Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Kimberlee Conway Ireton

Duck and Cover

A curiously selective look at evangelicals and sex.

I am a straight, white, evangelical mother of four children, whom I homeschool. If that's all you knew about me, you might think I was a card-carrying member of the Quiverfull movement—assuming you'd actually heard of the Quiverfull movement, which I hadn't until I read Amy DeRogatis' Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in Evangelical America. DeRogatis also introduced me to Titus 2 women, purity balls, sexually transmitted demons, and God's healing sperm.

Let's take those in order.

Quiverfull is not simply a delightful Trollopian pun. It's a bona fide movement which, according to DeRogatis, believes in populating the kingdom of God by having lots of kids and bringing up children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Birth control is bad, large families are good, homeschooling is encouraged if not required, and marriage is ministry. Wives and husbands minister to each other, wives by submitting to their husbands ("especially sexually") and husbands by, one assumes, loving their wives as Christ loved the church, though DeRogatis doesn't actually say as much. In fact, she says very little about the husband's role, but perhaps the Quiverfull folks themselves say very little about the husband's role beyond that he is the "head" of the family.

Titus 2 women are similar to Quiverfull wives in that they submit to their husbands, stay home to raise the kids, and believe that marriage is ministry. They emphasize the sacrificial nature of marriage, the giving up of self for husband and family, as a way—or even the way—to serve God. And they encourage older Christian women to mentor younger ones and help them to understand and live out "biblical womanhood."

Purity balls exist somewhere else in the evangelical world. They're a particular expression (in my view, an extreme one) of the purity movement. At purity balls, dads and daughters promise to love and honor one another, the dad by protecting and providing for his girl, the daughter by vowing chastity until marriage. It's sort of like a wedding dance, only there's no groom. The part of the purity movement that throws these balls envisions young women as princesses awaiting their Prince Charming—a marked contrast to the Titus 2 women, who emphasize that marriage isn't a fairy tale happily-ever-after but rather a relationship of sacrificial love and sometimes just plain sacrifice.

Still elsewhere in the evangelical world are charismatics who talk about things like stds (sexually transmitted demons) and God's healing sperm. For these folks, bodily orifices are portals for demonic possession; as DeRogatis puts it, "The body … is a fertile womb that will be filled with either good or evil seed." Demons can be passed from person to person via sexual encounters and passed down from generation to generation, but if a possessed person becomes open to God's healing sperm, which impregnates the soul, that "holy pregnancy" will evacuate the demons.

If any (or all) of this sounds a little (or a lot) odd to you, you're not alone: I felt baffled through most of this book. I kept wondering, who are these people? Where are they? Are their ideas limited to a small subculture or do they reach out into evangelicalism more broadly?

DeRogatis' analysis of these groups and their beliefs makes for an interesting, and at times eye-popping, read. Unfortunately, nowhere in the book does she make distinctions like the ones I made above. Instead, all of these various groups appear to be representative of (white) evangelical culture as a whole. A careful reader will discern from the book that subcultures exist within evangelicalism—the fact that Titus 2 adherents critique both the writers of evangelical sex manuals and the Prince Charming narrative of the purity movement sheds light on the differences that exist within evangelical views of sex. It would have been helpful if DeRogatis had highlighted such differences and stated the implications, namely, that evangelicalism is not a monolithic entity and therefore cannot have a monolithic view of sex.

My real concern about this book is that it focuses on subcultures within evangelicalism (and to my mind, mostly extreme ones) and paints them as evangelicalism itself. DeRogatis claims that she "restricted this study to a few of the most visible spokespeople and some of the representative topics and schisms among evangelicals when it comes to sex." Yet she mentions (but does not quote) James Dobson only twice in the book, and never mentions influential evangelicals like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, or any of the Grahams, all of whom have surely said something about sex. Perhaps they were not included because they haven't written books specifically about the topic. But Lauren Winner, who has written a widely read book about sex, and who has spoken on many evangelical college campuses, is never mentioned either. Taken individually, let alone together, these preachers and writers have influenced or reflected evangelicalism far more than the text about demonic possession and God's healing sperm, which DeRogatis admits is "marginal" and to which she nonetheless devotes the better part of an entire chapter, in a book that only has five.

To be fair, DeRogatis points out in her introduction that she could not possibly cover the breadth of American evangelicalism. One could not expect her to. But I do wish she had included some quantitative analysis of the topics she did cover: how many copies, for instance, of that "marginal text" that is the centerpiece of Chapter 3 have been sold? How does that compare with other evangelical texts on the topic of sexual healing? With popular secular books about sexual healing? The pattern held throughout the book; on almost every page I wanted to know: how many copies of the book she's discussing have been sold? How popular is this blog she's referencing? How mainstream is this?

Unfortunately, DeRogatis never tells us, and thus she conspicuously fails to establish the reach and impact of the ideas she so carefully studied. This, combined with the fact that I found so many of the topics completely foreign, left me scratching my head—and shuddering to think what non-evangelicals who read this book are going to think of us.

With one exception: the final chapter, which discusses black evangelical views on sex. The black preachers and teachers discussed here seemed much more gracious and generous than their white counterparts. They seem more balanced—even though they're saying things similar to the white people quoted in the first four chapters. For the first time in reading this book, I could catch glimpses of the Christians I know—people for whom sex or chastity or fidelity are to be taken seriously but not hysterically, people for whom sexual sins are not pathways to demonic possession or generational degradation but opportunities for repentance, healing, forgiveness, and restoration. I found myself hoping that these black teachers' views would expand beyond black evangelicalism and seep into the white evangelical subcultures that, as DeRogatis paints them, are desperately in need of both common sense and a whole heaping of grace.

Of course, if evangelicals, especially white ones, come across in this book as graceless, clueless, and sometimes ridiculous, that is not entirely DeRogatis' fault: many of the writers she's quoting condemn themselves to such conclusions. But her choice of "spokespeople" leaves evangelicals almost without exception looking foolish, extreme, and very unlike the God-man we claim to follow. Some are. The rest of us will want to duck and cover.

Kimberlee Conway Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (InterVarsity Press) and Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis (Mason Lewis Press). She lives in Seattle with her husband and four children.

Most ReadMost Shared