Religion and Sexualities: Theories, Themes, and Methodologies

Heather ShipleySarah-Jane Page

Heather and Sarah-Jane met some years ago; Sarah-Jane was a postdoctoral research fellow and Heather was a research project manager. Sarah-Jane was coming to the end of working on the Religion, Youth and Society (RYS) project – a major sociological investigation into the lives of young adults, sexuality and religion in the UK – and Heather was embarking on a project that investigated the same issues in the Canadian context – called Religion, Gender and Sexuality among Youth in Canada (RGSY). It mirrored the RYS project, using the same investigative methods and asking many similar questions. Over time, we organised panel sessions together at various conferences across the globe; Sarah-Jane went to Ottawa in Canada numerous times to contribute to academic discussions and participate in postgraduate training – Heather came to the UK too. A friendship was born.

Three or four years ago we were having a conversation at a conference, discussing the fact that we were working in a fast-paced field, with much burgeoning research being conducted on religion and sexuality, but no real text that brought everything together. There were numerous edited collections showcasing the excellent research being done, but nothing that detailed the overarching themes of our research field, the methods or the theories used. By that time, studies of identity and sexuality in religious contexts were becoming well-developed, but other issues came onto the radar, such as child sexual abuse and the various national-level inquiries that started to be set up. We decided we needed to write a book capturing all of this and drawing on our own extensive research, which, by that time, was developing in new directions. We wanted to be as encompassing as possible, also recognising that edited collections had had a tendency to work on one particular issue or another. For example, one text may be focused on gender inequality in relation to sexuality and religion. Another may be focused on queer experiences. We wanted to offer a book that was as inclusive as possible.

It was a colossal task, with even the reviewers of our book proposal questioning our sanity! But we felt so committed to this project, and compelled to write it. And writing it was a mammoth task, given the numbers of issues covered and angles explored.

The first part of the book gives an account of how sexuality and religion research has been theorised in relation to sociological thinking. We recognise that our field sits strangely – the mainstream sociological discipline has typically not incorporated religion in its research agendas, and the sociology of religion has been slow to incorporate sexuality research. Work on sexuality and religion has often taken place in related fields, such as religious studies. We have witnessed the detachment of these fields and the impact that has had, leading to issues such as what theories get utilised, and what gets ignored.  Over three chapters, we emphasise the various theoretical lenses we have encountered in our discipline, whilst also indicating our own theoretical preferences.

We then move on to consider ways of conducting sexuality and religion research which is ethically-grounded, and does justice to those who experience inequality. The sociological imperative to emphasise the ways systems, processes and interactions have produced glaring forms of oppression to individuals is at the heart of our concern, and we recognise, in particular, the way that women and queer people had been especially negatively impacted.  We therefore advocated undertaking a queer feminist approach to undertaking sexuality and religion research, which emphasises a commitment to exploring marginalisation and challenging the taken-for-granted and dominant normative understandings.

The following chapters then focused on different elements of sexuality and religion research.  We start by outlining how religions, typically speaking, advocated a normative idea of sexuality, that was formulated around a straight-time model, where an individual is born, experiences adolescence, gets married and has children. Various landmarks along the way, such as weddings and births, are often marked by religious traditions, and heterosexuality is upheld and valorised. We considered the implications of this straight-time model, and how queer people navigate spaces which are infused with a heterosexual expectation. But equally, heterosexual individuals are also impacted here, as they work out the extent to which they endorse the religious expectations that they encounter. At the same time, using the concept of lived religion, we emphasise how religious individuals are often crafting their identities on their own terms.  How space is constituted is important here – and we consider how space comes to be framed as safe and unsafe, and the impact this can have. For example, some religious spaces are intentionally framed as being hostile to queer bodies, with potentially devastating effect. Meanwhile many religious spaces are also attempting to become queer-inclusive, whilst some spaces are curated to be fully inclusive of queer bodies at the outset. These different designations have major implications on how identities can be lived out and the processes of power at work.

We continue with this theme of power to then focus on gender, sexuality and religion, giving particular attention to how women’s reproductive bodies have been variously controlled in religious contexts. We explore how virginity has been coded and how women’s sexual pleasure is framed and understood. We consider the impact of religious instructions that oppose abortion and contraception, and we explore the lived reality for women as they navigate their religious lives, exploring issues such as clothing and menstruation. Finally we focus on religions at the level of the institution, and how the institutional framework has an enormous impact on how religion and sexuality is understood. We focus on three angles: the state-religious relationship and how this determines the extent to which a particular religious discourse has impact beyond a religion’s core adherents; the impact of theological interpretation and the statements made by religious officials; and finally, the management by religious organisations of child sexual abuse.

Throughout the book, when relevant, we include our own research data from various projects. In conclusion we emphasise that there is still much work to be done in the study of religion and sexualities.

Religion and Sexualities: Theories, Themes, and Methodologies by Sarah-Jane Page and Heather Shipley is published by Routledge.