Passionate and Pious

Religious Media and Black Women's Sexuality

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Monique Moultrie
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $23.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780822370048.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How do Black women navigate the thorny religious and theological frameworks that shape the ties between Christianity and the expression of sexual agency and decision-making? Monique Moultrie’s Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality answers this question, while opening up new insights that apply Black religious criticism toward popular media culture(s). Drawing on womanist sexual ethics as well as ethnographic studies of Black women’s faith-based sexuality ministries, Moultrie’s central objective is to envision a more contemporary sexual ethics for Black Christian women based on the embrace of “agency, desire, and responsible sexual decision-making” (4).

The first half of the book examines Black Christian sexuality as contextualized through faith-based sexuality ministries, with televangelist Juanita Bynum as the reference point. Per Moultrie, Black Christian sexuality is besieged by restrictive conservative frames of reference. Ultimately, the message of such ministries reinscribes patriarchal sexual mores that privilege sexual purity norms, holiness culture, modesty, sexual restraint, and the submission of women. Bynum’s unique take on Christian sexuality for single women, which began with Bynum’s open acknowledgment of the role of sexual desire and her personal struggle to maintain purity norms through celibacy, is presented as a viable option for single women likewise struggling with the ties between religion and sexuality (28). In a largely White and male religious broadcasting market, Moultrie cites Bynum’s ministry as an amalgam, “part upholder of dominant ideology, part expounder of black religion, and part black female” (40). Moultrie’s interviews with select focus groups illustrate how Black churchwomen, following Bynum, negotiate their sexual lives and uphold their religious and moral codes on sex and marriage.

Moultrie then goes on to review the landscape of faith-based sexuality ministries post-Bynum, highlighting, among others, “e-vangelism” groups (virtual/online ministry communities), Wives in Waiting, and the Pinky Promise Movement groups. A common point of outreach and mission underscoring these ministries is emphasis on spousal submission and the prescription of celibacy until marriage. The theology of submission is premised on the idea that women must learn to submit within intimate relationships to God as preparation for submission in marriage. Thus, a properly ordered union between man and woman is anticipated by the submission of woman to God, which thereby serves the larger end of reinscribing traditional heteronormative gender roles. Moultrie rejects compulsory celibacy as restrictive and delimiting of the full range of embodied connection to others, favoring instead a womanist ethic of celibacy, a function of free choice. This celibacy is one that is the “situational refraining from sexual activity done not out of fear of divine judgment but in acknowledgment of the divine body with which one is gifted” (76).

The final chapters address the response of faith-based sexuality ministries to same-sex attraction, senior women’s sexuality, and the negotiation of sexual desire and pleasure. In focus group interviews, along with her research on the ministry of Ty Adams, Moultrie uncovers how faith-based ministries cultivate both the affirmation and castigation of Black women experiencing same-sex attraction. Underscoring this chapter is a concern with “narratives of deliverance”—the use of personal testimonies to model the overcoming of same-sex attraction to live into sexual purity and celibacy while waiting for a husband. Moultrie is critical of these approaches, raising questions about how “ex-gay” deliverance narratives encourage Black Christian lesbians to shutter off their authentic sexual selves. In its place, Moultrie offers a womanist praxis of sexual hospitality founded on the acceptance and recognition of “nonfixed [sexual] identities” (93) in Black religious spaces in order to advocate for Black women’s sexual liberty.

Senior Black churchwomen’s sexuality, Moultrie laments, has suffered an ageist removal from sexuality studies literature. This tendency is reified due to assumptions about the asexuality of the elderly, as well as the de-eroticization of Black churchwomen. For this demographic, technology for faith-based ministry delivery has proven a successful medium, due to its handheld and home-based convenience, and its cultivation of discreet spaces to ask questions among like-minded women. Some of the challenges Moultrie discusses pertaining to senior women’s sexual fulfillment among her focus groups are a lack of available partners, physical limitations (and its therapies), and how best to navigate questions of marital and nonmarital sexual propriety. In advocating a womanist model of sexual generosity in response to these challenges, Moultrie reframes the message of sexuality ministries by opening space for expansive conceptions of companionship.

The final chapter addresses sexual pleasure and desire in Black Christian thinking—against the backdrop of monogamy, nonmonogamy, and marriage. Much of the tension on this register, notes Moultrie, is linked to general uneasiness with the enfleshed body in Christian thought. This tension is exacerbated by the impact of racist framings of blackness and Black female bodies, prompting many Black churchwomen to embrace conservative and rigid views on sexuality that demonize healthy sexual expression and the desire for sexual satisfaction. In this sense, the body ceases to be a biochemical site for sexual pleasure and is reduced to a sinful (and shameful) burden to be mastered and controlled. Tethered to the problem of control are sexual yearnings and specific acts, among which in Moultrie’s focus groups were masturbation and oral and anal sex. Moultrie issues a call for “radical sexual honesty and responsibility,” in the naming of Black women’s sexual agency, desires, and safety. In this womanist framing of erotic justice, embodied integrity for Black women and their partners is preserved, and embodied self-knowledge and naming one’s sexual identity are required before seeking pleasure in relationships with others (133).

In the conclusion, Moultrie echoes Alice Walker’s womanist who “loves herself. Regardless” (143). Self-love, particularly in terms of womanist relational orientations and norms, is the foundation for individual and communal sexual ethics. But as Moultrie illustrates, self-love also challenges and disrupts the sexual scripts that limit and oppress Black churchwomen. By dismantling the mythologies and distortions of sexual practices, sexual decision-making, and sexual desires prevalent in many sexuality ministry platforms, Moultrie’s book offers a supplemental resource to assist Black churchwomen in navigating the restrictive cultural and religious sexual dictates of their churches and their larger communities. In dismantling the traditional views that reify patriarchal partnering, theologies of sexual shame, and heteronormative relationship models across varied backgrounds, Moultrie establishes an inclusive theo-ethics that embraces marital, nonmartial, and same-sex sexual companionship in which sexual pleasure, mutual well-being, and fulfillment are framed as a justice-oriented societal and interpersonal good.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darrius D. Hills is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Monique Moultrie is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University and coeditor of the revised edition of A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z.

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