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."
The sex guides do more than merely describe sexual positions: DeRogatis points out that in codifying the mystery of sex, the manuals set the boundaries of what counts as normative responses for the husband and wife. For example, the manuals address men more frequently, explaining to them the mysteries of female anatomy, because as one manual states, men are more easily aroused and wives need less instruction. Another claims that God wired men to be aggressors and leaders, which is reflected in their sex drives. Such claims move from sex instruction to reinforcing traditional gender roles. According to the manuals' authors, evangelical marital sex is so amazing because men and women acknowledge the natural differences that God created in their sexual desires. If we know how men and women are supposed to behave toward each other in the bedroom, DeRogatis writes, then it is easy to see how they are to behave at home, in the church, and in the rest of society.
Chapter 3 veers outside mainstream evangelicalism to consider the sexual body as a site of spiritual warfare. One text, Holy Sex: God's Purpose and Plan for Our Sexuality by Terry Wier and Mark Carruth, dominates the chapter, with far-out discussions of sexually transmitted diseases as demons that enter the body through bodily fluids—and the Holy Spirit as God’s holy sperm, impregnating the hearts of believers and making them born-again. The text provides a counterpoint to the sex-is-for-pleasure manuals, but the space given to such extreme views is out of proportion to their actual influence on evangelicals.
DeRogatis examines a demon closer to the heart of evangelicalism in Chapter 4: the demon of feminism. Books like Sam and Bethany Torode’s Open Embrace, which call upon evangelicals to reject contraception, eschew the pleasure principle, focusing instead on marital sex as sacrifice—as opening oneself to the possibility of children. DeRogatis links this pronatalist view with the Titus 2 movement and the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. If marital sex is for procreation, as these groups claim, then the gift of children defines homemaking as the purview of the evangelical wife and mother. Feminism is to blame in these texts, for supporting the Pill, upsetting gender roles, and destroying the family. Mainstream evangelicals are criticized for too readily succumbing to feminism's wiles.
DeRogatis's gender critiques are on-target, but may feel well-worn in evangelical circles. With such rich examples, it is unfortunate that the analysis does not move far beyond standard complementarian/egalitarian divisions. Even so, this is an insightful and well-written chapter. Along with the second chapter on sex manuals, it provides clear and convincing evidence of how evangelical sex talk is used as a strategy to resist and engage secular culture.
The final chapter considers nonwhite evangelical rhetoric on sex, an underexamined area of scholarship. DeRogatis finds that much of African American evangelical rhetoric (she looks at T. D. Jakes and prophetess Juanita Bynum) emphasizes sexual brokenness. It's like True Love Waits for grown-ups: The princess has left the castle and is wrestling the dragons of extramarital affairs, sexual desire, and even sexual abuse. While there are differences between the Anglo and non-Anglo emphases, the similarities are more striking. DeRogatis contrasts Jakes’s focus on God's forgiveness of sexual sins with the purity movement's emphasis on "virginity as something that can be lost forever.” In fact, the contrast is not nearly so stark. A key element of the purity movement is an emphasis on God's forgiveness and the ability of young people who have lost their virginity to find it again, becoming “revirginized” (in the movement’s parlance). The forgiveness of God is central to evangelical theology, regardless of ethnic or racial expressions. DeRogatis appears to miss this point. And with only two primary examples, the evidence is thin, making the chapter feel like an afterthought.
A Book About Evangelism
Overall, Saving Sex is written in a jargon-free, accessible style and moves neatly between the chapters, making it ideal for students and ordinary readers alike. (In the book’s preface, the author directs scholars looking for more theory to two of her related academic journal articles.) She resolutely keeps her focus on heterosexuality, although one can speculate about how the study's findings could help explain evangelical definitions of marriage in the current gay marriage debates.
A clear strength of the book is that DeRogatis avoids treating evangelicalism as a monolith, instead highlighting points of tension on views about sex. Contrary to conventional stereotypes, evangelicals can and do vigorously disagree with each other. But DeRogatis faces a challenge in giving voice to each dissenting view, whether about purity balls, STDs as demons, or the Quiverfull movement: She may be giving a bullhorn to the quietest voices. The problem is not that the voices should not be heard, but that they do not speak for the rest of the group.
This is a book about sex, but also about evangelism, which is evangelicalism's primary mode of interacting with secular culture. As this engaging book shows, the best witness may be to look like secular culture. Or it may be to appear as countercultural as possible. In both cases, evangelicals' talk about sex ends up defining what it means to be an evangelical, both inside and outside the bedroom.
Christine J. Gardner is guest associate professor with the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at University of Notre Dame and research fellow at Wheaton College. She is the author of Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns (University of California Press).