“Sex, God & the Conservative Church – Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy” is a book authored by therapist Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers. The first thing to know about this book is that it was written to therapists. This affects some sections of the book more than others, yet in either case, non-professionals can learn a lot from the book as well. The second thing to note is that couples counseling is mostly presumed, though Sellers frequently shares brief thoughts on counseling singles at the end of each section.
The book is well divided into chapters with clear themes. In the first chapter, Sellers describes the sexual problems and dysfunction she began to observer in her counseling of those who grew up in conservative Christian environments, and specifically the results of “purity culture”. A couple of the primary root problems she sees are that people have received next to no education in sexuality and that the only teaching there has been was negative—only emphasizing not having sex. This has left people often ashamed of their desires while also being ignorant of what healthy sexuality could be, even in marriage.
Sellers reviews the history of thought and beliefs about sexuality throughout Christian history in chapter 2. She finds that it’s long been viewed negatively, perhaps in part due to Greco-Roman philosophy (she also mentions Augustine). The third chapter explores how American consumerism negatively affects our sexuality in addition to these other factors. In the forth chapter, Sellers looks for sex-positive messages in Judeo-Christian heritage. To be honest, there seemed to be little in Christian tradition, and even what Sellers found in Hebraic traditions seemed a bit weaker to me than she made it sound.
In chapter 5, Sellers shares her suggestions for a positive view of sexuality and how she sees it related to Jesus. Her recommendation is to approach sexuality with the principals of seeking to love, show grace, and make the other person feel seen, known, and accepted—the kind of things we see Jesus doing. This is in contrast to rules based prohibitions which conservatives tend to focus on. Rules may have their place, but the new testament is much more about principals—the spirit of the law—rather than rules. It seems apparent to me that things such as beauty and intimacy can’t be generated by following a set of rules alone. They require spirit, passion, and creativity as well.
Sellers addresses religious sexual shame as well as therapeutic steps to address it in chapter 6. In chapter 7, Sellers primarily talks about the “anatomy of intimacy” and how exploring these can help couples to connect (beyond just physically). In the final chapter, Sellars reviews further suggestions on practices which a couple can take to develop greater intimacy. While there is a physical component to these, they’re intended to be holistic; the belief is that our bodies, minds, and spirits are (or should be) integrated and that there isn’t a hard separation between physical, emotional, and spiritual connection.
One of the main ideas Sellers counters is that of “sex is for men” and that a wife is supposed to give sex to her husband but not necessarily expect to enjoy it herself. So while it isn’t a primary focus, Sellers does touch briefly in places on gender issues. This is one bad idea which I actually didn’t receive growing up. I found myself more surprised to learn of the negative beliefs in this case than to learn of Seller’s countering thoughts. If this idea isn’t something you or people you know weren’t taught, then you may find this book less beneficial than might others.
So who is this book for? First of all, therapists and those who counsel couples (or even singles) with a conservative Christian background (such as pastors) will likely receive the most benefit from this book. Couples are the next most likely group to benefit from this book in my estimation. For others, a certain degree of knowledge, maturity, and open mindedness may be necessary to get the most out of it.
As I read the book, I could imagine that staunch conservative Christians might struggle with the material within. Sellers doesn’t approach the subject with a strict, “What does the Bible say?” posture. The fact that she doesn’t attempt to lay out rules—especially prohibitions—will probably bother some as well. Beyond this, there are a couple of hints of things which conservatives might find unpalatable or even immoral. While Sellers and this book don’t come across as especially liberal, the fact that she’s not specifically conservative may cause some to feel that she is too liberal. However, I think these hangups are unnecessary and I find it unfortunate that rigid beliefs may keep some conservatives stuck in unhealth.
One of the main problems in addressing sexuality in conservative Christianity is that sexuality has generally been equated merely with sexual intercourse. This book contains a great reminder that our sexuality goes far beyond this. It is our drive to connect with others in general, and even relates to our passion for life and beauty. But unfortunately, when conservative Christianity equates sexuality with sex, and the only teaching is not to have sex outside of marriage, the unspoken message seems to be that it’s only appropriate to behave as though one is asexual unless married (or in a serious relationship potentially headed that way). But attempting to deny one’s sexuality may kill passion and lead to their sexuality coming out in dysfunctional ways. We need a healthy understanding of sexuality and a way to live into it in order to avoid these negative consequences. And Sellers’ book helps show us a potential way.