Do Conservative Evangelicals Have Better Sex and Less Abuse? Our Response to Josh Howerton

by | Jun 7, 2022 | Abuse, Making Sex Feel Good, Research, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 13 comments

Do Conservative Evangelicals have better sex and less abuse? A critique of Josh Howerton
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I’ve got an awesome example of how stats can be misused today!

And why it’s important when we hear someone who isn’t trained in statistics using studies to “prove” their point, when the point sounds like a stretch, to actually check their sources. 

In February, Dallas SBC megachurch pastor Josh Howerton published a viral twitter thread claiming that conservative Christians were doing better than the world on a variety of measures, including sex and abuse.

The thread went huge; Matt Chandler, pastor at The Village Church and head of the Acts 29 movement retweeted it, as did many others; Howerton eventually turned it into an article for The Gospel Coalition.

The only problem? The sources that he used didn’t say what he thought they did.

We already talked about Josh Howerton and stats on a  podcast, but we really wanted to turn it into an article so that it could get wider exposure, and thankfully The Baptist News picked it up yesterday. 

A quick synopsis of the problems that Josh Howerton had with the stats

He conflates “conservative Christians” with “highly religious”

In the report Howerton used for his claims, conservative evangelicals who believe in male hierarchy are a small subset of the highly religious, and we don’t know whether they’re bringing the average up or bringing the average down.

He only uses subjective measures of women’s sexual satisfaction

They never asked about orgasm rates or rates of sexual pain, but simply if you’re satisfied with your sex life. This made us think of a new stat for Joanna to run, and we found that women who believe marriage should have a hierarchy are more likely to report being satisfied with the amount they orgasm when they never orgasm. They’re also more likely to have sex more than once a week even if they have sexual pain. So women who believe that marriage is a hierarchy, exactly the theology that Josh is praising, are more likely to consider their own experience irrelevant.

He ignores what the report says about abuse

He claims that conservative Christians have less abuse specifically because of their theology, but then ignores what the report actually says about abuse–which shows that religion doesn’t protect against abuse, and there’s a trend that his theology makes abuse worse.

We spent a lot of time writing this article last week, and as usual, most of the awesome sentences are Rebecca’s. Joanna ran new stats, and I figured out how to put this all together. Please read it! It’s awesome. And share it far and wide.

I actually do believe that followers of Jesus have better sex and less abuse.

And I think the report’s findings, along with ours, bear this out. The problem is that we know certain interpretations of Bible passages that prioritize men over women make marriage and sex worse. And Howerton belongs to a denomination that largely preaches that, as he appears to in his own church.

Again, as we talked about last week, the head of an SBC seminary said that 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 was a command to women to be sexually available for their husbands–a gross misuse of that passage which is completely mutual.

As we showed in The Great Sex Rescue, Jesus helps. But when you add toxic teaching to the mix, things get really ugly.

Here’s our conclusion in the article:

Evangelical culture has told women sex is about satisfying a man’s needs so he won’t stray. We’ve made sex a male entitlement and a female obligation, turning it from a knowing into an owing. Should we be surprised when women downplay our own needs?

Yes, religiosity tends to bring better sex and marriage. But that does not mean evangelicals who believe in male hierarchy do better. In fact, they consistently have been shown to do worse on many measures than other Christians who attend church frequently, especially if you look at objective measures rather than just subjective ones.

Maybe instead of standing in public and declaring, “Thank God I am better than those people over there,” we should, in all humility, sit down and listen to the pain of the people in our own pews. It’s time to take the plank out of our own eye.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Baptist News, Do conservative evangelicals enjoy better sex and marriage? A response to Josh Howerton

Now for some extra commentary that didn’t make it into the article!

Does Josh Howerton think women shouldn’t work outside the home? 

Okay, this is just something that I find funny, but here’s what I think Howerton likely did to write his thread: He got a hold of the IFS report and glanced through it, trying to find charts that he liked that could prove his point, and then used those charts. But I wonder if he ever actually read the report? Because he certainly ignored their conclusions.

But even more than that, I wonder if he read the definitions of the categories? For instance, this is the chart where Howerton says his theology brings about the best outcomes for marriage, associating himself with the “traditional” rather than “egalitarian.”

He may have looked at that chart and thought, “I’m gender traditional not gender progressive!”, thinking that the definition referred to sexuality. But the definition that the IFS used in their report was whether or not you believed women should work outside the home. I wonder if Howerton realized that he was agreeing that women shouldn’t work outside the home?

(And just FYI–there is no statistical difference between gender progressive and gender traditional highly religious in this chart). 

Let’s talk about the difficulty in measuring the effects of complementarianism

One other thought that we wanted to put in the article but we just didn’t have word count.

We explained how it’s helpful to use both objective and subjective measures of satisfaction–like orgasm rates and rates of sexual pain (which are objective) alongside rates of self-reported satisfaction (which is subjective) because it gives us a clearer picture. Sometimes people rate themselves as really happy, even when objectively they don’t have much to be happy about. Doesn’t mean they’re not really happy; it just tells us more.

But this is a really confusing thing in studies, because those who believe in hierarchy, or complementarianism, often show up as really happy on surveys, and often do have amazing satisfaction rates. Yet at the same time, objective measures show things are worse–abuse, orgasm rates, etc.

What’s going on?

Well, here’s another factor: most people who say they believe in hierarchy actually practice equality. I’ve talked about this at length, but our study for The Great Sex Rescue found that believing in hierarchy doesn’t hurt you; acting it out, however, does. When we looked at who actually made decisions in the family, when the husband makes the final decision, even if he consults with his wife first, divorce rates skyrocket, orgasm plummets, and lots of terrible things happen.

That’s why I’ve told pastors to start preaching what they practice. Most pastors practice egalitarian decision making, but preach that the man should make the final decision. And when they preach that, we now know it’s going to significantly hurt 20% of their congregants. Because only about 20% of people who believe it actually practice it.

That’s also why in surveys I’d like people to stop merely measuring beliefs (subjective) and seeing how beliefs correlate to outcomes, and start measuring what people actually practice (objective). Then I think we’d get a much clearer picture!

Final thoughts on Josh Howerton and our article

You have no idea how satisfying it was to write that article! It’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a few months, but our book edits were consuming us.

I’ve been thinking, though, about this tendency among evangelicals to try to prove an agenda rather than having a good-faith attempt to look at what the data actually shows. I talked about Josh Howerton a few months ago, too, with how he was trying to figure out how to plagiarize people in sermons, because he wanted to know how to quote someone who said something smart that you disagree with, without naming them. And it’s like–dude, you can’t do that. That’s unethical. (And he’s not the only SBC pastor who won’t cite people he disagrees with, even when using their work). 

When we’re trying to build an army for our side, and we see everything as a big war where we can’t concede an inch, we’re never going to find God and we won’t find truth because we’re not open to being challenged.

But we don’t need to be scared. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We can look at stats full on the face and we don’t need to think it’s going to undermine our belief in God. It may undermine our interpretation of some things, but that’s a good thing! That’s what Jesus told us to do! He said that a bad tree can’t bear good fruit, and a good tree can’t bear bad fruit. We’re allowed to ask questions!

Finally, I find it very ironic to see so many Baptist megachurch pastors almost giddy about Howerton’s claims that Christian women have less abuse and better sex.

(Even though the report he cites doesn’t say that those who believe in gender hierarchy experience that).

To see Matt Chandler happy about it; Howerton happy about it; The Gospel Coalition, which is mostly men in power, happy about it; well, it’s off-putting.

How about we listen to 20,000 evangelical women instead?

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

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

It’s time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Do Conservative Christians have Better Sex and Less Abuse? Our response to Josh Howerton

What do you think? 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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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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13 Comments

  1. Mara R

    Sheila: “How about we listen to 20,000 evangelical women instead?”

    But why would they ever want to do that?
    It doesn’t prop up their preferred interpretation of the Bible and their pet doctrines based on the traditions of men.
    They don’t even listen to Jesus.
    They grab hold of Peter and Paul and reject the Chief Cornerstone to build their house of cards.
    What does it matter to them that women are hurting from their doctrine? The only thing that matters is that they keep their power and money.
    THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS TO THEM.
    If they gave a lick of concern about truth, they buried that pesky concern a long time ago.
    And this is why women and the men who actually love them should run, not walk, away from these guys. And take their money along with them. These guys won’t listen until they see their power base collapse and the money drain away.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I’m afraid in many cases you’re right. I think others can be reasoned with though. I think many have just never been exposed to the truth.

      Reply
      • Mara R

        From above article: “To see Matt Chandler happy about it; Howerton happy about it; The Gospel Coalition, which is mostly men in power, happy about it; well, it’s off-putting.”

        I’m mostly referring to guys like these.
        And I’m thinking about all the hate thrown at Beth Moore, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Beth Allison Barr, Christa Brown, etc.
        And I mean foaming at the mouth, fire and brimstone, witch/Jezebel accusatory hatred.

        Women have been telling the truth for a long time and being hated for it, you included.

        And I agree that we must keep talking. I think a lot of reasonable people are beginning to see through the ridiculous levels of power posturing and hatred.

        But I still hold that most, if not all, of these men in power don’t care about abuse against women. But they care ever so deeply about losing any kind of power, money, and respect.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I would agree with you about the men in power in these places. If they had wanted to change it, they could have. Or they would have left.

          Reply
  2. Andrea

    Speaking of bad marriages, has anyone else seen Tish Harrison Warren’s newest piece for the New York Times? It is sooo depressing, she was actually in love with someone else when she married her husband and one of their premarital counselors even told them they weren’t ready. She says there’s been more misery than joy in her marriage, but she’s still glad they stuck it out without any silver lining in the end (like, we went through some tough times, but it made our love grow…) and this is the picture of evangelical marriages we’re sending to the secular world, broadcasting it in the paper of record. The whole thing sounds like she’s just gaslighting herself. I went to see the responses to her article on her Tweeter feed and that was so interesting: the women told her it was depressing and made them not want to get married while the men praised her for the wonderful article.

    Reply
  3. Phil

    Sheila I was reading this article about an Evangelical mega church pastor here in the US I can’t recall his name at the moment but he was interviewed and asked about essentially calling out Evangelical folks on there far right and far left thinking. Many of the topics being hot political topics here. The news folks were basically asking him if he was concerned about his status. He summed it up with 2 awesome points. 1st: he pointed out that these teachings are flawed and the evidence is based on people using scripture to back up there thinking rather than using scripture to form their thinking! 2nd: He said Jesus was the answer and we are to be like him! I was not only surprised but also impressed with his answers. He was totally cool with calling out wrong Evangelicals. So I was thinking…maybe I should get his name and send him your book! Ill look it up later and put it here as a reply.

    Reply
      • Phil

        The mega Church Pastors name I was referencing is Andy Stanley. He is in Atlanta. I want to qualify I only read 1 article which was an interview and I liked what I read. I dont endorse the guy just yet cuz that would be premature to base
        an opinion on someone on just one article. I intend to do more research on the guy. Quite interesting answers he gives thats for sure.

        Reply
        • Phil

          So I am knee deep into this guys stuff. He has lots of books. Not in it to win it is his latest work. I am however previewing his Book Love Sex and Dating before I buy it to review further. Gonna use your rubric if I can find it… I already have a podcast under my belt on get this: Jesus and politics. I am kinda hooked so far – guy seems to be on fire 🔥 so far anyway. 😬

          Reply
  4. Tom

    Hello Sheila,

    Great job calling out the cherry-picking. As the saying goes, there are three kinds of lies: lies, d***ed lies, and statistics! It doesn’t even have to be graphs and studies; people seem to be quick to accept small amounts of anecdotal evidence as being equivalent to widespread trends even in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, so long as it fits their narrative.

    I came across your blog a couple/few years ago, and while I’m not always 100% in agreement with every single thing you say, I find your site and your perspective to be very valuable, particularly as a Christian man who wants to prepare himself for married life and to better understand the woman’s side of the equation. Nonetheless, between this article and bit of the linked one from Baptist News, I can’t help but feel that you are painting complementarianism with overly broad strokes.

    I don’t believe that complementarianism implies or necessitates that the husband be domineering in his relationship with his wife. I don’t believe that its proponents, by default, think that wives should just be available for sex whenever despite their own wants, feelings, emotional state, etc.; that wives shouldn’t be permitted to work outside the home; that daring to wear pants instead of a dress/skirt is sinful; and so forth. Just as an example, I’ve spoken a bit with my church’s head pastor (who I am fairly confident would consider himself complementarian) about a couple of the topics that I’ve come across on your blog, about the sorts of things that unfortunately happen within many marriages, and he agreed that too many men (even one would be too many, obviously, but I digress) treat their wives too much like a living sex toy, even within the church.

    I *do* think that what a dispiriting number of people who would fall under the complementarian label miss is the idea of the man exhibiting SERVANT-leadership specifically. Ephesians 5:25 encapsulates what I consider to be the highest charge husbands could possibly be given: “Husbands, love your wives, EVEN AS CHRIST ALSO LOVED THE CHURCH, and gave himself for it.” Jesus’ love for the church in His life on this earth was a love of service, not of dominion, so even though the previous verses advise wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ, this verse points out why they should (be able to) feel safe in doing so. Christ’s love was a perfect love that husbands will never actually be able to attain, but just as we Christians are called to be Christ-like in all other areas as an ideal to strive toward, husbands in particular are specifically called to love their wives just like the Savior loved (and loves). Even as I pray to find someone to spend my life with, I pray also that the Lord would continue to shape me into a man who can better live up to that ideal.

    I suppose my point is that, while I certainly won’t deny that there are (far too many) complementarians who fit the mold that you’ve presented, I think that rightly understood (and rightly practiced) complementarianism is not the relative moral failure of a worldview that you seem to be purporting it to be in comparison to egalitarianism. I believe that it can coexist with the idea of marriage being more collaborative than strictly hierarchical, though I do believe that communication needs to be open and consistent (in both directions) to help make that happen. But maybe I’m just a starry-eyed idealist (or a centrist getting defensive on behalf of people I know?).

    Anyway, please continue to fight the good fight against all the “every man’s battle” junk and other harmful, insidious ideas that have nestled themselves among the church.

    Sincerely,
    Tom

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Tom,

      Our research found that believing in complementarianism didn’t do any harm. But as soon as you have any model OTHER than egalitarian decision making, very, very bad things happen. The thing is that most who believe in complementarianism make decisions together. But as soon as he gets the final decision, even if he consults with her first, really bad things happen. Divorce increases 7.4 times. Marital and sexual satisfaction plummet. She’s like 50 times more likely to say she doesn’t feel heard in arguments, etc. It’s quite stark.

      So when we teach that complementarianism means that husbands ultimately lead–which tends to insinuate that he gets the final decision–it won’t harm most couples, because most couples act it out. But as soon as people do act it out, it will hurt. And that’s the problem. If a doctrine only works if you don’t act it out, then that doctrine is quite suspect. I wrote about this at length here.

      I don’t think there’s another way to measure if people act out complementarianism. If we simply means that he serves radically, well, that’s what egalitarians believe too. The only thing that distinguishes complementarians and egalitarians is the belief that he holds the ultimate authority, and so his decision actually goes.

      Again, I think most complementarians are wonderful because they don’t actually act this out. They instinctively know it’s wrong. But I can’t think of another way to measure it. If you can, we’d love to hear it, because maybe we can run those numbers too! We do want to be fair, but we just couldn’t think of another way.

      Reply
    • Jo R

      The problem is that there was no real way to justify where you draw the line that divides where the wife continues to have a say from where she doesn’t.

      When you say “I believe that it can coexist with the idea of marriage being more collaborative than strictly hierarchical,” then if the wife’s preference to do X would, for example, require much more effort from the husband than the husband wants to do—even if he thinks X would be better in the long run—then he can simply whip out the “husband makes the final decision” trump card and not do X.

      And human nature being what it is, it won’t be long until another such a situation arises, and the wife will effectively be silenced once more. And again, human nature being what it is, once the husband has played that trump card the first time, it will get easier and easier to play it in the future.

      Once that trump card has been played a dozen times, what do you think will happen? Will the husband continue to be inclined to listen to his wife? Will the wife be inclined to continue giving her ideas? She’ll eventually give up saying anything that she knows will be rejected, leaving her no real option but to respond “Whatever you think, dear” on the off chance that her husband does ask her for ideas.

      Where would she get any encouragement to try to continue to influence her husband? From church? Not likely, since if he’s gotten the idea that he’s the ultimate decision maker, their church will back him up. Threats of being out of God’s will, of fear of sinning against God Himself should she continue to voice her concerns, ideas, and opinions, are an extremely effective muzzle.

      There’s no such thing as a “little bit” of complementarianism, as there’s no way to justify where to draw a boundary that allows the woman some say.

      Reply
    • Nessie

      Just my thoughts- Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the Church… Christ loved the Church by coming to reveal the heart of the law, not enforce the letter of the law- which He called out as wrong. So if a husband begins down the slope of enforcing decision-making over his wife, he is often no longer looking at the heart of the law like Jesus but instead refocusing on the letter of the law from which Jesus came to set us free.

      Wives are advised to submit to their husbands as the Church submitted to Christ… but the Church was also called to test every spirit to see if it was from God, which insinuates discernment. Too many complementarians teach women to blindly obey (letter of the law) their husbands as he is the ultimate authority that is loving them as Christ did (yet husbands may not be discerning the heart of the law.) So many slippery slopes.

      Reply

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