In the weeks since Sarah Palin made her entertaining and highly polarizing entrance onto the national stage, journalists have been scrambling to get a fix on her, attaching label after label onto the Alaska governor in the hope that one of them might stick. Is Palin a hockey mom, “a working-class heroine juggling career and family and living out her religious convictions,” in the words of conservative writer Ross Douthat? Or is she, as Katha Pollitt would have it, “a rightwing-Christian anti-choice extremist”? Other observers have focused on Palin’s appearance, calling her a “babe” (Rush Limbaugh), a “MILF” (Tina Fey), a “stewardess” (Bill Maher), and the ubiquitous “sexy librarian” (only Google knows). The sheer amount of head-scratching expended on Palin might lead you to believe that she’s something new and puzzling on the American scene. But she isn’t quite as novel as she seems. Caribou hunting aside, Sarah Palin represents the state-of-the-art version of a particular type of woman—let’s call her the Sexy Puritan—that’s become a familiar and potent figure in the culture war in recent years.
Sexy Puritans have been around for a while. Anita Bryant, the Miss America runner-up turned anti-gay crusader in the 1970s, was an early exemplar of the trend. The young Britney Spears, provocatively dressed and loudly proclaiming her virginity, is a more modern version, though that didn’t turn out so well. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the most conservative member of The View, has a bit of the Sexy Puritan about her, as does Monica Goodling, the former aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who admitted to engaging in improperly political hiring practices, including the dismissal of a career prosecutor Goodling believed to be a lesbian. (Puritanical footnote: Goodling is reputed to have been responsible for the draping of nude statues at the Department of Justice.)
Sexy Puritans engage in the culture war on two levels—not simply by advocating conservative positions on hot-button social issues but by embodying nonthreatening mainstream standards of female beauty and behavior at the same time. The net result is a paradox, a bit of cognitive dissonance very useful to the cultural right: You get a little thrill along with your traditional values, a wink along with the wagging finger. Somehow, you don’t feel quite as much like a prig as you expected to.
I didn’t think too much about Sexy Puritans as a type until I began looking into the abstinence-only sex-education movement while researching my novel, The Abstinence Teacher. I expected to encounter a lot of stern James Dobson-style scolds warning teenagers about the dangers of premarital sex—and there were a few of those—but what I found over and over again were thoughtful, attractive, downright sexy young women talking about their personal decision to remain pure until marriage. Erika Harold, Miss America of 2003 (the right sure loves beauty queens), is probably the best-known to the wider public, but no abstinence rally is complete without the testimony of a very pretty virgin in her early- to mid-20s. At a Silver Ring Thing event I attended in New Jersey in 2007, a slender young blond woman in tight jeans and a form-fitting T-shirt—she wouldn’t have looked out of place at a frat kegger—bragged about all the college boys who’d tried and failed to talk her into their beds. She reveled in her ability to resist them, to stand alone until she’d found the perfect guy, the fiancé with whom she would soon share a lifetime full of amazing sex. While her explicit message was forceful and empowering—virginity is a form of strength and self-sufficiency—the implicit one was clear as well: Abstinence isn’t just sour grapes for losers, a consolation prize for girls who can’t get a date anyway.
There’s a sophisticated strategy of co-optation at work here—not so different from the one employed by Christian rock bands that look and sound almost exactly like their secular counterparts—an attempt to separate “sexiness,” which is both cool and permissible, from actual sex, which is not. This is a challenging line to walk in practice, as Britney can attest, quite different from the simpler and more consistent “return to modesty” approach advocated by Wendy Shalit, in which girls are encouraged to downplay their sexuality across the board. What the Sexy Puritan movement represents, I think, is the realization on the part of some cultural warriors on the right that to be seen as anti-sex—and especially to be seen as unsexy—is a losing proposition in contemporary America, even among evangelical Christians most troubled by the fallout from the sexual revolution. Apparently nobody likes the Church Lady anymore, not even the churchgoers. If you don’t believe me, you should take a look at the Web site Christian Nymphos, whose authors cheerfully proclaim, “We are women with excessive sexual desire for our husbands!” and offer candid how-to advice on anal sex, fisting, and “masturbating for your husband.”
God knows, I’m not trying to link Palin to the Christian Nymphos; I’m only trying to locate her within the context of the great American culture war, which she seems to have single-handedly reignited during an election season that was supposed to have been dominated by other issues (and may well be again, now that Wall Street has imploded). With the selection of Palin, McCain succeeded not only in thrilling the Christian right but in scrambling the categories of the campaign. It used to be perfectly clear which ticket represented youth and change, which seemed old and boring, and which had more appeal to women voters. For a moment, at least, Palin seems to have turned these certainties into open questions.
The right has understood for a long time that harsh social messages seem a lot more palatable coming from an attractive young woman than a glowering old man. What’s most striking about Palin thus far is her reluctance to engage in explicit cultural warfare, given some of the extreme positions she’s taken in the past. Her recent public statements on homosexuality and global warming are more conciliatory than one might have expected, designed to reassure socially moderate swing voters. And she’s in no position to pontificate on the benefits of abstinence-only sex education. For now, her role in the culture war is mainly symbolic. Millions of Americans clearly see her as “one of us”—a devout, working-class, “Bible-believing” Christian whose values and opinions and way of speaking reflect their own—and their exhilaration at having a kindred spirit on the GOP ticket has given the McCain campaign a jolt of populist energy.
In the weeks remaining before Nov. 4, the Obama campaign faces the challenging job of restoring clarity to the election, making people look at Palin and see not just a plucky, surprisingly hot, pro-life mom who made her way from the PTA to the governor’s office, but a “Young Earth” creationist who opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest and thinks a natural-gas pipeline is an expression of God’s will. In the meantime, though, she remains a perfect emblem for a stealth culture war: a sexy librarian who would be more than happy to ban a few books.