Even though they are immersed in sex-saturated society, millions of teens are pledging to remain virgins until their wedding night. How are evangelical Christians persuading young people to wait until marriage? Christine J. Gardner looks closely at the language of the chastity movement and discovers a savvy campaign that uses sex to “sell” abstinence. Drawing from interviews with evangelical leaders and teenagers, she examines the strategy to shift from a negative “just say no” approach to a positive one: “just say yes” to great sex within marriage. Making Chastity Sexy sheds new light on an abstinence campaign that has successfully recast a traditionally feminist idea“my body, my choice”into a powerful message, but one that Gardner suggests may ultimately reduce evangelicalism’s transformative power. Focusing on the United States, her study also includes a comparative dimension by examining the export of this evangelical agenda to sub-Saharan Africa.
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About the Author
Christine J. Gardner is Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College.
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Making Chastity Sexy
The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns
By Christine J. Gardner
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
From Abstinence to Purity
The Changing Tropes of Chastity
There is nothing like a pregnant teenage daughter of an anti–comprehensive sex education politician to thrust sexual abstinence into the national spotlight. Within days of the 2008 selection of the relatively unknown Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be the running mate of John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, the campaign announced that the governor's seventeen-year-old unwed daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.
Two months after giving birth to her son, Tripp, Bristol Palin decided to claim some of the spotlight to tell her own story. In one of the more awkward television interviews in recent memory, the Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren tossed softball questions to the then eighteen-year-old Palin, who answered with a disarming teenage frankness. There is plenty here to cheer about for advocates of choice and those who oppose abstinence education as the sole means of sex education. In response to a question about whether Bristol's antiabortion mother forced her to keep the baby, she replied, "It was my choice to have the baby. It doesn't matter what my mom's views are on it, it was my decision, and I wish people would have realized that, too." In an echo of the feminist battle cry of "my body, my choice" for a new generation, Bristol asserted burgeoning adolescent agency to insist that the decision to keep the baby was her own. Yet with heartbreaking candor she emphasized repeatedly during the interview that she wished motherhood would have happened ten years later. Like any new mother, Bristol marveled at her son's smiles and coos. She also acknowledged that motherhood was turning out to be different than she thought it would be: "Well, it's not just the baby that's hard. It's just, like, I'm not living for myself anymore."
Bristol Palin echoed her mother's prolife stance, affirming that teens should wait to get pregnant (and presumably wait to have sex) "because it's so much easier if you're married and if you have a house and a career and—it's just so much easier." But what set the blogosphere abuzz was Bristol's apparently contradictory acknowledgment that abstinence is unrealistic for teenagers: "I think abstinence is, like—like, the—I don't know how to put it—like, the main—everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all," she told Van Susteren, awkwardly pushing back her hair as she struggled for words. As Bristol went on to say, abstinence is unrealistic because having sex is more accepted among teenagers. So of course abstinence seems unrealistic if everyone around you is having sex outside marriage. Everybody's doing it, or at least that's what everybody thinks.
In her adolescent vernacular Bristol Palin restated an essential argument of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns: that today's culture of sex portrays abstinence as an unrealistic option for teenagers. This claim is supported by scientific studies, which are significantly influencing the use of federal funds for abstinence education in public schools. But evangelicals have a loftier aim in the abstinence campaigns than scientifically proven effectiveness. As Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written, "The real issue for Christian teenagers and their parents is not to debate whether sexual abstinence before marriage is realistic or not. The larger and more important issue is that sexual abstinence until marriage is the biblical expectation and command. Once this is realized, the responsibility of all concerned is to ensure that expectations and structures are in place so that abstinence is realistic."
The contemporary American evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns began in the early 1990s as a reaction to what was perceived as a hypersexualized culture in which abstinence is viewed as unrealistic and teenagers are assumed to have no choice but to have sex. Against this societal depiction of teenagers as hormone-driven automatons, the evangelical abstinence campaigns portray teenagers as choice-making agents with the power to control their own bodies. American evangelicals construct sexual abstinence as a choice. Key words such as choice, choose, decision, and decide fill abstinence books and events. The focus of the message is that teenagers do not have to succumb to hormonal urges, peer pressure, or the dictates of a sex-saturated culture; they can choose not to have sex. Abstinence events are structured to make a case in support of abstinence, then to conclude by giving participating teenagers an opportunity to choose abstinence until marriage and to declare their choice publicly by signing and submitting a pledge card (True Love Waits); standing and accepting a pearl necklace (Pure Freedom); or receiving a Bible and donning a ring, signing a covenant, and standing and reading the covenant aloud (Silver Ring Thing).
The contemporary evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns began in response to what evangelical leaders regarded as a "condom culture" in which teens were expected to be sexually active. The abstinence campaigns seek to expand sexual behavior choices by offering abstinence as a viable alternative to promiscuity. Far from being merely one option among many, abstinence is portrayed as the correct choice for teens. Abstinence is recast as a positive call to a life of purity. In addition, the movement defines virginity in a manner that enhances the agency of teens: it claims that virginity is a gift that teens have the agency to lose, find, take, and give. Obedience to God is downplayed as the health benefits of abstinence are emphasized.
The rhetoric of abstinence goes beyond trying to convince teenagers not to have sex. It also shapes the identity of the evangelical community as a whole. The evangelical abstinence campaigns function to both control the liminality of teenagers and underscore the symbolic boundaries between evangelicals and secular society. The sociologist Christian Smith argues that American evangelicals are thriving because they see themselves as embattled. They define themselves oppositionally: to be an evangelical (part of the in-group) is not to be part of secular society (the out-group). Yet evangelicals are not modern-day monastics, separate from the rest of society. Smith says that evangelicals thrive on "distinction, engagement, tension, [and] conflict" with secular society. This engagement has shaped the rhetoric of evangelicals. The abstinence campaigns themselves display a form of liminality or border crossing. The campaigns seek to reinforce symbolic boundaries, but they also seek legitimacy and persuasive power through the reclamation of rhetorical forms used by secular society.
CONTEXT OF NO CHOICE
According to the cofounders of True Love Waits, the largest and oldest of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns, the prevailing cultural attitude in the early 1990s was that true love couldn't wait. Richard Ross and Jimmy Hester insisted that it could. "The overarching message of adults to teenagers was, 'We do not believe you can control your sexuality,'" recalls Ross, a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "The surgeon general of the United States looked square in the cameras in 1993 and said the American teenager is incapable of controlling his or her sexuality."
The mass distribution of condoms in public schools in the early 1990s signaled to evangelical leaders that society assumed that teenagers had no choice but to be sexually active. "We know you are going to have sex anyway," the government-funded programs seemed to say, "so when you do, at least use a condom." Hester, director of student ministry publishing for LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, saw this as a culture of promiscuity. He recalls, "The perception of students was, at least what we were hearing, the perception of students was that everybody is sexually active, that adults expect us to be that way, and so they're providing us these options to keep us safe in that.... Whether that was true or not, that was what they were hearing. And so the expectation was there."
Some evangelical sexual abstinence leaders single out groups like Planned Parenthood for their harshest critique, charging that the organization assumes that "nobody really does abstinence." Instead, abstinence leaders say that Planned Parenthood promotes recreational sex through its condom distribution, based on a faulty assumption that teens lack agency to control their sexuality. Kristi Hayes, director of government relations for the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a government-funded umbrella organization serving more than thirty-six hundred abstinence affiliates, says, "A lot of things that people will try to get you to believe is every teenager is having sex, so we've got to give them condoms. Every teenager. And that's not true."
Planned Parenthood, however, is not alone in being blamed for promoting unbridled sexual activity. Evangelical sexual abstinence leaders frequently castigate mass media—and MTV in particular—for assuming teenagers have no choice but to be sexually active. A history of the True Love Waits campaign describes the sex-saturated culture: "In the early 1990s, teenagers were being bombarded with sexual messages from advertisers, television producers, movie makers, fashion designers, and media channels of every form. This led to a common belief among teenagers that everyone was having sex—especially their peers." Joe McGarry, a program director for Silver Ring Thing, says he tries to "fi nd a way to communicate that maybe life isn't like a Nelly video." Paraphrasing the popular MTV recording artist, McGarry says, "I've been around a lot and I've been in very many hot places. Just because 'it's getting hot in here,' it doesn't necessarily mean we're all 'taking off all our clothes.'" Denny Pattyn, the founder of Silver Ring Thing, tells his teenage audience that adults have created the sex-obsessed culture that teens now are forced to live in: "Forgive us, we adults, who have done this to you.... I challenge you to be the generation of change."
The evangelical abstinence message is positioned as an expansion of choice (adding the option not to have sex) as well as the affirmation of teen agency to make the right choice in the context of a culture that asserts the absence of teen choice. The symbolic boundary is clear: sexualized "MTV culture" is the out-group. Avoiding sex is characteristic of the in-group. The argument for abstinence is a refashioning of the protofeminist argument of "my body, my choice."
Part of what makes abstinence sexy is the campaigns' construction of its audience as autonomous, choice-making individuals who have the ability to control their bodies and wait for sex. Here, agency is symbolically constructed through rhetoric. This is a necessary step in the process of persuasion: teenagers must be rhetorically constructed as agents with the power to choose before they can be persuaded to choose abstinence. Agency is offered as reclamation of power: evangelicals adopt the persona of victim, claiming that society is telling teens that bodies are uncontrollable and that sex is inevitable, a position from which agency must be reclaimed and restored. The role of the victim is a powerful stance in persuasion. Making oneself weak in order to (re)claim agency offers a narrative of overcoming and triumph that is absent from a normative understanding of agency. If the possession of agency is the status quo, then self-identification as an agent contains little transformative power. The claim of agency from a self-proclaimed stance of victim (the ultimate nonagent or absence of agency) rhetorically constructs a type of rebirth that is more powerful than mere agency. Portraying the rest of society as hypersexualized and evangelicals as marginalized creates rhetorical space for evangelicals to reclaim power and to motivate a generation of young people to make the right choices with their bodies.
RIGHT AND WRONG CHOICES
There may be an expansion of choice in the rhetoric of the abstinence campaigns, but there is clearly one right or correct choice, and that is to choose sexual abstinence until marriage. Sexual activity and sexual abstinence both may be available options for American teenagers, but the evangelical abstinence campaigns are clear that choosing to wait is the best option. Instead of merely stating the prohibition and expecting teens to obey, evangelical leaders appeal to the adolescents' budding sense of self-determination while at the same time presenting compelling arguments for what the leaders feel is the best choice. By focusing on the power to choose instead of merely the one best choice of abstinence, evangelical leaders affi rm teens' developing sense of agency, changing a negative proposition of "Stop" or "Do not" into "I will" or "I choose."
Mary Douglas contends, following Emile Durkheim, that "holiness and impurity are at opposite poles." Dirt, or impurity, is "matter out of place." For the abstinence campaigns, sexuality manifested in the body of a teenager—in that liminal state between childhood and adulthood—is matter out of place and must be managed. Yet, as the previous examples suggest, social control takes place as a liberal call to choose. The invitation to choose to wait to have sex reinforces symbolic boundaries between evangelicals and the rest of society, but the invitation itself crosses that symbolic boundary to reappropriate the rhetoric of choice.
Consequences is a key word repeated in books, at events, and among campaign leaders. All three highlight the negative consequences of making the wrong choice, nonmarital sex. Pure Freedom makes a distinction between "poor choices" and "wise, head-defined choices." Poor choices such as sexual activity have negative consequences, including emotional stress, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Kristi Hayes of Abstinence Clearinghouse says that she hopes to see students she works with make "right choices": "I've worked with students before who were not able to save themselves, made wrong choices, and they're living with that consequence. I've also seen those who have decided to wait and have incredible marriages and don't have to carry some of those consequences." The abstinence message points out negative consequences of making the wrong decision, but overall the campaigns focus more on the positive consequences of making the right decision, for abstinence. By placing a higher value on one choice, choice rhetoric appears to be a false construction. Although the campaigns may present one correct choice, the power of choice rhetoric is displayed in the construction of the teenage audience as choice-making individuals.
Of course, the loophole in the construction of this argument is that the audience may claim its agency and make the "wrong choice," for sexual activity. Here the burden of proof lies in the evangelical leaders' ability to present the one right choice of abstinence as the best and most appealing choice for teenagers to make. One way that the evangelical abstinence campaigns do this is to turn an essentially negative prohibition into a positive choice by focusing on a call to purity.
FROM PROHIBITION TO ADMONITION: PURITY AS THE POSITIVE CHOICE
A key rhetorical construction of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns is a shift from a negative focus of "just say no" to sex before marriage to a positive focus of "just say yes" to sex within marriage. Although "to abstain from" is essentially negative—a call to prohibition—evangelicals place more emphasis on the positive aspects of waiting for sex within marriage. The evangelical sexual abstinence message rhetorically transforms a negative message of "abstain from" to a positive message of "wait for." Trumpeting the positive benefits of sexual intercourse does not attract much disagreement from a teenage audience, but that may be precisely the point: the positive transformation of abstinence begins with the presumption held by the campaigns' primary audience (teenagers) that sex is good, establishing the positive ethos of the rhetors, instead of perpetuating a negative stereotype of dour-faced, puritanical disciplinarians who insist that sex is bad.
Excerpted from Making Chastity Sexy by Christine J. Gardner. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Abstinence, AIDS, and Evangelicals: An
Introduction 1. From Abstinence to Purity: The Changing Tropes of Chastity 2. Of Purity Rings and Pop Stars: Using Sex to Sell Abstinence 3. “Someday My Prince Will Come”: The Fairy-tale Narrative and Female Power 4. Disciplining Sexuality: How American Evangelical Youth Are Committing to Abstinenceand Sticking with It 5. The Fractured Fairy Tale: When True Love Doesn’t Wait 6. Fearing God, Not AIDS: Abstinence in Africa 7. The Condom Conflict: Saving Lives or Promoting Promiscuity? 8. What’s Not So Great about Great Sex Appendix: List of
Interviewees Notes Bibliography
What People are Saying About This
"An excellent qualitative examination of how religious persons make sense of their sexuality within contemporary society."Sociology of Religion
"Making Chastity Sexy is important and perceptive in a profound way. . . . Brilliant."Huffington Post
"Making Chastity Sexy offers a convincing critique . . . will appeal to a broad audience."Sociology of Religion