You’re allowed to say no to sex.

Unfortunately that can be a radical thing to say in some church circles, and I’ve been writing lately about God created sex to be a mutual experience, not just a one-sided experience. Women’s pleasure matters, too, and women’s experience of sex matters as well.

If one person is doing all the giving sexually, and one person all the receiving, that is not mutual sex. We need to frame sex differently.

I know that the do not deprive verses of the bible are often used to make women feel as if they cannot say no to sex, and I’ve written more about that here:

I do believe that sex is a vitally important part of marriage, and that it should be frequent. We should not aim for the minimum, and we should not just try to fulfill our obligation. Nevertheless, it’s important that women understand that they matter when it comes to sex. The more women realize that, the more we can escape the shame often feel, and then free ourselves up to actually feel sexual pleasure and sexual desire! When you feel as if sex is somehow obliged or coerced, it’s very difficult to get excited about it.

Here, for instance, is a question that was recently sent in:

Reader Question

I’m pregnant with my fourth, and it’s a very high risk pregnancy. I’m supposed to be on bed rest, and my blood pressure is high and I’m not feeling well, but I still have to look after our other three as well. My husband is really struggling with not having sex (we’ve been told we’re not supposed to), and I’m wondering what I can do to help him out, the poor guy, because he’s expressing a lot of frustration and he’s really hurting.

Now, it’s wonderful that she wants to help her husband. And there’s nothing wrong with “giving him a gift” and helping him feel good. But at the same time, she is in a high risk pregnancy with his child, and she is exhausted and not feeling well, and she really, really needs to take care of herself for her sake, as well as for the baby’s sake. But what’s she concerned about? The fact that he is expressing sexual frustration.

This is what I see over and over again: because women are told that we can never, ever understand a man’s sex drive and a man’s sexual needs, then when we are experiencing something really bad, we assume that men have it still worse. I just want to say: You matter, too!

So let’s look at 10 times it’s okay to say no to sex.

1. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…When You Don’t Feel Like It

Yep. I want to begin with this most important one. If you don’t want to tonight, it’s honestly okay to say no. It is. You are not being unbiblical. I have written about how “do not deprive” is not the equivalent of “do not refuse”, and that distinction matters in the bible and the bedroom.

That being said, I don’t advise doing this routinely. It’s going to be very difficult to have an intimate marriage if you are frequently turning down sex. You aren’t going to feel close to your husband if you’re running away from sex. And you are hurting your husband (and he matters!) if you routinely say no. If you need to say no, I think a rain check is great: “I’d love to, but I’m too tired right now. But let’s put it on our calendar for tomorrow.”

If you routinely find yourself wanting to turn your husband down, here are some posts to help you say yes more often!

2. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…When your husband doesn’t care about your pleasure

God intended sex to be mutual, which means that both parties should be giving and receiving. Now, some encounters may be mostly about giving a gift to one of you, but if sex, as a whole, is only about one person receiving pleasure, then that’s not right.

If she’s having a difficult time reaching orgasm, and he’s trying, that’s a different thing. But I’ve had countless women report how sexually frustrated they are because their husbands will have sex with them, it doesn’t last very long, and they make no effort to bring any pleasure to their wives. It’s not okay to leave her sexually unsatisfied!

In that case, I would simply say:

“I want a passionate sex life with you. I want to make love frequently! But I am not willing to be used as a sexual object when you make no effort to make me feel pleasure. I matter, too, and I think we’re missing out on what passion is supposed to be like. Why don’t we try learning how to make me feel good, too? Because I am no longer willing to have one-sided sex with you.”

Many men honestly don’t realize that women need foreplay or that women take longer to get warmed up, or that women don’t always climax with intercourse. You may need to speak up. But if you have, repeatedly, and he still won’t listen, then it’s okay to say, “I’m not having sex until we can agree that it needs to be about me, too.”

3. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…when your husband routinely insists on things other than intercourse

I’ve also had women write in saying that their husbands aren’t interested in intercourse, but only in oral sex or in other forms of sexual stimulation that often are not intimate and that give the wife no pleasure. And then he’s not interested in giving her any pleasure, either. It’s okay to say:

“I want our sex life to be great, but making love is about both of us, and it should involve intercourse. I am not willing to be used as a masturbatory toy for you. I think God wants us to be truly intimate, and to have sex bring us together, but right now it is all about you, and that is wrong.”

4. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…when sex hurts

If sex itself is hurting you, it’s okay to say “no”. As I shared last week in my story about having vaginismus, I didn’t do that. I forced myself to have sex, even when it did hurt, because I was afraid of Keith rejecting me (he would never have done that; my fears were based on what I had been taught about sex, not on what my husband was like.)

What I ended up doing, I believe, was prolonging my problem with vaginismus because I cemented in my head the idea that sex was painful, which made me tense up even worse.

My suggestion? Seek out a pelvic floor physiotherapist and work on your pain, and at the same time, find ways to be intimate and pleasure each other without intercourse while you’re seeking out a solution.

5. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex….when you hurt

What if sex itself is not hurting, but YOU hurt? Or you’re nauseous from being pregnant? Or you have health concerns (like our letter writer above). Or what if you’ve just had a baby? I had several commenters on the blog a few years ago taking issue with the fact that women should not get to withhold sex for the six weeks after the birth of a baby, because they heal up faster than that and their husbands need sex. The Bible doesn’t say you can deprive your husband when your doctor tells you to–it says you can’t deprive except by “MUTUAL” consent, and if the husband isn’t consenting, you can’t say no, regardless!

What a terrible viewpoint to say. My heart bleeds for their wives (and unfortunately, far too many past commenters have had this view).

When you are in a high risk pregnancy, you need to be the focus of the marriage. You need to be stress free. Your husband needs to exercise self-control (which is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit) on behalf of you and his unborn child. If you wish to be intimate in other ways, by all means do so. But if you need bed rest and are not doing well, then it is up to your husband to be an adult and look out for your needs.

What if it’s that you’ve got chronic pain, or you’re feeling nauseous a lot with pregnancy? It’s not that sex is dangerous, but that you just don’t feel well? Sometimes you just have to reject sex. But other times, maybe think about it less as sex and more as a time to pamper each other and feel relaxed. Start with a bath. Ask for a massage. And then try sex. It has been shown that orgasm can relieve both nausea and migraines. That’s only possible if you’re really relaxed and you’re able to keep your breathing even and try to “ride” the pleasure. You’ll have to stay very passive during the encounter. Yet sometimes it is just what the doctor ordered!

Sex is a vital part of marriage and should be frequent but there are times when completely appropriate to say “Not tonight.”

6. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…when your husband is using pornography to get aroused

You are not required to cement or enable a porn addiction. If your husband uses porn, then he is rewiring his brain to get aroused by an image or a video, rather than you. And then often he gets aroused and needs an outlet, and turns to you. If he’s routinely waking you up for sex after watching porn, or you know he’s continuously watching it, it’s okay to say no. It’s okay to say, “We need to get this sorted out first. You need to quit the porn, get an accountability partner, and show me I can trust you again.”

If you keep having sex after he’s watched porn, you’re cementing that addiction, and that will only hurt him.

7. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex….when your husband routinely asks you to violate your boundaries

If your husband routinely tries things you have said no to, or insists on things you have said no to, it’s okay to say that you won’t have sex with him until this is sorted out. We received a letter from a woman saying, “I told my husband I wasn’t comfortable with sex toys, but in the middle of sex he’ll use one on me suddenly with no warning, after whipping it out from under a pillow.” That is wrong. In fact, it is a form of marital rape.

Similarly, if your husband pressures you or belittles you when you don’t do something that you find objectionable, it’s okay to say no. In some cases, wives find themselves in horrible situations like this reader who sent in this question:

Reader Question

My husband of 10 years has recently told me he plans to take another wife. Not marry her legally, because that’s not possible in the US, but to have a lifelong relationship with her and be married in the eyes of God, as well as continuing his relationship with me. I love my husband greatly, and we have 4 kids together. The thought of him being with someone else part of the time is causing me deep emotional distress. He says he loves me, but that he believes God created him to be a husband to more than one person, and to possibly even have children with her. I’ve researched and researched and I can’t find anything definitive that says God disapproves of a man being in a committed relationship with more than one woman at the same time.

What a horrible question! And, yes, she can say no!

Here’s the thing: if in your heart of hearts you are experiencing great distress and anxiety over something, that’s often the Spirit’s leading. Scripture doesn’t have explicit commands for everything (It does forbid polygamy, but even in other cases, it’s not always clear cut). And if your husband is asking you to do something that goes against your conscience, you can (and should!) say no.

Sex should be a deep “knowing” and deep intimacy. Pressuring someone into making sex degrading is actually a REFUSAL to know you. It’s saying, “I don’t care what you feel; I only care about what you give me.” It’s a rejection of intimacy entirely, and is thus a rejection of sex the way God intended. And so it’s okay to say no.

8. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…when you are trying to rebuild trust in your relationship

When your husband has had an affair, or is trying to recover from a porn addiction, it’s okay to take a hiatus from sex while you rebuild trust, especially if your heart is very hurting. You may need to work on your emotional connection first before you rebuild your sexual life. In many cases, counsellors will recommend that. If you want to work on emotional connection, I have a free 5-week email course you can take here.

9. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…when your husband has been being abusive in any way

If your husband is verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive, it is okay to say no to sex. Sex should be the outward expression of the intimacy you feel. If he is abusing you, then the marriage is not intimate and it is not pleasing to God, and this must be dealt with first.

If it would be dangerous to refuse sex, then the relationship itself is dangerous. Please get out and get help.

When you're allowed to say NO to sex in marriage. It needs to be about more than just what one spouse wants! It's about what BOTH need

10. It’s Okay to Say No to Sex…when you’re dealing with emotional baggage or grief and are in a fragile place

Finally, sometimes we just need space because God is working on our hearts and gently healing some pretty big hurts. Sexuality is all about our identity; it’s really the most private and important pieces of our souls. When something there is hurt, whether because of sexual abuse or trauma, or even grief, we sometimes need time to heal these deep places so that we can experience real intimacy again. If you are going through a time of intense healing or intense counseling, it may be time to step back from that kind of intimacy and vulnerability until some of that work is done. A counsellor should be able to guide and advise you in this. And then I would say:

“I want to grow an amazing sex life with you, where I can truly share myself with you. Right now I’m not there. I’m just so fragile. But that’s what I’m working towards. I need to take a step back and do that hard work, because I don’t want to be stuck here. But I want you to know that’s what I’m aiming for, and I am praying that this work will be short and temporary.”

So there you go–10 times when it’s okay, and even wise, to refuse sex in marriage. If sex is supposed to be about mutual intimacy and a deep knowing, then we should not make sex into something that endangers that mutuality or that rejects “knowing” or replaces it with something that devalues the other.

Again, I’m all in favour of a healthy sex life! But let’s keep everything in perspective, the way that God does. Healthy sex means mutual sex that is intimate physically, emotionally, AND spiritually. It’s not just one-sided physical giving. So let’s work towards healthy sex!

What do you think? Did I miss #11? If so, what would it be? Or do you disagree with one of the reasons I have here? Let’s talk in the comments! 

UPDATE: Don’t miss the follow-up to this post: Why We Need a New Definition of Sex

The Obligation Sex Debunking Posts

Some posts that have also dealt with obligation sex and coercion

And check out The Great Sex Rescue--with two chapters looking at where the obligation sex message has been taught, what our survey of 20,000 women told us about how it affected us, and what we should teach instead.

God made sex to be AWESOME!

It’s supposed to be great physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Feel like something’s missing?

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