The Secret to Orgasm: Listening to Your Body

by | Apr 17, 2020 | Sex | 64 comments

Secret to Orgasm: Listening to your body

We’ve had some really interesting discussions this week, both on the blog and off the blog, talking about advice to help women reach orgasm.

Yesterday, on our podcast about explicitness and sex, Rebecca and I were talking about some of the problematic elements of sex advice that is often given in Christian books. When it’s presented as, “Do A, then B, then C,” and sex seems paint-by-number, it often doesn’t work.

We also conducted several focus groups on this this week, trying to figure out what level of explicitness and direction women actually like. In each focus group, we got the same results. People like being given ideas, “Some people like X, but you could also try Y.” People really like learning about body parts or different ways of stimulating them. But women REALLY don’t like being told, “Do this, then this, then this,” as if it’s some magic formula for orgasm. Because then you feel like a failure when you don’t.

(We found other things, too, but I’ll go into that in a later post, and in The Great Sex Rescue.)

Now, hold that thought for a second, because I want to switch gears to something else we found, and then bring it all together again.

Rebecca also did several interviews and a focus group on how women’s beliefs about sex have changed over time, and how that has impacted their sex life now.

And one of the things she found was that, when women feel free to say “no” in their marriage, they’re much more likely to want to say “yes”. And sex becomes more pleasurable.

True consent is the key to women’s libido and sexual response.

That’s also what we found in our survey of 22,000 women; feeling like you were obligated to have sex, or that it was a duty, significantly reduced women’s orgasm rates, and increased women’s levels of vaginismus.

Okay, so what do these two findings have to do with each other?

Well, let me take you back to the 1970s. Let’s talk about the sitcom Happy Days, and about making out.

Like many girls of my generation, I watched Happy Days every week, and reruns after school. I loved Richie (though I never really liked the Fonz). But Happy Days had a lot of making out. “I found my thrill….on Blueberry hill…”

I don’t think there was ever much sex in it at all (maybe with Joanie and Chachi?), but making out was a thing. Like steaming up the windows kind of a thing.

And I think there was something vital there, a step in understanding one’s sexuality, that many women have bypassed.

I am not trying to say that everyone needs to make out before marriage. But what I am saying is that making out was FUN in that scenario precisely because it wasn’t going any further. You knew you weren’t going to have sex; you had already decided you weren’t going to cross that line; and so you were kissing and touching (not heavy petting) for a prolonged period of time, and getting yourself all worked up. You were enjoying it. It was feeling good. Your body was coming alive. You were getting aroused.

And that ability to become aroused, and for your body to experience that all on its own, is actually an important part of orgasm and an important part of sex in marriage.

Now, I’m quite aware that for many women this “making out” thing didn’t work out so well before marriage for many reasons:

  • You felt it was wrong and so you never did (which is totally okay! Really!).
  • Things got too heated and you went further than you wanted to
  • You were so afraid of things going too far that you never relaxed, and you were always on alert (the gatekeeper phenomenon)
  • You were a victim of date rape (and I’m so sorry that that is so many women’s stories).

And so I understand that not everyone will relate to this from personal experience. But I do think that this making out phase, when it’s not expected to go anywhere, and when it’s done for a prolonged period of time so that your body can come alive, is important.

Many women skipped the making out stage altogether, and went straight to intercourse.

Making out is actually an important part of sex education. It’s very hard to go from A to Z with no stages in between. That’s why in our Honeymoon Prep course we talk about how the goal should be arousal, not intercourse. The most important piece of the puzzle is not figuring out how intercourse works. Most people will figure that out soon enough (unless vaginismus, or sexual pain, is an issue). The key is figuring out how women’s arousal works. If you can figure that out, honestly, the rest will take care of itself over time.

But often we rush so much to achieve intercourse, that we skip some really vital steps in women’s sexual education.

And especially if you marry with some body image issues, or with any amount of shame regarding sex, achieving “intercourse” without that arousal piece can actually set you back quite a bit.

We simply have to learn to listen to our bodies, and that’s why making out, with no expectations of anything else, can be so helpful. (And that’s why I’m talking about making out, and not foreplay.) I mean simply making out and helping her feel aroused just from kissing and touching. And sometimes that can only happen if there isn’t pressure on her to do anything else or to perform in any way (like have an orgasm).

Enjoying sex is really a multiple stage thing:


  1. Low-key physical contact that makes you feel close
  2. Kissing and touching that is drawn out, that makes you feel breathless and where you start to feel aroused
  3. Removing some clothing and learning to touch each other without awkwardness
  4. Touching each other while kissing and learning what feels good
  5. Learning to get her aroused fully
  6. Having intercourse. 

The problem is that many of us go from #1 to #6 with nothing in between. And then we wonder why things don’t always work.

Now, again, I’m not arguing that we should have sex before marriage. Believe me, I’m a big proponent of waiting for marriage to have sex, and I believe that there are very important reasons for that.  But I do think that we need to proceed through each of those steps in that order, and spend as much time on each step as we need to, before proceeding to the next one. Even if that means that you don’t have sex on your wedding night.

That’s because orgasm for her is never going to work unless she can learn to listen to her body’s cues.

That’s what we were really talking about in the comments section yesterday, where a few women were saying that they really want very explicit directions of Do A then B then C exactly this way, because they had no idea what to do, and they needed someone to tell them. One woman said this:

For a woman who never masturbated and has a hard time figuring things out, vague language is more frustrating than helpful. Clear steps to try to start things off is more helpful than “do clitoral stimulation.” I literally needed descriptions for where to place my hand what finger to use etc to start feeling anything at all. The whole asking “am I feeling good? ” while he touches me has never ever done anything helpful for us. Clinical, mechanical descriptions? Those have given us a starting point to work off of.

Another woman said something similar:

My husband and I have only benefitted from extremely explicit sex information, as we were completely clueless about how to help me get aroused, and the things my husband has tried orally and manually have only gotten me partly there. I have always been a rule-follower, and I still have no clue how to use my own hands to bring myself to orgasm. (Why is masturbating wrong before marriage and okay afterward? I feel completely uncomfortable with the idea of masturbating alone or with my husband. None of my friends who were “naughty girls” before marriage have trouble with arousal or orgasm. Something feels unfair to me about this, like I was sold a bill of goods that staying pure before marriage would result in bliss.) 

I really appreciate their honesty, and I know that they are not alone. And I really, really want to help as much as I can, because I can only imagine how frustrating this is. And I completely understand that hearing explicit instructions on how to stimulate the clitoris seems useful and necessary.

I just want to offer this counterpoint, which I believe is really important.

The secret to orgasm is listening to what your body wants and then “riding” it.

Not every woman orgasms in exactly the same way. And often, over the course of arousal, the way you want to be touched changes. You might want it to start out light, but as you get more aroused, your body wants faster, or more. Often women hate their nipples being touched early in the arousal process, but really enjoy it close to orgasm. Telling people “Do A, then B, then C” just doesn’t work for most people, because you can do exactly the right thing and it won’t result in orgasm if you’re not listening to your body. Women who do orgasm regularly will tell you that what works one night won’t necessarily work the next. Depending on where she is in the cycle, sometimes she’ll want long, drawn out foreplay, and sometimes she’ll say, “forget that, just take me!” It depends on your body.

The way to learn how to be touched, too, is not to listen to someone else telling you explicitly. That can help give you some ideas, but ultimately you have to figure out what feels better, and what works. The clitoris, for instance, is a relatively small piece of your body. Touch it 1/4 ” down and it may feel weird. Go too far to the left and you’ve missed it. You need to figure out WHERE and WHAT PRESSURE is right.

The only way to do that is to be concentrating not on what you should be doing but on what  your body wants you to do. 

Again, none of this is to say that instructions on how to give oral sex can’t be helpful. They completely can if it gives you ideas! But ultimately the only way it works is if you’re calling the shots. You’re not trying to do a paint-by-numbers thing. You are honestly just listening to your body and letting your body carry you.

This is also why I’m reticent to recommend vibrators. It’s not that I think they’re a sin. It’s just that a vibrator is so powerful that it can allow you to orgasm WITHOUT having to listen to your body. It doesn’t actually teach you how to do this. (If you’ve never, ever reached orgasm in years, then they may help by showing you what it feels like. But a vibrator can’t “teach” you how to orgasm with your husband).

“Listening to your body” is very hard to do if you’ve spent your whole life trying to ignore your body.

If you grew up feeling as if sex was shameful, or as if your body is shameful, it is very, very hard to all of a sudden start listening and trying to figure out what arousing is.

“Listening to your body” is also very hard to do if you’re goal focused.

If you’re aiming for an orgasm, listening to your body is also difficult because you’re seeing it as a pass/fail thing. Are you there yet? Am I doing it right?

That’s why I think many women would benefit from rediscovering making out!

Seriously, if this has been a challenge for you in your marriage, and if you skipped several steps from #1 to #6 and you’ve never figured sex out, maybe take a few nights where you say, “we are NOT having intercourse and we are NOT aiming for orgasm”. We’re simply going to make out.

(And husbands, if you’re reading this: It’s so important to not make your wife feel that she has to “help you out” afterwards. I know this is difficult; but try to exercise self-control for her. She needs this. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle. If you can give her time to figure this out, you’ll both benefit in the long run). 

Like we found in our focus groups, being able to say no was the key to unlocking women’s yes. If sex has become goal oriented, and if she has never really figured out her own sexuality, maybe the best thing to do is go backwards and start again. Learn the arousal piece.

This is so important that I have even created a whole course to help you figure out arousal and your body, to get you to the big “O”

The Orgasm Course is Here to Help You Experience Real Passion!

Figure out what’s holding you back. Open the floodgates to orgasm.

And it’s $20 off right now for the complete course (women’s edition & men’s edition) until November 2!


Other Posts You May Enjoy

 Anyone else have anything to add? How can women learn to “listen to their bodies”? Was this a learning curve for you? What helped? I really do want to help these women, so let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. edl

    Great insights. Allowing time for the wife’s arousal can be the missing link toward mutually fulfilling intimacy, as well as orgasm.
    Sadly, men and women both have been brainwashed by movies to believe arousal is instantaneous for women. It is not. By God’s design, there is a process involved that results in marriage partners truly learning to “know” each other through marital intimacy.
    As nurturers and care givers, many women feel “selfish” to allow themselves anything that seems self indulgent, including time to become aroused. We are used to serving others and considering other’s needs first.
    And yet, ironically, it is the woman’s arousal itself that usually is what appeals to men (that’s the “hook” in porn my husband once told me).
    In marriage, if the wife can give herself “permission” to relax, both husband and wife can enjoy the results… not just orgasm, but to know and be fully known by your spouse, in love and trust.
    Yes, it makes you feel vulnerable and it feels scary at first, but once accomplished, it has benefits that affect the entire relationship, inside the bedroom and out, as God intended: oneness and respect for your spouse.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! Thank you. And i totally agree that many women are embarrassed to allow themselves time to get aroused, or feel selfish. This is so common.

  2. Anonymous

    My husband and I were clueless virgins when we got married. I read your books and blog and followed your advice about asking myself if it felt good. The problem was that I didn’t know what “good” felt like so when my husband asked or I asked myself mentally if it felt good, as long as it didn’t hurt I said yes. My aha moment came when we were making out one time and I started having a feeling that I had gotten a few times before when I was younger and reading Christian romance novels. Embarrassing but true- I got aroused from that stuff but didn’t have the language or awareness to identify what has happening when I was younger. It felt like a warm heartbeat in my clitoris that spread outward. So when I began to feel that with my husband I wondered if that was what “good” meant. I focused on what was causing me to feel that way and what would intensify that feeling and that’s how I figured out how to orgasm. Once I knew what “good” felt like I was able to listen to my body and learn what different things made me feel that way and it got easier with practice.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So interesting! Yes, that’s actually a really good way to describe it–“a warm heartbeat in my clitoris that spread outward.” I may use that!
      And, yes, most women’s first experience of that is watching a movie or reading a book. Very common. Probably almost universal, in fact. But so interesting that you didn’t have words for it, so you didn’t understand it. And so interesting, too, that you finally felt it when you were just making out. Thanks for sharing!

    • Frustrated

      Thanks for this! I had to put down A Good Girls Guide almost in tears because I didn’t know what she meant by “feel good”. Sitting and waiting to find something that “feels good” is SO not helpful for me. I just need to relax and cuddle and let things happen. Explicit instructions can help give some good ideas on what should feel good but that hunting around for it was so discouraging. Thank you for giving me some hope!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I’ll definitely include that in the updated version that I’ll be doing for the 10th anniversary!

  3. edl

    Sheila’s statement >(And husbands, if you’re reading this: It’s so important to not make your wife feel that she has to “help you out” afterwards. I know this is difficult; but try to exercise self-control for her. She needs this. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle. If you can give her time to figure this out, you’ll both benefit in the long run). <
    Men, consider … You getting "all worked up" without release, though uncomfortable for you, may be what your wife repeatedly experiences regarding intercourse. Not a good feeling, is it?

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      This is an excellent point. Women do experience physical discomfort if they get aroused without orgasm as well, and so this is a great opportunity to be able to go back, figure out what makes this work for your wife, so that when you do have sex it’s great for BOTH of you and neither are left feeling frustrated.

      • AspenP

        I so needed to hear validated that women DO feel physical discomfort when they get aroused and yet never orgasm. I have never heard that taught before—it’s usually only that men feel discomfort . Here I thought I was some kind of freak.

        • Rebecca Lindenbach

          Nope you’re not a freak–it’s quite common and often called “pink balls” or “blue wall” since women don’t have testicles and it’s typically called “blue balls” for men! (And of course once again there’s not an actual corresponding word for it for women because women’s sexual experience is really really misunderstood, but that’s a whole other post.)

          • Andrea

            “Blue bean” (bean=clitoris) is the term I’ve heard ☺

          • Rebecca Lindenbach

            I have no idea why, but I find “bean” as a euphemism for “clitoris” absolutely hilarious! Absolutely NO IDEA why, I’m just cracking up!! But that’s a good term for it!

          • Andrea

            Thanks for that, and I can totally imagine you cracking up cause I heard you do it on the podcasts! 🙂 I have no idea where I heard it, but if we’re gonna go with food analogies, it works. I think the “blue” has more to do with the pain than a boy color, like if you have a bruise.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true! The orgasm gap is very real.

      • Andrea

        Which is so ironic, since women are the ones with no refractory period (or a very small one)! The orgasm gap should really be referring to the fact that women can have successive ones and men can’t.

    • Mark

      Very good points indeed.
      In my case, when I’m intimate with my spouse, near motionless movements is the only way for me to avoid “letting go” too soon. I’ve discovered that near motionless movements, (very slow thrusting at a snails pace) can create a lot of intimate urgency for my spouse which can increase her arousal to climb even higher, because going slow is driving her insane which at a certain point she’ll experiences an orgasm all by herself without effort on my part or hers.
      During certain situations, both her and I need to exercise some self-control, because if her arousal is reaching a point where she suddenly desires to move her hips forward and back too aggressively (in little quaking motions) when she isn’t ready for me to “let go” she’s kind of feels like a kitty kat stuck on top of a roof.
      As a husband, I have to communicate with her saying “I’m ready to let go”. (not going to use more explicit terms) which can cause her to put the brakes on,
      Going slow, when she desires movements to be more aggressive, 9 times out of 10 will cause her arousal (and mine) to peak at a very high level as we are allowing blood to rush into the nerve endings in our erogenous areas and making them so sensitive to the touch, that at times can cause my wife to experience some rather intense multiples without barely moving.
      But what works in our marriage. may not in others as we had to listen to one another’s body and how responsive we are to each other.
      I’ve also noticed this type of intimacy, can build a lot of anticipation during the day leading up to the “act of intimacy” in both her and my body because it seems our body and mind remembers and as a result can be highly aroused before the clothes fall to the floor.

  4. Dean

    I think I commented this before on another article here, about how important it is, even if things get heated up, to say: I am ok, let’s wait until you are ready and we have time and it can be mutual, I will be fine until then.
    This makes her know that you will both be part of this happy exciting anticipation, and that for you having good time with her is what counts the most, more than the physical release.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s beautiful, Dean!

  5. Anonymus Too

    I have a vague memory being caught by my Mom, (I think multiple times) what I now know to be masturbating as young as 8 years old. Obviously, I wasn’t having sexual feelings nor had I been exposed to porn or any sort of abuse, I was simply curious about my body. And then I remember getting aroused to the point of getting wet from kissing in both my relationships. (I married the second man) Interestingly enough, I was very sheltered but I loved my honeymoon and sex! Our pre-marital counseling was pretty decent. (The Pastor basically told my husband to not finish the first or second or third time unless I didn’t have pain) My husband also knew that I needed to be aroused, a married friend of mine told me I needed to by lube, etc. I also didn’t feel any shame over sex and that’s inspite of reading Joshua Harris books and the fact that my parents basically told me nothing about sex except not to do it until marriage. So I feel incredibly blessed. No, we haven’t been without our sex issues at times. I feel it’s been a bit of a struggle for me to put down the hat of mother, homeschool parent, and responsibility to remember my am a sexual being. But that’s not surprising, as I have always been a very “responsible” person, even as a child. I often have to remind myself to let loose and have fun.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s great! I’m so glad that things worked out well for you!

  6. Hopeful

    What if “making out” is not arousing for her (regardless the length of time or type of activity)?
    It used to be arousing for her (it still is for me), but that was many, many years ago.
    Is there a way to bring it back?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      The big thing, I think, is not to connect it to anything. Just make out for the sake of making out, not as foreplay. That seems to be the secret, according to our focus groups and interviews. When there’s no pressure, women find it much easier to relax when this has been stressful.

    • Greg

      This is the reason I’m a proponent of sex before marriage. There is no guess work or awkward moments and everybody gets what they want.

      • Hopeful

        I honestly don’t think that having sex before marriage would have improved our ability to enjoy making out after marriage. In fact, I think sex before marriage would have made it much harder to determine if I really wanted to marry my wife. I’m glad I married her. I’m also glad we didn’t have sex before we got married. That would have introduced a bunch more dysfunction. At least that’s my thought.

      • Matilda

        But being awkward and working things out together is what bonds you together and fosters intimacy. Laughing about it in your later years is a bonus! I wouldn’t want to waste that on a stranger. I think you are looking at sex as being this clinical thing that if you tick all the boxes you both get an orgasm, but it’s so much more than that!

  7. Sheila Wray Gregoire

    Hi, everybody! I do see that there are a number of people who are still really frustrated, and I just thought I’d answer everybody at once.
    I want to just reiterate that every sex resource that you will read, and every sex therapist that I know, will say the same thing: the secret to figuring out how to make sex feel good is body awareness and getting in touch with what your body is feeling.
    That is not in any way trying to blame those of you who aren’t there yet, or trying to make you all feel badly. I know so many of you are trying so hard, and you’re really frustrated, and I really do feel for you. I do.
    It’s just that there isn’t any shortcut. There really isn’t. Maybe the reason that this isn’t working for you is just that you haven’t unlocked the key to feeling good.
    That’s why I’d really encourage all of you to go back to first principles. Forget clitoral stimulation. Forget trying to figure out how to touch you well. Seriously. Just try making out.
    Do you know why making out was so arousing to so many teens who steamed up car windows? Because it was done for a LONG time (like half an hour), and there was a lot of hugging and kissing of necks and ears and everything else. The problem is that we’re so goal focused that we often head right to the clitoris BEFORE the clitoris actually wants to be touched. Let’s figure out the arousal piece first BEFORE we try clitoral stimulation. If you can feel a bit aroused, then you’ll know what wants to be touched.
    Also, some people find that self-stimulation works great. Some just can never get the hang of it. That’s okay. The big thing is just to listen to your body. So go back to first principles. Just try to make out. Just kiss a lot.
    I wish I could tell you “If you touch exactly this right spot that will work.” But it’ s not like that. Yes, there are things that you can do that are more likely to feel good (and I’ve talked a ton about them in my books and on this blog). But if none of them is working, I don’t think the problem is that you haven’t found just the right touch. It’s more likely that you haven’t found the key to arousal.
    So try making out. And if that still doesn’t cause any arousal, then it may be worth asking some other questions that go deeper–questions about residual shame in marriage; about shame about sex; about how you feel about your husband; about past hurts. All of those things can influence us, too.
    I wish it were easier for everyone. I really do. But please hear me on this: it isn’t that what I’m saying isn’t true. It’s that you just haven’t found the way to unlock it yet. But this really is what you need.

    • Matilda

      Yes! So good Shelia! Preach it!! I love the Happy Days references 🙂

  8. Jane Eyre

    I can be overly blunt, so when I tried to explain to my husband why the pain of intercourse destroys my enjoyment of foreplay, the explanation was: Do you like backrubs? Would you like backrubs if you always got punched in the face afterward?
    As for the “paint by numbers” thing: when techniques are presented as options, something to have in your toolbox that you can consider using, it is a lot better than presenting them as things a spouse MUST do to satisfy her spouse. If you are told that you must give your husband oral sex, or you must stimulate your wife during intercourse, it ignores the fact that some people are genuinely uncomfortable with those actions, and that no one with a healthy psyche wants their spouse to feel obligated to perform sexual acts for them.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, exactly, Jane! And I’m so sorry about vaginismus. So sorry.

    • Madeline

      Jane Eyre, I really like the options in the toolbox description. I can’t help but wonder if the authors of the ‘paint by numbers’ type descriptions have the exact same encounter every time. If you have a bunch of options in the toolbox you can throw in, I think it helps keep things fresh and fun.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, I’m all for toolbox! Maybe I should make some posts about that? “A Toolbox of Ideas for….” 🙂

        • Madeline

          I would love to read a post like that! And I bet others would too 🙂

  9. AJ

    My wife used to sometimes struggle to reach orgasm, but now she is always able to experience orgasm(s). The the turning point for her in our sexual journey together is when she was able to get a little selfish and not be concerned with me. She said she learned to focus intently on how her body feels without regard for how she perceives me to be feeling. She reached a comfort level where she can just let herself go without worrying about me, my response, my arousal level or what I might be thinking about her. Now she is able to become much more aroused much more quickly which leads to me being more aroused. It makes the whole experience more blissful for both of us. In short the key was simply for her to change the way she thought about sex. It was a long and difficult journey that did not come about without a lot of conversation and trust. We both grew together through it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So interesting, AJ! This is something that so many women echo.

      • Jane Eyre

        From one perspective, sexual selfishness is deeply destructive. I’ve been dumped by men for not having sex with them. Men have berated me about it, mocked me for not giving it to them, and tried to force it on me. Many of my woman friends have similar experiences, and one thinks that it’s been so bad that she’s too broken over it to find a husband. So when we hear that we’re supposed to be ‘selfish’ in bed in order for it to be satisfying, it sounds like something no decent human should want to inflict on someone else.
        This is also why “gatekeeping” is a lousy thing to expect of young women.

  10. Jeri

    My hubby of 37 years and I are re-learning all of this! We are nearing our 60’s and find that it takes both of us alot longer to have an orgasm, and touching and kissing play a HUGE difference on how things end. I also have to highly recommend the book from Lucy Libido. It is written very classy, and helps you to make your own oils and rubs and helps get things started. And they work! God knew what He was doing when He invented sex! And I thank Him for it every day!<3

  11. Anonymous

    I knew this post would not disappoint me! This has been so enlightening! See, until you described it for me in this post, I thought “making out” MEANT intercourse. I’m beginning to realize that there’s still a large body of basic facts out there that people with normal upbringings all know and I don’t. I think I was
    brain-washed and experimented on. The more I have opened up to a few professionals about my upbringing and church experience, not just about the sexual and marriage dysfunction, the more I am hearing terms like “religious trauma” and “religious abuse.”
    I don’t know what making out looks like, I don’t know what petting means, or what heavy petting means, and until this discussion on your blog, I would have said that what you are describing as making out or petting or heavy petting were all wrong to do before marriage, touching yourself to figure out what feels good was wrong at any time, married or not, and I would have assumed that you, Sheila, would agree that these things were wrong. It has blown my mind to hear you recommending kissing and touching sessions of at least half an hour while unmarried! You mean, not even between an engaged couple? Just boyfriend and girlfriend?
    I wish I knew what I still don’t know, so I could know what questions to ask!
    My husband and I didn’t touch AT ALL more than a slight brushing of bare arms before marriage, and we were never alone together before marriage. We were closely watched by my parents and scolded if we were ever in a room alone. Immediately following our wedding ceremony, my dad told my husband and me in a pressuring way to go on and hold hands now. “You can hold hands now, kids.” I was mortified, and anyway, we were supposed to be shaking hands with the guests coming through the line. I was curious and excited to see what sex would be like, as I was told that married sex would be a lot of fun if we had stayed pure before marriage. I had never felt attracted to my husband as a person or potential friend, let alone felt sexual attraction. (I still never have after several decades.) I had the self-esteem of a worm and figured nobody would ever put up with all my dad’s rules just to get me, and I believed it was selfishness and pride to feel that I deserved to be treated well.
    As a teen, I had a high libido, although I can only see that in retrospect. I felt terrible guilt for those feelings at the time. A few years before marriage, I had fallen hard for someone else my parents disapproved of, and one time, my brother witnessed him giving me one goodbye hug in front of his entire family and told my dad, who then lectured me in a long scathing rage followed by a period of cold, silent disapproval.
    And I still believed my dad’s teaching that if I stayed under protective authority by willingly obeying first him, then my husband, and kept myself pure, that God would bless the subsequent marriage with bliss. My subsequent marriage to a selfish pig (who pulled fake wool over my dad’s eyes) was decades of toxic misery, during which I told myself that we had a good marriage, because to admit otherwise would be disloyalty to an ideology and dishonoring to my husband.
    I am so very very sad and angry right now.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, dear. I’m so sorry for all that you’ve been taught. Honestly. And what you’re saying does sound like religious abuse!
      Okay, so let’s do some education here.
      “Kissing” = short kiss on lips, let’s say lasting only a few seconds
      “Making out” = prolonged kissing, on lips, face, neck, ears, etc., with arms stroking the back, shoulders, head, etc.
      “Light petting” = touching over clothing on “sexual” areas, such as buttocks, breasts, and genitalia
      “Heavy petting” = touching below clothing on those areas, even to the point of orgasm
      I would say that the vast majority of people that we surveyed for our Bare Marriage survey would have “made out” before their wedding. Very, very, very few waited to kiss until their wedding day (like, maybe 4% at the most, but I’m going from memory and Joanna may say I’m off by a percent or two).
      Quite a few, even the majority, would have progressed to heavy petting or intercourse before marriage as well, though I never asked Joanna for those particular stats.
      Maybe this is TMI, but I certainly “made out” before my wedding, and I certainly don’t think that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. I wouldn’t advise petting, because I do think that getting oneself worked up sexually is not the best idea, and I do believe in saving sex until marriage. And I’m not saying that anyone SHOULD do any of these things. I think it depends on your own conscience. But I do not think that making out is bad, no.
      I also think that expecting to go from 0-60 in one night can prove highly problematic (for some), and I think it’s important to progress through those stages in order, and not skip over them. If you get married and you haven’t kissed before, then just kiss first until you’re comfortable with that. If you’ve made out, then just do some heavy petting. But work through things in order, rather than just skip to the end, which I think is what people do. And then I think they miss something vital.
      The fact that your family shamed you for basic human feelings is very controlling, abusive, and sad. I’m so sorry. And I’m so sorry that you felt as if you couldn’t tell the truth about your marriage, too, because to do so would be disloyal. I hope you now know that God really cares for you. For YOU, not just for the appearance of your marriage and family. You do deserve to be treated like a child of God, made in the image of God, because that is what you are.

      • GuessWho

        Okay – I also never knew the definition of these things, either! And I like definitions and specificity! I guess I just though of it as kissing, making out, and…advanced making out? The phrase “petting” has totally confused me for years!
        I want to stress that I also didn’t know what to “touch yourself” or “feel good” meant. And I looked up the anatomy but never managed to locate the proper spot on myself because I didn’t ever feel anything the two times I tried to see if I could learn my own body. I was just entirely missing any comprehensible definition of any sexual vocabulary at all.
        Unlike the original commenter, I wasn’t raised in a repressive household at all, but I also wasn’t ever given any information about sex, kissing, or dating. It was a very Southern “we don’t discuss that” kind of thing. I suppose you could say I was naturally naive, as a person – and often completely incurious until my mid-late 20’s! I’m also extremely analytical, so it’s very challenging to exist in a world where people assume you know the working definition of common cultural terms and you just don’t. It feels like being back in high school again – when I could tell somebody made a dirty joke because of the group’s reaction, but I never had any idea why it was dirty because it all sounded like either normal words or gibberish to me! XD

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I also need to ask–are you still married to that same man? And, if so, do you have anyone safe that you can talk to? A licensed counselor that you can process some of this with?
      If you have never felt sexual attraction for your husband, and if he has been a controlling husband, I really think that’s got far more to do with your inability to get aroused sexually than anything about your body. I’m so sorry.

      • Anonymous

        Sheila, a few years ago, I found myself telling an older woman the truth about our marriage. It just all sort of came pouring out. She had been married to a lustful, sneaky, highly manipulative , gas-lighting man during her first marriage and had fought her way back to mental health since then. She was the first person to explain boundaries to me. I began to put what she taught me into practice. We also went to therapy, which was only partially helpful, because I was afraid my husband would refuse to go if I told the therapist the whole truth. So the next huge paradigm shift toward mutuality in our relationship didn’t come til last year when I found your blog (while searching for non-crass help to finally address my sexual dysfunction). I read everything I was finding here to my husband (which would never have worked before the whole boundaries shift). There really are no words for our respect and gratitude for you and your writing. Our marriage has made progress I couldn’t even imagine happening five years ago, because now we BOTH care about working on the problems. We still have a long way to go to be where some young couples are when they start out. Since I now know I married a man with neurological differences, without going into detail here, I realize we may never get there. But our marriage is now an egalitarian one rather than a hierarchical one and happier than we ever knew it could be. It’s strong enough to handle me going back and speaking the truth about the past mess, working through the erroneous religious framework I had been brainwashed to believe. The more I learn, the greater the cognitive dissonance has grown, and the more deconstruction is happening. I have a few very safe friends as sounding boards for this process. I have finally learned what I must prioritize in order to be an emotionally and mentally healthy and strong person, and my husband is fully supportive of me. I only wish that the many other women I know who are in toxic marriages supported by oppressive belief systems could experience the healing and freedom that I have.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, wow! Thank you for sharing your journey with me. I had no idea of the role I played. I am so glad that you are on this road to recovery, and that your husband is on board, too. I know there are still many challenges ahead, but I believe that God has more than begun a good work in you, and He will be faithful to complete it!
          My heart is really with those in these toxic, oppressive systems, too. Your comment gives me hope that more people from those places will find me, too. Thank you!

        • Madeline

          Anonymous, my heart goes out to you! I agree with Sheila and the professionals you’ve spoken to, that this definitely sounds like religious abuse and it is no wonder that you have lingering religious trauma!
          I have some lingering issues with my body and body image because my parents were so strict about modesty and it made me feel like I should be ashamed of what I have and like I’m a source of sin and general nastiness. Considering that this has affected my confidence in the bedroom, I can imagine how much more shaming and icky sex would feel if my parents had made such a big deal about physical contact! I’m so sorry.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            This is so true. What we believe about our bodies and about sex will be lived out in the bedroom, even if we don’t want it to be. Shame is a terrible thing, and was never God-ordained.

    • Anon

      Anonymous, if it helps, you’re not the only one to feel ignorant in these areas. I remember being taught ‘human biology’ at school, but it was done in such an abstract, technical way that I never actually made the connection with ‘real people’. And I never understood the distinction between ‘making out’ and ‘heavy petting’ etc until I read Sheila’s definitions just now – I always thought they were the same thing!
      I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through and how it has impacted your life so badly. I hope you can find a way to heal from your past abuse.

  12. Wifey

    I was one of the 4% that didn’t kiss till marriage. It’s not a biblical requirement and not a hill I would die on, but I do recommend it to my healthy, well adjusted friends. My now husband and I based our boundaries by asking the question like this- ‘How can we honor God the most with kissing?’ And we both felt waiting was the best way to honor Him. Not because our parents required us too, we decided that on our own. I have plenty of friends who had different convictions and more power to them! It really comes down to you and God. But in my case, I’m really happy we waited. And going from holding hands to everything in one day (our wedding day!) was SO not a problem. At least for us. 😉

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad it wasn’t a problem for you! That’s wonderful. That’s likely because it was something you chose, together, rather than something imposed on you or that you felt you “should” do. What we’ve found is that many, many women have struggled to become aroused when they’ve been raised that all physical contact is bad. The law only ever kills!

      • Anonymous

        Sheila, that is exactly what my husband and I say. We wish we had been given the freedom to set our own boundaries. If a couple isn’t mature enough to handle this much, why in heck are you giving them permission to marry? What complicated my side of the story was my family’s atmosphere of control/anger/fear and conditional love, plus shame and suspicion based on the view that everything that proceeds from the human heart is corrupt and can never be trusted. My dad’s favorite Bible passages were, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upwards,” and most importantly, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” My dad would say that of course he wouldn’t trust two hormonal kids to be alone together; he wouldn’t trust HIMSELF under those circumstances.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, that’s so sad! Like it really does break my heart. I’m so sorry. Yes, the heart is deceitful. But you know what else? We are desperately loved. We are made in the image of God. We have the Holy Spirit indwelling us! God does not see us as filthy. He loves us desperately. This distortion of how God sees us does lead to such shame. I’m sorry you were taught that! I really am.

        • Blessed Wife

          Funny how many men who want to put these kinds of insane restrictions on young girls SHOULDN’T be trusted alone in a room with a young girl!
          I am very sorry for everything you went through, and very glad you are finding healing!

          • Jo

            This article is so insightful, interesting and helpful. I was one of the 4% who didn’t kiss until my wedding day, but that wasn’t a boundary set by either of our parents but by us. We thought it would make it more special and fun to wait. I don’t regret that we waited, but I also don’t feel it would’ve been wrong if we would have kissed before our wedding day. However, while reading about making out In this article, and letting everything feel good before you move on to intercourse… I realized that was something my husband did for me. He didn’t rush anything. we talked about expectations before our wedding night a couple weeks before our wedding so there wouldn’t be disappointment. In fact we didn’t fully have intercourse for 4 days into our honeymoon because I had such a tight hymen. I had a wonderful, fulfilling honeymoon and continue to have a fulfilling marriage now, but as my husband says, what arouses him is to see me be in pleasure. Thanks for all you do, Sheila. Keep up the good work. You’re helping all of us!

    • E

      I didn’t kiss my husband until marriage (I had others) and I Kindof wish we had. We have a great relationship, but he’s not much of a kisser these days and it’s awkward to initiate. Sometimes I’d just like to be kissed and do it for a long time.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, I’ve heard many women say that. I think the problem is when you skip this step, you never really think of kissing as important, in and of itself. but you can get back to that! In my 31 Days to Great Sex challenge I do talk about the importance of kissing and give as a challenge that you kiss. That will be available again in late July!

  13. Susanna Musser

    Something else has been in my thoughts to pass on in regards to your survey, Sheila. I’ve heard you state a few times that you found that orgasm rates were higher among Christian women than you had expected them to be. You may already have taken this into consideration, but because of my extremely strict, conservative religious background, and because I wrote a blog that was popular in the special needs adoption community, I know MANY women in extremely strict, conservative religious groups. Most if not all of them would not even consider filling out your survey. So your findings are really only reflective of those who are liberal enough to actually fill out a survey about sex. I have heard so many heartbreaking stories from women who personally trust me, because I have made myself vulnerable to them. None of those women would fill out a survey like yours. I guarantee you that the real rates of orgasm among ALL Christian women would be lower than simply among those who are willing to answer detailed sex questions via the internet.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I hear what you’re saying. The good news is that we have so many respondents that we’re able to look at how theological beliefs influence orgasm rates (which is why we asked so many questions about theological beliefs). And you’re right–extreme conservatism does hurt orgasm rates. It really does. We’ll be talking about that in the book.
      So even though they may have been less likely to take the survey, there were enough that we could compare them to other theological leanings. That’s why we wanted so many! And we had a very good cross-section of denominations, too.

  14. Hannelie

    Im so thankful that i finally came across your blog! I feel its the first time one can raise your concerns and actually really get help and compassion from others!
    I need your advice and help! How do i handle or what do I do when my husband isnt affectionate towards me? We only dated briefly after meeting each other as we both felt we finally found the one we’ve prayed for! Initially the chemistry was crazy (first month or two), but he was never into really intimately kissing me even then. He withdrew quickly and seemed to not like it. Ive confronted him about it lately (in a calm spirit though, just expressing my hurt and feelings of rejection, but he only denied not wanting to kiss me, but had a lot of excuses (ive got too much lip-balm on, or he could still smell the salad i had for dinner in my breath (and thats after i brushed my teeth, rinsed with mouthwash etc) Theres always some sort of excuse. He also doesn’t seem to be attracted to me sexually either – my libido is definitely much higher than his! I know he loves me, is not cheating or addicted to porn, but somehow sex and any form of intimacy is just not one of his needs!
    I feel very rejected, unloved and unsure what to do… even when i try to initiate sex he wouldnt be turned on. Please help???

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Hannelie! That is really tough. I’m sorry. You have a couple of things to figure out here. Is it that he has a low drive? Or is there something else going on, like porn? I’ve got some roundup posts on what to do if your husband has a lower sex drive, and I hope those help!

      • ReallyWantTo

        What advice is there if I don’t like lots of kissing? Like it kind of turns me off, the spit, the inability to breathe properly, the breath smells. I seriously wonder if I have some sort of sensory issue. Arousal has always been hard for me, and after 18 years of marriage it’s not a comfort or awkwardness issue. I have zero sex drive. I love my husband, I love our marriage. But this has been such a hard thing for us to navigate.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Even if you don’t like deep kissing, you can kiss a little but still run your hands everywhere!
          But have you ever had your hormone levels checked? Or your iron levels checked? If you have zero sex drive and you never have sex dreams and you can’t get aroused, that may be worth going in and getting checked, because sometimes there are treatments that make a huge difference.

  15. Anna Major

    are you recommending for dating couples to makeout?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      No, I’m really not. I think that’s really up to each couple. I don’t want to make pronouncements on that. I’m just saying that most women do experience arousal when all they’re doing is making out, with no particular goal other than that, and so if you’ve never experienced arousal, or your body isn’t telling you what wants to be touched, it may be better to go backwards. A lot of us missed out on some steps on how to get acquainted with your body.

  16. C

    Thank you so much for this post! There’s so much to be said for understanding what makes you feel aroused. When my husband and I had our first date, I distinctly remember him informing me that he’d kiss me “until the cows come home, but that’s it.” Over the course of our relationship and engagement, we learned what it felt like to experience desire for each other. Having an established sense of physical intimacy before we were sexually intimate in marriage took a lot of pressure off of us once we began our marriage.
    In doing this, it reaffirmed my thoughts on different types of intimacy and how they work together: emotional intimacy leads to a desire for physical intimacy which then leads to a desire for sexual intimacy. So because we were emotionally intimate, being in each other’s physical space felt more intimate and natural. And because we were comfortable being physically intimate, we also understood that we desired to be sexually intimate. Through this whole progression, the emotional intimacy is what spurred us toward greater connection and intensified it for us.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s lovely, C! That’s honestly why I’m fine with kissing before marriage. Kissing is not sex! And we should not make it sound like it is. At the same time, if someone feels great conviction over this and wants to wait, that’s okay (as long as it’s an honest choice, and not something imposed from parents), but then they need to be aware that they are missing some steps!

  17. Barbara

    As a Christian therapist, I have also taken many hours of training in the area of human sexuality. I am so pleased to see you taking these issues on and shining a light on what is true. I would also like to add your your knowledge base by recommending you check out the recent research on the anatomy of the female genitalia. Did you know that both the penis and the clitoris develop from the same embryonic tissue, making them similar in structure? Or that the clitoris is not one tiny area but a vast network of nerve endings that branches out down the sides of the inner labia? It’s fascinating. This discovery can be very freeing for many women.

    I would also like to recommend that you include people of color on your blog site. I would love to recommend it to future clients.

    God bless you for the work you’re doing!


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