Valentine’s Day is coming up this weekend, and I thought today I’d give you a personal, and even a private, insight into our love story.
I shared a bit on the podcast yesterday, but I’d like to expand on it some.
The book that messed up our sex life–and caused tremendous damage to our marriage.
I’d like to tell you a story that starts in the fall of 1991. I talked about part of this story in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–but I talked about these things as two separate issues. It wasn’t until we did our survey of 20,000 women last year that I had a lightbulb moment in my head, and I understood something really important about myself. So much made sense.
So, yes, doing the survey was healing for me, too!
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’d like to begin at the beginning.
In the fall of 1991, Keith and I were about two months away from getting married.
I was counting down the days to the wedding–but mostly because I was looking forward to the wedding night. We were both virgins, but we were both having a hard time keeping our hands off of each other. I had rather graphic dreams of what I wanted to do on that wedding night. I was definitely looking forward to sex, and everything about it.
Then someone from our church gave me a book–The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverley LaHaye. Written in 1976, it had become the “go to” sex education book for evangelicals, and everyone read it in those days before their wedding.
I was excited about sex, and eager to learn what it would be like, so I did what I always did in those days when it came to books: I filled up my bathtub, climbed in, and got reading.
It wasn’t too far in that I started to get an uncomfortable feeling. I don’t remember much about what the book said. I don’t even remember how far I got. I just remember the phrase that kept going through my head, over and over again: “No one has a right to touch me if I don’t want them to.”
Why that phrase? Two reasons.
The book said that a woman was not allowed to say no to sex with her husband. This was a deep need he had, and you weren’t allowed to deprive him.
Now remember, I was looking forward to sex! I was actually expecting to have sex every night. I was not someone who was thinking, “I’m never going to want it.” But as soon as the book said that I couldn’t say no, sex changed to me. In fact, I felt my body physically change, and stiffen up. It was like it was saying, “sex is no longer about you. It isn’t about you guys enjoying being together, or having fun together. This is something you owe him.”
As soon as sex is something you owe somebody, then it isn’t intimate anymore. It isn’t something that binds you together, because if you owe it, then you become irrelevant. You don’t matter.
Now the second reason. As I was reading, the book started talking about what you should do on your wedding night to achieve orgasm the first time out. It gave very explicit instructions on what he was supposed to do, and what exactly I was to let him do: he would touch here for so many minutes, and flick here, and rub there 237 times or whatever. And I just froze. Absolutely froze.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want Keith to touch me there. It was that I wanted it to flow out of something that we were doing because we were excited! The author honestly was making it sound like a Pap smear. I lie there, and Keith touches me, whether or not I want him to. Once you’re married, you don’t have a choice.
Around this time I couldn’t take it anymore. I was about 2/3 of the way through, and I held that book under the water until I was sure it was dead, and then i plopped it into the garbage can, and got out of the bath.
Now let’s fast forward 21 years, and I’m writing The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex.
One of the impetuses for me writing that book was how awful I had felt reading The Act of Marriage. I wanted to know, “did that book hurt other women? Did anyone else have a horrible honeymoon, or was it just me?” (I’ll get to my own honeymoon in a minute; I know I’m telling this out of order, but it’s for a reason).
So I did a survey of 2000 women when I was writing that book, and I learned that most women did not enjoy sex on their honeymoons. I wasn’t alone!
Then, when I was writing the book, I deliberately did NOT give step-by-step instructions. I didn’t want women to feel violated. Instead, I told women the important thing was to relax and do what felt comfortable. Allow your body to take the lead. Don’t push yourself. And if you can’t have sex right away, just get comfortable with each other. This is the start of the journey together; you don’t have to get to the finish line the first time out.
I have gotten so much feedback since that many women really appreciated that.
Interestingly, the publisher at the time asked a big name marriage author to endorse the book, and he said no, because I didn’t give step-by-step instructions, and women LOVE and NEED step-by-step instructions. I thought that was kind of funny.
in my Girl Talk, my sex talk that I give in churches, I always made a bit of a joke out of the instructions in that book, and how they messed me up. I didn’t mention the title of the book (though many women guessed!), but I said that for many women, these instructions seem intrusive. And what we need instead is to learn to relax, feel comfortable, and figure out what our own bodies need and want.
I believe in telling couples about the types of things that women tend to like, and when in the sexual response cycle they tend to like them, but never ever give a paint-by-number, because it feels forced. And no woman wants to feel forced to do anything.
For 29 years, that was pretty much all I thought about The Act of Marriage: It was a bad book; it made me scared of my honeymoon; I tried to do the exact opposite in my own sex advice.
Then we surveyed 20,000 women–and suddenly another big part of our life made sense.
When Keith and I got back to our apartment after our wedding reception, we were greeted, as I have also shared in my books, with a terrible case of vaginismus. Sex was exceedingly painful. We did eventually manage to consummate, but every time we tried it hurt.
In those days we didn’t know about pelvic floor physiotherapists, and I was taken instead to a gynecologist who specialized in sexual pain. This man in his 60s, with a beard and white hair, told me that this was most likely caused by me repressing my sexuality and being scared and ashamed of sex. What I needed to do was to embrace my body, and so he would put me in stirrups, hold a mirror, and touch all the parts of my genitals and name them while I could look, and this would help me get in touch with my body.
I literally ran from the room.
I couldn’t handle it. I just couldn’t.
And I felt so guilty about it and so much shame. I was rejecting the only treatment that was being offered to me. I figured maybe I really was sexually repressed and didn’t realize it–even though, as I have said, I had definitely been looking forward to sex in every way. I figured I was a terribly selfish person, and I was depriving my husband, and I was broken.
I started to see a counselor who tried to get to the bottom of my sexual shame. Did I have abuse in my past that I was repressing? I tried so hard to conjure up memories of abuse, but nothing was coming. But we went over and over all the different reasons why my body was rejecting Keith.
What no one ever told us was that it would be a good idea to stop trying to have sex while we sorted this out.
No, instead everybody had tremendous sympathy for Keith. We had to fix me because Keith needed sex. I could not be broken because he could only feel love if we had sex (that’s what The Act of Marriage told me, too). So I muscled through, despite the pain. And everyone kept trying to figure out why I was so broken.
Over the next few years I got better at managing the pain and learning how to relax.
And within five years the pain was pretty much gone, something I largely attribute both to childbirth and to learning to really trust Keith’s love for me, especially as we went through the grief of losing a son. We put that period of our life behind us, and as the years went on and I started doing this for a living, I could see how God was using that part of my story, because I understood what it was like to have trouble with sex. I understood what it was like to dread it. I could relate to women who were having problems.
But when our survey results came in, suddenly it was as if I had the missing puzzle piece that explained what had happened to me and why.
I remember the day Joanna FaceTimed me and told me that the obligation sex message increased a woman’s chances of having vaginismus almost as much as prior abuse did.
When I got off the phone, for the first time in twenty years I had a flashback to that time in the bathtub, and that phrase that kept going through my head: “no one has the right to just touch me if I don’t want them to.”
I now believe that the obligation sex message I was given from The Act of Marriage was a contributing factor to my vaginismus, because it changed the way I saw sex.
I don’t think it caused the vaginismus on its own; vaginismus tends to be multi-faceted, and I had some other risk factors. I had done ballet a lot as a child, and often the way dancers hold their pelvises leads to higher incidences of this. And there are some other issues about how Christians tend to do wedding nights that perhaps I’ll write in more detail about later. But I do believe that the obligation sex message pushed me over the edge.
And for the first time in 29 years, I cried a bit for young Sheila, who should never have had to endure that. For young 21-year-old Sheila, sitting in that doctor’s office, who somehow had the courage to run out because she didn’t want someone else touching her without her permission. For young Sheila who was never told, “It’s okay for your needs to matter, too.” For young Sheila who was always looked at by the other older adults in her life–her mentors, her counselors, her doctors–with a little bit of panic, wondering what they were going to do with her, since she was broken and her husband would be suffering so much.
Keith and I are great. We are rock solid.
But I so wish somebody back then had told me, “you matter, too.”
I so wish somebody had told me, “you get to decide what someone else does to your body; you do not owe anyone anything.”
I think it would have made a difference.
And so, with Valentine’s Day coming up this weekend, I just want to reiterate what Andrew Bauman and I said in the podcast yesterday: you do not owe anyone anything.
Sex isn’t something that can be owed. Sex is only something that can be freely given.
Our role in marriage is to work at our marriage, to work at our issues, to choose to love, so that we can be in a healthy place in every sense of the word so that freely giving is natural and easy. But let’s never get to the point where we think sex is a duty, because that’s a traumatic message. We will instinctively recoil from that.
Sex is a deep knowing. That means you both have to matter.
So this Valentine’s Day, if you’re in a good place, or a great place, or you’re on a good trajectory, I hope you have an awesome, sexy, fun time! If you want something to make it even more fun, pick up 31 Days to Great Sex and start the challenge, or pick up our 24 Sexy Dares! This is a great chance to get started.
But if you’re not in a good place, then maybe take the day to talk about why and figure out what your next steps are. Look at my series on emotional labor and mental load; or on how you change a marriage, if those are your issues. And if your issues revolve around sex, pre-order The Great Sex Rescue, because it debunks so many of these unhealthy teachings that have held us back and stolen something great from us, and helps us recognize what real biblical sex is!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
The Great Sex Rescue
Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.
What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?
Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.
I’m almost scared to ask for comments because this is about as personal as I’ve ever been on the blog! But how do we get over the obligation sex message? Let’s talk!
The Obligation Sex Debunking Posts
Some posts that have also dealt with obligation sex and coercion
- The Duty Sex Isn't Sexy Podcast
- 10 Times You're Allowed to Say No to Sex
- Obligation Sex, Consent, and Marital Rape Podcast
- Yes, There Can Be Rape in Marriage
- The Body Keeps the Score: How Obligation Sex Affects Pain
- The Book I Drowned in the Bathtub
- Is Sex a Need or a Drive?
- 5 Steps to Get Over the Obligation Sex Message
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.
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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