Sharing the Old Book in a New, Digital Age: Evangelistic Vloggers and Sexual Health
Text: Elizabeth Zandbergen
Whether it is to rewatch a sports event, to discover a new artist or to fall down the rabbit hole of guilty pleasures: YouTube has it all. It is the online equivalent of a candy store – simply search and thou shall find all kinds of goodies. But what do people end up watching?
Besides all the popular genres of videos, YouTube is also a place to connect the desire to share religious content to those who seek spiritual guidance. In 2010, nearly 92 million Americans searched the Internet for religious information. A Google search for ‘Christian dating advice’ generates results from churches and blogs, but also suggests YouTube videos such as ‘How to Honor God in Relationships’ by user Tiffany Dawn or ‘Christian Dating Advice You Need to Know’ by users Paul and Morgan. Videos on Christianity feature a range of topics: from tips on how to dress fashionably yet modestly to discussing Christian music. A recurring theme however is sexual health. So, what exactly is the content created by Evangelistic vloggers in regards to sexual intimacy?
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The current dominant liberal stance on sexuality, which can be described as the normalization of sexual interactions outside of a committed romantic relationship, is considered to be incompatible with Christian values by various Evangelistic communities. As they perceive this liberal view on sexuality as a negligence of important morals, this creates a market for faith-based information about sexual health. Because Evangelicals believe in a loving and saving God wanting to bring salvation upon His followers, many feel as if they are being called to share the gospel of the Holy Book. Missionaries put themselves at the service of God and present themselves as an extension of Him, contributing to a divine mission. The message that Evangelicals share is one of hope: repent and believe and you will forever live in God’s kingdom.
When Evangelistic YouTubers speak about sexual intimacy, they do so from a heteronormative perspective. These YouTubers reproduce the notion that a bond between one man and one woman is the undisputed standard. For instance, vlogger Emma Mae Jenkins gleefully cites Genesis 2 when speaking about marriage: ‘A man will leave his mother and father to be united with his wife and they will become one in flesh’. This emphasizes the supposed unity of romantic relationship and highlights the gendered expectations for marriage. According to these YouTubers, men and women are essentially different, created by the Lord to take on complementary roles in social life and marriage. This fuels metaphors of balance and unity. As man and woman are complementary, together they merge into one. In videos produced on dating boundaries, Evangelistic vloggers advise their audience on how to be religiously responsible in a romantic relationship in regards to sexuality. The recurring message these vloggers proclaim is to reserve sex for the marital sphere. Building on Biblical authority, these YouTubers perceive sexual purity as a higher calling, which is both the obligation and responsibility of every believer to strive for out of respect for God. As physical attraction is considered a source of temptation, these YouTubers have set clear limits regarding physical contact in their relationships before marriage. They not only abstained from coitus before marriage, but also refused to engage in oral sex, kissing and prolonged hugging. These Evangelistic vloggers employ the domino effect rhetoric to support their actions, stating that an innocent embrace could lead to sexual intercourse. In addition, whereas one should refrain from sexual acts before marriage, one should also stay abstinent in one’s mind. Chastity not only covers a person’s sexual behavior, but also involves the purity of a person’s inner world. Sexual fantasies are framed as dissonance, disturbing one’s inner balance and connection to God. In order to fully live according to God’s will, all components must be in tune. ‘Purity is not just about our actions’, Kristen from Girl Defined states, ‘it flows from our hearts, it flows from a desire of wanting to honor God’.
Although abstinence signifies sexual restrictions, these vloggers frame chastity as challenging, yet inspirational and worthwhile. By using terms such as ‘saving yourself’ and ‘staying pure’, abstinence is portrayed as a valuable, fruitful investment. It is framed as a rightful act of religiosity: a beautiful promise to God and a gift to both yourself and your later-to-be-spouse. According to these vloggers, sexual abstinence leads to a stronger connection with the Lord. The confidence in God’s plan, providing these vloggers with a life-long partner later on, strengthens their faith. ‘When you really limit yourself physically, the only option is to run towards God,’ Nate from the YouTube channel Nate and Sutton states. Second, the YouTubers indicate that sexual abstinence has made the bond with their spouse stronger. The abstention from physical intimacy felt to them as an affirmation that their then-romantic interest wanted to seriously invest in the relationship, transcending a ‘simple’ bodily attraction. ‘Compatibility is about more than just sex,’ Tiffany Dawn explains, ‘if you get physical too fast in a relationship, it can actually distract you from figuring out if that person is a good fit for you. If you really like them or if you just like making out with them’.
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As becomes clear from these videos, these YouTubers promote a purity ethic, which is partly based on the perception of non-committed sex and marital sex to be opposite to each other. In this hierarchy of sexual intimacy, the top position is reserved for godly, marital sex. Whereas non-committed sexual acts would lead to insatiability and regret and therefore represent the shadow side of sexuality, marital sex is perceived as wholesome, ethical and both sexually and spiritually satisfying. The main reason for these underlying differences lies in the nature of the sexual relationships: whose pleasure is being prioritized? Chasing a personal high is limiting, these YouTubers argue. Living according to God’s design for sexuality is then presented as the way to true happiness, pleasure, freedom and satisfaction. Non-committed sex will consistently fall short compared to marital sexual intimacy, as no one can find in themselves what one can find in the Lord. Man is hereby placed under God as he is presented as driven by passions and blinded by temptation: man seeks pleasure without foresight. As people are inclined to pursue short-term satisfaction and are thus easily blinded by their own profane desires, they are in need of spiritual guidance. Viewers are urged to confidently act upon their faith, selflessly trusting God’s plan for sexuality while simultaneously submitting to continuous critical self-governing. Viewers are coached to master techniques to achieve chastity, such as prayer, intensive Bible study, practice of confession and citing Bible verses.
Actions and desires that contradict God’s intention for sexuality require adjustments by and for the follower in order to stay in control, as a controlled self embodies sinlessness and religiousness. The intended purpose of these interventions is internalization: for these techniques to eventually come naturally, through which the identity of a good Christian is enacted.
Health is a virtue: a social process creating an in- and outgroup, signaling norms and displaying its own authoritative figures. Sexual health is not a new concept, neither is the notion of chastity within Christian communities. However, creed can be a dynamic process as interpretations of a pure, God-honoring believer are influenced by a (global) social climate in motion. Technological developments can also lead to the transformation of tradition. While Jesus addressed His followers in person during the Sermon on the Mount, YouTubers continue this oral tradition under different circumstances and through other channels, that being: personal vlogs sent out to a global audience on the Internet. YouTube thus offers more than cute cat videos and fail compilations: it lends itself as a platform one can use to share the Old Book in a new, digital age.
Disclaimer: as always this is simply a curious analysis to gain insight into notions of normality, it is in no way meant to generalize nor to bash religiosity.