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.
You say that U.S. evangelicals are strange bedfellows with feminists when it comes to sexuality and reproduction.
The campaigns borrow an essentially feminist argument of "my body, myself" to encourage young people to take control of their bodies, to wait to have sex. In essence, evangelical campaigns say secular culture is telling young people that they have no choice but to have sex, that they are governed by their hormones. In contrast, evangelical campaigns tell young people, "You can control your body. You can choose to wait to have sex."
How do these campaigns deal with those who are no longer virgins?
They talk about "second virginity" or "renewed virginity," how a young person can make a decision from that day forward to remain abstinent until marriage. It's a rhetorical construction of virginity, but it's steeped in a theological understanding of God's forgiveness. Some would criticize that as a form of cheap grace, that you can go out and have sex with your boyfriend or girlfriend and then go to the abstinence event and renew your pledge. But the young people I talked to understand that there is no cheap grace. There is no get out of jail free card with these abstinence pledges. The young people who have broken their pledges carry heavy emotional burdens.
What are other ways the U.S. campaigns are successful?
Millions of young people have committed to abstinence since these campaigns began. Have some of the young people broken their pledges? Sure. But this isn't just a numbers game. These programs are successful because they are opening a space for the church to talk about sex. They are teaching both women and men a sense of respect for their physical bodies. We Christians are people of the Incarnation, and yet the physicality of the body scares us. These campaigns empower young people, especially women, to respect their bodies, to realize that they are worth waiting for.
What role do purity rings play in the campaigns?
The purity ring mimics the wedding ring, a physical manifestation of that pledge. One of the young people I interviewed talked about how if someone breaks his commitment, he is encouraged to flush the ring down the toilet in order to maintain the integrity of the symbolic power of the ring. It's a pledge to God, it's a pledge to one's future spouse, but it's also a pledge to a community of other abstinent teens.
What did you learn about the "fairy-tale narrative"?
Some of the campaigns use fairy tales about passive princesses and valiant knights to communicate traditional gender roles. When I looked closer, I found an interesting subversion: The princess, even though she seems to be inactively waiting for her prince, is pictured as actively choosing to adopt princess-like behavior. The dragon that the knights are supposed to slay in order to rescue the princess is really the dragon of their own sexual desires. The campaigns may not be as conservative as they think they are: the young men are impotent, enslaved by their own desires, while the young women are powerfully choosing princess-like behaviors.
What role does modest fashion play?
Modesty is not to be confused with meekness. The campaigns talk about modesty as a form of power. It is similar to the function of the hijab, or head covering, for Muslim women. The hijab forms a kind of community, a physical manifestation that joins women together. It also portrays women's power over men, because it suggests that if they were to reveal their bodies, men would be lusting after them. So if they veil their bodies, they maintain and conserve that power.
What did you find missing from the campaigns?
The campaigns largely avoid talk of sexuality as sacrifice or suffering. But of course it's not sexy to talk about sacrifice and suffering to young people who are raised in a sexualized culture. On the other hand, perhaps this is where the evangelical church is selling out too fast. Language of sacrifice and suffering can be transformative to those who know that sex sells everything from cars to deodorant and, now, abstinence. It's a new kind of asceticism for the generation that has it all.
Instead of trying to master the idioms of the day, we could emphasize the difference the gospel message makes. The gospel is radical enough all on its own, even without the music of Usher or Beyoncé in the background. It's truly an alternative lifestyle. I think that too could be very persuasive among our media-savvy young people. That language of sacrifice and suffering for the purpose of worship to God, and understanding our sexuality as a gift of God, is key.
How might this self-fulfillment language potentially impact a future marriage?
I'm concerned that we may be raising a generation of abstinent teens but setting them up for divorce. I don't think that you need to promise fabulous sex in marriage to make marriage winsome. If we are focusing on great sex in marriage as a reward for abstinence now, then when those young people marry and the sex isn't great—then what? I'm afraid we are making marriage all about sex. So if it's not that, then what is marriage?
You suggest that abstinence is part of a larger endeavor.
By daily acting on that commitment, young people understand through their bodies what it means to become more like Christ. It's essentially a call to holiness that the Scriptures give us. It's just like practicing scales on a piano if you want to become a concert pianist. It's practicing abstinence that allows young people to inhabit their faith commitments in practical and tangible ways.
The largest study and the most quoted critique is that these kinds of pledges only delay sexual debut by about 18 months. I wonder if a more richly theological undergirding to some of the programs could help lengthen those commitments. When the going gets rough, and there is no marriage partner on the horizon, and the abstinence pledge starts to grow cold and stale, what is going to be there for them? I hope that it's something more than a funny skit, a dramatic rock song, or a winsome testimony from a cute guy. I hope there is something deeper from God's Word that's going to stay with them.
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Making Chastity Sexy is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on sexuality & gender include:
The Science of Shacking Up | Why cohabitating couples are putting their future at risk. An interview with Glenn Stanton on 'The Ring Makes All the Difference.' (September 19, 2011)
Abstinence Is Not Rocket Science | Actually, it's simply a matter of obedience. (September 15, 2011)
Tiger Dads vs. Sexualized Daughters | Why one of our parental duties is to protect our children physically and spirituality by teaching them to be modest. (June 20, 2011)
How to Teach Sex | Seven realities that Christians in every congregation need to know. (February 9, 2011)
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