Recognizing sex as more than a right, a remedy, or a reward
“Are you giving him enough sex?” she asked.
“That’s . . . not the issue,” I told her, wondering if this well-meaning Christian had heard anything I just said.
I was struggling with PTSD symptoms, experiencing moments of perceived rejection from my new spouse that caused me to involuntarily curl up in fetal position and rock back and forth. I didn’t know what was happening and neither did he. This was new territory for us both, and I won’t lie: it was devastating.
Rachel Joy Welcher is the guest editor for the Purity issue.
We were so happy. So in-love. I didn’t want to feel this way, but I didn’t know how to stop my heart from racing or feeling like my world was crashing down around me. The pain of my past caused me to see my new husband, the most faithful and steady of men, as someone who might suddenly leave me at the drop of a hat, and I would crawl into our guest room, turn off the light, and weep for hours.
So he began driving me to counseling. We would talk on the way there, I would meet with my counselor—a solid Christian who understood trauma—and then we would debrief on the way home. It’s so hard when your pain spills out into the lives of those you love the most. I knew it was hurting him. I knew this was not what he expected when we got married, and that only added to my insecurity and fear of abandonment. My heart asked questions like, “I know he said he loved me yesterday, but what if he stops loving me after today?”
He didn’t. Not for a second. He loved me in the darkness and the light. He held my hand when he didn’t understand and scooped me up when I was crying. Sometimes he left me alone because he was confused or didn’t know what I needed. It took time. Depression meds. A few more visits to my counselor. But we figured out how to get through it. Oh, and it had nothing to do with how much sex I was giving him.
What kind of worldview exists behind that question?
Sex as a Right and a Remedy
In modern evangelical purity culture, Christian singles are encouraged to pursue sexual abstinence until marriage. But the key word is: until. If one remains chaste, purity culture promises they will be sexually rewarded with the best sex humanly possible within marriage. Depicting sex as a reward not only makes obedience about one gets in return, rather than God’s glory, turns married sex into a right—something a person earns and therefore can demand, once married.
If you take to heart the ways sex has been venerated in the evangelical church, that demand seems almost wise. In the many purity books I read, I was given the strong impression that sex in marriage was a magic cure for anything that ailed my future husband. He would want it all the time. It would fix any marriage problems. And it was something I needed to give him often, or he might fall into sexual sin. Sex was not just a right, it was a remedy. And one that typically worked one direction.
Men before Women
When a Christian wife is struggling, whether it be with depression, health issues, marriage problems, etc. there is a good chance that she will be asked if she is giving her husband enough sex. You might be shaking your head, hoping that I am setting up a Straw Man, that what I describe is not common. I wish it wasn’t. The truth is, most of the Christian women I know have heard this question asked, either in a Bible study, from the pulpit, or directly to them, at some point during their time in the church.
Even more concerning is the number of Christian women I know who have been blamed for their husband’s sexual sin, whether it be a porn addiction, infidelity, or even sexual abuse. The assumption is that if they had just given him enough sex he wouldn’t have strayed.
In an informal Twitter poll, I asked Christian women if they had ever been asked this question, and out of 622 participants, over half said they had, either directly, or that it had been implied. I posed a Twitter poll for Christian men, asking them the same question I asked women: Have you ever been asked: “Are you giving your spouse enough sex?” Out of 156 participants, 82% said “Never.”
While the Bible depicts sex in marriage as quite egalitarian—The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife (1 Cor. 7:4)—the Church tends to depict it as something a wife owes her husband.
I picked up on this idea early on, listening to Christian women talk about sex with their husbands with lots of eye-rolling and sighs. It seemed like something they had to do, rather than something they enjoyed doing. Something made for men and important for their husbands but not for them.
The Dehumanizing Effect of our Sex-Obsession
The worldview of sex over selflessness and men over woman obscures more than our views on sex, it obscures our understanding of our humanity.
One of the stories that stood out to me from my interviews while writing Talking Back to Purity Culture was from a Christian man in his thirties, a husband and a father, who told me that when he was a teenager, he went to the local Christian book store to find out more about what it meant to be a man of God. He looked across the section marked for adolescent males and noticed that it was filled with books on one recurring theme: lust.
Purity culture’s hyper-fixation on male lust paints a picture of men as constantly on the verge of sexual sin, which in turn creates a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein Christian men begin to doubt their ability for sexual self-control. As a result, it relieves men of the responsibility of self-discipline while handing all women the responsibility for keeping men pure and all wives responsible for fulfilling their husbands sexual desires. It also neglects to honor men as whole persons with a variety of interests, giftings, experiences, and qualities that make them who they are, by reducing them to one aspect of their nature.
Men are embodied souls who, like women, deal with stress, depression, illness, etc., which is why Christian wives eventually discover that giving their husbands sex is not some magic fix. It isn’t always the answer. Neither is it the glue that holds a man, or a marriage, together. Married couples can have sex often and still fall into sexual sin. They can have sex often and still have other marital difficulties. It is the Holy Spirit, not married sex, that works to better our marriages.
In the same way that purity culture rhetoric dehumanizes men by depicting them as lust-machines, it dehumanizes women by focusing primarily on what they have to offer sexually. Purity books and conferences place female virginity on a pedestal. Young women are told that the greatest gift they can give their future husband is their virginity and that giving this gift away before marriage is like chewing up a stick of gum, spitting in a glass of water, or cutting a piece out of a cake. In other words, women are told that their sexual history is what determines their current and future value.
When a Christian woman gets married, her value is still tied to her sexuality, only in marriage, it is about how much sex she gives rather than abstaining from it. Which brings us back to the question that so many Christian women are asked: Are you giving him enough sex?
Not only is this dehumanizing, unbiblical, and destrutive to unity in marriage, it also neglects the many realities in life that can make sex in marriage difficult or impossible—illness, depression, and distance, etc. Times of celibacy or infrequent sex in marriage are very difficult, but sexual purity does not end at the altar. In these seasons, withholding sex within marriage is not sinful and these situations are never an excuse to sin or act out of selfishness. They are certainly not seasons to demand sex or feel required to give it to your spouse. In fact, they are an opportunity for couples to show selfless love, learn other methods of creating intimacy, and demonstrate faithfulness to one another.
Not everything is about sex.
It is not that sex in marriage isn’t important—it is. Spouses are called to view their bodies as belonging to one another, which makes sex more than just a method of procreation or a vehicle for pleasure, but an act of giving and receiving, creating unity.
Sex is good—a gift in marriage—but it’s not everything. While Christians throw around the phrase “conjugal rights” from 1 Corinthians 7:3 in regard to married sex, we know from reading the whole of Scripture that Christians are to be defined by love, humility, and self-control. While spouses are called to selfless giving in marriage, this can never include selfish demands. And when we as the church talk about it as a reward for sexual purity—particularly for men—we demean both genders and ignore the full beauty of marriage. Becoming one flesh in marriage is about two bodies becoming one, yes, but also about laying our lives down for another one, practicing selfless love, and a thousand forms of intimacy, whether it be laughing together in the middle of the night or making your spouse soup when they are sick.
When I was struggling with triggers from my past, what I needed most was to know that Evan was there for me, that he was going to walk with me through it, and that we were going to be okay. The idea that instead of focusing on healing from past trauma I should have been asking myself how many times I’d given him sex recently reveals an error in our theology. An error that places sex before selfless love, and men before women.
In her book Real Sex, Lauren Winner points out that, “the problem is not that we talk about sex,” but rather, “how we talk about sex.” Rather than depicting men as lust machines and women as the guardians of purity, the church needs to focus on our status as image-bearers of God and co-heirs of his kingdom. Through the help of the Holy Spirit, when we begin with the dignity of others, love—including the kind that leads to sexual selflessness—will follow.