April 15, 2008 — More evangelical couples — once embarrassed and prudish about sex — are now leaving their Christian inhibitions at the bedroom door.
For this growing group of younger, more progressive Christians, guilt is out and pleasure is in.
“We discovered that God’s word is holy and hot & filled with invaluable wisdom for our sexual relationship,” says intimateissues.com, one of the most popular Christian Web sites. It is based on a 1999 book by the same name.
The Christian wife has come a long way, baby, as a variety of sex advice books with titles like “Intimacy Ignited,” “Gift-Wrapped by God” and “Satisfy My Thirsty Soul” are emphasizing the earthly as well as the heavenly side of love.
Pastors are sermonizing and sexologists are offering conferences to help couples overcome their guilt about a once-touchy subject. And, they offer new translations of scripture to give biblical clout to their message.
“People carry a lot of guilt from parents who said sex is bad,” said the Rev. Kerry Shook of the Woodlands Church outside Houston. “We help them to have a healthy sex life. One of the things we cover in scripture is how to meet each other’s needs in bed.”
‘Make Your Marriage Sizzle’
As pastor of the 15,600-member, nondenominational church — one of the largest in the nation — he recently delivered a popular sermon titled “How to Make Your Marriage Sizzle.”
Shook and his wife paired culinary tips with a sex talk “just to grab their attention,” he told ABCNEWS.com. “We were cooking beef burgundy with a reduction sauce with cameras from the top of the church. We had a real talk about intimacy and marriage and the problems that come between couples.”
Home pastors Paul and Lori Byerly of Salem, Ore., dispense more sex advice than Playboy magazine on their Web site, TheMarriageBed.com.
Created in 1997, the site covers topics like anal, oral and phone sex; masturbation and role-playing; fetishes; bonding; and spanking.
“We had a great marriage, but a terrible sex life,” Paul Byerly told ABCNEWS.com. The couple talks openly about their inability to enjoy sex because of Lori’s history of sex abuse and his involvement in pornography.
The couple, now happily married for 23 years, advises their readers to embrace anything that is consensual to achieve “intense physical pleasure & deep emotional interaction and connection & and a spiritual union.”
Sex has come slowly out of the Christian closet. One of the first books to address the issue was Marabel Morgan’s “The Total Woman,” which sold more than 10 million copies to women of all religious persuasions, making it the best-selling nonfiction book of 1974.
“The Act of Marriage” — a sex manual for evangelicals written by Tim and Beverly LaHaye in 1976 — was the first to promote the idea that sex can complement, not undermine, a marriage.
Ed Wheat’s 1977 “Intended for Pleasure” urged women to give to their husbands with a smile and included tips on achieving maximum pleasure.
Baker Books, the Christian publisher that still carries Wheat’s classic, also lists some new titles, including “The Spark: Igniting the Passion, Mystery and Romance in Your Marriage,” which has sold more than 6,500 copies since January.
“What I see and read in both my job and out is an increased maturity in looking at sex,” said Adam Ferguson, a Christian and publicist for Baker Books. “It is discussed with more realism and candor.”
‘Sex Is a Gift’
This new genre puts less emphasis on grin-and-bear-it submission and more on mutual pleasure. Evangelical ministers say the church should play a role in spreading the good word.
“Sex is a gift, a good thing,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 14,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.
“God allows you to have pleasure,” Hamilton told ABCNEWS.com. “That’s how he designed your body. Once you learn it’s a gift from God, you embrace it and lay aside the shame.”
After conducting an anonymous survey of 2,400 of his parishioners, Hamilton wrote “Making Love Last a Lifetime,” concluding that marriage suffers when couples lack sexual intimacy.
“We are such an overly sexualized society with everything you watch on TV,” said Hamilton. “Somebody’s got to talk about it.”
The pastor announces these talks in advance so parents who are squeamish can send their kids to Sunday school. Still, Hamilton says even the children can benefit from a good sex talk.
“Do you want all of their learning to come from the playground or shaped by what the scripture says in the context of the church where we talk about love and fidelity and mutuality and justice?” he asked.
The scripture is exactly where more Christians are turning to spark discussion about the subject. Old Testament stories involving Adam and Eve and Sarah and Abraham are bringing life to sexual discussions. Hamilton said a new translation of the Hebrew word “paradise” suggests more earthly than heavenly overtones.
Though many churches still consider sex “prurient and fleshly and not to be discussed,” Hamilton said a more open discussion is actually strengthening marriages.
“Folks who are married and people of faith tend to have more sex, more often than people who are swingers.”
That message seems to be catching on, largely with women. About 800 of the 2,000 Sunday-going regulars signed up for an October conference at Wisconsin’s Appleton Alliance Church.
“Sex is something we should be talking about in the Christian community,” said Judy Episcopo, director of the Appleton women’s ministry. “Except for the negatives — don’t do this and don’t do that — the Bible has a lot of good things to say about sex and God wants us to have a passionate, successful sex life. This conference can help inspire it.”
The program is based on the books of Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus — “Intimate Issues” and “Intimacy Ignited” — who celebrate the Bible’s “Song of Solomon,” which reinforces the message that sex is not just for procreation.
In some retranslations of the passage, the word “embrace” might mean “fondle,” according to the authors. They even suggest the line, “let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits,” is a veiled reference to oral sex.
“Sex is such an important part of what we believe,” said Episcopo. “There’s a lot of guilt and pain and complacency about sexual relationships and a lot of ignorance about exactly what the Bible says about sex.”
Bible as Sex Guide
Episcopo first thought about such a conference after reading the book in 1999, but concluded “my women weren’t ready for a weekend on sex.” But this year — with the average age of her church-going females at 40 — she decided the time was right.
Using the Bible as their guide, women answer, among other things: “How can I be both sensual and godly?” “What does the Bible have to say about sex?” “Is it possible to get beyond the pain of sexual abuse?” “How do I get over my guilt?” “How do I make sex go from boring to sizzling?” and “Does the Bible have any suggestions?”
Interestingly, some of her participants are single. “We try to give them a vision for sex but to remain pure,” she said. “Sexual relations are sacred and it’s important to keep for marriage.”
That and some other subjects — adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, prostitution and incest — are still taboo, even in ministries that talk about sexual relations.
But, according to Melanie Wells, a Dallas psychotherapist and Christian, that is because God says wielding power over another is wrong — even in a marriage.
“I try to deal with marriage as citizenship, as a democracy with one man and one vote,” she said. “You have to register, know the issues and vote your conscience. If you don’t do that, you abdicate the power and responsibility and that’s a cop out.”
Too often, according to Wells, Christian attitudes toward sex have “squeezed the life out of people, and it happens sexually, too.”
In her practice, Wells tries to change the conversation about sex from physical obligation to emotional intimacy. Some couples still struggle.
“It’s a real hard shift for people mentally to go from an entirely prohibited activity to do it all the time,” she said.
Wells is also critical of Christian attitudes toward premarital sex, which she argues encourages teens to marry young out of guilt. She also veers from the standard position on homosexuality.
“I don’t generally get involved in correcting people’s behavior or orientation,” Wells said. “They have heard all of that before they get to me. They don’t need another lecture and it’s not any of my business.”
Truth and openness in one’s sexuality is important, she argues. “Christ can certainly handle that.”