Rules, purity and the wilderness of sexuality

Editor's note: This is excerpted from Amy Frykholm's new book, "See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity."

Christians love to give each other advice on sexuality.

If you wander into any Christian bookstore or peruse Christian magazines, you’ll find lots of such advice. Likewise, the Internet is full of ministries dedicated to the subject of sexuality, all intended as guides.

On The Marriage Bed, an independent website that offers resources to married and engaged couples on the subject of sexuality, the authors try to answer that enduring question, “What is it right to do?” On a page called “Keeping Sexually Pure,” a couple named “Tom and Catherine” give us a good overview of a commonly Christian way through the wilderness of sexuality: make rules. Lots of rules. Keeping sexually pure means to maintain absolute control over one’s desires.

For unmarried couples, Tom and Catherine advocate layers of rules. First, there are the “ground rules” that a couple must establish at the beginning of their relationship. Then there are the additional rules that become necessary as a couple grows in intimacy. Finally, Catherine confesses, as if she were a rule junkie with a stash, there are her own private rules that she adds “on top of the set we already have.”

Tom and Catherine are like many Christians who imagine that Christian sex is not like secular sex, and that it is set apart by rules. Christian sex is safe and pure. Secular sex is dangerous and exploitative and leads on a path to destruction.

One extreme example of this logic is found in an almost harrowing moment of Alexandra Pelosi’s television documentary “Friends of God.” Pelosi stands with the soon-to-be former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard, just weeks before the scandal broke. They are poised at the entrance to the church when Haggard says winkingly, “You know, all the studies say that evangelicals have better sex than anyone else.”

“Really?” Pelosi says from behind the camera.

Haggard gestures toward two young men from the church who are standing nearby. “How often do you have sex with your wives?” Haggard asks them.

“Every day,” one of them jumps in, as if he knows the script. “Sometimes twice a day.” Haggard looks at the other man. “Every day,” he says nervously.

“And out of a hundred times that you have sex with your wife, how often does she climax?” Haggard asks.

“Every one,” they say almost in unison. “Every one.”

Haggard grins, wide and toothy. One of the young men feels obligated to explain this unlikely reality. “There’s a natural order to things,” he says. “The way God set it up is the best way to do things and that’s the flat-out truth.”

While Christian mythology teaches that Christian sex protects us from heartache and plants us squarely in God’s order of things, the reality that most of us face is far different. Christianity does very little, if anything, to protect us from abuse, manipulation, objectification and betrayal.

This doesn’t mean that “the rules” don’t sometimes function properly and guide people onto solid ground. They certainly can. But they have become almost the only way that American Christians know how to talk about religion and sex. And these rules have left many people hungry to understand why they cannot place themselves on this map.

As I interviewed people about the relationship between their sexuality and their religious faith, almost no one I spoke to fit the ideal. All were broken, all had been hurt, all struggled to interpret their life experiences with very little help. All of these people were utterly ordinary. All of them spent time in the wilderness. Some of them are still there. Sexuality and spirituality have yet to find an integrated form in their lives.

At the same time, the Christian tradition offers us the image of the wilderness as an important place. While it is confusing, disorienting and frightening, it is also a place where God can be met. In our wanderings, tradition teaches us, God is present. Our experiences do not need to be read as a record of our failures to meet God’s standards, but as a record of the ways that God has tried to reach us. This can be true of the wilderness of sexuality too.

(Cover image courtesy of Beacon Press.)

Comments (13)

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Great topic. I’ll read the book. pvk

I’m not sure I understand the author’s point. She seems to be ranting that A) Christianity promises fabulous sex inside Christian marriage and B) she hasn’t found sex to be as awesome as promised. So what’s C)?
C) Christians just want to repress sex with rules? In and out of marriage? We should shun the rules?
C) Sex and marriage aren’t realted, the ‘secular’ view of sex is better?
C) Sex is as fraught with sin and disappointment inside Christian marriage as everything else in Christian marriage, but it’s still God’s design?

And what’s creepy about the Haggard quote, besides Haggard’s history, is that he inappropriately asks very personal detail in a pubilc forum. That doesn’t negate his point that sexuality is best fulfilled in marriage as per God’s design.

Thanks Steven, Glad I wasn’t the only one thinking Haggard was “out of line” (to put it nicely).

In my view, it isn’t just that Haggard asked for such a personal “revelation” in such a public setting, although I agree that’s troubling. It is also that there was only one right way to answer the question. Any honest conversation about sexuality and experience was precluded by the format, the way the question was asked and the cultural context in which it was asked.
I am not sure that only one point can be made from this excerpt. If I would draw out an emphasis, it is our tendency to set up an ideal universe where “perfect sex looks like x.” Then we judge everything and everyone accordingly. I’m not taking aim at sex—Christian or non-Christian (I don’t think that is a particularly meaningful distinction). Instead, I’m disturbed by what happens when we use phrases like “God’s design” for something as complicated as human sexuality. I think that sets the conversation off in the wrong direction. 

I appreciate your reading and your thoughts.

I’m not sure if I’m just missing something, but this excerpt seems to indicate a major logical error in the book, namely, that nine people’s adverse experience of “sexual exile” is somehow an indictment of Christian teaching on sexuality. Maybe that’s just a problem with the excerpt format, but sections like this are discouraging:

While Christian mythology teaches that Christian sex protects us from heartache and plants us squarely in God’s order of things…
I don’t know what the author means, specifically, in using the word “mythology” here, but she sets up a great straw man. Nevertheless, it’s not mythology, but the Bible, that advocates monogamy, covenant, and marriage (rather than “burning with lust”, if that rings a bell) as “God’s order of things”. The specifics of sex within the framework laid out are left as an exercise for the reader, as it were; when one is committed to covenant with God and with another person, the details (not just about sex, but about finances, children, work, etc.) will work themselves out.

...the reality that most of us face is far different. Christianity does very little, if anything, to protect us from abuse, manipulation, objectification and betrayal.

And here’s where the straw man meets his fate: Christianity never promises to “protect us from abuse, manipulation, objectification and betrayal”. In fact, it promises that we will be abused, manipulated, HATED. But Jesus also promises that he has overcome such things, and that one day those things will be swept away. To say that anything can really protect us from heartache in this life is to slip into a prosperity (false) gospel. To the extent that Christian teachERS give that perspective, I agree with the author that those teachers have failed. However, I disagree wholeheartedly that Christian teachING has similarly failed.

Although I agree with you idea that “rules” don’t necessarily protect us from hurts or make our sex life more Christian, what exactly is wrong with formulating in your mind and together as a couple what you feel are wise choices that will help you safeguard against sin? Why is it a negative thing to have boundaries and accountability? Sex is safer, better, and purer inside of marriage, period.  I guess I am missing something.

I’m with you Steve. I am a little confused at what her primary point is. My feeling is that sex is over-sold in evangelical circles. How many books and blogs have I seen about Christian “super-sex” with a kind of a breathless, titillating tone (like Haggard’s). Journalists and non-believers just think that is super-dumb, wacky talk from repressed people. However, I also think pornography over-sells sex as well. My theory is that in the absence of vital christian experience, American Christianity has devolved into a kind of evangelical marriage/nuclear family cult. Marriage, family, child raising and sex have become the most important topic in many congregations. The great commission, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, doctrine and a heavenly focus have receded in importance. What’s curious is that Haggard fell for both, the Christian Super-sex myth and the Pornographic/meth-fueled Super-sex myth. In reality, drugs like Viagra have found a growing market because men of an ever younger age are becoming desensitized to actual sex due to masturbation and unrealistic fantasy. Sex has become a drug, and for the married Christian, one of the few legal drugs. I agree with Amy’s point though – walk into any Christian bookstore and the shelves are brimming with books about marriage and sex. We have assigned too much importance to sex and its power to “put us squarely in God’s order of things”. Personally I have a lot of grace and forgiveness for Haggard and I think his shame and brokenness can really be a teaching moment for all of us. We need grace. We need the Holy Spirit. We need intimacy with God without which we will never experience deep human intimacy.


I don’t think your post here does justice to what your book is really about. I just finished reading the sample from the Amazon link at the top of the page and the start of the first story after the Exile intro. The Wilderness sample is an intensely intimate look at a young woman’s introduction to teenage sexual feelings for her first boyfriend and how her Baptist church beliefs conflicted with that. It is emotional and well written. The small sample has the feel of a biography or a diary novel.I think I am going to have to grab a coffee at Chapters soon and check it out some more.

In my worldview, I would use the phrase “God’s Design” for everything, especially relationships between God and each other. It’s all God’s. 

That’s not to jump directly to some idolized post-war Republican nuclear family and gender roles, but it is to say that God’s intention for our living as sexual beings is indeed the way things are supposed to be. But of course, creation itself is broken and twisted by sin, and our best attempts to live into that design are fraught with pain and loss. So I would agree Christian and non-Christian is an unhelpful distinction if only because it’s all Christian (or Biblical, or God’s Design) as a standard, with varying degrees of compliance.  I would also not wish to talk about sexuality for long outside of a context of other layers of intimacy and connection.

But I haven’t read the book yet. I might understand better when I do!

Morningggggggggggg allllllllllllllllll hope that all is having a bless day and a healthly and safe weekend stay bless all cause you are.
                 I would say this, god only honor the marriage bed i do not seen nothing in the word of god that he honor the christian bed not unless they are married…I seen know differents in worldly seculer sex…as appose to christian seculer sex he said marry or burn… Does it make it right for a christian to have sex with out being marry no it does not god sad sin is sin and you can’t very well augure with god can you… Let me say this wide is the gate to destruction narrow is the path way how is it that you can change god word because you are christian god may favor his own but he is a just god and rather if you be a sinner or a christian god laws apply too all he said obey the laws of the land… But we also serve a forgiving god now keeping it real i’m a christian do i fall short yes i do does it make it right no it does not but do i have human sexural feelings yes i do ...But i ask him to keep me and to substain me until he sins me a husband not a boy friend or a sex partner just because i’m a christian that means i have to pray even harder so that i can be kept by god in god grace Amen…Amen…Amen.

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