What do we talk about when we talk about sex? For some, it is a matter of mechanics: bodies, physiology, functioning. For others, it is a matter of morals: norms, risks, rewards. Like everything else in our world, sex is a site of social construction – a part of the human experience that is mediated through our understanding of that experience. In particular, sexuality as a form of knowledge is made possible by the discursive processes that constitute it. Discourse is the field on which particular ideologies, structures, and desires surrounding sexuality get played out. In many ways, discourse holds a unique status in religious contexts: it can be constructed as a holy artifact or a means to salvation, and it is also vital for creating and disseminating religious tradition and identity. Historically, Western Christianity has often been mostly closely associated with sexual repression and heteronormativity, most notably through emphasis on lifelong heterosexual monogamy within marriage and sexual chastity outside of marriage. Since the 1970s, evangelical forms of Christianity in the United States have been major proponents for what has been called ‘purity culture,’ a movement that promotes sexuality purity – particularly among women – as well as abstinence until marriage. Purity culture has been so pervasive in the U.S. that it often operates independently of religious identity and ideologies, infiltrating sexual education curricula in schools and political discourses around gender and sexuality.
Scholarly inquiry into these three veins – discourse, sexuality, and Christianity – has spanned a number of disciplines and has been marked by disparate methodologies and analytic frameworks. My dissertation seeks to bring many of these threads together to provide a meaningful account of the current discourses around sexual ethics among Christians in the United States. I focus in particular on the Baptist denomination of Christianity as a site of study, since its loose denominational structure gives rise to a wide variety of beliefs and practices around sexuality that are discursively negotiated in community spaces. Through a methodology I call event ethnography, I provide an in-depth examination of the 2012 [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant to capture the complexities of this singular event as situated within its larger cultural context. I analyze the constraints of the physical space of the event, how plenary speakers interdiscursively engage with many of the same Christian texts and traditions in radically different ways, and the emergent dialogicality of the audience’s engagement both in person and online through Twitter. My analysis of this event shows the ways in which social histories, institutional structures, and spatiotemporal realities both enable and constrain particular types of discourse. I also explore the ways in which my research has morphed from a traditional focus on discourse analysis to a more activist approach of community-engaged research. I discuss the various ways I am currently collaborating with Baptist leaders in the development of resources that promote healthier, more holistic conversations around sexuality. I argue that these forms of academic activism can help build more robust scholarship as well as bring about positive social change.