Removing the Fig Leaf: A New Blog About Sexuality Without Shame

Removing the Fig Leaf: A New Blog About Sexuality Without Shame January 27, 2016

Lucas_CranachAbrahamic faiths have never been very big on celebrating the human body. While some religions revel in our inherent sensuality, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each in their turn have taught us not to feel completely at home in our own physical selves.

It all started, you see, with a fig leaf.

Well, not really. That’s just a story they tell…but they all three tell it. All three monotheistic religions begin their grand narrative with the story of an original couple walking through a garden…buck…naked.

Ironically, this state of affairs was just fine, according to the stories they all tell. Being naked was fine by God, evidently, right up until the moment humans got smarter. Once they became self-aware, everything changed. “Their eyes were opened,” it says, and suddenly they felt shame.  Same story in all three religions. Same pathology (eating from a tree), same solution:  They took some leaves and covered up their naughty bits.

I don’t believe I could envision a more apt metaphor for religion than that right there.

In this story, people were living well, happy, going about their business without the slightest regret toward their own physicality. But then something came along…something which they weren’t supposed to consume but presumably was placed there anyway by their creator (who else in this story can make trees?) and it made them feel ashamed of who they were. Before, there was no shame. Now, suddenly, they are mortified.*

Their solution to this new state was to weave together for themselves a covering…something which would hide parts of their bodies so that they would no longer feel bad about who they were.  I cannot tell you how perfect an analogy that is for everything else which follows.

For all three of these faiths, there is something inherently shameful now about who we are in our physical selves, and nowhere can that be seen more obviously than in the area of our sexuality.

World Religions and the Human Body

Like I said, some world religions revel in it. Many ancient faiths weave sexual experience into their worship traditions. You can travel to India and see depictions of sexual acts carved into the walls of their houses of worship. Hindus even have an entire holy book devoted to enumerating as many sex positions as they could possibly imagine (and believe me, some of those can only be accomplished in your imagination).

But not the Abrahamic faiths. No sir. In fact, Abrahamic religion made its global debut by declaring that the male genitals are not the shape that God prefers. In our day, Christians love to argue that human beings were intelligently designed, but evidently that did not apply to the male foreskin. God does not like the foreskin. One time he even tried to kill Moses because his son still had one, but Zipporah intervened and got rid of it in a hurry, just in time to appease the angry deity. To this very day, if you want to become a member of that religion, and you happen to be male, you will have to do something about the shape of your member. It is apparently very important to Yahweh.

In Christianity, this subtle disdain for the body grew to become even more pronounced. The apostle Paul even turned the word “fleshly” into a criticism, as if fully inhabiting your own physical self were somehow base and wicked. He spoke of his own body as a tent, a reluctant temporary dwelling from which he would one day be saved:

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (emphasis mine)

Clothed = good. Naked = bad.  Got it?  From this point forward, the Christian view of sex will be developed almost entirely by unmarried men. Give you three guesses how well that turned out!

Islam developed last among these three religions, and I believe it’s safe to say they eventually took the idea of covering up the human body to its most logical extreme…especially the female body.  In some countries you can’t even see their eyes. They must cover themselves from head to toe. No part of the female form must be visible to anyone except the man who marries her.

What, in fact, is the burka if not a fig leaf taken to its ultimate expression?

Historically, nonreligious cultures have been bothered far less by the human form. To this day, primitive cultures in warmer climates leave most of their bodies uncovered (much to the enjoyment of National Geographic readers). The ancient Greeks particularly loved capturing its beauty in works of art, and that aesthetic enjoyed a resurgence many years later during the Renaissance.

But then a funny thing happened.

The Fig Leaf Campaign

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church tried many things to restore the public image of the priesthood. Evidently they had become known far and wide for corruption and immorality (where have I heard that before?), so they set out to show those rebellious Protestants that the Church could undertake its own “counter-reformation” without their heretical help.

Their solution? Criss-cross Europe carrying buckets of plaster to cover every naked statue in Christendom with…you guessed it…a fig leaf. I kid you not. It started in December of 1563 and historians call it “The Fig Leaf Campaign” (You can view an excellent, hour-long documentary on that here, although I wouldn’t recommend watching it if you’re offended by the recurring sight of marble genitalia). To be precise, sometimes it was more like an entire branch, or the corner of a tree, or even a conveniently draped cloth added to these works of art. The means mattered far less than the end: The naughty bits must not be seen. If they cannot be covered well enough, they must simply be chopped off entirely, and they often were.

Christ the Redeemer, by Michelangelo

In one hilarious instance, a naked statue of Jesus was carved by none other than Michelangelo himself to show the King of Kings in all his glory (remember he would have been naked at his crucifixion since the soldiers gambled for his underwear). Of course, this horrified the church leaders, who immediately covered the midsection of Christ the Redeemer with a skirt. This evidently did nothing to deter the curious nuns who kept sneaking into the sanctuary at night for a peek at the Savior’s family jewels. Seeing that nothing would stop this carnal fixation, the priest ultimately took a chisel to this priceless work of art and made a eunuch out of Jesus. They decided it was better for his genitals to be completely cut off than for them to cause another to sin.

To this day you can go around Europe and see these statues and paintings which the Catholic Church found abhorrent, and you can see what they did in order to preserve their own sense of propriety. Clearly this fixation with covering up our sexuality remains deeply woven into the fabric of the Christian religion even after all these centuries.

And it’s not just ancient history. In fact, just this morning the city of Rome made international headlines when the staff of the Capitoline Museum covered all of their classical nude sculptures with plywood so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of the visiting president of Iran, who flew in yesterday to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The local Italians ridiculed this move, but it only echoes the censorial sensibilities of every other Abrahamic faith, including that of the Pope, who himself isn’t permitted to have sex, ever.

We haven’t even touched on the present state of evangelical Protestantism, with its lingering fascination toward courtship and “kissing dating goodbye.” Among evangelicals today, you could earn a beating from your parents for holding another person’s hand before you exchange your wedding vows (true story), and the objectification of women continues in so many subtle and insidious ways that one could start an entire blog devoted to the concept and not run out of fresh material for many years.

Say…that’s not a bad idea, come to think of it!

The Purpose of This Blog

Those of us who will be contributing to this blog have plenty to say about the deleterious impact of religion on our sexuality. Each of us has shouldered the burden of guilt and shame placed on us by our religious upbringings. Each of us has had to “remove the fig leaf” in our own way, and perhaps we will never be completely done with that process.  When you are taught to be ashamed of your humanity during your formative years, the baggage stays with you for the rest of your life.

But it does get better. Each of us has worked through these issues to some level of personal satisfaction (heh), and this digital space has been created to talk about how we’ve progressed. We will use this blog platform to unpack our own religious hangups around our sexuality, picking apart those ideas which shackled our own enjoyment of ourselves and of others. Just about anything related to sexuality is fair game, since it’s all connected, although the focus of this blog will be on the intersection of faith, skepticism, humanism, and sexuality. In that sense Removing the Fig Leaf will be unique among the blogs at Patheos.

Rules of Engagement

The comment policy for this blog will be posted soon, but the most important rule of all will be respect.  We will not tolerate shaming, threats, or trolling on this page. There are plenty of other places online where you can project your personal insecurities at other people’s expense. This will not be one of them. Stay tuned and watch this space, because you know it’s gonna be fun.  

[Image Sources: WikimediaThe Guardian]

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*Interesting derivation, that word “mortified.” Like the word “human,” it says so much about how closely we link our humanity with shame, so much so that a word that means “made mortal” has come to connote humiliation. This association is problematic, and I think it signals how much work we have left to do in exorcising our religious demons from our vocabulary of self-description.

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  • Jena Allison

    Interesting article. I am a Christian, but have always been taught that sexuality itself is not sinful or something to be ashamed of, but it is something very special and only to be shared with your spouse. My modesty is about respecting myself. There’s a balance between showing off and hiding your body.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Right…and I don’t care what religions have to say about it.

      All that matters is that all the adults humans involved enthusiastically consent.

    • Chris Adams

      You would, presumably, still agree that if it’s something to be “shared” only with your spouse, that “sharing” it with anyone else, or outside the bonds and bounds of marriage, is something shameful or regrettable?

      • LifeLongAtheist

        If one swears fidelity to a partner in a public marriage ceremony, how could going outside that marriage NOT be shameful? What does religion have to do with that?

        • Dangitbobby

          If someone swears fidelity and both parties understand that fidelity means no sex outside of marriage, period, then ya.

          Otherwise, if one or both partners want to fuck half the world and the other party has no problem with it, who cares? It’s not any of my business, your business or anyone else. (Except for the parties involved)

      • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

        Depends on how the spouses mutually decide how they want to live their lives. Breaking a promise is cheating, but if no promise of sexual fidelity is made, that’s not an issue.

      • Ezzy666

        No. Some of us have no interest in having a spouse.

        • Chris Adams

          I think you missed the thread of the conversation.

          * Article says, basically, “Christianity teaches that sex is shameful.”
          * Jena Allison says, basically, “My church doesn’t say that; it says sex within marriage is good.”
          * I respond by formulating my question to tease out the point that, though Jena’s church says sex within marriage is good, it’s presumably true that her church says sex outside of marriage is shameful.

          I wasn’t proposing a general question for the multitudes; I was asking a question directed at Jena aimed at getting her to realise that her church’s approval of sex within its own prescribed limits doesn’t mean it’s not participating in the general Christian disapproval of sex in other forms as shameful.

          • Ezzy666

            Sorry. I thought was replying to Jena

    • Otto

      Pretty hard to know if 2 people are sexually compatible if they don’t try it before marriage.

      • LifeLongAtheist

        Um, given a +50% divorce rate, I don’t think it helps as much as you think.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Divorce rates are higher among evangelical xtians…so your hypothesis fails. Another factor is longer lives, and people changing to no longer be compatible, and one or the other of them being unwilling to adapt.

          • I’m with you on the big picture, but I don’t think evangelical christians are any more likely than the general public to abstain till marriage therefore sexual incompatibility is probably not a major factor in their higher divorce rate. Teens who pledge celibacy are no more likely to actually abstain until marriage.

            (I know I didn’t.)

        • Anat

          In addition to what HairyEyed said, some of what is ticking the divorce rate up is a group of repeat-divorcers. If you calculate how many of ever-married people divorce rather than how many of marriages end up in divorce, the rate is much lower.

        • Otto

          The reasons for divorce are multifaceted. My point was not that it would drop the divorce rate significantly, my point was that it has the potential to help in those cases where obvious sexual incompatibility is a problem.

          Sex is a small part of a healthy relationship, but it often plays a large role in relationship problems.

    • Robert Conner

      Have you discussed this with Bristol Palin?

    • Michael Neville

      I’m reminded of Butch Hancock’s famous statement:

      Life in Lubbock, Texas taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love.

    • There’s a balance between showing off and hiding your body.

      But I imagine that balance is struck best by the person whose body it is. The problem is less modesty as a concept and more the endless religious and social kibbitzing about what modesty ought to be required to mean.

    • Dangitbobby

      I would disagree. Your language used to describe sex shows the deep held fear of it.

      “Something special” – false. It’s no more special than breathing or eating. It’s required to propagate the species and is used as bonding and social contract. It’s part of everyday life. Every sexual animal on the planet has sex.

      “Only to be shared with your spouse” – a rule set by the church, with no justification outside the Bible. That’s it. It is a morally neutral act that can be done with anyone so long that everyone involved is consenting.

      According to your church, sex outside marriage is sinful and should be shameful. Sexual relationships with your same sex is also sinful. Masturbating is sinful. Lusting after another man/woman is sinful. Having more than one partner is sinful. Sinful sinful sinful. Shameful shameful shameful.

      “My modesty is about respecting myself” – Good for you. Not everyone agree’s. I know a lot of girls who love their body and love to show it off. They’ve admitted they love the attention they get from it or don’t really care what anyone else thinks about it. They are not less moral than you are. They are not less of a person than you. Their sexuality is their own, their body is their own, and if they want to be proud of it and show it off, then they should do it without guilt or condemnation.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Sexuality is one of the many things that made it easy for me to dismiss christianity after a brief ‘fling’ with it. If sky-daddy has such a problem with sex, then WTF does he give so many woman the ability to experience multiple orgasms? If sex is ONLY for procreation (as many xtians believe) then why would women still enjoy it after becoming pregnant? For that matter, why would any post-menopausal woman enjoy sex? Many xtians will toss around original sin and the Eden story as some half assed way to explain this, but there is still a big problem. Its not just humans that this is true for. (just like those obliviots who constantly say being gay is ‘unnatural’, when just about every damn species on the planet has gay members).The simple fact is that religion is about CONTROL.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      For a fun take on this, read Mark Twain’s “Letters from the Earth”. He has a great half-chapter on men’s control of women’s sexuality.

  • ephemerol

    He spoke of his own body as a tent, a reluctant temporary dwelling from which he would one day be saved

    Interesting how christian orthodoxy eschews gnosticism, and yet it embraces so many gnostic doctrines. Here is gnostic Paul in full flower. Gnosticism was thoroughgoing in its denial of any possibility of natural and inherent human goodness. The physical body was an unclean thing that defiled the soul and the whole point of living was to purify the soul by the shedding of the body (as though there’s there’s nothing that could be interpreted as christian about that). Likewise, orthodox christianity until the end of the middle ages was so against sexuality that it perceived marriage itself as little more than a license to sin, and so wanted nothing to do with it. Consequently, marriage was traditionally a matter left for the civil authorities until then. But even then, for centuries, marriages were not permitted to take place within the church, but only in front of the threshold of the church doorway. (Ironic when you think of it in terms of the whole gay marriage fight that just went down, that now conservatives imagine that marriage has always been some sort of sacred institution.) Marriage ceremonies only made it under the steeple when the church realized that claiming ownership of marriage as a sacred institution offered a new avenue by which it could control the people. Alas, from original sin to celibate priests to magic underwear, christianity in its myriad forms still has a looong ways to go before admitting that people are not inherently dishonorable.

  • Not a word on gay sex & Abrahamic religions? It may not have been the Nuns who were the problem. The Fig Leaf Campaign from a slightly different angle can be found here:
    Like McClelland Barclay, Michelangelo’s works were chock full of homoeroticism. It’s possible that the Fig Leaf was also a resurgence or continuance of the anti-gay campaigns by the Church begun in the late 1400’s. ‘Cause let’s face it, post- St. Anselm, the Church wasn’t just against straight people enjoying their bodies; they wanted to deprive everyone of pleasure.

  • Robert Conner

    Here’s Jesus on sex:

    “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:12)

    Jesus’ attitude (if truly reported) likely stemmed from his radical apocalypticism.

    Do the “Abrahamic faiths” have anything of substance to say about sex? No. Anything of substance to say about anything? No.

    • Matthew 19:12 was a reference to a passage from the OT/Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 56:4 & 5, “For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and
      a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an
      everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. This strong non-patriarchal proclamation was reiterated *again* via a long, detailed story about the Queen of Sheba (Eithiopia)’s finance minister – an eunuch – getting baptized by Philip in Acts 8:26-40.

      Structurally, this is important as it’s a message that exists in all three time periods & they reference each other. As “eunuchs” were well known and externally documented throughout all three time periods (esp. in Rome) it’s a clear message to the Faithful (at least it was once the Bible was compiled & solidified, post- Councils).

      • Robert Conner

        I frankly don’t think your explanation holds up. I regard it as much more likely the eunuchs saying should be understood in the context of early apocalyptic belief:

        “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none,” (1 Corinthians 7:29)

        It is quite clear from Paul’s early letters that his churches expected an imminent end of the world and were troubled when believers began to die before the parousia had occurred. I refer you once again to the linked essay.

  • Anat

    Please be careful about implying that Judaism froze not-too-long after the Hebrew Bible was completed. Orthodox Judaism is mostly based on the Talmud, which is derived from oral tradition that existed and was developed outside of the Bible. Also there is a long tradition of Jewish commentary of the Bible, which in many places diverges from Christian reading of the same text.