Dont Tell Me What To Do with My Body Sexual Control and Church Decline

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A weakness of classical theories of secularization which appeal to "constants" of modernization like rationalization in order to explain religious decline is their inability to account for the accelerated decline of churchgoing in many parts of the West since the 1960s. In Britain, for example, churchgoing roughly halved in the century between 1860 and 1960, then halved again in just three decades (see Bruce 2002). Even in the USA there is growing evidence that the 1960s initiated a new, intensive, phase of de-Christianization.10 In The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality, Paul Heelas and I invoke what Charles Taylor refers to as "the massive subjective turn of modern culture" to help explain the post-sixties collapse (Taylor 1991: 26; quoted in Heelas and Woodhead 2005: 2). We argue that a complex and interwoven set of social changes supported a cultural shift which saw traditional values of duty and deference give way to new values of authenticity and expressivism. Rather than relying on external authority as a guide for identity and action, an increasing number of men and women in affluent democracies have come to rely on inner convictions, emotions, and intuitions as the authentic source of wisdom in the living of life. Such a shift favors forms of religion and spirituality which promise to put people in touch with their inner wisdom, but undermines forms of religion - including much church Christianity - which posit a higher authority that overrules the promptings of subjective life.

The idea that a widespread "turn to the self" has been a major factor in secularization can be refined and developed in various ways. As well as paying closer attention to the ways in which a turn to the self may play out differently in men's and women's lives, it is interesting to look in more detail at what the turn to the self rejects as repressive authority, and what it elevates as authoritative in its place. So far as I can see these tasks must go hand in hand, and when they do so they are likely to lead to the same destination - sex.

It is no accident that the cultural revolution of the "sixties" is commonly known as the "sexual revolution," for issues of sex and gender lay at its heart - and thus at the heart of the subjective turn. Following the dislocations of the Second World War, and in the shadow of the threat of nuclear war, the 1950s witnessed a nostalgic return to "traditional values."11 At its heart was a reassertion of a "two sex" and "separate spheres" ideology undergirded by a harsh sexual division of labor. Political power working through the mechanisms of the burgeoning welfare state was deployed to defend men's right to earn a "family wage," whilst the dignity of womanhood was tied to the dutiful discharge of domestic labors within the home. Numerous cultural agencies legitimated this clamping down on some of the freedoms for women won earlier in the century, from the fashion industry which offered women the "New Look" to the churches which helped sacralize family and home - and were rewarded with a brief upturn in attendance and commitment. Integral to these developments was a new spirit of puritanism in which sexual fulfillment was given new importance but subjected to strict regulation and containment, with women's sexual activity being particularly harshly monitored and controlled. Beneath a new ideal of companionate marriage old ideas of men as sexually active and women as sexless angels who must never take the sexual initiative remained influential. The only appropriate sphere for sexual activity, particularly for women, was that of marriage, and the only appropriate end the reproduction of the family.12 Both men and women came under enormous pressure to marry, particularly if they were known to be having sex with one another. Women who had a child out of wedlock suffered enormous social disgrace and material hardship, with welfare provisions for single mothers tending to become even more punitive in the postwar period, and some single mothers - in the UK at least - even being placed in asylums for the mentally ill or disabled.13

This harsh ethic of sexual containment with its sexual double standard became a key symbol of all that was wrong with the "square," "straight-laced," "up-tight" and "repressive" culture that increasing numbers of young people in the West rejected from the 1960s onwards. The baby boomers continued to pursue the quest for intimacy which had inspired their parents, but rejected the restrictions which had surrounded it. As Elaine Tyler May puts it, they:

Abandoned the old containers: the traditional family, home-centered consumerism, marriage-centered sex, and cold-war centered politics. The youth culture, as well as the booming economy, encouraged them to be risk takers in ways that their security-oriented parents found unthinkable. (May 1990: 198)

Getting in touch with one's authentic self and freeing one's emotional life from the chains and restrictions that "the establishment" would place upon it necessarily involved expressing one's sexuality in a free and "authentic" manner. Not only in personal but also in public life it was in the realm of sexuality that the "counter-culture" made some its earliest, most publicized and most far-reaching gains. Thus the late 1960s witnessed the most striking changes in the legal framework of sexuality for almost a hundred years. Between 1967 and 1970 there was significant new legislation on abortion, homosexuality, stage censorship and divorce (Weeks 2000: 147).14 There were also significant changes in individual behavior, with disapproval of premarital sex in the USA dropping from 68 percent in 1969 to 48 percent by 1973, the number of unmarried couples living together tripling in the 1970s, the median age of first marriage rising, the number of single person households rising, the divorce rate rising, and the number of illegitimate births beginning to soar (May 1990: 198-9; and tables on xii-xvi).

Most of these changes directly contradicted church teaching, both Catholic and Protestant. The contradiction became more evident as many churches, including the Roman Catholic, began to reiterate and even intensify their defense of a "traditional" sexual ethic in the later twentieth century. As Western societies became increasingly "subjectivized" in their approach to sexuality, so Christianity retained or even intensified its attempts to regulate sex, and in doing so alienated the large numbers of baby boomers who identified with the causes of the sexual revolution. In this rebellion, issues of sex and gender would often be hard to distinguish, particularly for women, given that their identity as women had become so closely associated with their "sex" - or rather with their sexlessness and lack of sexual desire. Thus the "subjective turn" for a woman would be likely to involve attributing more value to her own appetites and emotions, and treating them as more authoritative in the living of her life than the voice of external, often patriarchal, authorities. Given the power of the sexual appetite, not least in social contexts in which it was being rendered increasingly visible, the quest for "authentic selfhood" would therefore also involve a "sexual liberation" in which a woman admits to and acts upon her own sexual desires, rather than allowing these desires to be shaped or suppressed by the roles to which she is expected to conform. For both men and women it would also involve a new freedom of choice about when, how and with whom sex is performed (depending on what "feels right"), and a lessening of the pressures to confine sex to the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. For men this involved a loosening of identification with the role of paternal care and responsibility, whilst for women identification with the role of mother was loosened by the separation of sex from reproduction, but retained by the "stalled revolution," which saw men cut loose from parenting responsibilities and the work of care to a far greater extent than women.15

In arguing that the sexual revolution played an important role in secularization I am not, therefore, wishing to separate sexual activity from the wider issues of gender, power, and identity that surround it. Nor am I wishing to suggest that people left the churches simply because of an intellectual disagreement with church teachings on sex. Such disagreement could certainly be important, but it would often be tied up with a felt dissonance between a person's identity, dress, and self-presentation and what was acceptable in church circles, between the "atmospheric" of a woman's group in church and the sort of circles in which one felt comfortable, between the values and behaviors of one's parents' generation and one's own, and so on. Though there is much more research to be done in this area - and in establishing the causes of secularization more generally - a few indicative pieces of evidence to support my suggestion may help illustrate the argument and suggest avenues for further exploration.

I begin with an extract from an interview I conducted in 2002 with a middle-aged woman born into a working-class family in a mill town in the north-west of England. In the following extract she explains how and why she ceased to be a regular church attender in the 1970s.

We took the kids to Church Parade on a Sunday ... it seemed so empty, so hypocritical really... I couldn't believe values like respectability and family life . . . There was one occasion at church, we were putting banns up [my husband-to-be and I] and they all knew we weren't married [we were living together] and when they were read out there were these ladies behind me and they said "that's about time", something like that, and I thought "you bitches, supposed to call yourself Christians", and some said "you won't be wearing white then" and I said this to the vicar and he said "it just shows you're pure in mind", and I thought "you hypocrite, I don't think me mind's that pure". But I wanted to wear white just to show them. I just wanted to do my own thing, I wasn't having anyone telling me what to do.

Later in the same interview she describes a later experience of visiting St Peter's in Rome, looking at the fig leaves on the statues of male nudes, and being struck by the thought that Christianity has always been about repression and "covering up" sex and sexuality. Though she does not say this in so many words, there is a clear implication that for her a journey of self-discovery and self-empowerment, and the construction of selfhood upon a new more subjective basis, has been tied up with a dawning sense of the legitimacy of her own sexuality which has involved a dissociation from the identity of "moral womanhood" which she associates with church circles.

Similar issues appear in a study of the attitudes of elderly Catholic churchgoing women to changes in Catholicism post Vatican II. This research, carried out by Mary Beatham, interviewed women in their seventies and eighties, that is to say members of the pre-boomer generation (Beatham 2003). Although these women are still churchgoers, and still shaped and formed by the identification of womanhood with the work of care for family, husband, and church community, they are deeply aware of the changes which have shaped their daughters' lives in different ways to their own, and of the significance of changing sexual attitudes and behaviors in this shift. "In my generation," says one, you fulfilled your duty as a good Catholic girl, dutifully committing yourself to your family, as your mother did, sublimating your own desires for the needs of the greater good, of everybody else, and you just got on with it.

You saw it as a privilege, like you'd been given an "exalted" role in your own home [laughter]. Not that young girls, even my own daughter, would see it like that today! She'd laugh at the idea. They would say we were all being duped. Maybe we were. (Beatham 2003: 25)

Nearly all the women in this study speak of the profound impact of Humanae Vitae and the ban on contraception on their lives, their comments often hinting at the way in which it was received as "of a piece" with other church teachings which restricted women's lives. For some it led to a long period of disaffection with the church: "I stopped going for quite a long time," says one, "I thought do I really want to belong to this Church?"; "I stopped going to church on Sunday for quite a while," says another, "I wasn't sure if I'd simmer or not ... it was all so upsetting." And another woman comments, "the men were not encouraged to deal [with these issues] by the church... it was considered to be a 'woman's problem' which was most unfair." The women are in little doubt that it is this complex of sex and gender issues - and restrictions - which have led their daughters' generation to distance themselves from church. "It's easier with hindsight to see what happened," says one:

Today women do what they believe is best for themselves and their families, as they should ... as I did . . . but they don't have all this guilt and conscience stuff... I envy them that. . . although it doesn't affect me in the same way . . . I'm too old now! (Beatham 2003: 40)

Remaining with Catholicism, but turning to the realm of cultural studies, a powerful illustration of the subversion of Christian symbols of female passivity burst onto the scene in the 1980s in the shape of the pop star Madonna. As her stage name suggests, Louise Veronica Ciccone's immensely successful career was founded upon her skillful deployment of Roman Catholic imagery and symbolism against itself in the cause of female sexual liberation. Madonna's subversion consisted in her taking Christian symbols and using them to claim rather than renounce an explicit female sexual identity. "Like a Virgin" invoked the sexual excitement of a convent girl's first sexual encounter, "Papa Don't Preach" asserted a young woman's right to decide the course of her own life, and the cross was used in several of her videos as a phallic symbol. Thus Madonna established her massive success on the reversal of Catholic symbols of female submission - prior to embracing the virtues of motherhood and domesticity, alongside superstardom, in more recent times (see Sexton 1993).

This exclusive focus on women's disaffiliation from Christianity, and the role of disaffection from church-endorsed sex and gender roles - is not intended to deny the importance of similar factors bearing on men. Modern men are every bit as likely as women to agree with Pierre Trudeau that the church has no more place than the state in the bedrooms of the nation. Ideals of masculinity tend to place heavy emphasis on the importance of male agency, not least in sexual encounter - and the idea that this might be restricted by "higher" authority is likely to be correspondingly less palatable to them than to women. So far as we can tell, men ignored or rejected church teachings on issues like contraception and premarital sex earlier and more readily than women - which may, of course, be one reason for men's lower levels of church attendance and general commitment right through the modern period.16 As suggested above, men's growing alienation from paternal masculinities may be a linked reason which helps explain their more rapid disaffiliation after the 1960s. It is still the case that women outnumber men on almost every index of involvement in most contemporary forms of church Christianity by a ratio of about three to two, which means that although women have defected in larger numbers from Christianity (and hence had a greater impact on church decline than men), they have nevertheless defected at the same rate (see Walter and Davie 1998). In this context it is interesting to note that the most recent evidence from Peter Brierley's Scottish church attendance survey shows women beginning to defect at a higher rate than men - a trend which, if sustained, would have disastrous results for the churches (Brierley 2003: 2.91).

My argument that the churches' implicit and explicit messages about the regulation of sex have played a significant role in secularization can be supported, finally, by comparing two recent attitudinal surveys. In response to the question "do you think it is proper for the leaders of religion to speak out on . . ." the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey finds that whilst a majority of people are quite happy for church leaders to speak out on a range of political and public issues, they are unhappy when it comes to their commenting on sexual and private matters. Eighty percent think it "generally right" to speak out on world poverty, compared with 37 percent who think it "generally right" to comment on "sexual behavior" (Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2001 analyzed in Bruce and Glendenning 2001). Compare this with Christians from an Anglican evangelical congregation, responding to the question "which issues do you think the church should speak out on," where we find that respondents feel that private issues are at least as important as public ones, with 90 percent saying the church should speak out on "extramarital affairs" compared with 60 percent on "government policy" (Guest 2002). The conclusion must be that at a time when Christians and their churches have been putting increasing energy into the regulation of sexuality, the general population has become increasingly hostile to attempts to "interfere" with what they view as their personal subjective lives.

Today we see the results of this disjunction in a contemporary religio-cultural landscape in the West in which a diminishing number of people attend church, those that do are increasingly conservative in relation to "family values," and a yawning gulf opens up between these two cultures. The most successful churches in both Europe and the USA currently tend to be those which are most socially and morally conservative (see Kelley 1977 and, for more recent confirmation in relation to the UK, Brierley 2000). In the USA such churches fare even better than in Europe, not least because they are able to maintain a distinctive sub-culture centered on the family, churches, and Christian educational establishments, and TV channels.17 The success of conservative churches would seem to suggest that Christianity still has an important role to play in defending "traditional family values" and differentiated sex and gender roles for men and women, with few serious competitors to contend with. Such Christianity caters for those who dissociate themselves from the "lax" and "permissive" values of the subjective turn - a minority in Europe, but a sizeable constituency in the USA and in the growing churches in the southern hemisphere. Sensing its ascendance, such family-based Christianity is currently launching aggressive attacks upon more liberal forms of Christianity, taking as the site of battle the latter's "laxer" attitudes to sex role differentiation and sexual regulation. Thus the future of Christianity - in terms of its internal profile, its overall numbers, and its geographical spread - is likely to be determined in large part by issues of sex and gender.

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