Monday, May 01, 2017

Book Review: Sex, God, & the Conservative Church by Tina Schermer Sellers

One of the challenges I believe we face as therapists is helping our clients who seek to integrate their spiritual selves with their sexual selves, especially if their religious upbringing is foreign to us. As a sex therapist who also teaches at a Christian university, I have seen firsthand the floundering of young couples who grew up steeped in a religious culture that has historically treated the body and its desires with suspicion, and how often they have no idea how to live as sexual beings in their relationships and daily life. - Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God & the Conservative Church

I wasn't introduced to the so-called purity movement until my early college years. In those days, Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye had just been released and was already taking off. I even read it myself my freshman year, and in the aftermath of a breakup seemed sensible and true. Thankfully for me, that viewpoint eventually wore off, but the culture of shame that surrounded any conversation about sex was widespread among the evangelical subculture around campus. The wrath of those who wielded it burned me more than once, which made it all the easier to leave it behind in favor of greater honesty and healthier views concerning sex, sensuality, dating, and how all of it relates to spirituality.

All of that is to say that my own experience with conservative Christian attitudes and approaches toward such things was stifling and damaging, but it was also relatively brief. I find it very difficult to imagine being brought up in that culture during my most formative years, let alone the possible lasting effects it would have when exploring relationships. And yet for millions of people this is what they are steeped in, and what causes problems for them later.

Sex therapist Tina Schermer Sellers has counseled many in this exact position, and who encounter many difficulties in reconciling what they were taught with the reality of what they find once in marriage or an otherwise committed relationship. In Sex, God, & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy, she shares what she has learned in talking to individuals and couples wrestling with what their faith has taught them about sexuality. While the primary audience for this book seems to be fellow therapists, there is much here for laypeople as well.

Sellers spends the early chapters of the book naming the cultural issues that lead many raised by conservative Christianity to seek guidance down the road. She describes the general principles by which this tradition operates, including noteworthy authors and programs that champion it (Harris' books, among others, get a shoutout). Sellers explores the effect that things like abstinence-only education, families that leave children and youth to trial-and-error learning and discourage healthy discussion even at appropriate ages, and the shame-based tactics that many churches and conferences use to encourage purity have on people as they develop.

Sellers presents all of this with honesty but without judgment or scorn, showing that these are issues to be taken seriously due to how deeply many have internalized these ideas and how much time and attention it takes to unpack them.

Before fully pivoting to solutions, Sellers also offers a brief treatment of how sex has been commodified and sold to the public by reinforcing gender norms and presenting it as transactional. Many are taught both in the wider culture and in the conservative church that sex is something for men to receive and women to give, while men are also more free to experiment while women are meant to remain modest and pure. If left unchecked, such views of sex can lead to resentment, withholding, weaponizing, and abuse, among other problems that may occur between couples.

After this exploration come two chapters on a "sex-positive God" and a "sex-positive gospel," the theological heart of the book. Sellers shows a keen awareness here that her primary audience may not necessarily have even a working understanding of Christian faith, so she takes time and care to present a case both from the Bible and from Christian history that sex is a gift from God, meant to be celebrated and enjoyed rather than feared.

The final chapters are the most overtly geared toward fellow therapists, as Sellers offers many options, tools, and helpful hints to help professionals deal well with clients who are struggling with what their faith background has taught them. I admit some difficulty in relating to this part of the book, but there may still be some useful tidbits to be gained here by non-therapists regarding how they can pursue greater intimacy, understanding, and care with their partners.

All in all, Sex. God, & the Conservative Church presents an honest assessment of the challenges conservative Christian thought presents to couples attempting to navigate healthy relationships. It does assume that such couples will be a man and woman--perhaps a natural product of Sellers' clinical experience among other factors--so those seeking a resource that also explores LGBTQ-related dimensions of such an upbringing will want to look elsewhere. Aside from that, this is a worthwhile resource for those in relevant helping professions as well as laypeople.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)