Jeff Sharlet, author of the big Rolling Stone article on sexual abstinence among young Christians, has responded to my commentary on his article and his argument. Specifically, Mr. Sharlet responded to my criticism of his thesis that the resurgence of the abstinence issue is tied to a political agenda, making it something of an organizing principle for the “Christian right.”
Sharlet’s interesting response is posted at The Revealer, a Web site billed as “a daily review of religion and the press.” Here’s his response:
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, takes on my recent Rolling Stone story on virgins . . . . Mohler, declared by Time the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.,” challenges my argument that Christian activists have politicized chastity to make it an organizing principle of the Christian Right.
“Anyone who thinks that the idea of sexual abstinence is a recent development tied to a political agenda within the Christian right,” writes Mohler, “just hasn’t been in touch with conservative Christianity.”
Actually, I agree. But my argument isn’t that Christian conservatives have just discovered chastity; it’s that there’s a new, broad embrace of it among a generation of exceptionally pious virgins who are, however, fully engaged with mainstream culture. Moreover, that Christian political activists have moved it to the center of their concerns, a notion emphasized by many abstinence activists. It’s worth pointing out — as I failed to do in Rolling Stone – that this shift began in the early 1990s, just as the Cold War ended. What’s the connection? Pre-marital sex is the new communism, the new “evil empire.”
Such an assertion, however, is evidence of my secular perspective. I look for explanations in worldly events. As such, my foray into the chastity movement has an inevitable “among the natives” tone, but not for the reasons Mohler guesses.
“The reporter’s analysis,” he writes, “serves as a fascinating lens through which to see the sexual values of the dominant media class. They haven’t considered sexual abstinence as an option for years, and at least some of them have a hard time believing that sexual abstinence before marriage was ever considered the normative expectation for young people. Coming of age in the 1960s–or raised by parents who came of age in the 1960s–those who live in the dominant sexual culture now hear the idea of sexual abstinence as something genuinely innovative and assuredly radical.”
There’s a bit of missing nuance in Mohler’s remark — occasional freelancing in Rolling Stone and Harper’s does not make one part of the dominant media class, which might be more correctly defined as network news — but he’s otherwise correct. But then, so am I. It’s true that I see the growing chastity movement as “innovative and assuredly radical,” although I came of age in Reagan’s America, raised by parents who came of age in Eisenhower’s, hardly the bohemian cultural influences Mohler diagnoses. The reasons the current moment strikes me as new are that 1)the sexual revolution made pre-marital sex more of an acceptable option. Choosing to forego it means something different now than it did 50 years ago, although it’s worth remembering that even in the days of the Puritans there was plenty of pre-marital sex; 2) Today’s sexless prayer warriors say they’re doing something new. Some see it as old, but very old — a return to medieval chivalry, or to first century Christianity; 3)An examination of the rhetoric of the Christian Right reveals a surprising evolution of current notions of chastity.
For example, what’s interesting is that an examination of Christian conservative media from those decades — the 1980s, preceding the beginning of the abstinence boom, and the 1950s, the golden age of public virtue to which many Christian conservatives look — reveals absolutely nothing to compare with the explicitness and pop culture style of current abstinence movement. Indeed, most discussion of the matter tended toward lamentations; America, went the story, had fallen. Now, abstinence activists trumpet a new sexual revolution.
Evidence of its cultural peculiarity is found in Mohler’s own article. He seems as fascinated by the convictions of the young men I profiled as I was. “Sharlet does see something of a paradox at the heart of the evangelical abstinence movement. ‘It is at once an attempt to transcend cultural influences through the timelessness of Scripture and a painfully specific response to the sexual revolution’ he explains.” Mohler, it seems, agrees.
Rolling Stone, he rightly charges, is no longer a magazine of the “counter-culture.” As the story’s main subject understands, he writes, “‘Abstinence is counter-cultural.’ He ties it to a rejection of materialism, consumerism, and the sensuality that has debased the culture even as it has corrupted sex itself.”
Which is it? Is sexual chastity an old tradition, or a new counter-culture?
Both, of course, but not simply because “the culture” has shifted radically left. Mohler should give his Christian conservative comrades more credit. They’re not simply looking backward to the golden age that never was — they’re inventing a whole new narrative of paradise, one with sex at its heart.
My response to Sharlet’s response: First, I would thank Mr. Sharlet for a thoughtful engagement with my essay. I also think he is somewhat inaccurately humble in his self-estimation. He cringed a bit when I described his article as “a fascinating lens through which to see the sexual values of the dominant media class.” He doesn’t seem to feel like he is a member of this class, refering readers to the the network news. Nevertheless, I would argue that Rolling Stone magazine now is a part of that dominant media culture–especially among the urban young.
Second, I found his explanation of the contemporary abstinence movement to be even more fascinating than what I read in his original article. Look at it again: But my argument isn’t that Christian conservatives have just discovered chastity; it’s that there’s a new, broad embrace of it among a generation of exceptionally pious virgins who are, however, fully engaged with mainstream culture. Moreover, that Christian political activists have moved it to the center of their concerns, a notion emphasized by many abstinence activists. It’s worth pointing out — as I failed to do in Rolling Stone — that this shift began in the early 1990s, just as the Cold War ended. What’s the connection? Pre-marital sex is the new communism, the new “evil empire.”
This is simultaneously both a clarification and an expansion of his argument. So he does recognize that evangelicals have not just recently discovered sexual abstinence as a concern. That’s good. But he also thinks that this new generation of “exceptionally pious virgins” represents something new. They are “fully engaged with mainstream culture,” for one thing.
This is genuinely insightful. What I think Mr. Sharlet is saying is that the young men he profiled are not nerds. Go a few years back, and there were Christian young people just as committed to sexual abstinence. Nevertheless, if I understand his point, Sharlet thinks that those young people were something less than “fully engaged with mainstream culture.” He may well be right, at least as a generalization. This may be something new. In fact, Sharlet’s article introduces readers to a several young men who appear to be very comfortable with the mainstream culture, judging by their dress, habits, and language. Have they opted out of sex only? This bears closer scrutiny.
When he argues that Christian political activists have moved sexual abstinence before marriage to “the center of their concerns,” I still have to question his point. In this response, Sharlet actually pushes his thesis further, arguing that this revived and transformed abstinence agenda coincided with the end of the Cold War, and thus pre-marital sex “is the new communism, the new ‘evil empire.’” Now that’s a memorable claim, but not one that I can accept. Conservative Christians were not drifting out on civilization’s lake, trolling for a new issue, only to catch a winner in the concept of sexual abstinence. What Sharlet seems not to understand is that the cultural left made sexual abstinence the issue by targeting it for extinction. The resurgence of emphasis on sexual abstinence was driven by outrage over what was being communicated to young people by Hollywood, the educational establishment, the therapeutic industry, and popular culture in general. Sexual abstinence seems revolutionary only to those who bought into the sexual revolution in the first place.
There is much more to Sharlet’s response and to his analysis. I appreciate his intelligent response to my essay. We certainly share a common interest in the subject of sexual abstinence, and I fully agree that sexual abstinence is both “an old tradition” and “a new counter-culture.” Let the conversation continue.
Oh–and by the way–Mr. Sharlet also made reference to my article about Edward Klein’s reprehensible book about Hillary Clinton. He seems surprised by my concern about Mrs. Clinton’s “it takes a village” approach to raising children. He wrote this: I’ll be the first to admit it: This is news to this Reagan-era child of the ’50s generation. I don’t think I ever fully understood the principled opposition to Hillary as based on, among other things, the “it takes a village” idea. Most liberals suspect that the Christian Right loathes Hillary simply because she’s a powerful woman. Mohler reveals a more complicated reality, a fundamentally different philosophy of childhood. This would also be another good topic for further conversation and engagement.