DeRogatis, Amy. 2014. Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism

DeRogatis, Amy. 2014. Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 

Review by Sophie Bjork-James (Vanderbilt University)

In 2012, Pastor Ed Young and his wife moved a bed onto the roof of their Texas megachurch to lead a “bed-in” lauding the importance of marital sexual intimacy. Young was celebrating the recent publication of his book, Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse, and the couple spent twenty-four hours in bed on the church roof conducting interviews with media outlets on the importance of marital sex. How, then, did we get from the radical 1969 “bed-in” for peace, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono cuddling in hotel room beds singing “give peace a change,” to a conservative evangelical “bed-in” celebrating marital sex? When did evangelicals start talking so much about sex?

While evangelicals are popularly known for holding anti-homosexuality views, leading to a common conception of evangelicals being anti-sex, Amy DeReogatis’ Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism shows evangelicals have worked to make the sexual revolution their own. Through a historical study of Christian sex manuals, DeRogatis shows that discussions about sexuality in evangelicalism are about far more than just sex. Built into their discussions of sexuality are anxieties about gender and economic changes, critiques of the feminist movement and secular culture, and an emphasis on the importance of male headship and dimorphic gender norms. As she notes, “being heterosexual is never enough. Boundaries must be policed” (8), and these manuals police many different types of boundaries.  Collectively these texts prioritize purity before marriage and an active sex life in marriage, some going so far as to advocate anal sex and masturbation. So long as sex is heterosexual, married, and guided by the Bible, there is a significant diversity of practices framed as pure. The plum line centering all of the literature reviewed is a gender ideology that emphasizes female submission and male headship, framing patriarchal marriage as perhaps the central arena for living out a godly life.

Evangelicalism can be defined by a bricolage approach to spiritual disciplines, frequently melding secular and religious discourses into assemblages understood as sacred. Such is the evangelical approach to sexuality, and anthropologists of Christianity can do well to pay attention to the insights DeRogatis brings to this discussion. A central goal of the book is to “bring to light the many ways evangelicals use the tools of American culture to respond to, resist, and sometimes transform it” (9). In this way DeRogatis highlights how secular modes and memes—such as the “bed-in”—are made sacred, or at least godly, through Christian media. Another important contribution of Saving Sex is to consider the ways that racial differences shape approaches to religious matters, showing how the segregated history and present of US evangelicalism has led to distinct racial traditions, an issue often ignored in this research.

The book is divided into five chapters focusing on: manuals dedicated to singles, marriage manuals, a focus on demons and sexual sin, the quiverful and other pro-natalist movements, and an African American approach.

Many of us have heard of “purity balls,” where fathers and daughters attend dances together in formal attire where the daughter promises purity and the father promises protection. What most of us are probably not familiar with is the broader evangelical purity literature that supports these practices. DeRogatis writes, “Purity balls are just the tip of the iceberg. There is an industry of purity books, websites, blogs, podcasts, magazines, events, conferences, and more” (13). Within this world, purity is not just about abstinence, but a “lifestyle that requires scrutinizing all one’s innermost thoughts and feelings and working tirelessly to guard oneself from any evidence of improper sexual desires or actions” (13). These are also far more popular than many realize, with “one in six girls in America” taking a purity pledge (11). The vast majority of this literature is geared towards girls, who are framed as responsible for not leading men and boys into impure thoughts.

This purity literature includes a selection of children’s books dominated by stories about princesses and knights designed to teach purity. An example is Jennie Bishop’s The Princess and the Kiss: A Story of God’s Purity aimed at preschoolers. The story centers on a princess who is given her “first kiss” as a gift from God at birth, a gift which is guarded carefully by her parents until she reaches maturity, at which point they pass it on to her telling her not to squander it on a stranger. The Princess then meets a variety of princes, Prince Peacock, Prince Romance, and Prince Treasurechest and interviews each but decides none of them are worthy of her kiss. The princess despairs but then meets a poor farmer who she uses that kiss on, marries, and has a child with, and then the child get’s their first kiss when they are born (14-15). Another theme of this literature is to bring all complex decisions to one’s father. This goes so far as some of the literature encouraging daughters to prepare for marriage by paying specific attention to their fathers, even suggesting girls generate a list of marriage qualities they are looking for with their parents.

Once an engagement occurs, a wide variety of marriage manuals focused on sexual intercourse are available for the evangelical audience. Gender essentialism structures marriage manuals: men are naturally more visual, aggressive, and more easily achieve orgasm, while women are portrayed as more verbal, less eager, and requiring more assistance in achieving orgasm. “For the men depicted in these manuals, sex is a natural force that they can just barely keep under control” (61). An example comes from Tim LaHaye, “The sex drive in a man is almost volcanic in its latent ability to erupt at the slightest provocation” (61). The base assumption in this literature is that for men sex is merely physical, while for women it is emotional. These texts are collectively writing against secular culture, reinforcing the importance of heterosexuality, male headship, and marriage. Again we come to the relationship between sexual practices and anxiety about broader American culture. With economic changes leading to increased numbers of women in the workforce, this literature reasserts the importance of patriarchal relationships, and provides ample advice for embodying these inequalities in marriage.

One of the most fascinating contributions of the book is DeRogatis’ exploration of a recent trend in evangelical sex manuals that attempt to link scientific literature on STDs to spiritual warfare concepts, laid out in Terry Weir and Mark Carruth’s Holy Sex: God’s Purpose and Plan for our Sexuality. Demonstrating a classic evangelical bricolage approach that employs secular and religious logics, Weir and Carruth write: “Science has provided a new vocabulary and the material evidence to identify evil—it resides in ‘damaged’ chromosomes or in the deep recesses of our brains—that is, in the most fundamental and intimate aspects of our biology” (73). Given the new emphasis in evangelical sex manuals on sex as a link to God, this chapter explores framings of what happens when people engage in transgressive sex. In an interesting genealogy, DeRogatis traces how deliverance literature from the 1970s used conventional warfare metaphors to describe the risks posed by demons and emphasized the will as the main defense, or entry point, of demonic forces. In contrast, Holy Sex frames the body’s orifices as the entry points for demonic activity, with bodily fluids being the carriers of demons. As women have more bodily orifices with which demonic contamination can occur, or spread, women are framed as “naturally” more prone to demonic attack. In this way the body becomes a “spiritual battlefield” (83). This is an understanding that maps the soul on the body, and where bodily inflictions are seen as spiritual afflictions. The authors extend the understanding of spiritual sex to argue that during sexual intercourse each spirit reaches out to the other. In the case of two Christians in marriage this is a spiritual blessing, but if one of the spirits is unclean then demonic possession is possible (85).

In the most puzzling citation of the book, Wier and Carruth are quoted as explaining the spiritual encounter with God itself as a sexual encounter, with the Holy Spirit being like God’s sperm that impregnates the believer, explicitly stating “Born again is a sexual term” (86). Derogatis notes, “This language is significant because it demonstrates the biology and physicality of the spiritual battle. The Holy Spirit is sexualized and masculinized to impregnate the believer who is in turn feminized” (85). This is thus an extension of the common metaphor that the relationship between Jesus and the church is like that between a bridegroom and his bride, inflected with the contemporary fascination with descriptive sex.

In concluding chapters DeRogatis explores the quiverful movement and the broader anti-conception and pronatalist realms of the evangelical movement. It is in this section where elements troubling to this reader about the evangelical gender ideology make themselves visible. The Biblical Womanhood genre of evangelical literature can be seen as the adult compliment to the purity literature for young girls. Like the purity literature, much of the focus of this literature is written for women, but instead of preparing for marriage this literature is focused on teaching women to serve their husbands. A theme uniting this literature is that women must sacrifice themselves, sometimes even their own safety, for their husbands and children. For example, John Piper, a founder of the Biblical Council on Manhood and Womanhood, explicitly calls on women to accept abuse. He states, “If it is not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then seeks help from the church” (102). Contrasting the purity literature, the helpmeet literature highlights that marriage is often far from a fairy tail, however the lesson remains focused on women controlling their sexuality and prioritizing patriarchal relationships over even their own health.

In some of the most conservative of this literature, “sexual submission is nonnegotiable,” women are instructed to always submit to their husband’s sexual desires (112). Derogates reads Frank Schaeffer’s biography against his mother’s writings and prominent position in the helpmeet literature, and in this reading we get a different view of what some of the women influenced by these ideas must experience. Schaefer writes of one evening when he was young during bedtime Bible reading his mother told him, “Your father demands sexual intercourse every single night and has since the day we were married… It’s just that because Fran has a Daily Need, I have to go with him on every single speaking trip. I hate leaving you alone so often, even in a good cause” (114). In this way she admits prioritizing her sexual responsibility to her spouse over her motherly responsibilities.

Then, we get the following: “One of the most striking of the pro-natalist movement is it appears to be limited almost entirely to white evangelicals” (127). While there are many women of color who support “biblical womanhood,” there are very few who advocate zero contraception. This brings me to DeRogatis’ final focus, which is an attempt to address the lacuna regarding the study of race and evangelicalism. In the final chapter Derogatis reviews the work of an African American evangelical writer on sexual topics, Prophetess Juanita Bynum. While many of the themes in Bynum’s work reflect themes found in the other texts reviewed in Saving Sex—affirming male headship and female submission, relating sexual issues with spiritual warfare, and noting the centrality of the Bible in one’s life—she does not emphasize virginity to the same extent as the other literature and her message to women is to achieve economic independence so that they do not need a man. DeRogatis also notes she was unable to identify one non-white family who is part of the Quiverful movement and notes that in most evangelical literature whiteness is connected to purity, specifically in the children’s purity literature where many of the processes are described as “lily white.” While this chapter is an excellent study in contrast to the rest of the book, what is missing (and as DeRogatis acknowledges this is missing in much of the literature on US evangelicalism) is the role of whiteness in this movement.

What Saving Sex offers the anthropology of Christianity

It is interesting that while a variety of scholars have studied the evangelical ex-gay movement (the movement where individuals seek to transform their same-sex attractions), with Tanya Erzen (2006) dedicating a monograph to this study and other studies focusing on Christian views on homosexuality (see Moon 2004), DeRogatis’ text is the first excavation of the way that heterosexuality structures evangelical spiritual ideals. Partly this is due to the difficulty of studying, or even remarking on, the production and maintenance of norms, as it is far easier to study those who break them.

Another part of the difficulty with studying heterosexuality in evangelicalism is that scholarly interests can sometimes lead to topical blinders, where we focus on race or religion or sexuality, without acknowledging how these categories relate to each other. The problem with such siloed approaches however is that these social categories are inseparable in practice and in history. As scholars of sexuality are aware, to talk of sexuality is to talk about history, power, and, in colonial contexts, racial constructions. As Foucault writes, sexuality is a “dense transfer point for relations of power” (1978, 103), sexual practices are always invested in power and history (cf. Padgug 1979). As described by the anthropologist Ann Stoler “the history of sexuality is defined… by patterned discursive incitements and stimulations that facilitated the penetration of social and self-disciplinary regimes into the most intimate domains of modern life” (1995, 3). Students of US sexual history understand that sexual discourses have been a central means through which racial divisions and hierarchies have been defined and justified (Freedman 1997; Jordan 1968). Thus to analyze sexual norms means to venture into complex territory that crisscrosses disciplinary boundaries: How do we maintain an analysis of sexual norms as central to broader forms of power, while simultaneously understanding them as relating to tensions between secular and religious traditions?

Since Asad (1993), many anthropologists of religion have taken an interest in exploring what Connolly (1999) refers to as “visceral modes of appraisal,” the ways that religious (and secular) mobilizations engage the senses and sensibilities of religious subjects to be moved for religious (or secular) ends. Can we think of the emphasis on sexuality and the social constructions of desire within evangelicalism, as instances of such bodily training? How might this add to our repertoire of possible themes to engage in our studies of how Christianity is lived?

Another contribution DeRogatis makes is to show the centrality of unequal gender norms in evangelical discussions of heterosexuality, demonstrating the central importance of male headship in the evangelical world-view. As Anelin Eriksen (2014) has written, to study gender and religion is to study power. Eriksen proposes studying gender and religion through exploring the relationship between gender and value and provides important interventions into how this can be done. Gender is of course a fundamental component of all cultural systems, and a foundation of subjectivity (Butler 1990), but again often remains the unacknowledged norm that structures evangelical religious life. Orit Avishai (2008) and Saba Mahmood (2005) both explore questions of women’s engagement with illiberal religious movements as a form of enacting religious agency, and insights from their work can inform studies of gender in the anthropology of Christianity. But the construction of masculinity and masculine headship ideals also remain an important site of further exploration.

Finally, DeRogatis’ exploration is deeply American, specifically focusing on the relationship between evangelical ideas about gender and sexuality in relation to broader US economic and cultural changes. As evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are global phenomena, there are ample possibilities to explore how these notions about sexual norms travel to various new cultural locations. How are they changed in this process, and how do these sexual norms change local practices where evangelicalism is spreading? We know that evangelical and Pentecostal conversion tends to change family structures, where converts often place new emphasis on the nuclear family over extended kinship obligations (Brusco 1995; Gill 1990), what happens then with the exportation of this deeply American discourse of heterosexuality and male headship?

Several aspects of this book will be disappointing to anthropologists of Christianity. The first potential weakness of the text is that, as she writes in the preface, DeRogatis chose not to engage with many of the theoretical questions raised by the book. She writes preemptively that she looks forward to future research that connives to explore the themes of the book and acknowledges she chose to write in an accessible style. Second, the “voices of everyday believers” (8) are missing from the book, as the focus is textual analysis.  One feels that they get an excellent survey of the types of books that are published on the topic of sexual purity in US evangelicalism, but less of a sense of why they are important, of what sexuality is doing within the broader evangelical worldview and culture, and of how individual evangelicals engage with this literature. These are the potential new research directions inspired by this text.


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