White evangelicals embrace raunchy photos — yet they hate sex as much as ever

Trumpian Christians love bikini pics now, but they still don't want women to enjoy sex

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 20, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Girl in the kitchen reading recipe book (Getty Images/Kladyk)
Girl in the kitchen reading recipe book (Getty Images/Kladyk)

For those readers who have the self-esteem not to engage in the world of Christian right social media, let's just get this out of the way: It's heavy on the cheesecake, sometimes verging on softcore adult content. That's a startling thing to say, especially to those of us who came of age any time before the invention of TikTok. It may be hard to believe, but it's true: The same people who wanted to slap "parental advisory" stickers on every album with curse words, distributed "purity rings," and banned leggings in public schools now often take a decolletage-oriented approach to social media content.

Ultra Right Beer put out a pin-up calendar featuring scantily clad influencers from the Christian right-o-sphere. MAGA lawmakers like Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. and Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., wear skintight clothes and make sexualized remarks to draw attention. And, as Ruth Graham reported in the New York Times over the weekend, popular evangelical leaders online frequently use "vulgarities," aping the language of shock jocks to be "relevant and appealing" to young men they want to bring into white evangelicalism. In the world of "tradwife" social media, good Christian "housewives" celebrate their godly womanhood with leg-baring photos and videos of them lustily stirring dough while their bosoms jiggle over mixing bowls.

@naraazizasmith my love language🫶🏽 #easyrecipes #baking #brownies #icecream #fypシ #homecooking #coupletok #marriage #dessert ♬ Chill Vibes - Tollan Kim

Graham notes that the cause is twofold: First, the worshipful devotion to Donald Trump, for white evangelicals, means embracing his crude, sexually objectifying form of misogyny. Second, as evangelicals use "new technology as a way to reach more people," their content is shaped to the demands of the algorithm. If you want people to linger on your right-wing TikTok videos, you have to lead with cleavage. 

What Graham all but ignores, is actually crucial to understand about this phenomenon: It is only a surface-level shift. The movement is as sex-negative as it ever was. They may like pin-up posters, but the Christian right still very much opposes people actually enjoying sex, especially if those people are women or LGBTQ people. 

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In my investigative report on Christian right social media, I asked couples therapist Jeremiah Gibson, who co-hosts the "Sexvangelicals" podcast, about the unsettling sexualization of evangelical online culture. "I would actually suggest that conservative folks are less concerned about sex and more concerned about the performance of gender," Gibson told me. "Sex just happens to be the vehicle" they are currently using, he explained, to push a rigid gender ideology where "men are expected to be the leaders" and "women are supposed to be submissive." He pointed out that much "tradwife" content may be sexually provocative, for instance, but it still pushes the notion that "women aren't sexual people" because "the purpose of a heterosexual relationship is for a woman to please a man."

The T&A framework for Christian right content may be new, but the message is very old: compulsory heterosexuality and male dominance. It's certainly not about pleasure, except the straight man's pleasure in exerting control over women. That much was on full display this week, when state Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Tenn., called on fellow male legislators to sexually harass underage girls. 

"I'm disappointed in this whole chamber right now," the self-described "Christian, Husband, Father, Grandfather" said as he presented a group of high school basketball champions. "I didn't hear a dadgum whistle when these girls came up through here. Not a whistle!"

This is a perfect distillation of Gibson's point. Keisling isn't celebrating sex, much less sexual pleasure. On the contrary, he's signaling to these girls that sex is a weapon to be used by men to degrade them. He is telling these girls that their accomplishments are a joke to him and that the only value he sees in them is as sex objects. His behavior is in direct opposition to sex-positivity. Instead, girls and women are made to feel bad and grossed out by sex. 

Graham mentions, almost in passing, that despite the "boobs-and-booze ethos" of the current Christian right, they still are teaching "their young people to save sex for marriage." This is a dramatic understatement. White evangelical culture has not changed their punitive attitudes towards sex in the slightest. In many ways, the anti-sex views of the Christian right have grown more draconian in recent years.

It's not just the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the subsequent avalanche of abortion bans in the past two years. In his concurrence on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, Justice Clarence Thomas openly invited Christian right activists to challenge legal birth control, so the Supreme Court could take that right away as well. Last week, anti-choice activists scored a legal victory, when the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that minors have to obtain parental permission to use birth control. The coalition of Christian right activists putting together the policy agenda for Trump's potential second term have also proposed reviving the Comstock Act, which, as written, would ban any interstate transportation of contraceptive medicine or devices. Clearly, the Christian right does not want women to feel safe enough to enjoy sex. 

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Moms for Liberty may be having hard times, but the Christian right has continued to ramp up its campaign to censor materials that promote sexual health or safety, educate people that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, or affirm that LGBTQ identities are good and normal. At the behest of religious conservatives, abstinence-only programs are being foisted back on public schools. Schools and libraries are being forced to remove books that have messages like "sex isn't supposed to hurt" and "rape is bad." This week, the Supreme Court allowed a publicly funded university in Texas to ban a "PG-13" drag show, once again reaffirming that what offends the right is the idea that love, fun, and acceptance have any relationship to sexuality. 

While the mainstream press still finds it puzzling that the anti-sex Christian right loves a sexually loose cad like Trump, he actually embodies the evangelical attitude towards sex: That it's about male domination over women, not pleasure. Consider, for instance, his infamous sexual encounter with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. While she doesn't describe it as an assault, Daniels has emphasized that she was not attracted to Trump and had sex with him under duress. She told CNN in 2018 that she felt she "had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone's room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, 'Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.'" 

Gross, but in a sense, that reflects how sex is regarded in right-wing Christian culture: As something women do to placate men, and certainly not because the woman enjoys it. On the contrary, Daniels ended up feeling bad, which is clearly how Christian "purity culture" wants women to feel about sex. Consider, too, how the MAGA audience howled in delight when Trump went on CNN and implied that journalist E. Jean Carroll had it coming when he sexually assaulted her. Trump obviously doesn't want women to enjoy sex. He sees it as something men inflict on women, to debase them. No wonder the Christian right loves him so much. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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