Evangelicals’ Sexual Double Bind

Evangelicals’ Sexual Double Bind May 22, 2017

Evangelical Christianity frequently approaches sex in a strongly dichotomous way—sex before marriage is bad, sinful, and sick and corrupting while sex after marriage is good, godly, and mind-blowingly pleasurable. Many young evangelicals, however, have found that they can’t flip a switch at marriage and instantly achieve the mind-blowingly pleasurable sex they were promised after decades of being shamed for their sexual thoughts or desires. In other words, it’s not so simple.

Rachel Pietka responded to these critiques in Relevant Magazine in April. In her post, Pietka acknowledged that virginity until marriage does not guarantee sexual compatibility or fulfillment—but but argued that these things should not matter. “Christians are not called to have amazing sex,” Pietka aptly titled her essay.

While the movement is great at detailing— and exaggerating—the benefits of saving sex for marriage, it is dishonest about the challenges abstinence presents to couples who eventually tie the knot.

While I have issues with where Pietka ultimately takes her piece, I do appreciate this acknowledgement. Abstinence teachers (and there are entire ministries devoted to this) frequently portray married sex as the most amazing, mind-blowing experience you can ever imagine, presenting it as a reward for those who wait, and refrain from sex before the altar. They don’t acknowledge that sex takes work, that it’s difficult and takes practice, and that it doesn’t always work out.

Jessica Ciencin Henriquez recently detailed how the abstinence movement affected her sex life and marriage in a revealing article titled, “My Virginity Mistake.” Henriquez relays how she pledged herself to Jesus at a purity ceremony at age 14, remained a virgin until she married six years later, and wound up divorced after she and her husband could not make things work in the bedroom.

Henriquez’s story is important because it highlights an issue the abstinence movement rarely acknowledges: sexual incompatibility within marriage.

Here, again, I appreciate Pietka’s acknowledgement that sexual incompatibility exists. Interestingly, she faces pushback in the comments from evangelical commenters arguing that sexual incompatibility is just another word for lack of practice, and that there is no problem that cannot be worked through. This ignores things like mismatched sex drives, or divergent sexual fetishes or interests. One thing may turn one partner on while turning the other partner off. Pietka recognizes a reality that, as her comments section makes clear, many evangelicals are unwilling to acknowledge.

At this point, however, Pietka veers off in a concerning direction:

While this issue may seem irrelevant, it is actually fundamental to traditional Christian beliefs about sex. The fact that sexual compatibility does not matter to Christians when choosing a spouse makes the shocking and countercultural statement that sex is not our God. It indicates that we are willing to make a commitment to someone with whom we may be sexually incompatible, with whom we may never have good sex, because the purpose of marriage is not pleasure, but formation.

Yes, this really is her thesis.

It’s true that it is unwise and unhelpful to present mind-blowing sex as a mandate within marriage. Movies and other forms of media frequently present an inaccurate picture of sex. Couples need permission to be awkward and make mistakes—and to sometimes have dry spells. But. This is not what Pietka is talking about here.

Pietka suggests that evangelicals should remain virgins until marriage, and then knowingly play the sexual lottery, understanding full well that they may marry someone with whom they are sexually incompatible, and thus may be foregoing having good sex in their marriage, ever. And that’s okay—because sex isn’t the point of marriage. (A rather funny thing to say when young evangelicals are frequently encouraged to marry young if they can’t control their sex drive otherwise.)

After discussing the scads of books by evangelical marriage writers who emphasize the importance of having mind-blowing married sex, Pietka adds this:

While this discourse elevates sex so that it becomes an idol, it also ignores a real problem Henriquez addresses and that is likely to surface in Christian marriages because of our insistence on abstinence. What if, contrary to Elliot’s experience, a couple’s wedding night doesn’t seem “worth the wait”?

Pietka cannot bring herself to rethink the evangelical emphasis on abstinence before marriage. For her, that is a bridge too far. And yet, she accepts that sexual incompatibility is real, and that couples who do not have sex before they marry cannot know whether they are sexually compatible. She solves this problem by arguing that good sex isn’t really that important, and indeed that evangelical marriage writers have turned good sex into an “idol.”

Although sex is indeed God’s gift to us, Christians are not directly commanded by God to have great sex. Couples may find themselves incompatible in the bedroom, and they should not be bombarded with pressure from the Christian community to start having good sex and lots of it. Instead, they should find support and comfort—support that sex is not the only thing that makes a good marriage, and comfort that historically all Christians have been called by God to suffer through numerous trials.

Some couples may find themselves miraculously gifted with good sex well after their vows, and books such as the LaHayes’ and Leman’s have helped a lot of people in this area. But in this world we will certainly have trouble. The world and all who dwell in it are imperfect. Sex, too, is bound up with the world’s imperfection. Some couples may spend their whole lives struggling with their physical relationship, and it is deceptive to teach that all Christians will, or are somehow biblically required to, have good sex.

Sexual incompatibility, therefore, is a cross that some couples bear, and Christian communities could lighten this burden if we made an effort to put sex in its rightful place. If sex were viewed as a gift that, like everything else in this world, is marred by sin, it may be easier for couples to accept that bad sex is neither a reason for divorce nor an excuse to stop investing in a marriage. As with other trials, bad sex is an opportunity to rejoice in suffering (1 Peter 4:13) and to be further conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

This is one area where, ironically, I find myself appreciating the very marriage literature Pietka critiques—at least it admits that sex is important, and that sexual intimacy should be more than perfunctory. They may be be missing a key point Pietka freely admits—that couples who wait until marriage to have sex may then find themselves sexually incompatible—but at least they acknowledge that sex is an important part of any marriage, and that sexual frustration undermines relationships.

I am absolutely not saying that sexual incompatibility should be an automatic reason for divorce. Relationships are complicated, and people are individuals; every marriage will be different. I’ve long felt that marriage manuals assume far more constants than there actually are. In a very real sense, each marriage will be profoundly different from any other, because each marriage is made up of individuals with their own divergent personalities, histories, and quirks.

However, to deny that sexual incompatibility should ever be a reason for a couple splitting—and to suggest that couples who only ever have bad sex should see that bad sex as “an opportunity to rejoice in suffering”—is irresponsible. Consider, too, the possible intersection between the advice and evangelical ideas that allow spousal abuse to go unrecognized and unaddressed. What happens when a woman is conditioned to see her husband’s controlling actions as evidence of godly headship, and to understand “bad sex” as a cross she must bear?

My mind does not want to go there.

In some sense, evangelicals’ approach to sex is caught in a double bind. If they must forbid sex before marriage, evangelicals are stuck either arguing that marital sex will be (or should be) mind-blowingly amazing (and denying the existence of sexual incompatibility) or acknowledging that marital sex may suck (while contending that sexual fulfillment within marriage is not actually important). The only way for evangelicals to exit this double bind is to jettison their emphasis on abstinence before marriage. Whether this is something evangelicals are capable of doing, after spending decades making abstinence central to their youth outreach, remains to be seen.

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