Sep 23, 2015

Give Me Sex Jesus: young evangelicals' struggles with sex and church teaching

Sarah Galo
September 17, 2015
The Guardian

Give Me Sex Jesus
Patrick and Bonnie, a couple who appear in the
film, waited until marriage to share their first kiss. 

“Whatever it is, don’t let me die before I have sex” is a prayer that at first, sounds like a punchline. But for the young evangelicals portrayed in the new documentary Give Me Sex Jesus, it is a sincere petition to God.

The documentary, which premieres on Thursday 17 September on the streaming video platform Vimeo, presents a wide range of experiences and perspectives on the highly charged politics of purity culture in the evangelical Christian community.

Purity culture is best defined as a set of beliefs that seek to govern sexual behavior and expectations, chiefly that sex is only for heterosexual married couples. In some denominational circles, it can include guidelines for women’s modest clothing to prohibiting masturbation as a sinful act.

The Give Me Sex Jesus trailer

Director Matt Barber’s own conflicted experience growing up in the evangelical community inspired him to make the film. “I bought heavily into the purity culture myth,” Barber said via email. “I rushed into marriage at 23 mostly so I could have sex. Purity culture taught me that if I did ‘everything right’ prior to marriage, then God would bless me with a special woman that he created just for me … and we would have an amazing sex life.”

But the fairytale that purity culture promised didn’t hold. Twelve years later, Barber’s marriage ended in divorce and his faith was deeply shaken. “I wanted to be a good husband and Christian, but I had this nagging feeling that I was sold a lie.”

While Barber doesn’t exactly denounce the church in the film, viewers are exposed to how evangelical youths struggle to abide by the rules of the church, while also growing up in a world that treats (safe) sex and sexual exploration of oneself as a normal and healthy act for young people.

One couple portrayed in the film, Bonnie and Patrick, wait until they are married to share their first kiss. “The beauty of it is that if one night’s awkward, I can sleep with him again and again and practice,” Bonnie says in the film as she smiles towards her husband. But even having waited, there are still issues in their marriage: Patrick finds he has a desire to watch pornography, for example, and Bonnie struggles to come to terms with his “sinful” curiosity.

Outside of the film, the evangelical church’s teachings of purity culture are highly controversial. Sex positive educator and activist Allena Gabosch notes that these stringent rules can leave young people unprepared or seeking alternatives to heterosexual intercourse, such as oral or anal sex. But as she emphasizes, anal sex presents the greatest possibility of transmitting an STI or STD, making it riskier than other forms of sex.

Lola Prescott, founder of the website No Shame Movement, a platform for those who have left behind purity culture, says that the evangelical church’s definitions of purity and immortality have shifted over the years.

“I wish folks understood how subjective their views are and how influenced they are by their culture,” she said. “It’s a waste of energy to try and promote these things because they’re not even going to be around 20 years from now.”

Prescott described visiting a religiously conservative church in Ecuador where the women wore tight jeans, something that would be frowned upon in some American evangelical churches. “In the US, people would be scandalized. When telling proponents of modesty and purity this story, I ask, ‘who’s really more modest?’ No one has an answer.”

Where Give Me Sex Jesus especially succeeds is its handling of purity culture for LGBT Christians and those who have since left the church. Mac, a trans man, noted that he left the church because of the lack of authenticity. “Not just about being trans, but I just felt judged,” he said. “If you made a mistake, God’s with a stick, ready to whack you, but he loves you.” While advocates of purity culture would decry this conception of God, the emphasis placed on proper sexual behavior clouds it.

The question remains: how does the evangelical Christian church move forward? The conclusion of Give Me Sex Jesus is the need for open spaces and permission to express often complicated feelings towards sexuality. One participant, Lacey, embodies this space of uncertainty well. When she is asked what she now believes about sex before marriage, her reply is filled with thoughtful pauses: “My views aren’t completely solid. I think it might be more important to wait until you are ready, and there is someone you really care about rather than being promiscuous, rather than getting started early.”

What evangelical Christians seem to need is a space for open and honest discussions that should have been had long ago. In an email to the Guardian, producer Brittany Machado explained, “My hope is that by showing a spectrum of realities we will enable communities to connect, not deflect.” Give Me Sex Jesus provides a good, and safe, place for that connection to begin.

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