Not Knowing Enough: Amy DeRogatis’ Saving Sex

9780199942251(An entry coincidentally published on Mark and Penny’s 33rd wedding anniversary)

As a professor of religion and American culture at Michigan State, Amy DeRogatis does not immediately rise to the level of expert on the evangelical world’s view of sex, although she has clearly studied more evangelical sex manuals and advice books than anyone I know. Should you want a long–and I mean long, as in nine pages–bibliography of primary sources on the topic, DeRogatis’ book, Saving Sex is your source, and her mind is clearly powerful as it scans over and analyzes these sources. Unfortunately, as an outsider to the people she is studying, DeRogatis commits the all-too-common interpretive fallacy, allowing her comments to reflect more her own predispositions than the actual content studied.

An example of this thinking is found toward the end of the volume, when she asks, “If sex within a sanctified marriage is fabulous, why do evangelicals continue to buy books about sexual technique and practices?” I might flippantly turn that same question around on the author and ask, “If casual sex in a hookup culture is so fabulous, why does Cosmo need to put several advice articles into every issue?” She might have asked the simpler question: “If evangelical marriage is so great, why do they have so many marriage workshops and retreats?” The answer, which any honest questioner could provide for him or herself, is that even great evangelical marriage can be better. In fact, returning to her rather catty sex question, the proliferation of books can be easily taken to indicate that “sex within a sanctified marriage” is fabulous enough to be worth making even better.

Not surprisingly, this book focuses on aspects that the author finds particularly peculiar or (my word, not hers) creepy. Honestly, I can see how an outsider might find purity balls, where young Christian girls pledge their fidelity before marriage to their fathers, to be questionable.

Another topic DeRogatis takes up, one much farther afield from the evangelical mainstream, is found in a book called Holy Sex by Terry Wier and Mark Carruth. This 1999 publication espouses a belief that you might have never heard before. It seems, according to these authors, that demons are transmitted by bodily fluids.

I don’t fault DeRogatis for including this bizarre teaching in her survey of the topic, but she dedicates roughly 20 pages of the 155-page total in Saving Sex to this one source. This is not a book published by a prominent evangelical house, by a household-name author, or by an organization like Focus on the Family. The book is, apparently, out of print and does not seem to have left much of a footprint on the discipline. Why then, does this author give it so much attention?

An explanation for this, I believe, is that DeRogatis has her beliefs and evangelical beliefs aren’t them. Early in the book, she says, apparently innocently, “Scholar Breanne Fahs explains ‘purity balls enter women into a system of commerce in which their sexuality becomes an object to be traded between men.'” Fahs explains? Is that the right word? Fahs might be said to “opine” or “suggest” or “theorize,” but she’s hardly explaining in this quotation. By the same token, she might have suggested that Wier and Carruth explained in their book, but she does not give them that sort of cachet.

As a married Christian, I am enthusiastically in favor of sex. What I favor less is allowing the secular world to define the vocabulary and the values that surround our sexual practices. In this case, the author admits that she did not really know much about the topic before her research began. In the end, I have to argue that while she knows a great deal about it, she doesn’t really demonstrate the sort of understanding that one might gather from within.