Sex in America: A Conversation with Suzy Spencer on Sex, Religion, Honesty, and Connection

Suzy Spencer is a best-selling author of true crime who I've known for over a decade as writer and friend, and like many of her friends here in Austin, I've known she was involved in a long-term research project into sex in America that would someday be a book. I've been writing in this column for two years about how we live in community, but I'm often reminded that one of the most important ways we live in community is in relationship. In intimate relationships, sex can be a part of our quest to be connected with another person or with something larger than ourselves, or it can be a way to hide from ourselves, depending on how we use it. So I invited Suzy to talk about her new book, Secret Sex Lives, which has gotten tons of media attention, including great articles in Salon and The Austin Chronicle, to see what she might be able to tell us about this element of our lives, and to share what she learned in the process of talking to a wide cross-section of people in writing this book.

You and I come from similar religious backgrounds—with similar and fairly strict teachings about sex. Could you summarize a bit how Southern Baptists approach the question of sex in your experience, and explain a little bit about how you found yourself writing about this forbidden topic?

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, an age of supposed sexual liberation, I understood that sex outside of marriage was forbidden and an ultimate sin. I say "understood" because sex wasn't spoken about. Therefore I wasn't taught anything. I just knew don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't even think about it, because if you think about it, you might do it. And if you did have sex outside of marriage, you were a bad girl, a slut, and a sinner and worthy of ostracization.

In fact, for the female, even if you had sex inside of marriage and you enjoyed it, there was something wrong with you . . . because, for women, sex was supposed to be, number one, about pleasing the husband and his sexual needs and, number two, to procreate (because for the female, I was taught, the joy comes from children). Sex, for the female, certainly wasn't about pleasure. 

So how did I find myself writing about sex? It's really a rather weird answer. I desperately wanted to get out of true crime, and I wanted to laugh again (because, obviously, laughter is rather frowned upon when writing about real life murder). So my literary agent suggested that I write about Americans' alternative sex practices. Sex. I was intrigued. Talking about sex has always made me laugh. (Those who can, do, those who can't laugh about it.) And I knew that sex scared me. And writers need to write about what scares them. At least I think they do. So sex seemed like the perfect topic—laughter and fear.

I know some people will be drawn to your book because of what they perceive as its racy subject matter, but it also seems to me that some of the things you're writing about here are not sexy, but emotional and spiritual. I carried away from the book a lot of insights about loneliness, intimacy, connection, and love—or its failure. What did you learn about people from talking to and observing their sex lives? What did you learn about yourself?

Greg, you hit on everything I was trying to convey in Secret Sex Lives. I was absolutely stunned by the depth of loneliness in this nation, particularly the loneliness of the married. Men and women are so terrified to reveal their deepest sexual desires to the people they love most that they withdraw and hide, both emotionally and physically, and build what they believe are walls of protection.

They think the walls will ensure that their secrets are safe, and that way they—and their relationships—are safe, too. In other words, they won't be judged, condemned, and rejected for being who they really are and therefore their marriages won't end in divorce. Instead, the walls make them lonely, isolated, insecure, and fearful in their relationships, and sometimes angry at the one they believe (and often rightfully so) will reject them. So they go online and find someone else who will fulfill their sexual fantasies.

In essence, they begin living a double life that endangers them, their marriages, and their spouses. When I say their spouses, I don't mean endangers them just emotionally. I mean physically too, because, let's face it, the more sex partners one has, the more chances one has of catching a sexually transmitted disease (STD). More than 50 percent of Americans will get an STD sometime in their lives, but only 14 percent of men and 8 percent of women think they're at STD risk.

12/2/2022 9:10:37 PM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.