Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

On Sex.


ladybugIn advance of this week’s Ask an Atheist episode on everyone’s most titillating subject, I am joining the blogroll. What do atheism and sex have to do with one another? Nothing. But atheists certainly have lots of varied responses and relationships to sex! Given that the one feature necessarily uniting atheists is a shared lack of belief in god(s), asking 10 atheists what they think about sex will probably get you as many answers as asking them what their favorite food is.

A shared social context cannot be ignored, though; atheists who are former religionists may harbor guilt, hatred, and fear of what religious traditions varyingly deem dirty, forbidden, sacred, routine, commanded, or obligatory. Without an irrelevant and/or supernatural-based authority guiding sexuality, atheists are free to develop their own traditions, opinion, and practices around sex.

Which is exactly what dozens of humanists, along with sexologist/sociologist Dr. Lester Kirkendall, did for the American Humanist Association with “A New Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities“.

It’s what what blogger and former director of Humanists of Florida Jennifer Hancock did in one chapter of her book The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom.

It’s what biology graduate student and prominent atheist activist Jen McCreight wistfully (or angrily?) yearns to do in her critique of Hancock’s views on sexuality and sexual behavior.

And this is where I, Becky, describe the ways in which I respectfully disagree with Jen’s critique, and interpret Hancock from (another) Humanist, atheist perspective.

Hancock’s sexy chapter comes near the end of the tome under the heading Things your mother never told you about sex. The chapter summary is as follows:

Sex is a big deal. There are consequences to having sex and you should be prepared for those consequences before engaging in sex with anyone. The Humanist approach to sexuality is that it should be pleasurable, loving and guilt free. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. With the freedom to express your sexuality however you see fit comes responsibility.

My mother worked as a college health service nurse practitioner during my teen years as a socially liberal, culturally invested Jewish kid in New England. Mom did her share of educating me in typical health professional fashion: by frankly discussing the social, emotional, and physical implication of sex. So did my public school, with a comprehensive health and sexuality curriculum from 5th through 11th grade. Let’s see what Jennifers Hancock and McCreight say about sex and health:

Hancock, in a section called “Sex and Its Consequences”:

Having sex with the wrong individual can kill you. Sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) are real, and if you have sex, you are at risk of contracting one. You can mitigate that risk by choosing your sexual partners very carefully, making sure that you are only having sex in mutually exclusive relationships, making sure each partner is tested for STDs before engaging in sex, and using protection anyway. If you think all this would kill the moment, consider how bad it would be if it actually killed you instead.

Sex can obviously lead to pregnancy, even if you use precautions. And if you aren’t prepared for that possibility, you might want to hold off on having sex until and unless you are ready to handle an unintended pregnancy. Also, if you don’t think your partner can handle that consequence, don’t have sex with him or her.


Wow, can you say sex-negative? This is reminiscent of a deep South’s high school’s sex education. OMG NEVER HAVE SEX BECAUSE YOU’LL DIIIEEEEE! Or worse, GET PREGNANT!!!!11!!one!!!

Look, people. Yes, STDs are a problem. Yes you should always use protection, get tested for STDs, and sleep with people you have at least some level of trust with. But the way to deal with them is not through fear mongering and omitting practical information (ironic given the title of the book). This is exactly what abstinence only education programs do, and they’ve actually been shown to increase the rates of STDs in teens. Knowledge is power.

I’ll admit, Hancock’s approach is heavy-handed. I can’t, however, compare a paragraph in a philosophy book with deep South abstinence education; Hancock’s not writing sex-ed curriculum and shouldn’t be accused of omitting practical information about sex. In her chapter about how to end relationships ethically, she surely omits information about, say, dividing finances that some may find quite practical. By not giving an exhaustive discourse on sexual diseases, Hancock is hardly fear mongering.

The wisdom that Hancock does seems pretty sound. That whole part about holding off on sex until I’d be able to handle the consequences of an unintended, possibly-even-guarded-against pregnancy? Yeah, I took that advice as a teen and held off till college. I wasn’t scared, guilty, mixed up, or otherwise deluded about sex.

McCreight states that “knowledge is power” (and I’m assuming she is in favor of power through knowledge). What problem does she have, then, with Hancock imparting the knowledge of ways to minimize STD risk? Apparently, the problem is with an assumed reason for why people might want to minimize said risk:

Stuff like this contributes to society’s stigma about STDs. You know, most STDs really aren’t that bad. Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. 65-90% of people have Herpes 1 (“oral” Herpes, though it’s not limited to the mouth), and 15% of people have Herpes 2. Symptoms can be reduced to practically nothing with medication. And about 80% of sexually active Americans have HPV, though it usually clears without any symptoms showing.

Does anyone want an STD? No, just like no one wants bronchitis or any other disease. The stigma is blown so out of proportion compared to the actual harm, and fear mongering adds to that. But people shouldn’t feel like getting an STD is the end of the world.

Sure, bacterial infections are commonplace and easily curable. And viruses and commonplace and not easily curable. Reducing herpes symptoms, and reducing the likelihood of shedding the virus to a partner, requires daily Valtrex pills. Am I irrational for wanting to avoid the side affects and cost of long-term medications? Am I acting on religiously grounded stigma? Is being STD-negative the same as being sex-negative? It would seem that Jen McCreight would deem it so.

McCreight wraps up her critique:

“Precautions, responsibility, and avoiding harm shouldn’t be connected to guilt trips about monogamy and fear mongering about STDs. Not to mention she provides no actual evidence for what she’s saying. Seriously, sex-positivity FAIL.”

I’m confused about why McCreight reads guilt into Hancock’s advice on protecting one’s health. I don’t feel guilty after hearing PSAs telling me to wash hands during influenza outbreaks, and I don’t feel guilty seeing signs at the gym urging me to wear flipflops in the locker room.  I would be upset by the added responsibility and cost associated with managing genital HPV, I’d likely experience some regret over having contracted it, and I’d likely be nervous for the long-term risk of developing cervical abnormalities. But guilt? Nope. When raised without guilt surrounding health, bodily functions, and sexual hygiene practices, information alone doesn’t produce guilt in me.

Now, the part about monogamy. The American Social Health Association states it well: “It is true that a higher number of sexual partners over the course of a lifetime does correlate with a higher risk for STDs, including HPV. This is not because of any moral judgment concerning “casual” sex as compared with “committed” sex, but simply because the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you will have a partner who (knowingly or unknowingly) is carrying an STD.” See that? No judgement on monogamous/committed sex being morally better, or casual/polyamorous making one worthy of guilt or shame. The only time Hancock talks about mutual exclusivity in sexual partnerships is in minimizing health risks. All other references to monogamy are from Jen McCreight assuming Hancock places value judgements on non-monogamous relationships. 

Almost as an afterthought, McCreight concludes: “I wish there was The Atheist’s Guide to Sex to counter this. Featuring Greta Christina, Dan Savage, Heidi Anderson, Jen McCreight…” I’ve spent time thinking about what these witty, erudite, compassionate, brainy atheists might come up with, and I imagine something like this…

“Whether any given sex act is morally acceptable from a Humanist perspective really depends on whether it helps the people involved become happy or causes suffering. Sexual pleasure must not come at the expense of someone else’s happiness. To make sure sex is a source of both pleasure and happiness for you, take precautions to keep yourself and your partners safe. Don’t develop unrealistic expectations for yourself or your partners…Choose your partners wisely. And always approach sex as a responsible, educated, compassionate, and ethical person.”

Seems quite sex positive. Except the above paragraph was written by none other than Jennifer Hancock, and everything she writes in her chapter so scathingly reviewed by Jen McCreight speaks to those very statements.

And so I’m brought back to my premise: Without religious authority guiding sexuality, atheists are free to develop their own traditions, opinions, and practices around sex. My hope is that we not project religious sex-negativity onto cautious, conservative advice on how to make one’s traditions, opinions, and practices ethical, responsible, and compassionate.

About the Author: Becky Friedman

Becky works on the Ask An Atheist production team, frequently appears on episodes, and lends her voice to commercial announcements. She speaks Spanish, works as an educator in the Seattle-Tacoma area, and sits on the Board of Humanists of Washington.

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Henry (from San Jose)

On the show about this topic, the Unitarian Universalist approach to sex ed came up, and I think it’s very relevant to this critique of Hancock’s work. The UU program is called Our Whole Lives, and it’s much more about relationship education than sex education. It is based on the premise that if you know how to form solid relationships and communicate openly, making good choices about sex becomes automatic. Listen to one UU teen talk about sex for 10 minutes and you’ll understand in a deep, personal, authentic way why abstinence-only sex ed is a complete disaster. Humanist groups… Read more »

Henry (from San Jose)

On a humorous note, I was the editor of my Catholic high school newspaper, and one week the pastor decided to write a fire and brimstone column about teen sexual activity. In one section, he wrote, “And now we hear about herpes….” We didn’t notice before going to press a subtle typo when we input his column into our system: “And now we hear about heroes….” Hilarity ensued, and yet he was not amused.


Australia has the most rape per capita in the developed world.

Why? All “offensive” fetishes (including sex in gumboots and spanking) are illegal in porn.

It’s not illegal in your own bedroom, though.

And you have to “look” 18 to be in porn. Simply being 18 isn’t enough.

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