From Purity Culture to Sex Positive: a book review

Sex is a gift from God and yet many of my conservative Christian friends suffer from profound shame in the area of sexuality.  The effects of purity culture, abstinence covenants, kissing dating goodbye and centuries of bad theology have caused many in conservative Christian culture (my tribe) afraid of sex and unable to integrate sexuality and faith. Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schemer Sellers is aimed at helping sexologists and psychotherapists treat clients from conservative churches. Her goal is to help people move forward into healthier expressions of sexuality with a sex-positive religious ethic.

SellersSellers is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a certified sex therapist and the professor of sexuality and medical family therapy at Seattle Pacific University. While her own personal background was mostly sex positive, her academic interest in the effects of purity culture was catalyzed by hearing student’s stories, especially after the year 2000 (257).  She respected for the faith of her students and clients, and their belief in a loving God, but the reality of religious sexual shame in conservative (evangelical) contexts broke her heart.

She wrote Sex, God and the Conservative Church with two groups of readers in mind. First, therapists who work with those from a conservative evangelical context, and secondly conservative Christians who wish to integrate their sexuality and faith commitments (24).  Often Conservative Christians who experience sexual shame find it difficult to discuss in their context but also have a hard time finding a therapist that respects their religious faith. Sellers wants to help Christians and therapists work through the issues in ways that is mutual respectful of individuals and their religious tradition.

The first three chapters diagnosis how religious sexual shame manifests in her client’s lives. Chapter one examines the reality of sexual shame and the religious purity movement that developed in conservative Churches in the 1990s. Chapter two describes  the sexual baggage of two millennia (e.g. NeoPlatonic church fathers who demeaned women, sex and physical embodiment in preference for the spiritual, Augustine and the sexism of the Reformers). Chapter three describes the commodification of sex in an American consumer context and its effects on sexual vitality and body image (with a little help from Wendell Berry).

Chapter four begins to offer a Sex-positive ethic by recovering the sex positive Judeo-Christian tradition (drawing heavily on stories from Jewish tradition). Chapter five explores the sex-positive Gospel by examining the life and ministry of Jesus, positing the centrality of the abundant life connects pleasure with justice, grace and love (25).

Chapters six through eight are more geared toward therapist readers, discussing clinical applications, therapeutic interventions and practices/exercises for individual clients and couples. Non-therapists (like myself) will find this section of the book less accessible, though there are few practical takeaways.  The epilogue is worth a read, because Sellers  shares some of her personal journey with sex and God and her research into the effects of purity culture in conservative churches (especially since 2000). There are anecdotes of clients and students throughout the book

Sellers is writing about and for people from a conservative religious context, so while she does point people to a less ‘black and white’ sex positive ethic and questions some of the underpinnings of patriarchy and purity culture, she does not tackle Christian approaches to LGBTQ issues in this volume.

I am not a sex therapist or a counselor. I am a pastor who has worked exclusively within a conservative Christian context. Pastoring requires a different set of skills than that of a therapist but it also requires being cognizant of the issues.  I also grew up in this tradition. I never signed an abstinence covenant or read Josh Harris’s first book, but I grew up being taught that sex is a wonderful and natural gift that you should never think about until you are married. I didn’t experience brokenness in sexuality to the extent of some of Sellers clients and students, but I was bequeathed a lot of sex-negative ideology. I think this is a good resource for anyone who is from a conservative tradition and would like  a more sex-positive and less shame inducing approach to sexuality, and anyone in the ‘helping professions’ (especially therapists, but also pastors) who work in this context. I give this four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book via SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

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