PODCAST: Do Christians Have Better Sex Lives? A Response to Josh Howerton

by | Apr 21, 2022 | Podcasts | 16 comments

Merchandise is Here!

Do Christians have better marriages and sex lives?

Last month Josh Howerton, lead pastor at Lakepointe Church in Dallas, wrote a Twitter thread sharing research with 5 reasons Christians are doing better than the media gives us credit for. Matt Chandler, head of The Acts29 Network and lead pastor at The Village Church, retweeted it.

And he turned it into a long article for The Gospel Coalition.

The problem? The research he uses doesn’t say what he says it says. And today, we wanted to take advantage of the researcher side of our team, Joanna Sawatsky, visiting, and look at this in depth.

Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:


Timeline of the Podcast

0:10 We love our supporters!
2:45 Defining research terms
11:15 Dissecting Josh Howarton’s twitter thread
14:10 Religiosity is good
25:30 Sexual and Marital satisfaction
30:00 Extra stats and facts!
38:20 Gender oppression of women?
55:15 In Summary
59:30 Keith’s closing article

When it comes to research, operational definitions matter!

We start the podcast talking about how you can’t make claims that “religious people have better sex” unless you define both “religious people” and “better sex”. That’s what’s called an operational definition. We began with an example of the LACK of operational definitions when it came to respect in the book Love & Respect.

Do Christians Do Better with Marriage and Sex?

The quick answer is yes. But it’s YES with HUGE caveats, and unfortunately Howerton doesn’t explain those caveats.

I’m going to write a longer post about this, likely next week, where I list out our concerns in detail. But in brief today:

Religiosity and church attendance has been found to be beneficial for relationships.

In fact, this is so well-known in psychological literature that it’s not even studied anymore because it’s been largely proven. But as I wrote about earlier this month in my post on leaving churches that are toxic, just because the AVERAGE is good does not mean that every church, or every doctrine, or every branch of Christianity is better off.

In this thread, Howerton is using a huge report by the Institute of Family Studies saying that Christians–and specifically Christians in his complementarian, traditional gender roles theology--do better than others. He uses five measures, and we’re just going to focus on the two that have to do with marriage and sex:

Cultural narrative #2: Christians are sexually repressive and anti-sex, creating a toxic purity culture.

“Purity culture” has become a boogeyman—a catchall phrase big enough to hang every cultural qualm about the Christian sexual ethic on. Rather than liberated, “sex positive” people who can enjoy their sexuality, those who internalize the church’s repressive purity culture will be anti-sex. At least that’s the claim. But again, the stats disagree.

Churchgoing, conservative Christians are in the category with the most fulfilling sex lives in America. Putting a premium on covenant marriage, it turns out, creates a relational dynamic filled with the kind of passion the world wants us to think is produced only by liberation from Scripture’s “outdated” sexual mores.

Cultural narrative #5: Christianity is gender-oppressive, a tool of the abusive patriarchy, and creates toxic relationships for women.

In the #MeToo era, it’s critical for us to admit that churches have not always been exempt from the category of the many institutions that have failed to protect women. #ChurchToo is real and shouldn’t be explained away. What I want to argue, though, is that our failures in this area are failures to live up to our theology, not failures inherent in our theology.

Josh Howerton

No, Christianity is Not as Bad a You Think, The Gospel Coalition

In brief, here are our issues with how Josh Howerton handled the research:

1. He conflates “conservative Christian” with “religious”

The Institute for Family Studies measured religiosity, not evangelical Christians. Included were Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, etc. And Catholics outnumbered Protestants 2:1, and Protestants were not broken down into mainline vs. evangelical. (p. 24 of the report)

2. The terms “sexual satisfaction” and “marital abuse” were not defined well in Josh Howerton’s report

The sexual satisfaction findings, for instance, referred to just one question asking about subjective satisfaction; it did not focus on measurable indices such as vaginismus rates or orgasm rates. And in #5, while saying he was talking about how Christians had less abuse, he only shared the information about marital satisfaction, and did not share the information about abuse.

3. He stated conclusions when the results were not statistically significant

In some places, he stated that traditional gender role couples did better than progressive religious couples, even though the report said those results were not statistically significant (so the confidence intervals overlapped, which means they were statistically the same).

4. The study suggested that conservative, traditional gender role religious people were more likely to be abusive than more egalitarian religious people–and more likely than some secular people.

Despite his claims that people IN HIS THEOLOGY did the best when it came to abuse, this report actually shows a trend where religious men who believe in male headship score second to worst when it comes to committing intimate partner violence, while religious people who believe in egalitarianism score the best.

The report actually found exactly the opposite of what Howerton claimed. 

Though these results weren’t statistically significant, the trend is interesting. And the graph that Josh uses to show that traditional gender role religious poeple are happier than egalitarian couples? That’s not statistically significant either.

5. He ignored the report’s conclusions.

In the report itself, they concluded that abuse was not better in religious communities (p.  4 of the report), and that you could not conclude from their research that religious people have better sex lives (p. 27 of the report). In fact, at the very beginning of the report where they make their big conclusions, they said:

When it comes to domestic violence, religious couples in heterosexual relationships do not have an advantage over secular couples or less/mixed religious couples.

Measures of intimate partner violence (IPV)—which includes physical abuse, as well as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and controlling behaviors—do not differ in a statistically significant way by religiosity. Slightly more than 20% of the men in our sample report perpetuating IPV, and a bit more than 20% of the women in our sample indicate that they have been victims of IPV in their relationship. Our results suggest, then, that religion is not protective against domestic violence for this sample of couples from the Americas, Europe, and Oceania. However, religion is not an increased risk factor for domestic violence in these countries, either.

World Family Map 2019

Institute for Family Studies

Again, we found in our survey for The Great Sex Rescue that religiosity brings better sex and marriage. But that does not mean that conservative evangelicals who believe in male headship do better. In fact, they consistently have been shown to do worse on many measures.

This study does not show what Josh Howerton thinks it shows.

Our study of 20,000 women for The Great Sex Rescue showed that evangelical women suffer from vaginismus at twice the rate of the general population, and we have a higher orgasm gap in evangelicalism between men and women than has been measured on general population studies.

When Christians do not believe harmful messages, though, these things are markedly improved.

We wanted to draw attention to this because it was such a good example of how Christians often misuse research and claim it says something it does not say.

This is why it’s so important to go the source and check!

We found the report by the Institute for Family Studies well done, quoting a wide variety of peer reviewed sources. However, Howerton appears to have cherry-picked from the report, and did so in a way that misrepresented the report’s findings and conclusions.

Keith joins us to say that he believes the correlation between beliefs in male hieararchy and abuse are unmistakable.

In fact, he’s quite angry about this, and he shares his article from this week about this.


Things Mentioned in This Podcast:

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What do you think? Why do Christians often not understand research? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

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. Codec

    Definitions can be pretty vital. Imagine looking at philosophy and not being told for example how Sartre defined “being in itself”. To recognize bias is to recognize that you have so much to learn and relearn.

    I have to wonder sometimes if folks do not want to engage because they see the game as rigged so why even try.

  2. Jo R

    So exactly how young does a sexual abuse victim need to be so that the victim incurs zero guilt or responsibility?

    • Nathan

      According to some, apparently under the age of four (maybe).

      And as much as I hate to say it, certain “Christian” authors would likely be far more lenient in giving zero guilt to a MALE victim.

      • A2bbethany

        But that’s only because, like my dad, anyone under 5 is incapable of remembering. So if we remember it’s on us and considered unreliable. Thus making them more concerned about the abuser than the victim.
        He was quite adamant that because I was under 5, how could he have possibly believed my story?
        So we might be considered innocent by the leaders, but the emphasis is still on our abusers and how honorable they are.

  3. Nathan

    Another observation about that.

    Many of these pastors and authors who are quick to forgive (and demand that others forgive) these abusers don’t seem to be in a hurry to forgive the young girls who “enticed” their abusers (their words, not mine) nor are they quick to forgive the women who remove themselves and their children from an abusive situation.

    Their forgiveness, it seems, only goes in one gender direction.

  4. Anonymous for this one

    All I will say is that when I left traditional fundamentalist conservative evangelical ideologies my sex life went from terrible to tolerable and is working towards tantalizing. We, as a couple and as individuals, still gave a whole lotta work to do, but the tragetory has rocketed out of rock-bottom. The more submissive, conservative I got, the more our sex life tanked.

    We are no longer evangelicals at all, though still identify as Christians, hubby nominally, me seriously.

  5. Lisa Manske

    I’m just SO TIRED of Evangelicals “getting away” with this ridiculous level of incompetence. You have have an academic bent to get through seminary. Highly unlikely you’re trained in statistics, but you can read a paper and understand the conclusions. It’s almost impossible to think these people are just misunderstanding the report– this seems intentional. They’d rather spread lies to perpetuate their own systems that keep them in power than look at the truth. Because the truth would convict them.

    Thank you for tackling this. I love it when Joanna is able to come on and share her expertise. I appreciate how careful she is– her integrity is evident.

  6. Amy

    Thank you Keith for reading that article out loud. I read it, but for some reason actually hearing it read, especially in a male voice, really drove home the reality of just how evil these men truly are. I’m sure that wasn’t an easy video to watch, article to write and then deliver in an audio format. Thank you for tackling that tough issue.

  7. Phil

    Ok I get it know. Basically many authors seem to take data and do if then statements and form new facts with data that is not applicable to their “results”. Aka a misinterpretation of the results. At best they could form a hypothesis but would need to take one step further and do their own study to get the real results. All this stuff you have been talking about…so the purpose of all this is to show us. It is intriguing to me because when you do work you need to confirm it some how. So these authors either need to check their interpretations with the people who did the study and or a stats person. When you give us charts and stuff to look at it is just 1 or 2 not 40. The charts and graphs all used in that Howerton post was a lot of information. As a reader Who is truly going to sit and research all that stuff? I consider myself intelligent and able to interpret graphs and charts and do math. I will even research something to confirm or understand. But when its overwhelming and not my passion per se then I throw in the towel on it. As for me as an example when we bought our house I literally became the realtor. Of course we had a realtor and she was quite good. But I took her info and dived in deeper. At the end of the process I knew more about the house, and our surrounding area than she did. Why? Because I wanted to know the truth about where we were moving and what the future looked like for us. Thats NOT what is happening with these authors on many many occasions. Sometimes they seem to write on their experience and their solution which is fine but that doesnt apply to everyone and then there are the folks who write the same way and include studies to re-enforce their solution based on predetermined outcomes. Got it Sheila. I needed to write this out to re-enforce it so I can see it better when I come across it

  8. RedeemedRecoveringSexAddict

    Not listened full podcast yet but I’m bit against measuring sexual satisfaction with orgasms rates.

    We are european couple which have been married for decade and I was heavily addicted to porn and sex for first years of our marriage. Things have been easing a bit, but I’m still recovering.

    My point is that those years of me looking porn and having kind of affairs were really destructive to my wife and she didn’t want to have sex. We still had it and she did have two to three orgasms every time. Now we have been talking those times and she has told me that those were terrible years. She felt so rejected and used. And was very distant from me emotionally still she had orgasms even she almost hated sex!

    I think better questions would be:
    Do i feel safe during sex?
    Am I emotionally close during sex?
    Can I say no?

    Just my two cents

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, those are good points, and we also had one of our outcome variables for our survey of 22,000 women as “feeling emotionally close during sex.” Basically there was a five point scale that determined whether or not sex was good and libido was high for women: orgasm rates; no sexual dysfunction; no porn use; high marital satisfaction; and feeling emotionally close during sex.

      However, neither of those things was taken into account in the article that Josh Howerton wrote; it was just a subjective measure of if you think your sex life is good or not. That’s what we were critiquing.

  9. YT

    Hi, Sheila and all~ Please do not take this as a critical comment, as I do not mean it that way. Yes, thank you for your more in-depth response to Howerton’s articles and his “research”. My one question for you, though, is this: how did Howerton respond or what did he say when you approached him with your response before you published it? That’s all, and thanks again for your work!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      He never replied to me. But this is actually irrelevant. When teaching is done in public, it is corrected in public, as Paul did with Peter. It is not a Matthew 18 situation, because other people have been affected, and so any correction must be made in public.

  10. Jon Higginbotham

    Ooohhh boy. Someone had the message go completely over their head. Live like the Bible tells married couples to live, you will be happier. This message was not about abuse as it shouldn’t have been, other than to say, which he did, don’t abuse your spouse.

    Also, this comment is absolutely non sensical “ In some places, he stated that traditional gender role couples did better than progressive religious couples, even though the report said those results were not statistically significant (so the confidence intervals overlapped, which means they were statistically the same.”

    No it does not mean it was the same. Whatever the confidence interval was, typically +/-2 does not mean ”the same” in the same way that Al Gore, John Kerry, Donald Trump were our last contested presidents. A 4% total swing matters.

    If you want to hold him accountable, hold him accountable to the Word of God. If what he is saying about God, to impact the nations for God is true, stop the semantics about a flawed and meaningless human statistic.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Actually, no, it’s not statistically significant. I don’t think you understand stats. There is a confidence interval. If the confidence interval is 1-3%, we say 2%. But it means that the real thing could be anywhere from 1-3%. So if you have something that is 1-3%, and something that is 2-4%, statistically those are the same. We can’t say anything more than that. You really should take Stats 101.


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