“Getting” Religion and Saving Sex: Conversations at the Crossing of Evangelical Studies and the History of Sexuality

This is the final essay in our three-day series on Amy Derogatis's new book, Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism.  Heather R. White is a Research Scholar and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the New College of Florida, where she teaches courses in religious studies and gender studies. She was also, most recently, a Coolidge Fellow at Auburn Theological Seminary and a Burke Scholar in Residence at the theological library of Columbia University. Her first book, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press (her work is featured in a recent must-read article at the Huffington Post).  The review essay Heather mentions below can be found at Notches.

Heather R. White

As the third and final contributor to the discussion about Amy DeRogatis’ Saving Sex, I’d like to situate the book within a simultaneous conversation taking place in the history of sexuality. The publication of Saving Sex coincides with state-of-the-field reflections by historians of sexuality occasioned, most recently, by remarks made by John D’Emilio, who reiterated an ongoing encouragement that historians of sex need to “get” religion. As a consequence, Notches, a history of sexuality blog, is doing some soul searching. They are publishing a state-of-the-field review that identifies important and overlooked work in this field while reiterating D’Emilio’s call for more.

DeRogatis’ Saving Sex is certainly part of the more. This book joins a growing body of scholarship that investigates the fruitful intersections between sexuality and the study of American evangelicalism. That prior work includes ethnographic studies—most notably, Lynne Gerber and Tanya Erzen’s work on ex-gay ministries and Christine Gardener’s recent study of faith-based abstinence ministries. Rebecca Davis’ history of marriage counseling also includes conservative Protestants, and Heather Hendershot’s work on evangelical media also substantially addresses sexuality. And these names are hardly an exhaustive list. Taken together, this scholarship suggests there is now an extensive response to a question posed six years ago by historian Bethany Moreton, “Why is there so much sex in Evangelicalism and why do so few historians care about it?” What is clear: sexuality is a robust area of inquiry in the history and contemporary study of American Evangelicalism.

This scholarship puts to rest the piebald truism that conservative sexual politics has been animated by religiously “anti-sex” attitudes. DeRogatis, perhaps more than any previous scholar, introduces readers to the astonishing diversity within what can only be called a flourishing industry of Christian pro-pleasure sex advice. By showcasing a spectrum of evangelical advice gurus, DeRogatis shows that conservative Protestants navigate the tricky waters of sex and romance in ways very similar to their neighbors. They, too, turn to a nearly ubiquitous genre of self-help literature, which offers key principles and neatly ordered steps that promise wholesome, happy, and fulfilling relationships. Over and again, what we hear from DeRogatis’ featured spokespersons are faith-based versions of what might seem to be a secular therapeutic idiom of self-realization and achievement. Young women present their commitment to be sexually abstinent until marriage as a feminist choice. Books for married Christian couples offer instruction on sex techniques, while reiterating that the how-to tips merely expand upon the Bible’s core insights for marital happiness and sexual satisfaction. Entrepreneurial workshop leaders—who include African-American Christians Juanita Bynam and T.D. Jakes—similarly insist that the Bible is the best guide to good—and right—sex. Even the more extreme groups that DeRogatis surveys—self-professed “deliverance” ministries and contraception-renouncing “Quiverfull” couples—speak of the Bible as something much more than an ancient source of wisdom or a set of commandments. It provides the operating principles for fulfilling sexuality, written by the Creator himself.

To the outsider’s ear, it may sound like these Christian spokespersons took therapeutic maxims and sex tips found in secular sources like Cosmopolitan or The Joy of Sex and simply gave them a faith-based makeover. On their own terms, however, these believers understand the Bible and Christian faith as the real version of something that the secular publications can only approximate. These authors, DeRogatis notes, “define themselves against other approaches to sex… and argue that long-term sexual satisfaction is only possible when the Bible is in the bedroom.”(4) The lifestyle advice by the body’s Creator, in other words, offers the surest path to both authentic sexual pleasure and genuine spiritual peace. What is unique and different about this identity, DeRogatis suggests, is evangelicals’ firm adherence to longstanding anchors of  evangelical identity, most prominently the practices of biblical literalism and born again conversation. These commitments, it seems, set apart an evangelical genre from its popular counterparts, and they also invigorate conservative Protestants’ singular focus on heterosexual marriage and monogamy as the rightful place for the best sex.

I say “it seems” because I am interested in exactly how the boundaries are drawn between the Christian and the secular in questions of sex. DeRogatis, other then to suggest that evangelicals have appropriated much a secular program in sex advice, does not challenge where and how evangelical authors mark their difference from secular assumptions about sexuality. In questioning these boundaries, I am less interested in restaging critiques from post-secular studies as I am curious about what kinds of practices enable a switch in category. What kinds of historical and cultural changes, that is, have made it possible for Evangelicals to read the bible literally in ways that not only permit but actively encourage non-reproductive sexual practices—even if just for married couples? To ask this question, addresses, first of all, the ways that received meanings of the bible have changed over time. Second, this question troubles the seemingly timelessness of heterosexual marriage by looking into how its practice has changed with the redrawing of sanctioned sexual boundaries within marriage. DeRogatis’ clearest answer to this question is the sexual revolution, which evangelicals “made their own,” she notes, in the advice culture that emerged after the 1960s. What is remarkable about this transfer, however, is how quickly conservative Evangelical authors adopted as Christian a set of pro-pleasure assumptions that historians of sexuality have long termed “sexual liberalism.” Even more interesting, evangelicals seem to have adopted the assumptions about the naturalness and good of non-procreative sex precisely through religious practices that mark out a symbolic distance from both secularism and liberalism. What I see in DeRogatis’ discussion of Tim and Beverly LaHayes’ Act of Marriage is a case in point. Those authors practice biblical literalism as a mechanism of category transformation. Asserting the plain support of the bible for sexual pleasure, that is, works to transfer new sex-positive ideas from “secular” to “Christian.” If my reading is right, moreover, this example suggests that evangelical biblicism, a religious practice that has marked a stance of resistance to modern and secular changes, has in fact served as an important vehicle for adopting and authorizing new ideas and practices—in sexuality and no doubt for many other cultural practices as well.

The juncture of the study of religion and sexuality promises many more inquiries. DeRogatis has done us a great service by providing an accessible and insightful book that will surely spur on further conversation.


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