Holy sex!

Welcome to the Christian sex advice movement, where brave souls tackle the stereotype that evangelicals are prudes (masturbation is still iffy).

Published April 9, 2008 10:07AM (EDT)

The main sanctuary of Calvary Church, in the cornfields of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, seats four thousand people. On the weekend of April 28, 2006, it was nearly full with women, some from as far away as Canada and Idaho, who had paid $50 each to be there. Linda Dillow, a young-looking grandmother of five, greeted the congregation warmly and began to preach her own brand of the gospel. "What," she asked, "does God really think about sex?"

Dillow knows what many Christians believe. "Because I want to be godly, I can't allow myself to be too earthly," one woman had told her, "I allow myself to experience pleasure -- but only so much." The Calvary Church audience murmured in understanding. "Ladies," announced Dillow, "sensuality in marriage is godly. Just as a husband and wife experience deep joy as they lose themselves and merge into oneness at the moment of sexual climax, we experience ultimate joy as we become one with Jesus Christ in a union that leads to incomprehensible joy. Sexual intercourse mirrors our relationship to God and causes us to worship him for giving us this good gift." Surely it couldn't be a coincidence, she added with a wink, that there is no better time than a long Sunday morning in church to practice your Kegel exercises.

Over the last few years, Dillow has gained a reputation as the Christian Dr. Ruth, sharing with married couples the good news of hot, healthy, holy sex. "There's this fear that if you teach what God teaches in the scripture -- which is a free, wonderful, exciting sexual relationship in marriage," she told me, "that people will take license, and sex will get out of hand. They will give in too much to their desires. I think there's a fear of what will happen if you say, God is for freedom."

To combat that fear, Dillow and her friend Lorraine Pintus founded Intimate Issues, a pro-sex ministry that hosts conferences for women and couples seeking a richer love life. They have also written two books that promote the joys of marital sex, "Intimate Issues" and "Intimacy Ignited" -- two entries in a flourishing genre that includes titles such as "Sacred Sex," "The Glorious Pursuit," "Sheet Music" and "His Needs, Her Needs." "Some women," write Dillow and Pintus, "have spent so many years 'damming up' their sexual passions in an attempt to remain pure that they find it difficult to suddenly open the floodgates and allow sexual feelings to flow." The Christian sex advice movement is dedicated to unleashing that flood.

Dillow knows what much of the world thinks of Christians: they're prudes, they're frigid, they fear and discourage sexual pleasure, especially in women. And she admits that Christians have only themselves to blame for this perception. "Augustine, who wrote a lot of wonderful things, had a very warped view about sex," she said. "Even Martin Luther, who was married, said, 'Intercourse is never without sin, but God excuses it by his grace.' Women today don't know these statements, but I think the whole attitude has filtered down to them." But what was historically true is no longer universal.

The canard that conservative Christians believe sex is only for procreation is explicitly refuted by several writers. Citing scripture, they identify numerous reasons God created sex. Procreation is one, but the Bible also encourages sex as a way to strengthen marital bonds, as a defense against indiscriminate lust, and as a means for dispensing comfort. And judging by the allocation of space, the main reason God invented sex is pleasure. Sexual pleasure gets an entire book of the Bible: the Song of Solomon.

"Intimacy Ignited," which Dillow and Pintus wrote with their husbands, takes couples through the Song verse by verse, using it as a practical guide for lovemaking. When Solomon's bride says, "Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me,” Dillow and Pintus helpfully point out that the Hebrew word translated as embrace has the sense here of fondle. When she says, "let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits," they note that "this phrase may be a veiled and delicate reference to an oral-genital caress." At the same time, they make the larger point that not only does God approve of all this, but that God's approval is the reason for doing it. Not oral-genital caressing necessarily, but whatever makes you both happy.

Like most Christian pop culture, the pop sexuality movement has lagged behind its mainstream counterpart, though not quite as far as you might think. The first Christian sex advice books began appearing in the 1970s -- "wrapped in cellophane and stocked on the top shelf in Christian bookstores," says Tim Alan Gardner, the author of "Sacred Sex." Many of these early works were written in response to, and repudiation of, "women's liberation." The most famous, and still the genre's only crossover success, was Marabel Morgan's "The Total Woman," which sold over ten million copies and was the bestselling nonfiction title of 1974. Morgan is best remembered as the woman who advised wives to greet their husbands at the door in skimpy, even bizarre, outfits; her books weren't the only thing wrapped in cellophane. But her more significant contribution to the culture was her broader message that "it is only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him, and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him."

Within the evangelical subculture, the most popular and influential early sex manual was "The Act of Marriage," written in 1976 by Tim and Beverly LaHaye. Until he wrote the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic thrillers, this book was what Tim LaHaye was most famous for. The LaHayes were among the first popular authors to promote the idea that pleasurable sex fulfills, rather than sullies, God's plan for marriage. God, they note, created the clitoris, whose only function is sexual arousal.

For a generation of Christians, "The Act of Marriage" was one of two books that nearly every couple received as a discreet wedding gift. The other was "Intended for Pleasure," a 1977 book by physician Ed Wheat. Wheat's book echoed Morgan's in its advice to women. A chapter for wives instructs, "Look pretty. Keep smiling. Don't complain."

Thirty years later, gender stereotypes certainly remain -- "man was created with a need; woman was created to fill a need," write Dillow and Pintus -- but as a practical matter, an emphasis on mutuality has become central. The relevant biblical injunction is from 1 Corinthians: "The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife." So while Dillow and Pintus frequently tell wives that they may never refuse their husband's sexual advances, they also inform husbands that "giving authority of your body to your wife means there will be times you must deny your own sexual desire so you can serve her." That the viability of such an arrangement requires a marriage in which there is perfect mutual empathy is precisely the point.

Of course, this ideal is undermined considerably by the larger context. Virtually all sex advice books are written for women, so women are getting their side of the message far more often. And while Dillow and Pintus tell wives they should not by afraid to "aggressively take the initiative," a more common sentiment is the one pastor Wendy Treat expresses in "Sex: Let's Talk About It": "Begin to see your husband as Tarzan. See him as the man God brought into the world as your conqueror."

Treat does not have the same stature as Dillow and Pintus, but her book is perhaps more revealing about the audience for Christian sex advice. "Too often," she writes casually, "couples complete the sex act, and the husband goes to sleep while the wife rolls over and cries for hours." This heartbreaking picture is only compounded by the recognition that while Treat thinks she is offering a solution, she is probably part of the problem. One reason wives can't enjoy sex, Treat says, is that they had too much of it before they got married. "I've not met one woman who had sex before marriage who was not ashamed of it," Treat writes. Not coincidentally, here's how Treat handles the topic in her own family: "I explain to my children that sex before marriage will eat you up inside, because God has written in your heart the right thing to do. If you go against His plan, it just hurts you. It is painful and ugly. I have always taught my children to feel badly when they do anything against the Word." So the crying jags are God's punishment for sin. Or maybe too many women had mothers like Wendy Treat.

Treat is the embodiment of a tone-deafness that still plagues Christian counselors when it comes to sex, even when their intent is admirable. "Men, love your wife's frame," she writes. "Don't wish she had bigger breasts … Breast tissue is just fat. God made each woman with the right amount of fat."

The refreshing thing about Dillow and Pintus is that they would never tell husbands that their wives breasts are "just fat." Following the Song of Solomon, they encourage couples to develop a "private love language" to refer to their bodies. Recommended sex codes include "Honey, the flower is in bloom tonight," "Let's go sailing" and "Let's play a board game. I'll be the board and you play the game."

It is easy for worldly readers, steeped in the depravity of un-Godly sex, to find some of Dillow and Pintus's advice quaint or nauseating or even a little poignant. Still, Dillow and Pintus have built a following because they emphasize the enjoyment of sex, urging couples to bring "spice and variety" to their lovemaking and reminding them that "intercourse is only one of many ways to have sex." If this seems underwhelming in its obviousness, consider that the authors are working in a community that reveres John Piper, an enormously influential 62-year-old Pastor and the co-editor of a 2005 anthology called "Sex and the Supremacy of Christ." In Piper's book, "to engage in sex is to call God as witness to hold us accountable for our covenantal commitment." Forget board games, honey. Let's go to the bedroom and call God as witness to hold us accountable for our covenantal commitment. For this segment of the evangelical community, "puritanical" is a compliment.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that women come to Dillow and Pintus with a host of questions. The one they get more than any other is, What's not OK in bed? The modern evangelical view is that unless scripture prohibits something, husbands and wives should do whatever they enjoy. That sounds simple enough, until you get into specifics. Dillow and Pintus list ten prohibitions from the Bible. Several are straightforward: adultery; homosexuality; bestiality; prostitution; incest. But others raise as many questions as they answer. What is impurity? What constitutes lustful passions or coarse talk?

"God doesn't in the scriptures say, All right, these acts are acceptable," Dillow told me. Her approach is to examine "the whole intent of all scripture. The message Christ brought is, You are not under the law; you are under grace, and that we are given a lot of freedom to decide what is beneficial for us, what is loving between this husband and this wife."

Christian sex counselors usually find that talk like this quickly brings out the specific question that couples really have in mind: What about oral sex? The simple answer is that other than two allusions in the Song of Solomon, the Bible doesn't say. That leaves sex advisors a broad range of possible responses. Dillow and Pintus are careful to say that couples should decide for themselves what they're comfortable with, but make it plain that they think it's pretty swell. Other writers are more circumspect. I asked Dillow why that is, and she answered, "because of the homosexual thing."

On the topic of oral sex, Wendy Treat says curtly that "the Lord left it to your conscience." The LaHayes say, without further clarification, that "if it has a place in marriage, we would suggest it be limited to foreplay." And Ed Wheat observes that, "oral-genital sex definitely limits the amount of loving verbal communication that husband and wife can have as they make love."

Masturbation is even more fraught. Dillow and Pintus are forgiving on the subject, saying that as long as fantasies about people other than your spouse are not involved, it is a "personal issue." But other authors raise objections. "It may cause you to feel that you don't need a spouse or that a spouse can never fulfill you like you think you can fulfill yourself," says Treat. The LaHayes simply assert that "no married man should relieve his mounting, God-given desire for his wife except through coitus."

The disputes pile up quickly. Dillow and Pintus say vibrators may be "beneficial"; Treat sniffs, "They didn't have such equipment when the Bible was written." A "quickie," say Dillow and Pintus, "satisfies and whets the appetite"; No, says Wheat, "only lust and self-gratification are done in haste." At least there's one thing everyone can agree on. "What about anal sex?" asks Leman. "It's kinky, and I believe it's wrong. This is one area where I tell men they need to let go of this expectation or fantasy." No one will try to argue that the Bible expressly forbids it, but most are happy to do so on the Bible's behalf. Tim Gardner, in "Sacred Sex," says anal sex is sinful because it is "motivated by needs to debase the self." Dillow allows that couples must make their own decision, but she strongly advises against it for "medical reasons." Not, of course, because of the homosexual thing.

Interestingly, the Internet may be eroding the authority of Christian sex experts. Online, evangelicals have begun to build their own communities for sharing advice about sex that bypasses the delicate sensibilities and culturally determined taboos of even the more open-minded professionals. The largest of these is a website called The Marriage Bed, whose bulletin boards offer not pronouncements from on high, but energetic conversation. This is the site to check if you're looking for the Christian case for women using strap-on dildos on their husbands ("If the only access to the prostrate is through the rectum, and I know for a fact that my pressing on the prostrate increases his pleasure, then perhaps it is ok in God's eyes for me to do that for the man He's given me") or men ejaculating on their wives faces ("It's part of our nature to want to be creative with where we 'release' our most basic creative force, and I can't help but want to be creative, I was created in my Creators image").

There were many ways in which I admired the advice in these books and conferences. Despite lingering gender stereotypes, these books, especially Dillow and Pintus's, offered generally sound and worthwhile information. Many marriages, not just Christian ones, could be improved by less television and more foot massages. Still, it was hard to get past the author's firm pronouncements about the horrors that are inevitably brought down on marriages by such commonplace "transgressions" as having a sexual history or fantasizing about movie stars. To say, as these books do, that this behavior renders you incapable of loving your spouse deeply, fully and without shame, is insulting to 99 percent of married Americans. Or at least it would be if it weren't manifestly false.

The LaHayes have an answer to this. As evidence that masturbation is wrong, they write, "feelings of guilt are a nearly universal aftermath of masturbation unless one has been brainwashed by the humanistic philosophy that does not hold to a God-given conscience or, in many cases, right or wrong." It's perfectly impenetrable circular logic. Guilt proves that God objects and lack of guilt proves that you've rejected God.

In a way, understanding the flaws of the Christian sex advice movement helps make plain a problem that many people have with conservative evangelical philosophy in general. Can all the mysteries of sex and marriage really be answered by a two thousand-year-old book? There is wisdom in the Bible, certainly, but how reliable is it as a universal instruction manual?

Paradoxically, by trying to read the Bible as all-encompassing, pop Christianity actually diminishes it. There's something disappointing about reducing the transcendent poetry of the Song of Solomon to a mere self-help book. One typical sentence of "Intimacy Ignited" says that when the Song describes Solomon's naked body, "God is saying, 'It is right and good to dwell on your husband's body.'" [emphasis in the original]. But the Song of Solomon isn't about us. There is a company that publishes a special edition of the Bible called the "Personal Promise Bible," which inserts the name of the owner and their spouse into the text, so that a typical line in the Song is rendered as "Gina's two breasts are like two fawns." Read that way, the ridiculousness becomes clear. But this pop reductionism is precisely what Dillow and Pintus do in "Intimacy Ignited." While there is no doubt that many couples can benefit from sex advice, perhaps it would be better to leave the Bible out of it, for the sake of the Bible as much as anything.

By Daniel Radosh

Daniel Radosh is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at the Week.

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