When we understand the culture that books are written into, we can understand those books better.
Yesterday Connor told us some super weird (and some good) stuff that was in a popular sex book from the early 1970s. On the podcast tomorrow we’re going to give even more context–the Kinsey report from the 1950s, the 1960s and the sexual revolution, but let’s just say for now that in the early 1970s, divorce rates were skyrocketing (they’ve been falling ever since then), women were starting to head to the workforce, and “free love” was all the rage.
And the church needed to speak into that culture. Thus, much of what was written was reactionary–we had this idea that we needed to stop the world from changing, because a lot of the change is bad. We wanted to keep marriage, and that meant stopping women from working. But we knew that the idea of great sex is really enticing, so let’s make sure that couples have great sex in marriage so that no one had to stray.
Tim LaHaye, in The Act of Marriage, was the first one to talk at length about how women deserved pleasure, too, and what clitoral stimulation was like. He wanted there to be fulfillment in the marriage bed, which honestly is an awesome goal.
But I want to share with you twelve other things he emphasized in his book that shows that, in many ways, he was trying to turn back the clock and keep people “Christian” by fighting against the tide in the culture, rather than embracing some parts of the culture that were good.
Yes, a lot of cultural change in the 1970s was negative. But a lot was awfully good, too. And yet, in an effort to preserve marriage, it seems as if much of the good (like valuing women as whole people) got left behind as well. And, just like the cultural books, he seems to have downplayed the whole intimacy aspect in favour of looking primarily at the physical side. Let’s take a look!
Sex is centered around men’s experiences and needs
1. Men’s affairs are framed as women’s fault–be sexy or he’ll stray
Take this statement. This sounds like a progressive thought, right? Now we’re going to let women enjoy sex!
“Formerly it was common for many wives to look upon the sex act as a “necessary part of marriage” or a “wifely duty to perform.” Now an increasing number of women view it as a God-given means of enriching their relationships for a lifetime.” (p. 33)
But the problem is that this statement was made in the context of how, if you keep him satisfied at home, he won’t have an affair. So women’s sexual satisfaction, while stressed by LaHaye, is still stressed largely for men’s sake. Here are some more quotations along that vein:
“While his decision to leave his family cannot be condoned in a Christian, I am confident, knowing the youthful character of the man and his commitment to Christ, that it would not have happened if his wife had not been afflicted with an unbiblical mental attitude toward married lovemaking.” (p. 20)
“When you have a Cadillac in the garage, how can you be tempted to steal a Volkswagen off the street?” (p. 33)
“Male eroticism, fulfilled within the home, does not hunger for more outside.” (p. 45)
“Most Christian men (as high as 70 percent in some surveys) do not violate their sexual commitment to their wives, even though it is tempting,” (p. 51)
So men are seen as about to have affairs at any moment–and women are supposed to be the bulwark against men straying. He also talks about how no one is allowed to refuse to meet their mate’s sexual needs, but at the same time, you’re not allowed to see it as a duty (“If either person looks on it as a duty to perform” [p. 29]). So there’s some strange messaging to women going on.
Along this line, there’s a vein going through all of The Act of Marriage that talks about women learning how to be “successful” in bed. This is strange wording; you would think learning how to “enjoy sex” or discovering her sexuality. But instead it’s framed as a pass/fail thing, and presumably she has to be successful so that he won’t have an affair. He says things like “she might consider herself unsuccessful in bed” if she can’t enjoy it, or there’s this:
“A wife is more than a mother and homemaker. She is also a sexual partner to her mate. Like the male, if she doesn’t succeed in the bedroom, she fails in other areas…” (p. 40)
Sex is successful when people don’t have affairs!
Men and Women Are Seen as Different Species Sexually
2. Women are expected to not want sex–and then blamed when they don’t
Even though women are supposed to be “successful” in bed, it’s assumed that women won’t want sex the way that men do.
“Because of their lack of experience, preconceived notions, and most of all their fear of pregnancy, many young wives do not share their husbands’ enthusiasm for lovemaking.” (p. 29)
“Young wives may equate their husbands’ youthful passion with bestiality, not realizing that their husbands’ drives are not unique, but characteristic of most normal men.” (p. 29)
Good sex reinforces gender roles and allows him to be a man
Here’s where we really see the reactionary nature of a lot of The Act of Marriage. Tim LaHaye framed good sex as what allows a man to go out and provide, and women should give sex so that he will be able to be a good breadwinner.
3. You need to sexually satisfy him if he’s going to succeed at being a man–which includes providing for you
“No matter what our love life consists of, there is one time each month when I always try to get my husband to make love to me—the night after he has paid the family bills. It seems to be the only thing that gets him back to normal.” (p. 31)
“I’d rather spend my evenings working on my racing car than on a second job to support a family.” His wife admitted that their physical relationship had been minimal and that she had never shown any appreciation for the sacrifices he had made for the family. Realizing that her indifference may have contributed to his dissatisfaction and irritation, she pleaded with him, “Give me another chance, and I’ll prove to you that marriage is worth whatever sacrifices we both have to make.” (p. 34) (so she has sex in order to encourage him to get a job and provide for the family)
“One way to understand the function of the female mind is to contrast it with the male thought system. A man has the God-given mandate to be the provider of the family. Consequently his mental psyche is so oriented that he gains much of his self-image from successful occupational pursuits.” (p. 40) (whereas when you ask a girl what she wants to be, Tim LaHaye asserts that she will answer “housewife”.)
“It fulfills his manhood. A man usually possesses a stronger ego than a woman. If he is not a man in his own eyes, he is nothing; and somehow his sex drive seems to be intricately linked to his ego. I have never met an impotent or sexually frustrated man who enjoyed a strong self-image. A sexually satisfied husband is a man who will rapidly develop self-confidence in other areas of his life.”
4. Sex mirrors hierarchy
And the sex act itself mirrors the hierarchy between men and women:
“Remember that you are a responder….Except for those occasions when a wife is particularly amorous and initiates lovemaking, the husband makes the first approach most of the time.” (p. 112)
“The very nature of the act of marriage involves feminine surrender…But to a strong-willed, choleric woman, surrender in any way is difficult. Consequently she will often subvert her sex drive and responses to avoid surrender.” (p. 146) (he talks a lot about how a woman who likes to make decisions or speak up for herself will eventually lose her libido and never enjoy sex).
“As we know, in sexual intercourse, as in life, man is the actor, woman the passive one, the receiver, the acted upon.” (p. 147)
Even in a chapter where LaHaye is telling men that their wives need companionship, he ends up giving the advice primarily to women about how to make it easy for men to talk to you. And the answer? Make sure the conversation that you so desperately want is actually centered around your husband: “It is also true that many women would do well to improve their companionship appeal by talking about things that interest men instead of making small talk. It is unwise for a wife to direct all the conversation toward her interests when her husband comes home. It is a good rule to accompany his arrival home with pleasant conversation that is interesting to him and conveys a message of love and welcome. This usually involves allowing him to share his thoughts with her and showing her interest in his activities. This gives her opportunities to build him up with her positive comments.”
But then, after saying all that, he says something again contradictory: “Practically every man has dreamed of having a sexually aggressive wife.” (p. 184). So women are supposed to be the responders, but men secretly want them to be more. But if they are more, then they’re not really women and they’ll lose their sex drive. It’s very confusing.
We should note, too, that in our survey for The Great Sex Rescue, we found that performing stereotypical gender roles does not hurt one’s sex life or marital satisfaction in the least! We’re not saying that you can’t be a housewife and he can’t be the provider. In fact, that’s really the role that all three of us who wrote the book did, or are doing, with our own families. What DOES impact the marriage & sex life, though, is feeling as if it has to be this way. If it’s a choice freely made, everything’s cool. As soon as you don’t feel like it’s an actual choice, and you feel like it’s a duty, things go haywire. So just imagine what these 1970s women felt like!
Oh, and Intended for Pleasure chimes in along these lines, too: “A responsive and receptive wife willingly demonstrates that she surrenders her freedom for his love, adoration, protection, and provision.” (p. 31) So she’s giving up her freedom and become sexually responsive so that he will protect and provide for her. It’s kind of scary when you put it like that, I think!
The Great Sex Rescue
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.
5. Women and men are two different species–even outside the bedroom
If we’re going to stress the idea that sex is tied up to gender roles, then we have to also stress that the sexes are completely different to make this make sense. And in a world that was seeming to make women into men by letting them work, it was important to stress that women weren’t like men at all. Here are just two examples:
“His need for romantic love is either nonexistent or minimal. But he is married to a creature with an extraordinary need for romance.” (p. 42)
“Has it ever occurred to you that He made no such directive concerning a woman lusting after a man?” (p. 111) (women are basically incapable of lust, while men do it all the time, naturally)
6. There’s an archaic view of what makes a “virtuous” woman
Just as men and women are made differently, so the expectations for men and women are different in terms of “sexual purity” and the approach to sex. Even though biblically both sexes are supposed to wait for marriage, this is stressed far more for women, and women are expected to be afraid of sex:
“Almost every virtuous bride understandably goes to her wedding bed with a good deal of trepidation.” (p. 138)
“Their maidenly inhibitions and misconceptions compel them to lie on their backs and allow the vigorous young husbands to satisfy themselves.” (p. 139)
“Many a married woman suffers today from guilt feelings and shame caused by indulging in such practices before meeting her husband.” (p. 259) (nothing about a husband feeling guilty for what he may have done).
Consent is entirely absent from the discussion around sex
7. No understanding of coercion, rape, or trauma
I’ve spoken at length on podcasts and in other blog posts about the infamous Aunt Matilda story in The Act of Marriage. Basically, Tim LaHaye tells a story of Aunt Matilda warning her niece who is about to get married that marriage is just “legalized rape”. LaHaye explains that on her wedding night, Aunt Matilda was raped “kicking and screaming”, and this has continued. But Aunt Matilda is the antagonist in this story, as she wrecks her niece’s view of sex. And as LaHaye bemoans the fact that Matilda never learned to embrace sex, he talks about Aunt Matilda and her “equally unhappy husband.” So he calls the rapist equally unhappy as his rape victim. This is horrifying.
You may also enjoy:
- We read the Act of Marriage so you don’t have to! (podcast)
- Marital Rape and Coercion podcast
- Why I Drowned the Act of Marriage in the Bathtub Before I was Married
The book has several anecdotes of husbands “pawing and grabbing” at wives, and wives trying to get them to stop, and he says that the women need to understand the men. But the coercion can go the other way, too, as in this bad piece of advice of how a woman should approach a man with a lower sex drive:
“How do I cope with my husband’s indifference to our sex life? Have a frank talk with him—perhaps you are doing something that turns him off. Then try to ignite his interest by showing affection, displaying provocative attire in the bedroom (or elsewhere when no one else is around), and massaging his penis. Even the most reluctant penis can hardly ignore wifely stroking.” (p. 296)
Note: if he doesn’t want sex, you shouldn’t be grabbing at his genitals!
And there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about trauma. He lumps guilt from rape in with guilt from doing something bad, and says that the solution to each is repentance:
“Guilt is a common cause of orgasmic malfunction, as verified by the fact that every book we have read on this subject refers to it. Whether related to an attempted rape for which the unwilling victim feels guilty, or an ill-advised adulterous liaison experienced prior to marriage, or promiscuity before or after marriage, guilt is a cruel taskmaster that must be confronted spiritually. As a pastoral counselor, I have been privileged to lead many women to the forgiving grace of God, either through accepting Christ as their Savior (as explained in chapter 14) or applying the cleansing principle of 1 John 1:9.”
8. Men will want to push your sexual boundaries
And it’s assumed that men will push you to go further than you want before marriage, and this is normal and okay.
“Our whole four-year courtship seemed to be a continuous scene of Tom trying to seduce me and my fighting him off. I made too many compromises and am honestly amazed that we didn’t go the whole route before our wedding. After we were married, it just seemed to be more of the same. Why did God include this sex business in marriage anyway?”
“Ever since I met him it seems I’ve been fighting him off.”
In our survey, the idea that “boys will push girls’ sexual boundaries” is highly correlated with lower levels of arousal once you’re married and lower rates of orgasm. It isn’t an okay message. It should be a red flag that something is wrong with the relationship. (And you can see a post here where I looked at how the book For Young Women Only teaches the same thing.)
Sex must be done properly so as not to violate the conscience
In the middle of the “free love” era, it made sense that Christian books would want to stress sex only a certain way, because it seemed as if all boundaries were being torn down. And so while there was emphasis on sexual pleasure, you could only get it certain ways.
9. Sex could easily become “wrong” if you do bad things
Whether it’s oral sex or cohabitation, it’s very, very wrong.
“It is readily apparent …that oral sex is on the increase today, thanks to amoral sex education, pornography, modern sex literature, and the moral breakdown of our times.” P. 225
“Our chapter of questions and answers (chapter 15) will deal with illegitimate sexual experiences [including oral sex], but here it must be pointed out that they all have one factor in common: although they provide biological release, they do not guarantee lasting enjoyment, because the conscience God has given to every man “accuses” him when he violates divine standards of morality (read Rom. 1; 2:14–15). When sex provides only gratification and is followed by guilt, it makes a mockery of what God intended to be a very satisfying experience. By contrast, the act of marriage [intercourse] when properly performed is followed by physical relaxation based on innocence. Because sex is such a necessary part of a man’s life and married love preserves the innocence of his conscience, the woman who provides these for him will increasingly become the object of his love.”
“How should parents treat a son or daughter who is living with someone without marriage? This is one of the most distressing experiences a parent can endure. As one mother exclaimed, “I would rather hear that she died!” (p. 265)
And what about pornography? That’s blamed on women somehow, too. This prediction about porn is actually sad in retrospect: “We look for this problem to increase as the woman’s lib philosophy creates more conflict in the home and continues to assault the male ego.”
10. Orgasm is only really good if it’s simultaneous and during intercourse
Along with that, while the book does talk about clitoral stimulation and acknowledges that bringing her to orgasm in another way on the wedding night is good, the aim is orgasm during intercourse, and simultaneous orgasm at that. What we found in our survey is that intercourse is the least reliable route for women’s orgasm. Of women who can orgasm, only 39% do so through intercourse alone. The rest need a lot of foreplay, or find other routes easier. By centering his book around orgasm during intercourse, he is actually denying a lot of women their best routes to orgasm. He does insist that women deserve pleasure, but there seems to be a misunderstanding of how women get pleasure.
Now, in our orgasm course we do talk about how to make orgasm through intercourse easier! But no one is a failure if they can’t get there.
The Orgasm Course is Here to Help You Experience Real Passion!
Figure out what's holding you back. Open the floodgates to orgasm.
11. Sex Education is Very, Very Dangerous and Bad
Along with there being a “right” way to do things, the blame for things being done the wrong way is very clearly laid at the feet of our schools, with an entire chapter (and quite a long one at that) talking about the evils of sex education. Now, I have my own misgivings about how sex education is done in schools, but the vehemence with which he rails against it is telling:
“If they emphasize reading, they will get good readers, or if they emphasize math, they will produce good mathematicians. Instead, they have emphasized explicit sex education and have produced the most sexually permissive generation in the history of America.” (p. 58)
12. Lots of Stuff that Just Isn’t True
A lot that was in the book is simply wrong, or extraordinarily bad advice.
“A woman never ejaculates or expels fluid as does a man,” (p. 71). Actually, female ejaculation is a thing!
“In this enlightened age a bridegroom would rather have the hymen surgically removed in advance to reduce the possibility of causing pain to his virtuous young bride.” (p. 75) Oh, my word! No. Some women do require this, but in general, absolutely not necessary and traumatizing.
“I think my female organs are too small, and I can’t function like other women.’ (Modern research indicates that all female organs, like those of their male counterparts, are approximately the same size regardless of the person’s size.)” (p. 107) LaHaye absolutely denies vaginismus exists, and says that it is caused by women’s irrational fear.
“Anxiety over one’s ability to function sexually is the primary cause of sexual malfunction.” (p. 108) Again–not true. The causes of sexual dysfunction are varied.
“Interestingly enough, women who have had the clitoris removed for some reason reported no adverse effect on their sexual capability,” (p. 108) ummm…..no.
“Few sexually vigorous wives have impotent husbands.” (p. 185) Again, ummm….no. And let’s not blame men’s sex conditions on women!
“Where can a Christian wife go for help when there is a sex problem in her marriage? Your minister is the proper person with whom to start.” (p. 258) Ummm…..no. I would start with a licensed therapist!
My Final Thoughts on The Act of Marriage
For its time, The Act of Marriage was groundbreaking. It talked about sex openly; it talked about how women were designed for pleasure, and it helped women get there. It celebrated good sex in marriage.
The problem was that it did this in the context of: You need to get this right or very, very bad things will happen. Affairs, divorce, or perversion was just around the corner if you couldn’t figure out how to be “successful” in bed. So sex was to keep the bad world at bay; it wasn’t fundamentally to celebrate just being together. Even though The Act of Marriage makes allusions to intimacy, it isn’t a big part of the book.
As we’ll talk about tomorrow in the podcast, secular books made headway in the 50 years since How To Get More Out of Sex was published (which Connor looked at yesterday). But in a lot of fundamental ways, we’re still stuck in the 1970s. In fact, on our scorecard of the evangelical books we looked at for The Great Sex Rescue, many books written decades AFTER The Act of Marriage scored worse on our rubric (including Power of a Praying Wife, His Needs, Her Needs, For Women Only, Every Man’s Battle, and Love & Respect).
I hope that we can understand God’s bigger purposes for sex, especially intimacy, and stop approaching sex in a reactionary way. I think then we could discover what’s really beautiful about “the act of marriage”!
What do you think? How much of that is still a part of our evangelical culture? Anything stand out to you? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sex Throughout the Ages Series
- 8 Weird Facts about Sex in Roman Times (April 6)
- The Significance of 1 Corinthians 6-7 in light of Roman culture (April 7)
- A Romp Through Medieval Times and Sex (April 13)
- 10 Weird Pieces of Victorian Sex Advice (April 14)
- The Contagion Theory of Sexuality--and How to Change It (April 19)
- 12 Pieces of Advice from a 1970s Sex Manual (April 20)
- 12 Ways the Christian 1970s Culture Tried to Be Sex Positive--While Also Fighting Back against the Sexual Revolution (April 21)
- A Look at Christianity's Response to the Sexual Revolution: Kinsey, the 1970s, and the Early Christian Sex Books (our April 22 Podcast)
- How Youth Group Changed After Generation X (and what it was like before purity culture) (April 26)
- Is Porn the New Purity Culture? (April 27)
- A Liturgy of Lament for the Teaching We Received about Sex and a Prayer for Healing (April 30)
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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