Engaged couples tend to be excited for sex. Especially for many Christians, the countdown is not for the wedding day—it’s for the wedding night. But why is it, then, that eager anticipation so often flips to begrudging obligation?
Let’s picture Stacy and Tim, a newlywed Christian couple. Four months ago when they said “I do,” Stacy couldn’t wait for the wedding night. But now it’s been four months and there haven’t been any fireworks. In fact, the only times sparks fly are when they argue about why she doesn’t want sex enough.
Tim wants to feel wanted; Stacy wants to feel something—anything. So Stacy and Tim do what countless evangelical couples have done before them: they talk to the pastor who did their premarital counseling and he hands them Love & Respect.
When they get home, they flip eagerly to the sex chapter where they read Eggerichs say, “If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have,” and read an anecdote of a woman chastising her daughter who is in Stacy’s position, saying, “Why would you deprive him of something that takes such a short amount of time and makes him sooooo happy!?” Tim feels thrilled that finally Stacy gets it; Stacy just feels numb. Is sex never going to be for her too? As she continues to look at more Christian literature, this is what she hears over and over again: You’re not sexual like your husband is; sex isn’t for women like it is for men.
Sex as Obligation
Many evangelical resources portray men and women as diametrically opposed creatures with contrasting needs. He needs sex; she needs affection. The solution? Meet your mate’s needs and they’ll meet yours. Marriage, even sex, becomes transactional.
In 2019–2020, we surveyed 20,000 Christian women to answer the question: Does the way we discuss sex in the church make things better or worse in the bedroom? One of the most harmful sex teachings in evangelicalism today is the message that women are obligated to give their husbands sex whenever their husbands want it. When women have sex out of obligation, they are:
1.8 times more likely to experience sexual pain,
3.75 times less likely to frequently orgasm,
6.7 times less likely to be satisfied with the amount of closeness they share with their husbands during sex,
and 10.2 times less likely to be frequently aroused during sex.
Obligation kills women’s sexual response. And yet, evangelical books are filled with this message. Instead of equipping couples with the skills to have the kind of sex she would want, too many books offer a message of sexual manipulation. These books treat sex like currency to reward husbands for good behavior and motivation for husbands to treat their wives like people. The premise of Love & Respect is that if wives fulfill their husbands’ respect needs (including the need for sex), their husbands will show them love in return.
But couples aren’t free from this message when they leave the Christian book store. This idea that women need to be cajoled into sex permeates the wider evangelical culture. Pastor Ted Cunningham, in a video produced by Focus on the Family, advised men that doing housework will get her in the mood for sex. In fact, it’s so likely to get her in the mood that they don’t even have to actually do the housework! Cunningham says, “I have found that the sound of the dishwasher turns my wife on. And the secret is: you don’t even need dishes in it. Just get the dishwasher on; spray some 409 around the house.”
Perhaps most blatant of all, pastor and comedian Mark Gungor, in his highly popular A Tale of Two Brains event, explains, “Now, at some fundamental level, this is every man’s basic interest in a woman.” He draws an arrow toward a smiley face representing her vulva, pauses for laughter, and then continues. “Women say, ‘Well that’s terrible . . . It should be about companionship and fellowship and sharing.’” He continues, “Girls, if your husband was interested in companionship, fellowship, and sharing, he’d have gotten a golden retriever.”
Then Gungor, in this curriculum that is widely used in the US military, goes on to explain, “The reason [his sex drive] keeps coming back is to motivate him to be nice to the girl . . . be nice to the girl . . . be nice to the girl.” He finishes with a flourish, “And I gotta tell you girls, if it weren’t for [sex], we probably wouldn’t really deal with y’all.”
This transactional approach to sex is prevalent throughout our evangelical culture. Sadly, sometimes threats even enter the picture. In Sheet Music, Kevin Leman actually does discuss wives’ sexual pleasure. However, he undoes his good teaching when he instructs wives on their periods to perform oral sex or hand jobs, since her period is such a difficult time for her husband if he is trying to resist porn. He also advises that women offer hand jobs during the postpartum phase because even pushing out a baby for a man isn’t enough motivation for him to stay faithful to you.
A Better Way
We found in our study that this obligation message is a surefire way to achieve incredibly disappointing sex. And when we rated thirteen bestselling Christian sex and marriage books on a twelve-point rubric of healthy sexuality, the obligation sex message was the marker where they scored the worst—averaging only 1.2/4.
What would happen if, instead of threatening and cajoling women into sex, we talked to couples about personal responsibility and consent? What if, instead of portraying men as frat boys who are just being nice to you to get in your pants, we call out men’s capacity for deep emotional intimacy? And what if, instead of portraying women as frigid, we teach couples the location of the clitoris?
It makes no sense that evangelicalism has seen sex as primarily a male need when God made women capable of multiple orgasms. In the future, we hope that if books don’t even mention that women have a capacity for sexual pleasure, that would raise red flags rather than raising sales figures and landing another book like Love & Respect on the bestseller list. If we want couples like Stacy and Tim to thrive, we need to change the evangelical conversation about sex.
Sex is not one-sided intercourse. It’s not a tit-for-tat arrangement. Sex is not something one should get through bribery or threats. Rather, sex should be a mutual, intimate, and pleasurable knowing of each other.
And if that’s not how you would describe sex, then maybe your sex life needs some rescuing.
Cover image by Roan Lavery.