I was asked to teach the graduate human sexuality course last fall at the Moravian Theological Seminary. As it had been years since I taught, I was on the hunt for new books for the course. Because this course was being taught at a seminary, we had to at least touch on religion and sex. I found Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy, by Tina Schermer Sellers, Ph.D. at the AASECT conference and thought it might be a perfect fit. Once I started to read the book I thought “WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN ALL MY CLINICAL LIFE?”
As someone whose primary clinical practice involves issues related to sexuality (Sex addiction, sexual offending and other problematic sexual behavior), issues of faith are frequently brought into the treatment room. It seems, that for many, faith and sex are intertwined. As someone who is not a Christian counselor, I didn’t always have the perspective or language to help some clients work through this as much as I could have. This book is an exceptional resource both for clinicians and clients or church groups.
Sex, God & the Conservative Church takes the reader first through a journey of the history of how sexuality and faith became derailed. Of particular interest to me, working with sexual addiction, was her discussion of Saint Augustine, who she labeled a sexually troubled soul. This is of interest to me as one of the main 12 step fellowship groups for sex addiction is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). This fellowship is an Augustine Fellowship, named after the saint.
“While Augustine offered much that was foundational in the formation of Christian Theology, sexual desire and his own desire for women, which he was never able to completely escape, tortured him until the end. His legacy of shame, fear of the body, and suspicion of its desire is with us today” p 33-34
The author suggests that a great deal of the root of sexual shame that Christians struggle with is rooted in his teachings. I find it ironic, or perhaps a bit upsetting, that one of the main 12 step fellowships for recovery from sexual addiction is rooted in sexual shame.
Once past the history, the book delves into tangible ways to help people heal from their sexual shame and pursue sex positive messages from God and a sex positive Gospel. Dr. Schermer Sellers frames the healing of sexual shame in a four-step process which will be very helpful for all people who are struggling with sexual shame, not just those that identify as Christian.
- Frame – provide sexual education to a client that they did not receive
- Name – help the client get their story heard by someone important to them.
- Claim – the client works to accept and own their body as a wonderful unique thing to undo the harmful messages inherited from religion and culture
- Aim – help the client write a new story of what they believe and what their legacy is to become.
Another aspect of this book that I really enjoy is the authors emphasis on normalizing childhood sexuality and the need for real, accurate and frequent sexual education being taught to children. When families do not talk about sex and sexuality to children, they often assume it is something to be kept secret. Worse yet is when a parent or care giver overtly shames a child for expressing normal sexual behavior or curiosity. This can create a go to thought process of sex being dirty and bad. If I (the child) have a sexual thought or feeling, I must be bad. Those of us who do this work know that so much of the struggle is rooted in shame and secrets. If we normalize and teach children about healthy sexuality we can erase the shame that is often at the core of sexual problems. To again quote the author:
“A culture that shames children for normal sexual expression plants seeds that manifest themselves in adult life in the form of disturbances in relationship, libido, and sexuality. Sexual shame can sever the experience of sensual pleasure in a deep, loving attachment because it eclipses the person’s ability to feel seen, known, loved and accepted with and through their sensual body. “ p. 106
I don’t think I can express strongly enough how wonderful this book is. It should be a required reading for anyone who works with clients who struggle with sexual issues, be they sex therapists, sex educators or sex addiction therapists. One of my strongly held beliefs is that we have to be sex positive in our work and not perpetuate sexual shame in our clients (see previous writing on being a sex positive sex addiction therapist). Learning to integrate a sex positive Gospel for those of the Christian faith will go a long way to reduce sexual shame and reduce problematic sexual behavior.
For more information on Dr. Jennifer Weeks and her practice, head over to Sexual Addiction Treatment Services.