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.