How Complementarian Views of Sex Lead to Infidelity

Sex on the beach

Recently Tim Challies’s wife Aileen wrote a post begging Christian men to give up their sexual sin following the Ashley Madison hack. In it she writes:

I have fought to understand the struggle men face. I have fought to have compassion. I have encouraged wives to extend forgiveness, to willingly and joyfully give themselves to their husbands. But you know what? I just don’t know how I can keep doing it. Not when so many husbands are deceptively defiling the marriage bed. Not when so many young, single men are recklessly defiling the future marriage bed. Not when so many men seem just plain unwilling to change.

I plead with you. I plead with you on behalf of your wives, on behalf of your future wives, on behalf of Christian women everywhere: Stop. Just stop.

I get it. I’m sure that it’s gut-wrenching to sit in your living room across from someone who is weeping over their wrecked marriage. Trying to figure out how to tell them it’s okay when you know in your heart that it’s not okay. When you see the brokenness that accompanies infidelity, I have no doubt that it’s hard to find grace for those who are the cause of the pain.

But I am increasingly tired of the shock that so many complemantarian Christians have when it comes to how their teachings play out in real life. Because when we take a minute to examine what they teach about gender roles, it is a set-up for sexual failure in many marriages.

After reading her post, I downloaded and read Aileen Challies’s short ebook False Message. In it, she starts with the assumption that most women are not terribly interested in sex. Challies writes, “The challenge is to find joy in the act itself…” (pg. 17). She creates a norm where women don’t want sex, but have to switch their brains to something that will keep their husband happy and at home. She says that you shouldn’t treat sex as a chore, which is absolutely right, but sets everything up so that the normal thought is that sex is a chore.

She also creates a scenario where even if the wife is interested in sex, she shouldn’t initiate too much. In the chapter titled A Theology of Sex, Challies writes:

Yet sexual desire, the appetite for sex, is not given in equal measure. It is typically given in greater part to men. Why is this? The answer, I’m convinced, goes right to the heart of the husband-wife relationship. God commands that men, husbands, be leaders. Men are to take the leading role in marriage while women are to follow. God intends that men take leadership even in sex and, therefore, he gives to men a greater desire for it. This way men can lead their wives, taking the initiative, taking care to love their wives in such a way that they wish to have sex with their husbands.

Generally speaking, a man finds intimacy and acceptance through sex while a woman needs to first experience intimacy and acceptance before she can be prepared to enjoy sex. And so God gives the man a sexual appetite so he can in turn provide for his wife’s needs before she provides for his. His sexual appetite cannot be separated from his leadership. If the wife was to lead in this regard, if she was to always be the sexual instigator, the husband would be far less likely to pursue his wife and seek to meet her unique needs. Do you see the beautiful dance here? The husband has a desire that only his wife can meet, a desire for his wife; therefore, he takes the lead in seeking to fulfill that desire. He does this by meeting the desires of his wife that will, in turn, cause her to see and appreciate and eventually fulfill his desires. And then, in that act of consummation, God grants a grace that surpasses the mere union of flesh and blood.

This “unequal desire” idea is one that is held to by people both in and out of the Church. If you search “do men want sex more than women” you’ll find lots of articles from both Christian and non-Christian sources that say yes, men totally want sex more than women. It doesn’t matter that the science shows that women want sex pretty much as much as men do – the way it plays out societally is different, therefore women want less sex.

But Christian sources like the one quoted above turn that bad science into God’s design. If your narrative is that men and women have different roles, then believing that men and women have equal sex desires in the bedroom doesn’t fit that schematic. So instead, they create statements like the above. And these statements boil down to this:

  • Men only do things for their wives so they can have sex; and
  • Women who are too pushy about wanting sex are going to have worse sex.

This complementarian ideology creates men who are perpetrators and women who are victims. It creates selfishness in both partners and steals autonomy from both. It turns sex into a game, but not the kind where there are any winners.

The truth is, women have affairs, at surprisingly similar rates to men (or not so surprisingly if you think about it for 10 seconds). And since most of those affairs are sexual in nature (and many are a result of sexless or low-sex marriages), it would seem that women are perfectly capable of and interested in enthusiastic sex.

So much complementarian literature is focused on turning around the female sex drive. Women are told, “You probably don’t want sex. But you should want sex more.” Over and over again I read about how men are denied sex and turn to pornography and adultery and if women would just put out more they would have husbands who didn’t stray. Recent studies have shown that increasing sex have not increased happiness if the participants felt like they were obligated to participate, so where does that leave us? Right back at the porn and infidelity websites that we’re trying to avoid. All because of the need to cling to views of sexuality that pit men and women against one another.

Perhaps instead of starting articles, “From the female perspective, male sexuality is often viewed as a sordid desire,” and then trying to spin that into something vague and positive, we can start by affirming female sexuality. Rather than talking about how men are powerless to their sex drive, we can talk about how men and women are both able to say no to some sex acts and yes to others. We can take shame out of the equation. We can talk about masturbation and sex toys and orgasms. We can accept that science continues to show us that our views on sex have a lot more to do with cultural conditioning rather than “how God made us.”

Or you can hold onto those same, tired views about sex and then shake your head when another person shows up weeping in your living room over their wrecked marriage.

14 thoughts on “How Complementarian Views of Sex Lead to Infidelity

  1. Finally someone with my ideas! Completely agree, its cultural conditioning. And its that comditioning that has made many women feel like the inferior sexual partner merely having sex to keep thief man at home when thats not what sex is about. Great post

  2. You forgot to mention the Bible. But you’ve done a good job of mischaracterising a complementation view of sex within marriage. Even taking the context of 1 Cor 7 into account, the principle in these verses is clear, whether egalitarian or complimentarian: 1 Cor 7 3-6: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
    6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.” In other words – sex is good, for both the husband and wife. Both have the ability to deprive or give their love.

    You’re picking an argument with those who would plead with men to honour their wives, so that you can make a quasi-feminist point about women liking sex as much as men. Congratulations. Paul understood that to be the case 2000 years ago. He encouraged both men and women to give themselves away for the benefit of the other, not get caught up in who wants it more.

    1. Are you arguing with this point – ” Rather than talking about how men are powerless to their sex drive, we can talk about how men and women are both able to say no to some sex acts and yes to others.” ? Do you think that is not aligned with 1 Cor. 7?

    2. Given the quotes that this author has shown from a prominent complimentarian wife/writer, I’m not sure why you feel that she’s characterizing wrongly or picking fights that aren’t there. She showed very clearly that the writer quoted is teaching a view of sex that isn’t based in scripture (and it doesn’t align with the Corinthians verse, as you have pointed out). She’s saying that IF this writer wants men to honor their wives, THEN this writer should consider whether her own teachings are contributing to the strife that leads to infidelity.

      I just don’t see how that is picking an imaginary fight. It seems like a logical argument that she provided ample evidence for.

  3. I agree that the comp marriage model leads to troubling distortions of reality, both in the physical and spiritual realms. Per Challies’ ideas, what is a woman to do when she finds she wants physical intimacy more than her husband? For some of the comp claims, I think the best response is a hearty guffaw and for others a good cry that so many are trapped in this kind of bondage.

  4. You quote Challies: “God intends that men take leadership even in sex and, therefore, he gives to men a greater desire for it.” Has she never read Song of Songs? That woman wanted sex with her husband and wasn’t afraid to pursue him to get it.

  5. I so agree. Ideas have consequences. If the idea is that woman are made by God to not like sex, you are going to have problems in your sex life that reflect that idea. Let’s stop being shocked and start thinking again about if we have the right idea in the first place.

  6. What a great article! Sheds a lot of light on my abusive marriage in a rigid, complementarian church environment. Yes, women can like and want sex as much as men. Is that really so surprising? And yes the Bible does support this view in both 1 Cor 7 and Song of Solomon. Great post and comments! Praise God for the truth.

  7. How can you give anal and oral sex unto the Lord, or submit to sexual torture, because that’s what gives him pleasure, as unto the Lord.? If a man is a recovering homosexual and wants you to participate in scat, rimming and fisting, (found these terms in a health department pamphlet) do you do that unto the Lord too? I want someone to prove from the Bible that anal and oral sex are acceptable forms of heterosexual behavior in marital love. If God destroyed the Canaanites and Sodom & Gomorrah for their detestable practices than just wiping the sodomy laws off the law books doesn’t make it any more moral than it does abortion. Sodomy is defined by the use of the sexual organs not by whether consent is given. The marriage bed being undefiled isn’t undefiled because marriage sanctifies these practices it is undefiled or pure and is to be kept pure.

    1. If your question is serious, then study the Song of Songs. However, you need to study it in the original Hebrew and knowing Hebrew idioms, this is because the Hebrew uses idiomatic euphemisms which often get additionally euphemized by the translators, after some words are doubly euphemized, it can be hard to figure out what is even being said.

      My understanding is as follows: The basic ideas for marriage are love and mutuality, no one gets to impose their will on the other. But this means that a couple can agree for themselves that some specific act is loving where another couple will agree for themselves that it is not, that is, couples can and will disagree about what is appropriate for themselves from what other couples decide. Of course, the general interpersonal ideas of not acting in harmful ways and not acting to dishonor another also apply in marriage.

  8. The Marquis de Sade was a fiend or possessed by one. What I find atrocious is that something spawned in the pit of hell would ever be endorsed by the church, but as Dostoevsky stated, “If there is no God than everything is permissable”, and the prophet Jeremiah “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked…”

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