Modern conservatives can’t stop talking about sex. And what they say opens a window into the strange, sexist worldview of patriarchal religion.
Modern conservative Christianity is obsessed with marriage, relationships, and sexuality to the point where these concerns crowd pretty much everything else out. Much of their obsession is directed towards trying to get the government to force you to live by their rules, but they also spend a great deal of time offering advice on these issues to each other. Unfortunately, most of their advice is utter garbage that puts prudery, unfair expectations, and strict gender policing over actual advice that can make your life better. Here are ten examples of evangelical advice that show how far adrift the Christian right advice industry is from the real world:
1) Be a better housekeeper to prevent cheating. Recently, Pat Robertson addressed a question that haunts many a woman who has a husband with a wandering eye: How to get past his cheating? Robertson all but told women not to worry their pretty little heads about their husband’s infidelities, suggesting that male infidelity in nigh-inevitable. He did, however, make some suggestions on how to minimize the straying: “What you want to do is make a home so wonderful that he doesn’t want to wander.” On top of implying that clean floors and the smell of baking bread can prevent men from looking for strange women, Robertson asked women to sympathize with how hard it is for men, saying that they are “captured” by their sexual desires and it’s up to women to “get him free”. In general, Robertson takes the line that all problems in marriage are the fault of wives and never husbands. While most Christian advice-givers rarely go that far, most do adhere generally to the belief that keeping a marriage together is mostly a wife’s job.
2) Women need to submit to their husbands. Throughout fundamentalist Christianity, one piece of advice rings out above all others, which is that marriage only works if wives submit to their husbands. When speaking to outsiders, they often play it off like “submission” is just a bit of Biblical-language goofiness isn’t to be meant in the secular sense, but in practice “submit to your husbands” means exactly what it sounds like. Richard Strauss from Bible.org made it clear that women are to obey their husbands at all times, even when he’s being cruel. “Obedience is not to be practiced only when you feel like it, or when you wholeheartedly agree with your husband, or when he is treating you with Christ-like love, but in everything!” Michelle Duggar, right wing Christian icon and reality TV star, summarized some of the points of practicing wifely submission. She specifically singled out financial independence as something women should never have, saying, “Love is killed by self-sufficiency.” Sheryl Sandberg’s loving husband would be surprised to hear that!
3) How to make sex interesting in a Christian marriage. Conservative Christians are expected to abstain from sex until marriage, but for evangelicals, at least, as soon as you get married, you’re supposed to immediately drop years of prudish sexual avoidance and throw yourself completely into your intimate relationship. (Indeed, many proponents of wifely submission come down hard on women who are reluctant to have sex as often as their husbands want to.) In an attempt to overcome the obvious problems with these expectations, some Christians have created sex advice websites like Christian Nymphos, to get their readers in touch with those sexual desires they spent years repressing. Sadly, despite their best intentions,their advice is often the opposite of erotic. “Wake up each day, look in the mirror and ask Jesus to tell you what is beautiful about you,” they advise. Despite the winking permission to let yourself have some fun now that you’re married, Christian Nymphos can’t quite let go of the constant sex policing, either, particularly coming down hard on sexual fantasy, because it’s rarely “about a married couple enjoying each other exclusively, in a loving manner”.
4) If you’re gay, marry someone of the opposite sex and try not to think about it too much.While most people are familiar with the “ex-gay” movement that encourages people to try to turn straight, the new strategy is a bit more subtle: Encourage gay Christians to just live like they’re straight and ignore their real desires. Josh Weed, a gay Mormon married to a woman, is one of the most straightforward examples. He claims his marriage is better than ones where there’s sexual attraction, claiming that their sex life is “about more than just visual attraction and lust”, insinuating that a marriage without lust in it might even be better. Even the head of the infamous ex-gay organization Exodus International has embraced the “gay but not acting on it” line, having his wife write on their website that she doesn’t even want a heterosexual husband, because his lack of attraction to other women means “I am the only person he chooses to direct his attraction toward.” Marry a gay man and rest assured he won’t sleep with other women! It’s more foolproof than Pat Robertson’s advice to keep him at home with good housekeeping.
5) Men, do not masturbate. Women, either, I suppose, but most anti-masturbation materials on the Christian right focus on men and casually assume women don’t have the same urge towards hearty self-loving. To prevent themselves from masturbating, young men are encouraged to start“accountability groups” where they try to de-lust themselves, mostly by telling each other to think of Jesus when they’d rather think of boobs. (Unlike the Christian Nymphos, these groups understand that thinking of Jesus is not sexy.) But while there’s some small attempt to make men responsible for their own behavior, most of the attention on preventing male lust is given to young women, who are mostly told to wear more clothes.
6) If husbands want more sex, women should do everything they can to give it to them.Focus on the Family’s marriage counselor Juli Slattery is blunt about: Married men need sex, and so wives who aren’t providing enough need to step up. While she claims she isn’t trying to guilt trip women into having more sex, she argues that sex is a physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational need men have. (Though apparently not when they’re single and can’t even fill this need on their own time.) “You cannot love him as a husband but reject him sexually,” she says, suggesting that regardless of the hold-up, women whose husbands want sex more need to find a way to provide it.
7) However, if wives want more sex, they should learn to go without.Slattery has very different advice for wives whose problem is that they want to get laid more, but have unwilling husbands. While you should move heaven and earth to drum up more desire for a husband who wants more sex, if you’re the undersexed one, you’re instructed to tell yourself “friendship, seasoned love, and shared history are often enough to maintain a marriage in which sex is no longer possible”. Men who want more sex are entitled to wives who try to provide it, women who aren’t getting any are told to be happy with “forms of physical affection that don’t involve the pressure of sexual intercourse, such as back rubs, holding hands, playful touching, and hugging”.
8) Men should not believe their partners who say they want abortions. While the Christian right doesn’t like to talk about it, plenty of Christian women want abortions, at about the same rate as other women. Anti-abortion activists then turn to men in an effort to prevent these abortions.Daybreak Crisis Pregnancy Center encourages men to disbelieve women who tell them they want abortions, instead saying the women were secretly “waiting for their boyfriends/husbands to stop them”, even if that means “rush through the door to rescue me and take me away somewhere safe”. Luckily for women who, generally, aren’t playing mind games by choosing abortion, most clinics have enough security to stop men who have crazed Christian right-induced white knight fantasies.
9) Handy tips to keep from screwing. The Christian right loves to chastise and scold the unmarried for having sex, but beyond a purity ring and encouragement to just say no, there’s surprisingly little advice to those who want to be abstinent on how to do it. What little advice there is out there is vague and useless. These ten tips on purity by Ron Hutchcraft at Christianity Today are typical. “You do not own the person you’re dating,” he says, as if a feeling of ownership is necessary to feel desire. “That person belongs to God.” Knowing that kind of abstraction may not be that helpful, he also suggests not spending time alone with your dates, and “avoid French kissing and petting—anything that is sure to ignite the fires of passion”. Wait until you’re married, at what point you are expected to go from 0 to 60 in one night.
10) Be extremely paranoid about your teenager’s sexuality. Needless to say, parenting advice from conservative Christians is obsessed with the haunting fear that your kids are interested in sex, and no amount of guilt-tripping and shaming them for it will keep them away from it forever. Today’s Christian Woman recommends a Big Brother approach when teens bring dates home: “[T]here should never be a moment when they are alone without an adult in the house.” Turn your back for one second, and that’s the second penis slips into vagina! What Christians Want To Know recommends adding some thought policing duties to the pile. “What are you allowing your teen to watch on the TV or at the movie theatre?”, they ask. “Anything that has a rating now-a-days above “G” has sexual content.” History has long demonstrated that rebellion cannot be prevented by telling your teenager they can’t watch anything that’s not a cartoon produced by Disney. The frequency with which this useless tactic is recommended by Christians, however, suggests that playing censorship cops with your teen is its own reward.
The wide, weird world of Christian advice, when taken together, paints a grim view of what they expect out of love and sex. Mainly, it’s a world where men have very little responsibility in relationships, and women are given the job of doing most of the sacrificing and emotional work. The wedding ring is given almost magical qualities that are expected to turn nearly-asexual beings into hump monsters that nonetheless have no non-monogamous urges at all. One gets the impression that setting their followers up to fail—and therefore to turn to the church’s power for forgiveness and absolution—is the point behind all these impossible rules.
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