According to new research Journal of Family Psychology there is an important exception: Religious individuals who believe their sexual relationship with their partner is sacred tend to have higher sexual satisfaction.
“It seems there are as many stories about how religion influences sexual relationships as there are people. For people who received religious messages about how sexuality is connected to original sin, a barrier to be overcome, an open sore to be scratched, or a natural depravity of the human body, religion just might not be the most positive force in their sexual relationship,” said study author Nathan Leonhardt, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
“Alternatively, if people received religious messages about how sexuality is sacred, sanctioned for being cocreators with God, and designed to help couples bond, experience pleasure, and enhance their commitment to each other, religion could be a positive force in their relationships. With this study, the goal was to better understand the nuance of how religion could be a positive or negative force in sexual relationships.”
For their research, Leonhardt and his colleagues surveyed 1,695 sexually active individuals recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and 481 couples (who had been in a committed relationship for at least two years) recruited from the marketing firm Bovitz Inc. The participants completed measures of religiosity, sexual inhibition, sexual sanctification, and sexual satisfaction.
“Religion has the potential to be a positive or negative force in a sexual relationship. Those who view the sexual relationship as sanctified, or holy, report having better sexual satisfaction. But if religion is not connected to couples viewing sex as sanctified, being more religious is connected to lower sexual satisfaction,” Leonhardt told PsyPost.
Those who scored high on sexual sanctification agreed with statements such as “The sexual bond I have with my partner is sacred to me” and “Our sexual relationship connects us to something greater than ourselves.”
The researchers also found that men’s religiosity predicted their female partner’s sexual sanctification, but women’s religiosity did not predict their male partner’s sexual sanctification. “Men seem to be something like gatekeepers to sanctified sex in a relationship, as men’s religiosity led to both his own and his partner’s higher sexual sanctification,” Leonhardt said.
Heightened sexual inhibition was associated with reduced sexual satisfaction. Surprisingly, however, feeling reluctant to act on sexual urges and being hesitant to participate in sexual opportunities did not appear to mediate the relationship between religiosity and sexual satisfaction.
“We expected inhibited sexual passion to explain why being more religious might be connected to lower sexual satisfaction, but we found that was not the case,” Leonhardt explained. “We still need to figure out what other factors might be involved for when religion is connected to lower sexual satisfaction.”
The researchers controlled for age, relationship length, race, marital status, sexual orientation, education, and income. But the study — like all research — includes some limitations. “This is a non-representative study at one time point, so it would be helpful to see how these findings hold up over time in a representative sample,” Leonhardt said.
“Religion is complicated,” he added. “It can lead someone to a wide variety of healthy and unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. Hopefully, this study can encourage couples, educators, and clinicians to consider steppingstones and roadblocks to how religion can improve a sexual relationship.”
The study, “Sanctification or Inhibition? Religious Dualities and Sexual Satisfaction“, was authored by Nathan D. Leonhardt, Dean M. Busby, Veronica R. Hanna-Walker, and Chelom E. Leavitt.