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Sexual Taboos and Moral Restraints

by Parker Rossman

Mr. Rossman has written on “Computers in the Church,” “Videotape and the Church” and, in The Christian Century, “The Church and the Forthcoming Electronic Revolution” (December 14, 1977). His article is in large part adapted from his forthcoming book, Sexual Experience Between Men and Boys (Associated Press). This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 26, 1976, pp. 517-519. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


What is the role of religion in restraining a man who is tempted to commit an illegal sex offense of which society highly disapproves? Religious institutions have placed a great emphasis on sexual morality, seeking to enforce their standards through law, cult, custom, public opinion -- indeed, via every means available. The offender is rigorously condemned, but he is rarely studied to discover why the moral order failed to restrain him. The Christian faith in particular is intended not to police people but to empower them. Thus persons who consider themselves to be Christians but who lapse into sex offenses may be sinners and personal failures; yet in some sense they represent failures of the Christian community as well, in that it fails to enable people to live up to the high standards it proclaims.

We are living in a time when sexual morality is in a state of fundamental disarray, and in part this state has come about because of a decline in the authority of the religious institution and its tradition. For example, many people who consider themselves good Catholics practice birth control in ways the church explicitly forbids. Less noticed is the fact that those who do accept the churchís authority on such moral questions frequently find themselves involved in a moral struggle and may well feel that they are fighting a losing battle.

I

Does religion affect morals anymore? This question can be interpreted and answered in several ways. I am not asking whether the church can regain political authority to enforce morality by law, but rather whether religious faith can empower individuals -- especially those who have a vision of a "more excellent way" -- to win the battles they fight within themselves. Discussions of such considerations are usually academic and theoretical, despite the fact that the case-study approach insists that moral theology should be concrete and realistic. Robert C. Sorensenís survey of adolescent sexuality estimates that 37 per cent of Americaís young people are quitting the churches because of disagreement on sexual-morality issues, and 40 per cent who consider themselves to be "very religious" concede that they sometimes take part in sexual activities which are not consistent with what they believe.

In part, the erosion of morality results from confusion over what the religious position really is. According to Sorensenís study, 49 per cent of the adolescents believe that the churchesí teaching is that all sexual pleasure is sinful. But one wonders how many of the others feel that their religious faith, in its institutional or community forms, strengthens them for their struggles with themselves and against a world which seeks to corrupt them. To many of them, the feeling is not like that of the banker who successfully resists the temptation to embezzlement, but is more akin to that of the starving child who is tempted to steal bread when no one is looking.

Some children in that position would steal the bread without the least twinge of conscience, believing that God in fact had placed it there to satisfy their hunger. Others, acting in a blind moment of hunger, would steal the bread and then would suffer greatly over feelings of doing wrong. Those who condemn themselves as thieves might find it easier to steal another time. Some might walk past the bread each day for 100 days before losing the inner struggle, and when arrested would ask: "Do I get no credit for winning the battle with temptation 99 times out of 100?"

II

According to the research findings of psychologist Karl Freund, one out of eight adult males in the United States on occasion is erotically aroused by a young adolescent of his own sex. We are not speaking of homosexuality in the usual sense, but of pederasty: the involvement of heterosexual men and boys in sex play which can be very pleasurable, especially for those men who, in fantasy or fact, found great enjoyment in early adolescent homosexual activity.

Although some of these men face a struggle as difficult as that of the alcoholic or drug addict, nine out of ten pederasts lapse into an illegal offense only once or twice in a lifetime usually when young and unmarried, or when apart from their wives (e.g., while in the army or on an extended business trip). Of the men tempted to engage in sex play with young adolescents, a majority successfully exercise restraint unless coincidentally and compromisingly confronted with a sexually sophisticated and seductive youngster. Today there are at least 100,000 young boy prostitutes soliciting men on American streets. Senator Birch Bayh has written the preface to Robin Lloydís For Money or Love, a just-published book by an NBC newsman who documents that disturbing fact.

Attention is usually focused on the particular sexual incident of which society disapproves, with no notice given to the inner struggle of the pederast, who asks himself: "Do I get no credit for winning the battle with temptation 99 times out of 100?" What is religionís responsibility in reinforcing such restraint? How can the potential sex offender be restrained that 100th time?

III

A study of 1,000 pederasts -- many of them professional men, good citizens who are respected in their communities, with no record of arrest -- has disclosed that the person tempted to such a sex offense is rarely restrained by fear of police action, as is true for most other illegal sexual behavior. Effective restraint in sexual matters ultimately depends on conscience, self-discipline, the power an individual can muster in his personal struggle with himself, rather than on external controls. Pederasts who refrain from illegal acts generally give credit to the respect they have for law and the structures of society, even though, in fact, laws that people disagree with have less and less impact today, and most institutions seem to be losing their credibility and authority. A study of a group of Dutch pederasts indicated that even if laws against man-boy sexual activity were repealed, most of the men would still have a troubled conscience over such behavior; the pederast who loved and respected the boy would be worried about the boyís sexual future, whereas the man who did not love and respect the boy would feel cheap about being sexually involved with him.

Most pederasts, like other human beings, are caught up in a moral struggle, since being human involves visions of a better life. When groups of pederasts meet, sooner or later they nearly always talk about ethics, condemning men who abuse boys and girls. In their personal struggle with what they consider to be wrong, the pull of conscience is less effective among those offenders and potential offenders who do not have good jobs to lose, whose lives have already been wrecked by arrest and newspaper publicity, or who consider themselves to be failures in life. The strongest restraining factor against illegal sexual activity seems to be a respect for the sensitivity of friends and family -- a desire not to hurt them. Another important factor is the desire to avoid irreparably damaging oneís own life, especially if professional goals are being attained. At the same time, however, the financially successful man frequently feels that some sex play, especially when he is away from home, is one of the rewards to which his success entitles him. At a moment when opportunity and temptation coincide, the pro and con factors seem to balance out, With no sense of moral empowerment strong enough to counterbalance the desire for sexual pleasure.

IV

When asked about the impact of religious faith and involvement on this struggle, pederasts respond with widely varying answers; however, they also give evidence of neglected aspects in the realm of moral empowerment. Explained a pederast priest: "My religious faith, and nothing else, has kept me from the sexual encounters with boys which I have so desired. I have taken shelter in the church to escape from the promiscuous existence which might otherwise have been mine." Said a layman: "Until he died my pastor was the one who kept me out of trouble, because when I told him about my temptations, he admitted to me that he, too, faced the same temptation. With his encouragement and help I was very careful, but now I do not seem to find anyone who can help me as much." And another:

I find liberal, well-educated clergy to be of the least help. They get embarrassed when one talks about something like pederasty. I therefore dropped out of the church I grew up in and have joined a small evangelical fellowship -- whose members know about my pederast temptations and where I get lots of encouragement and support to toe the narrow line. They keep an eye on me, and keep me busy and happy. Most of all, they trust me to work with kids, which is what I enjoy more than anything. I wouldnít let them down for anything.

In contrast, pederasts with more conventional church involvements reported over and over that their moral struggle has never been taken seriously, and that they do not "give much thought to conflicts that might exist between church membership and sexual activities." Commented one: "My pastor is heavy into group encounters and sleeps around some himself."

These few but representative quotations suggest that it might be helpful to study more carefully the responses and experiences of many more such offenders and potential offenders, in an effort to discover the factors that do or do not provide them with empowerment in their moral struggles. On the basis of the data available, however, it would appear that beliefs alone do not empower. Indeed, in other areas of life besides the sexual, most people need strength and support in order to live up to what they believe, to reach the higher standards they aspire to. In the lives of pederasts, one repeatedly finds evidence that beliefs and high standards -- when not accompanied by power to accomplish them -- frequently lead simply to a sort of self-condemnation that enfeebles the struggler, in the manner of one who says: "I guess Iím a thief, so I might as well steal."

What one finds is that religion no longer has much impact on the moral struggle, with one important exception: when religious faith and moral standards are experienced as commitments to valued and supportive persons and are embodied in relationships with those persons. They may be relatives, friends, or members of a church which one experiences as a family. Unless a pederast is an active participant in an enfolding, supportive religious community which knows about his sexual desires and temptations, he rarely finds in religion any power to restrain him from indulging in forbidden sexual pleasures when special opportunity arises. Restraint comes not through the authority of institutions or the power of ideas, but through the personal influence of people he loves and trusts.

It has been noted that race prejudice seems to exist among church members in the same proportion as among non-church members, except for highly committed and involved church people. In the struggle against sexual temptation, more than religious commitment is needed. The highly committed and involved member may be restrained 99 days out of 100, but the hungers of the flesh are such that additional strength to get through the 100th day is generally available only when one is a member of a face-to-face redemptive community. There, where oneís temptation is known, where one can say: "Will you hold my hand because Iím facing my 100th day," where the potential offenderís relationships are such that he cannot possibly let down his family, and wherein he has the feeling of worth and success in life -- there he can be enabled, despite occasional failures, to come back and wage the battle again. Many families provide this sort of community, but today most Christians lose the moral struggle -- in many areas other than sex -- because they lack this experience of empowering fellowship. Perhaps the saints need more ethical teaching, more moral theology, more preaching of "oughts" and "shoulds," but the sinners Christ died to save seem to need not abstract authoritarian teaching, but more support in the form of loving communities, of more empowering human relationships.


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