Over the last three years, I’ve made some very good friends in the #churchtoo wars. One of them has been Sheila Gregoire, who writes about marriage in general–sex in particular–from a Christian perspective. In the Twitter world, I’ve seen her take on some majorly wrongheaded teachings that have come from the more fundamentalist world, everything from “Biblical/nouthetic counseling” to some of the really toxic teachings regarding sex that are common in the evangelical world.
The latter served as a backdrop for her latest book, The Great Sex Rescue (GSR), co-written with her daughter (Rebecca Lindenbach) and epidemiologist Joanna Sawatsky, who helped design and conduct the scientific study that connected many problems faced by married women with the teachings of popular evangelical books. This was a common theme throughout the book: the toxicity in common evangelical books.
Before we get started, I would like to provide the following stipulations:
- I am not a “sexpert.” Nor am I a sex therapist. While I will discuss sex here, I will discuss it from what I think a Christian mindset ought to look like.
- If you suffer from physical or trauma issues, please see a physician and/or a therapist. If sex is painful for you, that is something for a physician to address. If memories from traumas are hurting you, there are therapies (such as EMDR) which are very effective, which were not available 30 years ago.
- If you are in an abusive relationship, you need help. You need to consider pressing charges if the offenses constitute assault. You may even need an exit strategy.
- This also applies to men who are victims. While we often associate abusive marriages with abusive husbands–they get all the press–it is also true that women can and do abuse their husbands. And if she is physically abusing you, it will be near impossible to salvage that.
- Marital infidelity is never excusable.
- Neither is porn use.
- Contrary to popular perceptions, pornography is not exclusively a man’s vice. And when you factor in romance novels–which Sheila doesn’t–both sexes have a collective objectification problem. (I’ll have more to say on that.)
- If she’s postpartum and you are trying to force her to have sex with you, then you are a douchebag.
- While Sheila writes from a more egalitarian standpoint–and I am not an egalitarian–one need not be an egalitarian to be outraged at much of the toxicity in complementarian/patriarchal evangelical teachings on sex and their ramifications.
On one hand, Christians actually have better sex than other demographic groups. As we have pointed out here: married, conservative Protestant women are the most sexually-satisfied demographic group.
On the other hand, when you drill into some of those numbers, they still suck. Especially the “orgasm gap” (OG). While men reach orgasm over 95% of the time, women tend to lag well under 50%.
While Christians tend to fare better, it’s still pretty bad. GSR seeks to address the orgasm gap in specificity, and–in their research for the book–they sought to determine if teachings from popular evangelical books* were contributory to the orgasm gap among Christians. In their study, they also included secular marriage books to determine how the teachings in those books were received.
The bad and good news: the GSR team determined that a very large part of the OG among Christian women is tied to particular evangelical teachings.
Why is it bad news? Much of the evangelical world has transactionalized sex, using 1 Corinthians 7 as a pretext.
Why is it good news? If we can get folks to un-learn (in many cases simply re-frame) their understandings, then Christian women–who already have better sex than outsiders–would be violating noise ordinances on a more consistent basis.
While that last clause was only half-serious, my point is this: if husband and wife approach marriage in general–sex in particular–with the right mindset, we’d be collectively destroying every scientific study on the subject.
Early in the book, Sheila notes (correctly) that, while the penis is designed for both pleasure and procreation, the clitoris is designed specifically for pleasure. Husbands should look at that latter point as a good thing and run with it: make her pleasure a top priority.
(Her body was designed for it, right? You love her, right? So give her all she can handle, and make it your great honor and pleasure to help get her there. Arguing as a patriarch, you’re her head, right? So put your wants and needs on the backburner and serve her. Unless she has disdain for you–and yes, those types exist–she will appreciate that; and trust me: you’ll get yours.)
But here’s the problem, and we need to be honest about it: the OG is not simply about sex; it’s about the mindset with which men and women approach marriage in general, sex in particular. If her pleasure is not important to him, then HE is a major part of the problem. If she is using sex to control him, then then SHE is a major part of the problem. If pornography is contributory to this, then one or both of them have a degree of culpability.
But what are some of the toxic evangelical teachings?
Toxic Teaching 1: “Obligation Sex”
I’ll first give my take on the issue, and then present what Sheila had to say.
On one hand, 1 Corinthians 7 seems to support the premise of “obligation sex”, with Paul writing,
The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise the wife also to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise the husband also does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command.1 Corinthians 7:3-6
This has fostered many teachings in this area (mostly at the women): “don’t deprive him or he’ll cheat”, “don’t deprive him or he’ll use porn”, “just have more sex”, etc.** It also fosters the “Every Man’s Battle” mindset that her riding him like a Derby horse is going to fix his lust problems.
And while having that sexual outlet in marriage can make the fight against lust easier, it is not a cure for the problem. (More on that later.)
Moreover, before you look at 1 Corinthians 7 and say, “AHA!”, no passage exists in a vacuum. Keep in mind that the same Paul writes of husbands:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are parts of His body.Ephesians 5:25-30
That same Paul also writes,
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.Philippians 2:3-8
And if that is not enough, I give you the words of Jesus:
But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. And sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”Mark 9:34-35
So let’s assume that, if you are the husband, you are the head of your wife. (That’s in the Bible.) That means the following principles apply to you:
- You must love her as if she is your own body, because she is;
- Her wellbeing comes before yours.
- In the marriage bed, her pleasure needs to be your priority.
But let me ask you: is your wife just a means to your ends? If so, I would argue that you are violating the “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church” principles in Ephesians 5 and Philippians 2.
Now am I going to give the wives a blanket pass here? Of course not!
Fact is, wives have a tendency to be reductionist with their husbands, too. Dissatisfaction comes naturally. Fact is, he can do everything right, and she can still transactionalize her husband in terms of his ability to provide, his status, his social skills, etc. Wives can–and do–undercut their husbands. Don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen firsthand. My co-admin here–Ame–has seen it happen firsthand. I’ve seen women use sex to control their husbands. I’ve seen women humiliate and backbite their husbands.
You don’t think that won’t spill into the bedroom?
I’m going to ask the wives the same question I asked the husbands: is your husband just a means to your ends? If so, you are also violating Ephesians 5 and Philippians 2.
The answer here is not simply, “have more sex”. The answer is CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT EACH OTHER!
Do you LOVE her (him)? Do you WANT THE BEST for her (him)? Then be kind to each other, enjoy each other’s company, and seek to express that to each other in the bedroom. If you are having problems, see a doctor or a therapist. But if you love each other, then bring some agape to go with that eros. That will bring the stress level down and things will be more enjoyable. But if she’s not reaching orgasm, then you need to be concerned that she is not enjoying it the way she ought to.
In GSR, Sheila and her team determined that, when the wives felt that they were having sex out of obligation, they were less likely to achieve orgasm, and were more likely to find sex painful. When they did not feel obligated, they were more likely to achieve orgasm even though they had sex as frequently. In some of the focus cases, the women were having sex because they felt that their husbands might cheat if they didn’t (that’s what they were taught). When their husbands re-assured them that this was not the case, they still had sex as often, but it was actually enjoyable, as intimacy was better.
My take on this: let’s use some common sense here.
Men: first of all, let’s assume that your wife is otherwise good, and you’re a decent husband. Do you really want your wife to “put out” for you? Of course not! YOU WANT HER TO WANT YOU.
That being the case, what good is it if sex becomes a Sword of Damocles? Do you think that will make sex more appealing or less appealing? That’s the problem with “obligation sex”.
What I suggest: cultivate a relationship where you are each generally deferential to the other in the bedroom. If you each have that mindset, then those times when he or she is too tired aren’t such a big deal. Those times when she’s physically incapable (postpartum) aren’t so bad.
I look at 1 Corinthians 7 as a general principle of deference out of love: it’s not a “I get to screw anytime I want it” mandate, but rather an admonition to cultivate a healthy marriage so that deference is the default mode that goes both ways.
Toxic Teaching 2: The 72-Hour Rule
This common teaching is in the same vain as “obligation sex”. As Sheila points out, it began with James Dobson, who recommended this in the late 1970s. As a result, Christian marriage writers jumped on that and used it. Ergo, Christians often marry with the wife expecting to “put out” every 72 hours “or else”.
In reality, the Scriptures make no such command.
As for frequency, that’s between the husband and wife to work out. And that leads me to
Toxic Teaching 3: “He’s Got the High Sex Drive”
While, in general, he may want it more, the problem is that Christian authors categorize men and women particular ways, while the research actually shows that–even though there is some variance–there are “high drive” women and “low drive” men, and oftentimes there isn’t a lot of variance in the two irrespective of who has the higher drive. Why is that a problem? They often enter marriage with expectations framed certain ways–bolstered by the teachings of their pators–and then find themselves wondering if they got it all wrong when it doesn’t play out the way they were taught.
Women can have higher sex drive than the men. And while some men may read that and think, “that would be an awwsumm problem to have”, if you’re a lower-drive man you may find yourself struggling to accommodate her. And worse, she may think she’s doing something wrong if she’s high-drive, because that is at variance with what she’s been taught.
Toxic Teaching 4: “Men are visual/women are not”
Sheila correctly points out that, while men are generally more visually-stimulated than women, that does not mean that women are not visually-stimulated. And some women ARE as visually-stimulated as the men.
This spills over into the teachings regarding lust and modesty. In Purity Culture, women are commonly taught to be modest in order to help men avoid lust. This is because lust is presented as Every Man’s Battle. To hear Arterburn say it, men just can’t help themselves. So many pastors will take this and tell women to dress conservatively in order to help those poor men.
While modesty is a good thing–it’s good for your self-respect as well as a way to honor God by respecting your dignity as an Image bearer–Jesus put the responsibility for lust on the the one doing the lusting. And in fact, anyone who has fought this good fight knows what I am talking about: if I’m given to lust, she could wear a full Hijab and I would still find a way to undress her in my heart and mind. In other words: irrespective of how she dresses; if I lust, that’s on me.
But here’s where I’m really going with this: women also lust. It ain’t the men who are buying all those romance novels. Oh, and if you think that pornography is exclusively a men’s vice, you’d be mistaken. While men remain the largest consumers of conventional pornography, women are catching up.
In this department, I have a couple of bones to pick with Sheila:
- While she does point out that some women struggle with porn, she does not provide a lot of guidance to the women on this. And that is concerning, as they are the likely demographic target for her book.
- The issue of lusting by women is a big deal, as it is with men. She does a fine job attacking the Every Man’s Battle paradigm–and it needs attacking–but I do think that what we need is a more concerted effort to call men and women to a higher ethic here.
In the #churchtoo wars, I have become very good friends with a pathology professor who has extensively studied the effects of porn. One of the most important things she points out is that porn addiction is almost never just an issue of lust, although it certainly has a lust component. Oftentimes, there are underlying trauma issues; sometimes that requires a therapist. But one of the most important areas to confront with someone who uses porn is the way they see the participants. Getting users to see them as bearers of the Imago Dei helps them to confront the heart issues that drive the lust.
But addressing that requires understanding that lust is a heart issue in the person doing the lusting. And lusting means reducing the object of that lust to something transactional. If it’s sexual lust, then you are reducing an Image-bearer to someone existing for your sexual service. If it’s material lust, then you are reducing an Image-bearer to someone existing for your material benefit.
The opposite of that is loving them and wanting the best for them (i.e., wanting for them what I want for myself). Getting there means confronting the collective tendency we all have to objectify others. That cuts to the heart of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
Can you objectify your spouse? Absolutely. Wives can do that to their husbands; husbands can do that to their wives. And left unchallenged, that will become a major problem in a marriage. Sex is but one pathway for that to happen.
The male reader of GSR will be outraged at the level of disregard that husbands have had for the wives of the Orgasm Gap. On the other hand, the male reader will also be frustrated that the male perspective seems to get minimized here. The GSR team does not address porn use by women in depth–they don’t really address the romance novel problem–even though women are the likely audience. In the same vain, they do not address women’s lust issues substantially.
And in even when they address obesity (pp. 208-209)–which is a problem in sex, and they give good, medical reasons–they address men who don’t take care of themselves more directly than they do with the women, even though statistically women are every bit as likely (slightly more so) to “let themselves go” as the men.
(In their defense: they were confronting the conventional evangelical books that focus on her need to take care of herself but not addressing his need. Still, the issue of obesity is a problem for both sexes, and it is something that needs to be said to both. I say that not to shame anyone–I have consistently addressed that issue evenhandedly here–but just pointing that out.)
IMHO, the biggest issue that they expose in the common evangelical books is that there is a LOT of emphasis placed on HER need to please and satisfy HIM–even including performing oral sex on him***–but NONE on HIS need to please and satisfy HER.
That, my friends, is a legitimate gripe. To me, that is a major omission.
Given that the woman’s sexual organ exists exclusively for pleasure, then it logically follows that the husband needs to be concerned about ensuring that she enjoys sex the way she was designed to enjoy it. Christian sex authors need to emphasize this. If we endorse male headship, then part of the husband’s responsibility is to do his best to help her in this department, putting his own pleasure secondary to hers.
Personally, I wish Sheila and her team would also survey the boyz and write a companion book.
Overall, this is a very good read, as it exposes a large amount of toxicity that exists in common evangelical teachings on sex. Sheila does an exceptional job with her “rescue and reframe” exercises at the end of each chapter.
I give it 4 stars out of 5.
*books such as The Act of Marriage; Love and Respect; Sheet Music; Intended for Pleasure, among others.
**By that, I am not implying that the Scriptures are wrong; the teachings which spring from improper handling of the Scriptures–such as looking at a passage “in a vacuum”; i.e., not taking into account related passages and guiding principles that are pertinent–are wrong.
***Mark Driscoll said that in a sermon. On p. 212, Sheila quotes Driscoll:
She [the wife] says, “I’ve never performed oral sex on my husband. I’ve refused to.” I said, “You need to go home and tell your husband that you’ve met Jesus and you’ve been studying the Bible, and that you’re convicted of a terrible sin in your life. And then you need to drop his trousers, and you need to serve your husband. And when he asks why, say, ‘Because I’m a repentant woman. God has changed my heart and I’m supposed to be a biblical wife.’” She says, “Really?” I said, “Yeah. First Peter three says if your husband is an unbeliever to serve him with deeds of kindness.”Gregoire, Sheila Wray; Gregoire Lindenbach, Rebecca; Sawatsky, Joanna. The Great Sex Rescue (p. 212). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.