One of the things we’re passionate about on this blog is making sure the advice that is given about marriage and sex in the evangelical world is healthy.
Over the last few years, our team has surveyed over 32,000 people, measuring how certain teachings common in the evangelical world about marriage and sex affect marital and sexual satisfaction.
And the results have not been pretty.
We’re asking the church to stop spreading harmful messages, and make sure that what is said is actually healthy. Because it is actually possible to write books that do not harm!
We’ve also published a series of downloadable one-sheets on evangelical books that still sell well, but have been shown to contain harmful messages.
This is our most recent entry–For Women Only.
This series of books has sold more than 2,000,000 copies, with this book being by far the best-seller. It is frequently used as curriculum in biblical counseling seminaries. It is highly recommended at marriage conferences and churches.
However, it was also one of the most harmful books we measured (you can see our scorecard here). So many people told us that this book fuelled insecurity while also teaching women to enable immaturity in their husbands.
In this post, with a download option, I’d like to explain why.
This post is the text from our download, so it’s short, in bullet point form, and right to the point. We’ll be doing a longer deep dive into this issue tomorrow on the Bare Marriage podcast!
Synopsis of For Women Only
Discover the truth men want women to know so wives can adjust to their husbands’ struggles.
Summary of Issues with For women Only
- Uses substandard research practices throughout her surveys. Shares findings about men’s propensity to lust that have been debunked and shown to cause harm to marriages.
- Rather than showing how women can help create an intimate marriage based on emotional and relational health, encourages women to cater to men’s fragile egos by not challenging them.
- Bases the book on gender stereotypes, many of which are harmful or simply untrue.
For Women Only is BASED ON POOR RESEARCH FOUNDATION
- Asserts “men need unconditional respect” based on a badly worded survey question her pilot study and survey designer both flagged as problematic. Declares a gender difference (that women want love instead) without surveying women. When other researchers asked women the same question, there was no gender difference. For a deep dive into this, please see the last segment of this podcast.
- Elicits inaccurate findings like “98% of men can’t not notice a woman with a great body”. One possible response included in the 98% was “It is impossible not to be aware that she is there, but I try to stop myself from looking,” (134) leading to an unsupported conclusion that all men constantly objectify women. Another possible answer was, “I openly stare at her, and drool forms on my lower lip”, typical of the unserious nature of her survey questions.
Here’s another example of a poorly worded survey question:
Note how this question is basically measuring nothing. The only men who wouldn’t care if their wives desire them or not are rapists–and even rapists would likely say that they care.
For an in-depth example of how we “fixed” one of Feldhahn’s survey questions so that they were in line with proper survey practice, please see Fixed It For You: We Fix a Survey Question so it doesn’t enable date rape.
- Bases the idea of the “visual wiring of the male brain” on outdated studies from 2001 and 2004. More recent meta-analyses of 61 studies including 1,850 participants (Mitricheva et al., 2019) and a huge meta-synthesis of three decades of MRI scans (Eliot et al., 2021) find no such gender differences.
- Feldhahn claims to be a “Harvard-educated researcher,” but her degree is in public policy, not social science research or survey design. In the first edition of her book, she admitted that she had tremendous trouble with her statistics class; this is omitted from the updated edition.
For Women Only spread harmful gender stereotypes without allowing for nuance
- Equates “this is how men are” with “God made men this way, so women must adapt,” such as in the way she frames men’s “hard-wiring” as responsible for men’s struggles, attitudes, and at times even actions.
- Warns that men have “mental photo files” of images of women that they have seen, and advises that women “accept his struggle with lust”, supporting them rather than trying to change them (151).
“Do we love the men in our lives for who they are or for who we want them to be? Do we want to support our husbands or to change them?”
She gives no caveat for dealing with persistent porn use or overt objectification of women in public.
- Portrays behaviors such as stalking an attractive woman through the aisles at Home Depot (135) or being preoccupied with a beautiful waitress while on a date with his wife (135) as normal for men. This, combined with the chapter that women need to keep up their appearance, feeds female insecurity.
“As we struggle with [the] hard truth [that when you take care of yourself, your expectation that ‘I only have eyes for you’ feels fairer and easier to accomplish], it might be helpful to remember that we’re not alone: We’re also asking our man to do something that is hard and goes against his natural instinct. The man who originally opened my eyes to this issue explained it this way: “We need to see that you care about keeping our attention on you–and off of other women. Sometimes it is so hard for us to look away. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort. But it helps me so much if I see that my wife is willing to do her part and purposefully work toward staying in shape and looking good.”
- Declares that all men struggle with visually consuming women (131) (especially those who make themselves “eye magnets”). Our survey of 20,000 women for our book The Great Sex Rescue found that this belief lowers women’s libido, marital and sexual satisfaction, orgasm rates, and their trust in their husbands.
“Nearly half of the men on the follow-up churchgoers survey said they would try to stop themselves from looking [at an attractive woman]. It is vital that we understand just how much strength and discipline that choice requires so that we can appreciate what our men try to do for us every day in this minefield of a culture.”
- Includes stereotypes not supported by research, such as men are internal processors, while women are external processors. States universal struggles like impostor syndrome as male issues. Ignores her own survey data to spread the stereotype that men have higher sex drives (ignored her female respondents who said it was mostly shared), thus treating women as unreliable narrators of their own experience when it does not agree with what men say.
- Portrays sex as something a woman “gives” a man (172) to boost his confidence, rather than something they enjoy together. Implies that men get emotional connection only through sex.
“A man can’t just turn off the physical and emotional importance of sex, which is why its lack can be compared to the emotional pain you’d feel if your husband simply stopped talking to you.”
For Women Only INSTRUCTS WOMEN TO ACCEPT POOR BEHAVIOR FROM HUSBANDS
- Explains that women shouldn’t make an issue if men repeatedly fail to do things they promised (65), fail to fix a damaged kitchen wall (42), or refuse to care about the things his wife cares about (43) because if a husband ignore his wife’s requests, he’s showing “they just have different priorities.” (42).
“‘I asked him to do it. He hasn’t done it. I trust my husband. Therefore, there’s a reason he hasn’t done it.’ Just realize, although his reason for not doing the task may be different from yours, that makes it no less legitimate. Remember, half the men on the survey indicated that sometimes they just have different priorities than their wives do.”
- Paints men’s egos as the “most fragile thing on the planet”, so women must ensure he never feels challenged. Giving a husband directions when he is lost undermines his confidence (27). Expressing an opinion different from your husband’s conveys that you think he’s stupid (24).
“The next time your husband stubbornly drives in circles, ask yourself which is more important: being on time to the party or his feeling trusted? No contest.”
- Instead of warning women that fits of anger can be a sign of abuse, encourages women to blame themselves. “How do we know when we’ve crossed the disrespect line?…[T]here is one easy barometer: our men’s anger.” (18)
“If he’s angry at something you’ve done or said and you don’t understand the cause, there is a good chance that he is feeling the pain or humiliation of your disrespect.”
Insinuates that the reason men have affairs at work or turn to porn is because a wife hasn’t convinced her husband that “he’s the greatest.” (63)
“If a man isn’t convinced that his wife thinks he’s the greatest, he will tend to seek affirmation elsewhere. He may spend more hours at work, where he feels alive and on top of his game, or he may spend too much time talking to the admiring female associate…”Why else do you think so many men take sports so seriously?” one man asked me.”
- Tells women that even when they can’t physically respond to sex, they should encourage their husbands enthusiastically, and “let your words be heart words—reassuring, affirming, adoring.” (121) No instruction is given on how to tell a husband what she needs to feel pleasure.
- Fails to describe helpful ways to address problematic marriage dynamics, but instead advises women to concentrate on “verbally praising the positives.” (45)
Healthy Sexuality Score: 11/48
Infidelity and Lust:
WHAT WOMEN HAVE SAID about For Women Only
“Based on this book, men are weak, insecure creatures that need their women to build up their self-esteem and look hot all the time. The most offensive part was about men being visually wired…[T]hey keep a memory file of all the hot women they have seen in their entire lives. So, are all women just doomed to live with a needy man-child that thinks about other women all the time?…I would rather be alone.”
“I followed what she said about not saying what you need/what feels good in bed to protect his “tender heart.” I endured years of pain and vaginismus, along with a heartbroken husband who knew something was off, but I refused to say what until I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
“Used it in my marriage and it only made it worse. He absolutely loved everything I did from this book but it was emotionally exhausting. I could not constantly emotionally regulate my husband. If I had a bad day he was upset because I was not understanding his needs. It literally made him a large child.”
“The only time I ever felt insecure about my marriage was after reading this book. I never questioned my husband’s faithfulness (and he’s never given me a reason to) but this book caused me to believe that he was one moment away from cheating at any time. Let me be clear, he’s always been faithful. Always. Never even considered or wanted anything else but me. But after reading this book I spiraled into a season of doubt like never before. I wish I had just talked to him about it, but I took what she said as truth.”
“It would have been a more effective book if it was for men only…because then she could have said “alright men, according to my studies, you are weak, stubborn, insecure, and always in competition with other guys…These are not good things, so let’s work on it.” Instead, she took those findings and told women that they are responsible for being the answer.”
Man’s perspective: I would never have used it to excuse pornography usage or cheating, and I didn’t force her to have sex when she didn’t want to (as far as I knew) but absolutely took it as grounds to expect from her a far higher degree of gracious thanks for not using pornography or cheating, what we’d otherwise consider simple baseline decency that doesn’t really need that much gracious thanks.
Also, that and “Every Man’s Battle” had a difficult effect on my relationship with women. Though I never harbored “crushes” on her friends, I felt that lust and desire were just around the corner, I’m a visual creature after all, and so I kept my distance and likely came off as cold, distant and aloof, and frankly just awkward. It was clothed in the idea that I was protecting my marriage from my own supposedly lustful, visual nature, but like so many others have said, it made women out to be temptresses just for being women.
It leaves you feeling despair because instead of recognizing that every man and woman will encounter temptation, and their responsibility as a Christian is to obey the LORD and flee, the author paints it like men just can’t help succumbing to their biological urges because they’re just “wired” that way… Furthermore, the most disturbing point is that women have this huge ability or responsibility for men’s happiness, self-esteem and ego. It is up to us to be perfect and pleasing so that our men will not feel insecure or be tempted. HELLO?? It is downright DANGEROUS to suggest that a human being is responsible for another human being’s self-worth. This is codependency 101.”
SYNOPSIS OF FINDINGS
Based on problematic survey data and outdated research, For Women Only presents a picture of marriage that burdens women with the responsibility for preserving men’s “fragile egos” rather than creating healthy marriage dynamics. Instead of looking at how some of our struggles may be culturally conditioned or a result of sin, and seeing how one can act as iron sharpening iron to point a husband to look more like Christ (Romans 8:29), women are encouraged to accept men’s bad behaviors and not ask for anything for themselves—even pleasure in bed.
Instead of For Women Only, Choose…
Download this material in a onesheet format that you can email or give to someone who recommends the book. Let’s change the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to something healthy!