One topic in religion and sexual ethics hasn’t been addressed much: the ways women’s sexuality has been suppressed and distorted by religions. Books on the topic include Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (Touchstone, out now), Linda Kay Klein’s account of growing up in the “purity movement” of the 1990s, which taught that a girl’s sexual purity was the most important thing about her and proved her good standing as a Christian. It also taught that women are responsible for men’s sexual urges: if a girl inspired lust—through her dress, behavior, or mere presence—she was a “stumbling block,” an obstacle to a Christian man’s relationship with God. Klein interviewed other women who had absorbed those teachings as girls, and she found that they had been harmed in the same way she had been and “were haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear, and physical experiences that sometimes mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she writes.
Pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber calls for a new liberation movement in Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (Crown, Jan. 2019), writing that Christians must reject antiquated and harmful ideas about sex, gender, and their bodies. She illustrates her argument with stories from her own life and her parishioners’, then digs into what the Bible really says versus what churches have taught about sex. Bolz-Weber tackles patriarchy and power in the church and shows how they have distorted sex. In Shameless, she circles back to what she calls the heart of Christianity: “The Gospel is powerful enough, transgressive enough, and beautiful enough to heal not only the ones who have been hurt but also those who have done the hurting.”
Sex features prominently in Jessica Wilbanks’s memoir, When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss (Beacon, Oct.). Wilbanks was raised in poverty in the backwoods of southern Maryland, and her family’s lives revolved around their Pentecostal church. When her parents discovered she had kissed her friend Sophie during a sleepover, everything changed, she writes. “My mother was shocked and sad.... [But my father] had tasted more of what the world had to offer than my mother had. He wasn’t surprised that I had said yes to cigarettes and alcohol, warm arms and lips, female or male. But they both rejected the idea that I was intrinsically bad. Instead they had decided that evil had gotten into me and jumped under my skin. This unnatural sexual urge that I had was a virus, a pollutant. It went without saying that I would never be allowed to spend time with Sophie again.” At 16, Jessica walked away from the church, alienating her deeply religious family. Wilbanks is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and was selected as a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Journalism.
In Girl Boner: The Good Girl’s Guide to Sexual Empowerment (Amberjack, out now), August McLaughlin counters negative messages about sex, including those that come from religions. She writes, “If you were raised with religion, you might have learned any of the following myths, and then some.... Sex and pleasure are strictly or mostly for guys; preserving your ‘virginity’ as a young woman is essential for an honorable, moral, and worthy future; masturbating is sinful (but guys can’t help it); a woman’s body is best hidden, to prevent uncontrollable sexual urges in men; gayness, or acting on gayness, is wrong, unnatural, and hellworthy.” She adds, “Sexual shame related to religion is not only worth addressing, but fully surmountable. And the rewards can be dang near miraculous.”