Sex, God & The Conservative Church: Book Review

Charity (The United States)’s review of Sex, God, and the ...

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.

  1. Frame – provide sexual education to a client that they did not receive
  2. Name – help the client get their story heard by someone important to them.
  3. 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
  4. 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.  

Book Review: Tell Me What You Want

Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life by [Lehmiller, Justin J.]

Earlier this year, Dr. Justin Lehmiller published his book Tell Me What You Want:  The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.  Dr. Lehmiller is a researcher and writer about human sexuality. I became familiar with his work from his blog, Sex and Psychology and use his textbook in my graduate Human Sexuality Course.  I was excited to see him write something for the general public as his previous writings have been more academic.

Dr. Lehmiller wrote this book based on the results of a survey he conducted in which he asked more than 4,000 Americans over 350 questions about sexual fantasies.  He also obtained information about sexual histories, psychological profiles and demographics.  What emerged from the data is that Americans fantasize about sex a lot and many things that might not seem “normal” are quite normal after all.

When people come in to treatment for anything relating to sex, I always get questions about what is normal.  How often do people have sex? How much porn viewing is normal?  I have a fetish, does that mean I am not normal?  For some reason, we are worried about our sexual appetites and arousal templates not being normal.  I always answer that there is no such thing as normal but after reading this book, the “normal” that so many people assume about American sexuality is not terribly normal at all.

So, what are the top seven things Americans fantasize about?  The number one sexual fantasy is about multi-partner sex.  Coming in at number two is power, control and rough sex.  Third is novelty, adventure and variety.  Fourth is taboo or forbidden sex.  Rounding out the bottom three are partner sharing and non-monogamous relationships, passion and romance and erotic flexibility (homoeroticisim and gender bending).

Instead of summarizing the entire book (go read it for all the juicy details), I’ll give you some fun facts.  Men and women are different in how they fantasize.  Interestingly, Dr. Lehmiller found that when women fantasize, they don’t really fantasize about a particular person but in their fantasies, women frequently see themselves as the object of desire.  They are the focus of the fantasy, not the other person.  Men, on the other hand, tend to be the actors in a fantasy, acting on an object of desire.

What do your politics say about your sexual fantasies?  Well, if you are a Democrat, you are more likely to fantasize about things like intimacy, bonding and BDSM.  The Republicans, on the other hand, were much more likely to fantasize about things that are a bit more taboo such as orgies, infidelity and swinging.  Republicans were also more likely to fantasize about things like exhibitionism and voyeurism.  Why you ask?  Dr. Lehmiller suggest that we tend to want what those in positions of authority tell us we can’t have!!!

Dr. Lehmiller’s book is a helpful resource for both therapists and non-therapists alike.  Many Americans deal with a great deal of sexual shame.  They either have been told or believe that their sexual fantasies, desires or behavior are wrong, sinful, perverted etc.  The fact is, the opposite is quite true.  When we hold sexual shame, we tend to repress our true sexual feelings.  This can cause problems in relationships but also in our own mental health.

I will end this short review with the following quote from the book:

“What all this tells us is that we need to stop judging whether sexual desires are healthy or unhealthy based only on how many people in the population have them.  Instead, what we really need to do is look at sexual interests on a case by case basis and ask ourselves two questions that have nothing to do with how many people have them: (1) is this sexual activity consensual or non consensual? (2) does it pose an unacceptable risk of harm to one or more people that goes well beyond the usual risks of having sex?” p181

Dr. Lehmiller has a slightly different take on what I say frequently to my clients and students about sexual desires.  I don’t care what it is as long as it is consensual and legal!

I encourage you to read Tell Me What You Want:  The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.  If nothing else, maybe it helps erase some sexual shame, which is something our culture needs more of!