Date of this Version
Published in Sociology of Religion 73 (2012), pp 100-102.
Evangelical messages about adolescent sexuality appear straight-forward: unless they are married (and heterosexual), teens should not have sex. However, as communications scholar Christine J. Gardner shows in her book, Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns, how evangelicals go about promoting abstinence is both complicated and unexpected. Gardner focuses on how social meanings about religion and sexuality are constructed in evangelical abstinence campaign by examining the rhetoric of three U.S. campaigns (the primary focus of the book) and one African campaign. One of her most surprising findings—and the one for which the book’s title is based—is that U.S. evangelicals use sex in order to sell abstinence. Instead of stressing that unmarried teens should not have sex, these campaigns emphasize that great sex awaits them in marriage. Sex in marriage is both the “goal” and “reward” (48) of teenage abstinence. Gardner argues that this approach problematically makes the message of evangelical abstinence campaigns all about eventual self-fulfillment that campaigns cannot actually guarantee, rather than religious qualities like sacrifice or suffering. ...
Making Chastity Sexy offers a convincing critique of U.S. evangelicals who use secular means (an emphasis on individual satisfaction) in order to promote a religious message (abstinence before marriage). Not all readers will agree with Gardner’s prescription that campaigns should return to their religious roots and promote qualities of “pious living,” like sacrifice and suffering (196) or with her argument that teenagers will find the message of piety as convincing as (and ultimately more realistic and rewarding than) the message of good sex in marriage. Nonetheless, this book is well argued and will appeal to a broad audience. For an undergraduate course, Gardner’s work is highly readable and offers a way to discuss the cultural specificity of religious messages by comparing evangelical Christianity in the United States and Africa. For advanced scholars, Gardner provides an excellent qualitative examination of how religious persons make sense of their sexuality within contemporary society.