Book Review: Christians Under Covers

BookReviewLogo“God and sex seem to occupy distinct and separate spaces within our communities and our psyches,” sociologist Kelsy Burke observes in her introduction to Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (University of California Press, 2016). In contemporary American discourse, “religious pleasures and sexual pleasures are often pitted against each other in den debates over contentious social issues like homosexuality, premarital sex, and pornography” (2). Yet what Burke found, in her ethnographic study of Internet-based discussions about faith and sexuality, was that for conservative evangelical Christians, religious commitment and sexual pleasure are deeply intertwined. As Burke evocatively puts it:

Users [of Christian sexuality websites] portray their marital beds as crowded. Their choices appear to be (or at least attempt to be) influenced by God, who celebrates sexual pleasure for married Christians; Satan, who thwarts sexual pleasure for married Christians; and the websites themselves …monitor[ing] these desires and behaviors through feedback, providing credibility for some acts while condemning others (3).

27065701For this dissertation turned monograph, Burke identified sixteen blogs, eighteen online stores, and two message boards created for the purpose of putting human sexuality into Christian context. During the early 2010s she was an observer-participant in these spaces, “lurking” (with permission of website administrators) in online discussions as well as designing an online survey that reached 768 respondents and conducting 44 one-to-one interviews. Participants in the study were overwhelmingly white, (heterosexually) married evangelical Protestants.

Based on the data she collected, Burke makes two interrelated arguments about conservative evangelical heterosexuality at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

First, she suggests that for conservative Christians, sexual behaviors have become less important in assessing sinfulness than sexual status. If a given individual qualifies to be sexual — by being straight, married, and monogamous — then within these online communities they will find a wide range of sexual behavior once considered either illegal or sinful to be celebrated. Oral sex and anal play, BDSM activities, cross-dressing (for men), sex toys, role play and erotic fantasies — all of these options from the modern sexual repertoire are incorporated into godly sexual intimacy for straight, married couples. Unmarried, queer, and non-monogamous people, on the other hand, are often literally turned back at the gateway to sexual pleasure as website click-through pages and registration forms require you to affirm your married, monogamous status before participating.

Second, Burke argues that within the charmed circle of monogamous marriage, narratives of sexual exploration play out differently for Christian wives than they do for Christian husbands. (Cis) female users of Christian sexuality websites feel entitled to sexual pleasure, but are often frustrated in their quest — struggling with layers of “cognitive and physical dissonance” that make enjoyment of sexual intimacy difficult to achieve. For conservative Christian women the pursuit of their own sexual pleasure takes place within “a very specific, male-dominated context” in which wives are often coached — in the bedroom as elsewhere — to “prioritize their marital relationships and family” even if that means backing away from sexual desires that do not fit normative understandings of female sexuality (112, 111). While conservative Christians have been consistently affirming since the mid twentieth century that married women deserve sexual satisfaction, Burke concludes that “the relationship between women, God, and their husbands…seems to temper women’s sexual possibilities” (131).

Male users of Christian sexuality websites, meanwhile, grow up in both a sacred and secular culture that takes male entitlement to sexual pleasure for granted. Unlike Christian wives — who often begin their married lives struggling to shift their sexual selves into gear — men make their way online in order to consider whether sexual practices many consider non-normative might be made morally acceptable within “the holy triangle of Godly sex” (144). In other words, does “God [love] kinky Christians, so long as they are married and monogamous” (140)? Many Christian sexuality websites and their users believe that God does. The logic of their belief, Burke argues, lies in the idea of “gender omniscience.” Gender omniscience is the belief that a straight, married Christian man may engage in outré behaviors like cross-dressing or pegging without endangering his masculine heterosexuality because God and his wife protect him through their knowledge of his true straight male identity.

What Burke terms “the logic of godly sex” thus relies on an understanding of heteronormative identity that is simultaneously innate and performative. Husbands and wives mutually constitute permissible sexuality through engaging in sexual intimacy confined to married monogamy. Their straightness is affirmed through the action of coupling within marriage, insulating them — husbands particularly — from private and social fears of sinful queer desire. Behavior that could be read as non-normative is reinscribed as normal by its placement within a heterosexual Christian marriage

Christians Under Covers is highly recommended to any scholar or general reader with an interest in the history and sociology of heterosexuality and the intersection of Christian thought and practice with understandings of sexuality and gender. This book will go on my shelf alongside the work of Amy DeRogatis (Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism), Amy Frykholm (See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity), and Jane Ward (Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men).

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