Open a recent evangelical advice book and you will read comments like this one: “Some people have the mistaken notion that God is anti-sex . . . in fact, he’s outspokenly pro-sex! He invented it. What an incredible thought! Passionate sex was God’s idea.” Or: “Orgasm is an integral part of God’s design for sex.”
We’ve always known that sex sells. Now it’s being used to sell both God and the Republicans, dressing up the old repressive values in fishnet stockings and flouncy lingerie.
The religious right is enthusiastically asserting that, in contrast to general belief, it is far from sexually uptight. On the contrary, these conservatives are wildly pro-sex, provided it’s marital sex.
Evangelical writers even coined a catchy new term, soulgasm, to describe the joys that await the evangelical wife: incredible orgasms plus intimate emotional connection with the husband plus the presence of God. They detail how the husband can become a “Superman-lover” and make his wife come repeatedly and how breasts and penises can be most sensually caressed. Websites such as My Beloved’s Garden even offer Christian sex toys (Christian vibrators, Christian clit-ticklers, Christian jelly rings) and pride themselves on marketing these items without any offensive pornographic images.
Repression just isn’t a very good marketing tool. It’s the promise of pleasure (and lots of it) that is building a new following for the religious right. Even more insidious, though, is the fact that the evangelicals haven’t confined their erotic message to religion. Instead, they’re moving into the realm of psychological health, even taking over the language of New Age therapy.
Suddenly the mainstream conversation in women’s magazines and on daytime talk shows is not so much about physical danger as about self-esteem. People who sleep around have low self-esteem. Porn use is a sign of low self-esteem. Even the supposedly kinder, gentler homophobia that has replaced the ugly old disgust-mongering rides on the self-esteem theme. Children of gays and lesbians are likely, we are now told, to suffer from low self-esteem.
Abstinence education campaigns in the schools are an ominous example of the new secularized mental health strategy. Framing sexual conservatism as mental health promotion has become the main tactic for avoiding being taken to court by the American Civil Liberties Union for bringing religion into the public schools.
Websites and books that plead for premarital chastity contend that delaying the onset of sexual intercourse is a sign of heightened self-respect. Scholastic and athletic achievement are presented as mutually exclusive with sexual activity. Virgins, it is said, have “better life outcomes.” In 2006 the federal government required any program wishing to receive federal funding for sex education to include the “information” that adolescent sexual activity could lead to depression and suicide. In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2008 report on youth and risk (seat belt use, alcohol, etc.), sex itself—not just unprotected sex—is treated as a risk behavior.
Secularizing its message allowed the religious right to repackage repression as the promotion of mental well-being. What used to be deemed immoral is now presented as likely to induce depressive feelings of self-loathing. In dozens of variations, Americans are taught these days that any sex outside marriage—or even emotionally disconnected sex within marriage—is evidence of “low self-esteem” and will inescapably lead to “depressions.”
The success of the religious right on this topic is remarkable. It’s especially evident in the way that many self-defined liberals now rush to concede that a delay in sexual debut is desirable, that abstinence is a laudable goal, and that keeping the number of sexual partners in a lifetime to a minimum is an important sign of psychological health and self-valuing. Sexual experience is no longer seen as a resource, but rather as a matter of risk and regret. Female sexual agency has once again been made dirty and suspect.
Why does any of this matter? One answer is that sex education in the United States is in tatters. The country is not just withholding information but actively lying to its young people. This is simply cruel. It disempowers young people—girls and women in particular. Meanwhile, the United States has the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual coercion in the developed world, the lowest contraceptive use, and the highest rates of abortion.
European sexual politics are surely not perfect, but it is striking that in Europe sexual rights are defended by Christian Democrats on the right as well as Social Democrats on the left. Indeed, in the struggle over how to make room for European Islam, it is often representatives of conservative political parties who have most strongly insisted that those who want European citizenship affirm their comfort both with homosexuality and with female sexual independence.
Europeans went through an arduous but important post-fascist learning process—and it shows. The stance of the European Court of Human Rights, developed in reaction to the experience of Nazism, starts from the premise that it is the task of the law not just to protect individuals against sexual violence and abuse, but also to protect each individual’s right to desired sexuality. Self-determination and consent are considered the most important moral values. Americans have let themselves too long be bullied into losing their ability to defend those values.
Excerpted from New Humanist (Sept.-Oct. 2008), a London-based magazine that battles “religious dogma, irrationalism, and bunkum wherever it is found”; www.newhumanist.org.uk.