Does religiosity improve or impede a person’s sex life? According to findings published in the Journal of Sex Research, the answer is nuanced. In a large, British survey, people with stronger religious beliefs reported having less sex on average but higher overall sexual satisfaction.
Religion is declining in Western countries, and at the same time, young people are delaying marriage. Since marriage and sexual relationships are inextricably connected, secularization could have an impact on sexual behavior. Surprisingly, there is a lack of research on the relationships between religiosity, sexual frequency, and sexual satisfaction. In addition, the existing findings are inconsistent.
Study authors Nitzan Peri-Rotem and Vegard Skirbekk explain that religiosity has been associated with both higher and lower sexual satisfaction. This inconsistency may be partly due to contrasting religious ideals surrounding marital and non-marital sex. Sex outside marriage is discouraged within most religions, which may promote feelings of guilt among nonmarried couples that hinders their sexual satisfaction. But sex within marriage is considered highly sacred, which may promote positive feelings that enhance marital satisfaction and sexual satisfaction among married couples.
“As a social demographer, I am interested in the ways in which society and culture shape fertility patterns, and sexual behavior is highly relevant to that,” explained Peri-Rotem, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Exeter.
“The role of religion is particularly intriguing in this context: on the one hand, many religious traditions discourage sex outside marriage and even consider it as sinful. On the other hand, when sex occurs within marriage it is viewed as sacred and is encouraged by the same religious groups. Therefore, we wanted to explore the relationship between religiosity and sexual satisfaction across different types of unions.”
Peri-Rotem and Skirbekk set out to explore the link between religion and sexual satisfaction within more nuanced relationship contexts — for example, couples who live together unmarried or live apart but in a committed relationship. To do this, the researchers obtained data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), a nationally representative survey of British residents that spanned between 2010 and 2012.
The final analytic sample involved 15,162 participants between the ages of 18 and 60. All participants had responded to questionnaires that assessed various demographic variables and asked them about their sexual experiences, attitudes, and sexual satisfaction. Participants additionally completed a subjective measure of religiosity, which asked, “How important are religion and religious beliefs to you, now?”
The results revealed that religion was not important to most subjects, with only 11% of men and 16% of women indicating that religion was “very important” to them and 22% of men and 27% of women indicating “fairly important.”
The findings also revealed that people who said that religion was very important to them reported significantly lower sexual frequency than those who said religion was not at all important to them. However, this association was only significant among single people or people living apart but in committed relationships. It was not true for those living together, either married or not. This pattern of results fits with the assumption that religious people tend to have less sex outside marriage.
Interestingly, people who reported that religion was either fairly or very important to them reported higher sexual satisfaction than those who said that religion was not important to them at all. Moreover, married women with stronger religious beliefs had higher sexual satisfaction than married women with weaker religious beliefs. However, there was no significant link between religiosity and sexual satisfaction for married men.
The authors say their findings suggest that religious people may have more satisfying sex lives due to a stronger investment in long-term relationships. Limiting sex to committed, loving relationships may be conducive to a more fulfilling sex life, which could be why religious people report more satisfying sex within their marriages.
“One of the main take away from this study is that there is no simple relationship between sex frequency and sexual satisfaction,” Peri-Rotem told PsyPost. “Rather, the social context in which sexual activity is taking place is also important. For example, as more religious people have lower expectations of sexual activity outside a formal union, it can help explain why they report higher satisfaction from sex life, while having less frequent sex than their non-religious peers.”
Single men who were more religious reported more satisfying sex lives, although this link fell below significance when controlling for acceptance of casual sex and sex without love. For both men and women, greater acceptance of casual sex or sex without love was tied to lower sexual satisfaction. For women only, having too many (more than ten) or too few (zero) lifetime sexual partners was related to lower sexual satisfaction.
“One of the surprising findings from this study is the negative relationship between level of education and sexual satisfaction,” Peri-Rotem added. “We found that degree-educated men and women reported having less frequent sex and also had lower levels of sexual satisfaction compared to their less educated peers. This may be due to higher workload or greater career investments among the former, which may come at the expense of romantic life. However, there may also be other explanations for that.”
“We still know surprisingly little about the predictors of sexual well-being and sexual satisfaction,” Peri-Rotem said. “It is a complex field of research, because it is shaped by a combination of physical, psychological and socio-cultural factors. Therefore, using an interdisciplinary approach is crucial to understanding what contributes to having a better sex life.”
The study, “Religiosity, Sex Frequency, and Sexual Satisfaction in Britain: Evidence from the Third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)”, was authored by Nitzan Peri-Rotem and Vegard Skirbekk.