Why Is So Much Evangelical Sex Advice Out of Touch? Our Interview with Fathom Mag

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Sex, Theology of Marriage and Sex, Uncategorized | 21 comments

Why is So Much Evangelical Sex Advice Out of Touch?
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Do we have hope for the future? How did we get here with sex? What are the big problems with the way the evangelical church sees sex?

Recently I did a big interview with Rachel Joy Welcher, author of Talking Back to Purity Culture (remember the podcast she was on?) for Fathom Mag.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing for other websites recently to get the word out about The Great Sex Rescue, and I’d like to share them here, too, because it saves me some time, but also I’m pretty proud of them!

Rachel framed the article like this:

The Great Sex Rescue sets out to correct harmful and unbiblical teachings on sex and marriage—specifically those messages perpetuated by the evangelical church and popular Christian books. Not only that, it presents a way forward for couples who have suffered from these messages; a path that is guided by scripture and selfless love. 

While the writing is engaging and accessible, it is not an easy read. It is challenging because of the uncomfortable truths it reveals about what we have been taught and—more than that—what we have unknowingly internalized. More than once, I stopped and shook my head, realizing that a message which has no foundation in scripture or the love of Christ had unwittingly shaped my view of sex and marriage. If you grew up in the church or reading Christian books, you will need to prepare yourself to do some grappling, face-palming, and a whole lot of praying. And know that you are not alone.

Rachel Joy Welcher

Fathom Mag, Interview with the Authors of The Great Sex Rescue

She then went on to ask several probing questions, including why we differentiate between sex and intercourse; why the evangelical world has ignored the problem of sexual pain in women; why we’ve assumed that men don’t need intimacy but only need release. Here’s just one question, and part of my answer:

Welcher: We have both discovered from our interviews that men want more than just mere physical release; that they, in fact, often feel unfairly depicted as animalistic, when emotion and connection matter to them as well. Why do you think that Christian culture has persisted in depicting men in this way? What damage has this caused in Christian marriages? 

Gregoire: Honestly, we’ve struggled to understand this too, because the depiction of men in Every Man’s Battle, who want women to be their “methadone,” or in Love & Respect, who can’t handle a woman asking him to pick up his wet towel off of the bed, is completely the opposite of most men that we know. We wonder if part of it is generational. Those who write the majority of our evangelical bestsellers in sex and marriage tend to be white males from seventy to ninety (and some have now passed away, though their books still sell). When evangelicals started addressing sex in a big way in the 1970s, it was a reaction against the sexual revolution. They were trying to show how sex could be great in marriage while still preserving their idea of the nuclear family, which meant male leadership and authority, and so women’s needs were almost an afterthought. (As an example, we find it amazing how many books tell women they must reassure their husbands that they are good lovers, rather than telling husbands how to actually be good lovers.) We also find that the measure of success for a sex life in most of our bestsellers is frequency: as long as women provide sex a lot, then the sex life is good. But frequency is a poor measure. Marital satisfaction and orgasm rates are better measures for how well the couple enjoys each other overall, and other studies have found this too. But by focusing on frequency so that male needs are met, our books have considered her pleasure as an afterthought. Some seem unsure she can even achieve pleasure (Love & Respect never once mentions it, and says that sex is a need women don’t have), and so the aim seems to be, “convince her to give him sex regardless.” Finally, when we focus on marriage as hierarchical rather than as an intimate knowing, then one spouse’s needs and opinions will always be deemed less influential than another’s, and as a result, sex becomes transactional rather than life-giving. 

Fathom Mag, Interview with the Authors of The Great Sex Rescue

And I encourage you to read the rest here!

I do want to comment on my answer to that question, though, because on Facebook this weekend I was going back and forth with a woman debating this one.

She argued that the issue was not a generational one but a theological one.

When men believe that they are in authority and women must submit to what a man wants, then her pleasure is automatically an afterthought, because his needs and wants are emphasized. This can be true whether you’re 29 or 79.

I largely agree with her on this–I think it is largely theological.

The difference, though, is that I don’t think millennial authors would make some of the same “this is the way things are” claims that older authors take for granted.

It was normal for baby boomers to assume that only men are visual and women aren’t. It was normal to assume that men have libidos and women don’t.

But these things aren’t true anymore, even in the secular culture. As women have been encouraged to embrace their sexuality in the world at large, this has changed the perception of women’s sexuality, so that I don’t think a millennial would assume that women can’t be visual, or that women don’t have libidos, in the same way.

I don’t think a millennial version of Emerson Eggerichs could get away with saying, “If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have,” for instance, because even if our millennial Eggerichs believed it, enough people around him would tell him that wasn’t true.

Perhaps I’m off on this, but I do think there’s been a shift. Even when I talk about women being visual, too, it’s millennial women who cheer the loudest and who argue that this has always been true for them.

I’m a Generation Xer woman; I don’t remember EVER talking about 6-pack abs on men when I was growing up. Perhaps I was just sheltered or I was in the wrong friend group or peer group, but I don’t remember it being a “thing”. But it certainly was for my girls, even in conservative religious circles. People talked about 6-packs.

I also wonder what would happen if we allowed women to teach on marriage to couples?

Here’s another quote from the article where I dealt with this issue:

Welcher: It is clear from your writings that you care about female sexual flourishing; that you don’t want women left behind in marriage. In The Great Sex Rescue, you cite example after example from popular Christian books where male sexual pleasure in marriage is prioritized and women are discussed merely as vehicles to accomplish this, rather than as equal sexual partners. Why do you think the mutuality of sexual self-giving in marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:4–5 has largely been ignored in Christian writings and teachings on marriage? Were you able to trace this idea to a specific book, era, or misinterpretation of the passage?

Gregoire: Let’s talk numbers: women buy the books, and men don’t. I’ve read that 74% of nonfiction relationship books are bought and read by women. Why don’t men buy these books? Men often don’t feel the same societal pressure to fix relationships, while men are also discouraged from thinking about their feelings very much. Thus, when relationship troubles come up, men are more likely to retreat than to try to address them. If we want to fix relationships, then, we tend to address women. Even if you look at a marriage book aimed at couples, you’ll find that the majority of the advice is given to women (do the highlighter test; take a pink highlighter and a blue highlighter on any given chapter, and then look afterwards at which color is used more!). 

When you combine this with the evangelical habit of having men speak to men or couples, and women only speak to women, we find that most of our sex books were written by men (or by couples where women only contribute one chapter). I think if a woman were writing, we’d see a lot fewer questions like this one from Love & Respect: “Why would you deprive him of something that takes such a short amount of time and makes him sooooo happy?” Women would know that bragging about taking a short amount of time is not actually a plus. 

Fathom Mag, Interview with the Authors of The Great Sex Rescue

in the evangelical world men can teach couples, but women can’t. I was told when I started writing marriage books that I could only write books to women, while men could write books to couples. Similarly, when speaking at marriage conferences, Gary Thomas could speak on his own, but I had to speak with my husband (who actually is a great speaker, and at marriage conferences I prefer to speak with him than speak alone; I just find the juxtaposition difficult). The idea that a man is equipped to speak on marriage to women but a woman isn’t equipped to speak on marriage to men has created a situation where most of our marriage and sex advice has been given by men (or largely shaped by men).

I hope this is changing!

And, please read the whole thing! I think Rachel asked great questions and highlighted all the important parts of my answers, and it was fun to do!

The Great Sex Rescue

Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

The Great Sex Rescue Interview: Why Evangelical Sex Advice is Out of Touch

What do you think? Do you find some advice out of touch? Do you think it’s all theological, as one reader did, or do you have more hope like I do that things will change with new generations? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of 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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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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21 Comments

  1. Andrea

    I’ve joked before that complementarian men make the worst lovers because they think 1. Tim. 2:12 applies to the bedroom.
    (And how in the world is he supposed to find her clitoris — so much smaller than the penis and hidden under layers of labia — if his theology prevents him from receiving instruction from a woman?!).
    But I don’t think it’s just a joke any more now that I’m pondering this blog post and how only men are allowed to talk to both men and women about sex.

    Reply
  2. Elissa

    This may be a small thing, but I am just curious: this is at least the second or third time I have noticed you attribute responsibility for the writing of harmful marriage books to old *white* men. Have you found race to be a contributing factor when it comes to views of sex? If so, in what way? If not, why mention it? As I said, I am just curious, since you have mentioned it several times now, how you see race as a relevant factor.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think when books are written by only one predominant culture (white evangelicalism from a male perspective) something important is lost, and it’s easy to assume that things that are cultural are actually ordained by God. For instance, one of the big teachings in white evangelical churches for years has been that women should not work and stay home with children. (I’m not against this; I did this. Just noting that this has been a big teaching). However, in immigrant communities, and in African American communities, women have almost always worked (or run family businesses) because finances demanded it. So to paint gender roles like this is predominantly a function of white evangelicalism, and isn’t seen in the same way in other expressions of Christianity.
      That’s just one example, but I do think that if we had more diverse voices writing the big evangelical books and being featured on evangelical media, we’d have a fuller picture (and I say this especially speaking as a Canadian, too, where so much of what is taught in evangelicalism seems strange outside of the United States).

      Reply
      • Active Mom

        To be honest this isn’t always true. The majority of the time that I have heard the hard core preaching regarding the stay at home mom message it’s come from an SBC pastor. They are not all white and I don’t know if technically they are evangelical. To be honest in our house when I was younger we were Assemblies of God and the SBC was not viewed as evangelical. So, I understand your point about who is published but I don’t think this is an evangelical problem. It’s not even just a US problem. We lived in Southern CA and many of the Hispanic families that were 1st of second generation also believed that in the ideal Christian world the wife would stay home and tend to children and home.

        Reply
      • Bee

        Hi Shiela, Your statement that evangelical books on marriage and sex being written by men 70-90 years old really got my attention! Only one of the books I’ve read about marriage and sex have been written by anyone in that age category (Tim LaHaye). Can you name some examples for me please?

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Sure! Of the 13 books on our list, Kevin Leman, Emerson Eggerichs, Tim LaHaye, Ed Wheat, Steve Arterburn, Clifford Penner, Tim Keller, and John Townsend (he’s 69) would fit that bill. And they tend to be the bestseller ones as well. 3/13 were written by women, so of the 10 written by men, only Gary Thomas is significantly younger. Henry Cloud, I believe is 65, and he co-authored with John Townsend.

          Reply
      • Elissa

        I agree with Active Mom. Throughout my growing up in the homeschool movement one of the most in-demand speakers at homeschool conventions was (and still is) Voddie Baucham, a black SBC pastor, author and speaker. He is (or was… haven’t kept up with his teachings recently) a VERY big proponent of traditional family roles, headship of the father, daughters staying home until marriage, etc. Also, I knew a wide range of ethnicities within my larger homeschool community, and I would say in my experience (which is certainly not extensive) that the common factors that seemed correlated to these teachings were more likely to be church denomination culture (Calvinist or SBC for example) rather than racial culture.

        Reply
      • Wild Honey

        I think it’s more a function of fundamentalism (fundamentalist-ism?) than of race to promote a male-led hierarchy and women confined to the home. This was the cultural ideal where I lived in south-east Asia (an area not predominantly Christian) for a time. And at a church I attended here in the west coast of the US that had a large Eastern European immigrant population. And in fundamentalist Islam, is my understanding.
        But I agree that a more diverse array of viewpoints would help fill in some gaps.

        Reply
      • Jane Eyre

        Sheila is eternally polite. I can be blunt.
        White Christian men born in the 1940s or 1950s basically won the lottery. They were born into prosperity, got jobs straight out of school, got married young, wife stayed at home, sex was great for them, had kids, enjoyed advances in medicine, bought houses at normal prices, attended college at normal prices, have Social Security and pensions waiting for them. If they have problems, they are often self inflicted.
        They tend to assume that life should always be set up for their benefit (because, in their experience, that worked well), and they tend to assume that people’s problems are like their problems: easily solvable.
        It can be very challenging to explain anything to people who grew up like that. Actual conversation I had with someone who has lived the most magical of charmed lives:
        Her: You need to buy a house. When I bought my house, I sold it fifteen years later for four times what I paid for it.
        Me: That is exactly the problem. Houses cost a LOT more money than they did when you bought one, and there is no guarantee that I could sell it for the same or more money. We are in a bubble.
        Her: (sneer)
        Now apply to sex and marriage.

        Reply
      • Andrea

        Thanks for jumping in bluntly about that generation of white men, Jane Eyre. One of my friends (a neuroscientist, so she says this with some degree of authority) says most white men of that generation are at least mildly narcissistic because they’re not used to their views being challenged, they’re used to their view being THE view. Some of the male authors responding to Sheila have demonstrated this amply.
        But it’s also important to remember that our contemporary idea of the self-sufficient nuclear family is indeed a very white idea, and one rooted in eugenics in fact. The so called marriage repair industry began in the early 1920s and at the time the idea that husband and wife should actually like each other and share some interests in common beyond procreation was fairly new. Marital rape was also seriously addressed for the first time, with psychologists who tended to “frigid” women proclaiming publicly that most marriages begin with rape and that most rapes occur within marriage. By the mid-twentieth century this morphed into that idyllic nuclear suburban household that we associate with affluent white post WWII America and the new abundance of consumer goods became the new way to improve marriage, by making the woman’s load lighter with kitchen appliances such as dishwashers etc. For Black families with the financial means to follow this white model, it meant respectability in a world where white people set the norms. But when you consider the benefits of extended family (like post-partum mothers having multiple women helping them out instead of the isolated mom whose husband has to go back to work the next day) and when you consider that there are no nuclear families in the Bible, you start to questions the white American 1950s model. The patriarchy is everywhere (notice it’s other women who tend to young moms in extended families, while the men don’t have much to do with their own babies), but the nuclear family model and the kind of sex advocated by Tim LaHaye and his peers is a particular white American mid-20th century version.

        Reply
    • L. Reed

      I’ve realized after reading your book and many of the countless other christian marriage books evaluated by you…these other marriage books contributed to instilling in me a shame around my sexuality as well as how my husband was bound to be dealing with his own sexuality in relation to other women. There was no way he could victorious as the Bible clearly states he can be. But believing the books….my shame was embedded deep deep within me. That’s a new revelation for me to begin to work on.

      Reply
  3. Nathan

    It’s probably a combination of things: Generational, theological, historical where these ideas start a long time ago and get bigger and more odd as time goes by.
    But, hopefully, we’re turning the corner

    Reply
  4. Jo

    Why has teaching gone this way for so long? Frankly, part of it has got to be that the greater (i.e., not just church) cultural norms allowed it to. Since women do sort of have to learn how to have an orgasm, at least as far as it being much less an automatic thing than it is for men, then men get to hide behind these “teachings” to excuse them from doing all sorts of hard work: not only in the bedroom, but also in the relational aspects of marriage. Men just need to go out and earn a paycheck, and maybe take out trash and do yard work, and that’s all they can be expected to do. Talk? Share? Be engaged with the little woman? None of that is really necessary! And all the men in the pews around them are doing, or not doing, the same thing, so it must be right, right? Right! 🙄🙄🙄
    Since only 48 percent of women orgasm most or all of the time, and only 39 percent of those do through intercourse, that means that 18.72 percent of women orgasm through intercourse, and 81.28 percent do NOT. (0.48 times 0.39, then multiply by 100 to get percent.) I’m wondering how UP IN ARMS men would be if fewer than one in five of them could orgasm through PIV. The other 81.28 percent of men would certainly be asking for, ahem, alternate activities, wouldn’t they?
    And we have GOT to develop some new vocabulary to talk about “sex” meaning more than just PIVUHO (penis in vagina until he orgasms)!!!! Even you, Sheila, as “patron saint of unfulfilled women” (a title you can bear proudly, IMHO), fell into the trap, just because it’s SO ingrained!! Here are a couple:
    >>> “With erectile dysfunction, you can’t have sex.” <<>> “…but rather it seems to be how often a man gets sex.” <<>> “A woman can get married expecting sex to be easy and great…” <<<
    We all, and I think especially we women, need to explicitly use the word “intercourse” if that’s what we mean, and we probably ought to stop using the word “sex” entirely. What we need is a pithy phrase that encompasses ALL forms of mutually intimate and pleasurable activity that typically, though not always, involves the genitals. That description as the acronym MIPATTNAIG is a bit unwieldy, so some brainiac needs to think of one!!!
    You said, “After marriage, when you can finally ‘do it,’ we often skip the making out and go right to intercourse and miss the whole sexual progression cycle, especially for women. If we skip arousal, she will never enjoy sex.” Well, that describes three decades for me, when we would literally ask each other, “Do you want to do stuff?” 🙄🙄🙄 But not anymore, I’m glad to say!!! Woot!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, yes, I definitely fall into that trap! I try so hard, but it is ingrained. This is also the reason why when we talk about “saving sex for marriage” and we mean only intercourse, we get into a huge pile of trouble too. By making intercourse the one thing that is reserved for marriage, then it does make it seem like the pinnacle, the most important thing. And that does make everything else seem like “extra”. It’s a big problem!

      Reply
  5. Bethany#2

    I’m not really here for the article today but to give a shout out/testimony about the women’s retreat I just got home from! This ministry has 3 kinds of weekend retreats(men, women and couples) and they are non dominational and steer clear of doctrines. They focus on intense worship and getting junk purged from your life! And it’s testimonials from women who have been delivered of multiple crisis’s and burdens. Sheila, you would love how much they drown out everything and just talk about God’s love and power. Physically, you don’t get much sleep, but you don’t really mind, because spiritually you just get so refreshed! And Even if you don’t end up getting registered for Ashes to Beauty, you can YouTube this worship song! “Don’t tell me he can’t do it”

    Reply
  6. Active Mom

    I think we need to be careful to not stereotype an entire group of people. My in-laws are white, born 1940-1950. Blue collar, no college opportunity in their family. They both worked the entire time my husband and his siblings were growing up. Scrapped for everything and still are just now paying down a house that they had to move out to the boonies to be able to afford. Seriously the roads weren’t all paved. No pension never had the opportunity to work at a job that provided one. I would have to disagree that the nuclear family is not mentioned in the Bible at all. The most important family operated as a nuclear until. Aunt Patty and cousin Jarvis were not fleeing with Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Yes, the family dynamic as we know it now looked differently. However, we have no idea if that was a choice in biblical times how many would have chosen our way now. Just because we do things differently now than biblical times doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I would definitely agree! I think having the nuclear family as the centerpoint of society was actually what allowed the economy to grow in the early Middle Ages (because people could move; and you didn’t have to share your wealth with extended family). At the same time, there has been a cost to that, as the post on postpartum recovery from today talked about. I wouldn’t do it any other way myself; I’m just saying it’s not the only way. In other cultures, it’s far more common to live with multi-generations, for instance. One’s not right while the other is wrong and we have much to learn from each other. And even if the nuclear family is the center, it doesn’t need to be expressed in the same way. One of the most interesting stats in our survey, for instance, was that women overwhelmingly believe that a stay-at-home dad is as good as a stay-at-home mom. And yet only 16% of women say their church believes this. So there’s a large disconnect between what women believe about family structure and what they think the evangelical church believes. That was the one belief with the widest dichotomy, I think.

      Reply
  7. Connie

    I don’t know if this is the right place to write this, but I’ll give it a try. My husband of 16 years has had a long-time porn issue. He read a book by Noah Filipiak called, “Beyond the Battle” and got on Noah’s online group about 3 years ago. He says he does not do the p*** anymore (but has not dealt with the fallout). Recently Noah has started an accountability group with men who took his class before. I sensed that they were stuck somehow. I appreciate Noah’s attempt at writing that there is more to sobriety than ‘bouncing your eyes’, but they seem to still not quite know what to do past, “I was tempted this week” and then pat each other on the back. My husband has been reading your book and suggested it to the men. Noah has ordered it. Anyway, my point is, are you aware of his book, and do you have suggestions for groups like this? I’m afraid it well become another ‘good ol’ boys club’. They seem to have a problem with feeling sorry for themselves and each other.

    Reply
    • Nessie

      Replying to Connie- my hubs went through EMB as recommended by our pastor (who never read it, just heard it was a good resource) and found it “off,” in many ways, and very unhelpful. Later, my hubs found the book, “Surfing for God” by Michael John Cusick which he recommended to our pastor to replace EMB. Hubs said that was a much more Christ-centered way of working through this struggle. Instead of behavior modifications/”management”, it focuses on real, heart change, and redirecting one’s desires back towards God- the only way to find true, lasting change.
      He also joined a group called Live Free that is an online accountability thing. When someone mentions a regression, some of the guys give general, “Oh, you’ll do better,” or “just shake it off… tomorrow’s a new day,” kind of things (sounds similar to what your hubs now hears), but the admins tend to follow up with real questions like, “hey, do you know what triggered you?” or “what’s your plan for not tripping up again?” http://www.livefree.app (TLHV admin, if it isn’t allowed to share website info, please edit/remove for me. -Thanks) The admins seem to back up the realization that it isn’t enough to merely alter your behavior (although perhaps some people deeply mired in it need to do that at the beginning to enable themselves to get to a place where they can aim for true heart-change.)
      Anyhow, hope this helps you or someone else! And for the TLHV team- I bought and read TGSR, plan to go through it with my hubs at some point, and bought 2 more copies to 1. donate to our church’s library, and 2. have on hand for the next person I hear needs to read it. Thanks for a great resource- it’s been so helpful despite the pain that turns up from realizing how low I thought of myself and women because of the scripturally-twisted lies we’ve been pretty-word fed for decades. Thank you!!!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Nessie, so glad you enjoyed The Great Sex Rescue! That’s awesome.
        And I”m a huge fan of Michael John Cusick. I completely agree with you. His approach is Christ focused, rather than just behavior management. So glad that your hubby found him!

        Reply

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