like most women in America, I have never attended a Promise Keepers gathering -- I've only seen them on TV. Actually, an ex of mine has a few cousins who I remember spending a holiday dinner with in the early '90s, and they were big fans of the new ideal in masculine Christianity.
Their faces at our supper table were hot pink from spending the afternoon in a football stadium -- praying, singing and crying with their spiritual brothers. They were high on God, boy-power-blissful, redeemed to a spit polish. And believe me, these were no choir types: They were naughty boys who had been called everything from bullies to bastards to better-off-dead, with case histories to back it up. It seemed like the worse their records, the more vigorously they rejoiced in their conversion. They'd rocketed, in one born-again blast, from selfish and ignorant louts to God's enlightened servants.
When I watched the Keepers march on Washington last month and kneel in one massive group at the Capitol Mall, I thought of Dennis, Renny, Johnny and Coco, in their pre-P.K. personas, prideful in their machismo, wired for conquest. If anyone was going to wind up on their knees, I would have expected it to be the women they'd left behind, sobbing their eyes over going to bed with such hopeless cads. Instead, the womanizers themselves were scraping pavement with their knees, asking for Christ's forgiveness, and I was left with one great unexplained question in my mind: What's up with these guys' sex lives?
In my ignorance, I always presumed that the evangelical churches denied and repressed every kind of sexual expression. I imagined that the reason these stadium rallies seemed like giant homoerotic gatherings of masochistic breast-beaters was because no one had the nerve to talk frankly about sex in their church community, and yet all that trussed-up lust has to come out somehow.
But I was wrong. There is a sophisticated discussion on the Christian way to conduct one's sex life, and its most articulate form can be found in the pages of some very popular Christian sex manuals.
Such books as "A Celebration of Sex" by Dr. Douglas Rosenau (with a forward by Bill McCartney, founder of the Promise Keepers),
"The Gift of Sex" by Clifford and Joyce Penner (over 250,000 copies sold!) and Ed and Gaye Wheat's "Intended for Pleasure" will all give you an explicit and compassionate guide to going absolutely hog-wild in your sacred marriage bed.
The Penners, who are pioneers in this field, are a couple who were raised in rural Mennonite communities. They loved the family-centered church they grew up in, but were aggrieved to witness the "absence of positive sexual teaching, combined with rigid rules about sexual expression, that led us both to believe that sex between a man and woman was seen by our church as evil, even though we did not feel that way about it ourselves."
Clifford and Joyce met each other at a Baptist college, where they first encountered the notion that sexual pleasure was a gift from their God, and that marriage was God's way of bringing two people together, not only to make babies, but to enjoy the passion of each other's bodies. For the first time, they heard a member of their faith say that erotic feelings were natural and even substantiated in the Bible. Believe me, all three of these books cannot resist quoting the exquisite Song of Solomon at length.
All of the Christian authors I've read went on to further their medical training, particularly in psychology and sex research, which they found immeasurably helpful in spreading a simultaneously pro-sexual and pro-Christian message. They find nothing standing in the way, biblically speaking, of advocating joy in the body, orgasms galore and experimentation with different positions and foreplay. They are downright feminist in their insistence that in order for a man to respect his wife, he must respect her sexual needs and become more "Christ-like" in his approach to her pleasure. In other words, slow down, Mr. Premature Ejaculation. I guess Jesus would have taken his time!
Dr. Rosenau and the Penners all went to the Masters and Johnson Institute to learn more about sex, and they repeat, almost verbatim, the classic lessons on how arousal and orgasm take place -- the primacy of the clitoris in women's orgasms and so on. Rosenau recommends self-esteem exercises like "Stand nude in front of a full-length mirror. Observe yourself and describe every one of your body parts with no negative judgments."
Stare at yourself nude in the mirror and say nice things about your body! Surely the authors must know that even this tiny suggestion is incongruous with a lot of the Christian world's dogma. But these books demonstrate that there is a tremendous wish in the Protestant church to develop an approach to sexuality that relates to modern life. Although the authors did not write these books as political tracts, it is clear they believe that the church must support healthy marriages in order to survive as a powerful community, and that neglecting the sexual component in marriage is a half-baked approach to marital success.
For men, the authors recommend recognizing and enhancing your wife's capacity for pleasure. For women, the strongest tip is to be open to your husband's advances whether you're horny at the moment or not -- rely on your love and spiritual reverence for your husband to get the fires started ... and if that doesn't work, there's always a good lubricant!
No, I'm lying -- these authors aren't hip enough to suggest a good massage oil as Plan B (although I'm sure Mary Magdalene would have had something helpful to say on the subject). But it tickled me that they did identify the chief challenge in marital sex as solving the differences in the frequency and timing of female and male desire. Sexperts of any philosophical persuasion would agree with them -- it's the heterosexual erotic conundrum.
Christian sex educators have found their greatest freedom in the areas that the Good Book blessedly overlooks. There's this whole rap on how, since the Bible doesn't come right out and say what the deal is with oral sex, then it's wide open for your own personal interpretation. Or, as Rosenau puts it, "God promises us in Philippians 3:15, 16 that if we act on the truth we do understand, He will help each of us mature and come to an understanding of His will and way."
So if the truth of the matter is that I also would like to try anal sex, is God down with that too? Well, actually, some things are just beyond God's pale. Rosenau has a special chapter for men in his book in which he warns, "Many Christian men have allowed this [anal sex] to become an obsession detracting from the rest of their lovemaking. They obsess about this behavior as a symbol of variety or adventure. The vaginal tissue was designed by God for intercourse and the anus was not." Hey, I'd like to see a biblical page and number on that! If anything, the vaginal muscles are designed to facilitate childbirth, not intercourse per se. Anyway, Dr. Doug is so gentle about this subject that it makes me suspect he's had to struggle with it himself. He ends tenderly by saying: "This may be an area of your fantasies that you need to let go of. "
In my agnostic cluelessness, I could never anticipate what was going to turn out to be OK in the Christian sex scene and what was not. Unzipping yourself in a car: OK! Strip-teasing for your husband: Why not? But something as simple as masturbation: Tricky, tricky, tricky. The act of touching your genitals and stimulating yourself to orgasm is sanctioned. The dangerous part is what you might be thinking about while jilling off.
Herein lies the great terror of the Christian sex manual: the wandering erotic mind. Thinking about sex can so easily lead to thinking about doing it with people other than your spouse, which is out and out sinful. There are also a million other taboos that might enter your erotic daydreams -- from homosexuality to rhumba panties. On this subject all the Christian sex experts agree: The only proper thing to be occupying your mind when you are making love is your spouse -- his or her body, character and love for you. God forbid you start wanking off to thoughts of something or somebody else.
What I appreciate about this Christian logic is that they don't futz around connecting the dots. They say that unchecked fantasy is kissing cousins to pornography, and I agree with them: Pornography is simply the artistic depiction of the show that's playing daily in the theater of men's minds.
Not only do the Christian sexologists take a grim view of the kinds of frolicking depicted in most porn, they object to pornography's very principle, that you are enjoying an image of something or someone who you are not actually connected to in an intimate, marriage-type way. This is where the Christian use of the word "objectification" comes into play, and why so many Christian intellectuals were deeply moved by early feminist analyses of pornography. Both camps feel that it's wrong to lust over an idea you create in your own mind or surmise from a picture or story -- that you are damaging yourself and your faith (be it Baptist or Gloria Steinem) by "making another human being into a depersonalized object for one's sexual gratification" (my emphasis).
Feminists may have given Christians the notion of "objectification," but the anti-porn feminists really owe their sense of outrage over the wiles of the human imagination to their American Christian heritage. They're really not that different from the Christian sects that don't allow "imaginary playmates" or fairy tales in their home. Those flights of fancy are also fuel for the act of turning another human being in one's mind "into an object for gratification."
Yet, if I fantasize about the incredibly gorgeous checkout clerk at my local Safeway (and imagine having anal sex with her, for instance) I have not actually done anything to her. She knows nothing of my thoughts and she never will, unless by some wonderful act of God she throws herself at me while I'm swiping my ATM card. My lusty imagination is not a danger to myself or society -- a fertile erotic mind is not the same as unchecked impulses or a pathological disregard for other people's feelings.
If I should furtively hide my most compelling fantasies from my spouse, I absolutely agree that my secret is going to put a shadow on my honest relationship with my partner. What the Christian sex manuals do not consider is that I could share my fantasies with my spouse without inciting a jealousy-whipped riot of bad feeling. It's inconceivable to them that sharing fantasies without apologies, as well as supporting each other's erotic imagination, could actually be a gift to a good marriage rather than a poison.
I'm afraid that the well-intentioned Christian sex guide is leading its readers into a trap. If you follow the instructions: make time for making love, stand nude before the mirror, enjoy blow jobs in the car and stripteases at noon and lots of kissing and canoodling at all hours, and even go so far as to "not buy a TV in the first year of your marriage" (my favorite suggestion!) so you can really get to know each other -- well, the two of you will be feeling so foxy and well-connected that the inevitable result will be a flourishing fantasy life.
Sure, when you're first infatuated with your beloved, you can spend hours just dreaming about his or her little toe. But fantasy will also take on the memories and mysteries and color of every lover's life as naturally as the natural physical sex these experts describe. There is, shall we say, no fucking way you can turn off those daydreams unless you're planning on getting a lobotomy. To repress them, ironically, leads us to obsess about them, whereas to share one's fantasies with a trusted companion is to have a sense of balance, humor and empathy about our erotic spirits.
Next column: "How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage in 10 Easy Steps!"
Well, maybe it's not so easy, but when it comes to Christian sex manuals, the experts take no prisoners in the war against the sin of adultery. They believe successful monogamy requires a virtual military strategy. Is their advice the hard truth of the matter that secular advisors don't have the stomach to recommend?