Evangelical, right-wing groups are engaging in a vast, many-pronged “cultural war” to manipulate sexual anxieties and determine what goes on in American’s bedrooms.
To help roll back the sexual revolution of the 1970s, the Bush administration spent over $1 billion on abstinence-only programs. Thousands of sermons, workshops and other propaganda reinforced the message. Under the pithy slogan ABC (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms), ultra-conservative religious groups, such as Focus on the Family, American Family Association and Concerned Women for America, promote marriage as a solution to everything from suicide to poverty and self-worth issues.
“How could an aggressive minority successfully push the most grotesque message of abstinence, and why are 95 percent of Americans who claim to have had premarital sex unable to admit it publicly?” asks Dagmar Herzog, a professor of history at the City University of New York.
She became interested in the topic from her studies in European history that revealed: Far from discouraging sex, the Nazis promoted it among both married and unmarried Aryans. At the same time, they targeted Jews, who supposedly engaged in “dirty sex,” and “immoral” supporters of the Weimar Republic, and enlisted German Protestants and Catholics to clean up the “sex mess.”
“The conservative evangelical sexual politics of the 1990s and early 21st century are totally new,” Herzog says. “Premarital sex was perfectly normal in the South when I grew up. 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 when the government revoked the tax-exempt status of the religious-oriented Bob Jones University that first denied admission to African Americans and then banned interracial dating. The “cultural war” strategy also coincided with the AIDs epidemic and gays and lesbians coming out of the closet.
Far from being anti-sexual, today’s evangelicals push “a hyper-sexualized” message, complete with Christian pornography and bragging about having great sex. Evangelical sex advice books emphasize the dangers of sex outside 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.”
“Although the evangelical movement is contradictory and hypocritical, it’s important to understand that it’s pro-sex,” 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.”
To develop a strategy to focus on state and local legislation that would target homosexuals and gay rights, leaders of Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum, Traditional Values Coalition, the National Legal Foundation and other Christian political groups met in Colorado in 1994. Most importantly, they decided to shift their tactics away from strictly religious messages to adopt the secular language of fermenting fear and disgust of disease. Subsequently, religious conservatives turned their attention to pushing abstinence. Their message would adapt to the new age and human potential movements with talk of self-help, individual empowerment, self-improvement and personal perfection.
Playing on increased primal sexual anxieties that include confusion about the relationship between sex and love, and doubts about one’s own attractiveness to one’s partner, doubts that increased with exposure to Internet porn and Viagra, evangelicals promoted a relentless no-sex-outside-marriage program.
In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services issued sex-education guidelines that mandate teaching about “the potential psychological side effects” of sex, such as drinking, disease, depression and suicide. Money for abstinence education discouraged sex among unmarried Americans between the ages of 19 and 29.
This assault on sexuality doesn’t work. According to surveys conducted by evangelicals, 95 percent of adults admit to having premarital sex. Half of all Christian men claim to be addicted to Internet porn, along with 20 percent of Christian women. Adolescents who take the abstinence pledge wait 18 months longer to have sex, but girls are much more likely to become pregnant when they do have sex.
In contrast, Europe teens are taught that sex is natural, healthy and pleasurable. They get free contraceptives, medical care and counseling. Despite what Americans would call a permissive society, some would say sinful, American teenage girls are three times more likely to get pregnant than those in Sweden and four times more likely than those in Germany. American teens are 70 times more likely to get gonorrhea than those in France or the Netherlands.
Presenting premarital sex as “risky behavior” hides an intrusive and insidious attack on sexuality. Far healthier would be to recognize human autonomy and self-determination of sexual expression. America needs comprehensive sex education, contraceptive distribution and counseling to overcome the destructive social and personal effects of sexually repressive religious morality.
“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 is an California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.