A version of this article appeared in Newsweek.

When sex is discussed in religious circles, the conversation is usually about morality: what you should and shouldn't do. But apparently for many Americans, sex is not just moral, physical or emotional-it's spiritual. In a new online survey conducted by Beliefnet, 55% say sex is at least a part of their spiritual life, with fully one-third reporting, "my sexuality is an integral part of my spirituality." 38% say they have prayed before or after sex, and 48% primarily define sex as "a gift from God."

Predictably, more women (61%) than men (50%) believe that there is one perfect soul mate out there for everyone. But, at least according to these respondents, men don't just view sex as a good time: 51% of men say that sex is primarily "a gift from God," compared to only 46% of women, and more men (38%) than women (30%) say sex is a central part of their spiritual lives. Some respondents (41%) use prayer or meditation to overcome problems like performance anxiety or fear of intimacy, and some say that spiritual awareness makes them less judgmental of their partners and therefore more generous lovers.

Conservatives and liberals integrate spirituality into their sex lives in different ways. Self-described conservatives, compared to their liberal counterparts, tend to believe in soul mates (69% to 44%), pray before or after sex (42% to 34%), and believe that sex is a gift from God (56% to 42%). Liberals are more secular about sex-49% define sex as "a physical act of pleasure"-but are more likely to use spirituality-tinged sexual practices: 44% have tried tantra, the Kama Sutra, couples yoga, or prayers for intimacy, compared to just 24% of conservatives. These practices have evolved from religious thinkers who believed intense sexual pleasure is a powerful way for people to connect to their divine nature, not only each other.

Other findings from the Beliefnet survey:

  • 36% of respondents say sex between unmarried people is "always a sin."
  • Nearly the same number--34%--say that sex between unmarried people is "always fine between consenting adults."
  • Respondents are most likely to have learned about sexual morality from their parents (37%) or in church or synagogue (33%).
  • Respondents who are 45-54 years old pray more often before or after sex (42%) than those who are 25-34 years old (35%).
  • Older respondents also are more likely than younger respondents to see sex as "a gift from God" (52% to 41%).

Counselors and sex therapists think clients are helped by understanding sex in spiritual terms. Next June, the 2,000-member American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists is hosting a conference on "The Soul of Sexuality: Exploring the Depth and Dimensions of Pleasure." The overriding message: for many, sexuality is emerging from the realm of guilt and sin and becoming instead a divine blessing and a way to reach new, transcendent heights.

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