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Evangelical abstinence campaigns have shifted their emphasis from "just say no" to sex before marriage to "just say yes"—within marriage, that is, says Christine Gardner. In Making Chastity Sexy (University of California Press), the Wheaton College communications professor examines the rhetoric of three evangelical abstinence organizations, comparing them with an abstinence campaign in sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS is a common threat. Christianity Today online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey spoke with Gardner about the larger ideas communicated to young people in the campaign.

What did you find upon examining the language of the U.S. abstinence movement?

This is a study of rhetoric in the classical sense—the study of the art of persuasion, focusing on three very specific church-related evangelical campaigns. These groups are using a savvy rhetorical strategy: They are using sex to sell abstinence. They are using the very thing they are prohibiting to admonish young people to wait. They are saying, "If you are abstinent now, you will have amazing sex when you are married." The argument then becomes a promise of marriage.

What are the limitations of this approach?

Such campaigns don't address the challenges of singleness. Also, what if you are gay? What if you do get married, but sex isn't all it's cracked up to be? There are many challenges with this kind of strategy, as savvy and persuasive as it is.

Evangelicals are quite good at interacting with secular culture. We have a long history of adapting secular forms for religious ends. The language of self-gratification in "sexy abstinence" is showing the ability of evangelicals to speak the language of the culture. But in doing so, are we actually transforming it?

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The Rhetoric of Chastity: Making Abstinence Sexy
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November 2011

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