Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences

By Murray, Kelly M.; Ciarrocchi, Joseph W. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences


Murray, Kelly M., Ciarrocchi, Joseph W., Murray-Swank, Nichole A., Journal of Psychology and Theology


This study examines the relationship among levels of spirituality, religiosity, shame, and guilt on sexual attitudes and experiences. A convenience sample that included graduate and undergraduate students (N = 176; mean age = 37) completed a five-factor measure of personality as well as measures of spirituality, religiosity, shame, guilt, and sexual attitudes and experiences. Spirituality was negatively correlated with sexual permissiveness, and engaging in high risk sex. The moral emotion of shame increased when people had multiple sex partners within the past three months while those more spiritual or connected to God were less likely to have had sex after use of alcohol and/or drugs. Also, the more often someone attended religious services the less likely they were to have had multiple partners within the past three months. A sense of alienation from God predicted shame and guilt, but shame and guilt themselves did not predict sexual practices. These findings suggest that sexual attitudes and experiences are related to both spirituality and religious practices independently of personality, whereas they have no relationship to shame and guilt.

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Religion is frequently viewed as a potent gatekeeper of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Historians and anthropologists have noted evidence from as far back as pre-fifth century BC that religion tends to separate human sexuality by emphasizing a dualistic split between body and spirit (Ogden, 2002; Pagels, 1988). While contemporary religion has attempted to emphasize the connection between spirituality and sexual expression, historically there was a tendency to control sexual expression, particularly outside of marriage (Greeley, 1991). Religion, particularly Western religion, continues to reinforce the repression of sexual urges and proscribe the utilization of sex solely for pleasure (Leeming, 2003). In this vein, Davidson, Darling, and Norton (1995) felt that people avoid engaging in sexual practices for the sake of sexual pleasure because of the broadly-held religious attitude that sexual desires ought to be repressed. Similarly, McClintock (2001) asserted: "fear of the flesh and denial of sexual impulses have left us with a disembodied theology and a great deal of shame. History reveals the deep chasms that have characterized spirituality and sexuality in Christianity" (p.28).

In addition to this position, religion's function regarding sexuality can also be viewed as a mechanism for helping society and culture regulate a powerful human force that often influences people's ability to live in harmony (Baumeister, 2005). Religion, in this view, becomes just one stratagem that culture uses for the necessary task of inculcating self-control in people who must live together. Rules for sexual self-regulation, therefore, and the attendant emotions arising from breaking those rules (e.g., shame and guilt), are potentially adaptive.

It is clear that understanding religion's role in regulating sexual behavior is complex, and has far-reaching implications. Some roles that religions play in regulating sexual behavior have clear social and cultural benefits (e.g., moral disapproval of rape or child sexual abuse). Other roles, as suggested by the theologians cited above, might lead to psychological fragmentation and emotional distress in the form of excessive shame and guilt.

Religion, Spirituality, and Sexuality

Helminiak (1989) links spirituality to sexuality by defining spirituality as a construct that involves the integration of the whole person, a process that naturally includes the individual's sexuality. Helminiak (1998) suggests further that the integration of sexuality and spirituality is nothing other than the integration of the human being. MacKnee (1997) concurs that the relation between sexuality and spirituality offers a vehicle for post-conventional understanding of individual potential and growth, which ultimately leads to more human completeness. …

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