Sex is one of the most complex, emotionally charged, and potentially consequential activities that we take part in as humans. Sex can result in procreation, create or strengthen bonds, lead to joy and transcendence, or pain and heartache. It can be a force of oppression, or of liberation. It can also be a source of shame, pain, and confusion, particularly for those who grew up in traditions that placed rigid guidelines around what sex should look like. People from backgrounds in which sex was associated with sin, danger, or general immorality may wonder, “Is sex bad?” The answer is a resounding, No! Sex is not bad.
Why sex is not bad.
While people have varying needs for sex — some may never want it and others may want it all the time — sex is a fundamental part of being human. We are made to enjoy sex, as evidenced by the thousands of pleasure-inducing nerve-endings on our genitals. Sex can be just for pleasure, for procreation, or for both. But however you choose to enjoy sex, it’s not bad so long as all people involved are consenting.
Sex between consenting adults, whether in the context of a marriage, a long-term relationship, or a hook-up, is a healthy and natural expression of human desire. Although sex does carry risks — pregnancy, STIs, and heartbreak are the most common — if approached with communication, respect, safety, and boundaries, sex can be one of the most connecting and joyful experiences we are able to have as humans.
If you study sex throughout history, you’ll find that sex has actually been celebrated and respected as a natural part of the human experience.
Does history say sex is bad?
Let’s take a look at how ancient society viewed sex. We can start with hunter-gatherer groups. Hunter-gathers have had a variety of approaches to sexuality, including, in some cases, polyandry, or the practice of women taking multiple husbands or sexual partners.
Some sectors of ancient Indian society elevated sexual pleasure to an art. The concept of “kama” (as in the famous sex manual The Kama Sutra), related to sexual pleasure, but also to beauty and enjoyment in other areas of life. Sexuality — along with the appreciation of poetry, music, food, art, and the beauty of nature — was seen as a vital component of an enjoyable life in which things of beauty were celebrated and held in high esteem.
The ancient Greeks were famous for their acceptance of sexual relationships between men — although from a contemporary perspective, many of the couplings celebrated in epic poetry and myth can be seen as potentially exploitative, since relationships often took place between adults and adolescents. Still, sexuality was not rigidly defined, with many men maintaining relationships with both women and other men.
When did people start to think sex is bad?
The invention of marriage played a big role in stigmatizing sex for pleasure. Historically, marriage was a contract with implications for the ownership of land and property, inheritance and succession, and family alliances. Because this relationship was so socially and economically important — and because its primary function was the production of heirs — sexuality had to be tightly controlled to ensure succession. In practice, this often meant the policing of the bodies of women and gender-nonconforming people, as well as those who pursued same-sex relationships. To this day, women’s sexual autonomy, gay relationships, and people who challenge gender norms are seen as threatening the dominant paradigm. Sex pursued for pleasure rather than for procreation, or outside of a heterosexual marriage, is still viewed negatively by some religious communities.
Does religion say sex is bad?
While many people use the bible to argue that sex is bad, religious texts can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Some early Roman Catholic theologians argued that sex was inherently sinful, dirty, and at odds with God’s holy plan. The Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe helped to shift this perspective, with theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin declaring that sex was a valid expression of love and fully in accordance with God’s plan—but only within the context of marriage.
Islam is often seen as particularly strict in its approach to sexuality. For many followers of the faith, however, sex is an important part of Muslim life. Some contemporary thinkers—such as Egyptian feminist and Muslim Mona Eltahawy—argue that free and open sexual expression outside of marriage is not at odds with Islamic practice.
Likewise, although the Hebrew Old Testament is often cited in arguments that sex is sinful, it also offers examples of sexuality as an exalted expression of love. Rev. Mark Travis, a therapist and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, tells O.school that it contains poetry celebrating sexuality: “The Song of Songs is the best source of sex positive lyrics that you will find in the Bible: think fruit metaphors for sex!”
Why should we teach the idea that sex is not bad?
Because there are so many ways to interpret messages about sex, various communities around the world teach sex in different ways. Children in a Swedish sex-ed class, for example, might be exposed to frank discussions of sexuality, including medically-accurate images and extensive discussion of consent. In contrast, certain educational systems (like some school districts in the United States) may teach abstinence-only sex education. It’s being found, however, that bad sex education can negatively affect people in the long-term. For this reason, some cultures that have historically viewed sex in a negative light are changing to be more open to teaching how to have sex safely and pleasurably. Of course, there is still a long way to go.
Misinformation, fear, and the desire for control have had a lot to do with the shame and stigma around sex, and have led many people through the ages to think sex is bad. But sex is not bad. It can be one of the most significant ways in which we show love and affection, experience pleasure, and express our innermost desires. Ideally, it should be joyous, fun, and result in pleasure for everyone involved. Unfortunately, misinformation, stigma, and occasionally, violence and trauma, have lead many people to wonder: “Is sex bad?”
The answer, fortunately for those who are interested in experiencing sexual relationships, is “no!”