When Sheila Gregoire started reading a popular Christian marriage book, she was shocked at the message she found. The book’s author claimed that men wanted, needed sex consistently in their marriages and that desire needed to be satisfied, and it is a wife’s role to fulfill that desire. Women, as it turns out, only have non-sexual desires they need satisfied from their husbands. Essentially, men were highly sexual beings. Women were not.
“There was nothing about a woman’s pleasure, nothing,” said Gregoire. “There was nothing about consent. Nothing about how it’s important for her to feel safe. There was nothing about her experience whatsoever. It was just, he has the right to use your body, and you can’t say no.”
Gregoire, alongside Joanna Sawatsky and Rebecca Lindenbach, began researching other Christian marriage books to see if this narrative was found elsewhere. Through their research, they found one overarching message prevalent in the most popular recommendations: “Sex in the evangelical world is seen primarily through a male lens. Sex is about a man’s needs, and men are entitled to sex. And then women have to provide it. Because men have a sex drive, which is insatiable.”
The gendered framing of sex within the Church may be shocking to men, though probably not to women. Women have known they are sexual beings, even if churches try to deny or ignore it. They experience lust and sexual desire just as much as men. However, the narrative within the Church has always focused on men. Sexual desire is addressed toward men, while women discuss anything other than sex. In doing so, the Church has perverted God’s original intention by putting emphasis on one gender when He did not design it that way.
“The Evangelical Church has done so much to make sure that men and women are seen as very different, I think to perpetuate, a gender hierarchy,” Gregoire said, “and what that does is it really makes everybody double down on the fact that men and women are different sexually, even though it doesn’t work that way necessarily.”
Now, Gregoire wants to set a new narrative for the Church — one that acknowledges men and women equally.
The Dangers of Gendering Sex
Historically, when a pastor or religious leader discusses sex, either from the stage or in a book, it is often geared toward men. Men are “tempted visually” and have life-long battles with lust they can barely control. A wife is charged with helping her husband with his battle by offering her body to him, no matter how she’s feeling that day. This narrative is pushed in popular Christian marriage books, such as Every Man’s Battle, Sheet Music and Love and Respect. However, this message goes against what the Bible has to say about sex between a husband and wife.
“When you look at Scripture, biblical sex is not one-sided intercourse. Biblical sex is always intimate,” said Gregoire. “Adam knew his wife Eve. We laugh about the terminology, but ‘to know’ is this deep intimacy, and God used that word for a reason. Adam knew his wife, it’s intimate. We know from the Song of Solomon that it’s pleasurable, and we know from 1 Corinthians 7” — (verse four states, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”) — “that it’s mutual.”
By focusing the conversation of sex primarily on men’s desires, the Church has caused immense damage to women. Women often feel as if they have to squash their own sexual feelings to elevate their husband’s needs, creating an unequal balance within marriages. Additionally, by making sexual desire a “male-only issue,” women feel an added layer of shame when battling lustful thoughts. Lust does not discriminate based on sex, and the added guilt of struggling with something that “only males deal with” makes the battle bigger than it needs to be.
Gregoire, Lindenbach and Sawatsky urge the Church to change its narrative through their recently released book, “The Great Sex Rescue.” They began by surveying 20,000 women to gain an understanding of what sort of messages the Church presents regarding sex, and how those messages affected their marriages.
The responses were harrowing. They heard from women who were suicidal, physically abused, raped multiple times. Women who almost left the faith before realizing the beliefs present in their marriage went against Christ’s message.
“I became incredibly concerned about how many women were writing in and saying, ‘I feel like a prostitute or felt like a prostitute in my marriage,’” said Sawatsky.
The responses revealed four core teachings women hear most often: boys will want to push your sexual boundaries; all men struggle with lust (and it is every man’s battle); wives should have frequent sex with their husbands to keep them from using pornography; and a wife is obligated to have sex with her husband when he wants it.
Every single one of those teachings focuses on men. Men are the ones primarily fighting sexual urges, while women are second to it. However, most women will admit that they, too, have sexual desires and thoughts and feelings. They struggle with lust and pornography. One study from Barna showed that 56% of women 25 and under watch porn, with 33% watching it at least once a monthly basis. Yet the Church acts as if this is a male-only issue.
In doing so, men and women are taught they must work together to solve a man’s lust. A wife has to have sex with her husband so that he won’t turn to porn. A woman must cover up her body so that a man who sees her won’t give in to lustful thoughts.
But who is there to help the woman when she has lustful thoughts? Pastors address men in their sermons when talking about fighting off lust and pornography, inadvertently “othering” women and causing them to feel weighed down by their battle. Women need to be included in the sex conversation, giving them a space to discuss their struggles.
And gendered discussions of sex do not only affect marriages. Young teenagers begin hearing this harmful narrative when they enter puberty. Many participants in the research stated they first heard this message — of men being sexual beings but women struggling with other issues — at as young as 11-years-old. Young women are taught their role is to fend off boys and help them “bounce their eyes” from lusting after them, while young men are taught that no matter what they will struggle with lust.
By pushing this narrative at such a young age, women are taught early on in their life that their sexual desires are less than men. Gregoire points out that when girls enter puberty they begin hearing the message that “your worth [ties in with] what you can offer someone else sexually. And for boys, it’s a message of you’re always going to lust, and you’re never going to be able to control this. This is always going to be your battle and you’re always going to fight this and there’s no escape.”
With these messages planted in their minds, young women continue to process their sexual thoughts and feelings in silence because they feel ashamed. Gregoire hopes that by changing the narrative, men and women can reach out to parents, leaders or pastors without hearing a “shaming message.”
Damage from this narrative is also prevalent in young boys. Gregoire believes the constant lust message “drives boys towards desperation and often drives boys towards porn too, because they’re told all guys lust and you can’t resist it.”
“We need a much better conversation around lust that sexual attraction is normal,” she says. “Sexual feelings are normal, but with those feelings comes the responsibility to treat others with dignity and humanity.”
Many youth pastors try to scare students into staying away from lust, using fear to control people into doing the “right thing.” Instead of focusing on the do’s and don’ts of sex, Lindenbach thinks the Church should focus on the heart.
“A 13-year-old watches porn for the first time and thinks, ‘Well, now I’ve done it now. This is my life because I’ve been told as soon as it starts, it doesn’t stop,’” said Lindenbach. “We need to get back to what’s the heart of it all. And it’s probably going to be a little bit messier and it’s going to be harder to control our kids… But if our goal is control, then we’ve already lost.”
While the Church needs to acknowledge and reconcile with its harmful messaging, many members of the Church already understand this framing is not Biblical. The average evangelical would likely not agree with the male-only narrative in such rigid terms, but the fact of the matter is that the message is presented through the male lens by best-selling authors and pastors — and that has to change.
Resolving the Damage
Realizing there is a problem with the way the Church discusses sex is only the first step. Repentance must come next. The Evangelical Church is losing more and more young people each year for a variety of reasons, one being that they are tired of hearing a message about someone else trying to control them. A study from Lifeway Research showed that two-thirds of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly as a teenager drop out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. In order to counteract this decline, pastors and religious leaders must not only stop promoting this narrative, but also listen to women and men who have been damaged by this message to determine how the conversation specifically needs to change.
Lindenbach said she hopes the Church changes its message from a fear-based and shaming message, for both men and women, to a message full of freedom and the grace and love of Christ, “even if it’s a little bit messier, because I think that at the end, we’ll end up in a better place.”
Although the Church may not be able to wipe away the hurt and abuse women have experienced, it has an obligation to protect women moving forward. Gendering sexual desire — or any sin for that matter — has caused too much damage for too long. It’s time for the Church to begin reconciling their damage.
“My hope is that the Evangelical Church will listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd,” said Sawatsky, “which means having hard conversations, which means that using Bible verses as cudgels, is inappropriate and must end. Repentance is required. And I just hope that they’ll do the brave, and hard, thing.”
The church cannot continue to treat sexual desires as a male-only issue; women must be included in the discussion. Ignoring a battle countless women walk through will only cause further destruction for the Church. The health of the Church depends on all members, men and women, who are healthy and able to walk through life with honesty and freedom. Healthy women and men have the power to renew the Church and spread the freedom of God even further to the next generation.