- Per a new study, women in highly religious relationships were twice as likely as their secular peers to say they were satisfied with their sexual relationship. Tweet This
- United religious couples in the Wheatley analysis reported higher emotional closeness, commitment, and partner virtues. Tweet This
A finalist for the 2020 National Book Award, Deesha Philyaw’s noted collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, explores the tension between female sexual desire and the religious atmosphere in which Philyaw embeds her characters. It’s not uncommon to frame faith as somehow in conflict with healthy sexuality. Sigmund Freud famously posited that unfulfilled, or “repressed,” sexual desires cause a host of psychological and social problems. And yet, emerging data on religion and sexuality tell a more nuanced story.
According to a recently released study from the Wheatley Institution, highly religious couples who share a common faith report more satisfying sexual relationships than their secular peers. The findings compliment a separate study by Stephen Cranney published earlier this year in the Reviews of Religious Research, which found that married religious couples also have more frequent and better sex.
The Wheatley report analyzed survey data from 11 countries, including the United States, and its findings suggest that religious “dosage” (the level of a couple’s religious involvement) can play a role in reported sexual satisfaction. According to the analysis, moderately religious women were 50% more likely to report being sexually satisfied in their relationship than women with no religious practice. However, women in highly religious relationships (couples who pray together, read scripture at home, and attend church, etc.) were twice as likely as their secular peers to say they were satisfied with their sexual relationship. And the men in these couples were fully four times as likely to report being sexually satisfied as men in relationships with no religious activity.
Contrary to a popular notion of religion “holding someone back” from sexual fulfillment, religious worship in church and at the home might actually “set some free” in terms of experiencing a sexually satisfying relationship.
Not all research in this area is uniform. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Family Psychology reported that religiosity has the potential for both positive and negative impacts on sexual satisfaction, depending in part on religious attitudes. The new report from Wheatley suggests that sexual outcomes may be less about the nature of religion itself and potentially more about the degree of religious worship and whether or not spouses are unified in their religious devotion.
Put differently, previous studies have rarely incorporated what scholars Loren Marks and David Dollahite call a multidimensional approach to studying faith and sexuality, which means looking not just at beliefs or church attendance alone but also worship practices, as well as involvement and integration within a religious community.
Too often, what researchers measure with regard to “religiosity” may not actually help scholars discern between casual religious practitioners and those with greater religious involvement. In other words, data in this area may lack the requisite specificity to lend insight into the actual relationship between lived faith and various relational outcomes.
Both the Wheatley Institution report and a study published this year in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality seek to unpack to some degree the role that increased religious activity or religious “dosage” might play in relational outcomes, including sexual satisfaction. Both found a correlation between joint religious activities between couples and reported levels of sexual satisfaction.
Contrary to a popular notion of religion “holding someone back” from sexual fulfillment, religious worship in church and at the home might actually “set some free” in terms of experiencing a sexually satisfying relationship. United religious couples in the Wheatley analysis reported higher emotional closeness, commitment, and partner virtues. Their sexual satisfaction, in other words, may stem in part from an added spiritual closeness that bolsters their physical and emotional connection. Following religious patterns within a relationship—reading scripture together, praying and discussing faith at home, attending church services, etc—may help cultivate this relational richness, imbuing home life with an added measure of sanctification.
These data also put a finer point on the suggestion that differing levels of religious commitment matter in predicting sexual satisfaction, and that, as the Wheatley study indicates, the couples that pray together may actually tend to stay together. Rather than a source of tension, then, perhaps the real secret regarding the sex lives of church ladies is that they appear to be marked by a greater satisfaction.
Matthew Saxey is a student researcher in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and fellow of the Wheatley Institution.