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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Let's Talk About Sex: The Rise of TV Preachers, Purity Culture and A Call For Healing

You know how some parents are afraid to talk to their kids about sex? Yeah, that was not an issue for my parents.

Growing up we had family devotions at breakfast. One morning as my dad was reading something from Paul in the New Testament, I asked, “Dad, what’s circumcision?” My brothers laughed like I made a joke and my dad said he’d tell me later.

I forgot all about it. But my dad didn’t forget. It was important to him that I knew we could talk about sex, penises, vaginas or whatever and it was ok.

Later that day, dad brought it up and explained circumcision. He drew a picture of the tip of a penis and explained about the foreskin and how it was cut off. My dad said the doctor usually does it at the hospital when baby boys are born. I had never seen a penis before so it was a little confusing, but I got the general idea.

My parents gave me all the wisdom they had. We assumed that one day, hopefully in my early twenties, I would meet the man they had been praying for since I was born. My preference was the guy from Maui that I met at youth camp, but I was still trying to be open. I would be a virgin and together on our wedding night he and I would learn the beauty of love making. We would be best friends, maybe have a couple of children and life would be wonderful.

I’m sitting here reflecting on this romantic dream. I think of how I imagined my future sexual relationships compared to reality and it makes me very sad. As bold and confident as I am, I got into situations that I wasn’t ready for and didn’t want to happen. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. I spent many years living in fear and shame. I brought all of that into my marriage and I’m still trying to unravel it.

I think it’s ok to take a minute and grieve what has been lost. Usually when I talk about my years as a single person I say that I don’t have regrets and it shaped me into the person that I am today. But right now, when I think about my younger self and her hopes and dreams, I do wish things could have been different. I wish she wouldn’t have had to learn so many things the hard way.

I also want to have compassion for my younger self. There was so much about sex and relationships that I just didn’t know. I have compassion for my parents too. They taught me what they knew. It prepared me well for a relationship. But they didn’t know how to prepare me to be single—on my own well into my thirties. My parents also couldn’t have anticipated the impact of outside forces on my sex life as a married woman.

When I was born in the early 80s, the economy was in the toilet. It was the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression. At the same time televangelists were having their day. Pat Robertson’s CBN and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL were broadcasting their evangelical message all across the country. Unfortunately along with the rise of celebrity preachers, sex and embezzlement scandals would follow. Makes me wonder if the Bible Missionaries had the right idea by getting rid of their TVs.

The evangelical message was getting airtime, but it was the kind of spiritual teaching that wasn’t attached to a denomination or specific religious tradition. It was generally Christian and leaned Southern Baptist. TV preachers needed to have broad appeal for a national audience.

What sold well in the 80s? The messaging that got the most traction would come to be known as the Prosperity Gospel. Name it and claim it. See it and believe it. Kenneth Copeland writes in his online blog that giving to God would multiply your investment a hundredfold.[1] That has certainly worked for Copeland. His estimated net worth is $760 Million.

Christian media became a marketplace. It wasn’t just TV. There were books, cassette and VHS tapes, subscriptions, conferences and all kinds of merchandise.

The messaging couldn’t be guided by scriptural insight or ancient wisdom. It wasn’t possible. Jesus said blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are those who mourn. He didn’t say blessed are those who call right now and pledge $29.95 a month for they shall receive an autographed copy of my latest book.

The early 80s also marked the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Little was known about this new disease, but it quickly became associated with gay men. Stigma increased and led to acts of violence against LGBTQ+ communities. AIDS was deadly, mysterious and seemed to spread through sex.

The Christian media machine found a unifying rally cry in this fear. As the gay rights movement continued to build support in popular culture, evangelical culture would unite in opposition. Televangelists and radio hosts proclaimed it was an abomination, an attack on families and that homosexuals were out to destroy the very institution of marriage. Soon the rhetoric was echoed in church pulpits across the country.

Sex education in schools had been gaining support since the 1960s, but the 1980s brought rise to debates about what should be included in that education. On the one hand conservatives and religious groups wanted to teach that abstinence from sexual intercourse was the only way to avoid an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. The fear was that talking about sex or making contraception readily available would lead to increased sexual behavior. Others advocated for more comprehensive education about sexual health.

As a side note, studies since then have shown that the more you talk to kids about sexual health, the longer they tend to delay it. Turns out if you give them lots of information and empower them to make decisions, they actually make better decisions.

In 1981 Congress passed the Adolescent Family Life Act, also known as the “chastity law.” It funded educational programs to “promote self-discipline and other prudent approaches” to adolescent sex.[2] Requirements to receive the funding included teaching that abstinence is the only way to avoid unplanned pregnancies, the potential harm of having sex outside of marriage and various other related points.

Here's the thing, Christian or not, parents want their kids to wait as long as possible before they start having sex. Now we know that during adolescence the frontal cortex is still developing which makes youth more inclined to risky behavior. But we’ve known for generations that kids, including ourselves, do dumb stuff.

I get it. Talking to kids about sex is awkward and uncomfortable. For many parents the world had changed so much. How could they know how to guide their kids through such unfamiliar territory?

Parents were afraid their little girls would get pregnant in high school and ruin their lives. They were scared that their sons would die of AIDS. Sex must have seemed so dangerous, and it was everywhere. They gave that fear to their children and inserted it into our educational system.

While contraception was still taught as an option, the point of emphasis wasn’t on the effectiveness of methods like condoms (98% against pregnancy and STDs) but on the 2% possibility of a life altering catastrophe should one fail. The message was that the only 100% safe sex was no sex at all.

In September of 1992 youth pastor and author Richard Ross pitched the idea of a True Love Waits(TLW) theme for a Christian Sex Education campaign. Lifeway Christian Stores, a division of the Southern Baptist Church, would launch the campaign in January of 1993.[3]

TLW grew quickly through youth conventions and Christian concerts. Youth were challenged to sign a commitment card that read “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” Hundreds of thousands of cards were signed. Richard Ross landed a spot on The Today Show. Soon youth leaders across the country were buying TLW curriculum. Teenagers were buying T-shirts, hats, stickers… showing everyone their commitment to sexual purity.

In 1997 at the age of 23, Joshua Harris authored the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He wanted to address the problem of youth spending more time and energy on dating than following God. He advocated for high standards like not kissing until your wedding day in an attempt to warn people of the pitfalls of casual romance. Instead he taught that single people should court for marriage. Christian book stores carried a section of similar volumes, all emphasizing the importance of sexual purity as the key to a successful marriage.

Unfortunately, Harris’ own personal story doesn’t have a fairytale ending. Despite a lack of any formal religious education, Harris would assume the role of lead pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. When Harris stepped down in 2015, he confessed to leadership mistakes by a group of pastors, including himself, to cover up a child sex abuse case. He said in an interview that he and church officials decided not to go to police, but rather handle it as an internal spiritual issue.[4]

Harris moved to Canada to attend seminary. A few years later he and his wife ended their marriage and he has announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian. He requested that publishers no longer print his famous book and continues to apologize for the harm that it caused.

What did he have to apologize for?[5] First, Harris’ writing added fuel to the fire of homophobia. More broadly, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the TLW campaign were part of a movement that went beyond abstinence only into teaching that we have to avoid sexual thoughts altogether.

This ideology has roots in the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity—that as human beings we are corrupted by sin and incapable of following God’s law. I hope to write more on this at another time, but for now let’s acknowledge that this viewpoint doesn’t set anyone up for a success mindset. While Calvinism hasn’t historically been the dominate ideology in Christian orthodoxy, it has become one of the most influential in evangelical culture thanks to amplified voices in Christian media.

When the starting point is my body is against following God, you’re set up to be constantly at war with your body. What most consider natural human attraction, the kind that has propagated our species for its entire existence, became labeled as lust and sinful.

Young men were hit especially hard by this. They were taught that they had virtually no control over themselves. Even a glance at a woman could lead to sinful lustful thoughts. At the same time pornography went from the back room of video stores to on demand at your fingertips with the rise of the internet.

In college during the early two-thousands I became increasingly concerned with the effects of internet pornography and the damage it was doing to relationships. I heard from girlfriends how difficult it was to support their boyfriends who were battling addiction. Men formed accountability groups that sounded a lot like AA. Classmates were getting rid of their computers out of desperation and inspired by Matthew 5.30 “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.”

I recently heard an interview with Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers on the Reclaiming My Theology podcast.[6] She shared her experience teaching a graduate level clinical psychology course in human sexuality at Seattle Pacific University. Starting in 1992, as part of the curriculum she asked her students to write their sexual autobiography which started with a 70 question survey. Although there were always a wide range of experiences most stories had similar plot lines.

Around the year 2000, she recounted, “the stories were still the same, but what began to change is people started describing themselves as perverted, and apologizing… You could tell there was this hatred toward themselves, fear and anxiety. I couldn’t figure out why I was seeing both a combination of not knowing at all what was normal, coupled with this extreme sexual shame. I was also hearing about things like pelvic pain issues, erectile disfunction, in people that were in their 20s and 30s. Something that I had never seen before.”

She began to dig into what might be causing this shift. While it was a little more dramatic for the 40% of her students who came from a religious background, the issues with sexual shame were largely the same whether the students grew up in church or not.

Dr. Sellers would later come to recognize that she was seeing the first wave of students coming of age during the rise of abstinence only education and the purity movement. As she began to hear the stories of what these students had been through, she was heartbroken. The symptoms she observed mirrored the effects sexual trauma.

Dr. Sellers has continued to research the effects of purity culture and I’ve added her book to my reading list. She explains the experience of sexual shame is a physical feeling of “humiliation and disgust toward one’s own body and identity as a sexual being and a belief of being abnormal, inferior and unworthy.” Sexual shame, she says, often begins very early in development, and it can manifest in relationships “having a negative impact on trust, communication and physical and emotional intimacy.” Those are all the ways that we connect with the people around us. The reverberations of purity culture aren’t just hurting our sex lives, they are damaging our relationships.

Where do we go from here? As a young single person, I felt like a fraud. I was so ashamed that I was too weak to be the person I wanted to be. I recognized there was a huge inconsistency between what the church was teaching about sexuality and what the majority of us were practicing. I looked around and wondered how many others were pretending everything was ok while dealing with this internal conflict. I promised myself that someday I would do something to help.

I started this journey recounting my own story, thinking maybe I was the only one. I thought everyone had already worked through their issues and here I am, late to the party, still trying to catch up. But then other women came to me and shared how they had lived with shame too. We weren’t alone.

I continued to search, looking to learn more about how we got here. I’ve come to realize that it’s not just me, not just the other girls that went to church youth group. There are so many who have been affected. We are a generation, both men and women, with varying degrees of sexual shame and trauma that put us at war with our own bodies.

It’s time to take a moment to grieve. I think of all the young people whose devotion to God led them to this place of pain, and I am just so very sad.

My heart aches for the brokenness in relationships. I grieve for the dream of a happy marriage that wasn’t. For those who would say, “We did everything right,” but it just didn’t work.

I’m taking a moment of sorrow for the women who have been victims of sexual violence. Their voices were silenced. Their power was taken away.

I’m sad for the men who live in isolation and struggle to connect, for the relationships that might have been.

For the moments of joy that were missed. Instead of celebrating the pleasure God made us for, we hated ourselves instead.

It’s time to show compassion to ourselves and each other. Could we find a way to be kind and gentle? So many of us brought this junk into our relationships and we hurt more than just ourselves. We have to forgive ourselves. We need to forgive our partners. We need to forgive our parents, our educators, our well-meaning pastors, your friend who got onto you for staying out too late with your boyfriend… That was me. I was that friend. I am so sorry.

Now is the time to heal and learn. We are not victims, we are survivors. We can grow from here. We can find our way to healthy relationships and intimate connection.

Wading into the muddy waters of mixed up ideas about sex and God is hard work. I’m not going lie. I don’t like writing about this. It’s hard and confusing. Sometimes I feel like a broken toy that just needs to be shoved under the bed.

Then I remember that I am stronger than I think. I have already found so much healing and I know there’s even more to come. I have experienced God’s kindness—sensed love that says, “I want to give you good things!”

I hope the same for you. May you find strength and healing and know God’s love in new ways.

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