Sex, Death, and God
15-year-old Felicia Garcia left the world one final tweet on October 22nd of 2012: “I cant, Im done, I give up.”
Two days later, the Tottenville High School freshman appeared lost and disheveled on a train platform in Huguenot, a neighborhood in Staten Island, New York. It was a little after 3 PM. The platform was crowded with kids commuting home from school. Garcia reportedly looked upset, with her hair in her face, and she kept asking everyone on the platform, “When does the train come? When does the train come?”
When the train came, Garcia turned her back to it, dropping her bookbag and phone onto the ground. “Finally, it’s here,” she said before jumping backwards into the train’s trajectory in what one witness described as “some kind of flip.”
A passenger of the West bound train that Garcia used to take her own life phoned The Staten Island Advance shortly after the incident. “I heard a scream, and everything stopped,” he said.
Felicia Garcia had been bullied, both online and off, for rumors of a night in which she allegedly, according to the New York Post, had “sex with four football players at the same time during a party after a game.”
A senior who knew Garcia said of the bullying, “This poor girl was called a slut. She was teased on Facebook.” Another student of Tottenville High School at the time said, “I hope the football team feels guilty for what they did to her […] They were torturing her […] how can you go through life being verbally assaulted like that? These guys are cruel and malicious.” Members of the football team were even reportedly taunting Garcia with lewd sexual comments and jeers on the train platform, moments before she took her last breath.
Unfortunately, Garcia’s story is not rare. Young women all over the world are tormented and chastised every day merely for exploring their sexuality. And this negative attitude toward sexuality (especially female sexuality) will continue to spread and claim more lives until we as a society reevaluate how we view it.
There may be nothing more culturally mediated than our experiences with and our attitudes toward sex.
We are taught – from a younger age than we explicitly realize – that there are proper and improper ways to regard sex. There are, for example, socially appropriate and inappropriate places to engage in sexual behavior (the bedroom v. the supermarket); ways to initiate sex (an expression of romantic love v. a monetary transaction); and partners with whom we copulate (hetero v. homosexual relationships). And that’s hardly scratching the surface of all the complex interactions between nature and nurture at play in our sex lives. There is also a proper age to first have sex, an acceptable number of sexual partners for one lifetime, a respectable amount of time to wait before sleeping with a new partner (i.e. the “three-date rule”).
Sex is a biological necessity, not entirely unlike the biological necessity of eating. Why, then, is sex such a taboo and culturally mediated experience? It would be hard to imagine a world in which eating in public could get you arrested the way that partaking in an orgy at a McDonald’s would.
So, what is it that makes sex so different, so exceptionally mediated by social mores? There doesn’t seem to be anything else that’s so essential to being human, and yet so universally excluded from polite conversation – save maybe for death.
There doesn’t seem to be anything else that’s so essential to being human, and yet so universally excluded from polite conversation – save maybe for death.
These two things, it turns out, may have more in common than meets the eye. In fact, one might be tempted to juxtapose the two as being conceptually oppositional, insofar as sex is the means by which life is traditionally created and death is the means by which it is negated. There is reason to suspect that our attitudes toward sex (and, thus, our aversions to discussing it in honest and productive ways) might be born of humanity’s most deeply rooted and pervasive fear: our own mortality.
Dr Jamie Goldenberg, Psychology researcher and professor at the University of South Florida, has been studying the intricate relationships between mortality, sex, and neuroses for the past 20 years. Much of her work is rooted in the field of Terror Management Theory (TMT), which posits that a central psychological conflict arises out of an evolutionary instinct of self-preservation when recognizing death’s inevitable and largely unpredictable nature.
The study of TMT can be traced back to the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker. His 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, argued that the vast majority of human behavior stems from subconscious neuroses and anxieties present in confronting one’s own mortality. These neuroses, Becker argued, cause people to construct elaborate social symbol systems, or symbolic social institutions that create and express shared meaning (an agreed-upon purpose of life) within a given society – like religion, customs, laws, or core beliefs – as a means of avoiding, ignoring, or attempting to make sense of the great inevitability.
Dr Goldenberg’s research seems to suggest that the taboo around sex could result from our species’ desire to ignore death. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, Dr Goldenberg and four other researchers (Tom Pyszczynski, Shannon McCoy, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon) examined a series of questionnaires aimed at measuring the effects of death-related thoughts on participants’ levels of neuroses, and then gauged how those neuroses, in turn, affected their attitudes towards the physical aspects of sex. The study found that the more neurotic a person became when confronted with the subject of death, the more negative their views on sex tended to be.
The study found that the more neurotic a person became when confronted with the subject of death, the more negative their views on sex tended to be.
“Taken together,” the researchers assert, “these findings support the general view that sex is problematic, at least for high-neuroticism or other individuals not well-protected against death-related concerns, because it is a creaturely physical act that reminds us of our animal nature and thus of our ultimate mortality.” In other words, there appears to be a correlative relationship – subjects with higher levels of anxiety surrounding death tended to regard sex in a more negative light – and the researchers attribute this to the carnal, animalistic nature of sex being reminiscent of the carnal, animalistic nature of death.
There may be no social symbol system in the history of mankind as blatantly preoccupied with death denial as religion. Intrinsic to religious thought is the question of what happens after death. Each religion, of course, provides its own romantic solution to this existential riddle; but the answer almost always involves an immortalization of the human soul.
If we grant the conclusions of the aforementioned study, it makes perfect sense, then, that nearly all of the world’s major religions would also have something to say about sex. And that, more often than not, what they have to say is, “abstain.” Do not indulge, they command, deny yourself physical pleasure so that your spirit may remain pure enough to ascend in some way upon death.
Religious doctrine seems to weaponize necrophobia in order to police human behavior. Capitalizing on a universal fear of death, scripture provides the security of eternal life in exchange for a willful rejection of free will by following a divine set of rules.
Christianity, for one, commands, via the “godly” mouthpiece of Paul the Apostle: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (Corinthians 7:8–9). This is one of the only excerpts from the New Testament that explicitly brushes up against the subject of sexuality and its moral implications in the eyes of God.
Later, with the rise of Protestantism, this being “aflame with passion” was even further demonized. Any and all extramarital sex – including acts between engaged, committed, and cohabitating couples – was deemed the sin of fornication. This Protestant ethos is alive and well today, it would seem, in places like the United States, where colonists successfully managed to eradicate any and all “heathen” influence, and abstinence-only education still pervades public-school curricula in many states.
In Genesis, Adam and Eve develop a sexual taboo after eating the forbidden fruit, and then have to start fearing death after being cast out of Eden because of it
Islam’s views on sexual behavior are similarly restrictive. “Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage,” the Quran instructs, “keep themselves chaste until God gives them the means” (24:33). According to the Islamic faith, sex is a gift from Allah. And that gift can only be received between a man and a woman upon wedlock. This stringent view of sexuality is so rigorously imposed that meetups between unmarried couples in certain Muslim societies are frequently chaperoned by a family member. The traditional punishment for adultery under sharia law is death by stoning. Although Iran banned this particular form of execution in 2013, the crime of adultery there is still punishable by death. Lapidation, however, is still an all too common form of punishment for adultery and homosexuality elsewhere in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and – as of 3rd April, 2019 – in Brunei.
In Buddhism, it is generally accepted that sex is a natural, healthy, and necessary part of the human experience. Hell, even Siddhartha himself delighted in sex for pleasure as a prince, with his many concubines and private dancers. However, from the Buddhist perspective, worldly pleasures are to be completely cast off for those who wish to reach enlightenment – the highest achievable state of mind for followers. There is no divine punishment, then, for the Buddhist who revels in the pleasures of sex; except for, of course, the inability to attain true enlightenment, a divine punishment in itself.
That is not to say that Buddhist scripture does not also have sexual regulations of its own. The third of the Five Precepts is ripe with patriarchal overtones on what is and is not acceptable when it comes to sex. For one, adultery with any woman who is “claimed” or “acquired” is prohibited; “going with the wife of another” is condemned. As is engaging a woman who is still “protected by any relative,” or who is a prostitute.
Buddhism is an interesting case in the death-sex binary, though, since serious Buddhists aspire to reach enlightenment not to defeat death, but to embrace it. The cycle of rebirth that is Samsara must be overcome so that a Buddhist can finally know the bliss of nothingness. Although this is true, the Buddhist believes in modifying his behavior in order to reach a form of heaven as well – it’s just that his heaven is the escape from life, not the continuation of it. The Buddhist’s death neuroses, one could say, seem to arise from the possibility that death will not be terminal, but they are neuroses, nonetheless, that alter his bodily behavior so that something desirable will (or will not) occur after death.
The influence of religious thought, however, does not only affect those who subscribe to it. Instead, the moral values of a free society’s dominant faiths often have direct and indirect effects on what is considered socially acceptable or appropriate in that society, resulting in the expectation that everyone adhere to them, regardless of creed (or lack thereof). The whole society is influenced by the will of the dominant religious group therein, unsurprisingly, as members of this group are often in positions of power, which results in a sort of top-down dispersion of accepted morality and behavior – trickledown religiosity, if you will. This is made explicit in the form of religiously motivated laws (i.e. restrictions on abortion or bans on gay marriage), but it also occurs covertly in the form of social mores and the reinforcement of certain taboos. Thus, it is deemed inappropriate to, say, discuss sex in the open, or to engage in any kind of sexual behavior that deviates from the dominant faith’s holy mandates (promiscuity, homosexuality, sex for pleasure, etc).
The influence of religious thought, however, does not only affect those who subscribe to it.
It is also true that this taboo seems to pervade even countries where the majority of the populations are not religious, such as China, Japan, and parts of Europe. Whether this is because those countries were not always secular, and so, remnants of religious ideas still influence social norms and mores, or because a discomfort towards sex and death is inherent in human nature and predates religion, remains an open question.
Much of this explanation for why sex is taboo, though, hinges on the plausibility of the psychosocial framework of Terror Management Therapy, as well as a singular set of studies conducted within the same field. A set of studies, mind you, that concluded in a correlation between death neuroses and sex negativity. Although it is not so difficult to imagine a dominant religious group’s ideologies dictating the actions and behaviors of secular society as a whole – this occurs with varying degrees of bloodshed every day – the necrophobic motivation behind it, I concede, could be off entirely.
Maybe the more accurate explanation is something much simpler than all that, something that doesn’t require mapping out the labyrinthine corridors of the human psyche or deconstructing the ornate temples of ideology. Maybe we just don’t like talking about sex because we are insecure. We don’t like feeling overexposed when it comes to bodily functions in general (see: the myriad neuroses and social etiquettes surrounding the restroom). And, so, perhaps sexuality is suppressed and socially censured as a means of avoiding the discomfort that comes with breaching the topic of such a private, bodily, and even profanely sacred experience. It is, after all, probably the most intimate act two people can partake in together, at least in a physical sense. A body within a body. A rush that annihilates time (if you’re lucky).
That may be a touch too romantic, but the point I’m trying to make is this: maybe we treat sex differently than everything else because sex is different from everything else. No other act, after all, can result in the creation of life. If that isn’t exceptional, what is?
Maybe we treat sex differently than everything else because sex is different from everything else.
No matter which angle you view it from, it seems as if the taboo status of sex stems from a fear of some kind or another. Whether that fear is of death, god, social judgment, or vulnerability, we are hiding from something each time we avoid the topic.
I don’t currently have children, but if I ever do, I wouldn’t wish for them to grow up in a world where they might be driven to suicide for exploring their extremely human urges and needs. And I don’t want that for anyone’s kids either. So, it looks like we have a choice to make. Do we want to keep letting our bullshit fears, discomforts, and anxieties kick our asses and cripple us from openly and productively discussing a crucial aspect of the human experience, or do we want to be brave enough to chart potentially uncomfortable territory, implement and improve sex education programs in public schools, and start openly discussing sexuality and promoting sex positiveness for the sake of the next generation?
Forget about the birds and the bees – it’s time to get real.