I was raised a strict Roman Catholic, destined (many said) to become a priest. As such, I learned the basics of Catholic sexuality as taught in my parochial school:
• God hates sex, but loves babies.
• A woman’s virtue is sacred, and any attempt to stain it is a sin worthy of damnation.
• Good people die virgins and go to Heaven. Bad people have sex, get diseases, die young, and go to Hell.
When I was fourteen, I discovered that I was having a theological crisis over these tenets. Surprisingly, my problems didn’t arise from my newly-discovered interest in the girl’s gym class. It came from the iconography that I found on the walls of the church, where I would go to beg forgiveness for my thoughts about the girl’s gym class.
I noticed that in all the religious paintings, the people in Heaven wore robes, while all the people in Hell were naked. And, though my inexperienced mind couldn’t quite fathom the reason for it, I instinctively knew that the tortured expressions on the faces of the damned expressed some passionate emotion that I would not truly understand until years later in a sleazy hotel room in London.
But there they were… naked. Until puberty I had pretty much ignored the writhing figures of the damned, favoring instead the holy, sanctified beauty of the Madonna, or the pious figures of the saints we were to aspire to being. But from fourteen on, it was those souls in torment that held my attention.
For a while I thought that this strange draw I was feeling toward the “dark side” was a burgeoning evil that was slowly overtaking my soul. I confessed this to the priests, of course, who dutifully assigned me Hail Marys and Our Fathers (though in the years since I’ve shuttered to think what the priests did after hearing my confessions). None of this stopped the fascination though. Even as I sat in the pew reciting my penance, I would find my eyes drifting up to the scenes of Hellish torment, scared by arousal I found in them. It became a viscous circle: Sinful thoughts, confessions, prayer, more sinful thoughts, more confession, and more prayer. I was trapped.
It wasn’t until years later that I finally understood that my guilt and fear were exactly what the icons were intended to instill. In my post-Christian phase I’d wondered for a long while why such an anti-sex institution as the Catholic Church would propagate these dark, sexual images of Hell. Surely the laity was going to see them, and at least some deviants (like myself) would be drawn to them?
Herein lies one of the most important lessons I ever learned about religion: Control is more about guilt than punishment.
Look around any church of any creed or sect and you will see it: images of what you should never, ever do. I was lucky enough to have been raised in a church whose iconography involved naked, flailing breasts, but the same idea can be conveyed using greed, avarice, gluttony, or any of the other fun Saturday night activities. You show people what they really want, then make them feel guilty for actually wanting it. It’s a revolving door of guilt and coveting that always leaves the laity looking for relief from the guilt you’ve created in them.
It wasn’t until my break with religion was final that I was able to stop and assess my priorities, based on what I learned for myself was right and wrong for our society. When I did, though, the cycle of guilt and arousal were broken. Sex became a normal, natural part of my human existence, free of guilt and shame.
This freedom from guilt and shame only lasted until I spent that summer in Tijuana, but that’s a whole other story.
Written by Wm. Hopper, http://www.heathensguide.com.