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Do religious tattoos promote sexual license?

Religious taboos on tattoos are rapidly eroding.

The cultural shift toward young adults embracing holy body art is making its way into religious communities, where believers are expressing their faith with images from a simple cross on the wrist to Bible verses etched along their backs and arms.

But how is the mix of faith and a practice associated with sex, drugs and copious amounts of alcohol working out?

The results are mixed, suggest new research by sociologists Jerome Koch of Texas Tech University and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University.

College students wearing tattoos that express their faith were much more likely to have stronger religious beliefs and practices than students with secular tattoos or no tattoos.

And those who wore religious tattoos were less likely to engage in sensation-seeking activities such as binge drinking and marijuana use than those wearing secular tattoos.

But the study of more than 3,500 college students from 12 universities also found those wearing religious tattoos were as likely as those wearing secular tattoos to have had two or more sexual partners in the past year.

In other words, Dougherty noted at the recent annual meeting of the Religious Research Association in St. Louis, there was little difference in the likelihood of having multiple sex partners “whether they had Jesus’s face or the skull and crossbones” inked on their bodies.

A delicate balance

Research on tattoos has found a relation between the practice and legal troubles, hard drug use and fewer sexual boundaries.

But there has been little work exploring how the sensual, individual practice of self-expression associated with tattoos will fit in with a religious culture that also lifts up sensory experiences, but in a way that is more communal in nature and upholds norms on personal behavior.

Just 16 percent of the students surveyed reported having a tattoo. Four percent said they had a religious tattoo.

In general, Koch and Dougherty noted, tattoos are negatively associated with higher rates of religious belief and practice, particularly among the heavily tattooed.

But holy body art was a different story, the study of college students found.

For example 71 percent of students with religious tattoos said they had no doubt God exists, compared with 52 percent of students with no tattoos and 42 percent of students with secular tattoos.

Forty-one percent of students with religious tattoos said they prayed daily or more, compared with 29 percent of those with no tattoos and 21 percent with secular tattoos. The responses were similar with regard to frequent worship attendance.

Sex and drugs

But students with religious tattoos were closer to their secular counterparts when it came to secular sensation-seeking activities.

The findings included:

• More than six in 10 students with religious tattoos reported drinking to excess, while about half of those with religious art or no tattoos were binge drinkers.
• Thirty-six percent of students with secular tattoos used marijuana, as did 27 percent of those with religious tattoos. Just 21 percent of those with no tattoos were marijuana users.
• The biggest difference related to reported sexual activity. Forty-eight percent of students with religious tattoos and 47 percent with secular tattoos reported having two or more sexual partners in the last year. Just 27 percent of students with no tattoos were as sexually active.

Koch and Dougherty noted the work in this area is in its early stages, and much more needs to be done before more definitive conclusions can be reached with the regard to the connection between faith and body art.

But what does seem to be clear is there is no going back to a time when tattoos were largely considered in terms of sailors, soldiers, bikers and “the tattooed lady,” Dougherty said.

The researchers noted that while 13 percent of baby boomers are tattooed, that number has risen to 36 percent among members of Generation X and almost half of millennials.

In their own analysis of the 2014 Austin Institute Study of Religion and Culture, the Baylor and Texas Tech researchers found that highly religious young adults were less likely to have tattoos, but a significant number of religious individuals were relatively accepting of tattoos.

“For religious millennials,” Dougherty said, “the prohibition against tattoos might be done.”

Image by kris krüg, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Staff Sgt. Christopher Griffin/U.S. Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Image by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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