reprinted from Jewel Zimbabwe (July 2011)

by Rebecca Hodes

Zimbabwe is experiencing a religious revival, but the sticking point has always been sex, with a consumer culture that celebrates the joys of sex-on-tap – stilettos in the air, thongs to the wind – what can religion teach us about sex that the authors of contemporary bedroom bibles cannot?

Zimbabwe has always been a religious society. The World Values Survey claims that more than half of Zimbabwe’s population attends a house of worship weekly, and our nation is currently undergoing a religious revival.

As global media beam images of ideal consumer from Moscow to Maputo, people have begun to resist an onslaught of sameness by reasserting local identities, and the strengthening of spiritual communities is one aspect of this opposition. So while Madonna was a “material girl” in the 80’s, by the late 90’s she’d swapped her cone-bra for the red wrist string that signaled her interest in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). The Scientological forays of the Holmes-Cruise’s have long been held up as an example of celebrity religiosity, and it seems only a matter of time before Britney Spears finds faith. But for many, the combination of sex and religion is a fraught one.

Its one thing to observe a festival or to abide by dietary regulations. Its quite another to control the lusty whispers in our minds and bodies.

Stereotypes abound regarding religious approaches to sex, often echoing scandalous revelations about the crimes of religious leaders or the most severe misinterpretations of sacred texts, which have been written into law in a number of theocratic states. Thus, the sexual assault of minors committed by the Catholic clergy is held up as evidence for the harmful effects of celibacy, and the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is regarded as proof of the patriarchy of Islam. These truisms obscure the positive lessons inherent in religious perspectives on sex. While the faith-based laws regarding morality are often of the “thou shalt not” variety, the Western world’s most renowned commandment regarding sex is in fact an encouragement towards abundant love-making, that humanity should “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

Within all the world’s major religions, sex is not regarded as a sin as long as it is sanctified by marriage. Thus, it is not sexual experience that is wrong or sinful, but rather sex that takes place outside the holy covenant. Reverend E.S. Waterhouse, author of Psychology and Religion, encapsulated this approach in his maxim that “innocence means being unharmed, not being ignorant.”

Scholars interpret the miracle that Jesus performed at a wedding in the Book of John as a sign of his approval of marriage and its attendant sexual paring (John 2:1-12). In fact, the Christian belief that sex is a sign of a complete union, and that it involves mutual self-giving and self-control, retain enormous value in our current climate in which sex is frequently regulated to a casual commodity.

Despite the doom-laden tone of much of Christianity’s teachings about sex – The Gospel of Matthew equates desire and lust with actual fornication (Matthew 5: 27-28), and the Christian concept of porneia details sexual sins which range from adultery to homosexuality – its lessons regarding fidelity remain highly relevant within the context of epidemic sexually-transmitted infections, which is why the primary slogan of Zimbabwe’s HIV-awareness campaign (ABC: Abstain, Be faithful, Condomise – and the latest Circumcise) seemed to echo Christian religious tenets in two thirds of this message.

The Islamic approach to sex is based on the concept of harmony between spouses and an enjoyable erotic life is regarded as a right for both partners. The Hadith (Islamic oral traditions) contains the Prophet Mohammed’s advice to husbands on how to pleasure their wives, and advises gentle talk and kissing in order to ensure mutual arousal before intercourse.

Islam’s erotic lessons also focus on the importance of trust and privacy. Partners are forbidden to discuss the intimacies of their love-making with others, preventing the kiss-and-tell accounts that many of us love to share but which have equally hurt us when we are not the tellers but the told. Chastity is highly praised in the Qur’an, which also articulates a set of rules for the prevention of sexual desires.

In today’s Islamic world the female body is the centre of fiery controversy, with some theologians arguing for strict boundaries between the sexes, in essence converting the requirement of modesty into that of female seclusion. In spite of culture-bond controversies, Islam remains forthright in its affirmation of erotic enjoyment.

While Judaism’s view of sex is that it is primarily for procreation, Jewish sacred texts include erotic laws meant to encourage sexual fullfilment between spouses. Isaac, one of the greatest Jewish forefathers, used a special term for his love-making with his wife Rebecca: metzchayek, which translates as a kind of erotic rejoicing. Thus, Judaism’s approach echoes contemporary beliefs in the benefits of sexual pleasure.

The Talmud (Religious Law) contains substantial advice to married couples on how to maintain a romantic sex life, recommending that partners infuse their love-making with warmth, playfulness and an appreciation particularly of the woman’s desires. Couples are instructed to retain the only keys to their bedroom and to avoid making love in direct sunlight (so as to ensure against being seen by others), and sex is never to be used as a punishment or as means of extracting award. What’s more, partners should never be drunk when making love. Valuable advise when taking into account that alcohol compromises decision-making capacities and also has a detrimental effect on sexual funcioning.

Judaism limits sexual contact between spouses during the infertile days of a woman’s cycle, which may strengthen sexual desire. If you are only able to sleep with your partner for 17 days of a month, those days are likely to be more heady and electric than if you are always sexually available to each other. Of course it could be argued both ways: you may become frustrated enough during this period to betray your partner, whether in your imagination or in actuality.

Religious values are often conflated with the denial of sexual impulses, but, as increasing numbers of Zimbabweans are discovering, the erotic teachings of our faiths remain relevant and insightful, emphasizing the importance of intimacy and love between sexual partners when the secular gods of consumption and commodification have devalued these qualities.

But how do we reconcile the wisdom of old, some parts of it negative and oppresive, with our own knowledge of what works best for us? The answer is to discover what is sacred about sex for each of us, and to inscribe our own erotic litanies. But we must also be knowledgeable and aware of the results of reckless sexual behaviour.