“A book about sex isn’t for everyone. It can’t be — and it shouldn’t be.”
That’s how Debra Fileta, a licensed counselor and the co-author of the recent book Married Sex with Gary Thomas, begins a recent article where she defends the book.
We’ve talked a little bit about some of the problems with Married Sex on our podcast about junk science and last week’s podcast about breasts, but the book is being widely panned for objectifying women (saying God created breasts so women can reset the power imbalance in their marriages with a flash); being overly explicit, bordering on pornographic; putting the blame for sexual problems primarily on women; and so much more. You may remember this Fixed it for You from social media last week:
I don’t want to say too much more about the problems with the book in today’s post. Instead, what I want to talk about are the defences that Gary and Deb are using to defend the book. I find them troubling, but also quite typical of what often happens in the evangelical world when problematic teaching is called out.
This is the sort of thing we’ve been trying to help the evangelical world see ever since The Great Sex Rescue was published–books shouldn’t harm, and there shouldn’t be an excuse when they do. So I thought we could take today to dissect the excuses they’re giving, and teach all of us how to speak against this kind of logic and stand up against harmful books.
Quick Note, because I know I will get some people saying, “But did you go to them first?”
I actually don’t think that’s a legitimate argument when teaching is done in public. Public teaching must be corrected in public, as I have argued repeatedly, especially in this post on how Matthew 18 applies
But in this case, I actually did go to both Deb and Gary before the book was published, repeatedly, and raised some concerns. I also offered to help repeatedly with stats and research over the last two years, and they never took me up on it.
So let’s start with Deb’s primary assertion: “We wrote this book for healthy couples, not unhealthy ones.” Why is that no excuse?
They’re acknowledging that the book harms some people.
A book shouldn’t harm. I’ve written about this before, many times, but one of the big problems we have in evangelicalism is that many of our books do actual harm. We’re not talking about merely disagreeing with doctrine; our study of 20,000 women showed that believing certain teachings, and even being taught them, can result in worse marital and sexual satisfaction. And the teachings didn’t just harm women in abusive situations; they harmed women in healthy situations too.
Some books make things worse. And that should never, ever be the case, nor does it need to be (and for more on why, please see these posts):
- Is it okay if a Christian book does a little bit of harm?
- PODCAST: The Thalidomide test for Christian books
Healthy couples are not the main consumers of marriage and sex advice.
Who is it that is drawn to marriage and sex books? People who are having problems in the marriage and sex department! If everything is going along tickity boo, why would you need to read a book? You may anyway just before marriage, or you may read one for a small group study, but why would you invest that kind of time and money?
Most people reading marriage and sex books have questions or problems.
Most unhealthy couples don’t realize they’re unhealthy.
If you talk to people who are now divorced after an abusive marriage, they will pretty much all tell you that for years they tried to fix the problem themselves. They blamed themselves for the bad dynamic in their marriage. They didn’t realize it was abuse!
Most people who are in toxic marriages do not realize their marriage is toxic.
So giving a caveat that “this advice is not meant for those in abusive marriages” does very little, because many who are being abused don’t know it.
It is perfectly acceptable to write a book that does not apply to everyone. If you write a book on managing a shoestring budget so one person can stay at home with the kids, that’s not going to apply to a wealthy retired couple, and that’s okay. But if that wealthy couple were to read the book, they would read it and clearly know “this isn’t for me.”
Debra is saying that this book is not for marriages where there is porn use. However, how is someone supposed to know that this book isn’t for them when in that very book they talk about porn users and they admit that 64% of their own research pool used porn?
(Besides that, in this particular case of Married Sex, the book gives multiple anecdotes of people in very unhealthy relationships, showing that they actually did intend the book for people in those situations, including porn users. I won’t go into the specifics here, but you can read this detailed Facebook comment that lists many of these issues).
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
Saying, “we’re only hear to minister to those who are already healthy” kind of invalidates the need for the book, doesn’t it? After all, Jesus HImself, in Mark 2:17, said that he didn’t come for the righteous, but for sinners. It is those who are unhealthy who especially need Him!
Now the secondary assertion: Even the Bible can harm!
The truth is, even the words of Scripture — if taken out of context and applied to an unhealthy marriage situation end up causing more harm.
I don’t know about you, but this excuse really gets me. Are they comparing their book to Scripture? It’s just such a terrible way to handle Scripture, and seems very irreverent.
Yes, people can twist the Bible and make it harm. But that’s the point–they have to twist it! When you apply the Bible properly, it doesn’t harm people. It brings life.
The problem with this book is that you don’t have to twist it. When you take it at its face value it can harm, because the advice in many places is just wrong, often because the underlying premise is wrong.
Here’s just one example: they spend six paragraphs talking about how sexy it is to text nude photos to your husband, even saying that doing so can neurologically make him fixate on your nude body rather than seeking out pictures of other women’s nude bodies. But then it’s only in one sentence after all that that they acknowledge that if she’s uncomfortable you shouldn’t do it. So they showed all these fun, sexy women sending nude photos, but then said–oh, but if she’s not comfortable (if she’s not like these fun and sexy women), don’t. And they gave no warning about privacy issues.
Later in the book they again reiterate how fun this is to do. Now, I’m not against taking sexy photos (though I have major safety issue considerations). But it should never be done SO THAT he doesn’t get tempted to look elsewhere. And the language they use pressures women into doing it, rather than honoring women who may be uncomfortable for extremely legitimate reasons. (Revenge porn is a thing; privacy is a thing).
Their underlying premise is that the problem with sex is that women aren’t being sexy enough, and don’t understand men’s deep need. But when your underlying premise is skewed, the book will be faulty.
If your teaching is truth from Jesus, it should bind up the broken, not add to their wounds. Healthy teaching binds up the broken.
That is what He came to do–to set the captives free! And He told us that a bad tree can’t bear good fruit, and a good tree can’t bear bad fruit. If your teaching bears bad fruit when it is read by those who need a doctor, then you are not doing the work of Jesus.
Please, people: Don’t use people twisting the words of our precious Saviour to justify you giving bad advice.
The final defence: We should read “charitably and carefully”
Yesterday, Gary Thomas tried to respond to some of the outcry about his book by posting an encouraging email he received from a pastor who had been in their focus group for the book. The pastor explained how great the book was, but then at the end of his glowing review, he said this:
“This is a difficult topic to write about without triggering some passionate (and, at times, unfair) responses, which are easily platformed on social media and, ahem, Amazon reviews, but the reader who gives Gary and Debra a chance and reads their words carefully and charitably will be rewarded with a rich discussion of the common struggles and wondrous blessings of married sex.”
Read that last bit for a minute: As long as we read “carefully and charitably”, we’ll get something out of the book.
This puts the author in the position of the person deserving of care, rather than the reader. We need to give the author the benefit of the doubt.
But the author is the one the power in a reading situation! The author is telling the reader what to do, and the reader can’t respond. It is the reader that we should care for.
Additionally, an author’s job is to communicate. Many authors have defended themselves by simply saying, “well, I didn’t mean for it to be taken like that.” But if readers are the ones who need to carefully make sure they’re receiving the right message from what an author writes, then the author is asking the reader to do their job. The author’s job is to communicate clearly; if they don’t do that, it’s not the reader’s fault.
Jesus told us to care for the sheep, not to protect the reputations of all of the shepherds.
Gary Thomas has told me that his main problem with The Great Sex Rescue is how I treat other authors. I take them out of context and I’m overly harsh with them. I have asked him to have just as much compassion for the readers who, we found in our survey of 20,000, were harmed by their books, to no avail.
We know a sex book can be written for (almost) everybody, because we did it.
We wrote The Great Sex Rescue to help couples reclaim the beauty of sex that God intended for them, that has largely been stolen by teachings (like some of the ones in Married Sex) prevalent in the evangelical world that warp sex. We thought that it would be primarily married women who would read it, because we thought singles wouldn’t be interested, and we’ve been told that evangelical men won’t read books written by women.
But we’ve been very surprised. Our book has been read and loved by married women, yes. But many of our Amazon reviews are by men. We’ve heard from pastors who are going through it with men’s groups. Divorced women have read it to find healing from what they experienced. Single women are reading it preparing for marriage. We’ve heard from many couples who are asking their young adult kids to read it to sort them out before they get in major relationships.
Health applies broadly, across the board.
And so I’d like to end with two messages from men about The Great Sex Rescue–and men are not even our target audience! One is an Amazon review; the other a Twitter thread (I’m not going to link it because I don’t know if he wants broad attention paid to this).
I’m a married man in my late 40’s and I’ve been married to my wife for nearly 25 years. We grew up as products of the Evangelical and purity subcultures. And what we “learned” about sex in that subculture is straight up garbage.
As I read this book I realized that I was guilty of some of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that the author rightly criticizes, especially when I was younger. The purity subculture taught me that, as a man, I was basically “owed” sex from my wife. And I bought into that lie. I would pout like a spoiled child if we went too long between sexual encounters. The purity culture never, ever taught me about female sexual fulfillment. It also never, ever discussed the HUGELY important concept of consent. Marital rape in this subculture isn’t a crime; it’s an oxymoron. It couldn’t possibly exist because the wife is to be available to the man for HIS fulfillment unless there is mutual agreement to abstain. Because, well, that’s “biblical.”
The authors very correctly attack the myth that male sexual sin is somehow traced back to a woman and her lack of availability to her husband. While those outside the subculture may think this sounds impossible those of us inside know that it’s at best implied and at worst actively taught. I have a friend who once told me that his wife would give him some sort of sexual fulfillment if he was going to have meetings with women the next day so that he wouldn’t be as tempted. The implication of course is that men are totally incapable of controlling their sexual desires and are somehow quite likely to act out on their desires with women they have absolutely no commitment or intimate relationship with if the one that they DO claim to share both commitment and intimacy do not fulfill them often enough. Are. You. Kidding. Me?
The purity subculture needs an overhaul. Some of the intentions are fantastic. However, the methods need to be reconsidered to put it mildly. I applaud the authors for having the boldness to try to rescue one of the greatest gifts to HUMANKIND.
When I read The Great Sex Rescue it described sex the way that my heart always knew that it was supposed to be but I could never formulate in my mind.
My wife and I are both child sexual abuse survivors and that part of our persons is pretty severely damaged. She hasn’t read it yet, but will as she finishes nursing school and has the time. I have relayed parts to her and tears welled up in her eyes when I told her that she could stop sex whenever she wanted. Even in the middle of the act. There were times that she would soldier through it when she was triggered and I just didn’t realize what was happening.
This book has brought us closer and has enabled me to return to her something that I didn’t know that I was taking but knew had been taken before we met. She walks with something new in her step now. For all of the discouragement that you may feel please know that you have helped to right the ship at our house. You are helping two wounded people that really didn’t have any other example to go by. You made a huge difference here.
A Christ-Centred book will help people who are hurting.
So Christian authors: when those who are hurting tell you that your book is harmful, why doesn’t that matter to you? Why do you insist on blaming the readers? On saying, “well, you’re just too unhealthy to benefit from our teaching.”
When did Jesus ever do that?
Why aren’t you heartbroken that people who are hurting are saying that your book is making things worse?
Why, instead, are you telling us that we should give you the benefit of the doubt?
It is time for the welfare of the reader to take precedence. It is time for the well-being of the sheep to matter more than the reputation of well-known authors.
Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. If your book hurts those who are lost–then do something.
If you need your readers to read your book “charitably and carefully”, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with your book. If the people in your anecdotes should not be reading your book, there’s something fundamentally wrong with your book.
I know that’s hard to hear, but Jesus asks us to do the right thing–even when it’s hard.
Here’s hoping that more evangelical authors start listening to the sheep, rather than insisting that we should listen to them.
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.
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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