SAN DIEGO — About 100 evangelical Christian couples stand in the convention hall of a Four Points Sheraton, bow their heads and thank God for their lives and the new day. Then they sing the old-timey hymn “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus.”
I have come here expecting exactly this scene. The occasion is a seminar called “Love, Sex and Marriage,” being given by Joe Beam, a Southern preacher out of the old school, a self-described “book-chapter-and-verse guy,” who runs an outfit based in Franklin, Tenn., called Family Dynamics. So I’m anticipating condemnation of American culture — especially America’s sexual culture — that has made conservative Christians feel besieged.
But then Beam, a portly, silver-haired basso profundo dressed in khaki slacks, a sweater vest and brown tasseled loafers that make him look like a retired country-club golf pro, walks to the front of the room and proceeds to tell the men in the audience how to make their semen taste better.
Sweet stuff works, he says, which provides a built-in excuse because "then you can say, 'I'm eating this cake for you, baby!'"
Welcome to the world of hot Christian love.
The San Diego Church of Christ is Beam’s sponsoring group today, but as far as he is concerned it could be any conservative Christian denomination. The message would be the same: Married Christians ought to be having more — and hotter — sex.
You could be forgiven for thinking “conservative Christian” and “hot sex” are oxymoronic. The missionary position has a real history, after all. But Beam is part of a burgeoning trend among evangelicals to bring sex out of the shadows, educate believers and relieve their guilt.
"For years, Christian publishing would not publish on sex," says Michael Sytsma, a Christian sex therapist with the Sexual Wholeness Ministry based in Duluth, Ga. "If they did, it was so heavily edited nothing of value was left. Now, more and more pastors are preaching about it on Sunday, though you still do not see classes in seminaries. We are seeking to do that."
Sytsma thinks preachers like Beam have seen — and even felt themselves — the impact of the sexual revolution, and realize the church has been left behind as a source of sexual information.
“Sex is a sacred subject," he says. “The church generally prefers not to talk about it. But that has a dual impact. It keeps it shrouded in ignorance and the implication is that since you are not talking about it, it’s bad.”
God's 'most wonderful gift'
Beam sees this attitude every day. Women tell him: “I feel like I am sinning when I make love to my husband.”
“They want help,” he tells the assembled crowd at the Sheraton. At least a score of heads nod in recognition. “It’s hard,” he continues, “to make the transition from ‘sex is bad’ when you are young and single to ‘sex is good’ when you are married.” In fact, “sex is the most wonderful gift God ever gave Christians.”
Beam, who is studying for a sexology Ph.D. from the University of Sydney in Australia, is all about shining the light. He and a few others like him have concluded that conservative Christians can cope with America’s hypersexualized culture by being given permission to pluck much of its fruit.
The information he dispenses is a mix of scriptural interpretation and mainstream sexology. He does not speak in euphemisms or metaphors and his plain spokeness makes a few listeners squirm, at first. But Beam is also part entertainer with a patter that is almost vaudevillian in its timing: “Why can women be multiorgasmic and men not? Well, I’ve decided God just likes you better! ... What’s the difference between a woman with PMS and a Doberman? Lipstick.”
The humor and the brazen talk, coming from a man who is not only one of them, but a leader who rubs elbows with James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, gives them permission to relax and hear his message.
It’s a simple one: Sex is good. Good sex makes people happy. It deepens relationships. So it helps marriages last and that pleases God and makes society better.
There are rules many in the secular world reject. You have to be married. You have to be heterosexual. Other prohibitions include no sex with animals, no incest, no lust for people other than your spouse, no adultery (and that includes consensual threesomes and group sex) and no porn, rape or prostitution. You can’t harm the body. And you can’t have sex during a woman’s menstrual period.
If that last one seems like an outlier — there is no particular health reason to avoid sex during menstruation among monogamous, disease-free couples — you don’t understand Beam’s world view.
Scripture is his authority. Like other evangelicals, he believes the New Testament is the literal and infallible word of God. So when the book of Acts says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality,” that’s all he needs to know.
This literalist view cuts both ways. Beam has been attacked by some conservative Christians for his liberal take on certain subjects. Much of what he preaches contradicts the teaching of other sects, such as Roman Catholicism. But he argues that if the Bible does not forbid it, you can do it. So bring on masturbation. Try any position in the Kama Sutra (but refer to drawings, please, not pictures of real people). Wife away on business? Have phone sex. Birth control is good. Even anal sex is OK if (and Beam believes this is a big if) it does no harm to the body.
If you are a married Christian, not only can you do all this, but you should be doing it.
“Christians should be having great sex lives! We should be having better sex than anybody else! So drop your inhibitions at the door of your own house,” Beam urges.
The crowd is obviously ready to do just that.
“Our church has tried to be more open about sex, and to be more real about it,” Mary Wadstrom, a member of the San Diego church and, along with her husband, Jeff, one of the organizers of today’s sessions, tells me half-way through Beam’s lecture. “There are lots of hang-ups ingrained on you every day.”
That’s very clear after Beam takes a break, giving time for attendees to fill out question cards. They’re supposed to be free to ask anything that’s been on their minds. When Beam returns he flips through the cards and says, “I am looking at your questions and let me say, you are a sick group of people!”
Everybody cracks up yet again. He begins reading:
Can you give us some techniques for oral sex?
He does, and, using his hand and arm as props, describes it in detail (“…creating suction and warmth with your mouth, your tongue here…”) complete with sound effects.
Is mutual masturbation OK?
Which sex toys are good, and can we use them at all?
“I usually get the question this way,” Beam answers. “‘What does the Bible say about vibrators?” More laughter. “Can we use a vibrator? Sure you can if you want to.”
What can you do if your wife is having trouble reaching orgasm?
“Try having sex doggy-style and simultaneously masturbating.”
He offers another suggestion: “You’ve heard of the proverbial 69?” Some in the audience return blank stares. He stares back, open-mouthed, and gently mocks them. “Huh? Is that in Acts?”
Unburdened — and eager to get home
The explicitness causes some jaws to drop, but not because people are offended.
“What is new for me is not that kind of talk,” Wadstrom says. The church has had some sexual conversations before, but always in classes segregated by gender.
“What was new is having men and women together in the same room," she says. "That was very helpful because everybody knows what’s being said to the others.”
Beam's presentation has a liberating effect on these couples. About four hours later, when it’s all over, many appeared unburdened. Either they were experimenting anyway, and feeling miserable about it, or they were restricting themselves to acts they thought were godly, and feeling miserable about that.
“I was raised to think sex was bad,” 23-year-old Kym Blackburn recalls of her religious upbringing. She forced her husband, Matt, a U.S. Navy enlisted man, to attend, but now he is glad he did. He is awaiting a second deployment to Iraq, and thinks their marriage will grow stronger in the weeks before he leaves.
Jose and Marta Ochoa echo that sentiment. “My whole life I thought certain things were wrong, or not Christian,” Marta, 47, tells me as her husband, Jose, 52, nods vigorously in the background.
He’d spent years asking her for more variation but now, finally, “she understands we can share all this freely and it’s not a sin like she thought. It is gonna happen more!”
That, Marta tells me, makes her very happy.
Then they excuse themselves. They’re in a rush to get home.
Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and MSNBC.com's Sexploration columnist, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is chronicling his work in the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing. In the next installment in this series, he takes a job at a sex superstore.