As titles go, Give Me Sex Jesus, is pretty tasty clickbait.
The trailer promises “the naked truth…behind life’s touchiest subject” and cuts together shots of a couple devouring an apple together (FALL IMAGERY!), American preachers propounding “biblical norms” and talking heads revealing some very personal truths (“I don’t want to be 35 and a virgin; “I learned to masturbate in the forests of Ohio”).
I watched it on Friday, and really enjoyed it.
Directed by Matt Barber, who married at 23 (“mostly so I could have sex”) it’s a detailed exploration of America’s purity culture, with particular focus on the True Love Waits movement, which exploded in 1993, alongside the HIV / AIDS epidemic.
I was 12 at the time, and vaguely remember hearing about American teenagers putting on purity rings. Although teaching that sex is to be saved for marriage was, and remains, mainstream evangelical teaching, nothing of this scale took hold in the UK. By 1994, a year after the launch of True Love Waits at the Southern Baptist Convention, when 50 students stood up to make the first pledge, more than 100,000 pledge cards had been signed. Barber’s film shows footage from a rally during which students brought their pledge cards to Washington DC and pounded them, with stakes, into the lawn of the National Mall.
I find it hard to imagine that happening here, although the teaching promoted by the movement’s founders will be very familiar to anyone who grew up in the evangelical church here (sex is good within marriage, but damaging outside of it).
What happened in the US, Barber suggests, was the resurgence of a striving for purity not only within Christianity, but within American society. He traces the history of immigration, prostitution, and fears that inter-race children would “dirty” the white population. In the early 20th century, doctors, clergy and the church had united to promote sexual purity for white people, while black people and immigrants were cast as sexual predators. In the 90s, it was the AIDS epidemic, he suggests, that prompted the return of the purity movement.
One of the strengths of this film is that Barber has assembled insiders, rather than just sociologists commentating from the sidelines. They include Richard Ross, the co-founder of True Love Waits. He recalls reacting against the suggestion by the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr Joycelyn Elders, that the American teenager was “incapable of controlling his or her sexual behaviour” (his quote).
(As a side note it’s worth reading about Dr Elders who grew up in a poor sharecropper family, became the first African American Surgeon General, and ended up being fired after contemplating out loud that it might be healthy to teach masturbation)
In Dr Ross’s mind, True Love Waits was a mean of empowering young people who were offended by the suggestion that “nobody believes in us”. He had no idea, he tells Barber, that it would grow as big as it did. It spread to 100 countries, and by 1996, Congress was enacting a $50 million per year programme to fund abstinence education. It wasn’t just anxiety about HIV/AIDS fuelling this, the documentary explains, but a political environment in which teenage motherhood was presented as not only a socio-economic problem, but a moral one.
Academics interviewed by Barber shed light on the climate in Clinton-era America, highlighting that it was the poor and young women of colour who were most likely to have teenage pregnancies, and questioning why it was that young women’s sexuality was suddenly in the dock for the nation’s problems. There’s footage of a young Andrew Marr reporting on a “radical assault on single mothers” and Charles Murray’s 1993 essay “The Coming White Underclass” in which he warned that the percentage of white births out of wedlock meant that “the sky really is falling”.
Barber traces the end of the purity movement to a 2011 study by the University of Georgia which found that abstinence education did not necessarily result in abstinent behaviour. A year after taking the pledge, half of students denied that they had ever taken it. After five years this rose to 84 per cent. At the time, 37 states required that abstinence be taught as part of sex education and 26 that it be taught as the best method to prevent pregnancy. The consensus of academics and practitioners interviewed here is that abstinence education has failed (teenagers find other ways to experiment sexually and when they do have sex they are ill-prepared to do it safety). If you want to read more about the studies exploring the impact of abstinence education I found this helpful.
But it’s by no means all social history. The beating heart of this film is interviews with Christians: pastors who teach that sex should be saved for marriage and people who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to obey. There are stories of shame, fear, and regret. One of the first quotes we hear is that “If there was anything that tortured me growing up, it was guilt”. But we also hear from couple who are positively glowing with satisfaction at having stuck to the rules. Bonnie, who didn’t even kiss Patrick until their wedding day, thanks God that she never had her heart broken. People who worry about compatibility are “stoopid” she says: she only had to learn about one man’s preferences. Patrick, for his part, finds staying away from pornography a challenge made easier by the fact that Bonnie is “really, really hot”.
There’s a fairness about Barber’s approach. Given that his own marriage ended in divorce, it might have been tempting to have depicted “waiting until marriage” as naive, or worse. But the stories he has gathered are like the people who tell them: complex. The virgins are funny, vulnerable, honest. Asked to imagine what sex might be like, a beaming guy who looks rather like Simon Pegg imagines “a shared moment of joy together…the dream”.
These people were hugely brave to do this film, and I think Barber has done right by them. I think many evangelicals in the UK will identify with Lacey, who hasn’t waited but remains conflicted about this.
“My views aren’t completely solid,” she reflects. “Some of it [the feeling that she should have waited] is social but some of it might be an actual morality thing. I’m also at the point where I’m like everything is a social construct! I belong in college still, I shouldn’t be out in the real world!”
The pastors are similarly diverse. There is, of course, talk of cold showers, sex being like a cookie you can’t eat before dinner (“get out of the kitchen, Tim!”) and a flow-chart that leads from hand-holding up to FULL INTERCOURSE.
(FYI Barber’s company is called Sidehug Films.
But there are also examples of the sort of teaching that I think is now dominant in evangelical circles in the UK: sex outside marriage isn’t the worst sin, but it is damaging to your relationship with God and other people. This sort of teaching tends to be accompanied by a strong message that sex is fundamentally good and should be celebrated within marriage.
“It’s the same as everything else in life: Go for the stuff that’s meaningful, that’s good, treat it like that and you’re not going to go far wrong,” says Pastor Tim Gaydos, formerly of Mars Hill. “The Bible says that God created everything and he called it good. . . Go outside of God’s design and it’s brokenness.”
But’s hard to watch the documentary and not contrast the pastors’ conviction that saving sex for marriage will enable their congregations to avoid shame, guilt and pain, and the confessions by those yet to have sex that this has brought with it its own challenges.
“I do at this point wish I had had sex with someone,” says Catherine (who has always felt the pressure to live up to the meaning of her name). “I don’t want to be 35 and still a virgin.” Several interviewees recall praying as teenagers: “Please God, don’t let me die a virgin.”
Chris’s prayer was even more anguished. Contemplating the prospect of Hell, he prayed “Don’t let me die before I stop being gay”. The grandson of Bill and Vonette Bright, founders of Campus Crusade for Christ, he was sent to a sports camp that he describes as “an early form of reparative therapy”. It backfired (group showers were “a wretchedly frigthening time for me because I was so worried I would get an erection”).
There is a thoughtfulness, humour and sensitivity to Chris’s testimony that exposes some of the limitations of certain pastors’ contributions. Elsewhere in the film, Pastor Scott Salamat of Calvary Chapel, laughs when revealing that he likes to tell men “You know that when you masturbate you’re actually gay because you are making love to another man?”
When the conversation moves from personal stories to expert commentary, from sociologists and theologians, it tends to falls along familiar lines: Conservatives cite the Bible and its unchanging application (“Psychologists and humanistic educators would teach us that they are archaic beliefs and they don’t really apply to our time…but God doesn’t change and his word doesn’t change”) and Liberals arguing that the Bible is being used in wrong, and damaging ways (“Evangelicals have to pick and choose their way through the Biblical narrative like a minefield…they would be calling for the death penalty for deviance from anything that tribes in the Middle East 5000 years ago found normative.”)
It’s fair to say that the academics Barber interviews tend to be more critical of the purity movement, and to foresee its decline. They point to an unattainable struggle for individuals, a disproportionate emphasis on sexual sin (“it suggests if one is not following the sexual rules it must mean that that person is just going to do anything he or she wants”), and a younger generation unwilling to carry “baggage”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a documentary, the film puts a high price on individual stories and what we might learn from them.
“Rather than looking at rules, can we please talk about how we are trying to love one another as best we can given our limited human knowledge and our appropriate desire to touch one another…not some biblical text that we are going to pull out to legitimate what we already thought?” pleads Dr Jennifer Wright Kunst, author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions on Sex and Desire.
I know that this highly personal approach won’t work for many evangelicals in the UK, ever cognisant of the risk of making God in our own image, of relativity, of straying from the perfect plan set out in the Bible. But I hope it’s seen widely here because there’s something beautiful about it. It ends with all of the interviewees smiling at the camera. They look nervous and vulnerable and I hope the film will be watched and shared in a way that honours their courage.
You can watch Give Me Sex Jesus free here: givemesexjesus.com