August 17, 2016

How advice websites reshape Christians' beliefs about sex

Kelsy Burke's research studies Protestants' mores regarding sexual behavior

Kelsy Burke, an assistant professor of sociology, is the author of "Christians Under Covers."

In an era of dwindling Protestant influence over American sexual mores, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has authored a groundbreaking book on the phenomenon of Christian sex advice websites.

In “Christians Under Covers,” sociologist Kelsy Burke describes her findings from a nearly two-year ethnographic study of 36 websites where tens of thousands of Christians have sought sexual guidance during the past decade.

Burke adds perspective to recent attention to evangelicals’ role in politics and culture. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, for example, pledged a return to Protestant values in a recent address to evangelical Christian leaders in Florida. Another recent book, Robert P. Jones’ “The End of White Christian America,” describes the fading influence of white Protestant Christianity over American culture and politics.

Jones has said one reason millennial Americans give for dropping out of organized religion is its negative treatment of gays and lesbians. Tim LaHaye, the evangelical minister who authored the popular “Left Behind” series of novels that detailed second coming of Jesus, also wrote one of the first Christian sex advice manuals in 1976, called “The Act of Marriage.” He died in July at 90.

Burke found Christians use the advice websites to push the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior, while still maintaining Protestant heterosexual norms. So long as couples were heterosexual, married, monogamous and did not look at pornography, website users concluded that an array of sexual activities qualified as “godly sex” that strengthens Christian marriage.

Burke’s research included an online survey of 768 website users, along with 50 interviews of administrators, bloggers and others. She also attended workshops on Christian sexuality and read dozens of Christian sex-advice books.

Though the websites build upon a tradition of Christian sex-advice manuals that began in the 1970s, Burke acknowledges that the websites represent a “peculiar and particular” segment of evangelical Christianity.

“I do not pretend to know the ‘truth’ about what most evangelicals are doing in the bedroom or what most of them believe about sex,” she said.

Rather, she said, her study reveals how website users reshape their religious beliefs in a sexualized culture where gender roles are increasingly blurred and monogamy and marriage are no longer exclusive to heterosexuality.

Burke began her research while studying at the University of Pittsburgh. A Wyoming native, she recently joined the sociology faculty as an assistant professor specializing in religion and sexuality. Before coming to UNL, she spent three years on the faculty at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. “Christians Under Covers” was published by the University of California Press.

More about Burke’s work is included in this blog post.