annul sexChristian attitudes to sex are so entertaining that it’s become one of my favourite subjects. Consider Book 22, a website for Christian married couples offering a variety of sex enhancement products like oils, aids and toys.

I’ll say this: the site’s founder Joy Wilson is a brave woman. In her native land of Evangelicalism, sex is generally not discussed, and when it is, it is done at the maturity level of a twelve year old accompanied by a wholesale awkwardness. It all lends to the cliché that Christian sex is supposed to happen in utter private, missionary-style (hence the name) between the sheets of a marital bed at all times in relative quiet so as not to give the impression to anyone else that sex might be taking place. Even though it has recently become fashionable in Christian church gatherings to say something like, “God made sex to be fun!”, a quick glance around the congregation when the speaker says it will speak volumes about how comfortable they are about the subject. Shifting eyes, half-smirks, awkward glances and spousal hand-gripping will tell a tale of sexual naiveté two-thousand years old, before which passionate Greeks and horny Romans would have put them to shame.

So Joy is quite unusual, really. I have to say, I’m impressed with her ability to rise above the narrow-mindedness around her, though she isn’t exactly a natural rebel or revolutionary. As her interviewer at NPR explained:

“…after the birth of her first child, she had trouble rekindling her desire for intimacy. She and her husband went looking for marital aids, and found that Internet searches for products as tame as massage oil led to sites with pornographic images.”

She didn’t want to see sexually explicit images, so:

“She and her husband talked it over and decided that there must be a way for conservative people to add a spark to their romantic lives. She says their site steers clear of certain types of sexual activity that they believe are unholy.”

And this is where it gets interesting. It has always fascinated me to explore the taboos people hold, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, and what justifications are given for these beliefs. To some Christians, Joy crossed the line the moment she picked up her first vibrating egg. Despite her conduct being seen by many of her fellow evangelicals as unethical, Joy has already acknowledged two lines that even she believes are wrong to cross: the first, viewing sexually explicit images, the second, engaging in certain kinds of sex – even with her spouse – that she considers unholy. I’m intrigued!

The first begs many questions for me. What parts of the body does she believe it’s wrong to see, and why? I often think of James Cameron’s film Titanic as an example, since it was rated for 12 year olds in the UK where I first saw it at a multiplex, yet it contains some basic nudity and a steamy sex scene. I wonder if Joy considers Titanic unholy? I’d be surprised if she does, despite the fact that it contains at least some of the elements she appears to find unacceptable when searching the web for sexual enhancement products. Perhaps it’s all a matter of degree. But principles don’t normally work that way: either something is wrong in principle or it isn’t. I’d venture to suggest that this is a belief which results purely from the sheltered environment of conservative evangelical culture, rather than any specific injunction in theology. It’s simple cultural discomfort, from being exposed to something different and unfamiliar.

The second is more difficult to define. What activity does she “consider unholy”? In an NPR blog, Pauline Bartolone gives at least part of the answer:

“Joy’s products are for married couples only. You won’t find any images of naked people, and anal toys are a no-no. Prayer helped her decide which toys were acceptable for Christians.” [My emphasis.]

No back-door entry! While I stifle a huge, menacing chortle, I should say that I’m sure Joy is not alone here. Two-thirds of women haven’t tried anal sex by the age of 44, which means they probably won’t. But a third have, and presumably don’t have any moral problem with it. What exactly is unholy about this practice, according to evangelicalism? Since sex isn’t discussed in church, I’ve never actually heard any theological arguments against the practice, or any reasons to prefer other kinds of sex.

It’s all rather confusing. Perhaps the ‘logic’ runs something like this: God created sex so that men and women could procreate. Therefore, that should be its aim. Therefore, only straightforward intercourse is approved by God, and other sexual activity, even between married couples, is unholy. Or, perhaps the ‘logic’ runs more like this: body parts have a natural function under God’s natural order. Therefore, they should only be used for that function. Therefore, any other use is unholy.

Of course both of those trains of thought would forbid oral sex too. Does Joy believe that to be wrong, I wonder? And both could be used to prohibit kissing and fondling (unless the mouth and breast are multifunctional body parts and have a role in courtship leading to procreation, in which case couldn’t it be argued that the anus also qualifies in that regard?). Unfortunately, Joy doesn’t get the chance in her NPR interview to go into these details. But some who’ve responded to the NPR blog article on the topic did! Ah, what a delight! Take, for example, a comment from “Matthew Scallon”:

“I find it interesting that they include condoms on their site, since the two times in which artificial contraceptives are mentioned (Gen 38:8-10, Duet 25:7-10), they are condemned. In fact, all Protestants before 1920 opposed artificial contraceptives as being unbiblical.”

I love proof-texts. Genesis 38 does not describe a condemnation of contraception, it describes God’s displeasure at Onan’s plain disobedience. Deuteronomy 25 is even less relevant, containing a law against unwilling brother-in-laws. In any case it’s odd to appeal to a law given to Israelites while they were in the Promised Land in order to support an argument regarding the conduct of Christians today. If our friend Matthew had kept reading, he would have found – in the very next verse of Deuteronomy 25 – an admonition to cut off the hand of any woman who grabs the balls of a man fighting her husband. Perhaps that’s applicable today too; if you ask Matthew, it probably means vibrators are unbiblical.

But some Christians are more sensible. A website mentioned by many of Joy’s supporters is It’s a site giving Christians advice and guidance on issues of “intimacy”, and has a section about what kinds of sexual activity are acceptable to God. Want to know the verdict?  Okay, here we go: manual sex, oral sex, and sex during menstruation are all fine. Anal sex is actually fine too (on that subject they disagree with Joy). Sex toys are usually fine also, with this caveat:

“Some items designed to resemble parts of the male or female body are actually ‘modeled’ after a real person, usually an actor or actress from pornographic movies. While it’s not clear that this is a sin to use such a product, most Christians are opposed to it for obvious reasons.”

The list goes on: phone sex with a spouse is fine, ‘dirty’ words are fine (this surprised me immensely), masturbation is fine, role playing (of the right kind) is fine, private photos and videos are fine. On the other hand public nudity is wrong, viewing pornography is wrong, and fetishes are wrong.

It’s fascinating to see how people draw the lines of taboo. In my opinion, taboos are more cultural than spiritual. And if Christians really are offended by seeing nudity or having to sift through products they dislike to find the things they could buy on, I think they could do with some maturing. It’s this perpetual cocooning that creates such embarrassment and inept handling of the subject of sex by Christians in the first place. Christian adults are still adults, aren’t they? Can’t they just deal with it? The idea that they must protect themselves from even seeing sexual material is at once amazing and irritating to me, though I know I must accept that everyone is different in this regard (for the life of me, I’m trying).

Still, I must give this to Joy Wilson: she’s provided a service that a lot of people were waiting for. She appears not only to be genuine and committed to her principles, but she’s brave enough to put it out there where many of her fellow evangelicals will not immediately understand or appreciate it. That alone is promising.

(And hey, check out these edible body paints.)