Sex is challenging

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Adam Walker Cleaveland at Pomomusings asked about The Sex Challenge at Relevant Church. Basically, for thirty days, the lead pastor’s challenging single people to stay abstinent every day and married couples to have sex every day.

My gut reaction and my comment was, “It’s horrifying.”

Then, I took a couple of days, stewing about what made me so irritated. I mean, a lot people commented that they were glad that the church was talking openly about sex. Sex is good, after all.

I wonder what the pastor’s motivation behind this is. Is it to jumpstart the sex lives of his congregation? Let them realize what a wonderful thing it is? Is it to combat our cultural notion that people have great sex until they get married? Or is it just a cheap marketing ploy? I mean, we all know that sex sells… and I am blogging about it after all…. But my deeper concern is that this sort of stunt fortifies that pernicious idea that women must be, at all times, sexually available for their husbands.

Maybe it’s my background. While I was growing up, we did talk about sex in church. A lot. In the context of marriage, it was presented in a positive light.

But then there was this nasty persistent undercurrent that I saw many couples get swept away in. There was that idea (a biblical one, in fact) that a wife should never deny her husband. This verse definitely goes on the list of things I wish were not in the Bible.

Growing up in the midst of our religious community, I watched the sad and detrimental effects. Husbands often went away with an over-bloated sense of entitlement, feeling that they had the right to demand and dictate when their wives should have sex with them. Women lost control of a very, very basic right–the right over their own bodies.

And it followed that when the men were not “satisfied” and they had this entitlement issue, it seemed almost permissible for them to have an affair. No one said that, exactly. But when an affair occurred, the first whispers had to do with whether the wife was generous enough in the bedroom. They always seemed to blame the victim.

We’ve heard it…especially in church. It’s old news. We all remember what Mark Driscoll did when Ted Haggard hired a prostitute and did drugs with him. Well, he posted this:

Most pastors I know do not have satisfying, free, sexual conversations and liberties with their wives. At the risk of being even more widely despised than I currently am, I will lean over the plate and take one for the team on this. It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.

So, there’s my back-story. That’s why I’m horrified at the thought of a male religious leader pressuring a couple to have sex everyday.

There are times in every relationship when a spouse can’t have sex. He or she is just not emotionally or physically able. And one of the most precious things that a partner can do is to understand when that happens–to put his or her own desires aside out of respect for a loved one.

We should talk openly about sex–but in our churches I dare say that women’s voices have not been heard on this issue. We have a huge percentage of women in our country who have been victims of sexual violence. So much that it’s almost a norm… And I’m afraid the church has a long way to go before they can begin to help in the healing process.

In loving relationships, women should always have the right to have sex or not to have it. And men should too. No pastor should dictate that. When we talk about sex in church, it should be held with deep respect and mutual consent always needs to be our starting place.

photo’s by Mirage

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16 thoughts on “Sex is challenging

  1. My question has to do with the reasons for promoting this too. It sounds like a horribly construed gimmick. You know what my question is with programs – what data says that sex for 30 straight days will ever help a relationship be more intimate?

  2. At first I thought “this isn’t so appealing, but what’s the big deal?” To brag for a moment, I sometimes forget how messed up marriages can be (because mine is awesome). You quickly convinced me that this is an awful idea. It seems like it might be better to, I dunno, have couples spend 30 days working on a Sex Covenant that will involve communicating a lot about sex, what’s off-limits and what isn’t, how it should be asked for, what things mean yes or no or maybe, and so on. Then when they both agree to it, they sign it or something, with times for revising or whatever. I dunno. Whatever fools them into talking about it with each other like grownups. Which, honestly, can also be hot in and of itself 🙂

  3. I had read that as well and did not have the same reaction you did, but when you spelled out your reasons, I certainly understand. Great post.

  4. 30 days of sex or no sex. Why do we confuse sex with intimacy? We need to talk about sex from the pulpit to the bedroom. We must frame sex with in the context of intimacy.

    There must be “proximity” with sex to cease its abusive behavior. It seems like the norm for sex to be considered a mechanical relief. It is just another thing to be consumed.

    I fear that the “church” is not ready to tackle the larger issue of power dynamics. The “good old days” remind us of a changing times and that can produce fear.

    When I read Adam’s post on the issue my first thought was that this is another attack on homosexuals in the church. It is another way for “us” to exclude “them”.

    That angered me the most. Thank you for the post.

  5. As Ryan said, I’m perturbed by the assumption that sex = intimacy. The message of this campaign is “if you’re not getting it everyday then your marriage may be in trouble.”

    Well, that may in fact be farthest from the truth. Marriage is more than just sex. It’s about intimacy. And so we ought to be talking about what builds intimacy. Sex is just one component of all that, and to put it at the top puts things way out of proportion; and caves to the values of our culture.

    And honestly, how can we expect with dual career couples and children in the mix that anyone would ever have the time or energy to have sex every day for thirty days? But then I suppose the teaching the week before was that the woman must stay home to care for all the kids.

  6. Thanks for the post, Carol, but I had a very different reaction. I didn’t grow up in a church that talked about sex much. It was just off-limits. And I do agree that culturally we’re messed up. I like what Ryan said about it being something we “consume.” But beyond that, I’m also aware that VERY many people in church don’t have sex enough. Does that sound judgmental? In my role as a pastor I talk to a lot of couples, and when I inquire about sex, it is often brushed off as something that no longer occupies their minds or hearts or bodies. I agree that sex does not equal intimacy. But I DO think it’s an essential part of marriage, and is too easily ignored. I don’t know if that’s what this pastor had in mind — and I totally agree with many points you made — having been a rape victim myself — but I think the church should be celebrating the gift of sex. You know, I have so much to say I should just blog about this myself, shouldn’t I?

  7. As a husband I would love this scenario, but I agree that it isn’t very realistic and maybe not very constructive either. I think that you may be missing the mark a bit when you talk about rights. I think in marriage we have to talk about duties.

    I know some couples where they agreed that the wife can never say no. I think that this is a fair starting point if the husband is willing to let his love be sacrificial and not demand that his “right” or “privilege” be fulfilled, but defer to the desires of his bride. If my wife give herself to me in a stingy or resentful fashion it is not emotionally satisfying for either of us.

    I have often wanted to use this verse and proclaim my “rights”, but my duty in marriage is to love her sacrificially, as Christ loved the Church.

    The problem I had with the program is that the pastor acts like premarital sex is tolerable and that they should only give it up for 30 days, not permanently. Sometimes you need to call something what it is, sin. I have plenty in my life. When it becomes known to one of my friends I hope they will point it out (lovingly) to me that I might repent.

    Already Justified,
    Being Sanctified,
    Waiting to be Glorified,

  8. Only a man would think that a woman would “let herself go” simply because her husband is “trapped into fidelity.” Are there any men who let themselves go after they are married? Used to be a sign of their wife’s good cooking. sighsighsigh….

  9. Yeah, I’m happily married to a woman who still floats my boat in that special marital way. But maybe we don’t feel like doing the humpty hump every night. If she’s had a tough day at work, and I’m dead tired, and the kids have yet another cold, insisting on this seems just plain daft.

    Sure, sex talk from the pulpit is “provocative.” But..to echo the prior comments…I can’t see how this gets at anything that matters in our relationships.

  10. Tim,

    I’m really glad you stopped by. Most of my friends can’t believe that anyone would think that a wife never saying no would be a fair starting point. I’m glad you proved my case.

    And I’m relieved that you’ve realized that resentful sex is no fun.

    I don’t think of my body and having sex in terms of a duty. Taking out the trash is a duty. Folding the clothes is a duty. Cleaning out the toilets is a duty. Having sex with my husband is a wonderful thing. It’s not a duty. (And I’m imagining a good ol’ Beavis and Butthead “huhuhu” coming from Brian as he reads this….)

    It sounds like the wives are much more “trapped into fidelity” in these scenarios.

    Diane,

    That’s a very interesting point. And I think it goes to the heart of what I’m trying to express. It doesn’t matter what the men look like… but it matters for women. There’s a danger that a wife could be thought of as an accessory. Or (if she has no rights to her own body) something much, much worse.

    I know when I went to Bible school, the divorce rate for our graduates was much higher than the national average. This sort of thinking could be one of the main reasons.

    But we’re living in the 21st century. If a wife’s not allowed to say no, if a marriage isn’t built on mutual consent, well, she’s not trapped any longer. It’s very painful and difficult, but she can get a job, get out of the marriage, and find someone who respects her.

  11. I stop by here occassionally because I like the discussion. This one makes me laugh and then I got scared and almost cried. I am a man, happily married (I hope) and I personally can’t have sex everynight/day. My body does not do that anymore.
    Sex with my wife is fabulous and I ask more often than I get but I sometimes worry that if I don’t ask there will be suspicion, there will not be an offer, I might forget that I want sex.
    I still can’t believe a pastor would make such a statement from the pulpit. I am a pastor and would not likely do that but who knows.
    Great discussion,
    WaynO

  12. First time poster.

    I wrote a great deal (including a book on gender and militarism) about sex from a secular perspective (if there is such an exclusive thing… this is God’s world, after all). Much of the research and reflection have mapped very directly onto the ministry of Christ as I have come to know it.

    One thing we have to be careful of is this idea that we have to put a minus beside everything that reactionary churches assign a plus. It’s not that simple.

    So if the message is received that “sex is bad,” from those who would return to the paternal patriarchies of the past, we oughn’t too easily respond by saying, no, “sex is good,” even with all the qualifiers we might add on.

    Good and bad are insufficient categories to understand sex, because sex is embedded in gender… defined here as a system of unequal power between men and women. All sex is implicated, and none is innocent of this power dynamic. That does not imply that sex is “bad,” either. It’s contextualizing the subject, concretizing it to reflect the reality of our lived experience.

    Of all the strains of American feminism, the radical feminist understood this the most clearly, and the postmodernists have worked very hard to undermine it… and with it the inescapable capacity of women as genuine political subjects in a very real system of oppression.

    Calling for people to either abstain or participate as a general matter strikes me as abstract and presumptuous. Acting sexually happens in our todays… right in the middle of all that purportedly non-sexual stuff. How we exist socially as men and women is not extricable from the ways that patriarchy determines our social being as men and women, all the time.

    Instead of trying to come up with silly rules about how other people act sexually, as Christians, it seems to me, we are obliged to remain fearlessly and honestly attentive to the ways we act — not just in bed — but as men and women occupying gendered roles all the time. We are likewise obliged to do what is necessary to resist the system of domination that defines gender in our society. Foremost in that is resisting the sexual objectification of women, which is central to the maintenance of this domination system, and stop silencing and immobilizing women. Men and women both participate in these practices; it is a system after all. Saying la-te-da, sex is good, and the rest of you are prudish old theocrats — as some do within the more modern fraternal brand of patriarchy– is no more helpful than the “sex is bad” meme of paternal patriarchy.

  13. My first thought is that, despite the stereotypes, there might be a lot of men who don’t want sex 30 days out of 30. While I totally, agree with everything you’ve said here Carol, and recognize that the cultural pressure for wives to be sexually available to there husbands is far more pervasive and pernicious, I’d just like to say the obvious – men need to be free to say yes or no to sex also.

    There is a possible push from the other side, though. While it is utterly true that sex must always be mutual and consensual, and it is important for husbands and wives never to force anything, and we don’t want sex becoming a “duty” or any of that… it is still true that a healthy marriage can use plenty of good sex, and the partner with the stronger libido ought to exhibit patience, but the partner with the weaker libido would do well to make an effort to meet in the middle. I know there are times I would have preferred sleep, but it ends up being better for our marriage and our psychological health for me to find the energy in me for a little hanky panky.

  14. Carol,

    Thank you. “The Sex Challenge” makes me sick, too–for exactly the reasons you share. Working out the challenges of our sexual identities in life, marriage, relationships, and faith is tough enough w/o some idiot pastor complicating it.

    I’d rather he’d issue a “Health Care Challenge” or a “Hospitality to Immigrants Challenge.”

    Diana

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