The Results of an Atheist Sex Survey May 15, 2011

The Results of an Atheist Sex Survey

What happens when 10,000 non-religious people take a survey about their sex lives — including people who were raised in one religion but later left it? Well, you get a treasure trove of data that’s never been analyzed before.

Dr. Darrel W. Ray and student Amanda Brown sifted through tons of data and put together a report that can be found here.

Let’s get the obvious criticism out of the way: You have to take everything with a grain of salt. This was a voluntary survey (not unlike something you’d see in Cosmopolitan). It’s not a random sample. In fact, most of the people taking the survey came via a link at Pharyngula. So I wouldn’t cite this report in any paper… but the findings do give us things to think about. And I hope these questions are asked again in the future in a more controlled, randomized survey.

With that out of the way, this is what Ray and Brown say they found:

  1. Sex improves dramatically after leaving religion.
  2. Sexual guilt has little staying power after leaving religion.
  3. Those raised most religious show no difference from those raised least religious in their sexual behavior.
  4. Those raised most religious experience far more guilt but have just as much sex.
  5. Religious parents are far worse at educating their children on matters of sex.
  6. Religious guilt differs in measurable amounts according to denomination.

A few charts also help us see what might be going on.

Participants were asked (and I paraphrase): Regarding the religion (or non-religion) you were raised in, how guilty did you feel about sex?

Not surprisingly, those with a less religious upbringing were the least guilty about sex, while those raised in stricter religious homes felt most guilty.

This one surprised me: What kind of sex do you have and at what age?

At 15, the rates for different kinds of sexual activity are pretty much the same whether you were raised in a religious home or not.

Ditto at 18.

Ditto at 21.

So even if you are raised in a faith that says no to sex… it doesn’t seem to make a damn bit of difference.

Finally, how has your sex life changed since you became non-religious?

Just about every respondent said it either stayed the same or got better. Way better in some cases.

Again, I think these are really interested preliminary results and nothing more. Sociologists aren’t asking these questions about our population, but there’s no better time to do it. Let’s see if the results found here can be confirmed by others.

If you’d like to read and dissect the full report, you have to register at IPC Press.

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  • Sean

    I haven’t read the results yet, but purely as someone who took the survey, I have to say that Dr. Ray could benefit from the advice of soneone more familiar with LGBT issues. Not that he’s not well-meaning but… just saying.


    Funny that Unitarianism and Judaism were even farther along the guilt by denomination spectrum than agnosticism or athiesm. I can’t speak for Judaism, but the UU R.E. program that used to have “Religion in Life” and now has OWL (Our Whole Lives) and it’s great sexuality education must be doing something right.

  • Hajdownunder

    Are you still allowed to shout “Oh God, oh God” during sex?

  • jose

    Feeling bad doesn’t prevent you from doing stuff, because of the priiiiize. Ask people who want to lose weight.

  • I’m not shocked that Judaism ranked so low on the guilt about sex scale. Jews don’t really focus on making kids feel guilt about sex…just every other damn thing in the world. ::snerk::

    Seriously, I don’t remember ever being told much about sex during my religious education and I had a LOT of it. (Er, religious education, not sex!) In fact, I’m not sure we ever talked about sex at all.

  • Yvi

    “Just about every respondent said it either stayed the same or got better. Way better in some cases.”

    I am not surprised, but I think that#s heavily correlated with age. Most people leave religion between ages of 15 or 25 I’d say. Sex only gets better after that…

  • I have to say, that tattoo in that graphic is like a beacon in the night indicating you might be in store for a good time.

  • Jeff

    So even if you are raised in a faith that says no to sex… it doesn’t seem to make a damn bit of difference.

    The difference is that Christians are forgiven. They get to do it and not go to hell.

    Funny how everything always ends up getting stacked in their favor.

  • Ems

    I never quite get these surveys that acknowledge 15 different types of Christianity but lump Hasidim with Reconstructionists and Humanists under “Judaism”.
    (Assuming, of course, that the Jewish population surveyed covered the entire spectrum.)
    And as Sean pointed out, the survey does not take into account the possibility of there being differences between queer and straight guilt. Which, I’ll wager, there are. Perhaps that would make a good follow-up study.

  • benjdm

    Ummm…”pretty much the same” is also “higher in every category for the same age” (for the non-religious.) NTTAWTT.

  • Sex trumps religion but religion adds guilt about having sex. The guilt is part of the control aspect of religion. If you can make people feel guilty about something they are going to do anyway, then you can control them (and turn some perventage into evangelizing tithers).

  • I also took the survey, and I didn’t like that the question answers weren’t exclusive. It was geared toward people who had been religious, and then become atheists. So if you answered in the beginning of the survey that you weren’t ever religious, later on there weren’t always answers you could choose from- many of the questions just assumed you had been religious sometime prior. And that isn’t good survey writing, that is just one of the basics.

  • dwasifar

    I can see what will happen when the evangelicals hear about this. They’re going to link to the results on all their blogs as “proof” that atheism leads to “immorality.” “Look! People who abandon god are out there fornicating and enjoying it!! And they don’t even feel any shame about it!!”

  • Steve

    It’s surprising that Catholics have so little guilt. But I guess a large number of them were more or less cultural Catholics, whereas evangelicals/fundies simply take the whole mumbo jumbo more seriously.

  • hannah

    the interesting point of fact to me the level and ratios of masturbation throughout. I honestly would have expected it to be lower for non-religious, or at least closer to the other forms, because why wouldn’t they if there wasn’t any guilt or rules associated? I would expect the higher masturbation levels amongst religious because it’s the most private and hideable….

  • Ibis

    This was a terrible survey that assumed the conclusions it was looking for. If you weren’t raised in a religious family and subsequently left the religion, and didn’t have progressively more sex as you got older, and didn’t participate in a religion that was anti-sex, the questions didn’t apply.

  • Lucas



  • Lynn

    I too found that the survey tended to be prebiased towards those atheist who weren’t born into nonreligious families but, as a side point, is it wrong that I’m stuck on the fact that I really like that scarlet A they used for the tattoo image? I wonder where a girl could actually get a vector drawing of that to take down to the local parlor? Any ideas?

  • John

    Dr. Kinsey would be proud! But he would want MORE samples I think, and would not stop the survey, until EVERY atheist in the U.S. was interviewed!

  • Oldguyatheist

    Religion doesn’t “benefit” from its adherents’ abstinence. It “benefits” from their feelings of guilt which make adherents think that they need religion.

  • articulett

    I used to tease a religious nut on a forum (who was convinced that people were atheists so they could sin freely) that I “converted” to atheism for the guilt-free masturbation. Now it looks like I should have converted to Unitarianism– ha!

  • As both a Unitarian Universalist and an activist/educator around sexuality issues, I feel confident in saying why our religious community scores as well as it does: We actually “turn the tables” and say that sexuality is a blessing to be celebrated, not something to be ashamed of.

    On the other hand, I would echo concerns about the shortcomings of the survey, including:
    1) Being voluntary, thus screening people who might not necessarily take the survey;

    2) Not distinguishing different strains within Judaism, especially Orthodox schools (and let’s not forget the Lutherans, which range from very liberal to extremely conservative);

    3) Doesn’t appear to consider why someone left the religion of their upbringing, their particular community’s teaching about sex (if any!), as well as family attitudes about sexuality and religion (which is often an even more important factor).

  • How is it that unitarians have less sexual guilt than atheists? I take that as a challenge!

  • Steve

    Or you could tell him that you are sinning so that Jesus didn’t die in vain

    Oldguyatheist has it absolutely right. Religion tells people to feel bad about sex, while knowing exactly that they can’t help but have sex. At the same time they promise to sell the only cure, all but guaranteeing that people will come back for it.

  • I’m not sure I understand why anyone would feel guilt about sex. Well unless it wasn’t very good. So if bad sex leads to guilt then it seems obvious to me that the more secular you are the better the sex is. That matches with my experience so I’m going to take that as gospel, so to speak. 😉

  • I still find it unnerving every time my wife cries out “Oh, Darwin!” during sex.

  • Robin

    I’m with the folks who took the survey, but many of the questions made no sense to someone who wasn’t religious to begin with. I was raised questioning and became atheist. There were a lot of choices that made no sense for me. So I’m one of the people who added to the “no change” categories. I seem to recall noting that at the end when they allowed comments?

  • Teg

    Robin: same here – I wouldn’t have known how to answer questions about “how has your sex life changed since you became non-religious” because I was never religious in the first place (my parents are atheist). I wonder if they took that possibility into account.

    BTW should Unitarian be taken to mean Unitarian Universalist? (I thought that Unitarians were a Protestant denomination that doesn’t believe in the doctrine of the trinity. Which is still an improvement.)

    I wonder whether they just asked directly about guilt (“how guilty do you feel about sex,” or whatever) or whether they asked particular questions to get your “guilt score.”

  • Magen

    First of, I’m not an atheist, but Jewish, but I understand the atheist point of view. But, I’m rather objective, and am quick to point out failures or strengths on either side (on my side, or the side going against my side). For reasons I can’t explain here, I can’t objectively be an atheist, and we can just leave it at that.
    Now for the juicy stuff (it gets better the farther in you read):
    I’m not surprised by the Judaism results. Judaism tends to embrace male-female sexuality far more than Christianity. If a boy continues his religious training past his Bar Mitswa (many don’t, though), often his further training includes sexual education. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Xristians) is full of sex, permissible prostitution (only religious prostitution is banned in the bible, not secular prostitution; prostitution is even legal in modern Israel), polygamy, incest, and if your brother dies without having a child then it’s your religious duty to have a child with his widowed wife. Then you have The Song of Songs (aka, Song of Solomon) which is nothing but a pornographic love poem (with things such as talking about breasts, and rubbing the clitoris, and being wet with vaginal juices — take note the King James Version translation of the Hebrew censors the hell out of it, so find a decent translation if you can’t read Hebrew). Adultery? It only applies to married woman with anyone, and only to any man who has sex with a married woman. If the man is married, he can still have sex with single woman (after all, he is not adulterating the bloodline of another man by doing so, yes, that’s what adultery means, mixing an alien thing into something that should have it, in the bible’s case, a man’s bloodline). Then there is Jewish culture around sex… If you ever saw the Bar Mitswah scene in “The Wedding Singer,” they were being funny there, but really it is funny because large element of it is true (sort of embrace your sexuality, you’re a man now attitude).
    Of course, Orthodox approach it a different way from some of the other strains of Rabbinic Judaism. They far more emphasize the moderation and being modest in sexual aspects of life.
    Then there are strains of Karaite (non-rabbinic) Judaism which permit a man to have more than one wife, as well as permitting girl-on-girl action. Guy-on-guy is still prohibited (sorry if you are of that leaning).
    It is no longer practiced anywhere in the Jewish world, but a couple thousand years ago, it use to be normal for a host to have his wife or one of his female servants “wash the foot” of a guest (a Hebrew euphemism for things such as a hand-job). This practice lasted much longer in the Islamic world (where a guest could expect anything from a hand-job to full-out intercourse with a daughter or female servant). There are a few small pockets of bedouins in the islamic North Africa where you can still find this.
    If any Xristians are reading this, that puts a whole new spin on Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, doesn’t it? He was the host, after all.

  • Erik T

    Count me in the group of lifelong atheists who got frustrated by the assumption in the questions that all atheists are converts from a previous religion. I wound up quitting half way through the survey because of it.

  • @Magen,

    I hope Jesus had soft hands!

  • Peter Mahoney

    Religions love to try to control things that are inherent human nature (like sex), usually to make people feel guilty about it (while doing it anyway), so that they must come to the church to confess and to absolve their guilt.

  • Peter Mahoney

    On a sillier note…

    I am reminded of the Monty Python movie “The Meaning of Life”, where one guy explains how (unlike his Catholic neighbors), by being Protestant he is allowed to wear a rubber on his penis…. “That’s what being Protestant is all about”.

  • Kawaikunai

    “Much worst”?


  • I gotta say I’m a little disappointed by the image on the cover. For a movement so concerned about bringing more women into the fold do you think we could have done a little more to NOT treat women as sex objects?

  • Teg

    …or at least, to treat men equally as sex objects? You know, like, if they showed a picture of a really hot young man with a similar tatoo alongside the one of the woman.

    Peter: that’s only true of mainline Protestants. Fundies are supposed to be “pure.”

    Another thing that was sort of confusing about the survey is that it doesn’t consider overlap. For example, one can be UU and atheist at the same time since UUism doesn’t have a creed.

    There are a lot of design issues in this survey and I don’t think we can make any conclusions based on it, but I hope they’ll be able to get funding to do a more methodologically sound study about this.

  • idwicbimsgw

    There’s no pagan people in this study. We have awesome, guilt-free sex. 😉

  • Why am I not surprised that we Mormons won on the sexual guilt thing?

  • I hated the cover art. 1) it uses an off-brand symbol for atheism instead of the Scarlet A, which would have been better. 2) It shows an extremely skinny model, and we atheists should be more responsible about off-loading unrealistic and homogeneous conceptions of female sexuality.
    I’m glad the study is out there to put a focus on a major downside of religion, but The cover art is relevant.

  • Nordog

    I gotta say I’m a little disappointed by the image on the cover. For a movement so concerned about bringing more women into the fold do you think we could have done a little more to NOT treat women as sex objects?

    I guess secularism isn’t a complete escape from guilt in the sexual realm.

  • i’ve always believed that religion’s biggest “attraction” is the guilt about sex stuff. let’s face it: most people don’t regularly have great sex. but our culture teaches us to value ourselves on sexual prowess and attractiveness. so the guilt is built in if you have a small penis, small breasts, don’t orgasm easily, etc. religion just picks that up and runs with it, and allows people to transmit their guilt and shame into more ‘appropriate’ channels. Gawd doesn’t want you to eat your wife’s pussy! or something.

    i will confess: i like having sex with semi-closteted republicans. they are Freaks, once you get ’em drunk/stoned enough. every single republican lover i’ve ever had (dozens, if not scores) has been into some naughty kink- anal, spanking, school uniforms, cross dressing. i love the intimate, deeply personal and loving sex i have with my liberal lovers. but when i’m in the mood for guilt/shame/naughty/forbidden, i hate to say it but a Baptist is hard to beat in bed. they just won’t acknowledge they enjoyed it, or you, in the morning. one night stand material, mostly.

  • Thanks for spreading it Hemant. I made the cover… I’m glad many of you like it.

  • Teg

    I don’t know much about Mormonism and its attitude toward sex (I’m an east-coat type). I’m more surprised that Catholics would come out so far from the top. Although since it is internet-based, I guess that a lot of these are Europeans who weren’t actually very religious (if at all) in the first place. Come to think of it, does anyone know of any studies that address guilt about sex by nationality?

    Jason: I don’t think the model’s “extremely skinny.” She’s shaped about like I was, way back in the dark ages when I was a teenager. 🙂 These days the standard of female beauty is a superskinny woman with no hips to speak of (you know, the boy-with-boobs type). This model is shaped like…well, a woman. (Or a teenaged girl, anyway.) I’d rather they’d used the Scarlet A too; this one looks too much like the anarchy sign. (I like how it’s sort of disappearing into her jeans, though.)

  • Teg

    Chicago dyke – damn, I wish I had that great a sex life. Maybe I should try hooking up with some Republicans. But how do you tolerate the right-wing ranting (even on a one-night basis)?

    (I admit, I did date a Libertarian once, but that’s not at all the same. And he was a good atheist.)

  • Norm

    Dr. Kinsey would be proud! But he would want MORE samples I think, and would not stop the survey, until EVERY atheist in the U.S. was interviewed!

    Well, not every atheist, just those (as in his original sample) in the Northeast and Midwest!

  • Eddy

    why there is a face on the top of the page?

  • On the same subject I interviewed  Darell Ray this morning and it will be a podcast soon so listen if you like.

  • The difference is insignificant.

  • Sex is also better without the guilt.

  • Oh Dog, oh Dog, really spooks some people.

  • Trouble is, Mormonism also runs the words that ‘sex is super Godly special’, but then they still guilt it up big time.

    It also makes a lot of noise about how special women are, places them on a pedestal, but in reality treats them as 2nd class citizens, not to be taken seriously.

    Even though this study is indicative, I believe it still has value. It does flag that more serious and controlled study might be justified. I have not been able to access the full report yet, but I am interested to see how international the respondents were.

  • I argue religion attracts already heavily shamed people, and offers them a Quickie Shame Shower to wash all that shame and those sins away ‘in Christ’.

    In reality, it actually teaches nothing of much value about healthy sexuality, but really sinks the hooks into the guilt of its followers, promising deliverance, and never delivering – all at a price.

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