[Note: This post is written from a secularist, pro-sexual-freedom viewpoint. While everyone is of course welcome to post their views in this thread, I am not particularly interested in debating whether or not the traditional Christian attitude towards sex is healthy.]
I realize this is a very broad topic, and I'm sure it's been discussed here before, but I was just thinking about it this morning after reading a profile of Kansas Senator (and Christian conservative) Sam Brownback. Sex-related issues--gay marriage, contraception, abstinence education--are key in the Christian conservative agenda here in the US right now, but sexual restrictions are also very significant in the private lives of people such as the Senator. According to the article, when the Senator--a 49-year-old family man--travels, "he tries to avoid spending time alone in his hotel room, where indecent television programming might tempt him."
So I got to wondering, how and why did Christianity's odd relationship with sex come about? To what extent and why is it shared by other world religions?
Christian sexual repression dates at least back to the Pauline epistles, but of course Paul did not create it out of whole cloth. I would assume--although the more scholarly posters here undoubtedly have a clearer idea--that Paul was influenced by the Essenes or other ascetic traditions within Judaism.
But where did the chain start? Sexual restrictions in ancient Jewish culture were primarily about maintaining male property rights. The notion of sex itself as 'unclean' doesn't appear until the priestly 'purity' rules. In the context of the political struggle between local polytheism and centralized, priestly monotheism, this looks like a priestly reaction to the polytheists' inclusion of sex in worship.
Perhaps both sides of this conflict reflected the same underlying truth: that sex involves such powerful feelings that we are naturally driven to spiritualize them. That spiritualization, however, can either be integrated into the community's predominant spirituality, or it can be regarded as a competitor to be suppressed.
The latter tack--the need to control sexuality as a part of spirituality--seems to naturally go along with religious and social hierarchy and control. Politically decentralized polytheism embraced the individual experience of sex, whereas centralized, hierarchical monotheism sought to control its chaotic force. This is perfectly illustrated by the 'missionary position'--the idea of Christian missionaries in Polynesia that the physical hierarchy of sex must explicitly reflect the social hierarchy of male over female.
I don't know enough about other religions to see whether the pattern plays out similarily or not. Do others here think this is an accurate description of views of sex in the Judeo-Christian tradition? How does explicit asceticism play into this? And what about other religious traditions? I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts.