Feelings of guilt about sex, which are often related to religious convictions, are related to lower levels of sexual satisfaction in single people, but with greater sexual satisfaction among those who are married, according to a study published in the journal Sexuality & Culture.

Religion has a complicated relationship with sexuality. On one hand, many religious traditions have conservative rules about sex that can make believers feel guilty about their sexual activities. On the other hand, many religious groups promote the idea that sex within permitted boundaries, among married couples, is a sacred duty. Studies of religion and sexual satisfaction reflect this complexity, finding contradictory results.

A team of researchers led by Jana Hackathorn, of Murray State University, sought to explain these contradictions by examining the relationship between religion and sexual satisfaction in married and unmarried people separately. A sample of 258 adults recruited on the internet completed a survey which assessed two aspects of religiousness, feelings of guilt surrounding sexuality, and satisfaction with their current sex lives. Feelings of sexual guilt that were measured included things like attitudes towards masturbation, sex before marriage, and “unusual” sexual practices.

Using a statistical technique called mediation analysis, the researchers assessed the relationship between religion and sexual satisfaction, and whether this relationship was explained by the correlations of both of these factors with sexual guilt.

Among unmarried individuals, there was a strong mediating relationship. Religiousness was related to greater feelings of sexual guilt, and sexual guilt was in turn related to much lower sexual satisfaction.

“Our findings indicate that internalization of religion negatively predicts sexual satisfaction, such that the more unmarried individuals internalize their religious teachings, the less sexually satisfied they are,” Hackathorn and her colleagues wrote in their study.

Among married people, however, this pattern was quite different. Although religiousness was strongly related to greater sexual guilt among this group as well, sexual guilt was actually related to somewhat better sexual satisfaction.

“Interestingly, all mediation effects that were present for unmarried participants disappeared from the model when the analysis was conducted with married people,” the researchers said.

The study authors conclude that having a religious background tends to make people frame their own sexual feelings and behavior differently before and after marriage. They refer to this as the “sacred bed phenomenon.” Sexual activities that are perceived as sinful outside of marriage are redefined as permissible and even positive when engaged in by married couples.

Thus, while highly religious people who are married may continue to experience feeling of guilt surrounding sex in the abstract, they may reappraise their feelings about their own personal sexual activities, leading to better sexual satisfaction. If these results are correct, religious people looking forward to marriage may also be able to look forward to more satisfying sex lives.