Want Women Free of Sexual Shame? Stop Infantilizing Us!

by | Aug 26, 2022 | Abuse, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 25 comments

Stop Talking Down to Women about Sex

We know that women have a huge problem with sexual shame.

Many men do, too, of course! But let’s stick with women for a moment here, because when we were reading best-selling books to see trends of how they taught about sex, we noticed a pattern:

Quite often men were portrayed as knowing a ton about sex, and women were infantilized.

Here’s just a quick (and kind of gross) example from The Act of Marriage:

Their maidenly inhibitions and misconceptions compel them to lie on their backs and allow the vigorous young husbands to satisfy themselves.

Tim LaHaye

The Act of Marriage

So she has maidenly inhibitions and misconceptions, and he’s vigorous. 

She is scared of sex and hesitant and shy, and he totally can take control of the situation.

That’s one way it can be done–actually portraying men as the ones in the know and women as the ones who are more ignorant.

But then we can take it a step further, as Kevin Leman does, and use infantilizing language: 

Kevin Leman Mr. Happy Fixed It

It actually gets worse from there. 

He also calls the clitoris “your tender little friend.” Yes, he names it elsewhere, but Leman frequently uses “cutesy” euphemisms for body parts, which gives a distinctly creepy vibe–like a predator in a kids’ puppet show. 

Using euphemisms like that talks down to women in a way that he doesn’t talk down to men in his book. And that gives an impression–men are mature in this area. Women aren’t. And so women need to be coaxed along, because men understand about sex and women don’t.

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Why do we assume that men are knowledgeable about sex and women aren’t?

This infantilizing language coming from male authors gives a distinct impression: women are ashamed of sex while men aren’t.

Men are sexual and women need to be coaxed.

Sex is something men naturally get, while women don’t.

When we were writing The Great Sex Rescue, we actually conducted some focus groups to see how other women reacted to both of these passages. 

We wanted to know if it was just us who found them disturbing.

Rebecca ran them really well, not showing any emotion or asking leading questions, and mirroring back what the participants were saying. She almost kicked me out of a focus group at one point because I was agreeing with the participants too much, and that’s a no-no!

Here’s what we said about this in The Great Sex Rescue: 

Great Sex Rescue

From The Great Sex Rescue

Across the board, women were unimpressed when they felt they were being talked down to. And some of the greatest offenders were the cutesy euphemisms such as “Mr. Happy” for “penis” and “tender little friend” for “clitoris.” These words made women feel infantilized, which is hardly sexy. When we read the “Mr. Happy” passages, women’s eyebrows darted up, they started shaking their heads, and in one group we even heard a chorus of “Eeeeeewwwww.” One woman said of Mr. Happy, “If it wasn’t about sex, this could be a puppet show for kids.” Another said, “It sounds like Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, where everything is a friend. That’s very disturbing!”

Universally, women did not shy away from explicit instruction, but they preferred passages using proper terminology. We believe these authors wanted to make sex less shameful by talking openly, perhaps even by adding some humor. However, talking to women as if they’re children does not end shame; rather, it treats them like they’re inadequate and not up to the task.

Takeaway: Because men tend to reach orgasm easier and tend to want sex more, books portray them as sexual, while women need to be coaxed along. Unfortunately, this often leads to assuming men are good at sex and women aren’t, reinforcing the very problem they are trying to fix.

Yes, men may feel more comfortable with sex for obvious reasons. 

Sex is very unlikely to be physically painful for them. It isn’t vulnerable in the same way. You can’t have intercourse if a man isn’t physically aroused, so it’s pretty much guaranteed to be done because he’s feeling good. 

And men’s genitals are right there, visible, in easy reach, and guys are often far more used to handling them than women are handling our own (often our main time handling our genitals is menstrual hygiene).

So it’s not surprising that men may seem more eager for sex and have less to be shy about.

This does not mean, though, that men are automatically better at it.

And by infantilizing women, we make sex sound even more threatening, as if we’re in that creepy puppet show.

If we want women to feel comfortable with sex, stop talking down to us. 

Use the proper names for body parts (and let’s not forget how important it is to teach our kids the proper names, so they have words to use to tell if someone is inappropriate!). 

Assume that women can be comfortable with sex, too, and don’t need cajoling as if we’re being coerced.

Treat us like adult human beings.

Because no one wants to be a child, especially when it comes to sex. I can’t think of a bigger libido killer.

Stop Talking Down to Women about Sex

Have you seen this phenomenon where women are often talked down to when it comes to sex? Let’s talk in the comments!

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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25 Comments

  1. CMT

    Eeww, eeww, eeww. So patronizing!!

    I notice the examples you gave are all from older books, which might explain some of the truly cringey language. But the idea that men are instinctively “better at sex” is definitely still around.

    I also hear echoes of the view that women are “purer” than men and don’t naturally want sex for themselves. I guess that is infantilizing too if you think about it.

    Reply
    • Amy

      The Act of Marriage is from the 1970s, so that’s older. However, Sheet Music was published in this century, specifically 2003. I wouldn’t consider that to be a particularly older book. Certainly new enough that an editor should have known to not refer to a penis as “Mr. Happy.”

      Reply
  2. Laura

    Men are not always knowledgeable about sex. Who usually says, “If I pull out, you won’t get pregnant?” Duh, guys say that and believe it. My ex used to say this and thankfully I had enough sense to say, “Nope, not until I get on the Pill.” In junior high/high school sex ed, I learned that guys used lines to manipulate us to have sex. Lines like, “If you love me, you will,” or “I promise to pull out before I come.” So these evangelical male authors really think women don’t understand sex? They act like they’re still living in the 1950s.

    Reply
  3. Codec

    I find it interesting in general how we can treat people as though they are foolish children and scheming karma houdinis at the same time.

    There is much I would like to talk about.

    Reply
  4. Jane Eyre

    “So it’s not surprising that men may seem more eager for sex and have less to be shy about.

    This does not mean, though, that men are automatically better at it.”

    Loaded question: what does it mean to be “better” at sex? If it’s about bringing pleasure to your spouse, loads of men are objectively terrible at it (hello, orgasm gap, and hello, husbands who take years to learn that they should even bother pleasuring their wives). Maybe they think it’s about knowing their own bodies and how to get themselves to climax.

    “I’m good at sex because I know what I want and I know how to get pleasure from it.” Okay, let’s apply that to any other area of interpersonal interaction:
    “I’m a good mother because I know what I want out of motherhood and I enjoy it.” No mention of whether I’m raising a joyful Christian child or a miserable, dysfunctional kid.
    “I’m a good employee because I know what I want from my career and I enjoy working.” Okay, what do your boss and coworkers think of you as a professional and as a person to work with? Do you get the job done? Meet deadlines? Mentor young people? Are sufficiently pleasant in the office no one dreads seeing your face?
    “I’m good at making Christmas fun because I know what presents I want and I always love sitting around and drinking cocoa.” Do you do anything for anyone else to make the holiday special?

    I could go on, but it’s a stupid standard to think you’re “good” at something interpersonal because of what you get out of it, not what you put into it.

    Reply
    • Tim

      Well said Jane!

      Reply
  5. A2bbethany

    When you think about the many scandels of CSA in the churches, knowing that these books might’ve actually have inspired some of the grooming language used……in any other situation, why would an adult ever use childish names????

    (When we married, we agreed on certain codes for things , but they aren’t gross like this. Unless more detail is necessary, we just use the term “down under” for everything bottom related. And sex is playing, because it’s a term. Thats easily explained as something else, so we can plan sex around anyone fairly easy!) And I’m trying to teach my toddler her actual anatomy words. But it’s hard because saying penis and vagina outloud is worse than cussing and like saying the f word in repulsion! (Because it was NEVER spoken in my childhood.)

    Reply
  6. EOF

    I really don’t know which quote is worse. They’re both so demeaning, but in their own unique ways!

    There are so many thoughts running through my head, it’s hard to know where to start. Though Sheila sums it all up perfectly with the last line: “Because no one wants to be a child, especially when it comes to sex. I can’t think of a bigger libido killer.” Bingo!!

    What I want to know is this: are we women naive, innocent doves or dangerous sexual threats? Because we can’t be both, yet “Christian” marriage books paint us as both. They want their cake and to eat it too. Just like how men are emotionally and morally immature (they can’t see a woman without falling into sin) but they’re supposed to be the almighty decision makers and rulers of the home, the authorities of their wives, leading us to God as if Christ isn’t enough.

    It’s no wonder women are running from churches in droves.

    Men may have an easier time orgasming, but that doesn’t make them superior at sex. The fact that so many Christian wives don’t orgasm regularly is proof enough of that. If they were so great at sex, women would be having multiple orgasms every time and begging for more! There’s a REASON we often want to avoid the bedroom — because it isn’t enjoyable for us. And why would that be? Not because the men are sexual experts! They also tend to think that because they know where to put what where, they have a full understanding of sex and anatomy. Would you believe that my husband once told me, in total seriousness, that my period had NOTHING to do when I got pregnant? He meant it fully, and provided further proof by saying it was only when he supplied his seed that caused my pregnancy.

    Lord help us all.

    Reply
  7. Denise

    At the sailing club we attend a few of us agreed on the term ,Doing the fancy instead of saying sex .
    As a way to make our language polite and not shock the children , if they hear

    Reply
  8. Tim

    This is a great post.

    I have a question about this bit:

    “Using euphemisms like that talks down to women in a way that he doesn’t talk down to men in his book.”

    Can you expand on that? It’s a long time since I read it, but from memory he uses creepy euphemisms for both male and female body parts, and I definitely felt talked down to myself. To be fair, I’m not sure when it was written and I know using anatomically correct terms for genitalia is seen as inappropriate in some sub cultures even today (though if anyone thinks ‘Mr Happy’ is somehow more appropriate than ‘penis’ i don’t know what to say).

    I’m curious what it is about this kind of language that has negative effects on women specifically.

    Reply
    • Jo R

      By and large, it’s women reading these books, not men. That’s a large part of why it’s particularly galling to treat women to this kind of language and especially the not-so-subtle underlying attitude.

      Remember, it’s women who deal with menstrual mess every single month for decades, except when they’re pregnant, of course, at the end of which they get to push a baby out of their vagina, followed by years of changing diapers and cleaning up other bodily fluids. Where are the husbands? Oh, the men are typically only there for the fun part: the conception.

      And my other comment was inadvertently put in as standalone, rather than a nested response to you.

      Reply
      • Tim

        Thanks Jo. That’s a good point about the audience being mostly female – I hadn’t thought of that.

        My point was that I think this kind of language is condescending to everyone, not solely to women. But I just re-read parts of Sheila’s post and the two specific examples she’s mentioned from Sheet Mustic do seem to be addressed specifically at women. I don’t have a copy to check if there are similarly patronising comments aimed at men, but if not, I guess that answers my question.

        Reply
    • Jo

      Specifically because women are the ones being spoken to with this language. The comment “Mr Happy likes to be kissed” isn’t aimed at the man but the woman. And it is language that is more akin to that used with children not grown adults. So it’s both patronizing and demeaning. But aimed at one gender not the other.
      Now after writing this I just realized someone else has already answered your question. Another Jo to boot 🤣

      Reply
  9. Jo R

    Imagine a woman writing a book to men on how to do basic household chores, such as cleaning a toilet. The instructions contain the line “This is Mr. Brushy. You put some cleaner in the toilet bowl, then you swish Mr. Brushy allllll around the bowl, including up under the rim, just like you’re brushing a gigantic mouth without teeth.”

    The typical man’s first reaction? “What am I? Eight years old?”

    And that’s just for a mundane activity that an actual eight-year-old could easily do. When the subject is sex, sex between a Christian husband and wife, i.e., grown-ups, is language suitable for eight-year-olds reallllly the way to go about the discussion?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly!

      Reply
  10. Andrew

    Mr Happy?
    I think I threw up in my mouth.
    Could we maybe, as Christians, start talking about sex like actual adults?

    Honestly, my thought is that the euphemism thing is nothing more than a mask — a ‘tell’…for shame.

    Why would a Christian author feel the need to not say ‘penis’, ‘vagina’, ‘oral sex’, etc – especially in a book…about Sex?
    Because they are worried that being honest will make people uncomfortable?

    Untold harm has been done by taking normal healthy words and topics and walling them off in some weird hush-hush awkward taboo verboten space. I think, of all people, Christian should be the most unashamed to speak openly and frankly about sex. I’m with Carl Thomas, thinking that this negligence has played a critical role in the rampant proliferation of pornography and sexual addiction in the church.

    How is it that non-Christians are generally the ones who can joke about sex and not feel uncomfortable? Because at least for them, sex is not a topic which is deeply mired in shame.

    Now obviously, hyper-sexualizing literally everything, (as American culture at least has done), is not a wise course of action either. But imagine if Christians discussed finances, eating, alcohol, anger etc… in the same way:

    Mr MoneyFlappy needs billy willies inside to be happy…

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but it should be our duty as Christians to smoke out Shame and, with the Lord’s help, cast it down upon its face.

    Reply
    • God Cats N Books

      Mr MoneyFlappy needs billy willies inside to be happy…

      Laughing my fool head off.

      Reply
    • CMT

      I think this is spot on. People don’t use euphemisms unless they believe on some level that there is something to be ashamed of. So when someone goes to such lengths to avoid using the words “penis” and “oral sex” in a context where it is totally appropriate to do so, I start to wonder if they don’t have a bit of internalized sexual shame themselves. And whether this is someone who should be giving advice on the subject…

      Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      “Mr MoneyFlappy needs billy willies inside to be happy…”

      Shaking with laughter. That is fantastic.

      Reply
    • Jo

      Well said!

      Reply
    • Andrew

      My wife and I were discussing this, and she mentioned an important tangential aspect I hadn’t considered. She worked for a Christian publisher at one point, and said that the publisher may have not allowed for certain words and phrases to be used.

      Oof. That’s potentially a much worse problem….

      Obviously, I have no real data on this, but I’d be curious how often in the Christian industry this might be the case. It wouldn’t surprise me that the sexual ‘shame’ problem is larger than just Christian authors, and something that the industry itself imposes from time to time, reflecting the fear and shame of their target audience. I’d imagine the rather sad and vulgar (though unfortunately practical) situation like: Sorry, we can’t refer to ‘oral sex’ because these stores won’t sell it, and such-and-such group of folks would never buy it…etc.

      For a recent real case, consider how LifeWay pulled Sho Baraka’s album ‘The Narrative’ over a single stanza:

      “I was an insecure boy who just thought he was a genius
      But always pissed off, that’s because I thought with my penis
      It’s all strategic, I’m just asking us the reason
      Share my faith on the track, I’m just exorcising demons”

      Apparently that kind of frank and direct wording stepped outside the window of what LifeWay would sell. And, you know – whether or not you agree with Sho’s message, or the way he chose to communicate it, I feel this is a very serious problem.

      So again, I wonder how widespread the sexual shame problem has spread, and if the sort of ‘safe Christian content’ industry/publishing/music/retail has made it self-perpetuating. :/

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I think Lifeway was a huge influence on what was allowed to be published and what wasn’t for sure! Yes, they did pull books with any words about the female anatomy that weren’t specifically sexual education books. So it really did put a damper on a lot of things!

        Reply
  11. Paul

    Did you know that a man can be raped? He can be made to physically erect while not wanting the sex to happen. Look up ‘FTP’ (Forced to Penetrate)

    Reply
    • Mara R

      Paul, I was aware of that.
      It’s just a wrong.
      And whatever man this is done to has just as much shame to deal with as a woman. And in some cases worse because of our culture’s issues with this sort of thing.

      Wondering, though, why you bring this up here. Are you needing a safe place to talk about it? (Not being snarky. Just feeling things out.)
      Or do you feel a need to balance out the conversation, somehow? Just curious.
      Though we mostly focus on the Church’s horrible teachings on sex and how they hurt women, we are not unaware that men are abused as well. It’s just men are generally not instructed by male church leaders to go back and ‘submit’ to their abusers.

      Reply
  12. Angharad

    It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell women that they will be inexperienced and nervous about sex, they will feel like that is how they should be. Or that there is something wrong with them if they aren’t!

    When I was looking for Christian advice on sex, coming up to our wedding day, the majority was ‘just lie there and submit – your new husband will know what to do.’ Advice on problems was limited to ‘sex takes a while to get right.’ The only advice on pain that I found was ‘sex shouldn’t be painful. Painful sex is abnormal. Pain is caused by fear, so if you prepare for sex properly by educating yourself about what happens, it shouldn’t be painful’. Which subtly put the blame back on the woman – e.g. ‘if sex hurts, it’s your fault because you’re abnormal and you didn’t prepare for marriage the right way’!!! I was so thankful to find The Good Girls’ Guide to Great Sex.

    Ironically, I found a secular website (dealing with a medical condition that I have) which gave clear, practical, cringe-free advice on ways to make sex work for people with health limitations. I found it so sad that a non Christian organisation should be so much better at providing healthy sex advice than the majority of Christian sites I looked at!

    And the euphemisms…yeeeeuuuukk!!!! C S Lewis wrote a brilliant article, where he described a fictitious country that treated food & eating in the way Western countries treat sex. He said that if you visited such a country, you would conclude they had a very abnormal attitude towards a normal, healthy part of everyday life…

    Reply

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