DESPITE President Obama’s lifting of the ban on prohibiting abortion information and services overseas, the issue is not settled. In the past fifteen years, right-wing groups unleashed a vast, many-pronged “culture war” to manipulate sexual anxieties and dictate what goes on in America’s bedrooms.
To help roll back the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, the Bush administration spent over a billion dollars on abstinence-only programs—this in addition to funding grants to various church groups for the same purpose. Thousands of sermons, workshops, and other propaganda efforts reinforced the message. Under the slogan “ABC—Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms”—ultra-conservative religious groups such as Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and Concerned Women for America promoted marriage as a solution to everything from suicide to poverty and self-esteem issues.
Dagmar Herzog, a professor of history at CUNY, has carried out extensive research on the evangelical churches’ attitudes toward sex over time, having noticed a decisive shift in her own lifetime: “The conservative evangelical sexual politics of the 1990’s and early 21st century were totally new,” remarks Herzog. “Premarital sex was perfectly normal in the South when I grew up. It was a very sensual environment. The churches weren’t hung up on sex back then, so I knew that this new sexual repression was recent.”
In Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics (Basic Books), Herzog shows how the origins of today’s anti-tax, anti-government movement began during the Civil Rights era as a backlash against a host of cultural changes that were taking place in the 1960’s and 70’s. On examining the literature and sermons of today’s evangelical churches, she found that their puritanical message is highly selective and mostly applies to other people. When it comes to evangelicals themselves, far from being anti-sex, the churches promote “a hyper-sexualized” message, complete with Christian pornography, and boast about having better sex than non-believers. Evangelical sex manuals emphasize the dangers of sex outside of marriage but revel in titillating sexual details. Even if they aren’t interested, Christian wives are told to be “available” to their husbands at all times, especially for “quickies,” to make them feel like “real men.”
“Although the evangelical movement is contradictory and hypocritical, it’s important to understand that it’s pro-sex, a kind of illegitimate child of the sexual revolution,” says Herzog. “The evangelicals promise physiological orgasms, called ‘soulgasms,’ which combine psychological orgasms, a close emotional connection with the spouse, and the blessing presence of God in the bedroom. At the same time, they’re homophobic and hostile to all sex outside marriage. They take up aspects of the old sexual revolution but twist them.”
A meeting of the leaders of Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum, the Traditional Values Coalition, the National Legal Foundation, and others led them to shift their tactics away from strictly religious messages, such as “save your soul” or “get into heaven,” and to adopt the secular language of medicine and psychology. Now homosexuality would framed in terms of physical or mental disease. They also turned their attention to pushing sexual abstinence. Their language was that of the human potential movement with much talk of self-help and individual empowerment. New groups formed—the Christian Sex Education Project, True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, among others—and began teaching that promiscuity and homosexuality lead to drinking, disease, depression, and suicide. Playing on the growing sexual anxieties of both adolescents and adults in this age of Internet porn and Viagra, young people and their parents became the target of a relentless no-sex-outside-marriage program.
And their campaign worked in the political arena. In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services issued sex education guidelines that mandated teaching about “the potential psychological side effects” of adolescent sexual activity and teenage non-marital sex. George W. Bush funded abstinence education to discourage sex among all unmarried Americans between the ages of nineteen and 29.
Notwithstanding the ethical content of these moves, the research shows clearly that this assault on sexuality doesn’t work. According to surveys conducted by evangelicals, 95 percent of their number admit to having premarital sex. Seventy percent of Christian men “struggle with porn” and fifty percent admit to being addicted to it (plus twenty percent of Christian women). Meanwhile, adolescents who take the abstinence pledge wait eighteen months longer to have sex, but they’re a third less likely to use contraception when they do. Only twelve percent of those who promise to “wait until marriage” keep their promise.
This war on premarital sex is of a piece with the religious Right’s war on gay and lesbian sex: an ongoing attempt to police human sexual behavior while demonizing those who act outside their narrow definition of what is acceptable—indeed joyfully eroticized—sexual expression. “Reproductive rights and sexual self-determination are human rights,” Herzog says. “We need to affirm humans’ rights to sexual expression, sexual pleasure, and the freely chosen formation of intimate relationships.”
Don Monkerud, based in Aptos, California, is a writer who follows cultural, social, and political issues.