In the November 3, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer and New America Foundation Fellow, Margaret Talbot attempted to dispel some common misperceptions concerning evangelicals and sexuality. In her article, Talbot queries the evangelical reaction to Bristol Palin’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, only to discover that the dilemma endeared the Republican base (read: evangelicals) to Governor Sarah Palin even further. Turns out, evangelicals are hardly shocked to discover their kids are having sex, even the ones who’ve made a commitment to sexual abstinence before marriage. Unlike their Blue-State counterparts, however, evangelicals are unlikely to supply their young women with either contraception or abortion procedures. And further unlike their cultural nemeses, they do not balk at the challenge of welcoming a new life into their fold.
Talbot touched briefly upon the seeming discrepancy between evangelical belief and practice when it comes to sex. As a journalist, Talbot relies upon the recent glut of social scientific studies that explain this discrepancy. Evangelicals are hands-down the strongest advocates of sexual abstinence before marriage, and their advocacy includes a strong suspicion of birth control, which many of them view as interfering with God’s plan for human reproduction. And yet, evangelical adolescents have sex at the same rate as their peers, sending concerned evangelical writers to their laptops in droves. Among these worried scribblers is Lauren Winner, whom Talbot references as one of the few “saavy” authors within the genre. Talbot hails Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity as a rare exception in the field, one that neither demeans nor idealizes sex as degrading or ethereal. Instead, Winner acknowledges with chagrin that too many young evangelicals have grown ashamed of their bodies, and calls upon Christians to embrace the sensuality of food, play, and other embodied practices. While Winner’s views initially seem refreshing, she develops them with a particular view of Christian community. It seems that the idealism some authors reserve for the wedding night, Winner applies to her expectations of that community. Winner’s optimism is helpful for prescribing an ideal response to adolescent sexual desire; however, it does little to describe the realities most evangelical adolescents live.
Within socially conservative evangelical subcultures, the birth of a new child, no matter the age of its young mother, is always welcomed, as it reaffirms the community’s commitment to a pro-life agenda. Even more, like their predecessors, the Puritans of New England, contemporary evangelicals know that young people who become parents before adulthood are more likely to remain within the community and even more committed to the values that monitor said community. While children born out of wedlock are no doubt labeled a “mistake,” the benefits of such a situation far outweigh the deficits. In subcultures where family commitments overrule professional goals (for women in particular) and personal aspirations (also for women), the birth of a child only confirms the primacy of women’s roles as mother, caregiver, and homemaker. That’s not to say that evangelical women only serve their communities as child-bearers and caregivers. Many do still work “outside the home” while maintaining their primary role as child-caregiver. Like the discrepancy between evangelical belief and practice in regard to premarital sex, gender roles do not always conform to the ideal.
Outsiders often mistake this discrepancy between belief and practice as a form of hypocrisy. Talbot and others seem to suggest that evangelicals use sexual behavior as a litmus test for one’s authentic faith commitment. But the true test, for evangelicals, is not how sinless one can be, but how guilty one feels about the sins already committed. Even if one is not racked with guilt, evangelicals believe that unsanctioned sexual practice carries its own set of natural consequences, designed specifically to punish those who do not follow “God’s design for human sexuality.” Despite evidence that many of their own ranks engage in premarital sex without consequence, they depend upon STDs, emotional heartbreak, and pregnancy scares to provide adequate corrective measures. What’s a scarlet letter when you’ve got a raging case of the clap?
As individuals, evangelicals are especially good at self-monitoring. Students committed to sexual abstinence hesitate to call themselves “sexually pure” based on their struggles with impure thoughts or having engaged in sexual (though non-genital) play of some kind. The solution to the problem of sexual desire is not to lower behavioral standards, but to increase the believer’s dependence upon [G]od and the power of [H]is forgiveness. For evangelicals, the discrepancy between belief and practice is intentional. At their very core, they are idealists living with very realistic desires and temptations. Their fallen practices (i.e., those practices that most reflect those of their secular neighbors) of premarital sex, single parenthood and working motherhood, only affirm their ideals, for each of these risky behaviors increases their dependence on God and community.
Of course, sex, according to evangelicals, is not ultimately individualistic. Sex is not only everybody’s business, it is the mess that everyone is busy trying to keep neat and tidy. Sexual behavior is an entirely public enterprise. Lauren Winner refers to this as the Rotunda Principle. During her courtship with her now husband, Winner and her fiancé agreed that their sexual practices would be limited to those they felt comfortable doing on the steps of the campus rotunda. Believing that sex is inherently a public or communal endeavor, Winner and her partner agreed to stem their sexual practices according to the expectations of their religious community. Anyone who believes evangelicals are uncomfortable with sex can take a lesson from Winner. Evangelicals like their sex out in the open, where it’s easiest to adjudicate between pure/good sex and unsanctioned/bad sex. This is why they deal so well with unintended pregnancy. Not only does it confirm their belief that sex is meant primarily for procreation, but unintended pregnancy demonstrates their conviction that sexual practices require full disclosure, making the woman with-child in question open to both public support and public scrutiny, whether she welcome it or not.
Observers such as Talbot mark Winner as one of the few “saavy” writers on evangelical sex. Yet Winner’s suggestions for maintaining a chaste courtship are not based on her experiences as an evangelical teenager, but on her current status as a convert to the tradition. Unlike me, Winner was sexually active at an early age, free from adult scrutiny, and spent many years enjoying her sexuality in the context of significant relationships, encounters she found physically and emotionally gratifying. Only as an adult convert to evangelicalism and a married woman did Winner begin offering advice on premarital sexuality, based on her newfound belief in particular interpretations of the Bible that overly prioritize sexual purity. Perhaps she would offer different advice had she first undergone the Orwellian psychodrama I experienced as an evangelical adolescent.
As a high school student in a small, parent-run, Christian school, I learned of a school board meeting in which one concerned parent commented on a recent school-sponsored party where two young people were “making out in the closet.” First of all, it wasn’t a closet (though it certainly wasn’t a rotunda.) And it was the first time my boyfriend ever kissed me. It was exciting and warm, and I felt special, the way that any fourteen-year-old girl should when a boy kisses her for the first time. The next week, that lovely moment between two young people turned into a moment of personal shame when my locker-mate informed me of very public conversations regarding my very private activities. Even though I was never reprimanded, the experience of having a private, special moment turn into a cause for concern over my moral bearings served to remind me that I did not have the right to privacy, even as I negotiated the complicated desires of adolescent womanhood. At my school, most of my classmates had known each other since kindergarten, so school was not so much a place to encounter new people and new ideas, but an extended family stuck at a twelve-year reunion. So the crazy notion that two young people might have some stirrings that required privacy, or at least discretion, was not up for debate. Adolescent sexual desire was a problem that required monitoring, not a natural inclination that needed compassion, direct communication, and, yes, privacy.
Winner’s Rotunda Principle would not seem so invasive, I imagine, had I not come of age on the rotunda. I don’t dismiss Winner’s advice wholesale. I have good, feminist, Methodist friends who find her writing affirming of their own struggles to reclaim their sexuality from meaningless sexual encounters. But as a spokesperson for evangelicals and an advisor on sexual practices, Winner does not understand the weight of the Orwellian psychodrama I experienced as an evangelical adolescent. Perhaps if she did, perhaps if she recognized the limits of traditional Biblical interpretation to address adolescent sexual desire, she would welcome a diversity of premarital sexual experiences rather than adding to the mountainous list of evangelical authors attempting to justify the monitoring of adolescent sexuality. In an age when sex is regulated more than an out-of-control economy is, sexual ethics need to respect the right to privacy, teach sexual responsibility, and recognize the ability of adolescents to learn the distinction between sexual freedom and sexual shame. Only then will adolescents, and the adults they grow up to be, be free to experience sex, red, blue, or otherwise, as the joyful, exciting, mysterious encounter God created it to be.
* Image: A collage based on a poster for the silent movie The Scarlet Letter (1926) directed by Victor Seastrom.