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In Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns, Christine J. Gardner focuses on three evangelical campaigns, True Love Waits, the Silver Ring Things, and Pure Freedom to demonstrate how evangelicals frame the issue of abstinence. In doing so, Gardner also turns her attention to abstinence campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa and the way that these campaigns differ from those in America.
According to Gardner, the message of the abstinence campaigns is in reaction to a hypersexualized culture and a response to the prevailing "condom culture". Gardner describes how the abstinence campaigns focus on personal choice and agency by reframing the abstinence message from a negative and limiting "just say no to sex" to "just say yes to have great sex within marriage". At the same time, the word purity is becoming increasingly popular, relating to more than just sexual purity, but also purity in mind and actions. Another important feature of the abstinence campaign is the issue of second virginity or renewed virginity in which youth that have been sexually active can pledge to remain abstinent until marriage. Abstinence is also frequently framed as a health choice for young women and men who wish to avoid pregnancy and STDs. As abortion and condom use are frequently condemned, abstinence is viewed as the only righteous option for avoiding pregnancy.
According to Gardner, abstinence campaigns have renewed themselves while playing on popular culture. Public testimony by Christian celebrities who have pledged their commitment to abstinence is common. Purity rings are used to signal a person's commitment to abstinence, purity and marriage. The main theme of the abstinence campaign is that true love and great sex within marriage becomes the reward for those who wait to engage in sex. A fairy-tale narrative is then adopted to spread the message of abstinence. Pure girls and women are described as princesses, while pure boys and men are described as the heroic prince. Since females are viewed as more passive, and males as more active, boys and men who try to pressure females into sexual activity are often described as frogs in the fairy-tale narrative. This narrative supports romantic love, traditional marriage, and traditional gender roles.
Even though abstinence campaigns condemn intercourse, grey zones of accepted sexual behavior exist. For some youth only holding hands are deemed acceptable, while others only engage in kissing. Some youth engage in sexual behavior that excludes intercourse. The primary reason why youth decide not to engage in intercourse is because they believe that they are worth waiting for, that they respect their partner, and for women, the fear of becoming pregnant. Not all females and males find their true love and experience the fairy-tale narrative, and not all remain virgins until their wedding night. Those who do not often grapple with the burden of their sexual pasts, forgiving a partner who previously had sex, forgiving themselves, as well as psychological issues that arise.
Gardner dedicates the next two chapters to discussing the messages of the abstinence campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV/AIDS is a tremendous issue. The focus of the abstinence campaign is on AIDS avoidance, more so than pregnancy even though abstinence ensures that unwanted or premarital pregnancy will not take place. AIDS is incredibly widespread in these countries, especially since there is little fear of contracting AIDS, particularly in light of more "severe" issues such as poverty, other diseases and starvation. Therefore, the natives often fear God more than they fear AIDS. As such, abstinence becomes the prevention of AIDS, which can optimally bring hope for the future and the choice to live.
As mentioned, evangelical Christians believe that the "the condom culture" and use of condoms help dilute the message of abstinence while acting as a tool for promiscuity. In Africa, however, the condom is seen as a necessary tool in the abstinence campaign. In the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, and use condoms) strategy used in Africa condoms are viewed as the last resort, but are still important in curbing the spread of AIDS. The construction of the condom is used primarily in four different ways. First, as a tool for marital fidelity, mostly in cases where one spouse is already inflicted with AIDS. Second, as a tool for saving lives, through the prevention of disease. Third, as part of holistic development in cases where abstinence is not enough, such as among commercial sex workers who need to financially take care of their family. Lastly, the condom is seen as a tool for female empowerment in the sense that women can save their own lives by insisting on the use of condoms.
In the final chapter, Gardner discusses the message that the abstinence campaign becomes all about sex. As such, false expectations about sex are common. Sex may be more complicated and complex than discussed by the abstinence campaigns. Sex might not be what a person thought it would be like. At the same time, Gardner states that due to the framed risks and rewards concerning sex, people might end up pleasing God in order to please themselves. When focusing on sex within marriage, the abstinence campaigns also tend to promote marriage at a young age, before males and females may be ready for the commitment. This may be a reason as to why the divorce rates of evangelical Christians are the same as those who do not identify as evangelical.
Gardner writes in a manner that is easily understood and matter of fact. The ways in which she incorporates interviews with men and women makes the book more interesting and makes it easier to understand the messages of the abstinence campaign. The intended audience therefore ranges from evangelical Christians to those who are simply interested in, or fascinated with the messages of the abstinence campaigns. Students and teachers in gender studies, sociology, psychology, and religious studies may also find this book highly valuable.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.