Do we have hope for the future? How did we get here with sex? What are the big problems with the way the evangelical church sees sex?
Recently I did a big interview with Rachel Joy Welcher, author of Talking Back to Purity Culture (remember the podcast she was on?) for Fathom Mag.
I’ve been doing a lot of writing for other websites recently to get the word out about The Great Sex Rescue, and I’d like to share them here, too, because it saves me some time, but also I’m pretty proud of them!
Rachel framed the article like this:
The Great Sex Rescue sets out to correct harmful and unbiblical teachings on sex and marriage—specifically those messages perpetuated by the evangelical church and popular Christian books. Not only that, it presents a way forward for couples who have suffered from these messages; a path that is guided by scripture and selfless love.
While the writing is engaging and accessible, it is not an easy read. It is challenging because of the uncomfortable truths it reveals about what we have been taught and—more than that—what we have unknowingly internalized. More than once, I stopped and shook my head, realizing that a message which has no foundation in scripture or the love of Christ had unwittingly shaped my view of sex and marriage. If you grew up in the church or reading Christian books, you will need to prepare yourself to do some grappling, face-palming, and a whole lot of praying. And know that you are not alone.
She then went on to ask several probing questions, including why we differentiate between sex and intercourse; why the evangelical world has ignored the problem of sexual pain in women; why we’ve assumed that men don’t need intimacy but only need release. Here’s just one question, and part of my answer:
Welcher: We have both discovered from our interviews that men want more than just mere physical release; that they, in fact, often feel unfairly depicted as animalistic, when emotion and connection matter to them as well. Why do you think that Christian culture has persisted in depicting men in this way? What damage has this caused in Christian marriages?
Gregoire: Honestly, we’ve struggled to understand this too, because the depiction of men in Every Man’s Battle, who want women to be their “methadone,” or in Love & Respect, who can’t handle a woman asking him to pick up his wet towel off of the bed, is completely the opposite of most men that we know. We wonder if part of it is generational. Those who write the majority of our evangelical bestsellers in sex and marriage tend to be white males from seventy to ninety (and some have now passed away, though their books still sell). When evangelicals started addressing sex in a big way in the 1970s, it was a reaction against the sexual revolution. They were trying to show how sex could be great in marriage while still preserving their idea of the nuclear family, which meant male leadership and authority, and so women’s needs were almost an afterthought. (As an example, we find it amazing how many books tell women they must reassure their husbands that they are good lovers, rather than telling husbands how to actually be good lovers.) We also find that the measure of success for a sex life in most of our bestsellers is frequency: as long as women provide sex a lot, then the sex life is good. But frequency is a poor measure. Marital satisfaction and orgasm rates are better measures for how well the couple enjoys each other overall, and other studies have found this too. But by focusing on frequency so that male needs are met, our books have considered her pleasure as an afterthought. Some seem unsure she can even achieve pleasure (Love & Respect never once mentions it, and says that sex is a need women don’t have), and so the aim seems to be, “convince her to give him sex regardless.” Finally, when we focus on marriage as hierarchical rather than as an intimate knowing, then one spouse’s needs and opinions will always be deemed less influential than another’s, and as a result, sex becomes transactional rather than life-giving.
And I encourage you to read the rest here!
I do want to comment on my answer to that question, though, because on Facebook this weekend I was going back and forth with a woman debating this one.
She argued that the issue was not a generational one but a theological one.
When men believe that they are in authority and women must submit to what a man wants, then her pleasure is automatically an afterthought, because his needs and wants are emphasized. This can be true whether you’re 29 or 79.
I largely agree with her on this–I think it is largely theological.
The difference, though, is that I don’t think millennial authors would make some of the same “this is the way things are” claims that older authors take for granted.
It was normal for baby boomers to assume that only men are visual and women aren’t. It was normal to assume that men have libidos and women don’t.
But these things aren’t true anymore, even in the secular culture. As women have been encouraged to embrace their sexuality in the world at large, this has changed the perception of women’s sexuality, so that I don’t think a millennial would assume that women can’t be visual, or that women don’t have libidos, in the same way.
I don’t think a millennial version of Emerson Eggerichs could get away with saying, “If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have,” for instance, because even if our millennial Eggerichs believed it, enough people around him would tell him that wasn’t true.
Perhaps I’m off on this, but I do think there’s been a shift. Even when I talk about women being visual, too, it’s millennial women who cheer the loudest and who argue that this has always been true for them.
I’m a Generation Xer woman; I don’t remember EVER talking about 6-pack abs on men when I was growing up. Perhaps I was just sheltered or I was in the wrong friend group or peer group, but I don’t remember it being a “thing”. But it certainly was for my girls, even in conservative religious circles. People talked about 6-packs.
I also wonder what would happen if we allowed women to teach on marriage to couples?
Here’s another quote from the article where I dealt with this issue:
Welcher: It is clear from your writings that you care about female sexual flourishing; that you don’t want women left behind in marriage. In The Great Sex Rescue, you cite example after example from popular Christian books where male sexual pleasure in marriage is prioritized and women are discussed merely as vehicles to accomplish this, rather than as equal sexual partners. Why do you think the mutuality of sexual self-giving in marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:4–5 has largely been ignored in Christian writings and teachings on marriage? Were you able to trace this idea to a specific book, era, or misinterpretation of the passage?
Gregoire: Let’s talk numbers: women buy the books, and men don’t. I’ve read that 74% of nonfiction relationship books are bought and read by women. Why don’t men buy these books? Men often don’t feel the same societal pressure to fix relationships, while men are also discouraged from thinking about their feelings very much. Thus, when relationship troubles come up, men are more likely to retreat than to try to address them. If we want to fix relationships, then, we tend to address women. Even if you look at a marriage book aimed at couples, you’ll find that the majority of the advice is given to women (do the highlighter test; take a pink highlighter and a blue highlighter on any given chapter, and then look afterwards at which color is used more!).
When you combine this with the evangelical habit of having men speak to men or couples, and women only speak to women, we find that most of our sex books were written by men (or by couples where women only contribute one chapter). I think if a woman were writing, we’d see a lot fewer questions like this one from Love & Respect: “Why would you deprive him of something that takes such a short amount of time and makes him sooooo happy?” Women would know that bragging about taking a short amount of time is not actually a plus.
in the evangelical world men can teach couples, but women can’t. I was told when I started writing marriage books that I could only write books to women, while men could write books to couples. Similarly, when speaking at marriage conferences, Gary Thomas could speak on his own, but I had to speak with my husband (who actually is a great speaker, and at marriage conferences I prefer to speak with him than speak alone; I just find the juxtaposition difficult). The idea that a man is equipped to speak on marriage to women but a woman isn’t equipped to speak on marriage to men has created a situation where most of our marriage and sex advice has been given by men (or largely shaped by men).
I hope this is changing!
And, please read the whole thing! I think Rachel asked great questions and highlighted all the important parts of my answers, and it was fun to do!
What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?
It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.
What do you think? Do you find some advice out of touch? Do you think it’s all theological, as one reader did, or do you have more hope like I do that things will change with new generations? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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