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Six questions with Amy DeRogatis

In her new book, Amy DeRogatis explores a relatively untouched topic: evangelicals and sexuality. While many may think that evangelicals are anti-sex, DeRogatis argues that this could not be further from the truth. We sat down with the author of Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism to learn more about her research into the topic.

How did you become interested in this topic?

My interest in this topic began when I was asked a question by a student in my Religion and Gender class at Michigan State University (MSU). In the course we had been reading a book that discussed some ritual practices around marital sexuality in Orthodox Judaism. One student raised her hand and asked, “Where do Christians go to read about the proper ways to have sex?” Knowing the student, I understood that she didn’t mean all Christians; she was referring specifically to evangelicals. I made a quick reply about evangelicals publishing lots of material about how not to have sex and returned to the topic of discussion. The question stuck with me and after class I ran a few Internet searches for Christian sex manuals, and I found some Catholic writings. I then refined the search to evangelical sex manuals, and although I was unable to find any secondary material, such as a scholarly article that surveyed and analyzed the literature, I did eventually find lots of primary sources. I was astonished to discover that Special Collections in the Main Library at MSU had a large collection of these publications. Within a week of hearing the student’s question, I was in the library reading evangelical sex manuals, and I was hooked.

How do you define “evangelical” in this book?

That is a great question. There has been much debate among scholars about how to define evangelicalism and whether there is even a cohesive category under which we can talk about and study evangelicals. I adopt a very broad definition. I define evangelicals as Protestants who affirm the necessity of individual spiritual rebirth. Evangelicals emphasize personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, the imminent return of Christ, and the desire to spread the gospel. Evangelicals express their theological beliefs through daily practices such as prayer, Bible study, refraining from sinful behavior and furthering what is often called “their walk with Christ.”

Sexuality is a huge topic. Is there anything you planned to write about that you didn’t include in the book?

Yes, of course. The first question I usually am asked about is why I focus on heterosexuality in my book. Originally I had planned to write a chapter on prescriptive literature about same-sex desires and practices. There are a few recent books that do an excellent job of examining this issue (here I’ll just mention two: Tanya Erzen’s, Straight to Jesus and Lynne Gerber’s The Straight and Narrow) and I felt that I did not have much to add to or improve their excellent analyses. When I wrote the book proposal I was imagining a chapter on LGBTQ evangelicals and their writings about sexuality. But, as the project developed, I focused in on conservative evangelicals, and to me, what is one of the fascinating points that evangelical sex writers are deeply concerned with monitoring and regulating heterosexual sex.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about evangelicals and sexuality?

The biggest misconception is that evangelicals are anti-sex. They are not. Contrary to popular stereotypes that characterize conservative Christians as prudes, since the 1960s evangelicals have been engaged in an enterprise to claim and affirm the joys of sex for married born-again Christians. Rather than turning away from the sexual liberation movement, they have simply made it their own by publishing sex manuals, running sex workshops, and holding counseling sessions to aid married evangelicals achieve sexual satisfaction. The sex publications are distinct from secular sex manuals in their exclusive focus on heterosexuality, the assumption of virginity prior to marriage, the role of the Bible as a reliable guide for sexual pleasure, and the emphasis on understanding and maintaining traditional gender roles as a requirement for “true” sexual satisfaction. The authors go to great lengths to suggest techniques for sexual pleasure and argue that marital sexual pleasure is biblical and good marital sex is a sign of faithfulness and a testimony to others. It is true—evangelical publications do not promote all forms of human sexuality. It is also true that within heterosexual marriage, sexual pleasure, according to these manuals, is part of God’s plan for humanity. So, no, evangelicals are not anti-sex.

How do you think this work will influence your scholarly field?

First and foremost, I hope that my book will put the study of evangelical sexuality on the scholarly agenda. Before I began publishing my research on evangelicals and sexuality there were very few scholarly essays about evangelicals and sexuality. The most compelling writings were focused on evangelical responses to same-sex desires and practices, not on heterosexuality. There were some popular magazine articles and a couple of books written by scholars outside of the field of religious studies that primarily focused on gender or sexuality and discussed evangelical sexual writings and practices as part of a larger project. While there are numerous excellent monographs on American evangelicals and gender, I am not aware of anyone who has written a scholarly study of American evangelical popular prescriptive literature about heterosexual practices. The one exception would be a few monographs that examine adolescent sexuality and the purity movement. I hope that my book will influence future scholars to take up the topic and investigate areas that I do not consider in this book. I know that there are a few dissertations in the works that focus on social media, more controversial sexual practices, a specific figure (Mark Driscoll currently is a favorite), as well as a few sociological and anthropological studies that consider the effects of the prescriptive literature I examine on the lives of everyday believers. Beyond my topic, I hope my book will inspire other scholars who study religion to take seriously popular literature about embodied practices and the role of the senses in the construction and maintenance of religious identity.

What was the last book you read for pleasure that you would recommend to others?

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher.

Image credit: “Chastity Ring” by Rlmabie. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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