Back in 2013, provoked by Elizabeth Smart’s story Christians filled the Internet with discussions about sex—particularly abstinence education—so much that the Atlantic posted a summary of these debates in “Why Some Evangelicals Are Trying to Stop Obsessing Over Pre-Marital Sex.”
Although these conversations are evidence that Christians are forming a more candid, holistic and theologically sound discourse about sex, an area that still needs more attention is the far-reaching effects of abstinence rhetoric on marriage.
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.
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.
Looking back, Henriquez states if she had not insisted on waiting for sex until marriage, she could have prevented her divorce. The provocative subtitle of her article reads, “I took an abstinence pledge hoping it would ensure a strong marriage. Instead, it led to a quick divorce.”
Henriquez’s story is important because it highlights an issue the abstinence movement rarely acknowledges: sexual incompatibility within marriage. 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.
Our discourse about sex, however, tends to tell another story, a story that elevates sex to an inordinate degree. The abstinence movement, relying primarily on anecdotes, promises the young unmarrieds that if they save sex for marriage, they will have what Claire and Eli call “reward sex.” In other words, sex will be everything they’ve dreamed it would be—electric, erotic, or, as Elisabeth Elliot, who helped initiate the movement with her book Passion and Purity, writes “unspeakably worth the wait.” Not only are these promises incorrect, but they imply that the purpose of abstinence is good sex, not obedience to God and the cultivation of virtue.
This discourse is not confined to the unmarried, however. Once couples say “I do,” for the rest of their lives, they are expected to have good sex and a lot of it. Christian publications are brimming with instructions on these two contradictory principles: sexual compatibility doesn’t matter when selecting a spouse, but after marriage, couples are treated as if having good sex is part-and-parcel of the call to be a Christian. If you aren’t having good sex, you are expected to go to your local Christian bookstore and choose from a variety of titles—ranging from the classic The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye to the more recent Sheet Music by Dr. Kevin Leman.
In addition to misrepresenting the role of sex in a Christian’s life, this discourse also smacks of an inferiority complex that wants to compete with mainstream culture’s view of sex rather than modeling a rightly ordered sexual ethic to the world. For example, teachings on the Song of Solomon can range from using the book as a modern-day sex manual to a tool of manipulation to get women to acquiesce to inflated views of sex, such as a well-known pastor controversially enjoining women to perform oral sex because “Jesus Christ commands you to do so.” These sort of teachings on sex indicate the spurious claim many Christians accept: that the call to be a married Christian includes within it an obligation to become a sex god or goddess.
Although Christians have recently been more honest about the realities of sex, such as Jake and Melissa Kircher, who admit sex is not what it appears in the movies, a celebrity pastor’s recent appearance on The View demonstrates that Christians still contend with Hollywood’s version of sex. Barbara Walters opens the segment with an alarming announcement: “It is a gospel you probably thought you would never hear from a man of the church: that the Lord wants married couples to have great sex, to have it often and even experiment in the bedroom.”
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”?
The Kirchers have astutely suggested couples should expect to be sexually incompatible at first, but what should we say to couples who spend years, or even decades, trying to have good sex without success? How should we respond if a woman, like Henriquez, who obediently saved herself for marriage, finds herself feeling betrayed by the very principle she thought would give her a life of good sex and a happy marriage?
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.
Christians are, and should be, hopeful people. After all, we believe in the resurrection of the dead, heaven and miracles. 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).
Ultimately, putting sex in its proper place will encourage us to order God’s gifts in the same way that church tradition teaches the ordering of love. All things, including sex, must be loved to the degree that is proper to the thing in question, with nothing superseding the love of God.