Statement in Response to Shaunti Feldhahn’s Concerns about The Great Sex Rescue
In this statement, I will be referring to Shaunti Feldhahn as Shaunti, because I have known her for a long time and this is how I think of her, and this is how she regularly is addressed in media.
Note: This statement was amended March 30, 2021 to take into account some of Shaunti’s concerns. This is noted below.
I want to start by expressing my best wishes for Shaunti’s recovery from her cancer diagnosis. This is an awful time for her, and I truly wish that our book and what we have been writing about was not contributing to her pain right now. I have always appreciated my interactions with Shaunti and the posts we have worked on together, and the social times we have spent together.
Recently a disagreement has arisen because of my new book The Great Sex Rescue, co-authored with Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky. That book was based on four areas of research:
- A thorough literature review of peer-reviewed journals on healthy sexuality and what contributes to healthy sexuality.
- A survey of 20,000 predominantly Christian women, consisting of at least 130 questions (depending on answer pattern, some may have received more), measuring (a) marital satisfaction, (b) sexual satisfaction, and (c) prevalence and belief rate of evangelical teachings on sex and marriage. We then compared the marital and sexual satisfaction of those who did versus did not believe each teaching to see the effects.
- Focus groups and interviews of some of those survey respondents to delve deeper into some issues
- A thorough review of the best-selling marriage and sex books in the evangelical world, of which For Women Only by Shaunti Feldhahn was one. We also looked at, but did not score, other books by Shaunti.
Our research found that some teachings in For Women Only, For Young Women Only, and Through a Man’s Eyes were correlated with negative sexual and marital outcomes. Our aim in The Great Sex Rescue is to reframe these teachings so that they focus on what we found to be healthy messages of mutuality and intimacy, focused on Jesus.
It was because of my pre-existing relationship with Shaunti that, when we had our results from our survey of 20,000 women, and our focus groups and interviews, I went to Shaunti personally in August 2020, before the book was finalized. We found that several teachings we identified in her books, and that survey responders and focus group interviewees told us they learned from her books, were related with negative sexual outcomes for women. I did not approach any other author that we critiqued; only Shaunti, because I wanted to give her a heads up and an opportunity to make a statement, retract or change anything she had said, or talk further about what we found in our survey as a courtesy due to our professional friendship.
Though she graciously replied to that email, she did not wish to change or retract anything, and instead said that she had not taught the things that our respondents reported having learned from her or that we identified in her books, and so we left it at that.
I want to stress that I have nothing against Shaunti personally. I believe that this is an issue of disagreements over teachings, and the New Testament model is that such disagreements are debated in public. When teaching is done in public, it must be corrected in public (see, for instance, Galatians 2:11-14).
When teaching is critiqued because it harms others, it must be remembered that the victim is not the teacher who is being critiqued; the victim is the person who was hurt by the teaching. The critique is needed to protect the real victim–the people who have been hurt. In Shaunti’s book Through a Man’s Eyes, she herself acknowledges that many women have come to her telling her that her teaching in the book For Women Only devastated them:
All of these reactions indicate a misunderstanding of our message and our hearts in this book. But we do understand that sometimes a reader might be misreading our words because she is simply in a particularly vulnerable place. If so, it would be wiser for her to wait and learn this information once she can do so without causing herself and her relationships pain. So please pray before you start reading. Examine your heart to see if you are open to seeing the wonderful ways God created men, even those things that might be hard to hear.”
Shaunti asserted that several women had told her that they had been unable to trust their husbands after learning about how visual they are. This is the exact finding from our survey–women who believe “all men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle” trust their husbands less.
On the one hand she says the problems are because readers think they are saying things they “would never say”; on the other hand she says that husbands report wives stopped having sex when they “learned the truth about how men are wired.” In the same paragraph, she both states that she would never say it, but she also claims it is the truth.
In our focus groups, we talked to women who had been devastated after reading For Women Only. One in particular said that she had reached out to Shaunti multiple times only to be told that she should accept that this was how God made men. We are not the first to bring these things up.
With that background, I’d now like to look point by point, as briefly as possible, at Shaunti’s statement, and address her issues one by one (her comments appear in bold):
Questioning the Survey:
“The survey that forms the basis of her book appears to be primarily of women with a particular point of view.”
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of odds ratios here. We were able to make the conclusions only because we had a diverse set of beliefs among the survey respondents. If the respondents all had the same point of view, we would not have been able to make comparisons. For instance, in order to judge how the belief “all men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle” impacted women, we needed both women who believed it and women who didn’t.
“It is contrary to good research practice to recruit a sample with an existing viewpoint, and which is “primed” to respond in a certain way, and then ask them “how do you feel about this viewpoint?”
We agree, and that is why we never asked anyone how they felt about a belief; we merely asked if they had been taught it and if they believed it, at two different points in time. We did not say, “do you think this belief harmed you?”, nor did we say, “we are going to give you a set of harmful beliefs to see what you think.” Instead, we listed beliefs, some healthy and some unhealthy, all mixed up with each other so that there was no indication of whether they were healthy or not, and asked if respondents believed them. This is one of the many ways we limited bias.
“We are hoping to release a short analysis of the research itself at some point.”
Please note that Shaunti does not have access to our survey questions, survey data, or operational definitions. Any analysis she writes without full knowledge of our methodology will be based on speculation. We are happy to have others assess our research, and believe that it is so important that we are in the process of submitting our research to the academic peer review process.
Questions relating to disagreement over beliefs:
Stating Sheila denies gender differences: “her apparent denial of various gender differences”
I do not deny gender differences. We have merely argued that the modal response is not the only response, and that the difference within groups exceeds the difference between groups.
The philosophical difference we are debating: “temptation/attraction and sin/lust.”
I think this is the root of our disagreement. I have said repeatedly that noticing is not lusting, and I have a blog post by that title. However, I also believe that sexual attraction and temptation are not the same thing, though Shaunti is equating them. Someone can see a beautiful woman, be attracted to her, and then do absolutely nothing else with that information and go on with his day without it affecting him at all.
By conflating sexual attraction and temptation, Shaunti’s books portray hyper-vigilance as the norm for men. Pages 2-7 in Through a Man’s Eyes recount a day in the life of Jack, where he is bombarded with sexual stimuli and must struggle with it. We see that most of his mental energy during the workday is spent trying to fight against looking at women or being distracted by women (or teenage girls). We read things like “he breathes a sigh of relief”, or “the next few hours are tough.” Jack’s life is described as being tremendously stressful merely because he must fight–or struggle–against his desire to look at women.
Shaunti believes we mischaracterize her work because she says that she never claims “all men struggle with lust”, but claims instead that “Most men struggle with visual stimulation and temptation in this sexualized culture, but they work to fight it.” However, by saying that men are “struggling”, she is implying they must be struggling not to do something which is bad. If they are struggling against temptation, then they are struggling not to be tempted to do something that is bad. The common, normal, regular, everyday word that would be used in this case is “lust”. In our discussions with women, overwhelmingly when asked where they heard the teaching “all men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle”, they cited For Women Only as one of the sources.
Whether one calls this a “struggle with lust” or a “struggle with visual stimulation and temptation in this sexualized culture which is fought against,” the result to women is the same. They hear that men must devote significant emotional and mental energy to avoid looking at other women sexually. The problem is not whether the struggle is about “lust” or about “visual stimulation and temptation.” The problem is that men’s lives are being described as a constant struggle not to look at women. We found in our survey that this belief is traumatic to marriages.
Questions relating to quoting Shaunti improperly:
The Great Sex Rescue quotes the wrong version of her book: “In her book, she has chosen to quote and cite the 2004 first edition of For Women Only, rather than the 2013 second edition that was put out precisely to make the sorts of language and tone changes that she is advocating for.”
I’m glad Shaunti changed some problematic wording in her 2013 update, and if this affects any of the quotations in our book, we are happy to put in citations in subsequent editions to say that this has been amended.
However, what we are looking for is not merely word changes but changes to the teaching, and a public recanting of what was taught before so that those who may have been harmed are warned. In 2015, Shaunti wrote Through a Man’s Eyes with Craig Gross. The teaching in that book is consistent with, and expands on, the teaching in the 2004 edition of For Women Only. In fact, if anything, it is more problematic than For Women Only.
I should note that I used to teach things very similarly to Shaunti. I have since recanted, and have asked for two of my books to be taken out of print–To Love, Honor and Vacuum, and Honey, I Don’t Have a Headache Tonight.
UPDATE March 30, 2021: We have since reviewed the 2013 edition, and only found one change in the passages that we quoted. Instead of saying, “A man can’t not want to look” she says “A man can’t not notice,” but the wording of the section remains virtually identical. All other quotations are still there, verbatim. We will make note of this in endnotes in future printings. We also applied our rubric to the 2013 edition, and it scored the same as the 2004 edition. We also made sure to score the new editions of all the books, and this did change the ranking. For Women Only fell from 11/14 to 12/14, because His Needs, Her Needs moved up.
The Great Sex Rescue misquotes her position on wives speaking up during sex if they’re not enjoying it: “[S]he claims my position in For Women Only is that, “The wife has to affirm her husband, even if he is not tending to her needs in bed.” I have never said anything like that, nor would I imply it.”
Here is the paragraph in question from For Women Only:
“First, know that you’re responding to a tender heart hiding behind all that testosterone. If at all possible, respond to his advances with your full emotional involvement, knowing that you’re touching his heart. But if responding physically seems out of the question, let your words be heart words–reassuring, affirming, adoring. Do everything in your power–using words and actions your husband understands–to keep those pangs of personal rejection from striking the man you love. Leave him in no doubt that you love to love him.”
Here is our commentary on that (the page numbers below are endnotes in our book):
In the book For Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn warns wives that just having sex is not enough—men need to feel wanted. “Having a regular, mutually enjoyed sex life was critical to the man’s feeling of being loved and desired.” (p. 96) But then, in that same chapter, Feldhahn says, “If responding physically is out of the question, let your words be heart words—reassuring, affirming, adoring.” (p. 103) The wife has to affirm her husband, even if he is not tending to her needs in bed. Feldhahn does acknowledge that some women will have a hard time responding physically, but then she frames this as being a personal issue that may need counseling rather than the far greater likelihood that he has never learned to prioritize foreplay or her pleasure. (p. 105). We find it problematic to tell a woman she must enjoy something without also telling her that she can expect him to make it enjoyable.
Sheila misquoted Shaunti in the RNS article
In the RNS article, my original quote was:
For Women Only advises wives to “accept the struggle” their husbands have with lust.
Shaunti contacted RNS and wanted to change it to this–which is not a direct quote from her book:
““For Women Only” quotes a man wishing his wife could “accept the struggle” he has with the “weakness” of lust and wanting to be “loved for who I am, not for who she wants me to be.” In response to the husband’s quote, the book asks ‘Do we want to support our husbands or to change them?””
I insisted on using a direct quote from her book, which is what RNS used, expanding the quote to this:
“For Women Only” quotes a man wishing his wife could “accept the struggle I have with lust,” and he could “reveal my weaknesses without being judged or accused,” saying he wants to be “loved for who I am, not for who she wants me to be.” In response to the husband’s quote, the book asks, “Do we want to support our husbands, or to change them?”
I have no problem with the expanded quote; I used a shorter one in the first place because of word count. I did, however, supply RNS with the relevant screen shots of the quotes before publishing. I believe that the expanded quote makes my case more strongly, and I am happy with it.
Questioning The Great Sex Rescue critiquing other authors:
“In my judgment, all the authors that Sheila has strongly criticized, including Emerson Eggerichs, Willard Harley, and others, are men and women of goodwill who have positively impacted millions of marriages for many years. None of us would ever want to cause harm. It is wrong to imply that these ministries and books do more damage than they are worth.”
After reviewing academic articles related to healthy sexuality, and reviewing our survey data, we created a 12-point rubric of markers of healthy sexuality teaching. We applied that rubric to each of the 13 evangelical books we were analyzing, as well as our secular control book. Several books scored very well, including the secular control book and The Gift of Sex by the Penners, which scored 47/48. Intimate Issues, Sacred Marriage, and Boundaries in Marriage also scored above 40. Other books, though, did not score well, and fell instead into the “harmful” category, including those by Willard Harley, Emerson Eggerichs, and Shaunti Feldhahn. These were also among the books most likely to be named as harmful by our survey respondents, or brought up in our focus group interviews, while books like The Gift of Sex or Boundaries were pretty much universally called helpful.
It’s not just enough to call out the bad teachings if the sources of those teachings are still seen as authoritative in the evangelical world. What people need to understand is how to be discerning, and our book shows them how to judge healthy vs. unhealthy.
I do not believe that it is my job to protect other authors’ work; I believe that it is all of our jobs as teachers in the church to protect the sheep. Therefore, when we find harmful teachings, we must call it out or else we become a church who elevates reputation over safety.
I do believe that the authors never intended to harm, and we state so clearly at the very start of our book. But good intentions do not erase harm done. One must also ask, how much harm is acceptable before it becomes too much? We serve a Savior who left the 99 to go after the 1. We assert that it is the church’s duty to go after the lost 1, not merely write off their pain or suffering as a casualty of an otherwise good ministry.
In the evangelical world, we have seen the terrible fallout recently when people rush to defend the reputation of a leader rather than listening to those who have been hurt. We hope that this rush to defend reputations of the powerful will change to a focus on protecting the sheep.
Sheila is not abiding by the Kingdom Way to raise concerns: “Many Christian leaders have contacted me to share their support and to say they have privately gone to Sheila with their concerns about her approach. I would urge all to take that approach. That is the Kingdom way to raise concerns and advance change.”
I would like to end with this, which I also opened with. This is quite simple; when teaching is done in public, it must be corrected in public. This is the norm in the New Testament, but it is also the norm in academia, which Shaunti knows, since she is Harvard educated. When things are published, they are then hashed out in public so that further learning can occur.
Too often, when Christian leaders are questioned, those doing the questioning are told they are wrong because of the way they are going about it, often as a way of distracting from the issue at hand.
Additionally, Matthew 18 is between individuals who have been wronged and who did the wrong. Multiple women and men have come to Shaunti at her own admission, telling her that her book had harmed them. She doubled down on her message in Through a Man’s Eyes. She is not the injured party here, though we understand that this situation is highly distressing to her (as it is to us). Rather, as Shaunti has continuously denied harming the injured brother or sister, this matter has had to be addressed in a more public manner, in keeping with Matthew 18. If anyone has been ignoring Matthew 18 protocol, it is the authors who have continuously overlooked readers coming to them in private with reports of harm they have caused.
Shaunti raised another issue in her statement that does not relate directly to The Great Sex Rescue, so I wanted to address this separately from the rest.
“Sheila and her team have gone far over the line in some of their personal comments about me, including claiming that my son was likely being sexually abused as a young boy.”
This claim comes from our Bare Marriage podcast from February 25th, which you can listen to here, starting at minute 29. The conversation did not involve me, but involved my husband Dr. Keith Gregoire and my daughter Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach.
The accusation here is a serious one, but Shaunti did not provide any quotations to back it up, or a link to our podcast so that her readers could decide for themselves. We have always given our readers the ability to check back to see what Shaunti said for themselves; we would appreciate the same courtesy.
In this podcast, at no point did Keith or Rebecca accuse Shaunti of abusing her son, nor did they say or imply that her son had been abused. What they did say is that such behavior, as described in the anecdote with the 4-year-old (written below), would constitute a “yellow flag”. It is typical behaviour for both boys (and girls!) to show interest in pictures of adults who are naked or scantily clad. It is not typical, while looking, for children to spontaneously report about physical changes in their bodies and make a causal link between the two. If it was raised in a pediatrician’s office, it would likely elicit further questioning. We regret that this was taken personally, and certainly understand how it may have been, given that Shaunti’s example referred to her own son.
We do have concerns with how Shaunti characterizes sexual behaviour in pre-pubertal children. While curiosity over bodies is normal; playing doctor is normal; playing with one’s genitals is normal; experiencing erections with direct stimulation is normal (genital arousal vs. sexual arousal). However, for an author to imply that 3 and 4 year old boys experience sexual arousal and desire in a way analogous to adult male sexuality is inappropriate and harmful.
Shaunti reported this on her blog:
1. It starts young. Yes, I knew men and boys were visual – but I didn’t really grasp just how visual until my son was thunderstruck by the pictures in the Victoria’s Secret shop window at age of 4. “I like those ladies,” he said, in an awed tone of voice, suddenly and completely oblivious to everything else around him. “Their bare tummies make my tummy feel good.” The male brain is the male brain from the earliest age, and as I share in Through a Man’s Eyes, that means we moms need to know how to help those little eyes be careful what they see from the earliest ages.
In Through a Man’s Eyes, she said this:
“One woman told me that she took her three-year-old son with her to a fabric store, where she browsed the sewing patterns while he sat on a chair and looked at the pictures in his book. At least she thought he was looking at his book. Unbeknownst to her, he found the sewing-pattern images of the women in their underwear much more fascinating. A few minutes later he yelled across the crowded store, “Mom! Every time I look at these girls my pee pee stands up!” This little boy was three years old and had no idea what sex was…but he still had a male brain.”
She also said this:
“Most guys like looking at women. And they like looking at or imaging naked women…This is true whether the male in question is age nine or ninety…”
In all three cases, she describes pre-pubertal children either fantasizing about naked women in sexual ways or becoming sexually aroused at seeing naked women, even at the age of 3 or 4. This goes beyond normal childhood exploratory behaviour.
Our concern here is three-fold:
- Parents sometimes interpret things pre-pubertal children say or do in a sexual way when they are not. Prepubertal children are not sexual in the way that adults are sexual. Yes, they are curious about things, including those parts of their bodies, but this is a completely innocent, normal developmental stage, and we need to be careful not to read things into it that are not there. Our concern is that the examples she used seemed in our eyes to equate childhood curiosity with sexual desire and arousal.
- Child sexual abuse is tragically a common problem, and it is important for all of us to recognize that overtly sexual behavior in children can be a red flag for child sexual abuse having occurred. Our concern is that Shaunti’s examples may desensitize parents to this symptom of sexual abuse in young boys, as they may discount it as just having a “male brain.”
- Groups such as NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association) lobby to lower the age of consent by arguing that children have sexuality just as adults do. It’s important that we not promote this line of thinking. Our concern is that by comparing children as young as toddlers to adult men in terms of sexuality, our church may contribute to this problem (“the male brain is the male brain from the earliest age,” “whether 9 or 90,” “this little boy was three years old…but he still had a male brain.”).
Shaunti claims that the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with her opinion on this matter.
My husband, Dr. Keith Gregoire, is a pediatrician and a professor of pediatrics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is an Examiner with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Canada, part of a team determining which candidates from across Canada will pass their licensing exams in pediatrics. He served as Chief of Pediatrics in the Quinte Region for years. He served as Head of Undergraduate Medical Education in Pediatrics at Queen’s University, overhauling the curriculum for medical students in pediatrics. He teaches medical students and residents. He is well-versed in child sexual development, and does not believe that portraying children with adult sexual motivations or reactions is wise or accurate, and does not believe that the AAP’s statement supports Shaunti’s assertions.
I understand the problem with personal anecdotes of your kids when you’re a writer. For twelve years I wrote a weekly syndicated column, and I had to take great care not to talk about my daughters in any way that could be embarrassing or violate their privacy. I certainly don’t want to contribute to any embarrassment. If Shaunti removes the blog post about her son, I will be more than happy to remove any written commentary I have about it as well, so that it is no longer searchable. Again, our goal is not a personal attack; it is merely to combat what we see as harmful teachings.
The issue at hand here is not that teachers have been hurt; it is that people have been hurt.
I am saddened that those who have written books that have perpetrated harm, and have been warned before but didn’t heed those warnings, are still not willing to address the harm their books have caused. We hope that with time, prayer, and introspection, this may change.