Religious Trauma + Painful Sex
Before we dive into the intersection between painful sex and religious trauma, I'd like to preface by saying that I will primarily use heteronormative language in this article. Mainly because in religious circles, the language is binary and extremely heteronormative—I'd love to get into how religious trauma affects LGBTQ+ people as well, but I believe that should be its own article to not only do those folks justice but also because it's a very different discussion and type of pain (even if there is some overlap).
With that being said, this article is not intended to discourage religion but to shed light on how some religious practices deeply hurt people and their sexualities. That’s part of the confusing, nuanced truth about religion—something that has a lot of beautiful, helpful aspects can also simultaneously hurt people in different ways too. Mostly, in my opinion, by enforcing shame; normally, this happens when people in positions of power (e.g. pastors, priests, etc.) encourage ways of living that will “make people more godly.” Historically, if people feel shame, it’s easier for them to trust those in power and become afraid of questioning or trusting their own decision making. If you are someone who grew up in religious circles and finds this article challenging to read, you aren't alone. And it's okay to feel a lot of things around this topic—you are good, you are welcome here, you're safe to question, disagree, and feel everything. Now that we've laid some groundwork—let's do this.
What is religious trauma?
Choosingtherapy.com describes religious trauma as when an individual struggles with leaving a religion or a set of beliefs that have shaped their entire outlook on life and way of moving through the world. It often involves the trauma of breaking away from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure. I think it's even more complicated than this if you ask me. And this topic is incredibly nuanced—because no two religions are exactly the same, although, in general, there is quite a bit of overlap; regardless of the religion, there is typically a lot of enforced shame. Also, someone doesn’t have to leave the church to be a victim of religious trauma. In fact, one of the most common reasons people feel afraid to leave their religious communities is because of their trauma around religion. It can be so difficult to even feel comfortable questioning something if for the majority of your life you were taught it was wrong to do so—this is an example of religious trauma.
Shame is a powerful tool in religion because it instills fear into people by insisting that they are "bad." In Christianity, one of the most confusing messages taught in many churches is the idea that as humans, we are inherently bad sinners who need Jesus—while simultaneously learning that we are wholly and unconditionally loved in the eyes of God. These two vastly different messages don't set humans up for feeling empowered, content, and secure on their own, which is part of the point. Religious trauma, in my opinion, stems from this foundational belief that "we are bad and we need an outside source to be good." When shame is the enforced headlining emotion, people genuinely believe they are bad. Brené Brown, an incredible researcher and author, explains the difference between guilt and shame; she defines guilt as “I did something terrible” and shame as “I am bad.”
I believe that religion is more of a shame enforcer than a guilt enforcer—if I do something wrong now in my life, I feel guilt. Because I know I am not my mistakes and I have learned to love myself deeply. When I did something deemed “wrong” by religious standards back in the day, I felt shame and that I was terrible (and unlovable). See the difference? I can now take ownership when I mess up and know that it doesn't affect my self-worth, but back when I was religious, it felt like absolutely everything was riding on following the doctrine. Because if I didn't, God would be disappointed in me, or honestly, even worse, my community.
Religion & sex
One of the most common ways folks are shamed in religion is through sexuality—even if someone is comfortable having sex, there's a massive likelihood that there is still shame around sex. From a young age, children are taught (or heavily encouraged) to abstain from sex until marriage (heterosexual marriage only, of course). This is usually the only "sex education" these children are getting. Oh, along with the messaging that if they partake in sex-related acts before marriage, they are depriving their future partner of something that belongs to them (because you are also taught in religion that your sexuality isn't yours—it's God's or your partner's), and you are "losing" something by participating in it.
This idea of losing a part of you is a threat to keep people living in fear—because who wants to consent to lose a part of themself? This is, usually, the only messaging and "education" around sex that children & teens are receiving. So, come the awaited wedding night, all of this shame, fear, and lack of education is just supposed to vanish since you are being united with your God-given soul mate? News flash—it rarely disappears (especially not that fast).
In my experience, I've found this to be especially harmful to women for so many reasons. One being that masturbation is seldom discussed, so many women don't even know it's an option (yes, really). Masturbation is frowned upon for men as well, but it is far more normalized (in my experience). Secondly, going from absolutely no sexual experience to vaginal penetration in one night can feel highly intrusive to many women, especially when no one prepares you for it (most people aren't normally gifted Ohnuts on their wedding night, sadly). Thirdly, and most importantly, women are never taught that their body is theirs. Ever.
Women's bodies are "stumbling blocks" for men and need to be covered up. Women's bodies are, in most religious communities, expected to give birth to children in the future. Women's bodies are expected to be at the disposal of their husband's needs. I'm being a bit dramatic here, and I want to help you understand that even if someone desires these things for themselves, the trauma of being raised in a culture that sets these standards does weigh on them. It is possible to want something for yourself (like kids!) and still be hurt that your culture has expectations for you.
The intersection between religion & painful sex
The human body has an incredible memory—even if someone doesn't have a history of physical or sexual trauma, the trauma of hearing their body is terrible and not for their own pleasure their whole life… begins to manifest in some pretty profound ways. Sex is a very somatic experience. Especially for women, penetrative sex is more pleasurable and comfortable when the body is relaxed (which is extremely hard to do if your sexuality has been shamed since childhood). Combine that with the lack of sex education in religious communities (i.e. condoms, lube, clitoral stimulation, Ohnut!!), and penetrative sex can quickly become less than desirable.
Sex is also very mental, and there are two very significant ways that religion hurts people, specifically women, by not teaching them that their bodies are theirs and for their pleasure.
- If you are taught something is bad or wrong your entire life, but expected of you during marriage, and not for your pleasure (only procreation)… well, let's just say that's not the sexiest setup for a pleasant, relaxing sexual experience.
- For women, sex is expected. During my experience in Christian culture (hi, it's Jennah), I experienced many of my friends getting married (and getting married very young). The conversations for men around sex/marriage were generally filled with excitement. For women, it was more complex. "The wedding night" in Christian culture is massive because it automatically insinuates *sex*. And usually, for a lot of Christian couples, this is sex for the first time. So, there's a lot of pressure—usually, and mostly, on the women. I believe that this expectation (even if it's unspoken between partners) makes sex more difficult for women. It also feeds into the belief that their body is never for themselves but for everyone else as a woman. And it's only "good" when it's of service (obviously, this is FAR from the truth!).
So, when people have painful sex and don't understand why… the answer usually isn’t straightforward. There are so many variables, but the most important one is the connection to the mind. A lot of sex happens in our heads and if mentally someone has hold ups around sex because of religious trauma, they may not be able to get to a place that feels comfortable to *let go* and let their body experience pleasure.
The same goes for men too—erectile dysfunction is incredibly common in Christian communities for many of the same reasons. On a very personal note—I was sexually active for years before I ever had an orgasm. I have a very intentional, loving partner but my problem was that I deeply didn’t believe that I deserved pleasure. Even though I *knew* I did, I didn’t believe it in my body. And that manifested in my sex life.
In my opinion, that’s one of the hardest aspects of religion (and I’m not saying every church or religion does this) is the loss of your own autonomy. Truly feeling in control of your body, your sexuality, your pleasure (whether it’s sexual or not!), and how you love yourself. Those messages are often glossed over, if they are even had at all, and make it so hard later in life when we find ourselves in relationships with other humans and can’t figure out why our bodies won’t allow us to orgasm. Because I don’t know about you, but I never learned that my ability to orgasm went all the way back to receiving a *purity ring* in 7th grade.
I just want to start closing this article by saying—there’s no shame in discovering your sexuality as an adult, working through trauma because it affects your sex life, or not being sure what you like because you grew up in a religion that didn’t encourage you to learn. You and your experience are extremely valid. And, there is hope!
I hope this article was not only helpful to people who grew up in religion, but also for people who didn’t. Understanding the nuances that shape different people’s understanding and way of moving through the world helps us connect so much better with each other and not feel so alone in our own sexuality journey.
I’m saving this article as a reminder! Thank you so much for writing this. I felt seen!! This article resonated with me. If you have a podcast, please share and I would love to follow and learn how I can work on separating shame & religion.
Thank you for this article. I’m a 37 year old recently ex Mormon. I’ve been married 18 years and never had an orgasm except 3 times in my sleep a few years ago. None before or since. We are currently having some serious marriage problems and through this difficult time I’m trying to explore all of the areas I need to heal in myself. I had thought that all the sexual problems would just go away and I’d start having orgasms (or not-I really feel sexually satisfied with my husband either way, but he probably struggles with never having given me an orgasm.) when the other childhood traumas and marriage issues were addressed and healed, but I’m thinking I probably need to explore the sexual aspect of myself and my situation more directly. This was a thought provoking article for me.