No cookie cutter answers to sex, faith

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — Sexuality and religion aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive in the lives of young adults, according to new research that finds sexual ethics can be formed by religious beliefs and vice versa.

The study, involving nearly 700 British 18 to 25 year olds from six different religious traditions; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism as well as young adults of mixed-faith, highlights the challenges faced in reconciling sexuality and religion and concerns about the stigmatization of religion and the increasingly sexualized culture in British society today.

Participants were asked to fill in online questionnaires, interviewed individually, and recorded week-long video diaries about sexual and religious values, attitudes, experiences and identities.

They were also asked about family background, social and cultural expectations, and participation in religious communities and how they understood and managed their gender identity in relation to religious faith.

“Despite their diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, many of today’s 18 to 25 year olds are following their own paths, drawing from a variety of resources such as religious faith, youth culture, the media, and friendship networks,” says Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip of the University of Nottingham.

“They are creating sexual ethics that are informed by their religious faith. Similarly, their sexuality also informs the ways they understand their religious faith and belonging.

“However, a majority of young people believe religious leaders do not know enough about sexuality — particularly youth sexuality.  Others consider institutional religion a social control mechanism that excessively regulates gender and sexual behavior, without sufficient engagement with young people themselves.”

The research shows that nearly a third of young people think celibacy is fulfilling while nearly two thirds are committed to treating heterosexuality and homosexuality on equal terms.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered participants reveal that there are psychological and social costs to living their everyday lives, particularly within religious communities.

“The aim is to document and disseminate the voices of religious young adults. We wanted to explore how they understand their sexuality and religious faith, and the significant factors that inform such understandings, as well as the strategies they have developed to manage their sexual, religious, youth and gender identities,” Yip says.

“The research findings would make a significant contribution to the debate and dialogue in this contentious area of religion and sexuality. We hope the research will speak to religious leaders/professionals, professionals and practitioners working with young people in secular contexts, and of course young people themselves.”

Well over half the participants (65.1 percent) are involved in a religious community and just over half (56.7 per cent) attend a public religious gathering at least once a week.

The study highlights the challenges young adults face in reconciling sexuality and religion. (Credit: U. Nottingham)

Most thought that the expression of one’s sexuality was desirable but opinions varied: some believing that consenting adults should be able to express their sexualities however they wished.

Others believe sexual expression should be limited to marriage or a committed relationship. Despite the diversity in opinion, most salient was the support expressed across the board for monogamous relationships by 83.2 per cent of the sample.

Experiences in connecting religious faith and sexuality were diverse. Some respondents report experiencing tension and conflict. Others are able to deal with any conflict by compartmentalizing faith and sexuality. Still others report finding a way to accommodate both.

“The majority of the religious young adults felt their religion was a positive force in their lives, and many felt that their faith was the most important influence on their sexual values and practices, says Michael Keenan of Nottingham Trent University.

“The study also shows that the negotiation of religion and sexuality can be difficult and that there is a real diversity of experience among young religious adults. We hope the research findings will lead to greater discussion of these important issues and stimulate dialogue between religions and between religious and secular organizations.”

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