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A Feature Review of
Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism.
Hardback: Oxford University Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Emily McGowin
Amy DeRogatis is Associate Professor of Religion and American Culture at Michigan State University. Her first book, Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier (Columbia University Press, 2003), was a decidedly academic volume. But, in the Preface to Saving Sex, she states her desire for this publication to appeal to a broader audience, including academics, students, and the general public. To that end, DeRogatis is helped by her chosen subject matter. “[E]vangelicals can’t stop talking about sex,” she says, and it seems the American public can’t stop reading (and reviling) what they have to say. But, even with this inherent advantage, DeRogatis’ volume recommends itself with a combination of careful research and a cohesive, easy to follow presentation.
In the Introduction, DeRogatis carefully delineates the scope of her research. She does not take on the task of discussing evangelicalism and homosexuality. And she does not present any research into the sex lives of evangelical laypersons. Instead, she is offering an analysis of the most important or most interesting evangelical print sources on heterosexual sex. Her survey begins with the historical presumption that evangelicals did not turn away from the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s, but “simply made it their own” (3). This sets up one of the major themes of the book: the evangelical approach to sex reflects their general ambivalence about cultural engagement, which encompasses elements of activism and retreat (7).
Saving Sex is arranged thematically into five chapters with a Preface, Introduction, and Afterword. Endnotes and a thorough list of references conclude the book. In Chapter 1, “Sex and the Single Evangelical,” DeRogatis addresses evangelical purity literature and rituals, which begin at an early age and almost always target girls. Drawing heavily on the princess theme, evangelical authors seek to instill in their readers a commitment to purity and patience as they wait for their perfect “Prince Charming.” Both inner purity and outward modesty are emphasized, with the latter being a reflection of the former. DeRogatis also examines purity balls, True Love Waits campaigns, and purity rings.
Chapter 2, “Sex, Marriage, and Salvation,” is an examination of evangelical sex and marriage manuals, which are marketed to the engaged or married couple. DeRogatis places them within the larger context of the American sex manual industry that emerged in the early 1970s. Unlike secular authors, evangelical sex manuals assume no sexual experience in their readers and take the Bible as their supreme authority. The authors also insist on what is “natural” and “normal,” which is rooted in their essentialist (often called “complementarian”) interpretation of masculinity and femininity. DeRogatis notes that their construction of “normal” leaves little room for sexual responses and appetites that differ from the assumed norm.
Chapter 3, “Demons, STDs, and God’s Healing Sperm,” contains the most bizarre material in the book. The books DeRogatis reviews in this chapter, especially Holy Sex (co-written by Terry Wier and Mark Carruth), seek to embed evangelical sexual norms within a broader vision of “spiritual warfare” and contemporary science (especially genetics). In Holy Sex, the physical body is a spiritual battleground, capable of being impregnated with God’s “spiritual sperm” or infected with “sexually transmitted demons” (86-87). In this view, the Christian’s body has multiple avenues for demonic entrance through bodily openings and fluids (81). The authors of Holy Sex warn against the genetic consequences of unholy sex, especially the propagation of “disease-ridden” descendents (88). Of course, many evangelicals would take issue with these warfare-themed sex manuals, so DeRogatis notes that the audience for Holy Sex is likely very different from that of the “mainstream” evangelical writers.
Chapter 4, “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” examines what she calls the “pro-natalist” (or, “Quiverfull”) strand of evangelical literature. She defines evangelical pro-natalism as “a pro-birth position that promotes child-bearing and parenthood and rejects contraception and abortion” (96). She surveys a number of authors in this category who directly challenge mainstream evangelical writings. They do so first by disconnecting marriage from romance and sex-for-pleasure and then by insisting on the unqualified sexual submission of wives to husbands (107). Unlike mainstream evangelicals, pro-natalists believe that the most pious believers “demonstrate their faith through large families and the knowledge that marriage is about self-sacrifice and not sexual pleasure.” (127).
In Chapter 5, “Sexual Healing,” DeRogatis seeks to remedy general scholarly inattention to non-Anglo evangelicals by considering the work of African-American evangelical preachers, especially Prophetess Juanita Bynum and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Bynum has built her ministry on preaching honestly about sexuality and spirituality to a mostly single, African American, female audience. Jakes is a pastor popular among African American women due, in part, to his willingness to engage taboo topics like sexual trauma and domestic violence. Both preachers emphasize healing, wholeness, and emotional health. And, in contrast to Anglo-oriented evangelical writers, they do not emphasize virginity and do not shame women for past indiscretions. Like the majority of evangelical churches today, DeRogatis notes that approaches to sexuality remain segregated within evangelicalism (137).
Overall, I found Saving Sex insightful and persuasive. A few strengths are worth mentioning. In Chapters 1 and 2, DeRogatis reveals a tension between evangelical purity culture, which promises the virginal princess a perfect mate, and evangelical (married) sex manuals, which insist on sexual submission even when “prince charming” doesn’t live up to expectations. As she says, “There seems to be a wide gap between the ideal preached during the chastity years and the sex practiced during the married years” (152). Also, Chapters 3, 4, and 5 together illustrate the fact that American evangelicalism is far from monolithic. Evangelicalism contains a variety of voices and approaches to the subject of sex. The only uniting factors seem to be the conviction that “sex should only occur within heterosexual marriage” and the unspoken marginalization of those who cannot attain the “biblical” ideal (151, 154). Finally, DeRogatis’ survey illustrates well her broader point: through writing, thinking, and talking about sex, American evangelicals are working out their relationship with American culture, sometimes taking “the mode of resistance and other times accommodation” (154).
My critiques of Saving Sex are minimal. First, I wish DeRogatis had made a stronger case that Quiverfull literature is a reaction against the broader evangelical embrace of contraception and sex-for-pleasure. Thus, pro-natalists are as much in conflict with their fellow evangelicals as they are with American culture. Other scholars have highlighted the ongoing internal conflict that energizes evangelicalism (i.e., Julie Ingersoll) and I think Saving Sex would have been strengthened with more attention to this phenomenon. Second, at the risk of appearing nit-picky, I find the cover puzzling. It shows a rumpled bed with white sheets pulled back to reveal the top half of a book. Perhaps the publisher intended for the reader to interpret this volume as a Bible, but those familiar with Anglicanism will recognize the cross-adorned black book as the Book of Common Prayer. Why did Oxford University Press put a BCP on the cover of a book about American evangelicals? I have no idea. But, I doubt very much that DeRogatis is to be credited with this strange editorial choice.
In the end, neither of the abovementioned quibbles takes away from the strengths of Saving Sex. In her second book, Amy DeRogatis has produced a thoughtful analysis of American evangelical sex literature that enriches our understanding of American evangelicalism. She has managed to combine careful scrutiny of primary sources with accessible and interesting writing. I recommend Saving Sex for a broad readership, including academics, students, pastors, and laypersons. Scholars of American evangelicalism and evangelical theologians and pastors will especially benefit from her research.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com