Oh God! The lord's my sex guru: Pious perverts, quasi-incestuous misogyny and the twisted world of religious sexual repression

Evangelicals are penning sex manuals. The purity movement oddballs are on the move. It's all deeply disturbing

Published July 12, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

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One might expect the faith-deranged audience of televangelist Pat Robertson to nod contentedly when he blames “awful-looking” women for their own sexual tribulations or counsels a man with a “rebellious” wife not to “let her get away with this stuff,” and, if need be, “become a Muslim ... and beat her.”  One shrugs at religion-besotted males agreeing with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee when he defends former Missouri “legitimate rape” congressman Todd Akin.  One feels no real surprise when yet another “man of the cloth” turns out to be a sex criminal.  After all, the faithful say and do reprehensible things.

Starting, of course, with doing what makes them faithful: believing in the sacrosanct inerrancy of the Bible, which, in “The Age of Reason,” the British-American revolutionary Thomas Paine called “the word of a demon ... a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind,” a “lying book” bristling with prophets who are but “impostors and liars.”  Nothing good could come from such a vile old tome, the latter, often more kindly regarded segment of which originated from, Paine tells us, the “supposed debauchery” of the Lord deflowering the Virgin Mary.  Sound Bible-based guidance for living in the 21st century?  You must be kidding.

Yet it turns out, writes T. M. Luhrmann in an Op-Ed for the New York Times on religion and sexuality, that there exists a “surprisingly rich and briskly selling literature of evangelical sex manuals.”  The title of her piece, “The Appeal of Christian Piety,” sounds boringly bland in view of the twisted world of sexual repression, quasi-incestuous misogyny, and superstitious rituals to which it opens the door.

Luhrmann presents us with disturbing material showing the baleful influence religion has on its female adherents.  But, being an anthropology professor at Stanford, she refuses to take sides, evincing a frustrating non-judgmentalism that stems in part, no doubt, from her scholarly background, but also owes a good deal to the automatic respect our prevailing rules of discourse dictate we pay to anyone spouting faith-related nonsensicalities.  That person over there is muttering to an invisible boss in the sky?  Shshshshsh!  He’s praying!  On your way to share your most intimate secrets with an old virgin male you hardly know?  Must be confession-time!  What, outlandish ancient fables tell us what to do about abortion?  Oh, you’re talking about the Bible, so I have to take you seriously!

Back to Luhrmann.  She takes as her starting point “Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism,” a study authored by Amy DeRogatis, an associate professor of religion and American culture at Michigan State.  From DeRogatis we learn of “princess purity books,” which, says Luhrmann, “present as empowering a young woman’s decision to leave all decisions in the hands of others.”  Then we read of “helpmeet literature,” one example of which decrees: “It is far better that the job be done poorly by your husband ... than it be done well by you.”  Luhrmann flatly notes that “This kind of language infuriates secular observers, who say these ideas are not only antiquated but can even be harmful,” but she will not say if it infuriates her.

Nor will she explain just why evangelicals are penning sex manuals in the first place.  To find out, I Googled DeRogatis.  DeRogatis, I discovered, describes “the role of the Bible as a reliable guide for sexual pleasure within heterosexual marriage,” which should not surprise us, since “sexual pleasure ... is part of God’s plan for humanity.”

Really?  Such statements are absurd prima facie and baseless upon closer examination.  The Bible contains no how-to verse about sex.  Moreover, for millennia belief in God has staunched the libido of his miserably deluded votaries and engendered all manner of agonizing neuroses.  If you’re in doubt, read Flannery O’Connor’s tragic “Wise Blood” or watch John Huston’s fine 1979 film adaptation of it.

The problem with accepting God as sex guru comes from His character and the alleged nature of His omniscient, omnipresent surveillance of us, which doesn’t exactly accord with any concept of healthy sexual expression.  For starters, the Bible informs us that God “our Father” knows our thoughts and our hearts, and what we do everywhere and at all times.  So it follows that God our Father is in the bedroom with us.  From all the condemnatory biblical injunctions concerning sex, we know He’s an avid, censorious voyeur of our amorous exertions.  Not very arousing, that.

To make this more vivid: How would you feel if you knew your own father was not only watching you make love but monitoring your fantasies as you do so?  What if he were also evaluating you as a candidate for everlasting punishment?  What if he happened to be jealous, cruel and vindictive, and always – always! – on your case?  Would you feel comfortable having sex in his presence and seeking his sex advice?

And what about women, in particular?  Let’s not forget that God the Father treats His “daughters” with wanton cruelty. He assigns them to men as property (Exodus 20:17).  He created them innately “unclean,” or they become so once a month, and doubly so if they shamefully happen to give birth to girls (Leviticus 12:1-8).  He forces them to undergo the agonies of childbirth as punishment for listening to a talking snake (Genesis 3:16).  They can join their sisters in a man’s multitudinous concubinage (1 Kings: 11:3) or be one of his many wives, but not have more than one husband themselves.  Their biological fathers can sell them into sex slavery (Exodus 21:7).  They can be won as war booty (Numbers 31:17-18).  Their word means nothing unless male relatives back them up (Numbers 30:1-16).  They have to keep their mouths shut in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), obey their husbands (Colossians 3:18), and have no right to teach them anything (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

I’ve mixed Old and New Testaments here, but remember, no verse in the Bible authorizes us to disregard a single word of it. Jesus himself stated this explicitly.

What self-respecting – I repeat, self-respecting -- woman of our time, examining the “Good Book” and finding in it so many atrocities, would look to its monstrous “Holy Father” protagonist for sex advice?  The Lord and his rule book merit the ancient Roman judgment of damnatio memoriae -- the opprobrium of being never mentioned again and consigned to the rushing waters of Lethe, to be born out to sea and eternal oblivion.  We should have moved beyond all this “holy” gibberish long ago.  We certainly don’t need to drag it into our bedrooms now.

Now we come to “The Virgin Daughters,” which Luhrmann mentions only in passing, but whose subjects, in fact, warrant our scrutiny as case studies of late-stage faith derangement syndrome.  The film, shot by Britain’s Channel 4, documents how evangelicals of the “Purity Movement” out in the vast, red-state hinterland brainwash their daughters into dating their fathers for the purpose of attending “Purity Balls” at which their fathers pledge (in writing) to protect their chastity until marriage.  The Purity Ball’s site bills these affairs as “Christ-centered” evenings encouraging “biblical values” -- sic!  See above! – that strengthen “the bond between fathers and daughters.” Given what we’ve just seen of the Bible’s “values,” these are ominous words.

The Purity Movement, inspired by the childhood fantasy that Daddy Dearest is a daughter’s True Love, is a cult of meddlesome parents who “live their faith” and impose it on their defenseless daughters, impressing upon them the essential impurity of sex, and instilling in them the Bronze Age conviction that their attractiveness as future spouses (their only option in life being marriage, of course) and value as human beings lies in the intact state of their hymens.  The Movement’s signature event is an annual faux-Medieval ritual in a dimly lit chamber involving swords, victuals, public confessions of intimate emotions, and bodily contact between adult males and consanguineous underage girls.

(Oh, no, call the police!  Wait, it’s religion, so it’s OK!)

The film’s narrator tells us that one out of six American girls as young as 5 are (or at least, as of 2008, were) taking “purity pledges” – that is, vows of premarital chastity.  (Luhrmann links to a study showing that such pledges generally don’t work.  Moreover, states where religion is strongest have the highest teen pregnancy rates.)  The Purity Movement counts among its most prominent members one Randy Wilson, then a minister at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, who himself has eight children (among them six daughters).  The film covers the preparation for the Ball undertaken by a number of teens, including Wilson’s second-oldest daughter, an angelic belle named Lauren.

Wilson tells us that a father has to “enforce” the idea upon his daughter that she is beautiful, or she will “go outside the home” and look for affirmation from other men.  Straightaway establishing the “Electra complex” theme, he explains that girls aged 5 to 7 want to marry their “daddy.  He is in their lives the significant individual.  The father’s everything.”  Another Purity-Movement pop explains to the camera that if he can preserve the chastity of his daughter, seated beside him, “How cool would it be [for her] to say, I’ve kissed but one man in my life? . . . Why not shoot for the fairy tale?”

In other interviews, the daughters talk openly of their distaste for dating, and their desire to remain “pure” (no kissing, even) for their future husbands.  Wilson’s oldest daughter, Khristian (then 20, never dated, still a virgin) talks with evident disgust at the possibility of bringing “anything unhealthy into [her] body.”  When the time comes, the daughters will introduce their prospective betrothed to their fathers “for inspection,” says 11-year-old Hannah.  She and the other girls regurgitate Christian shibboleths about the prevailing Sodom and Gomorrah they are rejecting in favor of “purity,” never varying from the script, and often with their fathers right beside them.  We hope (in vain, of course) for one of the girls to jump up and say, “Dad, get your mind off my vagina!  My body belongs to me!”  But no.

(There was one free-thinker, though, and we’ll turn to her in a moment.)

The film culminates with the Purity Ball, held in, yes, a hotel ballroom.  No Franciscan simplicity here: a Purity Ball, says the website, is “an elegant evening of dining, discussion, and decision,” during which, “Fathers commit” in writing, by signing the pre-printed “covenant” form, to their daughters that they will remain pure, and “ask their daughters for the same commitment.”  (How fathers are to uphold their end of the deal is not explained. Whether they are encouraged to examine their daughters’ vulva to establish compliance is not stated.)  In any case, the advertised elegance comes at a price, of course -- $70 per ticket -- but “scholarships” -- from the $60 redundantly named “Scholarship Scholarship” to the $5,000-platinum deal -- are “available for those who need them.”

The film takes us through the whole bizarre soirée, from the daughters’ tutu-clad dance around a cross, to their onstage professions of devotion to Daddy Dearest out in the audience, to the father-daughter couples' procession beneath overarching swords that end with them jointly placing their chastity “convenants” at the cross’s base, followed by a father-daughter foxtrot.  Objectively speaking, we watch older men gettin’ down on the dance floor with very young women, some minors.

The Purity Movement’s key message shines through the documentary with arresting clarity: The value of a young woman resides in the pristine state of her (father-policed) hymen, until such time as she is penetrated by father’s duly approved surrogate.  Should her hymen be damaged before her wedding, would her groom have a right to return her to her father’s doorway to be stoned to death, as the Bible decrees?  We don’t know, but we assume not. There are laws in this country, at least as long as we keep the faith-deranged from tampering with our legislation.

The film’s most sympathetic character is a Purity-Movement escapee named Jessica.  Jessica, whose mother had served as her vaginal warden, tearfully recounts her six lost years and how they retarded her development, leaving her unprepared for the real world.  She wised up, though, struck out on her own, got an education and started a career, and found a significant other, with whom she now happily shares an apartment.  She is estranged from her still faith-deranged mother. Watching her cry and listening to her talk of the anguish she suffered is as heartbreaking as it was tragically unnecessary.

The unwholesome obsession the Purity Movement parents display with the state of their daughters’ genitalia should set off alarm bells.  Remember, a father concernedly intoning to his young teen, “I’m worried about your chastity, dear!” really means “I’m obsessed with your vagina, little one!”  Richard Dawkins has suggested that forcing religion on children be considered tantamount to child abuse – something Child Protective Services might want to keep in mind if they are ever called to the homes of Purity Movement members.

The ultimate way to fight cults such as the Purity Movement?  Free, forthright and unfettered speech about religion, liberally administered to those seduced by faith’s dark dogmas and to children, of course, who should be warned that pious perverts are lurking abroad, waiting to warp their minds with God-prattle and calls to “purity.”

Recall the damage religion does.  Remember the radiant faces of the young in “The Virgin Brides.”

If only for their sake, speak out.  Thomas Paine would be proud.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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