Perhaps it is not a surprise that young adults report tension in reconciling religious beliefs with 21st century sexual mores.
A novel study by a team of sociological researchers from the University of Nottingham reviewed these issues and how they affect and influence the lives of British 18- to 25-year-olds. How do young adults reconcile sex and religion?
Drs. Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip and Sarah-Jane Page at The University of Nottingham and Dr. Michael Keenan from Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences spent two years investigating the attitudes, values and experiences of sex and religion among young adults.
The study involved nearly 700 young people from six different religious traditions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — as well as young adults of mixed faith. It highlighted the challenges they face in reconciling their sexuality and their religion and the concerns they have about the stigmatization of religion and the increasingly sexualized culture in British society today.
Investigators asked all the participants to fill in online questionnaires. Some were also interviewed individually and recorded week-long video diaries.
Young adults were asked to talk about their sexual and religious values, attitudes, experiences and identities. As well as looking at their family background, social and cultural expectations and participation in religious communities, the researchers also examined young people’s experiences of living in British society and how they understood and managed their gender identity in relation to their religious faith.
According to Yip, “Despite their diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, many of today’s 18- to 25-year-olds are following their own paths, drawing from a variety of resources such as religious faith, youth culture, the media and friendship networks.
“They are creating sexual ethics that are informed by their religious faith. Similarly, their sexuality also informs the ways they understand their religious faith and belonging,” he said.
“However, a majority of young people believe religious leaders do not know enough about sexuality — particularly youth sexuality. Others consider institutional religion a social control mechanism that excessively regulates gender and sexual behavior, without sufficient engagement with young people themselves.”
The research showed that nearly a third of the young people think celibacy is fulfilling while nearly two-thirds are committed to treating heterosexuality and homosexuality on equal terms. Meanwhile lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered participants reveal that there are psychological and social costs to living their everyday lives, particularly within religious communities.
“The aim is to document and disseminate the voices of religious young adults,” Yip said. “We wanted to explore how they understand their sexuality and religious faith, and the significant factors that inform such understandings, as well as the strategies they have developed to manage their sexual, religious, youth and gender identities.
“We believe that the research findings would make a significant contribution to the debate and dialogue in this contentious area of religion and sexuality. We hope the research will speak to religious leaders/professionals, professionals and practitioners working with young people in secular contexts, and of course young people themselves.”
Well over half the participants (65.1 percent) were involved in a religious community and just over half (56.7 percent) attended a public religious gathering at least once a week.
Most thought that the expression of one’s sexuality was desirable but opinions varied; some believing that consenting adults should be able to express their sexualities however they wished, while others believed sexual expression should be limited to marriage or a committed relationship.
Despite the diversity in opinion, most salient was the support expressed across the board for monogamous relationships by 83.2 per cent of the sample.
Their experiences in connecting their religious faith and sexuality were diverse. Some had experienced tension and conflict. Others were able to deal with any conflict by compartmentalizing faith and sexuality. Some participants had found a way of accommodating both.
Keenan commented, “The majority of the religious young adults felt their religion was a positive force in their lives, and many felt that their faith was the most important influence on their sexual values and practices.
“The study also shows that the negotiation of religion and sexuality can be difficult and that there is a real diversity of experience among young religious adults. We hope the research findings will lead to greater discussion of these important issues and stimulate dialogue between religions and between religious and secular organizations.”
The project received funding of nearly £250,000 (upwards of $400,000) from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.
Source: University of Nottingham