In white evangelicism, the fanaticism, money, & extrabiblical rules that revolve around sex scream idol worship and the humanity of women is sacrificed on its altar. The evangelical message that married sex will fulfill you is really no different than the larger culture’s general message that sex with whomever, whenever will fulfill you.
I’ve been on a sex journey. I’ve shared in a past post that the primary thing my husband and I fight about in our marriage is SEX. Every other argument—parents, kids, money, dishwashers, etc.—pales in comparison. I’ve also shared that I was raised in white evangelism. (My husband was not.) For years, we’ve always had a general understanding of where some of his sexual hang-ups originated, and he eventually went to counseling to work through some of his issues and find healing. However, as he noticeably began to heal, many of our issues in the bedroom didn’t go away, and I eventually had to face the reality that I was part of the problem. Even though we both recognized I had some baggage of my own, the sources of my unhealthy thinking patterns and emotionally extreme outbursts always felt more ambiguous. Most of the obvious suspects were missing. I came from a relatively healthy family, I was never sexually abused, and I was an evangelical poster child when it came to my sexual history. Eventually, we realized my evangelical religion was the problem.
Generally speaking, I’m the higher-drive spouse in our marriage. Despite my Christian upbringing, reading Christian sex books always seemed to exasperate our problems, and I swore them off years ago. When Sheila Gregoire’s The Great Sex Rescue released, I was intrigued, but reluctant. I mentioned the book to my husband (who almost never reads), and he ordered it. He started to read sections aloud to me, and we both finally started to understand why I struggled to be at peace with my higher-drive. I had been taught my entire life by the church that my husband was supposed to want to get freaky ALL THE TIME. Because that wasn’t our narrative, I felt like a freak (that was bad for wanting to get freaky). The virile man and virginal woman narrative exists outside of church walls too, but there’s something especially insidious when it’s dressed up in spiritual language by the church. My self-worth was tied to how often my husband wanted to have sex with me, and this lie was destroying us.
The other weird twist from my Christian education was that I believed, in order to be a good Christian wife, I shouldn’t say no on the rare occasion he was in the mood when I wasn’t. Between feeling like something was wrong if I had to initiate and feeling like I couldn’t say no when he initiated, resentment built up over time. My poor husband was damned if he didn’t and damned if he did. Disentangling my worth from the frequency of my husband’s sexual desire and truly believing that it is not intrinsically wrong for me (or him) to say no has been key to our journey towards healing.
Shortly after we finished Sheila Gregoire’s book, another Christian sex book, written by two of evangelical’s most popular marriage authors hit the shelves. The book teemed with all the harmful teachings from my past. Married Sex offers nothing new to the Christian conversation about sex but is only the most recent shining example of the toxic teachings and twisted interpretations of Scripture underlying the white evangelical church tradition in which I was raised. (I want to be clear that this is a cultural problem, not a Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta problem. Their book contains PAGES of endorsements by big name Christian leaders.) Yes, the message that “men need sex in a way women will never understand, so woman should practice sexual compassion” permeated its pages, but I recognized a bigger, more foundational lie residing under the surface that I had internalized and needed to burn to the ground: evangelicals worship sex. And I was a very good evangelical.
My generation is beginning to recognize that purity culture was the sexual version of the health and wealth gospel. White evangelical culture made “unqualified promises of marriage, children, and great sex to everyone who pledged to wait” (Christianity Today). I worshipped the god of chastity and was promised sexual utopia in return. The ubiquitousness of this teaching in the church became clear to me when I reviewed Married Sex. In one book review, Sheila Gregoire observes, “All through the book were unrealistic stories of people who embraced sex to the extreme–and the unspoken accusation was, ‘why can’t you be hot like them?’” In his opening chapter, Gary Thomas asserts that married sex is the Song of Songs, on the same level of the biblical language of King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Holy of Holies: “So when describing the sexual relationship between a man and a woman as the ‘song of songs,’ the Bible doesn’t call this physical union merely the most powerful human experience, the most pleasurable human experience, or the most celebrated human experience–it’s called the experience beyond all others” (4). This interpretation of the Song of Songs is deeply problematic because, according to evangelical beliefs, only a minority of God’s people—happily married straight couples in their prime with no debilitating physical or mental health issues—are able to participate in this Song. Not to mention, no one will be given in marriage in eternity. Certainly, the poem can and should be read as an erotic song between a husband and wife, as poetry allows for layers of meaning, but historically it’s been understood that the ultimate “Song of Songs” is the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the church, a song in which all of God’s children get to participate. Many celibate medieval scholars loved Song of Songs. They grasped the eternal idea of enjoying the presence of God. Aimee Byrd writes “We cannot begin to know the richest way to love our spouse if we do not have our desires properly oriented to our Great Lover, Jesus Christ. Is this not imperative for both singles and marrieds?…The Song does not teach us how to perfect our marriages or single life. It teaches us how to perfect our love for Christ in a knowledge of his love for us” (Sexual Reformation 30).
Evangelicals are obsessed with sex. They are also obsessed with making the gospel message “cool,” which leads to a fanatic drive to claim that their sex is better than everybody else’s sex. But maybe, judging from the sheer amount of sex and marriage self-help books produced by the evangelical industrial complex every single year, it isn’t? The evangelical message that married sex will fulfill you is no different than the larger culture’s general message that sex with whomever, whenever will fulfill you. Evangelicals wrap their sex message in marriage Christianese, but their message is the same: sex is the best mind-blowing experience on earth, and you’re incomplete without it. In Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey writes, “An idolater chooses things that may be good in themselves and grants them power they were never meant to have” (33). He continues, “We allow substitute sacreds, or false infinities, to fill the vacuum of our disenchanted world… Sex seems the most blatant of the false infinities today…the modern West has raised it to almost divine status…we present sex as the highest good, the magical lure that advertisers use to sell us convertibles, Coke, and toothpaste” (32)….and, I would add, books, conferences, and platforms. In addition to all the money poured into the coffers for our sexual instruction, we construct rules to reinforce our religion. Purity culture with its rigid gender roles, Billy Graham standards, stringent female dress-codes, and condemnation and fear of sexual immorality above all other vices proliferates in evangelical spaces. The fanaticism, the money, and the extra-biblical rules that revolve around white evangelical sex scream idol worship.
Evangelicals worship sex, and idols require sacrifice. The amount of Christian women and children coming forward with stories of sexual trauma and abuse in their homes and in their churches is no less horrific than the human remains discovered around the world at sites of human sacrifice. When James Dobson, founder of the evangelical cornerstone Focus on the Family and leading evangelical expert on marriage for decades, assumes* that an unknown woman who smiles at him from her car while stopped at a stoplight equals a sex proposition, we have a problem. The evangelical worship of sex sacrifices the humanity of women. Sheila Gregoire writes,
These men acted out exactly what so many evangelical resources taught them: Men need physical release; they can’t control themselves without women’s help; if they don’t get help, they could easily become predators. And this is all presented as God’s design….Too many of our resources have stolen dignity from women while demeaning men and denying men’s sanctification, and the result has been abysmal….We found that messages like “all men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle”; “a wife is obligated to give her husband sex when he wants it”; “women should have frequent sex with their husbands to keep them from watching porn”; and “boys will want to push girls’ sexual boundaries” are all widely taught and widely believed. And that’s grievous, because we also found these beliefs are correlated with lowering women’s orgasm rates, their ability to get aroused, their trust in their husbands and their marital satisfaction — and even increasing the incidence of sexual pain.
As one commentator on my blog pointed out, much of current Christianity’s sexual culture comes from the Roman-Greco religion of vestal virgins and temple prostitutes. Woman have been reduced to caricatures in the church to serve at the altar of the sexual needs of men.
Ultimately, I made a poor evangelical. Maybe in some ways, I failed so spectacularly because I did one thing very well, I internalized the belief that sex would be my Savior. Except it wasn’t. I came to the bedroom with supernatural expectations impossible for my husband to fulfill, and I was unable to conform to the gender role assigned to me—one with no desires of my own who never said no to my husband’s desires. I don’t have all the answers moving forward. I’m on a sex journey with my husband, and this side of heaven, I don’t think we’ll ever fully arrive to a perfect knowing of one another. Maybe only an infinite God is capable of such knowledge. One of the reasons I think in heaven “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Mt 22:30) is not because heaven won’t be euphoric, and not because we won’t love those we loved on earth any less, but because the need for which all humans most long, and often use sex as a cheap substitute to fulfill—to be fully known and fully loved—will finally be truly realized when we see our Savior face to face.
Title image is Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Domenico Gargiulo.
For specific ways I found sexual healing in Scripture as a woman raised in a Christian culture that overwhelming focuses on male sexual desire, see my article:
Sexual Healing in the Song of Songs
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