I’ve been talking about Gary Thomas’ and Debra Fileta’s new sex book Married Sex off and on on this blog and my podcast for the last few months, and there’s been quite a hubbub about it on social media. The book has also been largely panned in reviews on Amazon.
I’ve been asked by many when I was going to write my review. Originally I was thinking that I wouldn’t (I’ve said enough in podcasts), but I think it’s useful to have one place where all of these things are mentioned, because there haven’t been many comprehensive reviews published listing the concerns.
This post is long because I wanted to cover everything in this book review. Thanks for your patience!
Married Sex opens with a story of a naked 60-year-old couple pretending to be Adam and Eve and having sex in their backyard.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with a 60-year-old couple having sex naked outside, but this odd opening sets the stage for a very odd book. I couldn’t help asking, “Do they live in a subdivision? How high is the fence? Are there mosquitoes? And why is role playing Adam and Eve supposed to be better than just having a wonderful, intimate experience as simply Tom and Nancy (or whatever your names are)?”
The first chapters then set up strange expectations. Look at Danny and Jocelyn! They sleep naked, even when they’re cold. They sleep in a small double bed. Jocelyn never says no to her husband, and loves talking about her climaxes with her women’s Bible study group. Be like Jocelyn!
In fact, everyone does stuff naked! The whole beginning of the book is a parade of naked people. Darrell and Joanne even counsel couples to cook naked (you’re allowed to wear an apron, at least). I just hope they never cook anything with grease splatter.
Do you remember when you were a teenager, and there was the “cool crowd” at your high school you never quite fit with? You may have changed your wardrobe, adopted a new hairstyle, and started listening to new music, but you still were never quite “it”.
This felt like the book version of the clique you never managed to join; all through the book were unrealistic stories of people who embraced sex to the extreme–and the unspoken accusation was, “why can’t you be hot like them?”
Whether it was Janell who gave her husband sex and blow jobs multiple times a day over their 9-day trip for her husband’s father’s funeral; or Rebekah who always gives sexual favors whenever she doesn’t feel like intercourse because she doesn’t want her husband to feel rejected; or Izzy who did a nude photo shoot so that her husband “neurologically” is attracted to her naked body rather than porn, we’re left with examples that leave us feeling we’ll never measure up.
We’re invited to listen to women who love sex and get in the mood because they get Brazilian waxes; go out on dates panty-less; or wear crotchless panties.
Do you like sleeping in warm pyjamas in a king sized bed and snuggling watching Netflix? You’re just not hot enough.
To be honest, I wanted to like Married Sex.
Debra Fileta has been a friend of mine for a long time, and Gary and I were close for years.
But also, professionally this was the first big sex book coming out by an evangelical publisher since The Great Sex Rescue had been published, and we know that Gary had read The Great Sex Rescue, and the editors at Zondervan were familiar with our rubric of the twelve markers of healthy sexuality teaching. So I was hopeful that the book would be a sign that the conversation was changing.
Instead, while much of the book was positive, I was left feeling very saddened, because the harmful messages that we identified in our survey of 20,000 women were repeated–but sneakily. It almost felt like we had taught Gary Thomas how to give the obligation sex message without sounding like the obligation sex message. We had taught him what NOT to say, but he hadn’t taken our findings to heart to understand what TO say. Instead, he just doubled down on the same old messaging: Men need sex in a way that women will never understand. Men are visual creatures and they can’t control it. Sex should feel like a sacrifice for women.
This surprised me. I felt like I was reading something written by someone that I didn’t even know, and it seemed so out of character given other things that he has written.
But let me give specifics.
First, What’s Good in Married Sex by Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta?
The book does an excellent job of describing the sexual response cycle; explaining different types of libidos; talking about how to bring a woman to orgasm, and the importance of valuing her orgasm; talking about how sex is more than just physical, but is meant to be a uniting experience on every level. The description of En Gedi sex is beautiful.
Debra uses anecdotes tastefully and chooses them well; she teaches how our bodies work and how to satisfy them using technical and appropriate language, and I thought they were overall great and helpful. But Debra’s chapters read very differently from Gary’s. As Lisa, an Amazon commenter, aptly put it:
This book has two authors. I’m left wondering if they’ve ever met? This book literally contradicts itself on the same page. And the chapters written by one author are so vastly different than the chapters written by the other author that I’m left wondering why they chose to team up at all. They seem to have such different perspectives and standards.
Much of Debra’s advice is emotionally healthy, and is backed by evidence-based research (there was a notable exception in the way she talked about vaginismus; it is not a psychological disorder, but a physiological disorder that can have both physical and psychological roots).
There was so much that concerned me in the book as a whole, though, and so many strange elements that I do need to go into detail about these concerns. Many people told me that when reading Married Sex at first they were really confused. The advice seemed good, but it felt “off”. Gary uses lots of God language and proof texts many of his points, making it difficult to disagree (I must disagree with God then!). But the teaching often contradicts itself, and the anecdotes and the teaching points often don’t match up. You need to read between the lines–and once you do, it’s hard to look away.
Most of these concerns focus on the chapters that Gary wrote himself. Here are the problematic things that I identified:
In Married Sex, Gary Thomas Objectifies His Wife
I’ve mentioned this on a podcast before, but it is undignified and disrespectful to say about your wife, “her nipples were like superpowered, high-octane sexual excitement boosters.” It’s dishonoring to talk about how she bites the pillow when she orgasms. Saying these things invites people to picture your wife in a sexual way. When authors do this, they normalize it in the wider Christian culture, and women should not be subjected to husbands engaging in locker room talk about them.
It is very possible to be explicit about sex without being voyeuristic about your spouse. And you don’t need to brag about the specifics of your own sex life to make it sound as if you know what you’re talking about.
Gary Thomas’ Anecdotes in Married Sex Have an “Ick” Factor that is Hard to Describe
Let’s start with the non-sexual, more PG stuff that makes you cringe. Rather than saying “Erica and Timothy have four children,” Gary says:
Erica has four young children, and she calls her care for them a twenty- four-hour-a-day job. Her husband, Timothy, helps, but he works outside the home, which means decisions throughout the day tend to fall on her shoulders alone. (p. 149)
Moms know that there has only ever been one virgin birth, and it happened two thousand years ago. Those children don’t belong to Erica alone. And note to Gary and other male authors: Dads don’t “help” with their kids. It’s called parenting.
But while that’s strange, at least that’s not painting an erotic picture about using a silk scarf on his shaft while you use makeup brushes on his testicles (all the women reading that are thinking–”are you CLEANING those brushes afterwards? Or do I buy specific “ball brushes” so I don’t transfer germs? And do you know how expensive makeup brushes are?“) And implying that a man will brag to his friends about how well you give a hand job is intrusive and violating.
I’m not sure if it’s generational (except Gary and I aren’t that far apart in age), or if it’s because this is the first sex book that either author has written, but it reads as if the two did not know how to talk about sex well, and think describing explicit stories is the best way to teach (or maybe these give them street cred).
Take the disturbingly erotic sequence with Liam and a headboard: there is no other word for it other than erotica. It is not educational, because Connor, Keith, Rebecca and I have all read the same passage, and none of us agrees on what specific sexual act is even being described. It seems merely intended to titillate.
That’s even their stated aim, since in that chapter they said, “Hopefully you’re already getting a little warmer as you read.” (p. 44) Even Amazon Audible automatically classified this book as erotica!
Now I’m not against explicitness. Clinical terms are important. I’m simply against describing things deliberately in a way to titillate. Most people don’t buy Christian books to get hot and bothered, and to write in such a way as to invite them to is a breach of confidence.
I mostly write about sex; that’s pretty much my main thing. But like one of my co-authors of The Great Sex Rescue told me this morning, “I should not know more about Gary Thomas’ sexual preferences than I do about yours.” Yep. You can write about sex without getting personal and voyeuristic, and yet somehow Married Sex missed this memo.
Gary Thomas in Married Sex Sounds Like He’s Trying to Say Something He Knows He Can’t Get Away with Saying
The anecdotes in Married Sex are often diametrically opposed to the teaching they’re supposed to illustrate, showing that Gary’s conflicted. The book frequently states that women can have the higher sex drive; that men need to bring women to orgasm more and understand why women don’t orgasm; that sex is more than physical. The teaching aspect of the book is actually quite good and sound.
And yet in the anecdotes, it is pretty much always the woman who doesn’t want sex enough and who has to be cajoled into having it more and realizing how much she is hurting her husband and their marriage by not prioritizing his needs.
They take a firm stance against porn (Great!), but then they also tell you that sending naked pictures can help him resist porn. Gary says obligation sex is wrong and everyone should be allowed to say no, but then gives multiple examples of women who have decided never to say no, and how happy their husbands are.
On a personal level, we were also concerned that Gary violated professional and ethical standards by using our work and our phrasing without ever crediting us. However, as I read the book I saw that this was not limited to our work. I found myself saying, “Oh, there’s Kevin Leman,” “there’s us,” and even “there’s Doug Wilson!” (not that I’ve ever wanted to be in the same company as Doug Wilson). It seems like Gary is simply not sure of his message, because he incorporates so many other people’s messages into his work–even people with whom he would normally disagree.
Married Sex Glosses Over Abuse Issues
Power dynamics in marriage are dangerous. A power dynamic is inherently abusive.
And yet how does Gary suggest women address these power imbalances? We flash our boobs.
That’s right. God apparently gave women breasts in order to reset power balances. This passage needs to be read in its entirety:
By creational design and divine revelation, God clearly wants a wife’s body, specifically her breasts, to enthrall her husband; in fact, the root word in the original language is more specific than “breasts,” but I’m not going to type that out here; you’ll have to go to the endnotes for more on that. This gives wives an influence over their husbands that can reset any power balances that occur because of other issues. Many young women have learned how one quick flash of their breasts can change the climate in the room for their husbands like nothing else ever will. This ability to enthrall is a distinctly human characteristic, by the way. A woman’s breasts are unique among primates in that they amplify during puberty and stay enlarged throughout life. No animals share this trait. Female apes have breasts that enlarge when they are nursing, but they don’t become that way until the moms start nursing and don’t stay that way. Full breasts, throughout life, distinguish a woman from any other creature on earth. (p. 13)
That word that Gary is so reticent to type? It’s simply “nipple”. And saying that “full breasts” are important is rather humbling for those of us who have always been size challenged, or, even more tragically, have undergone a mastectomy.
To imply that the way we deal with power imbalance is to flash our boobs is just plain dangerous. To mention power imbalances in a marriage book and not also say that this is abusive and problematic is authorial malpractice.
This malpractice continues in the passage about Reggie and rage. Gary Thomas talks about how Reggie’s rage and anger has impacted the marriage, and says Sabrina now feels that “Angry sex was different. It felt different. It left her in a different place. Anger had wrecked a once beautiful connection.” (p. 219). But having sex with someone because they’re angry and raging at you is not sex. It’s very likely rape. To not even mention that this might cross the line into coercion is, again, highly problematic, and I wonder how this could have happened given a licensed counselor co-authored the book.
The Impetus in Married Sex is for Women to Give More so that Men Get What They Need
While the book mentions that she may need time off postpartum–it also talks about how women moan, get lubricated, and get excited giving handjobs postpartum (p. 70). These sex positive women get aroused even when they’re on their periods or just had a baby simply by giving him a handjob, so why don’t you? That’s the message that I heard, over and over: No, you don’t have to have sex when there are good reasons not to, but look at these awesome women who do anyway. Be like these sexy women!
Do they ask men to step up to the plate like this?
Let’s return to the intrepid Erica and Timothy, with the four kids. Erica is exhausted by the mental load of making so many decisions and carrying all the details for the household in her head, and sex is far down on her to do list. So they start making Fridays the day that Timothy thinks about the housework, picks up dinner, and arranges the kids’ schedules so she can have a bubble bath and get in the mood for sex (p. 150).
It’s not about Timothy sharing mental load so he can be a decent partner and decent human being; it’s about Timothy doing all of these things so Erica has the mental space to get turned on and have sex. If Timothy can be an involved dad on Fridays, though, it’s unclear why he can’t also be a good dad on Saturdays or Sundays or Mondays. Most women don’t want a man to share mental load so he’ll get sex; they want to have sex with a man who shares mental load in general. Having a decent partner is what makes her desire him. Gary’s got the order all wrong here.
Nevertheless, Gary wants us to know that men have it really, really bad. He repeats this theme so much–men get desperate if they don’t get sex. Men find the word “no” very difficult emotionally, because even a single no will make him feel rejected and affect his identity, so we should consider “no” an act of foreplay, and say “convince me” instead. Being sexually fulfilled means he can excel at his job, do more around the house, be nicer to his wife.
Men are also visual creatures, and have different brains than women. “Sexual thoughts flicker in the background of a man’s visual cortex all day and night, making him always at the ready for seizing sexual opportunity.” (p. 60). Despite current peer-reviewed neuroscience contradicting up these claims, and, in fact, these claims being critiqued soundly when they were first published twelve years ago, Gary Thomas chose to use this author to show how desperate men are for their sexual needs to be met, rather than sharing the broader scientific consensus about brain differences being minimal.
The culmination of this “men need sex in a way you’ll never understand” argument falls at the end of Married Sex.
All through the book Gary Thomas has been telling us that sex shouldn’t be an obligation–it should be something that we do because we want to. But it’s clear that Gary’s concerned that this might let women off the hook too easily, so he needs to give it a different spin by the end. Now that you’ve read how great sex can be emotionally and spiritually; how hot it can be; how he can make you orgasm; what’s the big take away?
Sex should feel like a sacrifice at least some of the time.
After explaining how we should view sex the way parents view feeding a baby in the middle of the night, Gary Thomas writes, “It is not healthy for sex to always (or even mostly) feel like a sacrifice. But it also is not healthy for a spouse to think sex should never feel like a sacrifice.” (p. 227).
And what should this sacrifice look like? Gary now divides it into gendered terms. Women need to say yes to sex more and be generous.
And men? How do they sacrifice? This deserves to be quoted:
A compassionate husband thinks about what his wife is feeling and how he can make her feel better. He recognizes her natural fears about her body and reassures her of her beauty. He knows she has limited energy, so he does his best to help out. He empathizes with what his wife must feel to have children pawing at her body all day long, so he goes out of his way to offer giving touches, not taking touches. He is able to say, “Life isn’t easy for you,” so he seeks to make it a little better, to help ease her concerns rather than add to her burdens.
Some wives (by no means all) who read this may think, That means he needs to be leaving me alone! But does it? Perhaps at times, but if God designed you to be desired by your husband, adored by your husband, celebrated by your husband, and sexually pleased by your husband, wouldn’t “sexual compassion” motivate him to adopt an approach that allows him to accomplish this in a way you find inviting and exciting? (p. 227)
So women sacrifice by having more sex that they don’t want; and men sacrifice by having as much sex as they do want, but making sure that she enjoys it too, and making sure that he also talks to her and makes some effort around the house.
Where, exactly, is his sacrifice?
Since when is doing the bare minimum of being a decent human being considered a sacrifice?
Perhaps that’s really the big problem with Married Sex. If men do the bare minimum, they’re lauded. But women? We need to sleep naked; cook naked; get aroused giving handjobs postpartum; send naked pictures; adore sex even when burdened by mental load. Ideally we should be sexually available always; never say no; understand that sex is what bolsters his ego.
This book had so much potential, but instead it reinforces so many of the tropes that we found were harmful in The Great Sex Rescue. For that reason, I can’t recommend it, and strongly advise you to steer clear of it. I hope and pray the next book that is published about sex in the Christian publishing world takes the messages of our study to heart, rather than merely using catchphrases to cover their bases, while continuing to double down on the same harmful tropes that evangelicalism has been teaching for far too long.
Other Posts and Podcasts that mention some of the issues with Married Sex:
- Do We Really Have “Pink” Brains and “Blue” Brains? A look at the neuroscience (podcast)
- How to Tell if the Science Being Quoted is Junk Science (an in-depth look at the neuroscientist Gary uses to support his claims)
- The All About Boobs Podcast (and how boobs should not reset power balances)
- The Postpartum Sexual Favors Podcast (Rebecca’s two weeks postpartum, and we look at the advice given in books, including Married Sex)
I do not necessarily approve of everything written here, but share these as other people’s opinions on what is happening
- Amazon Reviews (there are many!)
- Shannon Ashley: But Have You Tried Sleeping Naked? and The Fragile Male Ego that Can’t Function without Constant Sexual Validation
- Holy Tension blog: Married Sex Lacks Strong Biblical Exegesis
Married Sex Has Been Endorsed By:
“Married Sex is a masterpiece, and it’s one of the most practical, biblical, and helpful books on sex ever written.” Dave and Ashley Willis, the Naked Marriage podcast
“Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta will help your marriage get pretty hot and your bedroom even hotter.” Dave and Ann Wilson
“I can’t imagine a couple that wouldn’t benefit from this book.” Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family
“Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta have created a positive, balanced, and comprehensive resource that will guide you through the joys and challenges of sexual intimacy.” Juli Slattery, Authentic Intimacy podcast
“It’s time for Christian couples to renormalize and reclaim God’s vision for married sex.” Ryan and Selena Frederick, Fierce Marriage podcast
“This is the best Christian Sex book I’ve ever read.” Paul Byerley, the Generous Husband and The Marriage Bed
“It is biblically sound, comprehensive and full of insights on building authentic God-honoring passionate sexual intimacy in a marriage.” Julie Sibert, Intimacy in Marriage blog
“…this book will hand you the keys to unleash God’s rich blessing and strength on your marriage.” Levi and Jennie Lusko, lead pastors of Fresh Life Church
“Married Sex is a practical guide for all married couples who want to know the sexual life God has created for you…” Kyle Idleman, author of Not a Fan
“…a holistic guide to developing and maintaining a vibrant and satisfying sex life throughout the course of your marriage.” Chrystal Evans Hurst
“…thorough, biblical, practical, and real.” Scott Kedersha, Marriage Pastor at Harris Creek Baptist Church, Waco, TX
“Married Sex captures the beauty of sexual intimacy as God intends.” Jay Mathis, President Mathis Consulting, former President of African Renewal Ministries
“The premise is profound and important for creating healthy and holy marriages.” Brent Deakins, Assistant Superintendent at Intermountain Church of the Nazarene, ID
“Debra and Gary skillfully navigate the interdependencies of establishing a loving relationship and creating real passion during sex.” Ruth Buezis, author
If any of these endorsers would like to rescind or qualify their endorsements, I would be happy to make that announcement. Or if any of them would like personal conversations about the problems with the book, and where to go from here, I would also be happy to talk.
Gary Thomas is also publishing another book with Zondervan about marriage and sex, to be released October 2022.
What do you think? Have you read Married Sex? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
On almost every measure, church attendance is good for you. Researchers have consistently found...
So many women--and many men as well--honestly feel like the church is hurting them. I do not...
I truly believe that most guys are good guys. I often get accused of hating men, but that's...
What if setting up marriage as a hierarchy, where men make the decisions, isn't good for men...
Sheila here! My husband Keith's manifesto on Wednesday about how the evangelical church has...
Most of us agree that you shouldn't have to submit to an abusive husband. But what if you're...
Sheila here! Last week I published some "Fixed it for Yous" from biblical counselors which were...
For the last three years I've been trying to change the evangelical conversation about sex. I've...