Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality”

An hour-long teleconference with

Monique Moultrie

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Mary E. Hunt: I am delighted to welcome my friend and colleague Dr. Monique Moultrie. We worked together with Kecia Ali on the A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z, (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). I cannot recall a more enjoyable or collegial working experience.

Dr. Monique Moultrie is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University. She earned degrees from Vanderbilt University, Harvard Divinity School, and Duke University. Her scholarly pursuits include projects in sexual ethics, African American religions, and gender and sexuality studies.

Her book Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality was published by Duke University Press in December 2017. Other recent publications include a co-edited volume A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z, 2nd edition (Palgrave Macmillan 2014); a chapter “Critical Race Theory,” in Religion: Embodied Religion edited by Kent Brintnall (Palgrave Macmillan 2016): 341-358; and an article “After the Thrill is Gone: Married to the Holy Spirit but Still Sleeping Alone,” in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 33 (2011): 237-253.

Outside of the university, Dr. Moultrie has been a consultant for the National Institutes of Health and for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender-Religious Archives Network, recently doing interviews with colleagues at the Rolling Away the Stone Conference. She is a Content Development working group member for Columbia University’s Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice. She is part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s Scholars Group, a group of religious scholars collaborating at the intersection of religion and reproductive justice.

Within the American Academy of Religion, Dr. Moultrie is the Chair of the Committee on Status of Women in the Profession Chair and a former co-chair of the Religion and Sexuality unit.

I have seen Monique’s scholarship and her administrative abilities close up. She is someone who is making her mark in both arenas. Today we look at her new book, Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality was published by Duke University Press in December 2017

In our WATER Recommended Readings blurb we wrote: “This insightful book conveys data on black women’s sexual attitudes and experiences as influenced by faith-rooted, heteronormative ministries, especially televangelists. Monique Moultrie explains, deconstructs, and suggests replacements from a womanist ethical perspective. She seeks to help all women become “reflective and healthy sexual agents” (p. 151). This book deserves a wide readership for its methodological sophistication, crystal clarity, and explicit commitment to women’s well being rooted in black women’s choices.”

Welcome Monique. I am delighted that you are sharing your ideas with our group today.

Monique Moultrie: I want to start by thanking the WATER staff and the incomparable WATER Founder Mary Hunt for this opportunity to share the book with you all. I met Mary over 15 years ago when I was a staffer coordinating the Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference at Harvard Divinity School, and it was from this conference I got the urge to go onto to doctoral work in Christian sexual ethics. Before this conference, I had been working for a year for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project with Bernadette Brooten, and my research was investigating the legacy of slavery in the sexual lives of African American Christian women. There I tracked the sexual stereotypes of black women (from the images of Hottentot Venus to the contemporary icon of the welfare queen) and how these were connected to a historical repression of black female sexuality that occurred by whites and blacks. I was particularly focused on the often over-correction of black churches to present black women as overly pious to prevent popular representations of black women as insatiable seductresses. From this research I entered a doctoral program with the hopes of investigating what types of contemporary messages black churchwomen received from religious spaces (outside of what they heard on Sundays). This exploration led me to Juanita Bynum, which led me to what ultimately I present in the book.

Yet, my academic trajectory is amplified by my religious experiences, as I grew up in a Baptist church in rural southern Virginia. I had come to college with questions about my faith and sexuality like why women were discouraged from preaching, why young girls had to seek forgiveness from the church for getting pregnant, when the deacon’s son didn’t, why anyone cared how long my skirt was but no one cared where the trustees’ hands were. These questions compelled me to find answers and pursue what ethicist Marvin Ellison calls erotic justice. I took us on this perhaps meandering autobiography before delving into the work that becomes the book Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality (Duke University Press, 2017) because the book is in many ways informed by my own explorations as a black progressive Christian women searching for answers about sexuality so I wanted to disclose that as important for understanding the conversation we are entering.

I gave you all the introduction to the book as a starting point for our discussion but I want to instead talk about the concluding chapter of the book, which focuses on black women and sexual pleasure. I am trained as a womanist/black feminist who is a professing Christian. I am a scholar whose research bridges Religious Studies, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, and Sexuality Studies. All this is to say that I critique Christianity while squarely situating myself within its broken walls. Yet, one criticism I find within my scholastic disciplines is the need to critique without offering anything constructive in replacement. So I dare talk about sexual pleasure because I want to give something back while simultaneously being consciously aware that my subject position as a black woman talking about sexuality can reinforce stereotypes of black women as licentious, sex-obsessed, etc. When I began the idea of the book the concluding chapter is what I had in mind as my intervention in the field because I knew that womanists must be called to discuss more than the sexual pain and shame, which is the legacy of slavery, sexual assault, and exploitation. This is necessary work and I’m not inattentive to these realities but the survival and wholeness of black women I believe also depends on pursuing our passions.

Thus, my project addresses the moral crises women face as sexual agents in a society that often negates their ability to make choices about their sexuality. Just to familiarize those who haven’t looked at the introductory chapter, the book draws on data I gathered during ethnographic focus groups with single black Christian women as well as similar studies from social theorists Marla Frederick and Patricia Hill Collins as I craft a model of womanist sexual ethics. This deliberate use of womanist sexual ethics is, on the one hand, a response to traditionally white feminist theological ethics, which often excludes black women’s experiences, and, on the other, a response to black feminist cultural theory, which often seems to undervalue black women’s religious lives. Since Christianity is so central to the culture of the black women who are the focus of this book, understanding their sexual agency and empowerment requires that we take seriously their spiritual concerns.

This project examines the impact of religious media on women’s sexual agency, arguing that an interrogation of sexual politics that occurs outside of traditional “black church” settings is necessary. It examines popular televangelist Juanita Bynum as a key example of the various faith-based mass media productions that provide messages to black Christian women about sexuality. Bynum gained notoriety with her sermon turned video No More Sheets (1997), which revealed her sexual past, suggesting that single women trade in their sheets (extramarital sexual relations and self-pleasuring) for covenant relationships with God. While this research focuses on decoding the conservative sexual rhetoric produced in such faith-based media/ministries, it also investigates the impact of these faith-based sexuality ministries on black women’s sexual agency. These ministries are a multi-million dollar industry—with books, classes, singles conferences, television programming, Internet and radio dating sites, all presenting ethical dilemmas to women as they receive these messages and choose to act in various ways. The project highlights theological and social implications such as frustration, fear of damnation, emotional and religious guilt, stress, participating in risky sexual behaviors, loneliness, etc. for black single women who participate in these faith-based sexuality ministries that offer Jesus or the Holy Spirit as a replacement for physical relationships.

One means of countering these implications is through a progressive sexual discourse that rejects the politics of respectability rhetoric that prohibits sexual agency and pleasure. In addressing singles sexuality, pleasure, or relationality black feminist and womanist theorists have tended to focus on the interlocking or intersectional oppressions and history of sexual shame/pain. Pleasure is seen as an afterthought or is rarely discussed unless it’s in fiction or attributed to same sex desiring individuals. Within theological treatments, moralizing around sexual agency de-emphasizes talking about or acting on sexual pleasure. This moralizing is reflected in national sexuality studies that indicate black women are less likely than others to 1) masturbate, 2) initiate intercourse, 3) enjoy giving and receiving oral sex. Yet, my work ponders are black women unwilling to confirm their participation in acts that are sexually pleasing? Or is there truly a disconnect among black women and their sexual desire?

If I had more time I would take you through the Christian stumbling blocks to sexual pleasure, namely, Saint Augustine, Aquinas, John Calvin, and Martin Luther who all shared suspicion around sexual pleasure. Instead, I want to jump way ahead to point out how faith-based sexuality ministries discuss sexual pleasure, particularly ministries like Juanita Bynum, Ty Adams, Wives in Waiting organization, and the Pinky Promise movement. These ministries all make a habit of disclosing their sexual histories with vivid imagery to describe their past sexual pleasure. Contrary to secular feminist discussions of female sexuality, these ministries are not bashful about talking about what curls one’s toes or makes one moan. They are in fact so aware of what is sexually pleasurable that they must restrict all such actions to keep their commitment to sexual chastity. Audre Lorde could rationalize their sexual avoidance as fear of the yes within; instead, these leaders spiritualize their actions by saying yes to God.

Rather than spend time detailing these ministries, I thought I would share some of the insights gathered from my qualitative research. In my focus group I specifically asked women about sexual pleasure and how they responded to their sexual desires. We covered a list of sexual taboos, including oral sex, anal sex, using sex toys for masturbation, watching pornography, being sexually active without being married, and engaging in sex with multiple partners. Masturbation was a topic of concern because women at different ages and relationship statuses wondered if it was permissible within Christianity. Asked one participant almost indignantly: “Well, does the Bible say anything about sex toys?” A lively conversation ensued with some members expressing that this was putting a toy in the place of the husband that God was going to send and some feeling that it was perfectly normal and probably not a concern of the Lord since they did not see any explicit reasons in the Bible why they could not seek solo sexual gratification. One woman hesitated to reach a conclusion as she pondered out loud, “What if using them things takes you away from your spouse?” While the national sex survey reported that 28% of black women reported partnered masturbation, most of our conversations discussed masturbation as a solitary act. When I posed the question of whether they participated in self-pleasuring with their significant others, many laughed but few responded, and I was left wondering if admitting the need for sexual pleasure outside of one’s partner was really the transgressive act, not the particular example of masturbation.

My research posits that radical sexual honesty and responsibility are the cornerstones for the womanist sexual ethics that I construct in the book. Patricia Hill Collins’ text Black Sexual Politics challenges readers to develop honest bodies where blacks are empowered to reject prevalent ideas and stereotypes about gender and sexuality in favor of a more integrated joining of mind, soul, and body that frees the body. While the majority of the book focuses on black heterosexuality (which is the result of my research subjects) there is a chapter that focuses on same sex desire and my larger body of research expands beyond heterosexuality. I am trying to counter pleasure only being associated with same gender loving individuals while pushing for a form of relationality that is not constricted to monogamy but instead highlights respect, consent, and mutuality as benchmarks not relationship, marriage, or even orgasm.

At its core, chapter 6 of my book holds the promise of the other chapters. In the first three chapters, while I am walking readers through understanding how a particular evangelical community is persuaded by Juanita Bynum and her successors I wanted the work to investigate in the later chapters some contemporary life scenarios like women who participate in these heterosexual faith-based sexuality ministries while maintaining same sex desire, or women over the age of 50 enacting sexual agency, or even women who like sex for sex’s sake not because it draws them closer to the divine. It is my hope that the book begins a much-needed conversation on faith and sexuality in black religious spaces, but I also hope it offers cross over appeal to help women in other communities talk about their sexual agency and faith.

MH: Thank you for your insightful remarks, for your provocative suggestions.

Q: Have any of the women you interviewed encountered the book? Have they had any reactions?

MM: I actually had trouble initially finding women because of the ecclesial model, the church-pastor model of getting access to religious women. Having to go and speak to the pastor and get permission to speak to the congregation and make an announcement. I was outright told no at times. I’m grateful to my home communities because I already had some trust built up with women in those communities. Now that the stories are out, some people can’t believe they told me what they did! Others are pleasantly surprised at how their views have changed since they did the interviews.  Many of the women have situations that have changed, many are thinking through the ways some of the things in the book are still the same. We talked about what that meant to have a grown woman theology.

I didn’t find anyone thus far who has been offended. When I look back at some of the comments I got from book reviewers, I take almost too sympathetic of a view of the evangelical community because that’s where I came from, so I understand. I haven’t heard back from some of the more conservative communities to see if I was sympathetic enough.

Q: I have a question about your chapters on same-sex desire. Did you find that in your interviews, people were forthcoming about same-sex desire or interests, were they open about sexual fluidity?

MM: Yeah, I saw this as a project about black heterosexual women, but I started noticing a theme at conferences that every group had a session on overcoming same-sex desire. I thought that was strange because the communities were gathered seeking celibacy until a heterosexual marriage. So I started polling women who attended these breakout sessions, and I did find them very forthcoming. They were in two camps, “I will always have same-sex desire but I will wait for God’s plan for me so I’m not going to act on it.”

Then there was another “before Christ” camp; homosexual desires were something they experienced “before Christ.” Ty Adams for example, who publically talks in great detail of the pleasures of lesbian sex, and about how she left a lesbian relationships for God. She decided that would rather have salvation, cried to God to take the feelings away because she wants to live for God, converted and went out and had heterosexual sex. The pregnancy that resulted from this, and birth of her daughter, was seen as a blessing and confirmation that she did the right thing.

Women really did split into these two camps. Women who would remain lesbians but wouldn’t act, and women who were no longer lesbians. What’s crucial to understanding these faith-based sexuality ministries is that you can’t get in under the radar, you can’t join the community and not share your story because this keeps you accountable. If you can’t share your sexual history, you can’t be part of the group. That chapter concludes with a womanist model of sexual generosity that allows for sexual fluidity. Bisexual isn’t the category that I thought it was, some women will be on a continuum for the rest of their lives. We can learn from these fluidities while at the same time pushing back against the heteronormativity active here. Accepting that there is movement across sexual agency.

Q: You’re waking me up. I was wondering about ways you might think about the connection between the messages black women get from religious places that cause women not to act on their sexual desire and the political lives of women, their sense of political agency, rights to criticize unjust social structures and relationships?

MM: Thanks for your question, it’s waking me up as well. I think that sexual repression is a useful tactic for many women for achieving political goals. Historically, there have been movements that have shown this to be true. Some of my earlier research with the feminist sexual ethics project I was intrigued by black women post slavery choosing to marry, actively seeking marriage. Women who handled their own business didn’t need a spouse, but the spouse gave them political legitimacy. Ida B. Wells is an example of one. Lugenia Burns Hope is another. Many of them were widowed quite earlier but having been married gave them legitimacy. So sexual repression acts in the same way, it grants women legitimacy to be heard.

Particularly, in my chapters on celibacy, I talked with a pastor in Atlanta who has been celibate for over 30 years. She sees her celibacy as necessary for her spiritual power. But I think in many ways it gives her access to political power as well. Her not being married gives her the ability to pastor a pretty significant mega-church in Atlanta. It gave her some authority in places where her ecclesial authority might have been challenged as a black woman.

MEH: My question has to do with something you didn’t write about, and that’s men. What about young men of all races, what are they taught? Are there similar kinds of organizations or efforts to form them in similar ways? I loved your idea of sexual hospitality and generosity. I think these are takeaways for a broad audience. What has been the reaction of people within your circle, especially men, in terms of reciprocal relationships?

MM: Men are absent intentionally in the text, I wanted to center women’s stories. Men are the lurking interloper. Historically there are movements for men, primarily in white evangelical spaces. Joshua Harris is an example of a man promulgating white male evangelical celibacy, what it meant to be a single Christian man, issues of pornography, and sexual addiction. What that led to were biblical courtship models, early 20th century dating models to maintain male and female chastity. White evangelical men were having these conversations, were they doing anything? Not sure. There are lots of purity models targeting guys, but the statistics show that when teens join these groups, they tend not to keep the promises they make.

On the other hand, in black religious spaces, there’s nothing at all targeting black men. Chris Jackson, A.C. Green, only a couple of guys come to mind that have had a public conversation about constraining their sexuality. Stereotypes of black men as hypersexual didn’t gain traction. Even the founder of Pinky Promise has a “man cave,” which is the men’s alternative to the Pinky Promise movement. It’s definitely not a mass movement towards men getting with the program. I think a sense of relationality/reciprocity is missing. It’s men’s God-given right to lead the woman, put themselves in order and their households. This doesn’t lead to reciprocity. There’s lots of conversation around gender complementarity, equally gifted by God with different roles. I don’t think this will lead to a mutually beneficial healthy sexual relationship.

Someone should write about this men’s movement.

Q: I was intrigued by the part in your introduction when you talk about the online chat room where they talk about marital abuse. I was wondering if you could talk about how the themes of sexual abuse, sexual violence played out in your research?

MM: I talk about being in a chat room in the Pinky Promise movement about not being able to divorce. One woman in the group reported that she had decided to file to divorce because her husband was emotionally and physically abusing her, but that she decided to stay because of these posts. I talk about my angst in this moment. So abuse isn’t largely talked about, because to accept that abuse could be a result of a God-given gift complicates the entire model.

Celibacy is promoted as a way of healing for survivors of sexual abuse. I can support this intellectually. Past sexual abuse is sometimes shared, but marital abuse isn’t. There aren’t a lot of tools given to survivors of sexual abuse, no one is saying, you might also want therapy, you might also want to press charges. This is a real miss, because these movements are speaking to thousands of women. This is a great opportunity that is being missed.

Q: I was struck in the introduction of the pervasiveness of mass and televised media. Do you think these pervasive forms of media guard these ministries from external critique?

MM: Yeah, these mediums are everywhere. In the course of any given day, I’d get 5 or 6 text messages reminding me to stay pure, blog posts, emails. It’s an all-encompassing worldview, once you plug yourself in, it’s hard to not immerse yourself in it. So I approached it from a cultural theory perspective and found that most women took it from a negotiated perspective. “It’s God’s best plan, but I’m going to choose to do this or that.” They could do that or still be a part of the community. Having had sex didn’t oust them from the community. The all-pervasive access of media made this possible. You can’t say you didn’t know something because you’re always in it. The pervasiveness of media makes more challenges, but also allows people to close ranks. It’s harder to push them to have outside sources.

MEH: This is groundbreaking work on elder sex. Sometimes books of sexual ethics all assume that everyone is within the ages of 18 and 35. I loved your story about helping the elderly couple pick out condoms and lubricants. So few people in this field write about this. Have you had any response to this? How can we broaden the conversation about age?

MM: The topic of elder sex was the important one for me. If you believe the model works, does it still work 40 years later? If it works at 20, does it still work at 35? The senior women didn’t fit my stereotype so I needed to investigate. I think the partner gap, particularly dealing with black sexuality, by the age of 80, there’s one black man for every 200 black women. What does it mean to tell that one woman that she has to wait around for marriage?

Aging and sexuality, being religiously pious would subdue sexual passion. I wanted to speak to these presumptions and think about people in their day-to-day lives. A large conclusion was that it wasn’t about sexual acts, but having space for a range of sexual expression, e.g. companionship. Presuming that your grandmother and great grandmother aren’t wanting this is part of the problem and is unethical. I hope this chapter tries to be an intervention into these presumptions about our elders.

MEH: I thank you so much. I want to commend the methodology that you use, it’s persuasive and complex. We’re looking forward to being in conversation about you.

Thanks to everyone who has been a part of the conversation, made for a very interesting hour.  Dr. Moultrie’s book, Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality (Duke University Press, 2017) is a great contribution to the field of sexual ethics.

Our next WATERtalk will be on Wednesday April 11, 2018 from 1 PM – 2 PM with Eileen Markey, A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura. Register here.

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