Sexual Health  Sex & Sex Education  Sexual Health  Mental Health 

Religion, Beliefs and the Shame of Herpes

Rich Mancuso  |  May 04 2021

Religion, Beliefs and the Shame of Herpes

With contributions from - Dr. Rebecca Horecky Stout, Ed.D 

After a great deal of debate, I decided to add my thoughts on religion and its role within the stigma. I realize that some individuals may take issue or experience a high level of disagreement with several presented ideas, and that's OK. Religion and politics are never easy topics to discuss. I will simply ask that you please keep an open mind within this section. 

In my book, “Asking for a friend,” I discuss the stigma on herpes simplex in great detail. Within this chapter, I discuss several contributing factors that make up the many parts of the stigma—not just one idea that puts all the blame on the invention of antivirals. While it’s true that the extreme conservative campaign created by the company (who invented antivirals), is not without fault and needs to be mentioned, it’s important to note that our human history of sexual repression and the lack of education is behind the stigma and is a much bigger picture than previously thought. At least in my opinion. 

  1. Shame
  2. Perception
  3. Society/Culture
  4. The accusation of promiscuous behavior/morality
  5. Words and phrases
  6. Priorities, Big Pharma and the FDA
  7. Testing and the CDC
  8. Social media
  9. Silence
  10. Religion/Beliefs

I also wanted to mention that while much can be said about trans/cisgender people, to stay on topic and understand the roots of the gender dichotomy, I will be limiting the discussion to Male and Female. This is not out of a desire to exclude but to establish the early applications of control of sexual behavior that was put upon us by religion and other belief systems. This is also my attempt to convey that it was a conscious decision and an uncompromising pursuit of control that has propagated negative thoughts and actions towards human sexuality throughout human history.

So much has been written in regards to religion and sexuality and it would be arrogant of me to assume that I could summarize it neatly in a single book chapter. However, many of the world's organized religions share a view of human sexuality that is oppressive and heavily entrenched in guilt, shame, and misogyny and empowered by fear and oppression. I apologize if that statement causes you to feel angry or become uncomfortable, and I acknowledge that some take comfort from the structures that organize religion provides. I gently ask that allow me to offer a viewpoint you may or may not be aware of. 

In examining the over 4000 different religions on this planet, we can see that most of them have an excessive number of similarities and traditions that go as far back as ancient pagan and Zoroastrian rituals. Many of the beliefs, rituals, holidays celebrated today with the three dominant world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) can trace their origins and stories to Wicca, Asatru, Pantheon-based Paganism, and Druidism. Most of these beliefs did not have any specific gods or deities, and the core of their loyalty was to pay reverence and homage to things that people witnessed every day—nature and fertility. However, it's important to note that many things that often occurred in nature, like thunder and lightning, were often misinterpreted as nature attempting to punish humans for some random transgressions against it. All because they had no idea of how extreme weather works, so they made up a story to explain it.

Many of these belief systems were rooted in the human desire to comprehend the world around them, and the fear of “wrath from a deity” served a role in the development of belief systems throughout many major world religions. Since religions must be taken on faith, fear of damnation is often a tool that is used to manipulate its followers into conformity. Much has been written in social psychology about the use of fear as a tool to manipulate and control populations. This has been done throughout history by dictators and despots. Fear is a tool that, when wielded, can destroy rational thinking, create chaos and provide ample power for those who use it. It is easy to see how many will experience fear when co-opted by religious rules that are subsequently linked to eternal salvation and or damnation. It can become an extremely powerful and dangerous tool. One only needs to read the writing of Karen Armstrong's "A history of God" {157} to learn how the major world religions have all been influenced or have taken ideas from previously existing beliefs, are closely intertwined, and have passed many shared teachings down as their own.

It is abundantly clear through the study of religion that there is a great deal of “borrowing” that occurs between religions. Be it through shared stories, sacred texts, saints, and even shared deities. Some scholars go so far as to accuse religions of plagiarizing each other. All in the name of teaching conformity. While it is not my intent to disparage those who find comfort in religious tradition, but I hope to challenge you to question the origins of what you have been told and feel encouraged to find a belief system that works to empower you. It is my wish that after reading this section, you may understand how religion has been used throughout human history as a means of controlling the populace and how damaging that can be.

Judgement and shame

Through research and questioning one begins to see how organized religion plays an integral part in applying religious dogma and judgments on sexuality and sexual behavior. The earlier roots of many religions often celebrated the human physical form, fertility, and yes, even the orgasm. Our historical past is filled with sexual laws and regulations riddled with moral judgments and contradictions. Some that make sense and others do not. Most of these laws were stolen, borrowed, and completely plagiarized from other cultures

Additionally, there is no shortage of judgment about sexual behavior and human reproduction. This judgment is not universal among all religions. The idea of killing is wrong, but the ritual sacrifice of a virgin to ensure a fruitful spring crop was sometimes deemed acceptable? The contradictions are endless.  One could write volumes on the “rape culture” and the depiction of “Women as chattel” found in the many world religions but that is best served for another author. 

In regards to judgment, those of you that belong to, or grew up with conservative religious congregations know that the simple mentioning of sex within your house of worship was hastily frowned upon. Shame took place in the form of burning stares and/or condemnation. You may have been quietly counseled about your dereliction from the holy path, or in some cases, you might have been publicly castigated or thrown out of the building, excommunicated, or have your membership revoked in its entirely. Even worse, you may have been blamed and shamed for the problem. I have a friend who was told by her Evangelical Church Pastor, that the reason her husband was no longer sexually interested in her, was because she wasn’t a virgin when she got married (he later came out as gay). She spent years in therapy trying to recover from the shaming that occurred. While progress is being made in some religious organizations such as the Unitarians, many sects still openly shun non-married sexually active persons as well as castigate members of the LGBTQ community. 

Still, these archaic views on sexuality played a heavy role in influencing many different religious beliefs in what is tolerated and what is not acceptable. Even today, there are still many religious sects that hide sexual assaults behind their doctrine of a wife's submission to her husband. 

When we look at different religions (old and new), one subject stands out in front—sex and what you decide to do while naked. These shared moral judgments, shame, and ideas about reward and punishment are heavily influenced by what our forefathers thought about this taboo subject. There’s even the Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition of telling the story of Adam and Eve. (600 to 400 BCE) Who are not only proclaimed to be the first parents of humanity, but also end up being shamed after the self-realization they are naked. This was a hearty punishment for eating a forbidden apple and a pretty harsh punishment considering they were just created. 

Virgin or a whore?

If sex is so reverent and godlike amazing, why is it a rule that you must be married first before having it? 

The application of virginity and the idea of what may be considered “purity” cannot be discussed without mentioning the "Madonna-Whore Dichotomy." {158} This classically studied social dichotomy examines how the roles of women are often divided into two polar opposites. She is either the good girl “The Madonna” or the slut “the Whore”. A peer-reviewed study was performed and found some fascinating results. Heterosexual men found favor with gender inequality, they often used the term "Whore” towards women to impose control over their choices—with their sexuality and/or power within their community or workplace. While shaming women for enjoying sex may seem absurd, we see this act played out everywhere globally, on social media, and even on TV. The idea of being pure and innocent all due to remaining a virgin is a common theme within many religious belief systems, old and new.  Is this because many religions see sex as a gift from its god?  In the case of my friend who was shamed for her husband’s lack of interest in sex...it sure felt like it.  

The applied “Whore” insult has been used throughout history to shame women for taking part in sex or even liking sex in any way. If a woman had sexual thoughts, she was immediately stifled. It is quite clear that shame was used for control, and the great repression of sexuality has roots in oppressing women. This is weird considering thousands of years ago; some cultures saw women as more powerful than men considering they could create life. But in the last few thousand years, men are the ones who have held high positions of social, economic, and political power. {159}

Many women experience this inequality between the genders daily and yes, some contribute to the dichotomy by ostracizing and calling another woman names and castigating them for engaging in sexual behavior. It is not just men who apply shame to women, all genders are capable of criticizing others who do not conform to their ideologies, which are based on religion. One could argue that the sole purpose of this name-calling is subjugation and power over the one labeled as “unworthy” or “whore”.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention modern evangelical religious groups that hold “Purity balls” in which daughters pledge to remain pure and remain sexually abstinent. The “True Love Waits” purity balls became popular in the 1990s. Later studies have shown these ideals led to teens engaging in riskier behavior and increasing their risk of STIs. Not to mention that once these teens became sexually mature, they lacked the information needed to engage in healthy and safe sexual practices. They were also plagued with guilt and shamed over what is considered to be "normal sexual behavior."  

Bearman and Brueckner, in 2001, looked at virginity pledgers five years after their pledge and found that the pledgers have similar proportions of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and at least as high proportions of anal and oral sex as those who have not made a virginity pledge. They deduced that there was the substitution of oral and anal sex for vaginal sex among the pledgers, although the data for anal sex without vaginal sex reported by males did not reflect this directly. The study also noted that those who pledge yet became sexually active reported fewer partners and were not exposed to STI risk for as long as non-pledgers. {160}

If we look at the current worldwide STD rates of infection, it's pretty clear that many of the population didn't get the marriage memo and threw it out or doesn't care. It's also imperative to remember these are the same desert-dwelling forefathers who believed in human sacrifice, cutting off appendages for theft, and beheading women for showing some ankle or allowing herself to be raped. (an absurd yet disgusting conclusion). Can we take their thoughts on virginity with any amount of seriousness? Are these ideas on sexuality accurate or even based on reality? 

The idea of female virginity seems to hold a great deal of power. Even today many cultures and religions put this personal choice of chastity on an elevated pedestal that is commonly accepted as being adjacent to one’s deity. This enlightened veneration comes with the included applause of an elevated position within a virgin’s environment and social status, all while being seen as a symbol of purity that is to be honored without question. Unless of course, she breaks the rules. The female anatomy is a complex thing and just because this piece of skin is no longer present, doesn’t necessarily mean virginity has been taken or dispersed. There are many women who will retain their hymen even after sexual intercourse or even some who no longer see this skin being present even though they have never had sexual relations. Still, this idea of virginity and the amount of unwanted attention to the female reproductive anatomy is as old as our history of the written word. Simply put, virginity is a created construct, designed as a method of control.

Toxic masculinity

I remember as a very young and not-so-smart man, the idea of losing your virginity was a rite of passage and meant that you were finally a man. Any further conquests were added notches in man's belt, but if a woman were to lose her virginity purposefully, she would be branded as a slut or a whore. The math doesn't add up. How does one person plus another person divide that equality into a negative and end up as a reason to demean the other for engaging in the same act? 

Adding insult to injury (of the male ego), if you were unable to have sex or your partner said no, you were called derogatory names by other men for your inability to complete the act. That derogatory name was often a “Pussy.” Thus further enforcing that women were somehow less than men.  Or worse, your masculinity in and of itself could be called into question and you could be called “Gay.” While most of this behavior of men giving other men a hard time is not generally severe, it can escalate to being uncomfortable and sets a precedence of what is accepted as cool or not cool. This particular act of shaming is toxic because it may develop the ideas of what being a man is upon a platform that leads to bad behavior or mistaken notions of what is or isn't acceptable. 

Now, I will not sit here and act like I fully wake on every social issue because that would be a complete lie (I will always be a work in progress). Even today, I will still dish out a few comments to close friends and family but not in an intentionally brutal or hateful way. However, looking back at my past and previous comments, I can see how some could be considered toxic. Still, comedy and sarcasm are always based on some truth, but they may not ever be received as kind of funny. 

There is clearly a double standard for discussing sex within the confines of a belief system or culture. The old ideology that boys will be boys, but when women take on any sexual initiative, it is frowned upon seems utterly insane to me. If men see sex as such a great thing, shouldn't we avoid applying that shame and, in turn, be thanking them for the sex?

One would be remiss if they didn’t discuss the role religion plays in masculinity, often reinforcing the role of Male and head of household, lord, and master of all, and keeper of his daughters Chasity. Throughout religion we see daughters traded for livestock, married off for alliances, and dominated by patriarchal conditions.  These conventions still exist in parts of the world, but I would like to think we are making progress at overcoming them.

Control and the immaculate deception

You do not need to be a history buff or a scholar to see how the term virgin is observed as something precious or immaculate. This idea of never being touched in one’s genitals is supposed to be revered—but why? Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc., all have similar doctrines dealing with this archaic yet extreme importance of remaining a virgin, but who said so? And why all the emphasis on the Vagina? We don’t like to use proper names for our genitals, such as vulva, hymen, clitoris, pubic area. Etc. Instead, society prefers to call it names like “V-jay jay” and “lady-bits” This misnaming can lead to ignorance about the body, and can sometimes jeopardize one’s sexual health. Even today, many women and girls are still ignorant as to their own bodies as masturbation and sexual exploration are strongly discouraged by their religion or belief system.

A great deal of attention to a woman's reproductive fertility is precisely the center point of reverence towards sex. The fact that a woman's womb can sustain life is viewed as making a human connection to a creator or a god. Still, you will find many organized religions and other beliefs will claim this act of conception to be absolute proof of divine intervention or creation. Even those who understand reproductive science and the scientific method of proof will wholeheartedly disagree with this guesswork. Just because something cannot be explained, it does not equate to divine intervention.

Of the thousands of discussions, I have had over the years, I can tell you that many people who follow some of these traditions (within organized religion) often feel they have done something wrong and are being punished for engaging in sexual activity outside their rules. For them, it is abundantly clear because they believe they have broken some religious law or moral code, and the proof of this punishment is the result of contracting an STD and/or herpes simplex. {161} This act of applying moral judgment to oneself and allowing others to do so is unfortunate and emotionally debilitating. Not to mention its devaluation effect on one's ego or one’s personal self-worth or value. Herpes is everywhere and it is NOT a punishment.

Remember when we talked about shame? The application of shame towards oneself can be damaging. Still, the fear and shame of these judgments applied to an individual or group can be debilitating— mentally and physically. It can cause self-doubt and, for some, regret and suicidal thoughts. Using the power of guilt to control the masses is older than the written word and much older than a talking snake.

I know that you may disagree, and that is fine, but for me, it logically does not make sense that a deity (of any religion or ancient tradition) would care that deeply about what their creation does while naked. It seems pretty apparent to me that these rules have been made up by a bunch of old men who couldn't handle the conversation of sexuality. I mean, let's think about it, without sex, we wouldn't be here. Sex is a normal and natural thing that takes place with all animals (including us), and the idea of placing extreme rules upon that seems somewhat silly. Of course, with the caveat that it's consensual with both parties and you're not hurting anyone else.

“Religion which is different from spirituality was created by mankind to control the masses and if you control sexuality which women are the gatekeepers of due to fertility, you then control the populous.”

- Dr. Rebecca Horecky Stout, Ed.D 

Scientifically speaking, the concept of sex is for reproduction, it's true, but as we've seen throughout nature, many animals have sex for pleasure as well. I don't believe there's anything wrong with that, but I think any idea that applies to being punished for ending up with an STD or STI as some moral judgment is wholly fabricated. One could make the simple argument that morality is simply the idea of understanding the results of one's actions and not based on any belief system whatsoever. Even though many will assume the opposite and fight for that view to be valid. 

The idea of engaging in sex and enjoying another person's company should not be viewed as something that is breaking a moral rule just because you weren't married or no longer a virgin before starting a new relationship. It should also be highly scrutinized if these judgments come from books that are thousands of years old. I would urge the reader to question why they feel shame and the origins of it. Was that shame put upon you as a means of oppressing your thoughts, feelings, and desires? Was it a means of subjugating you to an unproven authority? Did you consent to that subjugation? Are these so-called rules in place to control your behavior?

Religion, culture, and society are all intertwined, and at the very top are the rules on sexuality. These old and antiquated ideas are based on rules that are simply fabricated. Suppose you were to look at the population of people with herpes (close to 6 billion people) and the simple fact that herpes can infect an individual without them ever experiencing any symptoms or without the act of having sex. In that case, you can see that contracting herpes is because you are a human being, and it is merely inevitable. Herpes is not a punishment. It is a virus that has been around for millions of years and this virus has simply exploited how humans and animals interact and communicate with one another. (Over 130 different species of animals get herpes as well).

In the end, you can have herpes your entire life and never experience any symptoms. You can be married to your partner (within your own culture or religion), follow all the rules and regulations, and still end up experiencing herpes later on in life. It can also be passed from parent to child quite easily. You didn't break any rules; you're just a human being, and basing your value and worth over ancient and antiquated ideas of human sexuality is quite frankly absurd. 

Do we seriously think that any of the gods of the 4000 different religions (if they exist) genuinely care about what you do while you're naked? Or take the time to punish you by giving with herpes? Or is it merely a large organized group of people who use archaic rules and laws to shame and control sexual behavior by saying that it is “bad?"  

You tell me…

Special mention and Contributions - Dr. Rebecca Horecky Stout, Ed.D

Originally published on Asking For A Friend

References

{157} https://philpapers.org/rec/ARMAHO

{158}Madonna-Whore Dichotomy https://socsci3.tau.ac.il/nurit-shnebel/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/The-Madonna-Whore-Dichotomy_-Men-Who-Perceive-Womens-Nurturance-and-Sex....pdf

{159} https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23831740-400-the-origins-of-sexism-how-men-came-to-rule-12000-years-ago/#ixzz6lvkpX6qc 

{160} http://users.cla.umn.edu/~uggen/bearman_ajs_01.pdf 

{161} STD’s in the Bible https://sti.bmj.com/content/sextrans/25/1/28.full.pdf


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