The Way of All Flesh

On Christian sex sites, anything goes, so long as you are married.

I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick [with] love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me. —Song of Solomon

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They bring their stories to The Marriage Bed, the espoused and affianced, joined in virtual conversation, posting psalms and parables, warnings and lamentations, narratives that are broken, contradictory, unfinished, because the way to love is hard sometimes, and because sex is a lot like religion in that way, enchanted and bone-crushing, a simple matter made strange, heavy with secrets, freighting souls with the need to tell.

X has been engaged to a man for three years; the wedding is nigh, and though they have saved themselves for each other, she is overflowing with desire, concerned that she might be dirty or lustful but worried more that her intended is neither. Y is married but lonely in a cold bed, his grief assuaged by faith alone, and his own hand’s fleeting balm. Z is praising, grateful to the Lord for the graces of a large man, 30 years of climax through intercourse, and a childhood revelation—the charming cavort of teenage friends espied through a ceiling grate—that “left a lasting impression…[of] how fun and enjoyable sex could be.”

Amen, amen. God is good. Enemy, get behind me! All who testify get a reply, often many replies, so that each thread of The Marriage Bed is a scroll, a call and response to make up for an education on sexual need and the ways of the flesh that private shame, organized religion, and the state denied to most of them. So Z is hailed but admonished lest it appear she endorses the sin of voyeurism. X is urged to learn before it’s too late if her man is frigid. (No one suggests gay.) For Y there is only consolation, and for a hundred others—the boy of 19, betrothed in his heart since middle school, who questions the primacy of a contract as permission slip and proof of commitment when he and his beloved have already endured in sickness and in health; the single man fixated on scat and golden showers; the parade of brides-to-be wondering about lingerie and lube; the spouses seeking to arouse their mates—for all these there is scriptural guidance; gentle reproach; counsel against fetishes; endorsements for Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood, K-Y, coconut oil, spit, or the products provided discreetly by Book22.com; medical advice; personal stories; reading lists; or detailed instructions, with recommendations on excellent stripping music (“#1 Crush” by Garbage, anything by Enigma).

The Reverends Paul and Lori Byerly of Austin, Texas, established The Marriage Bed to rescue sex from the porn industry and the shame-mongers of their own faith. Although distinguished by its kaleidoscopic approach to people’s desires to express desire just so, theirs is a ministry shared by a vast array of Christian sex counselors, radio talk show hosts, authors, webmasters, itinerant healers, and entrepreneurs across the country. Like so many before, they have remade their God in their own image, to suit their own needs. Himself a voyeur of sorts, present in the bedchamber, seeing whether His creation is good, or not, this sex-friendly God has given an Eleventh Commandment: Christians, have more fun.

The list of “What’s Okay, What’s Not,” as revealed to The Marriage Bed, gives the faithful broad license. They must shun porn, but are commanded to pleasure. They may enjoy oral and anal sex, toys and fantasies, “mild pain” through spanking, biting (so long as nothing becomes a fetish or substitutes for intercourse, and couples fantasize together, of themselves married and forsaking all others). They may study the numerous guides to intimacy and multiple orgasms by the Byerlys and other Christian authors, explore exotic positions, talk dirty, use condoms and other forms of birth control. They may slather their skin with chocolate body butter and Happy Penis Massage Cream, restrain each other with silken bonds, use blindfolds and swings, vibrators and pierced-tongue stimulators, penis extenders and dildos (though not those molded after real flesh). All this may be theirs if they are straight and married.

The Byerlys are both, and as the Reverend Paul writes, “You are married, or you are not. Kind of like you are alive or dead—there really is not much in between.”

For the unmarried dead and the burning adolescent, one poster to The Marriage Bed suggests, “You can glorify Him with your sexuality by pure masturbation.” It must be practiced for relief or biological clarity, not pleasure, and must be unaccompanied by lustful thoughts. Still, this is progress, even progressive. Recall that Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was fired by Bill Clinton and described as “a sort of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person” by abc’s Cokie Roberts for saying in 1994 that masturbation was a reasonable subject for discussion in public school sex education. Twenty months later Clinton signed the welfare reform act, with a subsection that narrowed the range of discussable sexual subjects in federally funded schools to the propositions that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity,” that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects,” that the only thing students need know about condoms and birth control is their failure rate, and that, given all the above, queer kids may proceed straight to hell.

Ten years and $1 billion later, this is the only national sex education policy in Amer­ica. Research on its effectiveness is scarce, but not a single peer-reviewed study shows abstinence-only training has any impact on the age at which teenagers renounce their virginity. The highest expression of the abstinence ideology, however, the “virginity pledge,” has been uttered by 2.5 million teens, and its numerology insults it: 88 percent of virginity pledgers have sex before marriage; on average they have it 18 months later than non-pledgers but are more likely to have unprotected sex and less likely to seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; 9 million stds occur each year among teens and young adults, and rates among those who’ve vowed to “Just Say No” are comparable with rates among others. Religious teens are less likely to have sex before they’re 18, but this particular survey defined “sex” the way Bill Clinton does, as “heterosexual vaginal intercourse.”

Across the country only 14 percent of school districts provide comprehensive sex education, but that too is constrained. Compared with teenagers in almost every other developed country, American teens have more religion, more partners, shorter relationships, less contraceptive use, more infections, more abortions, more babies.

Marriage hardly improves matters. The sex-ministry Christians whose more straitlaced coreligionists began the drive for abstinence training in the public schools in 1981 now look out across the landscape of wedlock and lament the husbands trolling for porn into the night, the wives passive in their beds, imagining sexual joy as the whimsy of romance novels. Beside those types, the scrolls of The Marriage Bed are positively liberating.

And yet they oppress. For in aiming to banish fear and guilt among the faithful, they merely displace those emotions—from the trembling bride to the fornicating teen or the single of any age warned to expect pain, sorrow, and lifelong sexual problems. In rolling out ideas for teaching children about sex that are more expansive than anything in school, they draw the magic circle of marriage with a larger, brighter line demarcating the even greater abundance of goodies reserved for those inside from the desert left for those beyond. In their embrace of oral and anal thrills, in their rejection of shame, they assume a vocabulary of desire that owes everything to gay liberation’s unlocking of sex even as they slam the door on the notion that gays and lesbians have any right to sexuality. In encouraging straight women’s sexual vitality, they project a familiar duo, the Virgin and the Whore, the latter sanctified as Wife, skilled in the use of a vibrating Jelly Finger, and urged in an essay by the Reverend Paul titled “How to Strip for Your Husband” to “finish your performance by letting him watch you enjoy a self induced orgasm. To drive him over the top, put a chair in front of him, sit down, put your feet on his knees, spread wide and masturbate. Bonus point for self penetration.”

And so Leviticus meets Girls Gone Wild, an old story revamped. More power to the Christian wives if they want to lap dance, and to the Christian husband who asked if any of the ladies thought his wife might be turned on by his stripping for her wearing a tool belt and knee pads. But more power. In their songs of themselves there is the ghost of a time when they had no power to know or to feel, and no place to ask or tell or be told that sex is an unruly thing, complicated by love and need, intimately exchanged but socially shaped, improved by practice but colored by things that can’t be bought or learned, offering wondrous pleasure but, then again, maybe not. Religion having conceded to them a little piece of that power, it patrols the ramparts of right loving the way it always has, comforting an elect by damning all others.

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