She Doesn’t Need to Put Out. That’s Not All He Thinks About! How Our Sexuality Got Derailed

by | May 19, 2021 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 18 comments

Has Christian Culture Derailed our Sexuality?

Today’s post is by Dorothy Littell Greco, author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle, a great book about marriage in midlife. Today she adapts an excerpt for us from Marriage  in the Middle about how faulty teaching and cultural conditioning attempt to
derail our God-given sexuality. The excerpt is in both her voice and her husband’s voice in part.

Marriage in the Middle

We live in a world where it’s unimaginable to go through a single day without being barraged by hypersexualized imagery.

And yet it’s incredibly countercultural to talk about our bodies and our sexuality in an honest, respectful fashion—even as adults.

This is not a new problem. Nor is it only a church problem. Both religious and secular culture have largely failed to offer a healthy, balanced perspective of sexuality. Many of us were most likely inculcated by one of two diametrically opposed philosophies regarding sex: the anything goes, no-rules-apply approach or the highly repressive everything-is-forbidden approach of the extreme abstinence movement. Neither of these ideologies accurately captures God’s intent.

Regardless of whether we were raised in the extreme abstinence movement, permissive secular culture, or some place in between, we all have to sift through layers of cultural conditioning and misguided teaching to determine God’s intent for our sexuality. This is true even if we’ve been married for decades.

Starting in adolescence, culture conditions men and women differently.

By the early teen years girls know that should they fail to keep their boyfriends sexually satisfied, it’s their fault if the boys go elsewhere. I remember standing around a bonfire at a high school pep rally within earshot of an ex-boyfriend. With his arms wrapped around his new steady, he said, “I used to go out with her,” nodding in my direction. His girlfriend asked, “Why did you break up with her?” He replied, “She didn’t give out.” With just four words he effectively shamed me and clarified his expectations for her. I wish I could say that this line of thinking stops when we reach adulthood, but I’ve heard more than a few male pastors blame wives for their husbands’ sexual indiscretions.

Many Christian women often find themselves in a double bind. Not only are we seemingly responsible for keeping our husbands sexually satisfied, but we’re also apparently responsible for mankind’s sexual sobriety. Soon after the late Rev. Billy Graham began his public ministry, he, along with several of his trusted friends, decided to safeguard his ministry by implementing several rules, one of which stated that they would not meet individually with a woman unless a third party was present. Known as the “Billy Graham rule,” this has become standard practice for many male Christian leaders.

Fidelity should be a nonnegotiable component of marriage and men are wise to understand their vulnerabilities.

But when a male leader refuse to meet one-on-one with a woman, the woman can feel that the man is not safe—and somehow it’s her fault. More than that, such legalistic practices limit women’s access to leadership. This is just another way that women have been objectified; if a man cannot be alone in a professional or ministerial setting with a woman, women cease being image bearers.

Whether it’s in the context of one-on-one relationships or in the church at large, women often receive the message that our bodies are both powerful and dangerous. To minimize this and protect our brothers, there’s tangible pressure for us to go beyond appropriate modesty and become almost asexual by concealing curves, cleavage, or any other sensual body parts. From this vantage point it can feel like women are perceived to be seductresses who sing their siren songs for the sole purpose of luring unsuspecting men into the rocks, à la Homer’s Odyssey. While some women do misuse their sexuality and self-objectify, the meta-message here is that men are powerless to resist—which is not at all consistent with Jesus’s example or his teachings (see Matthew 5:30).

Outside religious settings, women’s bodies are detached from their souls and idolized. The fashion and entertainment industries, which serve as baseline indicators of secular beliefs, seem intent on exposing as much female flesh as possible: not to celebrate women’s beauty but to sell things. Men can also be objectified, as shows like The Bachelorette prove.

Though it looks different, cultural conditioning can be similarly unhelpful for men.

Throughout their lives, men receive the message that they are wired to constantly think about sex, and that their worth is deeply tied to their virility and sexual prowess.

Emphasizing virility or frequency encourages men to prioritize the act of sex (which can take less than ten minutes) over intimacy (which takes inestimably longer). Esteeming virility also contributes to the lie that men cannot consistently control their sexual desires. Based on his experiences, my husband feels that,

American culture tends to frame sexual performance as the masculinity litmus test. Even within Christian circles it seems that we’re not true men unless we’re thinking about having sex all the time. One study done by a conservative Christian organization stated that “80-90% of men view sex as the most important aspect of their marriage.” If this is true, which I highly doubt, how much of that is a function of conditioning and poor anxiety management? That the average American male has to exert significant energy to not think about sex is a fact: that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or that we shouldn’t develop that ability.

It’s ironic that I can feel like I’m not man enough because I don’t think about sex all the time. We’re telling each other the wrong story. We can’t and shouldn’t always be thinking about sex. There’s too much else to do! This kind of pressure may cause some men to eroticize all of their emotional and physical needs, and some to shut down because they know they can’t keep up. Men are more vulnerable than we let on, even if we’re not likely to admit it.

If men take in these messages and conclude that their behavior is dependent on what someone else does or doesn’t do or that the Holy Spirit is not available to them when they feel tempted, they will fail to develop the self-control necessary to remain faithful in thought and deed. When a man’s sexuality has been touched by the power of the gospel, he will be able to have a face-to-face conversation with any woman—even a bikini-clad Miss Universe—and maintain self-control. Even if he feels tempted or aroused.

To walk in a holy, healthy sexual ethic we must refute erroneous teaching and recognize when culture is leading us astray.

We will also need to acknowledge the power of our God-given sexuality, become aware of our areas of temptation, and find the balance between self-control and sexual expression.

Regardless of where our misguided input came from or how long it has been influencing us, it’s never too late to come into full alignment with God’s purposes for our sexuality.

Adapted from Marriage in the Middle by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Marriage in the Middle
Marriage in the Middle

Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges and Joys. When she’s not writing or making photographs, she love to go on long kayaks and long walks with her husband of 30 years. You can find more of her work on her website.

Dorothy Greco: Does Christian Culture Derail our Sexuality

What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon? Let’s talk in the comments!

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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. Chris

    The Billy Graham rule is a classic example of just how differently men and women can view the exact same situation. The woman who wrote the above piece seemed to think that they implemented this rule because they didn’t trust themselves to not be sexual with a woman. Nope. They implement the rule as an insurance policy against false accusations from women. If a woman made some allegation against them, then by having a witness they can quickly debunk the claim. A lot of men have had these things happen and say later “if only i had a witness”. I personally know a man where a woman who he did not recall ever meeting and didn’t recognize her claim that he was the father of her child. Long story short, he had to get a paternity test done. Of course the results proved he was not the father and he was 100% sure that he had never had sex sith her, he still had to go through all that. When you are a man of means and are widely known, you are vulnerable to these things. The very unfortunate downside to this of course is that it can make women feel like they are a “danger” to men. But that danger does not manifest itself as a sexual temptress with cleavage showing. Men can easily withstand that. No, it manifests itself later in the courts of public opinion through slander and libel.

    • mtKatie

      I totally agree with you! Unfortunate that so many women have used this ploy. I live in a ranching community and my neighbor, who is almost old enough to be my grandparent, won’t come inside the house to visit when he needs to talk about fencing etc. When I first mentioned it to my mom she explained it to me as a sign of respect. “He’s old fashioned” she said. She told me about Billy Graham and their rule about elevators and so on and how they never wanted even a shadow of a doubt about their behavior. It was a way to guarantee they never had their ministry smeared by scandal as so many others have been.
      It does make me feel respected looking at it from that point of view. He respects me enough to want to ensure that nothing bad happens to me in the form of rumors etc. I would never have imagined him as someone who couldn’t control himself or imagine feeling unsafe with him. I actually feel more safe around him because of the respect he shows me (and side note, I know it wasn’t mentioned in this article or the comment I’m responding to—but that respect includes looking me in the eyes!!) He and his wife are some of the few True Christians I know, someone you can see the Light shining out very clearly in everything they are.

    • Emmy

      I believe Chris has a point. The Billy Graham rule can function as an insurance policy against false accusations from ANYONE.
      As Christians, we do have enemies who would be happy to see us stumble and fall, and if they can’t make that happen, the next best thing is to spread false rumors.
      It is good to have some safety measures in place, not only concerning our sexual conduct, but also concerning issues such as money. A pastor who counts the offering all alone, just by himself and every time MAY be the most honest guy in town, but how do we know? It is good to have some policy in place against rumors and false accusations.

    • Andrea

      I feel like we all need to be reminded that only 2-8% of accusations are false and that warnings against “gossip” have been used by church authorities to silence the sexual abuse of not only women, but also children (more than 700 victims in the SBC alone). I realize some of you on here know men who have been falsely accused – there are false accusations out there, after all – but that is anecdotal evidence, and maybe this is another gaping hole in Christian science education that this blog can help to fill, the difference between statistical and anecdotal.
      To address a specific concern of Christians, that our enemies in the world will try to destroy us through false rumors, just look at the last few big cases: Ravi Zacharias, Jerry Falwell Jr., Carl Lentz, Bill Hybels… were they smeared by false rumors or did they actually abuse their power and bring it all upon themselves?

      • Elsie

        I agree with you, Andrea. Whether the Billy Graham rule is coming from a fear of being tempted by women or a fear of false accusations, women are being seen as a threat rather than as sisters in Christ.
        As you pointed out, false accusations are not common. It’s problematic for church leaders to be more concerned about women being a threat to them in some way than being concerned about ministering to them, which may sometimes involve the need for a private conversation. So this rule causes huge disadvantages for women in the church.
        I work in the secular world and I regularly meet one on one with male colleagues to discuss confidential work matters behind closed doors. This has never been a problem. It’s really sad that men and women can manage to be alone together and still treat each other respectfully in the secular world but not in the church.
        If we have the Holy Spirit working in us, brothers and sisters in Christ should be able to meet together and work alongside each other in a way that honors and respect each other. Obviously we should exercise good judgment but this Billy Graham rule gets taken to an extreme in a way that hurts women. I’ve even read stories of women who have had to walk in the rain because a Christian man wouldn’t give her a five minute ride in his car because of the Billy Graham rule. Even at my very conservative evangelical church, I’ve occasionally met with men one on one to discuss ministry related issues and I’ve always been treated with dignity as a sister in Christ – not as a threat to be feared

    • Rebecca

      This is the one point in the article I didn’t agree with.
      The denomination I am a part of (in Australia) has guidelines around dealing with vulnerable people (whether children, elderly, etc). One of those guidelines is that a minister or elder (a man) shouldn’t provide counselling to a woman one-on-one. This generally means that the women might have friend with her, or an elder’s wife might sit in.
      We also have guidelines around other ministries – youth, for example – where a youth leader shouldn’t give a young person a lift home by themselves.
      Obviously there is some lee-way in the case of an emergency, but anything out of the ordinary like this should be mentioned to leadership ASAP just so they are aware of circumstances etc.
      It is not because women are a “temptation” or “dangerous”, and it’s certainly not implying that all leaders are predatory. Having child protection guidelines in place is not implying that children are somehow dangerous, nor that all adults are pedophiles.
      Guidelines like this are to protect everyone, keep everyone safe, and help vulnerable people feel secure.
      This also means that as an elder’s wife who also takes care of the finances and secretarial work in our local church (and therefore interacts with the minister via text, email, phone and in person at least twice a week) -I would not be alone in a car with the minister (for example). This is not because I don’t trust him, or him me – but it is a protection for both of our reputations so that there is no hint of anything inappropriate. It not only protects us, but protects the church family against false rumours, gossip, etc which can tear a church apart.
      These sort of guidelines get put in place because there have been wicked people in leadership positions in churches that have preyed upon the most vulnerable people in the community.
      I would be concerned if a church’s leadership didn’t have some sort of guidelines in place.

    • Lisa

      The rule can be that the pastor doesn’t meet alone with any person. There’s no reason to make the rule for women only.
      What if a man claimed that the pastor made a pass at him? Or claimed that the pastor said something that he didn’t actually say?

  2. Anon

    As a man I think that the wrong message about sex that we men hear gets even worse with the fact that we are supposed to wait for sex..
    Nothing wrong with waiting but I do think it creates an obsession with sex among men. We learn that we should obsess about sex and the only thing we should think about at the same time we have to wait for it which leads to further idolization of it. How many young men haven’t said that they don’t want Jesus to come until they get to have sex?
    Sex becomes the most important thing which can become unhealthy.
    I have only heard a woman express the same idea once and my reaction was: “ How can she have so dirty thoughts” Oh the double standards. Glad I don’t think like that anymore but it shows what I learned about sex.

    • Jame Eyre

      I am a fan of the Billy Graham rule. It is not hard at all for people to meet in a conference room (where anyone walking by can see), during the day at a coffee shop instead of for drinks alone at night, or to take the entire team our for drinks. Talks happen with an open door. Men that I have worked with professionally have done all of these things and I appreciate it.
      It is how I know that it isn’t a date or a come-on. The “date disguised as
      mentorship” happens so often that it’s imperative for male mentors to demonstrate that they are not hitting on the young woman in question.

  3. Bethany#2

    Yeah, I mean, I grew up knowing that my dad followed that rule, but didn’t know the origin. I don’t know much about billy Graham’s ministry, but I know that my dad is a community leader. He’s got that natural politician ability to even have friendly enemies. But with his marriage taking #1 priority, he self-imposed the rule. His chaperone is almost always a child, who is jokingly/semi-seriously informed of their job. His job as a builder, mainly has him seeing guys(workers) and couples(customers). So unlike Keith, meeting with a lone woman happens very rarely.

  4. Active Mom

    I think I understand Chris’ point about the Billy Graham rule from a mans point of view. Sadly it makes a lot of sense. My obgyn will almost always have a nurse in the room during exams to protect the both of us. However, I think where women can get frustrated is when men (often in churches) cite that rule they will either use it to not promote women so that they are never forced to be alone with them, or when they pull someone else in the witness is usually male. I would never object to a female admin assistant being present to document the meeting. However, if I have a complaint about brother John and his inability to keep inappropriate comments to himself he or one of his peers shouldn’t be the witness in the room. Men who follow that rule also need to acknowledge that there is a big difference between a closed office and a public busy place. Some take it way to far.

    • Bethany#2

      That last part is less about the “being alone with a female”, than a church having a good protocol for dealing with character issues that have to be addressed. A simple recording of all meetings about that, camera person as witness?

  5. Nathan

    Our church has that rule, too, although it’s mainly to limit gossip.
    Of course, this does limit women’s ability to be heard or to broach serious issues that they need to talk about.
    Somebody once suggested that, if necessary, witnesses could be in the room, but wear earplugs and ear muffs to prevent them from hearing what’s being said, while still being able to see what’s happening (or not happening). This may sound a little silly, but in this day and age it may be necessary.

  6. Boone

    I’ve always followed that rule. If I’m meeting with a female client a paralegal is in the room, too. We do mostly family and criminal law. All of our clients are upset and vulnerable I may give the women the only kind words or understanding that they’ve had in a long time. I don’t want that to be mistaken for something g that it’s not. I always have the paralegal take notes and that does help me tremendously. There’s no disrespect intended in this. I’ve known too many lawyers that have gotten involved with clients and are selling used cars now.

  7. Maria Bernadette

    Note: the general “you” is used in this comment. It is not directed at any individual person.
    I think the trouble with the Billy Graham rule is that people are treated differently based on their gender. And I get the it might seem like there are good reasons to do that. But it’s still discrimination based on sex, and I think there are good reasons to avoid doing that.
    The rule severely limits your ability to minister to someone, but only if it applies to them.
    So part of your flock will be just fine, no matter what that rule is. If you never apply it to them, it can’t hurt them. You can focus on all the good you are doing (for the men in your congregation). And not have to look at how you are failing to help the women, and that a changeable rule is the culprit.
    But if you weren’t helping anyone, at all, you would definitely take note.
    Whatever your rules for interacting with your congregants, perhaps it should be applied across the board. I think that would challenge you to better weigh the pros and cons. And look for other solutions when the cons outweigh the pros.
    And now I want to acknowledge that false accusations are serious. If a man believes it prudent to protect himself from the possibility that a woman might falsely accuse him, so be it. And if you apply the rule to every woman, whether or not she has ever personally shown any indication of being a liar, then apply the rule to every man, too.
    (Again, that was the general “you”)

    • Maria Bernadette

      Typo edit: “helping anyone, at all” should be “helping anyone at all” with out the comma.

    • Lisa

      I agree. If a rule is needed, then it should be that pastors won’t meet alone with anyone.
      It’s as if women are the only ones who bring false accusations. A man could certainly claim something, too.

  8. Anon

    I don’t see why the ‘Billy Graham Rule’ should prevent women being in leadership, any more than it prevents men in leadership. And I’m getting a bit tired of the amount of criticism aimed at those who follow a similar practice.
    My father was a church minister who followed this ‘rule’ (although it wasn’t known by that name – it was just considered ‘good practice’). Leadership meetings usually took place in a group setting anyway. One to one meetings either took place in public place (like a coffee shop), or, if confidential, in a location where they could be seen but not heard. My husband, who is also a church minister, does exactly the same – and it’s recommended by his church denomination as good safeguarding practice.
    The alternative to having a blanket rule is that leaders only impose that rule when they think meeting someone alone might be unwise. Can you imagine how hurt you would feel if you attended a church where people commonly met the minister alone and yet YOU had to meet with him/her in the presence of a third party or in public?
    In my previous church, we had a lovely lady who suffered from mental health issues, and she had a lengthy history of making false accusations against people. The blanket rule against isolated meetings meant that she didn’t feel ‘singled out’, by having to meet members of the leadership team in public places, while at the same time, it protected the team from a very high chance of being accused falsely of wrongdoing. Knowing that she was treated differently to everyone else in the congregation would have hurt her deeply.
    Properly applied, these kinds of ‘rules’ mean that the risks of either abuse or false accusations are cut to the minimum. While still enabling confidential conversations to take place.


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