The July+August issue of Mother Jones (one of my favorite magazines) contains an item about web sites for Christians seeking sex advice and sex toys. Those sites raise an interesting question about what “counts” as sex-positive.
The article begins with two quotes, one from the Song of Solomon, and one from a Christian sex toy web site (Book22.com) that itself refers to a Christian sex/marriage community bulletin board and advice site (TheMarriageBed.com). In characterizing the advice given on The Marriage Bed, JoAnn Wypijewski writes, “They must shun porn, but are commanded to pleasure. they may enjoy oral and anal sex, toys and fantasies, “mild pain” through spanking, biting (so long as nothing becomes a fetish or substitutes for intercourse, and couples fantasize together, of themselves married and forsaking all others).” In addition, she writes, that Christian couple should feel free to “slather their skin with chocolate body butter and Happy Penis Massage Cream, restrain each other with silken bonds, use blindfolds and swings, vibrators and pierced-tongue stimulators, penis extenders and dildos (though not those molded after real flesh). All this may be theirs if they are straight and married.” She even describes an essay written by one of the founders of The Marriage Bed (the husband of a husband/wife team) that encourages wives to strip for their husbands, and finish by masturbating to orgasm while he watches.
And therein lies the problem. While I want to rejoice that Christian couples are getting good sex advice and affirmation of their desires for pleasures of many sorts, there is no getting around the prohibitions against extramarital sex (which, in every US state aside from Massachusetts also means prohibition against sex with somebody of the same gender, though that is explicitly prohibited for good measure), or sex that involves even fantasizing about extramarital sex. This can’t be sex-positive, and yet I want to be happy that these people who are devoted to their faith are at least getting advice that allows for sexual fulfillment within the oppressive boundaries of their doctrine. Yet if, as Wypijewski suggests, that means usurping “a vocabulary of desire that owes everything to gay liberation’s unlocking of sex even as they slam the door on the notion that gays and lesbians have any right to sexuality,” if it means exploiting gains in sexual freedom that came as a result of enormous risks taken by those who are then explicitly excluded from basic civil rights by the very people doing the exploiting, this can’t be considered positive even in the most generous of interpretations.
In presentations I’ve given, I’ve described ways of thinking about sex as fitting into conservative sex narratives (no sex outside of marriage, and then a restricted notion of appropriate sex which is geared toward reproduction and marital duty), liberal sex narratives (where most consensual sex is okay as long as it takes place in a loving, and preferably monogamous, relationship) and sex radical narratives (where all consensual sexual activity and identity is okay, period.) It would appear, from this article, that the conservatives are using language from the liberal and sex radical narratives but inserting them into the conservative sex narrative. Is this a way to draw the uncertain back into the Christian fold? Is it a way to help keep committed Christians happy in their marriages? And how unjust it is that many of those who opened the door to this kind of freedom are still being stigamtized and shut out of basic access civil rights by those very powerful Christians who are probably enjoying vibrators and bedroom strip shows!