When I was first married, sex hurt. And I felt terribly guilty about that.
Have you ever looked back on your younger self and thought, “what in the world was I thinking? Why did I do that?”
I have. And there are parts of me, deep parts, that I am still trying to figure out.
Last month, when I wrote my review of Love & Respect, and saw how that book presented sex as solely about a man’s physical release, a lightbulb went off inside of me, and a little bit more healing happened. The book itself didn’t heal me (far from it; I feel that the book is dangerous); but instead, by recognizing the utterly false doctrine that I had unwittingly picked up, I understood more why, when we were first married, I felt that my pain did not matter.
A few weeks ago a reader sent me a link to an amazing article about how the price of men’s pleasure so often is women’s pain. It looked at how, for women, sex is often uncomfortable, painful, or coercive, and what is considered “bad” sex to men is merely boring sex, whereas “bad” sex to women is far more harmful. And so men really have no frame of reference for a lot of what women go through.
The article was mostly written about sex outside of marriage, and it’s easy to think that that article really has nothing to say about Christian marriages. But I’d like to tell a little bit of my story–even more than I revealed in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and in 9 Thoughts that Can Change Your Marriage–because it’s only recently that I even began to recognize why I did some of the things I did. So here goes.
As I have shared at length, our honeymoon night was awful.
We couldn’t even consummate our marriage because it hurt so much. I was beside myself. Keith was disappointed, and I was panicky. I was crying. I was devastated. And the next morning, before we left for our honeymoon getaway, I was determined to do this thing.
And we did. I grit my teeth and cried all the way through.
Over the next few weeks and months that pattern continued–I grit my teeth and cried and swallowed my pain every time we had sex.
But here’s what I want you all to understand: Keith was not guilting me into having sex. I was forcing myself to.
Keith has his own stories about what was going through his mind at the time, and that’s for another day (and he shares that a lot in our marriage conferences). But looking back, I know that I was the main instigator of making sure that we had sex, even if it hurt me.
When I started seeking counselling, they told us that we should take some time off of sex, and just do other things to have fun while I worked on what was causing my vaginismus. I couldn’t do that. I remember sitting on a couch in front of a counsellor, who gently said that the best thing we could do for our marriage was to pledge that over the next few months, we wouldn’t try intercourse. We would just do other things while we worked at getting to the root of the issue. He was kind. His voice was soothing.
And my my heart beat wildly. I could feel the panic rise. I broke out in a cold sweat. How could I go several months without having sex with Keith, even if sex hurt? I just couldn’t do that. We had to keep trying.
Why? Why couldn’t I agree to what was obviously the right course of action, to what was obviously best for both of us?
Other people were giving me permission not to have sex with my husband until we could figure this out. My husband was giving me permission not to have sex with him until we figured this out. Why could I not give myself that permission?
When I read the book Love & Respect last month, I finally understood why I was determined to do something that hurt me.
I grew up hearing the same message:
Men need physical release. They experience sex as love. Without sex, they can’t love. Without sex, it isn’t a real marriage.
And I desperately, desperately needed to feel loved. And not just that, but:
your husband has sexual needs that you, as a woman, can never, ever understand. He needs it so badly, in a way that you totally will never relate to. You just have to trust us on this, ladies. He really, really needs it.
There was little 21-year-old me, so desperate to have a marriage that worked, so desperate to have my husband love me. And no matter how many voices told me that it was okay, that we could work on this, that it would get better if we gave me some time, I couldn’t get that fear out of my mind.
If we don’t have sex, Keith will leave me. He won’t feel loved. This won’t be a real marriage.
And so I lay there, and I grit my teeth, and I tried to keep the tears in, and I tried to keep the sobs in, and I told him that we had to keep trying, no matter what.
Ultimately, I believed that whatever pleasure or physical release that Keith got from sex was far more important than any pain I was feeling.
His needs were more important because, as a woman, I could never, ever understand them. They must be so overwhelming that they would dwarf anything I was feeling.
That is what I grew up hearing. That is what the marriage books all said back then. And, as we learned in looking at Love & Respect, that is what the marriage books say today, too. (Except mine, of course! Yes, most men need sex. But sex was created for both of us, not just him!).
Too often we hear sex portrayed as being about a husband’s physical release, so that her experience is completely irrelevant. Love & Respect erased women’s pleasure, or even women’s comfort, from the equation. It said that there was never a reason to say no.
- Men experience physical release as respect;
- men need unconditional respect;
- without respect, a man can’t love;
- thus, you can never say no to sex.
I believed that. And at the same time, I was so, so hurt by it.
How could God create us so that the only way Keith could feel love was by hurting me? Why did I have to feel hurt so that Keith could feel pleasure? What is right about that?
(To reiterate, Keith felt really awful about this, too, and it was he who often put the brakes on things, far more than I did. But I was desperate to have sex work, and I often pressured him, because otherwise I felt like I would be a bad wife).
I want to go back to that young, 21-year-old wife and give her a different story.
I want to tell her that she matters. I want to tell her that sex is not about a man’s physical release; sex is about mutuality, about a deep intimacy that is physical but it’s also emotional and spiritual. I want to tell her that by concentrating only on the physical, we cheapen sex and devalue that emotional and spiritual connection. I want to tell her that without that deeper connection, we miss God’s design for sex. I want to tell her that sex that does not equally consider a woman’s experience is not sex as God designed. I want to tell her that sex is not about the husband; but that sex is about both of you, together.
Last week I talked about how the “do not deprive” verses are often used to pressure women into giving husbands sex–even though women are the ones who are more likely to be deprived of sexual pleasure. We read those verses wrong. They’re not about a husband’s lust; they’re supposed to present an even-handed look at sex.
The biblical message about sex is not a gendered one, but a mutual one. We have made it a gendered one.
Yes, the genders do relate differently to sex. Yes, the genders tend to have different libidos (but remember that in 24-30% of marriages SHE is the higher drive spouse).
But the main message from the Bible is mutual. “Do Not Deprive” is written as complete mutuality, with equal and identical concern being shown to both people. “It is better to marry than to burn” is addressed to “the unmarried and to widows”–so it seems to be talking to women who may have passions. In the Old Testament, sex is referred to as a “deep knowing”, a deep intimacy that is about both of you feeling connected to each other. It’s not a one-sided taking.
We need to educate people on how the genders approach sex differently, yes. But if our main message about sex does not equal the Bible’s main message about sex–that is about a deep intimacy between two people, and it was designed for both–then we are going off track.
- If sex is about two people, then both people matter.
- If sex is about a deep intimacy, then both people’s experiences matter.
- If sex is about a deep knowing, then sex can’t work if it’s only about one person taking.
We simply have to find a more biblical way to talk about sex than having it always be about men’s physical needs. This month, I want to have that conversation in a more in-depth way. I want to do this not to “let women off the hook” so they don’t need to have sex. I believe that sex is vitally important, and that we miss out on something amazing when we don’t have sex. I believe that the sexual drive is a real one, and needs to be considered. I believe that sex-starved marriages are very wrong.
But in all of that, the bigger picture must never be forgotten, and it must never be subordinated to a much smaller message. Sex is about both of you. Both of you matter. Both of you should give and receive; both of you should feel loved and cherished. If those things are not true, then something is off. And it’s more important to figure out what is off than to just keep going through the motions, thinking that this makes your marriage biblical and godly, like I did.
You matter. Your spouse matters. Now let’s figure out how we can have a sex life which honours both of you.
What do you think? Can we come to a more even-handed definition of what sex is? I’ll be talking about that next week, but I’d love to hear what you think first!
More help to make sex feel great for women, too:
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