You know Christian conservatives don't believe in sex before marriage. You probably know they also tend to believe in having lots of sex after marriage. But a new argument is emerging: the sex isn't so much about making babies as it is about pleasure. Not pleasure for its own sake, however, but for the purpose of strengthening Christian marriages so that they can be bulwarks in the culture war against the gay menace.
Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy With Your Spouse and Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together sound like standard advice manuals of the sort found in every bookstore's self-help section. But as Tracy Clark-Flory explains, the two books (each authored by conservative male pastors and their wives) hide a profoundly reactionary agenda behind their ostensible concern for helping couples achieve marital bliss. Both books are hostile to pornography, homosexuality, and masturbation. Anything other than monogamous, heterosexual married sex is, the authors promise, a recipe for enduring misery.
Both also represent the latest examples of the ongoing image makeover for the Christian right. Blending secular psychology with evangelical theology, the authors make the case that following "God's plan" for sex isn't so much about being good as it is about being happy. This marks a tactical shift. 30 years ago, religious conservatives banded together to form the Moral Majority in hopes of moving American society to the right. With pastors like Jerry Falwell and pundits like Pat Buchanan, they embraced a culture war between the saved and the damned. Sexuality was a central moral issue, and the rhetoric focused on sin.
The divisive language of Falwell and his generation of right-wing Christian political leaders brought conservative voters to the polls. But it also alienated much of the rest of America. In the 1990s, leadership of the religious right shifted to a younger generation more adept at infiltrating popular culture. Political leaders like Ralph Reed and pastors like Mark Driscoll (author of Real Marriage and head of Mars Hill, the Seattle mega-church) tried to soften the judgmental rhetoric. In the political sphere, that meant the advent of ideas like "compassionate conservatism." In the culture wars, that meant framing pre-marital abstinence and post-marital sexual obligation less as moral obligations than as choices designed to maximize personal happiness.
The message shifted from "pre-marital sex is sinful" to "pre-marital sex will make you unhappy." This tactical adjustment also helped ensure a steady stream of government funds to abstinence-only programs (beginning, as too many of us forget, before Bush the Younger, during the Clinton Administration). Total celibacy for the unmarried was right chiefly because it was God's will, religious conservatives believed, but they were clever enough to figure out that riding the federal gravy train would require making arguments rooted in psychology rather than in Scripture.
In the 2000s, as the fight against same-sex unions began to rival abortion as the central battleground of the culture war, many on the right realized that a successful counteroffensive against the movement for marriage equality would require something more than appeals to bigotry and homophobia. To win at the ballot box in places like California, social conservatives couldn't rely on hate-filled rhetoric alone. Rather, they needed to frame heterosexual marriage itself as a vulnerable but uniquely precious institution.
Proving the vulnerable part was easy; a quick look at the divorce rate and the rising percentage of out-of-wedlock births served to make the case that marriage was threatened. (Never mind that neither phenomenon had any causal relationship with increased societal acceptance of gays and lesbians.) The second aspect was equally important: selling heterosexual marriage as the greatest imaginable vehicle for personal fulfillment. And that meant selling marriage as incredibly sexy.
Books like Real Marriage and Sexperiment aren't just full of risible advice and tortured metaphors. (Clark-Flory cites this line from the latter book: "God doesn't want us to experience little sex in the dog bed; he wants us to experience the power and purpose of big sex in the right bed.") These aren't even just manuals for how to have an active and fulfilling sex life with the same person until you die. These are battlefield manuals for the culture war. If heterosexual marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, and a hot sex life is (as even plenty of non-religious folks would concede) a key to a happy relationship, then having lots and lots of sizzling Christian married sex isn't just about making babies or feeling good. It's about doing your duty in the great struggle against the forces of moral relativism, homosexuality, and Satan.
Two doing their duty very publicly are the authors of Sexperiment, Pastor Ed Young and his wife Lisa. The couple gained national attention earlier this month with a "bed-in" on the roof of their church. Four years ago, they'd also made headlines with their seven-day sex challenge (the genesis of their book), which called upon married couples in their congregation to have sex every day for a week. Regular sex, they claim, not only serves as an inoculation against infidelity and pornography use (which the Youngs, like many Christian conservatives, see as essentially the same things), it binds a couple together spiritually.
There's nothing new about the claim that Christian married couples should have regular sex in order to reduce the likelihood of sin. The Apostle Paul says as much in his first letter to the Corinthians. Nor does the novelty of books like Sexperiment and Real Marriage lie in their relative explicitness, or the numerous bizarre metaphors that Clark-Flory recounts. What sets them apart is that they make sex about something other than making babies, reducing the temptation to stray, or just bonding a couple closer together. Orgasmic — and obligatory — sex is a sure guarantor of marital happiness, these pastors insist. That connubial bliss not only strengthens individual relationships but in turn it strengthens the precious, threatened "marriage culture" that matters so much to Driscoll, to the Youngs, and to politicians like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
The old message that you shouldn't have sex before marriage hasn't changed. What's new with books like these is the thinly-disguised claim that if you don't have regular sex after your wedding day, you're letting down your fellow culture warriors. Put simply, every night you don't get it on with your spouse, the gays win.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.