June 30, 2008 at 3:33 am #28619
WHY DOES SEX PLAY SUCH A LARGE ROLE FOR FRINGE RELIGIOUS SECTS?
By Kimberly Winston
Kansas City Star / Religion News Service
June 27, 2008
What is it with sects and sex?
The Texas probe into allegations of child abuse at a polygamous compound
started with an anonymous phone call about underage girls having sex with
adult men. Reports circulated of rumpled bed linens inside the sect¹s
Its imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, reportedly has dozens of wives and
would grant and deny wives to his male followers depending on their
perceived worthiness. Without multiple wives, he taught, they could never
Yet Jeffs isn¹t the first sect figure to come under legal scrutiny for
sexual practices that outsiders might consider unusual, immoral or even
abhorrent. Indeed, many new religious movements NRMs in scholar-speak are
distinguished not only by their unconventional beliefs but also by the
sexual proclivities of their male leaders.
All of which raises the question: Why do people join or remain members of a
group that practices unusual sexual behaviors? And what¹s more, what kind of
sexual power do the leaders of NRMs hold over their followers?
³Every group has its own dynamics and diversity,² said Catherine Wessinger,
an expert in NRMs at Loyola University in New Orleans. ³A leader can use
sexual activity to diminish ties between followers and direct their
affections and emotions. But the thing to remember is that no one has that
charisma unless the people behind him or her believe that he or she has it.²
Often, the leader¹s followers believe that God or other divine beings
communicate through the leader, something that can endow the leader¹s sexual
relations with a special holiness or sanctity, Wessinger said.
In the case of the Branch Davidians, sex with prophet David Koresh was seen
as normal and desirable, even when it involved girls as young as 14.
Similarly, in the Peoples Temple, whose members committed mass suicide in
the Guyana jungle in 1978, sex with leader Jim Jones was sometimes a reward
for both men and women, married and unmarried.
³You would think that if you stole someone¹s wife that would (tick) them
off,² said veteran religion writer Don Lattin, who has written several books
on NRMs, including Jesus Freaks, about an evangelical sect known as the
³But in these groups the opposite often happens. The husband goes along with
it and is controlled by it because it is all linked with his eternal
salvation. By sharing his wife he is getting closer to the central power —
the guru or prophet.²
In the case of Jeffs¹ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day
Saints (FLDS), his one-man power to arrange (or undo) marriages between
young girls and older men lent a sanctity to their union, scholars say.
Yet while groups like Jeffs¹ may garner headlines, they¹re neither new nor
unusual. American history has seen the rise — and often the decline — of
NRMs, many with unusual sexual attitudes:
In the late 1700s, the Shakers established a celibate community in upstate
New York. They eventually died out because of a lack of new members.
The Oneida Community, a utopian commune established in the 1840s in
upstate New York, held that sex with someone ³spiritually higher² advanced
Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, proclaimed polygamy a divinely
revealed concept, and it remained so until the mainstream Mormon Church
disavowed it in 1890. That initiated the rift that would lead to the
founding of the FLDS church.
David Berg, the charismatic founder of the Family, reinterpreted Jesus¹
teachings on love as sanctifying multiple sexual partners, including
underage girls and boys. The group renounced sex with minors in 1986.
Wessinger also links ³millennial² NRMs — those that focus on a coming end
of the world, like the FLDS sect — with unusual sexual attitudes. Such
groups, she says, often enact relationships they believe will exist in the
That¹s what prompted members of Heaven¹s Gate, a millennial sect that
committed mass suicide in San Diego in 1997, to practice celibacy and male
castration — they believed there would be no sexual activity or
relationships in their longed-for afterlife.
³I think it is absolutely connected, because in a millennial movement there
is a belief that there is going to be an imminent transition to a collective
salvation in which relationships will be completely transformed,² Wessinger
said. ³They are anticipating the way they think relationships will be after
their collective salvation.²
Many spiritual experiences involve the body — Pentecostals speaking in
tongues, fire-walking Hindus and Buddhists or even the bleeding wounds
(stigmata) attributed to some Catholic mystics and saints. It isn¹t such a
leap, then, for NRMs to marry the sexual with the spiritual.
³Intense religious experiences often involve the body,² Lattin said. ³It is
a spiritual ecstasy that can be like a sexual ecstasy. You have that
physical experience of body which is very real and very integral to
Sarah Pike, a religious studies professor at California State
University-Chico, says there may be something distinctly American about NRMs
³I think it has something to do with the fact that from the very beginning
Americans have had this sense that they are in the process of creating a new
society and new governance,² Pike said. ³It seems there is a willingness to
But other scholars disagree, saying unusual sexual activities were once part
of many mainstream religions. Early Christians, led by St. Paul, wrote of
celibacy as a means to holiness — an outrageous idea to ancient societies
that placed high value on procreation. ³Paul writes long passages about
being celibate, like he is, because in the kingdom of heaven there (will) be
no marrying or giving in marriage,² Wessinger said.
Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of
Kansas, says he sees very little difference between the sexual activity in
NRMs and other, more traditional religious groups.
³I think it happens in regular religious movements,² he said, citing the
recent sexual abuse scandals in the Hare Krishna movement and the Catholic
Church, among others. ³You see the same situation — someone with authority
and a lot of trust has the same weaknesses and desires as anyone else. These
people are human. I think that is the bottom line.²
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.