You will never have a healthy sex life if you don’t have autonomy over your own body.
You just can’t. Unless you are free to say yes or to say no, desire can’t build, because desire and obligation are at odds with each other.
Just as you can’t force someone to love you, or it’s not real love, so you can’t pressure or force someone to have sex with you and have real desire build.
This month we’re looking at how to dig out of the pit one of you, or both of you, have dug for your sex life. So often that pit gets dug deeper and deeper because it’s not just one issue; it’s several. It’s sexual trauma in our pasts. It’s the terrible books we’ve read that make sex a male entitlement and female obligation (see The Great Sex Rescue for more on how evangelical resources can wreck sex for couples!). It’s ignorance about how her body works. It’s the thought that she’s responsible to keep him from sinning. It’s the idea that men have insatiable needs, while women don’t really want sex.
It all gets mixed together in a toxic stew, and it’s poison.
But safety can be difficult, because to have safety, you need autonomy. And many of us think that goes against the Bible.
Does the Bible speak AGAINST autonomy in 1 Corinthians 7?
We have a hard time with sexual autonomy because of the way that we’ve interpreted verses in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, which say that her body belongs to him, just as his body belongs to her.
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
If her body belongs to him, then she has no sexual autonomy! To think that she should have sexual autonomy becomes unChristian and selfish.
But let’s back that truck up for a moment. The point of those verses is not that he can do whatever he wants with her body. If that were the point, then the verses would simply have said, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband,” and then it would have stopped.
But it didn’t stop.
Instead, the next few words are super important: “In the same way…”
Do we see the significance of that? Any claim that he has over her body is matched by the claim that she has over his, which means that neither of us can use our bodies in ways that the other doesn’t want.
The point of this passage is not to say that the husband can use his wife’s body, and she has no rights to it. The point of this passage is not about one person being able to overpower the other.
The point of this passage is that sex should always and only ever be mutual.
The idea of a wife having authority over her husband’s body was the revolutionary part.
We focus so much in the church in telling women that they don’t have authority over their own bodies, but instead they give that authority to their husbands.
Do you realize that in doing so, we’re doing the exact OPPOSITE of what Paul was trying to do in this passage?
In the context that Paul was writing, husbands already had authority over their wives’ bodies. In fact, it went further than that. They owned their wife’s body, to the extent that they could kill them and not face punishment.
When Paul wrote, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband,” everybody would have said, “Well, D’UH!” Of course that’s true!
But then we get to those four revolutionary words: In the same way… (in Greek it’s not four words, but you know what I mean!).
That would have shocked his readers. Wives didn’t have any authority over their husbands at all, and yet here Paul is saying, whatever authority husbands have over their wives’ bodies is matched by the authority that God gives wives over their husbands’ bodies.
Paul is saying that men no longer have the upper hand. Men can’t just use their wives. No, instead Paul is equalizing things and insisting that mutuality rather than obligation and force be the principle in sexual relations. If she has claims to his body in the same way that he has claims to hers, then he can’t use her. He can’t do anything she doesn’t want. Paul is equalizing things!
And yet, instead of understanding Paul’s intention here, we have used 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 to put women in the exact same position that Paul was fighting against. We have completely ignored the context and the principle behind what he was saying, and focused merely on one phrase. And it has done tremendous damage.
Did you know that this is the only place where Paul explicitly talks about authority in marriage?
That’s right! The only time that Paul writes about any kind of authority in the marriage relationship is in 1 Corinthians 7–and it is completely and utterly equal and mutual. We may think that Paul is talking about it in other places where he calls husbands the “head” of the wife, but the Greek word he uses for head does not have a connotation of authority, but rather one of unity.
Paul’s overall point, when he’s talking about marriage, is to flip the script on its head and preach mutuality, two people living in intimacy and mutual servanthood as they follow after Jesus. He was speaking into a culture where men had complete authority, so every opportunity he could, he told husbands that they were actually supposed to serve sacrificially. He told couples that the wife needed to be considered in the same way. He called for mutuality, and yet we have used his words to reinforce the same power dynamics he was trying to fight against.
What does this mean for body autonomy?
It means that you matter.
It means that you don’t have to do something you don’t want to do.
It means that your spouse can’t use you or pressure you and tell you that you can’t say no because your body belongs to them.
It means that sex is supposed to be something which is freely given.
But don’t we have sexual responsibilities to each other?
Yes–in the sense that this passage is telling us that mutual sex should be a normal, frequent part of a healthy marriage.
But here’s the thing: The order that we do things in matters.
Desire can’t build with obligation. If we want desire to build, we must get rid of obligation. We cannot tell people that they have a responsibility to fulfill their spouse’s sexual needs BEFORE someone’s desire has built and before sex has been experienced as something which is mutual, intimate, and pleasurable for both.
Paul is telling us that sex should be mutual–that both people should want it. Elsewhere in Scripture we read that sex should be an intimate experience (Gen. 4:1) and should be pleasurable for both (Song of Songs).
We cannot talk about sexual responsibilities to each other UNTIL these conditions are met, because sex is not merely one-sided intercourse.
And to make it worse, if we stress someone’s responsibilities to be a “lawful sexual outlet” (as Doug Wilson calls women), then we kill desire and sex will never be mutual, intimate, and pleasurable for both.
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That’s why the route to mutual, passionate sex is actually through body autonomy.
Until the pressure is off and desire can build; until she especially can understand what feels good and what she likes with sex; until sex can be an expression of how she feels, rather than an obligation regardless of how she feels, then true desire can’t build and she can never freely give herself anyway.
Ironically, if we want frequent, mutual sex, we need to stop talking about frequency. We need to stop talking about obligation.
When we let desire build naturally, and when we discover what passionate sex is supposed to be, frequency tends to take care of itself. But when we focus on frequency and obligation, we kill passion and mutuality. And that’s the opposite of what Paul was writing in this passage.
I’ll write more about what it looks like to regain your autonomy (I have a feeling this series is going to go into December because I have so much more to say!). But for today, I wanted to stress that: sexual autonomy is not anti-Christian; it is actually what Paul was stressing and it is a prerequisite for mutual, passionate sex. If we truly understood that and internalized it, so many of our sexual problems could be cured!
What do you think? Why have we taught body autonomy so wrong? Do you think the message is changing? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Sexual Recovery Series--Digging Yourself out of the Pit
- A 4 -Point Plan to Sexual Recovery
- Redefining Sex: Seeing Sex as an Expression of your Relationship, Not an Individual Need
- What Sexual Recovery Looks Like
- Safety and Intimacy: You'll Never Have an Intimate Sex Life without Feeling Safe First
- When Sex Has Become One-Sided, Leaving Her Feeling Used
- 2 Kinds of Marital Rape
- How to Recover from Marital Rape (if it's possible)
- Why Christians Often Don't Understand Consent
- 5 Next Steps if You Realize You've Coerced Your Wife into Sex
- Does 1 Corinthians 7 Mean that She Has No Sexual Autonomy?
- How to Regain Sexual Autonomy (coming soon)
- How to Slowly Start to Rebuild Safe Sex (coming soon)
- PODCAST: A Path forward Addressing Sexual Shame (with Jay Stringer)
- PODCAST: The Myth of the Magic Penis (and a call for integrated sex)
- PODCAST: Learned Helplessness and Sex (coming soon)