The Rhetoric of Chastity: Making Abstinence Sexy
Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns
Gardner, Christine J.
University of California Press
July 28, 2011
264 pp., $26.05
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?
You looked at how Africans view abstinence, saying they "saw their bodies as temples of the Lord and themselves as caretakers … a more deeply theological response."
I assumed that HIV/AIDS would be the big motivator for [African] young people to commit to abstinence. It is big, but I found this other undercurrent that was deeply theological. A leader of one of the programs told me that yes, they do talk about AIDS as a motivator for young people to commit to abstinence, but they noted that "you can get malaria and die, too." AIDS is not as much of a motivator as a Western researcher coming in would have assumed.
How do the American and African messages compare?
Americans have turned a prohibition into a more positive admonition. In this case, pleasing God is an end in itself. Pleasing God will have tangible benefits. In Kenya and Rwanda, it was more of a combination: "Avoid death. Avoid HIV/AIDS, and do it out of fear of God, because he wants you to do this."
Also, in the places I visited in Africa, the condom is viewed as a medical device, a tool for saving lives. It is not viewed as a tool for promiscuity, as evangelicals in this country largely view it. The same little piece of latex is described so radically differently by evangelicals in two different cultural contexts.
How does Western rhetoric translate to the African context?
It offers an understanding of self and empowers young people, especially women, to respect their bodies. This is, of course, fabulous and indeed, very biblical. But the language of individualism and self-gratification can seep in and pose a problem.