Interview with the Authors of The Great Sex Rescue
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.
Sheila Wray Gregoire, along with her daughter, author and psychology graduate, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and epidemiologist and statistician, Joanna Sawatsky, bravely tackle these harmful teachings, with a high view of marriage, God’s plan for sex, and for scripture. You may not agree with every conclusion or piece of advice, but this is a resource we need as we continue to deconstruct unbiblical teachings on sex, purity, and marriage.
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.
Welcher: In your book, you make a distinction between intimacy and intercourse. What is the difference, and why is this distinction important?
Gregoire: This is one of my biggest pet peeves! If I were to ask our dear readers: “Did you have sex last night?” chances are everyone is picturing something specific in their head, and chances are that “something” is intercourse: penis in vagina until he reaches climax. The problem with that definition is that her experience is missing. She could be lying there making a grocery list in her head; she could be lying there in emotional turmoil; she could even be lying there in physical pain, and it would still count as having sex. But biblically, sex is not just intercourse; it is a deep “knowing” (Genesis 4:1) that is supremely pleasurable for both (Song of Songs). And it’s utterly mutual (1 Corinthians 7:3–5). So sex is mutual, intimate, and pleasurable, which means both people matter. When we think of sex as intercourse, we make it only physical. But we also prioritize the male experience. We have a 47-point orgasm gap, by which we mean that studies show that 95% of men almost always/always reach orgasm during a sexual encounter, but we found only 48% of women did. And of the women who did, only 39% can through intercourse alone. Most women need a lot more than intercourse, or find other routes of sexual stimulation more reliable, and that’s the way God made women’s bodies. So we need to stop thinking of sex as intercourse, and instead think of it as an intimate encounter that is personal, pleasurable, and mutual. We need a much broader definition if we want it to include both spouses.
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.
Welcher: You discuss the fact that men and women experience sex differently, noting how often female sexual pleasure is misunderstood and therefore abandoned in marriage. At one point you ask: “Could it be that God intended for men to have to spend some time helping their wives achieve pleasure in a way that does not directly stimulate the husband at all?” Talk a little more about this.
Gregoire: The only reason we think women take a long time is because we’re comparing them to men. If men took forty-five minutes on average to orgasm, women would look like rockets. God created our bodies and we need to work with them. When our definition of sex is intercourse, though, with man’s experience is the measuring stick, women can feel broken and men can assume women are frigid. But God gave women a clitoris—a little body part whose only purpose is pleasure. Men’s main sexual organ is multi-purpose, but women’s has only one. Here’s something that may seem strange, though: God didn’t put the clitoris up inside the vagina, where it would get maximum stimulation through intercourse. Instead, he placed it outside the vagina, so that it would tend to get more stimulation from things that don’t necessarily stimulate him at the same time. That means that God intended for men to take time to serve women. Sex is not entirely, or even primarily, for men. It’s for both partners. And women don’t need to feel selfish or broken if they require something other than intercourse to make them feel pleasure. Yet when we focus on sex as intercourse, we often imply that foreplay is “extra,” or that if she’s not enjoying intercourse, she needs to catch up with him. That can make her feel like she’s just not sexual, which isn’t true at all! And, as we found, in the long run, it can result in her losing her libido and giving up hope.
Welcher: As I interviewed women for my book, Talking Back to Purity Culture, painful sex came up over and over again as an issue for Christian women. In your book, you deal with this at length. You point out that, “Both The Gospel Coalition and Focus on the Family have online articles on erectile dysfunction while failing to provide any information on vaginismus, sexual pain, or postpartum pain.” Why do you think that is, and how can we change the conversation?
Gregoire: Most women experiencing sexual pain can still have sex. Seven percent can’t, but most can. With erectile dysfunction, you can’t have sex. Our measure of a successful sex life is not the experience of both partners, but rather it seems to be how often a man gets sex. And perhaps unintentionally, this has resulted in an incredibly calloused stance towards women’s sexual experience where their pain is not even a consideration as long as he gets his needs met. I simply can’t think of any other reason for the total lack of information on women’s sexual pain. Vaginismus, or primary sexual pain, affects 22% of women in our survey, and postpartum pain affects even more. In couples under forty, vaginismus is far more common than erectile dysfunction. But few people even know the word. A woman can get married expecting sex to be easy and great, and be greeted on her wedding night with an inability to even achieve penetration. Because we have no word for it, these women often feel as if they are the problem, as if they are the only ones going through this. This isn’t true. Yet this is largely an evangelical problem. Medical journals have known for over fifty years that religious conservativism is highly correlated with vaginismus. Our survey has now revealed why: there are certain key teachings, such as the obligation-sex message, that cause vaginismus rates to skyrocket. Women should not have to endure pain just so their husbands, who are called to sacrificially love their wives as they do their own bodies, can receive pleasure, and yet that is exactly what is happening. Let’s normalize talking about this, and pointing couples to solutions, which often involve deconstructing harmful beliefs around sex.
Welcher: What did you mean when you said: “The key to sexual pleasure is not a wedding ring”?
Gregoire: We make it sound like once you’re married, sex will be easy and stupendous and sex before marriage will be disappointing and shallow. In fact, that’s simply not the case. Many Christians will tell you that they had amazing sex before marriage, and then it fizzled out. Just because sex felt good before marriage does not mean that our sexual ethic is wrong or that the gospel is in jeopardy, and we need to start talking about this with more nuance. The key to great sex is not a wedding ring; it’s arousal. When you have sex before marriage, you’re often having sex because you were making out, got aroused, and that led to sex. After marriage, when you can finally “do it,” we often skip the making out and go right to intercourse and miss the whole sexual progression cycle, especially for women. If we skip arousal, she will never enjoy sex. We need to start talking about not just sexual chastity, but also what constitutes sexual enjoyment.
Welcher: One of the most damaging messages of purity culture, for me, was the way sex was depicted as the goal, the prize, the ultimate experience. How can we talk about the importance of sex in marriage—encouraging couples that struggle not to give up—while resisting the temptation to turn sex into an idol?
Gregoire: Instead of telling people to get married so they can have sex, we need to talk about the importance of intimacy at all levels. Sex is a part of that, sure. But it’s only a part. Sex has been so idolized within marriage culture, largely because we’ve bribed people into waiting for marriage by telling them that they will get great sexual rewards. When we get back to the biblical definition of sex—that it’s intimate, pleasurable, and mutual—a lot of the rest falls into place. When you realize that great sex is the culmination of a great marriage, not the cause of a great marriage, then we put it back in its proper place and it stops being an idol.
Welcher: The “seventy-two-hour” rule is something many Christians who grew up in the church are familiar with, the idea that men need sexual release every seventy-two hours, because that is when semen is replenished in their bodies. What is interesting is that you traced this idea back to James Dobson, from something he wrote in 1977, and demonstrated how little scientific and biblical support there was for such an assertion. What impact did this idea have on teachings about sex in marriage in the church? Is there a better way to view male sexuality?
Gregoire: This goes back to our definition of what a good marriage and a good sex life looks like. What is our definition of success? At some point, we gave up hope that sex could actually be good and mutual, and that both partners would want it, and so the church unconsciously decided to at least make sure it was frequent. In The Great Sex Rescue, we’re asking for two things: first, stop using frequency as the primary measure of a healthy sex life. When women reach orgasm regularly; when there is no porn use or sexual dysfunction; when there’s high emotional closeness, the frequency tends to take care of itself. However, high frequency of sex is not correlated with a healthy marriage. It goes one way but not the other.
Second, we’d encourage people to stop thinking of libido in gendered terms—that he will need sex every seventy-two hours, and she must provide it even if she doesn’t want it. In fact, in our survey, we found 19% of women report higher sex drives than their husbands, and another 23% report the same sex drive. It’s only in 58% of marriages that he has the higher sex drive. This is a lower estimate of higher sex drive women than other surveys, leading us to suspect that evangelical women’s libido is artificially lowered by problematic teachings. If we start talking about sex in a healthy way, it’s quite likely that women’s libidos will rise. Even then, though, it’s best not to talk about libido in gendered terms, but simply to talk about healthy principles couples with mismatched libidos can work through.
In our book, we talk about a couple where the woman initiated sex every seventy-two hours, like clockwork, for the first three years of her marriage so that her husband wouldn’t be tempted to stray or look at porn. But after a few years, she was feeling distinctly unwanted. She asked him, “Why do you never initiate sex? Why is it always up to me?” He was flabbergasted, and said he was just trying to keep up with her! They decided not to initiate anymore unless one of them actually wanted it, and they’ve settled into a once-a-week routine where both are very happy. Other couples do find seventy-two hours fits better with their natural cycles, and others find less is more. There is no one-size-fits-all, and it’s better to talk about how to build your marriage so that you naturally create a relationship where you care about each other’s desires rather than setting up obligations on artificial timelines.
Welcher: Lastly, do you think the #MeToo movement has helped us reinterpret cases of sexual assault that were previously written off as a forfeiture of purity or just “boys being boys,” more accurately?
Gregoire: In our focus groups, we interviewed many women who had been date raped or sexually assaulted, and only recognized it years later. One particular woman said that, during one encounter, she told her boyfriend “no” repeatedly, and he kept persisting. Finally, she just stopped saying no. They “had sex,” and she felt really guilty about it for years. But once she was an adult, looking back on that encounter, she realized that she was coerced. He did not accept her no and kept pushing until he wore her down. The problem is that our evangelical resources don’t necessarily help girls and women recognize when date rape has occurred. Shaunti Feldhahn, in For Young Women Only, shares a statistic (which we believe is based on an unfair analysis of her survey question) that 82% of boys “feel little ability and little responsibility to stop the sexual progression.” She concludes that if you want to stop, it’s better to not even start. Telling a teenage girl that boys have little ability to stop teaches girls to rationalize away date rape, and hands date rapists a get-out-of-jail-free card. Likewise, multiple books talked about how women were constantly “fighting him off” before they were married, putting her in the position of gatekeeper. We found that believing in high school that “boys will push girls’ sexual boundaries” was highly correlated with lower arousal rates and lower rates of sexual satisfaction once those girls were grown up and married. We expect boys will be the accelerators, and so girls have to be the brakes. When their brakes don’t work, we often internalize the guilt, and it’s not right. It needs to change. One thing we do in The Great Sex Rescue is offer “rescuing and reframing” messages of harmful teachings. Instead of saying “boys will push girls’ sexual boundaries,” we believe it’s far healthier to tell teens, “It’s normal to have sexual feelings for someone, but it’s vital to decide on your boundaries and make a plan to keep within them. Even more importantly, though, you must honor the boundaries of the person you are with. If your partner does not honor your boundaries, that’s a sign that he or she is not a safe person to be with.”
Cover image by Jonathan Borba