Revealed: the US ‘Christian fundamentalists’ behind new Netflix film on millennial sex lives

United States (OpenDemocracy) – Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution, a new film on Netflix, sells itself as an up-close look at millennial ‘hookup culture.’ It follows students at ‘Spring Break’ beach parties in Florida and shows how ‘sex doesn’t mean anything,’ in the words of one man who’s filmed casually slapping butts and kissing strangers.

The Vice-style feature includes stunning aerial views of the coast, electronic music, and disturbing footage of apparent sexual assault. What the film and Netflix don’t tell you is that it was made by a US Christian advocacy group called Exodus Cry, which is linked to a ‘trendy, youthful’ movement that is “fiercely opposed to reproductive and LGBTQ rights.”

On its website, Exodus Cry says that it was “birthed out of prayer” in Missouri, where it has been closely linked to the International House of Prayer, Kansas City (IHOPKC), a growing charismatic Christian movement whose founder, Mike Bickle, has said that homosexuality “opens the door to the demonic realm.”

Liberated was directed by Exodus Cry’s president Benjamin Nolot, who gave a talk at IHOPKC about “purity in a pornified world,” in which he referenced “the lust of Satan” and warned: “We are in a dark hour of sexual turbulence across the planet, but God has promised He will have a Bride without spot or blemish.”

Nolot defined “sexual immorality” as “all sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman” and said that ‘toxic sexuality’ was to blame for abortion, teen pregnancy, and the “implosion of the nuclear family” along with rape and sex trafficking.

Nolot has also spoken at recent events organized by the Catholic anti-LGBT “hate group” C-Fam and the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM), whose cofounder wrote a book on “sexual purity” and called homosexuality “the ultimate identity crisis.

Exodus Cry has used previous film productions to lobby UK and other parliamentarians for legislation against sex work. Its goals include ‘shifting culture’ and ‘changing laws’.

But Liberated’s links to these groups, their missions and positions on sexuality, are not disclosed on Netflix. They’re not made clear within the film itself, nor have they been clear to all attendees of film screenings, many of which have been organized on university campuses.

“They didn’t tell us anything about their links to any religious organization,” said Helen Kennedy, head of media at the University of Brighton, which hosted a screening in May. “I had no indication that the individuals had any kind of extreme anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQI rights, anti-comprehensive sexuality education views.”

Her university, she said, received an email simply pitching Liberated as a documentary on Netflix. “We get a lot of those kinds of contacts around screening films,” she said, adding that the production company “just talked about the content of the film and its relationship to things like the #MeToo campaign and the rise of sexual violence on campus.”

“The lack of transparency in this whole operation is deeply concerning,” said Cole Parke at the Political Research Associates (PRA) thinktank in Massachusetts, who accused these groups of an approach that “excludes and denies the humanity of LGBTQ people.”

Christian Fundamentalists
By Photo by Flickr user radiate2357 at [1], CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

“Glossing over a Christian fundamentalist agenda with popular media formats and then painting it as an innocuous attempt at constructive cultural critique and discourse is both disingenuous and dangerous,” Parke warned.

“Media makers who seek to maintain a degree of integrity in their work have an obligation to be transparent about who they are and what’s motivating them.”

“It’s very concerning to see this film making its way to a mainstream audience via Netflix,” said Isabel Marler at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) organization, which has been tracking the global backlash against sexual and reproductive rights.

Tender, a UK charity which participated in a panel screening after the film’s London premiere, said that it was not aware of these groups’ views and that it would not participate in future events with Liberated’s creators.

50.50, openDemocracy’s gender and sexuality section, also contacted Netflix to ask about its release of Liberated, and why the film’s links to Exodus Cry are not disclosed on the streaming platform. The company has not responded.

Christian media outlets have also noticed that Liberated isn’t ‘overtly’ religious. “Nolot and Exodus Cry have a strong biblical worldview,” said the Christian Post, “but they don’t preach in the film.”

The Christian Broadcasting Network agreed; Liberated lacks “overtly Christian themes,” but it “does approach the topic from a biblical worldview.”

A central premise of the film is that pop culture and ‘porn culture’ attitudes towards sex are root causes of sexual violence. It includes clips from music videos, commentary from academics and a former NFL football player, and footage from a police press conference about a 2015 gang rape.

It includes numerous interviews with students including one man who says: “Girls are nothing but panty-droppers. You give them a couple of percocets, a Vicodin, and a beer, and the panties drop.” Throughout, Nolot asks partygoers questions like: Are you going to shag tonight? What does love mean to you?

Liberated has received rave reviews from some young feminist viewers amid claims that it wishes to open up a conversation about “men’s claims on women’s bodies.”

But it’s also been criticised for depicting “casual sex as inherently empowering,” reinforcing “false stereotypes” about race and sexual violence, and omitting any mention of non-heterosexual experiences or “its religious bias.”

Young adults are the target audience of Liberated, which was recently on tour in the UK, including at screenings at universities from Manchester to Brighton. Previously, the film toured in America. It’s expected to go to Australia next.

“I can’t think of anything that has been more destructive in our world than the misuse of sexuality,” said Nolot, in a panel discussion after the film’s London premiere, at a Leicester Square cinema. “Part of our goal, as well, is to reclaim the value of sex,” he explained.

“Sex means something, and if it doesn’t, then why is adultery a thing? And if it doesn’t, then why is rape a thing?” Nolot said. “Treating [sex] with the reverence or respect it deserves is a way to move past the rape culture that we are currently living in.”

Nolot dismissed questions from 50.50 about his views on LGBT rights, saying: “I don’t really see the point in that question.”

He said: “I feel like this is, like, a loaded question for you. That’s why I won’t answer it. I’ve answered this question dozens of time… Of course we love, interact with and befriend people of all different sexual orientations.”

Christian Fundamentalist
By Infrogmation of New Orleans – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Nolot also minimized his connections to IHOPKC, saying: “We partner with lots of different organizations, both faith-based and non-faith based.” While he was once on IHOPKC’s staff, he said, “there’s no official connection” between it and Exodus Cry.

Exodus Cry focuses on “abolishing sex slavery through Christ-centered prevention, intervention and holistic restoration of trafficking victims,” according to its financial disclosures, which reported more than $1.2 million in 2016 revenues, mostly from gifts and grants.

Liberated is the group’s second major production, after its 2011 film Nefarious: Merchant of Souls about sex slavery which featured religion more explicitly, and was used to lobby UK and other parliamentarians for laws against sex work.

Nefarious was shown across Scotland in 2012, for example, as part of a campaign to “raise awareness and mobilize prayer and action” in support of a bill that would have criminalized the purchase of sex in Scotland, brought by parliamentarian Rhoda Grant.

Such legislation is controversial and contested among feminist and women’s rights groups. Amnesty International is among the international organizations that oppose criminalization for increasing risks to sex workers’ health and rights.

A section of Exodus Cry’s website, on how to ‘join the movement,’ says that the group “would not exist if it weren’t for prayer” and advertises prayer meetings at IHOPKC.

Founded in 1999, IHOPKC is based in Kansas City and the nearby suburb of Grandview, where Exodus Cry has its office. It is known for its 24/7 prayer room, use of fasting, belief in prophecy, and popularity with millennials.

IHOPKC missionaries also featured in the 2013 film God Loves Uganda (also on Netflix) about American involvement in extreme anti-LGBT activism in the east African country, where homosexuality is illegal, and there were campaigns to institute the death penalty.

According to PRA, the Massachusetts think tank, IHOPKC has put “a trendy, youthful gloss on a movement that is fiercely opposed to reproductive and LGBTQ rights.”

In Missouri, IHOPKC’s local partners include The Women’s Life Center, “helping women who refuse abortion and choose life.”

“We uphold the New Testament view of the sanctity of sex in the context of marriage between one man and one woman,” IHOPKC says on its website. “We seek to lead lives of sexual purity, which includes calling actions of sexual union outside of the marriage covenant sin.”

IHOPKC did not respond to questions about its relationship with Exodus Cry. A spokesperson for Exodus Cry’s film studio, Magic Lantern Pictures, said Nolot was “formerly a member of [IHOPKC] staff, but has not been for some time.”

“Exodus Cry is a completely separate and autonomous organization,” she said, but at IHOPKC it conducts “a 2-hour prayer meeting for the ending of human trafficking every Monday night, if the prayer room is available.”

Nolot’s known involvement in IHOPKC stretches back more than a decade. IHOPKC’s communications and financial filings, meanwhile, suggest that the organizations remain close.

Nolot and his wife Lauren both worked at IHOPKC when they got married, according to a 2007 magazine article that listed Stuart Greaves Gown (a senior IHOPKC leader) and Lou Engle, a prominent US evangelical leader, as their wedding officiants.

In 2010, Engle traveled to Uganda and spoke at a prayer rally praising the “courage” and “righteousness” of politicians pushing the country’s anti-homosexuality bill.

While Liberated was filmed, over five years, Nolot continued giving talks and leading prayers at IHOPKC. After speaking about “purity in a pornified culture” in 2013, he returned to talk about “strangers in Babylon” and being “Christlike in a sociopathic culture.”

In a 2015 talk, he describing Exodus Cry as “blessed to be part of the community here,” he said its work “would not be possible apart from the larger support system that allows us to do what we do, and that’s you guys.”

Nolot was still listed as a “prayer leader” on IHOPKC schedules in 2017. Meanwhile, on IHOPKC’s website, Exodus Cry is listed on as one of its “24/7 works of justice.” It is also listed as an IHOPKC’s ministry, along with a group called Israel Mandate.

Exodus Cry is further named as a ‘related tax-exempt organization’ on IHOPKC financial filings. These organizations “stand in a parent/subsidiary relationship, brother/sister relationship, sponsoring organization… or supporting/supported organization relationship.”

The two groups are also connected through Lenny LaGuardia, who is listed as a director of both IHOPKC and Exodus Cry.

Nolot has also posted messages on Twitter against abortion (“‘Planned Parenthood’ are codewords for ‘Planned Assassination’”) and LGBT equality (“I oppose homosexual marriage on the premise that it is an unspeakable offense to God.”)

He’s given talks at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM), an evangelical movement in California whose cofounder, Kris Vallotton, wrote a book about ‘sexual purity’ and called homosexuality “the ultimate identity crisis.

Recently, BSSM has opposed local bills to make it illegal for mental health providers to try to ‘change’ a person’s sexual orientation. The school’s handbook says students should not have “even a hint of sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity.”

“We are fighting for the soul of a generation,” said Nolot at a September 2017 United Nations event organized by the Catholic organization C-Fam, which has been described as an anti-LGBT “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Next month, Nolot is scheduled to speak about “the Christian’s role” in transforming “our hyper-sexualised society” at Bethel University, where students are told to live “a biblical lifestyle” free of “sexual immorality, impurity… evil desires,” and “homosexual behavior.”

Mary McAlister from a group called Liberty Counsel is set to speak at the same event about ‘restoring’ a “Judeo-Christian based worldview” to laws that have been “transformed by sexual rights activists.”

Liberty Counsel is also described as an anti-LGBT “hate group” by the SPLC.

“The fundamental concern for these organizations isn’t healthy sexuality,” said Parke, at the PRA thinktank, it’s “control… adherence and obedience to a Christian fundamentalist worldview, which limits sexuality to the confines of married heterosexual unions.”

This approach “excludes and denies the humanity of LGBTQ people (and countless others),” Parke warned, while also silencing “discourse about healthy, consensual sex.”

At Liberated’s London premiere, two of the young people in the film participated in a panel discussion along with Nolot and the film’s producer.

In the film, Shay is seen laughing with his friends about blood on his mattress and not remembering the number, or names of, the women he’s had sex with. On the panel, he spoke at length about how the media caused his ‘selfish’ sexual behavior.

Now 24 years old, Shay told 50.50 that he felt “huge amounts of rage” as to how he was portrayed when he first watched Liberated. He said: “I’m here to talk about the journey towards the spirit I have had with this group.”

Representatives from Tender, a UK sexual violence and domestic abuse prevention organization, were also on the panel.

Susie McDonald, chief executive of Tender, told 50.50 that her organization was unaware of the organizers’ views prior to participating in the event and that it “will not be participating in future events with the creators of Liberated.”

McDonald said that Tender advocates for “informative, accessible relationships education which champions gender equality and is inclusive of those within the LGBTQ+ community, all faiths and ethnicities, and those with disabilities.”

“Anything that excuses perpetrators, blames victims, or portrays sex in a binary of purity and impurity (with or without religious connotations), does not represent Tender or our work,” she explained.

At the University of Brighton, Kennedy insisted that the filmmakers were “not given a platform to talk about anything” and that she was “on really heightened alert to manage the Q and A” after speaking with Tender.

No anti-sexual and reproductive rights “messages or issues were mentioned in the conversation,” she added. “My view is we exposed the makers and characters to a serious debate on the politics of representation and sexuality.”

Of the film, she said: “It’s weird, isn’t it… On one level, it’s a piece of media that is critiquing the media for being responsible for all the ills in the world.” It also features a “male narrative, predominantly,” with a “very narrow representation of female sexuality.”

At Occidental College in California, where Liberated was screened in April, the student paper also noted that the film focuses exclusively on “heterosexual cisgendered college students.”

One student criticised its “painting of casual sex as inherently disempowering and the framing of sex as the most sacred act in the world” and “men on the panel explaining to women what kind of sex was OK and what kind wasn’t.”

On Netflix, one reviewer said the film “reinforces false stereotypes” as it follows “predominantly white college students” until it turns to focus on sexual violence. “Instantly there were mainly black and brown faces,” they said. “It wasn’t even subtle.”

“I’ve been hearing the same messages in this documentary since being a Christian teen in the 1990s,” wrote Jeff Swenson on the blog Freethunk. It “feels like propaganda,” he said, calling it “a Christian documentary disguising itself with no mention of its religious bias.”

At AWID, Marler said that Liberated is “part of a bigger trend we’re seeing,” with opponents of sexual and reproductive rights “toning down their rhetoric and steering away from religious framing” to reach wider audiences.

It’s a “shrewd” but alarming strategy, she added, as “the solution offered by the groups behind this film is ‘purity culture’ and abstinence.” Marler said: “It’s very concerning to see this film making its way to a mainstream audience via Netflix.”

This report prepared by CLAIRE PROVOST and LARA WHYTE for OpenDemocracy

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