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.
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.
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:
- Our Patreon! Support us for as little as $5 a month as we try to get more research published in peer reviewed journals and call Christians to a higher level of research integrity.
- The Great Sex Rescue: Our book based upon our study of 20,000 women
- Josh Howerton’s Gospel Coalition article
- The Institute for Family Studies World Map 2019 Report that Josh Howerton uses for his conclusions
- The study by Michael Gilad about domestic violence in religious communities
- Keith’s article on the intersection of the belief in male hierarchy and abuse
Become a part of the movement
Join 40,00 others and let's change the evangelical conversation about sex
What do you think? Why do Christians often not understand research? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
Should pastors be allowed to plagiarize in their sermons? I'll be frank: I think evangelicalism...
Evangelicalism has a problem with celebrity culture. I mean, everyone has a problem with celebrity...
One of the most frequent questions I've had since The Great Sex Rescue was published has been:...
We've got some wonderful inspiring stories to share with you today--plus a new research study with...
Time for another hero of the faith! Well, three, actually! This month we're telling amazing...
Have you ever heard the name Josephine Butler? If you were alive in London in 1880 you likely...