Traditionally, most Christian leaders have accepted the teaching that sex should occur only in marriage. That has come with a great deal of stigma about sex outside of marriage, leaving Christians — women and LGBTQ people especially — often feeling forced to choose between following their religion and embracing their sexuality.
In recent years, that has borne out in mainstream politics, with conservative Christian groups backing abortion restrictions and the prohibition of discussion of gender and sexuality in schools.
But in some corners of the Internet, church leaders and other public figures are merging Christianity and sex positivity — that is, the belief that all forms of sexual expression between consenting adults are permissible and should be destigmatized.
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That follows a general cultural trend: Over the past two decades, Americans have become increasingly accepting of sex outside marriage, LGBTQ relationships and more, according to Gallup.
Thanks in part to the ubiquity of these views on social media, some Christians say they are coming to view a healthy relationship with one’s sexuality as spiritually beneficial and even in line with the Bible.
In 2020, the Pew Research Center found that half of U.S. Christians consider casual sex — defined in the survey as sex between consenting adults who are not in a committed romantic relationship — acceptable at least some of the time.
And in a survey that year of 133 Christian college students across the United States, Aditi Paul, an assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University, found that 80 percent of Christian students masturbate, 68 percent watch pornography and 60 percent have had between one and six casual hookup partners.
The majority of students agreed that casual sex is acceptable; one-night standards are enjoyable; and an individual does not need to be committed to someone to have sex with the person, Paul’s survey found.
Xaya Lovelle, 28, a sex worker in New Orleans, said she had always felt at odds with the sexual mores she had learned in the Roman Catholic Church. But she didn’t feel validated in that perspective, she said, until as a 17-year-old she read “The Purity Myth” by the feminist writer Jessica Valenti. The book argues that American society’s obsession with virginity hurts young women.
Two years later, she started web-camming (which involved live broadcasts and private shows), because she found that “sex wasn’t incompatible with Jesus’ teachings,” she said. Since then, Lovelle added, other Christians, including the nonbinary Catholic mystic sex worker William October, have affirmed her belief that “sex positivity is largely about acceptance of other people and withholding judgment, which reflects Jesus’ actions.”
Alexa Davis, 23, a blogger in Illinois, was raised in a nondenominational church that taught that sex was only for marriage. But she started questioning this dogma in her teens as she came across sex-positive ideas online, from secular figures including video-blogger Laci Green and from religious leaders including the Philadelphia-based Rev. Beverly Dale.
“It felt reassuring to see that confirmation from a practicing minister that sex is meant to be positive,” she recalls of reading an article about Dale, who created the YouTube series “Sex Is Good.”
Dale grew up on a farm in Illinois in the 1950s and attended the Christian Church. Her family didn’t discuss sex at all, making it seem forbidden and shameful, she said. The role of women in her community, she remembers, was “to take care of and teach children and work in potluck oversight in the church.”
“It was the women’s movement that taught me it was okay to be a female and it was perfectly fine to be a sexual female at that,” Dale added. “Once I realized this, I turned to my Christian teachings and the church with a lot of anger.”
Christianity in the United States stems largely from a Puritan tradition that sees the desires of the flesh as contrary to those of the spirit. It wasn’t until the 1970s that women began entering seminaries in larger numbers and publishing writing that critiqued mainstream Christian views of sex, influenced by second-wave feminism. In the 1980s, Dale attended the Chicago Theological Seminary, where she got to read these works, she said, which helped her contextualize her “sex-phobic” upbringing.
“The reason I began to heal was because of feminist theologians,” she added. “If I had stayed with such negative thinking about myself as a woman and denied my own sexuality, I’m convinced I would have died — if not physically, then certainly spiritually.”
New Orleans-based minister Lyvonne Briggs, who shares her sex-positive beliefs on Instagram and hosts the spiritual online learning community Sensual Faith Academy, was raised similarly; she attended a Caribbean Episcopal church, which didn’t talk about sex, and was indoctrinated into purity culture in college, she said. She began to shift her perspective while getting a master of divinity degree at Yale Divinity School. There, Briggs said, she came to understand Jesus as a radical figure, one different from the version of Jesus she had learned about in church growing up.
On examining the Bible, Briggs said, she found that Jesus had little to say about sex. “What we were told Jesus said are actually gross misinterpretations of the Bible,” she said. “We have to be honest about who wrote the Bible, who’s been translating the Bible, and who it serves us to believe Jesus condemned.”
Dale believes that Jesus uplifted and associated with women in ways that were progressive in his time. “U.S. Christians … have been teaching ideas about sex from sexually conflicted, misogynistic church fathers instead of Jesus,” she said. “If Jesus were their guide, Christians would discount the pleasure police in the church as party poopers.”
Rather than coming from the Bible, Dale said, many sex-negative Christian ideas came from writers born after Jesus’ time, such as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome. It was Augustine, for instance, she said, who developed the concept of “original sin” — sin passed to a child by sex itself.
Dale and Briggs advocate for interpretations of the Bible that celebrate sexual pleasure. In the biblical book the Song of Solomon, for instance, a female narrator speaks of a lover in erotic terms.
“These lovers are not mentioned as being married; they’re not in the same household,” said Joy Bostic, an associate professor of religious and Africana studies at Case Western Reserve University. “This text, which is an official part of the Bible, echoes medieval mystics, who talk a great deal about spiritual ecstasy as akin to sexual ecstasy.”
As more Christians are being exposed to alternative readings and less-talked-about parts of the Bible, some are denouncing the directives to wait until marriage to have sex or to condemn forms of sexual expression such as LGBTQ relationships and sex work.
Others take pieces of Christian thinking without subscribing to them fully: In her study, Pace University’s Paul found that many students had adopted modified versions of traditional Christian rules, such as not having sex with someone unless intending to marry that person, avoiding in-person sex but still sexting partners, or engaging in hookups but refraining from intercourse. She also found that increasing numbers of students are identifying as both Christian and LGBTQ.
Roya King, a retired Unitarian Universalist bishop in Ohio, was already working in ministry when she started identifying as queer in 2009. When other leaders in her church spoke against same-sex marriage, she recalls, “the idea that I could perform a wedding ceremony but could never participate in one kind of shook me at the core.”
She made a point thereafter to speak to her congregation about LGBTQ rights, she said: “I talked about all people being in the image of God.” And she preached that everything God creates, including sexuality, is holy and should be celebrated, she said.
Other Christians say their sex positivity stems simply from what Jesus deemed the most important commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“If what I am doing leaves me aligned with these three commands [love God, love yourself and love others], I can rest easy knowing I’m living in the fullness of this life God has given me,” said Chris Chism, a pastor at the House Dallas church who identifies as gay.
To this end, he added, “it’s the job of our spiritual leaders to facilitate safe conversation — free of condemnation and shame.” Those negative reactions, he added, “are the conduits to unhealthy relationships, unsafe sex practices and even hardcore drug use that has ravaged our communities.”
For King, the most important thing is spreading the word that Jesus provides salvation for the entire world, not just for certain people who live a certain way.
“We have ostracized so many people because of who they are, who they really are,” she said. “We need to preach a gospel of inclusion and love. We can’t get where we need to be without it.”