When I served at Brooklyn Bethel back in the 1980s, Governing Body member George Gangas would frequently bemoan those who would “forfeit their hope of everlasting life for just 10 minutes of sexual pleasure.” He seemed to be mystified that anyone could make such a choice. And, perhaps, for that 90-year-old bachelor, it was a mystery. Still, in view of the fact that each year scores of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped, mostly for sexual “misconduct,” Gangas’ complaints raise an interesting question.
Is there a connection between one's efforts to sincerely adhere to Witness standards, while also struggling with sexual issues or compulsions? Unless someone is hurt or victimized, I personally don't like to attach moral values to sex. But when members of a church "sign on" to a certain moral code and then violate it -- risking, if only in their minds, their spiritual well-being -- I, like Brother Gangas, have to ask, "Why?"
I've got a few ideas here. They're works in progress and I'd be interested in hearing your feedback.
An estimated 60,000 Jehovah's Witnesses are disfellowshipped each year, most frequently for “sexual immorality.” In addition, many thousands more, (I'd guess, easily another 60,000) are given private or public reproof, usually for the same reason. Finally, there are untold thousands of others whose "immoral" sexual activities are never brought to light.
Like other fundamentalists, Jehovah's Witnesses are a randy bunch of Christians. As Barbara Anderson’s research shows, sometimes it veers into the realm of crime.
Many conservative or controlling Christian religious traditions grapple with their share of sex-related problems. Think of the scandals involving conservative Christian politicians and religious leaders whose sexual compulsivity has jeopardized their careers. 12-Step groups that treat sex addiction are reportedly filled with white conservative Christian males.
Unless Jehovah’s Witnesses really are under some kind of umbrella of protection from Jehovah (and the disfellowshipping statistics don’t indicate it), I’d put non-Watchtower-approved sexual activity roughly on par with that of other conservative churches. And how are they doing?
Given most churches' emphasis on chastity and restraint, one would assume that porn use among Christians of various denominations would be significantly lower than that of non-believers. Curiously, the facts reveal just the opposite. A study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, January, 2009, indicates that online porn subscriptions are actually “slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality.”
The study goes on to say:
“[Online porn] subscriptions are also more prevalent in states where surveys indicate conservative positions on religion, gender roles, and sexuality. In states where more people agree that “Even today miracles are performed by the power of God” and “I never doubt the existence of God,” there are more subscriptions to this service. Subscriptions are also more prevalent in states where more people agree that “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage” and “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”
For most Witnesses, breaking the “faithful slave’s” rules about even “lesser” sins, such as use of pornography, brings on tremendous feelings of guilt — whether they confess it or not — along with the belief that they will lose God’s approval. Yet they do it anyway. Why? While the sex drive is powerful, I think there are other factors inherent in the Witness system that actually promote the kinds of behavior they try to discourage.
Let’s take a look at the Organization’s zero-tolerance attitude regarding morality. The Governing Body considers almost all sex behavior to be subject to judicial inquiry. Did you know that, for several years, oral sex within marriage was considered “porneia” and thus grounds for disfellowshipping and divorce? Many found that directive hard to swallow. (Rim shot!) Thankfully, in 1983 “new light” reversed their position on that. But still, that’s the degree to which those men feel authorized to scrutinize congregation members’ private lives.
On the face of it, that authority shouldn’t be a problem. The Bible’s guidelines are clear, and they do stress self-control (if that's your thing). What’s lacking from Jehovah’s Witnesses are other Bible-based principles that ought to come into play, such as respect for their fellows’ privacy, dignity and personal spiritual life. It’s an atmosphere in which an 15-year-old kid can get kicked to the curb for hanging out too long in the hot tub with his girlfriend and slipping into “10 minutes of pleasure.” I don’t think the apostle Paul had those kinds of situations in mind when he wrote about ‘removing the wicked man from among yourselves.’ — 1 Corinthians 5:13.
At their meetings, when the elders aren’t pitching Generation 7.0, cajoling the publishers to go out in service more or discouraging them from getting a decent education, they’re telling members not to think about sex. And that makes about as much sense as telling a roomful of third-graders not to think about purple dinosaurs.
Those who try — and ultimately fail — to comply with those rigorous expectations carry an enormous burden of shame.
Watchtower leadership uses shame as a powerful tool to keep members compliant with their authority. The humiliation of public reproof and disfellowshipping is so intense that people will do almost anything to avoid those eventualities, even if it means lying. Numerous elders can share a story about some young sister who miraculously conceived a child while still a virgin.
But the shame cycle begins long before a brother or sister commits some form of “gross wrongdoing.” One of the goofier rites of passage a young Witness brother must endure is the dreaded Theocratic Ministry School talk condemning masturbation. As the saying goes, any 17-year-old male who says that he doesn’t, er, Pat his Robertson is either dysfunctional or lying. True, it isn’t necessarily a judicial offense (though it can be if someone turns you in for defending the healthy, normal practice as, well, healthy and normal). Still, Watchtower literature describes masturbation as “degraded,” “unclean” and “childish.” Thus, it’s fairly safe to say that every time a young man is called up on stage to “scripturally” condemn this practice, a new hypocrite is made. While he and his friends may laugh about it at the time, giving such a talk to a mixed-gender crowd of all ages is mortifying and is often his first big taste of what it’s like to live in a shame-based religious system.
When it comes to that which the Governing Body deems “works of the flesh,” Witnesses are left with three choices.
You can do it and confess. Of course, that means you’d also be choosing to undergo an inquisition-style grilling from a judicial committee that could lead to disfellowshipping.
Even if you aren't shunned, private reproof has a bitter downside. When a publisher is suddenly not commenting at meetings and a “needs of the congregation” talk is delivered explicitly discussing, let's say, adultery, it isn’t hard for congregation members to put two and two together – and if they can’t, the rumor mill will.
On the other hand, you can choose to have whatever sex you want and not tell anyone. Of course, you’ll have to carry the double guilt of sinning and covering it over with a lie, the outcome of which is the psychologically split, unsustainable position of leading a double life.
Finally, you can remain celibate and have a clean conscience. In that case, you’d be trying to repress one of the most powerful forces in nature. The pain and conflict of such a choice is difficult for most to bear. Men and women who profess celibacy get kind of weird. Yes, Writing Department member Jon Wischuk, I’m talking to you.
In my observation, many non-married – and some married – Witnesses (men, anyway) go ahead and live some sort of double life in which they live an active sexual life, but don’t tell. This means they’re having sex, either straight or gay; they’re seeking out trysts; they’re visiting prostitutes; etc. Most likely, they’re looking at porn — and that may be the best choice. After all, it’s quickly obtained, easily hidden and is less sinful than fornication. Viewed in that light, porn could be saving the lives of thousands of Witness men. I’m only half joking here. After all, where would they turn to if they didn’t have it?
In any case, whether they sin and tell or just keep the sin to themselves, many, many Witnesses have been saddled with an enormous load of guilt and shame.
The shame-anger cycle
Although Witnesses seem good-natured to those on the outside, most of us who have left them can testify to the anger and hostility that permeates the Organization. It usually isn't overtly expressed in raised voices or violence, but every time a Witness graphically describes a yearning for Armageddon's mass genocide, speaks contemptuously of "worldly people," or snubs a disfellowshipped person, he or she is betraying a deep well of hostility.
Most psychologists would agree that anger, in itself, is neither good nor bad. The Bible concurs. (“Be wrathful, but do not sin.”) But, in practice in the Witness community, anger is an unacceptable emotion, with anger against the Organization or Jehovah himself being completely forbidden. As ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, we probably know just how angry we are at our old religion. The reality is, most Jehovah's Witnesses are pissed off at the Watchtower Society for its many failings, but are stuck with no one to talk to and nowhere to turn. These feelings can find a home in our libido. As psychologist Steven Donaldson has written,
“Just beneath the [sexually] addicted man’s conscious awareness lies a broiling pool of all-consuming rage.... He may not be all that aware of the anger or the object to which it ought to be directed — but that doesn’t make it any less real or present. The anger he is aware of may feel illegitimate, so he may attempt to repress it. Put simply, the sexually addicted man is literally phobic of his angry feelings, yet there they are, constantly demanding to be felt, to be vented.”
Excuse my language, but that's why they call it fucking.
But for a Witness, such choices usually end up in feelings of shame. Donaldson continues, “Sexual acting out provides both a discharge of the anger (“I deserve this pleasure!”) and punishment for what he feels are illegitimate wishes and longings (“I really am a screw-up!”). The acting out makes him feel shameful. The shame in turn allows him to continue to be compliant with people and systems that unconsciously he hates.”
Sex is the ultimate act of self-acknowledgement. When a religion religion centers its life around the abnegation of self, is it any wonder that people turn to sex for relief? Afterward, however, shame may set in, causing the Witness to redouble his or her efforts to “squeeze in through the narrow door,” complying with Watchtower standards – which s/he actually hates, leafing once again, to the seeking of escape through sex. Thus the cycle takes root. As Donaldson concludes, “This cycle of compliance, repression, acting out and becoming shameful — followed by more compliance — becomes endless and exhausting. Thus trapped, how could hopelessness and depression not set in?”
That explains why the most vociferous moralists in the congregation are the ones most likely leading a double life. They themselves are stuck in this cycle.
Obviously, not everyone who feels angry toward his or her religion acts it out sexually, but many do, and this anger-shame cycle is often the form it takes.
Secrecy, exclusivity and isolation
I believe the Witnesses’ culture of secrecy is directly connected to the prevalence of illicit sexual behavior in their community. When you stop and think about it, Jehovah’s Witnesses are so secretive, conspiracy nuts could be forgiven for comparing them to the Masons. (I don't share that opinion, myself, but others do.) From the moment a newcomer is handed a special “study edition” of the Watchtower and asked to return it after the meeting, to the special “secret” books used by pioneers, elders, Bethelites and branch committee and Governing Body members, Witnesses are made to feel both included in one group, yet excluded from another seemingly more important one.
And then there are the various meetings, such as elders’ meetings, judicial committee meetings, meetings for traveling overseers and Branch Committee members, Pioneer School, Kingdom Ministry school, Ministerial Training School and the famed, hush-hush Governing Body meeting, all of which are strictly closed-door and considered confidential.
Never mind that the content of these books and meetings is usually innocuous. It’s the sense of being initiated — but only to a limited degree — that matters.
Witness culture is a series of circles within circles, a world in which members feel simultaneously “in,” yet “out.” Put another way, it’s a pyramid scheme, with the Governing Body's all-seeing eye at the top.
And it doesn’t stop there.
It isn’t enough to simply be a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and put in your service time. Oh no. Men are expected to “reach out” for oversight privileges and women are expected to pioneer. If you are not doing those things, you haven’t made it to the next inner circle and you are viewed as less spiritual than those who have. While some make efforts to include others in their social life, pioneers tend to stick with pioneers, elders with elders, Bethelites with Bethelites and so on. That exclusivity devalues and isolates those who come to Kingdom Halls seeking spiritual community.
Most people engage in spiritual fellowship so they can belong somewhere. The need is especially strong for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who sacrifice their ties to all non-Witness family and friends when they join. But what happens after that? Once they’re in the congregation, the organization then pushes them away, leaving members with feelings of alienation and a sense that, in spite of their best efforts, they still do not quite fit in.
And that relates to sex problems, how? Proverbs 18:1 is sometimes cited in order to condemn masturbation: "The one isolating himself will seek his own selfish longing." But what happens when a religious system isolates its own members?
As humans, we all crave a sense of belonging — without circumscriptions and head games. One way or another, we will find it. No wonder, then, that frustrated by the disconnect and exclusionism found in Witness congregations, some will seek connection by other means. That’s the human will for you.
Even such transitory pleasures as porn or a one-night stand validate the humanity of their participants. It makes them feel whole – if only for a moment. I’m reminded of Gerald, in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love who, while mourning his deceased father, crept into his lover Gudrun’s bedroom and “into her he poured all his pent-up darkness and corrosive death, and he was whole again.” The Witnesses’ secretive, exclusionary culture creates a yawning void, made all the more painful because it represents a failure to live up to the promise of true brotherhood, rendering members desperate for a real connection, no matter how fleeting.
Note the feelings of many sex addicts, as described in Sexaholic Anonymous literature:
“Many of us felt inadequate, unworthy, alone, and afraid. Our insides never matched what we saw on the outsides of others.... We came to feel disconnected—from parents, from peers, from ourselves.”
— From “The Problem,” published by Sexaholics Anonymous.
Pretty much sums up Witness life to me.
If someone is already prone to such feelings, association with Jehovah’s Witnesses will only make it worse. How profoundly sad. For all the faults inherent in the Witness culture, its secretiveness might be the worst. It subverts the very idea of brotherhood, twisting it into an Orwellian nightmare that says, in effect, “Yes, we have Christian ‘oneness,’ but some of us are more ‘one’ than others.” Their secretiveness is a betrayal of trust, and it proves false their promise that to join the Witnesses is to enter a spiritual paradise.
Throw in the guilt and shame of failing to live up the Watchtower doctrine's impossible standards, and it’s no surprise that many Witnesses feel dissatisfied, though they can’t quite put their finger on why. They feel betrayed, but they can’t point to their enemy. They feel angry, but they don’t know who to punch. The fact is, they hate the system itself. But they could never admit such a thing — not even to themselves. That would be apostasy. So they sublimate their hatred, disowning it.
Still, split off though it may be, their resentment at getting cheated in a spiritual bargain demands to be expressed, even if it means reaching for a token substitute for that which they hoped would make them whole. Sometimes they express their rage through sex.