Every so often, I venture into the conservative Christian blogosphere. Specifically, I discovered a particular web site a few years back that I continue to be drawn to for some reason and to check periodically. It contains some great writing, nice design and photography, and incidentally one of the most informative features around on curly hair/not shampooing outside of naturallycurly.com. (Weirdly, you have to click on the “Got Curl?” graphic to see a drop-down menu and actually get to the content, so OK, that plus the Curlz MT font and WordArt are sort of belying my claim about the site design, but I still think it’s good on the whole.) The women who run the site are smart (probably smarter than I am in some cases; I mean, not that I’m so smart, but I admire their apparent intelligence), literate and literary, share some of my interests in food and antiques, and do not fit any kind of careless stereotype of ignorant, thoughtless evangelicals–easy to write off or ignore. At the same time, they don’t exhibit the suspiciously cool veneer of the modern megachurch with its excessively hip web site, custom fonts, and slick PowerPoint presentations (See? We’re urban! We’re tech-savvy! We’re young and hot! Jesus is sexy! Join our Facebook group!) For all their (occasional) conflation of “Republican” with “Christian” and (consistent) hair-raisingly retro views on womanhood–and thus my total disagreement with and distaste for their politics–their site sticks in my brain, and I think they are for the most part good people with good intentions. I just hope that pretty much every one of their creepy political and social beliefs is thwarted, that’s all. 😛

Anyway, much of the site’s content deals with girls’ and women’s issues, from singleness through marriage and kids. So it also tends to be my one occasional window into current conservative Christian thinking on male-female relationships.

All of us (or all of us who are as old as me) are aware of the messages many women have for the past 50 years or so taken away from Christian/mainstream American teachings about sex: Sex is for (traditional heterosexual, of course) marriage, the first time will hurt, it’s how you get pregnant, it’s sort of dirty (this is often the undercurrent even when the words being spoken are that it’s “beautiful” or “sacred”), men want it and need to control their impulses, women don’t want it and and need to be on guard for men’s out-of-control lust, etc. These messages can obviously be harmful for many reasons; they deny and oversimplify women’s sexuality, they promote guilt on the part of women who want sex “too much,” they place the onus of blame for rape on women, they dehumanize men, they erect barriers to mutually satisfying sex within marriage except for (to be fair, probably the majority of) couples who choose to see each other as individuals and don’t get overly hung up on how the sex or marriage books say they “should” feel or relate to each other. Until more recently than I think we would like to believe, women often came out of a lifetime of such teaching with the belief that marriage meant lying back and thinking of England in order to please their husbands and have children.

However, my recent readings on the topic have led me to understand that there is a “new” line of thinking afoot. This is represented to some extent by a series–which was linked to via a YLCF entry–that aired earlier this year on FamilyLife Radio (see transcripts for Parts 1, 2, and 3). The series features a recorded lecture by author Josh Harris (best known for his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, written several years ago before his marriage and four children). The positives I see in Harris’s lecture are his willingness to address “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”-style stereotypes and to point out (at least in one instance) that deviation from gendered expectations about your outlook on sex is normal and OK. The negatives include homophobia and a retreat in practice to gendered views of how sexuality works (men feel lust and need to control it, women inflame desire and need to make sure they only do so for their husbands). My least favorite parts are the following:

Now, one implication of this for married women who are here is that God wants you to invite your husband’s delight in you sexually. He wants you, as a married woman, to make it easy for your husband to delight in you. He wants you to actively seek to intoxicate your husband. What an amazing word for the Bible to choose. […]

Maybe because of past experiences in your life, you associate sexuality with sin or maybe because you have been so focused in your life on honoring God and protecting sex from impurity, you’ve brought into marriage an attitude that is unbiblical, and I just want you to hear and be adjusted, and this is true of all of us, be adjusted by the Word of God. God is calling you to give yourself with joy […].

A second implication here for all women, not just married women but for single women, women of every age, is that your power of intoxification is to be reserved for your husband. […] Modesty is about preserving the precious gift that God has given you for one man. It’s choosing to honor God, to love God and then love others and say, ‘I want to dress, and I want to act in such a way that no other man besides my husband is encouraged to delight in my body.’

This passage is superficially somewhat sex-positive. But its admonitions to (on the one hand) somehow magically shed your inhibitions about sex–which were put there in the first place by a patriarchal society with more than a little help from the church–while also in some ways retaining them, seem to create a lose-lose situation for wives. Don’t be such a frigid cold fish. Denying me sex is against the will of God. And cover up a little bit, you slut. A commenter to Part 3 of the series complains “As a committed and involved Christian family man, I find it sad that many Christian wives neglect the sexual relationship God has ordained for married couples.” With all these mixed messages, I wonder what could possibly be the root cause of that “neglect.”

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this more frank treatment of sex by the church is actually 100% new, just somewhat new to me and perhaps more openly discussed as the years have gone by. For example, 10+ years ago when my husband and I were in premarital counseling, my pastor gave us a copy of The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye (Disclaimer: Tim LaHaye creeps me out and I hate him). This book–or at least the edition we were given, which looked like it was from 1978 or so, so I guess there is some chance the updated edition is better–might more properly have been titled How We Can Invoke the Bible to Justify Tim and Bev LaHaye’s Personal Choices. But sandwiched in among QuiverFull philosophy and warnings to avoid oral sex because God clearly is opposed to it because it can give you herpes, or something like that (so I’m assuming then that one or both of them doesn’t like it) was one of the main messages of the book: The clitoris: It exists and you should take advantage of it.

This is great, but Tim’s feeling on the topic seemed to be that although manual stimulation (which he seemed to feel most people would never have thought of before) is good and everything and you should totally start incorporating it, really the best thing to do is then work your way up to stimulating your wife’s clitoris to the point of orgasm with your penis, which, more power to Tim if he can do this, then start intercourse, oh, and make sure you have simultaneous orgasms. There was no Scriptural justification of this, of course; it’s just familiar ideals from popular culture about what kind of orgasms women should strive to have (vaginal is best because then the mighty penis is responsible), repackaged in a Christian format. Note: I’m not saying this technique is a bad way to go if you like it, just that I don’t really like to see specific forms of sex idealized, especially when the reasoning seems to be moralistic.

So even then, when I wasn’t putting a lot of political thought into these issues, I guess the clues were there that Christians were becoming more willing to discuss sex frankly (or that the bar was being raised yet again for women’s responsibility in conservative Christian marriage, depending on how you look at it).

Anyway, mainly, I think it’s sort of astounding and yet totally predictable that this “sexual revolution” in Christian thought has somehow resulted in women being made to feel more pressure to live up to some kind of perfectly-pure-yet-constantly-sexually-available ideal, while men are encouraged to feel justified in developing more and more expectations of their wives when it comes to sex, whether or not those expectations are realistic (just based on the attitudes of some of the men who I’ve seen complain about their wives’ lack of interest online, I’m sort of shocked that these women were able to bring themselves to have sex with them in the first place). Frankly, in my opinion the philosophy can be summarized, with very little loss of nuance, by the classic directive to be a lady in the street and a whore in the bedroom. And I bet if you asked some Christian experts, they’d paint this concept as pro-woman and even be bewildered as to what those man-hating feminists and liberals could possibly have to be mad about now given their liberated, sex-positive attitude.

I’ve written about my thoughts on this before; I don’t feel it’s a straight-line relationship between “more sex” and “more progressivism.” When it’s all about the men, as I believe this shift in attitude is (oddly similar to the current glorification of blow jobs and anal sex, stringent beauty and fashion standards, etc. that these same Christian leaders would certainly decry as worldly and immoral), it pays to be extremely cautious about claiming victory or progress for women. If Christian women take from this that it’s a positive thing to have sexual appetites, to develop a stronger physical connection with their husbands, and to seek their own pleasure, great. It’s those who will take from it that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t feel up to being “intoxicating” (and don’t think for a moment that there aren’t undertones there about how sinful it is to “let yourself go” or gain weight or fail to wear makeup or whatever, and thus abdicate your duty to your husband) or available for sex 24/7 that I am worried about. At least in the hypothetical “old days” a woman could get away with simply putting up with sex if she wasn’t interested, whereas now the standard is that she has to basically beg for it on a consistent basis or she’s not meeting her husband’s needs (Note: I’m not saying, of course, that the idea of “putting up with” sex is a positive thing in real life, just trying to analyze the changing hypothetical expectations of Christian wives over time). This then becomes just one more thing to add to the wearyingly long to-do list of items related to godliness, submission, perfect parenting, beauty, modesty, and homemaking that the modern fundamentalist woman seemingly must check off in order to feel that she is acceptable in God’s eyes.