One of the core beliefs of the Religious Right is that fundamentalists represent a great silent majority, particularly when it comes to sexual mores. In spite of opinion polls and surveys of behavior which indicate otherwise, Christian conservatives insist that mainstream Americans share their certainties: Abortion is murder, homosexuality is repulsive, and sex outside marriage is wrong. In Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics, historian Dagmar Herzog sets out to prove that this belief is a myth.
According to Herzog, much of the public's current enthusiasm for the conservative sexual agenda—from the Defense of Marriage Act to abstinence-only sex ed—is the product of an orchestrated propaganda campaign by right-wing evangelical activists. Moreover, this negative approach to sex has been a national libidinal buzz kill, fostering sexual anxiety and confusion. "Discussions about sex in America center less and less on joy, pleasure and self-determination," she writes, "and more and more on peril and danger."
Herzog begins her book with a brief discussion of her own upbringing in the 1970s and '80s. A Southerner and a devout Christian, the daughter and granddaughter of Protestant ministers, she recalls a time before evangelical religion was synonymous with prudery: "The Bible Belt of my high school years was a sensual and beautiful place; the churches left their congregants alone when it came to sexual issues." This might seem like a rather rosy overstatement to others who came of age in the same milieu, but it's true that public discourse 30 years ago was not saturated with today's church-sponsored fearmongering about teen promiscuity, porn-crazed pedophiles and the dire social consequences of same-sex marriage. The abstinence pledges and do-it-for-Jesus marriage manuals that are so popular among evangelicals now were unheard of then.
The Religious Right has always had a normative sexual agenda, beginning with its opposition to abortion in the 1970s, Herzog argues, but their ideas began to invade the wider culture just before the new millenium. Thanks to the sudden ubiquity of Internet porn, and the marketing of Viagra (which Herzog describes as part of the "psychopharmacologization of human emotions"), Americans were becoming increasingly anxious about and obsessed with sex. The inevitable dissatisfactions of sexual life and the normal indulgence of fantasy were increasingly regarded as pathological. The resulting insecurity created fertile ground for promoting a God-approved approach to sex, one that promises "boundary-dissolving ecstasy each and every time"—but only for straight married couples who are pure in thought and dedicated to Christ. Fantasizers, masturbators, unbelievers and gays are emphatically not invited to the party. Like so many self-help swindles, this erotic evangelism feeds the problem of sexual anxiety even as it promises a solution.
After a detailed discussion of the Christian sex culture that will make a lot of readers laugh and others cringe, Sex in Crisis goes on to describe how the repressive side of these sexual attitudes plays out both within the evangelical world and in the wider realm of social policy. The Christian therapy programs to convert gays to heterosexuality have been used to argue that homosexuality is a curable disease and gays should have no civil rights protection. Church-sponsored abstinence education has found its way into public schools—and, worse yet, into the anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, where Christian groups protested funding for anything that might encourage non-marital sex. "What should have been a comprehensive war on HIV," Herzog says, "instead turned into a war on condoms." The result has been an increase in HIV infection in at least one country, Uganda, where it had been on the decline thanks to safer sex programs.
Herzog is obviously correct when she says that the peculiar sexual values of the Christian Right have spread far beyond the evangelical cohort, and their advocates have successfully shaped public policy. Though she notes signs of a growing liberal backlash, the popularity of the fundamentalist sexual ideal as personified by the Palin clan indicates that it still has plenty of currency. The political brawls over same-sex marriage and abortion are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
She seems on shakier ground, however, in discussing the widespread sexual malaise she sees reflected in her young students today. According to Herzog, students in the early '90s were "comfortable and forthright" about sex. By 2005, thanks to evangelical propaganda, they were "far more hesitant and insecure." Assuming her perceptions are accurate, laying the blame for such a profound social shift on a single cause seems an oversimplification. Right-wing evangelicals, for all their influence, remain a cultural minority; school abstinence training, however useless, is not likely to destroy the sexual confidence of the average kid. It might just as easily be argued—and many evangelicals would be happy to do so—that some of the blame belongs to the increasingly soulless hyper-sexuality of our consumer culture, which is what drives people to the so-called Christian approach to sex in the first place.
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