Review: Saving Sex
Amy DeRogatis. Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 224 pp. ISBN 978-019994225-1.
At last, someone has put the tired myth of prudish and sex-shy evangelicals to bed. Amy DeRogatis’s highly readable book introduces readers to the evangelical world of purity balls, virginity pledges, sex manuals and megachurch “sexperiments,” and the resounding conclusion that “evangelicals cannot stop talking about sex.” Rather than being tight-lipped, evangelicals produce an almost endless stream of theological teaching on the hazards and joys of sexuality in the Christian life.
Saving Sex is a much-needed thematic treatment of the perennial worry in evangelical culture that unfettered sexuality is a danger to the soul. Using a treasure trove of post-war evangelical advice literature, DeRogatis traces a myriad of attempts to wrest control of sexuality from the broader culture and make it a testimony to (particularly women’s) spiritual identities. In youth, girls can slip on a purity ring, attend a father-daughter purity ball, or re-read one of many pink fairy-tales penned for little princesses, learning not to give their first kiss to just any prince. Teenagers can read modesty blogs, kiss dating goodbye, and enlist their fathers to help them find suitable future husbands. After a couple says “I do,” the happy couple can flip open detailed instructions for the wedding night written by husband-and-wife teams like Tim and Beverly LaHaye, whose step-by-step instructions glory in the biblical foundations of Christian lovemaking. DeRogatis deftly shows how evangelicals have saturated the market with sexual solutions for every need. Evangelicals can find those who promote perpetual fecundity in the “Quiverful movement” or find enough justification of singleness that Jesus becomes the long-awaited bridegroom. Even after abuse, sexual freedom can be found in spiritual breakthroughs coached by celebrity preachers like T.D. Jakes with his bestselling franchise on women’s empowerment dubbed “Woman, Thou Art Loosed.”
DeRogatis shows evangelicals to be wonderfully responsive to culture, but with their own ethic in mind. Christian sex manuals can use titillating words but no images—for fear of pornography. They understand that evangelicals, like most Americans, want a little help in the bedroom, and they provide a bevy of sanctified alternatives to secular fare. But the book offers few clues to help readers evaluate whether these attempts are as countercultural as evangelicals intend. Are evangelical modesty blogs quaint or subversive? Are purity rings a protest to a hyper-sexualized culture or a dangerous delusion that “True Love Waits”? Historians, of course, do not need to answer these questions directly, but without a clearer picture of the jungle of competing sexual standards for young women (in particular), the evangelicals of Saving Sex sometimes appear to be lone conspiracy theorists about the dangers of unfettered sexuality.
The book also raises questions about the limitations that scholars now face in accounting for the internal diversity of evangelicalism. Saving Sex includes a wide cast, from working-class rural homeschoolers to black urban megachurch-goers to Pentecostal apocalyptists worried about demonic sperm. This variation hidden in the word “evangelical” may conflate groups that are not alike and produce too sharp a distinction in cases that resemble each other. For example, DeRogatis reserves her deepest misgivings for white, princess-themed abstinence literature and her greatest admiration for African American preachers like T.D. Jakes and his “more hopeful, or at least a more realistic, sexual gospel” of redeemed sexuality even after transgressions. However, in light of the vast debutant program run by T.D. Jakes’ wife, Serita, and her many titles including The Princess Within, the argument could be strengthened by a broader cultural analysis of the Christian fairy-tale. To some, it may be a sanctified Disney spin-off but to others a royal pageantry of protest in a world that devalues black bodies. Social location speaks volumes. But these are small quibbles with DeRogatis’s immensely accessible and enjoyable book. In the steamy accounts of evangelical sex, she expertly uncovers the born-again belief that every deed, whether behind a pulpit or under the covers, has eternal consequences.