Jehovah’s Witnesses are a high control religion, commonly referred to as a cult by experts. One of the areas that the cult exerts undue influence is in the area of sexuality. Indeed, the Jehovah’s Witness cult harms its members’ sexual development and their sex lives.
The ways in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses are harmed sexually is a frequent topic of discussion in the exJW subReddit. The community is 70,000 members strong and growing weekly.
Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and culture absolutely fit this model.
I’m not an expert on cults, a mental health professional or theologian. However, I was an active, devout Jehovah’s Witness for over 40 years. As a “born-in”, the JW life was all I knew. If someone had asked me a few years ago whether being a Jehovah’s Witness harmed my sexuality, I would have scoffed at the idea. After all, I was fully indoctrinated in the belief that the JW way was the “best way of living”, to quote one of their songs.
However, once I left the cult and began a process of de-indoctrination, my beliefs did a 180. My eyes were opened to the many ways that the cult delayed, stunted and harmed my sexuality.
I started mentally questioning the cult a few years ago and left for good (along with my then husband and all but one of our several children). I’ve been in therapy for almost two years. Before leaving, I read a handful of books about other cults. (It’s fascinating that one can easily identify another group as being a cult while simultaneously denying that the group one is a member of also fits the description!)
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that sex is only acceptable when it’s between a married man and woman.
Sex before marriage, gay sex and even some sex acts within marriage are potential causes for disfellowshipping (expulsion and shunning).
Obviously this narrow view of what’s acceptable is next to impossible to live up to. Indeed, the majority of people who are disciplined by a judicial committee are because of mistakes of a sexual nature. My own father, who serves as a JW elder (priest) and has for nearly 5 decades, once told me that he can’t recall ever sitting on a judicial committee for anything other than sexual infractions.
The fact that the cult’s extremely prudish attitude towards sex is impossible for most to live up to hasn’t led them to loosen their rules, because they believe their interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one, and that being an unrepentant sinner will bar a person from being blessed by God with inheriting a paradise earth in a future “new world”.
Jehovah’s Witness children are indoctrinated from infancy to believe that masturbation is a sin against God and their own body.
In JW parlance, it’s called “self-abuse”. Books published by the JWs aimed at children and teenagers explicitly forbid masturbation.
Therefore, a Witness child grows up thinking that God allows wickedness all over the world, including rape, murder and genocide, but sees and judges him or her for touching themselves.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how psychologically damaging this belief is.
Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage singleness and childlessness.
There is no penalty in the religion for getting married and having kids, but their literature and worship services repeatedly promote staying single so as to give more time to the organization.
Because they’re an apocalyptic doomsday cult and believe that the end of the world is imminent (for over 140 years but who’s counting?!), marriage and childrearing is viewed as a distraction from having a bigger share in cult activities. Congregants are encouraged to “make room for singleness” as if failure to do so is a character weakness.
At one time in the organization, the anti-marriage and child rearing was more extreme. This was especially true among those serving at Bethel, the world headquarters. Witnesses who married would be sent home. Later the organization softened its dogma.
However, the “wow to the pregnant woman and the one suckling a baby” messaging ramped up in the late 90’s. As a teenager I remember my older sister, who had four little boys like stair steps, leaving the summer convention in tears because of this rhetoric.
If a Witness just can’t handle single life “with chastity”, then they can marry in order to avoid being “inflamed with passion”. This sets up a young JW with an unhealthy dollop of guilt for doing what comes natural: establishing pair bonds.
JW dating is controlled by parents, congregation elders, and gossipy busybodies.
It looks more like old fashioned courtship than modern dating. JWs don’t date for fun or to hone their social skills and make friends.
Most young Witness men, as a result, are impossibly clueless about women. Worse, they often become narcissistic due to the patriarchal structure of the religion, assuming a “headship” position over the woman even before marriage. My oldest son ruined a potential relationship with a beautiful young woman friend due to this ridiculous behavior.
A Witness couple has to date “with a view to marriage”.
This means that once a JW couple starts going out, the clock is ticking and everyone’s eyes are on them. If they don’t get married in a short time, trouble awaits. Their reputations and privileges in the religion will be called into question.
The result of this is that often, JW couples rush into marriage due to sexual frustration, or feel compelled to marry someone they’ve been dating for a few months to avoid being shamed if the relationship ends.
It certainly doesn’t help that they can’t do more than hold hands or enjoy a quick peck on the lips (deep, sensual kissing or getting to second base is called “loose conduct” and subject to disciplinary action). Chaperones are strongly encouraged, and a young man who dates without this oversight/interference may find himself demoted of his congregation responsibilities. Even riding in a car alone with a member of the opposite sex who is not a relative would result in getting counsel from the congregation elders.
If the couple manages to stay “chaste” during their courtship, they have no idea if they’re sexually compatible.
Anyone with dating experience knows that chemistry doesn’t always correlate to sexual compatibility. It’s incredibly stupid to marry someone when you have no clue how they are in bed. Anecdotal evidence convinced me that the majority of JW couples are unhappy due to sexual ignorance and incompatibility.
Once married, the strong taboos against sexual exploration will prevent the couple from reading or viewing porn or erotica in an effort to learn how to improve their sexual repertoire. Seeing a sex therapist would not even be a consideration for a JW couple, lest they be introduced to forbidden acts such as oral or anal sex.
If the JW couple doesn’t manage to control their urges and does have sex before marriage, they’ll be subject to a judicial committee and punishment from a tribunal of elders.
This kangaroo court involves giving detailed information about the encounter(s), down to the nitty-gritty.
Example questions actual people have been asked in these tell-all confessionals:
What kind of underwear did the woman wear? Implying that if she wore her fancy undies instead of her stretched-out Granny panties, the encounter was premeditated. Did you enjoy it? Was the woman penetrated digitally? How many times did you have sex? What kind? Oral, anal? Did you orgasm? Etc.
The result of this is that the new couple enters their marriage with trauma from the judicial committee experience and a whopping dose of guilt that will cause problems in their new marriage.
Because they’ve been indoctrinated their entire lives to believe that sex outside marriage is a sin, and that they’ve sinned “against their own bodies” and god, they’ll lose respect for themselves and each other. What horrible footing to enter a marriage on.
If the punishment that’s sanctioned against the couple includes “public reproof”, their names will be announced from the stage at the Kingdom Hall meeting, meaning that now everyone else will know they got in trouble and will guess exactly why. Brings new meaning to the term “fuck around, find out”, doesn’t it?
Because the JWs are sexually repressed, inexperienced and unsophisticated, they start married life at a huge disadvantage.
It’s an extremely common phenomenon talked about in the exJW community: a couple leave the cult together and soon after, get divorced. Because JWs forbid divorce except on the grounds of adultery, there are many unhappy unions inside the cult.
There is tremendous pressure for married couples to stay together no matter how severe the problems are. The concern is not for the happiness and fulfillment of the individual. Divorce is bad optics for the cult who insist that their way of life makes for happier families.
In my own case, the elders told me repeatedly to stay with my abusive husband who found his way into the arms of two other women during our union. Even though I had attempted suicide, even though the police had been called due to my husband’s screaming rages, even though I was terrified of him. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was one sentence in the Bible that says god has “hated a divorcing”.
Women who are being physically abused are encouraged to keep being submissive in an effort to “win their husbands without a word through their conduct”. The JW publications tell stories of women who endured horrible abuse only to later find their husband joining the cult with them. A success story!
Hence there is tremendous shame when someone separates or divorces without the “out” of adultery. The cult then forbids the divorced members to pursue another relationship, because in their interpretation, the couple is still married in the eyes of god. If they ignore this counsel and remarry, they will be disciplined and/or disfellowshipped.
Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Therefore LGBTQ+ members live their lives in shame, repression, guilt and suffer the mental health consequences. I don’t have hard data or statistics on this, but some say the suicide rate is much higher among Jehovah’s Witnesses than the general population.
One of the leaders of the organization, Governing Body member Stephen Lett, had a gay nephew who committed suicide. Just weeks later, Lett gave a talk at a convention denouncing homosexuality as a perversion. One can hardly fathom how psychopathic a person must be to be able to behave like this. But what else could you expect of a cult leader? Sociopathic narcissism is often behind their desire to exert control over the lives of others.
Gay Witnesses will deny themselves relationships, or marry in an attempt to cover or “cure” their homosexuality.
This is what happened in my own marriage. My husband married two women but came out as gay shortly after leaving the cult. When living out the expression of one’s sexuality would lead to being shunned by their entire social network and family, and the belief that one will miss out on a utopian paradise existence, it’s no wonder this is not uncommon among Witnesses.
Purity and modesty culture create a sense of shame and discomfort about one’s body.
Witnesses are taught that once Adam and Eve sinned, they realized they were naked, felt shame, and covered their bodies. While they don’t believe that sex itself was the original sin, this interpretation of the Garden of Eden story obviously affects how Witnesses feel about their bodies.
In addition, living in a shame-based religion (Christianity) that teaches that even newborn babies are wicked, sinful, deeply flawed and in need of redemption, isn’t exactly a recipe for healthy self-esteem that’s necessary for a good sex life.
Even in the confines of heterosexual marriage, the Jehovah’s Witnesses exert control over the sex lives of adherents.
Anal and oral sex are verboten. While elders don’t necessarily inquire as to private matters in a marriage, they do take action if this becomes known. They also speak against these forms of sex during their public meetings.
There are probably more ways Jehovah’s Witnesses harm the sexuality of their members that I haven’t addressed here. I’ll edit and update this post as I uncover more in my own personal journey. I’d love to hear your experience in the comments!