After nearly a decade of studying Christian sex advice and talking to the evangelicals who write it, here’s one thing I know for sure: Evangelicals love pegging.
Not all of them, of course, or even most, but many more than you might expect. As I found while doing research for my book Christians Under Covers, many of the everyday posters on Christian sex advice message boards and blogs rave about pegging, the anal penetration of a man by woman.
White conservative evangelical Protestants are often anti-gay and anti-trans when it comes to political debates ― for example, they tend to oppose marriage equality and insist on binary and immutable definitions of sex and gender. But over the course my research, I have learned that the relationship between evangelicals and queerness is more complicated than their political attitudes suggest.
Evangelical Christians describe themselves as “in the world but not of the world,” and the same could be said of their sex advice. Evangelical culture creates boundaries between believers and non-believers by prioritizing “Christian” versions of everything, from politicians to rock music. To do that, they constantly chase and capitalize on secular trends, and that includes the secular world’s increasing acceptance of queerness. It is no coincidence that Christian sex advice as a genre emerged in the 1970s at the height of the gay rights and sexual liberation movements.
Evangelical Christians describe themselves as ‘in the world but not of the world,’ and the same could be said of their sex advice.
Evangelicals who write about sexual pleasure put a religious twist on the popular and marketable notion that sexual fulfillment is tied to one’s overall happiness. In addition to print self-help books, there are dozens of popular websites created by and for evangelical Christians who love sex. There are blogs for Christian wives to learn strategies to optimize their own pleasure (vibrators!), message boards where users troubleshoot their sexual problems and give advice on the best sexual positions and online Christian-owned stores where customers can buy sex toys and be confident they will not be exposed to pornography, like they would be in secular stores.
Authors of Christian sex advice generally avoid listing specific do’s and don’ts. Even in one of the oldest and stodgiest evangelical sex manuals, The Act of Marriage, published in 1976, authors Tim and Beverly LaHaye write that they “can’t recommend” oral sex but do not forbid it. Contemporary authors are more encouraging. Shannon Ethridge, author of the 2008 book The Sexually Confident Wife, says that sex is reserved for monogamous and consenting husbands and wives. But once that requirement is met, “just about anything and everything in the bedroom can be considered perfectly normal.”
As a result, Christian sex advice sounds similar to a lot of non-Christian sex advice. Sexual freedom is a key assumption. In Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage, Christian author Kevin Leman writes that “the Bible is amazingly free in what it allows and even encourages a married couple to do in bed.” Rather than focusing on what God doesn’t allow, these authors focus on what is made possible within God’s parameters for who is allowed to have sex.
The Bible is amazingly free in what it allows and even encourages a married couple to do in bed.
Christian author Kevin Leman
Online, bloggers and message board users take the logic presented in these mainstream books and run with it. These online conversations take on a decidedly queer tone as users counter sexual shame, encourage sexual exploration, validate unique sexual desires and celebrate pleasure as a key feature of a sexual life.
And that’s how I found myself reading about pegging on a highly active conservative Christian message board.
In total, I analyzed 50 blog posts or message board threads that discussed pegging. Each justified the act by drawing from a broader evangelical logic that emphasizes the vast sexual possibilities available to straight married couples.
The first pegging thread I came across was as boring as it was astonishing. It was an exchange in which users offered reviews and recommendations for men who liked to use dildos for prostate stimulation. Of one product, a user noted, “it’s not very phallic looking, if you care about that,” voicing what surely is a concern for many of these men, who want to maintain their status as straight Christian patriarchs. But, at the same time, this comment suggests to me that not all evangelical men do, in fact, care if the dildos they use resemble penises. That may be extreme, but it shows just how far some evangelicals (notably, men) take what they believe is God’s complete validation of their sexuality.
Not all evangelicals would approve of pegging, of course. Christian sex advice books, reflecting evangelical culture more broadly, support “gender complementarity” — the idea that God created gender as a binary distinction between men and women who fulfill differing and hierarchical roles. This applies in the bedroom and outside it. Focus on the Family, one of the largest evangelical organizations in the U.S., puts it this way: “Her parts and his parts each have their own order and function.” Some evangelicals express disdain for pegging precisely because it challenges their beliefs about gender.
But on the Christian sex advice websites I studied, even those who disapprove of pegging are reluctant to cast judgment on the practice. On one blog post about it, a reader commented that “that is a complete role reversal, and I can’t imagine that God would be pleased with that!” The blogger responded, “I would caution any of you who presumes to know what God is thinking. Just because you are uncomfortable with a particular act doesn’t mean it’s inherently wrong or sinful.”
On the Christian sex advice websites I studied, even those who disapprove of pegging are reluctant to cast judgment on the practice.
The irony, of course, is that evangelicals who embrace the gender-subversive sex act of pegging rely on their normative and privileged identities to do so. In fact, website users justify their sexual interests by describing how their spouses, and God, affirm that they are cisgender and straight. A short comment on a blog post is an illustrative example of this accomplishment: “My [dear husband] is 100% man throughout, but he loves when I peg him.” Another website user writes confidently of God’s approval of his interest in pegging: “I was talking to God about it AGAIN, and I really felt the Lord say to me, ‘I love what you and your wife have together.’”
Despite the apparent “anything goes” attitude within Christian sex advice, there are still limits to evangelical sexuality, which borrows from queerness but doesn’t approve of queer people.
Evangelicals tout their conservative religious beliefs and use them as a jumping-off point to enjoy the sexual possibilities made visible and popular by the LGBTQ community. But outside the evangelical bedroom, LGBTQ people remain outsiders ― and that, too, is justified by conservative religious beliefs. Actual queer people may be married and practice monogamy the way Christian sex guides demand, but they lack the core foundations of heterosexuality and cisgender identity that make subversive sex acceptable to evangelicals.
The way evangelicals practice and talk about pegging is an example of how conservative evangelicalism thrives by drawing lessons from the LGBTQ movement ― while also opposing it.
To some, this all may seem hypocritical. Evangelicals don’t see it that way. They are, after all, in the world but not of the world, even when they’re engaging in a sex act that was named by gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage. But they are on tenuous grounds when they admonish and exclude gay couples and gender non-binary folks. Perhaps one day they’ll agree that everyone deserves consensual sexual pleasure and expression, even ― and especially ― the people who taught them about pegging in the first place.
Kelsy Burke is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She researches and writes about Christian sex advice, evangelical women’s ministries, religious freedom laws and debates over pornography.