Tim Nagle happily recites the rules. Masturbation is out; so is public kissing. If he massages his girlfriend’s back, he has to stay above the shoulder blades. If he has sex, he could be expelled. Nagle is a junior at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, where these sorts of sexual regulations are nothing new – in fact, they’ve been part of a good evangelical Christian education for centuries. What is new is that now students like Nagle can at least talk about sex.
“I think it’s funny,” he says. “In the Fifties, it was kept quiet: ‘Ooh, sex is bad,’ and all that. In the Eighties, it was fear: ‘You shouldn’t do it or you’ll get all the diseases.’ It took all the fun out of it. That wouldn’t have worked with me. Now, we’re being real with sex as a beautiful thing. We’ve gotten smarter. I’m very pleased.”
Nagle’s history is right. There are more than 115 evangelical Christian colleges and approximately 650 smaller and more devout fundamentalist Bible colleges in the United States, and sex was rarely – if ever – mentioned at any of them until the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. At that point, many schools were forced to break their silence, and for the next decade or so, warnings about the dangers of sex out of wedlock were just about the only kind of sex information that most of the roughly 300,000 conservative Christian college students in the country got.
Then, in 1994, the University of Chicago released the most authoritative survey to date on American sexual behavior and created the first tremor of the current Christian sexual liberation. According to the survey, the most sexually satisfied people in the country are not S/M aficionados in New York or free-love fanatics in San Francisco. The people getting the most joy, pleasure and ecstasy from sex are Christian women in monogamous marriages – they’re physically and emotionally more satisfied with their partners and are more likely to have an orgasm every time they have sex than are people of any other religion or of no religion at all.
From the moment of the survey’s release, waiting until marriage for sex stopped being a duty and started being hot, and fundamentalist Christian leaders learned what alcohol, clothing and car advertisers have known for decades: Sex can sell anything, even abstinence. “The survey took us off the defensive,” says Robert Knight, who directs cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a right-wing Christian think tank. “The popular notion is that Christians don’t have fun. The survey proved otherwise.”
Fun with sex soon became the rallying cry at Christian colleges everywhere. Professors scrapped fear-based sex education for fun-based programs. Courses with names like Pure Sex, A Celebration of Human Sexuality, Getting Your Sex Life Off to a Great Start, and Beyond Doing It started popping up on evangelical Christian college curricula. Evangelical sex therapists began to lecture at colleges. And a new genre of self-help book was born, spilling out titles like Sex Is Holy; Intended for Pleasure; and 52 Ways to Have Fun, Fantastic Sex.
With their new bragging rights, evangelical Christian students, who had been kept quiet about sex for centuries, turned out to be just as eager – no matter how virginal – to talk about it as any other eighteen-to twenty-two-year-olds. When Les and Leslie Parrott decided to teach a course on relationships and sex at Seattle Pacific University six years ago, they expected that maybe twenty of the school’s most religious students would show up, as the course would promote virginity and abstinence. Instead there were more than 250 students the first day.Since then, the couple has offered Relationships 101 to about 500 students every year, and it has remained the single most popular course at the school.
One reason for such a demand might be that on many days, the Parrotts’ class resembles an episode of MTV’s Loveline. Lectures cover oral sex, anal sex, homosexual sex – any kind of sex – and the students’ questions are no less explicit. Some ask for recommendations for morally acceptable carnal acts; others confess past sins in detail and ask about the consequences. Much time is also devoted to examining the so-called cultural propaganda behind contemporary pop songs, says Les Parrott. “We play things like ‘Sex and Candy,’ ‘I Touch Myself’ and ‘I Want Your Sex’ – which,” he pauses, “has taken on a whole new meaning. We play the song and ask them what it means, what the message is. They’re surprised. They start to unpack the song, and they realize how powerful the message selling sex is.”
The Parrotts provide their own textbook for the course, Relationships, which is now one of the best-selling books on Christian campuses nationwide. Chapters like “Sex, Lies and the Great Escape” are accompanied by in-class exercises to help students articulate their own feelings about sex. In one, students are given a list of twelve “stages of physical intimacy” – everything from gazing into a partner’s eyes to licking her breasts to making love. The students are asked to note how long it took to get to that point in each of their relationships and how the act made them feel. Les Parrott says that this exercise “helps them recount, in specific terms, any pain or regret they have for having sex too soon. All of them have bucketsful, and this leads them through steps for forgiveness and healing.”
Another assignment provides students with a list of different sex acts and asks them to indicate just how far they are willing to go before they are married. Some students stop just before sexual intercourse, while others don’t believe that they should even hold hands. “It’s different for every relationship,” says Parrott, who has his own ideas about what is OK before marriage. “I think you can draw the line at fondling breasts and genitals outside of your clothes.” Any further, he says, and sex is sure to result. Any less and students risk “shutting down their sexual selves.” Gradual development of intimacy, he explains, is key: “To jump right to the boundary line is short-circuiting our sexuality – we aren’t built to move into high gear.”
The Parrotts say that the toughest kids to convince are those who have already had sex. For them, the couple offers a session called Like a Virgin, Again, in which sexually active students are instructed in ways to avoid situations where they are likely to have intercourse – situations like being alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex who is naked.
The kind of frank discussion that dominates Relationships 101 would be impossible at one of the more hard-core fundamentalist colleges like the Moody Bible Institute. There, entering freshmen are presented with a sixty-eight-page booklet of rules forbidding such things as certain movies and TV shows (Friends, Melrose Place, Seinfeld and The Simpsons, among others), and sex. When students are seriously dating someone, they can hold hands, and that’s about all.
Nonetheless, Tim Nagle heard about the joys of Christian sex soon enough when he walked into Christian Life and Ethics, a mandatory class for all freshmen in which they learn to apply the Bible’s guidance to everything they do – and everything, these days, includes sex.
“When God created the world,” explains Michael Rydelnik, Nagle’s Christian Life professor at Moody, “he said it was good, very good. Sex is part of that. Sex is not a result of the fall of Adam. It was something God created to be enjoyed. That’s what’s amazing about the University of Chicago report. The numbers confirm a biblical ethic.”
When Rydelnik teaches the section “Dating, Marriage and Sexual Purity,” he uses two textbooks – Honesty, Morality and Conscience and I Kissed Dating Goodbye – and has students write a five-page paper concerning their ethical stance on sexual behavior. In class, he asks them what they call it when they are on a couch kissing and holding their partner. While students aren’t really supposed to be familiar with such activities, they know the vocabulary and offer up words like “cuddling,” “making out” and “fooling around.” Rydelnik writes all of these terms on the blackboard. Then he crosses them out and writes “foreplay” on the board in large letters. “That’s what it really is,” he says sternly. “Let’s talk about the truth.”
Rydelnik teaches students that they shouldn’t kiss, hug, read books about sex or think about the person they are dating in a sexual way – even if they’re engaged. He also warns against masturbation. “That’s why God made wet dreams,” he explains. There’s one exception, however: “If you can hold hands without exciting passions,” Rydelnik says, “then hold hands. I never found that holding hands made me want to have sex.”
At Moody, as at schools all over the country, the promised payoff for total abstinence is the greatest sex imaginable. Students sometimes have a hard time believing that, though, Rydelnik says. “They ask, ‘How do you know you’re physically compatible if you don’t engage in sexual practices beforehand?’ I always say that God created hormones for that. You have to develop mutuality, areas of deeper and deeper friendship. If you have that, the physical stuff will come.” Rydelnik also points out that when virgins marry, “you’re not comparing each other to anyone else; you’re learning together. There’s no way to know if the sex is worse than other people’s.”
Tim Nagle loved taking Rydelnik’s course and says that it was the key to helping him maintain his own virginity. Rydelnik helped him “know as a Christian that a sexual relationship with your wife is the purest of pure things,” he says. “God has set these boundaries, and society has crossed them. Punishments are going to come.”
So far, the biggest problem with abstinence’s new marketing plan is that there’s no way to really gauge how successful it is. At Moody, Rydelnik’s students might be reluctant to ‘fess up to any sexual crimes or misdemeanors because the consequences can be so serious. As for the Parrotts, they’ve never surveyed course graduates, and they know that college students are notorious for lying in polls about sex, but they choose to believe that their class is working. “If four or five kids will agree to meet once a week to encourage each other to reclaim their virginity,” Les Parrott says, “I think that’s a response to our messages.”