Today’s post is by Dorothy Littell Greco, author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle, a great book about marriage in midlife. Today she adapts an excerpt for us from Marriage in the Middle about how faulty teaching and cultural conditioning attempt to
derail our God-given sexuality. The excerpt is in both her voice and her husband’s voice in part.
We live in a world where it’s unimaginable to go through a single day without being barraged by hypersexualized imagery.
And yet it’s incredibly countercultural to talk about our bodies and our sexuality in an honest, respectful fashion—even as adults.
This is not a new problem. Nor is it only a church problem. Both religious and secular culture have largely failed to offer a healthy, balanced perspective of sexuality. Many of us were most likely inculcated by one of two diametrically opposed philosophies regarding sex: the anything goes, no-rules-apply approach or the highly repressive everything-is-forbidden approach of the extreme abstinence movement. Neither of these ideologies accurately captures God’s intent.
Regardless of whether we were raised in the extreme abstinence movement, permissive secular culture, or some place in between, we all have to sift through layers of cultural conditioning and misguided teaching to determine God’s intent for our sexuality. This is true even if we’ve been married for decades.
Starting in adolescence, culture conditions men and women differently.
By the early teen years girls know that should they fail to keep their boyfriends sexually satisfied, it’s their fault if the boys go elsewhere. I remember standing around a bonfire at a high school pep rally within earshot of an ex-boyfriend. With his arms wrapped around his new steady, he said, “I used to go out with her,” nodding in my direction. His girlfriend asked, “Why did you break up with her?” He replied, “She didn’t give out.” With just four words he effectively shamed me and clarified his expectations for her. I wish I could say that this line of thinking stops when we reach adulthood, but I’ve heard more than a few male pastors blame wives for their husbands’ sexual indiscretions.
Many Christian women often find themselves in a double bind. Not only are we seemingly responsible for keeping our husbands sexually satisfied, but we’re also apparently responsible for mankind’s sexual sobriety. Soon after the late Rev. Billy Graham began his public ministry, he, along with several of his trusted friends, decided to safeguard his ministry by implementing several rules, one of which stated that they would not meet individually with a woman unless a third party was present. Known as the “Billy Graham rule,” this has become standard practice for many male Christian leaders.
Fidelity should be a nonnegotiable component of marriage and men are wise to understand their vulnerabilities.
But when a male leader refuse to meet one-on-one with a woman, the woman can feel that the man is not safe—and somehow it’s her fault. More than that, such legalistic practices limit women’s access to leadership. This is just another way that women have been objectified; if a man cannot be alone in a professional or ministerial setting with a woman, women cease being image bearers.
Whether it’s in the context of one-on-one relationships or in the church at large, women often receive the message that our bodies are both powerful and dangerous. To minimize this and protect our brothers, there’s tangible pressure for us to go beyond appropriate modesty and become almost asexual by concealing curves, cleavage, or any other sensual body parts. From this vantage point it can feel like women are perceived to be seductresses who sing their siren songs for the sole purpose of luring unsuspecting men into the rocks, à la Homer’s Odyssey. While some women do misuse their sexuality and self-objectify, the meta-message here is that men are powerless to resist—which is not at all consistent with Jesus’s example or his teachings (see Matthew 5:30).
Outside religious settings, women’s bodies are detached from their souls and idolized. The fashion and entertainment industries, which serve as baseline indicators of secular beliefs, seem intent on exposing as much female flesh as possible: not to celebrate women’s beauty but to sell things. Men can also be objectified, as shows like The Bachelorette prove.
Though it looks different, cultural conditioning can be similarly unhelpful for men.
Throughout their lives, men receive the message that they are wired to constantly think about sex, and that their worth is deeply tied to their virility and sexual prowess.
Emphasizing virility or frequency encourages men to prioritize the act of sex (which can take less than ten minutes) over intimacy (which takes inestimably longer). Esteeming virility also contributes to the lie that men cannot consistently control their sexual desires. Based on his experiences, my husband feels that,
American culture tends to frame sexual performance as the masculinity litmus test. Even within Christian circles it seems that we’re not true men unless we’re thinking about having sex all the time. One study done by a conservative Christian organization stated that “80-90% of men view sex as the most important aspect of their marriage.” If this is true, which I highly doubt, how much of that is a function of conditioning and poor anxiety management? That the average American male has to exert significant energy to not think about sex is a fact: that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or that we shouldn’t develop that ability.
It’s ironic that I can feel like I’m not man enough because I don’t think about sex all the time. We’re telling each other the wrong story. We can’t and shouldn’t always be thinking about sex. There’s too much else to do! This kind of pressure may cause some men to eroticize all of their emotional and physical needs, and some to shut down because they know they can’t keep up. Men are more vulnerable than we let on, even if we’re not likely to admit it.
If men take in these messages and conclude that their behavior is dependent on what someone else does or doesn’t do or that the Holy Spirit is not available to them when they feel tempted, they will fail to develop the self-control necessary to remain faithful in thought and deed. When a man’s sexuality has been touched by the power of the gospel, he will be able to have a face-to-face conversation with any woman—even a bikini-clad Miss Universe—and maintain self-control. Even if he feels tempted or aroused.
To walk in a holy, healthy sexual ethic we must refute erroneous teaching and recognize when culture is leading us astray.
We will also need to acknowledge the power of our God-given sexuality, become aware of our areas of temptation, and find the balance between self-control and sexual expression.
Regardless of where our misguided input came from or how long it has been influencing us, it’s never too late to come into full alignment with God’s purposes for our sexuality.
Adapted from Marriage in the Middle by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges and Joys. When she’s not writing or making photographs, she love to go on long kayaks and long walks with her husband of 30 years. You can find more of her work on her website.
What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon? Let’s talk in the comments!