Sex and the United Methodist Church

Sex and the Church — Gender discrimination and violence, HIV/AIDS 

Talking about human sexuality is taboo in many places of worship. Although sex is a significant part of the human experience, many pastors are ill-equipped to speak about it with understanding, with accurate information and without shame. For the most part, they speak about sex as if even mentioning it is a sin.

Regrettably, this often leads to misguided counseling on issues related to sex. It makes a difficult situation more challenging and, in some cases, places people at risk.

Many faith-based traditions teach that sex is for procreation only. Rarely, if ever, do they preach about human sexuality as a gift from God, as part of our nature, and meant to be treasured and enjoyed (Genesis 1:27-2:25).

Discussions about human sexuality remain taboo in far too many schools, homes and religious institutions despite the fact that unprotected sex is the main mode of transmission of HIV virus, which is still killing millions. There has been some movement among faith communities to support condom use among married couples, but this is as far as it goes.

Although sex is a major source of conflict in marriage, few pastors know how to counsel couples about it. In addition, many faith-based traditions condemn sex outside marriage. They shun conversation about sex among unmarried people out of a proclaimed fear that discussing sex will only promote it. Recently, I read about a congregation in Florida that openly discusses sex in church. This gives me hope that the situation can change.

Gender inequality and violence

Many faith groups similarly are silent about gender inequality and gender-based violence. These human rights issues are too closely related to sex apparently. And, if these religions do speak about gender issues, they tend to perpetuate inequality, promote male authority and rigid roles that exacerbate subjugation of women and gender-based violence.

Gender discrimination and violence have placed women and girls at the center of the global AIDS epidemic. Studies show that violence heightens the risk of women and girls to HIV. And conversely, HIV-positive females are at higher risk of violence. In the nine most heavily HIV-affected countries in Africa, females comprise 61% of infected adults and nearly 75% of infected young people. In some countries, young females can be four to six times more likely to be HIV-infected than young men.

Failure to teach and speak openly about human sexuality and to condemn gender inequality and violence undermines an institution’s ability to respond adequately to the HIV epidemic. Where does your faith tradition stand on the issue of the vulnerability of women and girls? What is being done to free women and girls from the shackles of inequality, sexual violence and trafficking? What is being said and taught about human sexuality?

During the past 27 years of the HIV epidemic, many religious groups have done significant work in supporting people living with HIV and their families. In developing countries lacking adequate health-care infrastructure, faith groups have become the primary health-care providers.

Institutions of faith

Worldwide, institutions of faith occupy a unique place in the lives of billions of people. Religious institutions have an extraordinary ability to reach individuals and communities with information and provide access to essential services. Many faith-based institutions are already active in these efforts, but as is true for us all, so much more can and must be done.

As the severity of the AIDS pandemic has become clear, though, it has become more urgent to address its main drivers: gender inequality, gender-based violence, and the frank discussion and teaching of human sexuality. Current ethical and theological approaches in many faith traditions are inadequate and misguided in their ability to address these fundamental drivers.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the region that is my home, millions of women and girls are becoming infected with HIV because gender inequality prevents them from accessing adequate information. Gender inequality also denies them equal access to commodities and necessary services.

Most important, girls and women are denied the right to choose when, with whom, and under what circumstances they will engage in sex.

Gender discrimination in education denies females the opportunity to make choices that help prevent HIV infection. And in many countries, girls who do make it to school find the environment fraught with sexual violence and rape. This includes some church-run schools.

Common cross-generational sexual relationships render young women especially vulnerable to HIV infection. These relationships include early marriage and transactional sex. Some involve rape and sexual coercion. In all these situations, girls have little or no ability to avoid sex or negotiate safe sex.

The church is silent

These topics are not discussed in church. And many religious traditions do not seem to be outraged by child marriage or sexual violence. Even when some of this sexual violence has in fact been perpetrated by clergy.

Few youths in our churches have even a functional knowledge of human sexuality. All they hear, and thus know, is that sex outside marriage is sinful. Meanwhile, their bodily desires push them to satisfy sexual urges.

Unfortunately, many religious traditions consider it inappropriate and even sinful to educate youths about sex, masturbation and condoms. Some contend that the only appropriate approach for youths is to abstain or delay sexual activity until marriage.

Trends associated with new HIV infections reveal that marriage is not a safe haven. In sub-Saharan Africa, the rate of HIV infection among married couples is alarming. Many stories of married women in Africa do not fit the stereotypes of high HIV risk: sex workers, people with multiple partners, men who have sex with men, or users of intravenous drugs.

Religious, cultural traditions

Many cultures and religious teachings strongly give the message that a woman has no control over her body. Thus, male family members can sell a woman into marriage through dowry, bride price and widow inheritance. Men can demand sex from their wives any time. Some even impose female genital mutilation. This lack of power renders a woman vulnerable not only to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases but also to HIV infection.

Many of the beliefs behind gender discrimination and violence originate from religious and cultural traditions, teachings and practices founded on misinterpretation of scriptures. For example, man is the head of the house and women should obey their husbands (Ephesians 5:23-24). Many men feel justified in demanding respect and exerting domination. Many women feel compelled to obey and accept such domination. Sexist values or patriarchal teachings and practices make gender-based violence inevitable, which exacerbates the spread of HIV.

Some religions teach that Eve was the first to sin, and that she tempted Adam. They teach that women are inferior and therefore cannot be decision makers or ordained. These negative images of women are pervasive in many faith traditions. Cultural traditions enable discrimination against women as well and render them vulnerable to violence and HIV infection.

What needs to happen?

Religious institutions are morally obligated to keep people alive. Saving lives from preventable deaths caused by violence and HIV should supersede preaching against use of condoms, sex education and gender equality.[1] In our global society, it is time that faith communities refute the traditional fear and shame associated with talking about sex. They should strive to educate their members honestly and truthfully about sex and about how to protect themselves. Faith-based communities need to reexamine their priorities.

Reducing the spread of HIV will require a fundamental, radical shift from the patriarchal mindset inherent in many religious traditions to an egalitarian, gender-sensitive society. Communities need to change the cultural and religious beliefs that support the subjugation of women. Thus, churches need to discard any theologies that expose women and girls to discrimination, violence and HIV.

The need is urgent to promote HIV-prevention programs that empower women to be decision makers in their own lives. Identifying risk factors and emphasizing safe sex practices cannot halt the spread of HIV if women’s ability to make decisions is compromised through religious and cultural socialization and political powerlessness.

Furthermore, it is time that faith groups acknowledge sexuality as an elemental part of natural, healthy human development. The silence and taboos associated with sex compel many people, young and old, to explore their sexuality secretly and engage in unprotected sex.

Ignoring God’s wisdom

Ignoring these God-given bodily functions seems to question God’s wisdom in creation. As history has proved, shunning the discussion about human sexuality does not save people from HIV; instead, it simply exacerbates the pandemic.

The reality that many people are sexually active only underscores the importance of preventing the spread of HIV through responsible behavior. Providing people with the ability to protect themselves and others is a Godlier and more life-saving endeavor than condemning them for sin and adding to their harm.

Extensive research demonstrates that several countries have reduced the rate of HIV infection through education programs. These programs focus on prevention, appropriate sex education, use of condoms, delayed intercourse and a reduction in the number of sexual partners.

Religious communities have been at the forefront of teaching faithfulness in marriage and abstinence to prevent HIV. These strategies have worked in some cases, but they do not provide a comprehensive HIV-prevention methodology.

From a theological standpoint, faith-based institutions would do better to develop and commit to a paradigm shift in their understanding of human sexuality. They should revisit teachings that have served as barriers in the AIDS response. These include condemnation of masturbation, use of condoms, and promotion of gender inequality.

In the African context, perhaps it would be useful to revisit a custom that enabled youths to practice a form of love that allowed fondling and masturbation (ngwiko) without sexual penetration before marriage. Former president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta states in his book Facing Mount Kenya that this practice taught young men and women how to be responsible adults while at the same time allowed them to satisfy their sexual feelings. Sensual dances, such as muoboko, also permitted innocent expressions of human sexuality within the confines of social gatherings. By undergoing this teaching, many Gikuyu youths were able to postpone sex until after marriage.

Full panoply of initiatives

Churches have a rich and full panoply of initiatives from which to choose the values they teach their members: values that place respect and equality at the center of the human experience. They can promote age-appropriate sex education and discussions in our houses of worship; promote a human rights approach to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support; seek to engage men and boys from the pulpit, men’s meetings, Sunday schools, couples counseling, confirmation and baptism classes, and one-on-one spiritual direction.

They can also promote peer education: men talking to other men about sex, attitudes and behavior towards women. Male religious leaders could serve as role models to affect these positive changes. How many of them are truly disgusted about the suffering of women and girls that stems from gender-based violence? In my denomination, bishops are more appalled by homosexuality — which has yet to kill any African women — than the gender-based violence sending African women to mass graves both prematurely and unnecessarily.

Religious organizations can also financially support ministries that are trying to put a stop to HIV/AIDS in our world. One such example is the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, which represents the commitment of every member of the denomination to put a stop to HIV/AIDS in our world.

Religious groups have a wide reach in communities around the world. Their leaders are supposed to be role models that influence people. This gives churches a unique and great opportunity to help people achieve abundant life in Christ. They could become agents of change in a world burdened by AIDS, gender discrimination and sexual violence. This could happen through helping people live a holistic life that pays attention to the physical, psychological and spiritual realms of their lives.

Human sexuality and gender equality are part and parcel of that holistic life. Jesus came so that we may have abundant life (John 10:10).

Questions for discussion

  1. In view of the rapid spread of HIV throughout sub-Saharan Africa, would it be sacrilegious to suggest that we support other forms of sexual exploration, such as sex toys to satisfy one’s sexual urges rather than participating in casual or unprotected sex?
  2. Given the role of gender-based discrimination and violence in the spread of HIV, should churches seek to reinterpret scriptural texts that seem to perpetuate the subjugation of women?
  3. What are the positive teachings of Christ and the scriptures that could overturn the negative, oppressive role of the church?
  4. How can the church use its power to save life rather than assert authority?
  5. How can the church reconcile its commitment to sustaining life with its teachings that may not be life-giving, for example, women submit yourselves to men?

Editor’s note: Pauline Muchina comes from the Rift Valley Province in Kenya, where her family still resides. She has a broad range of experience with advocacy groups promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and women’s issues. She has worked with UNAIDS, the Global Health Council, Population Services International, the AIDS Resource Center and World Council of Churches.

Pauline MuchinaDr. Pauline Muchina

Muchina is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, and has served on several boards, including the Global AIDS Alliance.

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