efrati conducted surveyed approximately 661 teens and found that religious adolescents consistently claimed that they had a greater preoccupation with undesired fantasies and sexual thoughts than secular adolescents did. Efrati then conducted a second survey consisting of over 500 teens and found that religious adolescents also reported lower overall psychological well-being than their secular peers, something Efrati linked with unwanted sexual thoughts and feelings. A final survey surveyed over 300 teens and it found that religious teens were substantially more likely to claim that they were suppressing undesired fantasies and sexual thoughts, which was associated with lower overall well-being and also compulsive sexual behavior.

Says Efrati of the results:

“It is very important that religious society discuss sexuality and deal with sexuality in the right manner at the beginning of adolescence and even at the elementary age in order to prevent the development of compulsive sexual behavior.”

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Efrati also said that the study reflects the “complex reality” of being a religious teen, with frequent pronouncements about the depravity of certain sexual thoughts and desires, and yet a continued fascination with these things. Efrati says that the religious public may want to examine its current discourse about sexuality if it wants to promote healthy long-term development. Efrati also notes that the deeply religious often tend to overestimate the compulsiveness of their sexual behavior and thoughts, frequently reporting that they have a porn addiction regardless of how much porn they actually engage with.

Underreporting or Overreporting?

However, other studies of pornography usage across the United States have found that a greater percentage of people search for porn or subscribe to porn services in areas where a greater proportion of the population defines themselves as religious. This suggests that although the religious may be more likely to view their sexual thoughts and fantasies as disruptive and the product of an addiction, they may actually consume more porn than the nonreligious. That said, direct surveys of populations in religious areas of the US find that the religious report less use of pornography in general. It may be that they are intentionally underreporting viewing of sexual content, or other factors may account for the discrepancy.

Photo: pasja1000 via Pixabay, CC0

Efrati says he grew up in a religious community and was motivated to study the topic of sexual development in religious communities when he noticed that there were considerable differences in how the religious approached sexuality versus how secular people approached sexuality. Efrati also says that more research will need to be conducted on the topic and that longitudinal research could help give a more accurate view of how these preoccupations affect the transition of religious teens into adulthood.

Denial Of Services

Efrati’s study was not the only recent study to suggest that religious norms and taboos may have a negative effect on the development of people’s mental health. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry and lead by researchers from Boston University School of Public Health suggests that states which have laws that permit people to deny services to same-sex couples based on religious preferences have sexual minorities who suffer from worse mental health. The study not only found that the denial of services to same-sex couples based upon religious values harms the mental health of same-sex couples and other minorities, but it doesn’t benefit the mental health of heterosexual adults.

The Boston University researchers studied data collected through the 2014-2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). This data included self-reported instances of depression, stress and other indicators of poor mental health. The researchers specifically looked at reports of stress and depression among adults between the ages of 18-64 in three states which have laws allowing people to deny services based on religious beliefs. These states are Michigan, North Carolina, and Utah. Michigan’s House Bills 4188, 4189, and 4190 let child welfare and adoption agencies refuse the adoption of children to same-sex parents, North Carolina’s Senate Bill 2 lets certain magistrates refuse to perform same-sex marriages based on religious views, and Utah’s Senate Bill 297 enables government representatives to refuse to issue marriage licenses based on religious views.

As a point of comparison, the researchers looked at the mental health of people in states without these laws: Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia. It was found that the survey respondents who identified themselves as either gay, bisexual, lesbian or unsure consistently reported higher levels of mental stress and unease in 2014. 23% of self-identified LGBT adults reported poor mental health in comparison to only 12.5% of heterosexual adults.

The researchers found that the number of people in sexual minorities reporting poor mental health jumped about 10 percentage points by 2016, but only in the three states which had implemented the laws in question. In the control states, mental distress rose only 1.3% over the two years in sexual minorities while it rose only 0.8% in heterosexual adults. The researchers found that in total, the three states experienced a 46% increase in the mental distress of sexual minorities.

The authors of the study write that states which have laws that permit the denial of services to sexual minorities may have minorities who suffer from greater distress because of their treatment. The laws may impact how other perceive the sexual minorities and how they treat them. The laws might affect how other people “perceive and treat sexual minorities as equal citizens” and whether or not the “sexual minorities perceive themselves as equal citizens” say the study authors.

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