When Our Sexual Stories Go Off the Christian Map
"American Christianity promises a life lived happily ever after to anyone who waits for sex until marriage, marries a religious person, and raises children in the church … that this scenario describes fewer and fewer of us with each passing day is of little account."
So writes Amy Frykholm (associate editor at The Christian Century and the author of Rapture Culture and Julian: A Contemplative Biography) in her new book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon). Including Frykholm's own story, the book tells the stories of nine men and women who tried, and failed, to fit the ideal of pure Christian sexuality, struggling to live well in their bodies amid "thickets of pain" where rules made little sense.
"Christian mythology," writes Frykholm, "teaches that Christian sex protects us from heartache"—that if a believer keeps good boundaries and abstains from bad behavior, he or she will never get hurt. Frykholm acknowledges that rules "can guide people onto solid ground," but she worries that rules have become almost "the only way that American Christians know how to talk about religion and sex," despite the fact that, rules or no rules, True Love Waits participants delayed sexual intercourse by only 18 months compared with their secular counterparts; that more than half of the men at a Promise Keepers stadium event said they had used pornography within one week; a recent study showed that 80 percent of young evangelicals had premarital sex, choosing abortion in one-third of their unplanned pregnancies. "Many people are hungry to understand why they cannot place themselves on [the] map" of Christian sex.
The Christians whose stories Frykholm shares are all Protestants who "share the pain of a toxic culture of religion and sexuality"—no one fit the ideal, and all suffered for it. Frykholm measured herself against Christian radio-host Dawson McAllister's standards: he taught that all kissing and touching led to sex, which was sinful except in marriage; therefore, kissing and touching were also sinful. In struggling to orient herself to these rules, Frykholm sensed that the world was a place of pleasures (involving touch as well as taste) that could only be dangerous. She dieted down to 85 pounds; Ashley, whose story appears in the book, also restricted her food intake as a way of becoming less "fleshly" and therefore theoretically less sexually corruptible, more guaranteed to be pure.
As you might guess, See Me Naked includes many difficult stories that lack tidy endings; "be sure you tell people that I am still not sure I made the right choices," subjects told her. Sarah, the daughter of Korean Presbyterians, is so detached from her body, so confused in her identity, that she falls into having sex with a boy she doesn't really like; Mark, the model of the perfect, pure, worship-leading Christian boy, falls in love with a girl and ends up sleeping with her. Megan and Paul both struggle to reconcile their same-sex desire with their desire for God. And then there are Genevieve, Becca, Matthew, and Monica, whose first sexual experiences were abusive and exploitative and left them disoriented (to once again use the map analogy) as to what good sexuality might be.