Evangelicals have long been known for their ability to sanctify popular culture for religious purposes. Popular culture's obsession with sex is no exception, which raises an evangelistic question: How do we make the gospel winsome to a society steeped in sex? Our answer, according to a new book, has been to affirm that great sex in marriage testifies to the good news of the gospel. We sanctify sex, promising better sex when the Bible is the primary guide.
In Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism, Amy DeRogatis, professor of religion and American studies at Michigan State University, explores a variety of texts, including evangelical sex manuals, sermons, and purity events. DeRogatis shows how evangelicals' differing (and often competing) views of sex are about much more than sex: Ultimately, they point toward differing strains of evangelical belief, and differing modes of interacting with secular society.
Sex and Salvation
The book begins with an overview of the purity movement for evangelical teenagers. DeRogatis moves quickly through a variety of familiar themes: the fairy-tale narrative and gender roles, True Love Waits purity events, courtship, modesty as a power source for young women, dads as guardians of sexuality, and Jesus as boyfriend. The purity movement is not prohibiting sex as much as it is telling young people (and young women in particular) that God wants them to embrace sex—not just any sex, but amazing sex—in marriage. Scholars have already covered this ground. But the counterintuitive feminist rhetoric of the purity movement allows DeRogatis to set up her next chapter and the heart of her study: how evangelicals have embraced the sexual revolution and discovered the sexual body as a site for expressing God's salvation.
This may be the first book I've read that connects mutual orgasms to Christian witness, but DeRogatis's thorough examination of evangelical sex manuals in the second chapter makes a compelling case. She traces the popularity of evangelical sex manuals to Herbert J. Miles's Sexual Happiness in Marriage: A Positive Approach to the Details You Should Know to Achieve a Healthy and Satisfying Sexual Partnership, published in 1967. Miles sparked his own sexual revolution among Christian readers by claiming that marital sex isn’t just for making babies. Miles highlighted the power of marital sex to unite; how two bodies coming together puts flesh on the covenantal union. (DeRogatis notices how this view fit nicely with married evangelicals' growing embrace of birth control). He also emphasized the importance of the female orgasm, DeRogatis writes, asserting that "sex is only Christian sex if both spouses are sexually satisfied.”
Miles set the standard for other popular authors such as Marabel Morgan, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Ed and Gay Wheat, Clifford and Joyce Penner, James Dobson, and Mark and Grace Driscoll. Their step-by-step instructions of the wedding night are intended as a sort of field guide for unexplored sexual territory. The assumption is that the same singles who carefully committed to sexual abstinence now need help experiencing the fullness of God's good gift. Nothing is off-limits in marital sex, according to the manuals—masturbation, oral sex, the use of sex toys, and more. All proclaim that true sexual freedom occurs within marriage because it is in accordance with Scripture. And sex that is in accordance with Scripture must be great sex. It is the goal of the manuals to make sure of it. As DeRogatis writes, "sexual pleasure within marriage is both the sign of and the reward for godliness. And both purity (outside marriage) and pleasure (within it) are ways that evangelicals can witness to others."