If you’re looking for a good double feature, and you’re prepared for some frank conversations about sex, you could do a lot worse than the theatrically-released Sleeping With Other People and the stream-for-free on Vimeo release Give Me Sex Jesus. Sleeping With Other People is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that includes unconventionally complex main characters and a thoughtful exploration of why people sleep around instead of committing monogamously to one person. Give Me Sex Jesus is a better-than-average talking head documentary about the “purity movement” that swept the Evangelical world over the past twenty-odd years and that movement’s repercussions. I didn’t intend to watch both films back-to-back, but sometimes film criticism is touched by a bit of kismet.
Before I continue, I need to make a short disclaimer. Give Me Sex Jesus was made by friends in the Fuller Seminary community. I have no stake in the film other than that friendship. I even didn’t give to their Kickstarter campaign a few years ago so that I could review the film as objectively as possible when it was finally finished. I was hoping to pay to watch it when it was released, but lo and behold, they’ve released the film for free. Matt, Dan, Michael, Will – let me know how I can support your film with more than just this review.
Okay. Back to the reviews.
Sleeping With Other People is about Lainey and Jake, two thirty-something New Yorkers whose unbridled sex-lives are causing them problems. After briefly meeting in college, they reconnect at a sex addicts’ meeting and start a no-sex friendship. Committing to not being sexually intimate with each other allows them to be emotionally intimate instead. They become best friends, and they help each other mature into people capable of having real relationships with other people. If you don’t mind explicit, raunchy comedy, Sleeping With Other People is very funny. It was written and directed by Leskye Headland (Bachelorette) and produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. It’s also very sincere and very concerned how people become emotionally and sexually well-adjusted adults. Sleeping With Other People is the best sex comedy I’ve seen since The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Give Me Sex Jesus features interviews about the purity movement and “Christian” sexuality with a host of people across the ideological spectrum, from True Love Waits founder Richard Ross to a transgendered man who left organized Christianity because of his church’s refusal to serve gay persons. The documentary traces the beginnings of the movement through its present day ramifications. The film tries to let everyone voice their opinion on the purity movement whether or not the interviewees agree with it. This interview footage is augmented with some expressive animation and news footage from key moments in the purity movement’s history. The history portion of the film is most interesting, as it convincingly roots the movement in slavery, xenophobia, and as a reaction against the AIDs crisis in the 80s and early 90s.
The most surprising thing about Sleeping With Other People is also, surprisingly, the most frustrating thing about Give Me Sex Jesus, frustrating upon first blush, anyway. Sleeping With Other People has a definitive point-of-view about the value of sex in relationships and campaigns convincingly for the worth of waiting to have sex with the person you marry. Whether or not you agree with those assertions, Sleeping With Other People gives you something to react to and interact with. Give Me Sex Jesus lacks a definitive point-of-view and refuses to campaign for anything. That’s not a criticism; it’s an observation. I think the film takes this ambiguous stance by design, because the purpose of the documentary seems to be to listen to many opinions on the purity movement, both positive and negative, and to allow the viewer to carry on the conversation after the film ends.
Interestingly, both the pro-purity interviewees in Give Me Sex Jesus and the entirety of Sleeping With Other People make very similar claims about sex before marriage: 1) premarital sex causes problems in one’s life, 2) those problems carry over into the marital relationship, 3) waiting to have sex until you are married promotes greater intimacy, both psychologically and sexually, in both the premarital and marital relationships, and ultimately, 4) there is “one” right person for you, and she or he is worth the wait. The pro-purity people in Give Me Sex Jesus and Sleeping With Other People differ only in the amount of levity they are willing to employ when talking about sex. For the pro-purity folks, sex is serious business.
The anti-purity movement interviewees in Give Me Sex Jesus offer a much different take. All of them came out of the purity movement and aren’t sure what to make of its effect on their lives. The most definitive thing they can say is that sex is a more complicated aspect of their identity than anyone ever told them it would be. There’s nothing neat and easy about it before marriage, in marriage, or after it. The only thing they are all sure about is that no one should tell anyone else precisely how to integrate sex into their lives. For them, sex is personal.
The purity movement was launched in part to combat the messages about pre-marital sexual activity presumably being sent by the “secular” world. The purity movement was meant to be counter-cultural. Here we are twenty years later, and a raunchy sex comedy from the people who brought us the panda and unicorn scene in Anchorman sounds most like the purity movement’s gospel. Does that mean the broader culture has come around to the purity movement’s message? Or does it mean their messages weren’t that different in the first place, that the purity movement was simply a baptized version of the sexual mores already typical of American society? Maybe a more counter-cultural sexual ethic would involve radical grace instead of strict judgement? Maybe.
Give Me Sex Jesus doesn’t offer an answer to those questions, and I won’t either. It’s certainly something we need to be talking about, because the purity movement didn’t do anything to alter the sexual practices of a generation, and it hasn’t stopped our culture from accepting a sexual ethic the purity movement’s founders call “an abomination.” Sleeping With Other People and Give Me Sex Jesus are a good way to get the conversation started.