by Kelsy Burke, author of Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

What are Christian sexuality websites and why did you want to study them?

Christian sexuality websites attempt to counter negative religious messages about sex—which are the messages we usually hear about in popular media and academic research—with ones that appear more sex-positive. Website creators and users believe that God created sexual intimacy to be enjoyed frequently and enthusiastically by straight, married, monogamous couples. There are bloggers who write about maneuvering various sexual positions and biblical passages they interpret to support sex practices like oral sex. There are message boards where members ask others for advice on a wide range of topics, like how to communicate an unusual sexual interest to a spouse or how to achieve orgasm. There are online stores that sell “marital enhancements,” like vibrators, lubricants, and fuzzy handcuffs.

These online spaces are endlessly surprising to me and as a sociologist, they offer important insight into sexuality and culture. Sex isn’t intuitive. Even though we often think of it as a private, personal and natural act, we actually come to understand and experience sex from implicit and explicit lessons taught by our social world. For website creators and users, Christian sexuality websites shape what sex is and should be. This online community is full of sexual possibilities and limits—encouraging sexual exploration and experimentation for those who are straight, married, and monogamous but condemning sex that takes place in any other context.

How can virtual ethnography add to our understanding of religion in the 21st century?

Certainly virtual ethnography offers a glimpse of religion that isn’t afforded to one studying church congregations. I interviewed housewives whose part-time online businesses sell sex toys and observed online discussions among evangelical men who enjoy wearing their wife’s undergarments, all in the name of Jesus. The stories found on Christian sexuality websites repeatedly challenge predominant evangelical sexual stereotypes.

These stories don’t just serve as provocative anecdotes, though. Collectively, they reveal the efforts of conservative Christianity to both maintain its distinction from broader secular culture while adapting to a changing world. Online dialogue allows laypeople to present sexuality in ways evangelical authors or preachers likely did not anticipate. One way to think about this is to imagine a city park. In the park, there are both paved sidewalks and what urban designers call “desire paths,” those trails that have been worn by people over time, determined by where they tend to walk. If the paved sidewalks are established religious authorities—the prescriptive rules found in Christian sex advice books or carefully drafted sermons—the desire paths are blogs, message boards, and online stores created and used by ordinary believers. At times, these paths run parallel to the sidewalks. At other times, they appear to go in an entirely different direction. Either way, they become a part of the landscape.

Religion and sexuality are often contentious issues in contemporary culture and politics. What does your book tell us about the relationship between the two?

One of the recurring themes in Christians under Covers is a contradictory religious logic about sexuality. Website creators and users overwhelmingly oppose sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, but they support a wide range of sex practices within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, like women’s pursuits of pleasure and even sex practices deemed “kinky” (like male anal play). Yet as Christian sexuality website users may push the boundaries of gender and sexual norms in their own marriages, they lose the ability to rely on those norms to justify heterosexuality as exclusively normal and natural. They write about sexuality in an era of legalized gay marriage in which monogamous, married lifestyles are not the sole territory of heterosexuals. Religion provides a foundation for heterosexuality, which has largely lost its other familiar attributes: gender, monogamy, and marriage. This may mean that religious conservatives will hold steadfast in their exclusive support for heterosexuality, or it may mean that they may gradually accept non-heterosexual practices and identities. Christian sexuality websites are one place where this future unfolds.

Kelsy Burke is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska – Lincoln.