In the Biblical Sense
A guide to the booming Christian sex-advice industry.
When University of Chicago researchers set out to discover which religious denominations have the best sex, they learned that the faithful don't do all their shouting in church. Conservative Protestant women, their 1994 survey found, report by far the most orgasms: Thirty-two percent say they achieve orgasm every time they make love. Mainline Protestants and Catholics lagged five points behind. Those with no religious affiliation were at 22 percent. (Unitarians may not wish to read any further.)
What are the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world--those twice-born PTA moms--doing in bed that the agnostics and unbelievers are not? Education may explain some of their sexual satisfaction. (Click for how.) But they also may be getting better sex advice. Thanks to evangelism's surge during the past quarter-century, America is in a golden age for Christian sex manuals. Evangelicals may not want their children to study sex ed in school, but they are not afraid of studying a little sex ed in their bedrooms.
The modern Christian sex advice business dates to 1973, when the evangelical Marabel Morgan achieved brief notoriety for The Total Woman. Morgan famously suggested that wives spice up their marriage by greeting their husbands at the door wearing nothing but Saran Wrap--a seduction attempted with sad consequences for Kathy Bates in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. James Dobson, founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, published a sex-and-marriage book in 1975. Best-selling Christian authors Tim and Beverly LaHaye followed in 1976 (also the year of Helen Wessel's The Joy of Natural Childbirth, which taught Lamaze from a Christian perspective). Scores of books have followed, selling millions of copies.
While the Marabel Morgan book aimed chiefly to comfort and instruct the wife on holding the attention of her husband--implying without subtlety that any sexual problems were her fault--later writers have expanded the boundaries of the field, which is now marketed as "family counseling," a category that includes child-rearing, lovemaking, marital relations and, of course, sexual orientation. Today, the genre has even subdivided into niche markets. Teens can buy I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris, which counsels against early sexual experience. Earl Johnson's Single Life: Being Your Best for God as He Prepares His Best for You assures black women that their single status, which demographics may brutally enforce, can be "a celebration rather than a burden." Numerous books target gays for "recovery," including Coming Out of Homosexuality, by Bob Davies, dean of the ex-gay evangelists.
Sex-and-marriage guides are the best sellers of the genre, and Tim LaHaye has emerged as its Alex Comfort. If you're a Christian who wants to go forth and multiply, he's your guide. Lately on the best-seller lists for the six apocalyptic novels in his "Left Behind" series, which have sold nearly 10 million copies, LaHaye has long been a household name among fundamentalists for his works on sexual and family life. His most famous book, the wonderfully titled How To Be Happy Though Married, hearkens back to another era, in ways both quaint and disturbing. LaHaye rehashes all the conventional ideas about male and female sexuality. For example, he perpetuates the Freudian myth about vaginal vs. clitoral orgasms, and he views male sexuality as essentially dangerous. "The sex drive in a man is almost volcanic in its latent ability to erupt at the slightest provocation." Men are stimulated by sight, says LaHaye, women by words and touch. In the LaHaye scheme, the New Testament is a sexual guide. Matthew 5:28, for instance, says, "But I say unto you, that whosoever look unto a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." But Jesus made no such statement about women because most women do not look at men with lust. Thus man "should be the initiator because of [his] stronger sex drive," while "the role of the woman is to respond."
LaHaye's books have their share of quackery and pseudoscience, but that does not preclude some genuinely wise counsel to lovers--especially inexperienced ones. He is wonderfully clear and clinical about the mechanics of sex. Here is part of his description of female sexual arousal, for example: "When a woman is sexually aroused, several of her glands begin to secrete a lubrication that bathes the vulva area with a slippery mucous, easing the entrance of the penis into the vagina." For young marrieds who have grown up shielded from the universal sex talk of the secular world, these details are surely useful.
P erhaps the most notable quality of the Christian sex business is that it is evangelical, not puritanical. It is very pro-sex--as long as sex takes place in the context of marriage. Ed and Gaye Wheat, authors of Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Christian Marriage, may curiously advise "taking an acid or alkaline douche just before intercourse" to select the sex of one's baby (they don't say which douche is for which sex), but their overall tone is both practical and sensual. They note that lubricant works best if you first "warm the K-Y Jelly by holding the tube in warm, running water." They advise that newlyweds should "not get a TV set for at least one year" and that "every master bedroom needs a good lock." The Wheats and LaHaye offer finely wrought anatomical diagrams, exhortations to married couples to communicate, reminders to "observe daily hygiene habits," and constant refrains about making sure to satisfy your partner. Bob Davies allows that masturbation is biblically permissible. The Wheats condemn oral sex and vibrators only because they might be too fun, thus souring couples on intercourse. The writers do not invoke the language of sin.
Christian sex counselors are most alienating to worldly audiences when they talk about masculinity and homosexuality. They are obsessed with manliness and have a narrow idea of what that means. Self-styled natural law theologian Anthony Moccia writes in Happily Ever After: How To Stay Married and Be Happy Too! that "a husband has more of a chance to keep his marriage together if he is rough and abusive but assertive than if he is kind and considerate but submissive." (Moccia's greatest professional qualification, according to the jacket flap, is an appearance on the Morton Downey Jr. Show.) Moccia's tone is atypically harsh, but his message is shared by other counselors. Noted preacher T.D. Jakes, who presides over a Dallas-based empire of books, tapes, and TV shows, wants to "heal" not just homosexuals, but all "men who are feminine in their mannerisms." These Christian sex writers contend unequivocally that gays can simply turn straight through faith and willpower. They generally describe gays with crude stereotypes. In What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality, LaHaye employs Galen's theory of the four humors to help explain gayness. "It has been my observation," LaHaye writes, "that most homosexuals reflect a high degree of Melancholy temperament"--"sensitive, artistic, gifted."
The Christian love doctors believe, against all evidence, that teen-agers can squelch their hormones and homosexuals their essences. Still, for the tens of millions of married couples who just need a little cheerleading--or a detailed diagram--their books may literally be a godsend. LaHaye's advice, from the most florid talk of "eruptive" and "electrifying" touches to his prim injunction to "refrain from the use of back-alley words" during coitus, won't please everybody. But with more than 2 million copies sold, he's one evangelist who is spreading the good news.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.