Christians under Covers

Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

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Kelsy Burke
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520286337.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. Historically, there are very long stories from all parts of the Christian world documenting the effect of socially dominant Christianity on both the rights of wives vis-a-vis their husbands in private, and on sexual respectability and the limits of self-expression in public. These relationships are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of gray.

Kelsy Burke's new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites—message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores—supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic,” which remains very clearly circumscribed by a familiar-seeming principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here there is no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Sex is to be enjoyed to the full; indeed, its very enjoyment is spiritualized. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke's subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one's witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Webster is an independent scholar and consultant.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kelsy Burke is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska - Lincoln.

Keywords: 

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