Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

by Kelsy Burke

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Christians under Covers shifts how scholars and popular media talk about religious conservatives and sex. Moving away from debates over homosexuality, premarital sex, and other perceived sexual sins, Kelsy Burke examines Christian sexuality websites to show how some evangelical Christians use digital media to promote the idea that God wants married, heterosexual couples to have satisfying sex lives. These evangelicals maintain their religious beliefs while incorporating feminist and queer language into their talk of sexuality—encouraging sexual knowledge, emphasizing women’s pleasure, and justifying marginal sexual practices within Christian marriages. This illuminating ethnography complicates the boundaries between normal and subversive, empowered and oppressed, and sacred and profane.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520961586
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 965,922
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Kelsy Burke is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska - Lincoln.

Read an Excerpt

Christians under Covers

Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

By Kelsy Burke


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96158-6


Godly Sex


In 1976, Pastor Tim LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, ventured into what was firmly secular territory within the publishing industry to produce a sex advice manual written from a Christian perspective. Their book, as they explained in its introduction, was intended to fill a gap in existing literature, both secular and religious: "Most Christian books [about sex] skirt the real issues and leave too much to the imagination [...]. Secular books, on the other hand, often go overboard telling it like it is in crude language repulsive to those who need help. [...] Convinced that God meant lovemaking to be enjoyed by both partners, we prayed that He would lead us to make this work fully Biblical and highly practical." The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love is as its authors describe: an extremely practical book about sex that constantly references the Bible and the authors' interpretation of it. It combines the tone of a spirited sermon with the kinds of anatomical drawings and descriptions of male and female bodies that make teenagers blush in sex education courses. It is simultaneously a book about biology, relationships, and religion. The authors outline in great detail what a couple's first sexual encounter may be like, providing step-by-step instructions on how to engage in foreplay and have sexual intercourse. This includes tips for communicating — "the husband should proceed" with "verbal expressions of love" — and practical advice — "it is a rare bride who will be able to provide sufficient natural vaginal lubricant on her honeymoon." It mimicked other sex advice books of the era by acknowledging the realistic and often unglamorous side of sex while simultaneously highlighting the grandiose elements of love and romance. Yet unlike secular books that positioned sexual satisfaction as the ultimate goal, the LaHayes insisted that couples should pursue sexual satisfaction for a higher good. Their book departed from others at the time by making God an important character in a couple's sexual story.

The Act of Marriage sold 500,000 copies by 1979 and 1.5 million copies by 1993. The LaHayes promoted the book in several Christian venues, like the Focus on the Family radio broadcast, and also appeared on the mainstream TV program the Phil Donahue show. According to its authors in an updated edition published in 1998, it has been used in premarital counseling by ministers more "than any other" book on sex.

Before they published The Act of Marriage, the LaHayes hosted a radio program about Christian married life that touched upon some of the book's themes. Following its publication, Tim became well known for his involvement in the conservative Christian political organization the Moral Majority, along with Jerry Falwell, and later for the publication of the dispensationalist fiction series Left Behind. He was named one of the top twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America by Time magazine in 2005. Beverly participated in conservative politics alongside her husband, founding the conservative women's organization Concerned Women for American in 1979. She also wrote various nonfiction publications related to Christian womanhood.

In The Act of Marriage, the LaHayes confront a tension within their evangelical beliefs: they believed that while God designed pleasure to be a part of sex, Christian couples likely could not achieve that pleasure on their own. Good and mutually satisfying sex does not happen intuitively; couples need advice and guidance in order to achieve it. And herein lies a problem: on the surface, evangelical beliefs actually suggest the contrary — that believers should be able to consult the Bible for instructions about sex and all other aspects of everyday life. Of course, the Bible is silent on many of the idiosyncrasies of modern life (smartphones and traffic jams, for example). Similarly, when it comes to sex, the Bible lacks direct answers on a range of topics, from the preferable frequency of sex within marriage to the appropriateness of acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse.

The information about sex that most Americans receive from a wide array of sources — such as morning TV talk shows, popular newspapers and magazines, and schools — is largely off-limits to, or at least treated with harsh skepticism by, evangelicals. Evangelicals must filter through secular messages about sex — which, according to many evangelical spokespersons, tend to disregard God's messages — in order to determine how to have a sexual life that aligns with Christian values. Lorraine Pintus, coauthor of the best-selling Christian sex advice book Intimate Issues: Answers to 21 Questions Christian Women Ask about Sex, explained to me that Christians today are inundated by what she and others call the "world's perspective" when it comes to sexuality: "When you turn on the TV, you don't see lifelong commitments, privacy, or even one man, one woman anymore." Authors Ed and Lisa Young call this a "hijacking" of sex; they believe sex was designed by God but that it has taken on a secular bent in its near-ubiquitous presence in popular culture. Such blatant disregard for Christian values, according to these evangelicals, means that secular advice or information about sex should be treated critically or avoided altogether. This opens up a need and a market for advice that is distinctly Christian. Evangelicals must look to interpreters who bridge the gaps between secular messages that are relevant in modern life but have the wrong values and biblical messages that have the right values but seem to be irrelevant to modern life.

Today, Christian sex advice is well integrated into evangelical culture. While authors of evangelical sexual manuals, like the LaHayes, are not representative of all evangelicals, they are easily recognized within mainstream evangelicalism. The coauthors of Intimate Issues, Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus, have appeared on Focus on the Family's radio show and Pat Robertson's TV program, The 700 Club. Shannon Ethridge, author of The Sexually Confident Wife: Connecting with Your Husband Mind, Body, Heart, Spirit, is a spokesperson for Teen Mania, one of America's largest evangelical youth organizations. Ed and Lisa Young's Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse started as a church program and later became a New York Times best-selling book. Pastor Ed Young founded a nondenominational mega-church in Texas that now has eight satellite churches. He has over 170,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 820,000 followers on Twitter. Far from being on the margins of evangelical culture, these authors share beliefs and speaking platforms with many of today's leading evangelicals. This gives their messages about sex respectability and fuels a growing interest (and industry) in evangelical sex advice.

Thirty-five years after The Act of Marriage was originally published, Mark Driscoll wrote what may be its contemporary counterpart — Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, which he coauthored with his wife, Grace. Mirroring what the LaHayes wrote in their introduction about the need for a book like theirs, Mark and Grace begin Real Marriage by explaining why they chose to write it. They describe the book as "Biblically faithful, emotionally hopeful, practically helpful, sociologically viable, and personally vulnerable." Physical intimacy is central to the book's philosophy and, according to its authors, key to a good marriage. For example, the Driscolls make connections between physical intimacy, sexual appeal, and the quality of a marriage, telling couples to "sleep together naked. Undress in front of your spouse. [...] Dress in clothes that fit and flatter your figure or build." They claim that doing these things and maintaining an active sex life ensures that husband and wife "are literally bonded together as one." Just as he was to the LaHayes' narrative, God is central to the story the Driscolls tell. Anyone can find temporary gratification from sex, they assert, but it is following God's rules for sex that ensures long-term satisfaction both in one's marriage and, ultimately, in the afterlife.

Like Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll is a celebrity among conservative Christians. He founded and formerly pastored the Seattle-based mega-church Mars Hill, and he gained recognition by using modern technology to promote his conservative religious message. He has spoken at conferences with other well-known evangelical leaders, including John Piper and Tim Keller, given a guest sermon at the church of the famous evangelical pastor Rick Warren, and been interviewed on The 700 Club. His sermons are downloaded on iTunes approximately seven million times per year. While LaHaye had a radio program, Driscoll has podcasts, online videos, virtual Bible studies, and an extensive following on Facebook and Twitter. He merges traditional beliefs with a contemporary, hip aesthetic, making his outspoken conservative views on sexuality and relationships seem cool and relevant to the modern world. He does not shy away from secular culture but rather engages with it head on. For example, he has publicly debated Ron Jeremy (a famous porn star from the seventies) about the perils of pornography and sexualized culture. Driscoll and his wife, Grace, promoted Real Marriage on TV and radio, appearing on programs like Loveline with Dr. Drew and The View. They insist that the values the book promotes — such as friendship and intimacy in marriage — appeal to a broad audience of Christian Americans.

On the surface, both The Act of Marriage and Real Marriage support similar beliefs. They state that sexual intimacy is to be enjoyed by couples only if they are heterosexual, married, and monogamous. Both unequivocally condemn homosexuality. The LaHayes and Driscolls support complementarianism, or the belief that God created men and women to fulfill different and balancing roles, wherein a husband practices headship and a wife submission. Both sets of authors talk about gender in essentialist terms and use their roles as coauthors and husband and wife to portray what they believe to be male and female perspectives. Tim LaHaye, for example, writes that his wife brings a "delicate sense of balance" to the book. Both books include separate chapters for women and for men. As Mark Driscoll states in the introduction to a chapter specifically written for men, "were I writing to women [in this chapter], my tone would be considerably different. So while women are welcome to read this chapter, they are also forewarned that it may get a little rough." The authors emphasize the opposing sexual roles and needs of men and women and therefore offer members of both genders different advice.

Yet as similar as they are, The Act of Marriage and Real Marriage are different books, written in different times. In the words of the Driscolls, "The questions today are different." As Mark told an interviewer for the online magazine Christianity Today, "A lot of Christian teaching about sex is answering the questions of a previous generation." The Driscolls wrote their book in order to deal with the monumental shifts that have happened in American society when it comes to sexual attitudes and discourse. As they put it, the book will help a Christian "be a good missionary in this sexualized culture." And while this may seem as if the Driscoll perspective on sex is one of "us versus them," they actually complicate the relationship between their Christian values and the values of the secular world.

Comparing Real Marriage to The Act of Marriage shows the ways in which it, far from being diametrically opposed to contemporary sexualized culture, actually embodies and aligns with it in many ways. For example, the LaHayes advised against engaging in oral sex, masturbation, anal sex, and using sex toys. Though they do not believe that the Bible forbids oral sex, they write that they "do not personally recommend or advocate it." They warn couples that very few ministers advocate for oral sex within marriage and that the practice should never "be used as a substitute for coitus." Real Marriage, on the other hand, tells couples to experiment sexually to find practices that optimize their pleasure, even if they include oral or anal sex or sex toys. In answering the question, "Does oral sex help a couple's marriage in bringing them closer together?" the Driscolls reply simply, "Yes. Many husbands and wives enjoy oral sex." They even go so far as to engage in a scriptural exegesis that favors oral sex, interpreting the Song of Solomon as biblical support for a range of sexual acts, including "kissing (1:2), oral/fellatio — her initiative (2:3), manual stimulation — her invitation (2:6), erotic striptease (6:13–7:9), and new places and positions, including outdoors — her initiative (7:11–13)." In discussing oral sex and other sexual desires and activities, the Driscolls replace the caution, skepticism, and prescriptive advice of the LaHayes with open encouragement to experiment to better understand individual tastes and personal satisfaction.

Evangelicals who write about sex, both in print and online, navigate their religious beliefs in a secular culture. Indeed, this is at the crux of the evangelical movement of the last half-century: to be in the world but not of it. When it comes to sex, the result is a new evangelical sexual logic, what I call the logic of godly sex, reflecting traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality but accommodating a contemporary understanding of sexual identities, practices, and desires. At the heart of this twenty-first century sexual logic is the ability, and indeed the prerogative, of married Christians to have "good" sex. This "goodness" incorporates dual meanings — "good" meaning normal, allowed, and sanctioned by God and "good" in the sense of feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Both dimensions are important in constructing the logic of godly sex; the former instructs who is allowed to have sex, and the latter tells couples how they can enjoy sex. Yet these dimensions draw from what seem to be contradictory philosophies: on the one hand, religious beliefs that are objective and about non-negotiable truths, and on the other hand, liberal and nonreligious ideas about free will, autonomy, and personal taste. Conservative Christians, especially when using the Internet, merge these philosophies, allowing them to align their specific sexual interests — so long as they are married, monogamous, and heterosexual — with their moral framework.


Throughout their history, evangelicals have effectively conveyed the importance of sex by both speaking and not speaking about it. There have always been Christian conversations about God's purpose for sexuality, and indeed, preaching against certain kinds of sex has become a key marker of the Christian tradition. As historian of religion Mark Jordan argues, Christian discussions of sexual sins have always been "a part of a general program for ordering Christian moral teaching." Christian thought has long maintained that a person's sexual purity — or sexual sinfulness, as it may be — tells the story of a person's morality (or immorality) perhaps better than any other indicator. Christian leaders have spoken little in support of sexual enjoyment, even within heterosexual marriage. Jordan notes that sexual sins have included "every erotic or quasi-erotic action that can be performed by human bodies except penile-vaginal intercourse between two partners who are not primarily seeking pleasure and who do not intend to prevent conception." What has been allowed sexually has, for much of Christian history, been an extremely narrow category. It is a relatively recent historical phenomenon for conservative Christians to claim sexual pleasure as part of their religious framework, and many leaders and writers in this tradition still avoid the topic. Reflecting this long history of negatively portraying sexuality, churches still tend not to emphasize God-sanctioned sexual pleasure as much as they do Satan-tempted sexual sins.


Excerpted from Christians under Covers by Kelsy Burke. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
A Note to Readers on Quoting Online Content

1 • Godly Sex: A New Evangelical Sexual Logic
2 • Overcoming the Obscene: Using Religion to Talk about Sex
3 • Virtual and Virtuous: Forming Online Religious Communities
4 • Sexual Awakening: Defining Women's Pleasures
5 • What Makes a Man: Making "Bad" Sex "Good"
Conclusion: Paths of Desire

Appendix A: Websites Mentioned by Name in the Book
Appendix B: Doing Internet Ethnography

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