Evangelicals, Abstinence, Abortion and the Mainstreaming of Sex

In 2010, Barbara G. Brents and Teela Sanders published a pioneering study, “Mainstreaming the Sex Industry: Economic Inclusion and Social Ambivalence,” that argued, “mainstreaming of the sex industry is invariably linked to wider patterns in leisure consumption, travel, and the hedonistic search for relaxation and pleasure.”  They announced the establishment of the sexually “new normal.”

The authors argue that, with mainstreaming, traditional legal constraints are reduced; new technologies are introduced to further extend – in every sense — the sexual marketplace. “The obscenity, sodomy, and anti-pornography laws that once constrained sexual behavior and consumption are increasingly challenged by a more general legal ethic which reflects the morality of the market, the contract, and the principle of free choice,” they note.  They add, “the new technologies, specifically the Internet, that drive the mainstreaming of sex industries have remained largely unregulated.”

Often overlooked when considering the mainstreaming of sex is the role of sex in the lives of Evangelical Christians and other more orthodox or fundamentalist religious Americans.  Unknown to many, in 1973 – the year of the Roe v. Wade decision — Marabel Morgan published The Total Woman, a self-help guide to a healthy marriage for Evangelical women.  She quotes from the Bible: “You wives must submit to your husbands’ leadership in the same way; you submit to the Lord.”  Going further, she adds: “It is only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him, and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him.” Morgan adds, “she becomes a priceless jewel, the glory of femininity, his queen!”  She proclaimed that “rapture,” “bliss,” “ecstasy” and “powerful transcendence” would infuse the joys of sex within marriage.

Morgan encouraged wives to greet their husband at the front door wearing sexy outfits, including outfits for “a cowgirl or a showgirl.”  Joyce Maynard, in a New York Times review, recounts one of Morgan’s anecdotes. A woman “welcomed her husband home in black mesh stockings, high heels and an apron and nothing else. … He took one look and shouted. ‘Praise the Lord!’” Maynard — writing in 1975 — notes “half a million women (or men who dream of cowgirls and show girls) have bought The Total Woman and paperback sales have not yet begun.”  She points out there was also a Total Woman course being taught across the country by 77 teachers trained by Morgan.  According to one report, by 2018 the book had sold more than 10 million copies.

Many Evangelical Protestants embrace what is known as the “Billy Graham Rule: Never be alone with a woman who is not your wife.”  Vice Pres. Mike Pence follows the Graham rule.  Samuel Perry, a sociologist of religion trained at an evangelical seminary, argues that Evangelicals “very much subscribe to the idea that sexual sin is the mother of all sin.” He adds, “It is the most dirty, the most damning, the most shameful.”

Jean Calterone Williams, a professor at California Polytechnic University, identifies key areas where the sexual values or beliefs — the “morality” — of Evangelicals and the general public significantly differ. Drawing from a host of scholarly third-party sources, she notes that only a third of the public (33%) believes that premarital sex is immoral while over four-fifths (81%) of Evangelicals say that premarital sex is immoral.  Similarly, while less than half (46%) of the public believe that premarital sexual activity leads to harmful psychological and emotional consequences for the unwed, nearly four-out-of-five (78%) Evangelicals believe it.  Williams reports that 82 percent of adults favor comprehensive sexuality education that encompasses abstinence, contraception and broad discussion of human sexuality and notes that two-thirds of respondents (67%) support distributing condoms in schools.

The Abstinence Clearinghouse is a South Dakota organization that promotes the gospel of abstinence-until-marriage; in Matthew 19:5, Jesus notes that in marriage the male and the female “are no longer two but one flesh.”It believes that masturbation, pornography and homosexuality are immoral and harmful practices.

Abstinence gained popular attention during the late-1990s through the Silver Ring Thing, a youth-centered movement grounded in a flashy music concert in which some participants took a virginity pledge and a silver ring was placed on their ring finger to publicly demonstrate their stand for virginity and Christian morality. The group promoting the campaign declared, “The mission is to saturate the United States with a generation of young people who have taken a vow of sexual abstinence until marriage and put on the silver ring. This mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.”

The General Social Survey (GSS) found that — between 2014 and 2018 — 37 percent of “fundamentalist adults said that sex outside marriage was ‘always wrong,’ while 41% said it was ‘not wrong at all.’” However, a quarter-century earlier, from 1974 to 1978, 44 percent found out-of-wedlock sex was wrong while 27 percent found it not wrong at all. This suggests that, at least in public surveys, little changed during this period and well might have gotten slightly more conservative.

More revealing, the National Survey of Family Growth paints a far different picture of Evangelical Christian sex life. Roughly two-thirds of evangelical young people have engaged in sexual intercourse; about three-quarters have engaged in at least one of three forms of sexual activity; and roughly one-in-five never-married Evangelicals 18 to 22 years of age have engaged in sexual behavior as risky as anal sex. 

Unknown to many, “passion parties” are discreet, women-only get-together, often involving strongly religious-identified Evangelical Christian and Orthodox Jewish womenwhere sex paraphernalia, including toys, lubricants and costumes, are sold.  A local “host,” “consultant” or “sales rep” organizes the event and receives a commission (often 10%) from the night’s sales.  The host acquires products and other materials from a growing number of sex-toy providers.  The industry even has a trade association, Certified Adult Home Party Association, representing companies including Athena’s Home Novelties, Fantasia Home Parties, For Ladies Only, Party Gals and Temptations Parties.  In 2018, Pure Romance revenues hit $250 million and had 30,000 consultants.   Theseget-togethers are rationalized as a way to enhance marriage.

For many Evangelicals and other traditionalists, the legacy of the turbulent 1960s casts a long shadow. Pot, LSD, rock-&-roll, free love and radical politics were threats to the nation’s moral order.  In ’67, California’s newly elected governor Ronald Reagan denounced the hippie as someone who “dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”  Religious leaders were especially worried.  James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was repulsed by the ‘60s counterculture. He summarized its radical secularism in no uncertain terms:

God is dead; immorality is wonderful; nudity is noble; irresponsibility is groovy; disrespect and irreverence are fashionable; unpopular laws are to be disobeyed; violence is an acceptable vehicle for bringing change (as were childhood tantrums).

Dodson feared the “rapid reversal of social mores [that] is unparalleled in man’s history” and warned, “Never has a society abandoned its concept of morality more suddenly than … in America during the decade of the sixties.”  

A half-century later, the old is new again.  Pew Research finds that six in ten (60%) Americans favor a woman’s right to an abortion.  Yet, sadly, die-hard antiabortion traditionalists now have power, aided by a mean-spirited president and Republican legislators in the Congress and states across the country. For the foreseeable future, the bitter tension between those seeking to end a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion and those promoting ever-greater personal freedom (including abortion) and (consensual) sexual commerce will continue.  It might well intensify, further deforming the political landscape.

Today’s antiabortionists recall the prohibitionists of a century ago.  Each share a highly motivated, moralistic agenda, one that each insists is better, morally superior to all others because it fulfills their god’s wishes.  Both share a common belief in the virtue of abstinence – and the sins of alcohol and sex.

Perry notes, evangelicals “very much subscribe to the idea that sexual sin is the mother of all sin.” He adds, “It is the most dirty, the most damning, the most shameful.”  However, as Williams and others have shown, abstinence among Evangelicals only goes so far. The wide-spread subversion of the moral dictates of sexual abstinence is not all that different than the popular rejection of temperance.

Americans have been drinking since the earliest European settlers arrived – and, among the Native peoples, long before that.  However, after three centuries of struggle over temperance, a powerful Evangelical Christian abstinence movement grew steadily in the late-19thand early-20thcenturies, gained enormous leverage with America’s entry into the Great War.  So powerful, it secured the adoption of the 18thAmendment establishing Prohibition and, with working more liberal women’s groups, the 19thAmendment guaranteeing women the vote.

Temperance forces, led by the Christian-backed Anti-Saloon League (ASL), pushed Congress to pass the Volstead Act that imposed nationwide restrictions on the manufacture, importation, transportation and sale of “intoxicating” beverages.  The Christian right captured political power and then, with the Amendment’s ratification, used the federal and state governments to impose national moral authority. Their campaign failed; the 19th Amendment is the only one to be repealed.

Until Trump’s election in 2016, the culture wars appeared to be in a relative stalemate. While states passed numerous laws seeking to block or end a woman’s right to an abortion, court challenges prevented nearly all legislation from being enacted into law. Other than shutting down the website Backpage.com for allegedly facilitating sex trafficking and imposing restrictive SOB — sexually oriented business — laws, the sex industry has not been targeted.

The sex lives of Evangelicals are far more complex – if not contradictory – than the popular media reports.  Ideologically, Evangelicals adhering to a patriarchal credo of virginity until marriage for both females and males, monogamy in marriage and the denial of same-sex desire. However, reality is a very different story, especially among younger believers.  More so, the apparent popularity of “passion parties” — and all the pleasure that fetish play enables — bespeaks a subversion of the dominant role of the male partner who ostensibly defines sexual engagement.

James Dobson’s fundamentalist Christian organization, Focus on the Family, believes “that all human life is sacred, and that life begins with fertilization – the union of sperm and egg.”  Going further, it argues, “We don’t believe that it’s wrong to prevent fertilization, but we oppose any method of so-called ‘birth control’ that functions as an abortifacient – that is to say, any method that acts after fertilization to end a human life by preventing implantation in the womb. Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) fall into this category.”

As can be expected from an ideologically driven organization, the actual practices among Evangelical women doesn’t enter into their public statements. It is difficult to find data on the current birth control practices (e.g., IUD, the Pill) among Evangelical women, but a 2011 report from the Guttmacher Institute helps reveal some of the truth. It reports, “some 68% of Catholic women use a highly effective method, compared with 73% of Mainline Protestants and 74% of Evangelicals.”

Equally revealing, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) sheds light on a deeper issue that gives line to the dominant Evangelical fiction.  The NAF report states, “women who obtain abortions represent every religious affiliation. 13% of abortion patients describe themselves as born-again or Evangelical Christians; while 22% of U.S. women are Catholic, 27% of abortion patients say they are Catholics.”

As the sexual marketplace went mainstream during the half-century since the culture wars were launch in the 1970, the religious rights became ever-more reactionary, increasingly single-mindedly focused on ending a woman’s right to an abortion.  It’s time for Evangelicals to acknowledge the actual practices among the women and young people and accept a revised belief system.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.