Has sex ever become super disgusting to you?
I sure hope not, but as we’ve been talking about obligation sex in our current series, I’ve had several comments along those lines, and I’d like to talk about this one in particular today.
A woman wrote:
I have no idea how long I have been conditioned to give obligation sex & now because I think I’m going to throw up during it I have resorted to a “hand job” because in his words “marriage is give & take & sometimes we do stuff we don’t enjoy for our spouse.” I have gone to counseling to work through this but WE need to go to counseling. After 3 sessions of us together he said he felt attacked & it was worthless & the counselor “is an idiot” so where do I go from here? I’d run away but I have children, so here I am, still struggling daily & no one to really talk to.
First, I feel so sorry for this woman! I know many of you are going through something similar, where you feel trapped and you feel so distant in your marriage.
I don’t know if I can help you practically today, but I do want to explain what’s going on, because this can shed more light on why obligation sex is so toxic–and why it affects the body so much.
I’ve been reading Unclean by Richard Beck.
Beck is a psychologist, and in his book he’s sharing about “disgust” psychology, and the role that actually plays in Christianity (and how Jesus came to help us get out of this mindset). It’s hard to summarize the whole thing here, but it’s been super interesting.
I was speaking in Halifax last weekend to a young adult church plant, and on the plane on the way home I was reading it, right after I had read that comment from the woman about feeling like she had to throw up when having sex with her husband. And Beck actually spoke to this exact thing–and what it means!
I’m going to try to summarize here, but basically all cultures have a disgust reaction (even if it triggers with different things). Our faces even tend to make the same expressions when we’re disgusted by something–we wrinkle our nose, we feel nauseous. Why is this?
Well, let me tell you about the Dixie cup experiment. Let’s say I were to give you a Dixie cup, and asked you to spit in it–and you did. Now let’s say I asked you to drink the spit. Would you do it?
That’s seriously icky, right? But why? That spit, a minute ago, would have been in your mouth and you would have swallowed it without a thought. But as soon as it’s outside of your body, it becomes an object of disgust. Because now it’s OTHER.
The disgusting has to be seen as alien: one’s own bodily products are not viewed as disgusting so long as they are inside one’s own body, although they become disgusting after they leave it.
What is it that the disgust reactions all try to do? They try to expel the thing that is disgusting. So we spit out gross food; or else we try to vomit. We’re trying to expel the thing that is disgusting to us.
(You can likely see where the theological implications are for this on a church-wide scale about how we relate to others, but I won’t delve into that here, except to say that it’s fascinating).
Now let’s turn to romantic relationships. The idea of sharing saliva with someone else tends to be pretty disgusting, right? But that disgust is overcome when we’re with someone we’re attracted to, someone we love. And when we marry and become “one flesh”, then the idea of their bodily fluids touching ours doesn’t trigger disgust anymore. It’s actually quite inviting?
Why? Because they aren’t OTHER anymore. They’re inside the circle. They’re part of ME.
As Miller notes, sexual love and pleasure are only possible when pre-existing disgust rules are suspended.
But what happens if this person who is supposed to be inside the circle, who is supposed to be part of you, treats you with contempt or treats you like an object to be used? What happens if they show they don’t actually see you or care about you or what you’re feeling?
Then they’re no longer inside the circle. They’re taking themselves outside of the circle. And when someone is outside your circle, the idea of sharing your body with them can be super disgusting. And what’s our reaction when we’re disgusted? We want to expel that thing (ie. throw up).
That is, as loved ones drift apart, emotionally speaking, they should begin to reexperience sociomoral distance and separation. In the marital relationship “one flesh” begins to separate back into two. Otherness reemerges, marked by the onset of disgust. The once intimate and erotic touch of the spouse is now experienced as an intrusion, a violation. Physical intimacies such as sex are no longer relished but experienced as disgusting and revolting.
That’s one way of explaining the psychology of what she’s going through.
Disgust can also be triggered by contamination.
Think of how you wouldn’t drink a glass of wine with a drop of urine in it. The urine contaminates the whole thing; it’s not that contact with the wine cleanses the urine.
And what is it that can contaminate us? When we’re lower on the divinity scale. You’ve got God, angels, people, mammals, birds, bugs, etc. Human beings are supposed to act like human beings and even try to ascend to acting like Jesus.
But what happens when a man wants purely animalistic sex, with no consideration of the human aspect of sex? Then it degrades you. It contaminates you. And you react with revulsion and disgust.
We need to pay attention to disgust.
Disgust is visceral; Beck talks in the book about how disgust operates at the emotional level, not at the rational one. It tells you what is going on inside your body. When people start to experience sex with their partner as disgusting, that’s a sign that something is going on.
Now, sometimes that disgust can trigger for other reasons.
Maybe one of you is a victim of sexual assault, and something traumatic is being triggered. Maybe you grew up with sex being seen as something gross, or with bodies being seen as something gross, and you’re reacting to that prior conditioning, rather than to the marriage.
Maybe one of you even has an attraction to the same sex, and so sex with your partner triggers unwanted feelings.
Whatever the reason that disgust is triggered, it’s a sign that needs to be paid attention to.
The answer isn’t to tell women, “God made sex to be between a husband and wife, and you can’t withhold or deprive him.” You’re telling her to push through an emotion where she literally wants to vomit. How is that sexy at all? How is that intimate? Are we really saying that one person’s climax that causes the other to want to vomit glorifies God?
Or can we admit that if the disgust reaction is triggered, that means there’s something serious to be paid attention to? She isn’t feeling like one flesh in this area of her life.
When we tell women to push through the disgust, we cement the feeling of disgust with the experience of sex. This can’t last. It just can’t. It’s why we found that women can put up with really bad sex for a time, but not forever. One can only be made to feel disgusting for so long before something snaps and breaks.
Instead of blaming women for being disgusted, can we start being curious?
Disgust isn’t intentional. So let’s be curious and ask, “what is going on?” And let’s recognize that some dynamics in marriage can easily trigger a disgust reaction. That’s not on her; that’s on the thing that is causing it, whether it be bad teachings or past trauma or a bad relationship.
Become a part of the movement
Join 40,00 others and let's change the evangelical conversation about sex
It is not a moral failing on her part; it tends to be triggered by someone else’s moral failing (her husband; her abuser; bad Christian teachers).
Maybe, if we took disgust seriously and listened to what was happening, we could actually help address these dynamics and restore her to a place where she felt safe, instead of lecturing her that she has no rights over her body, and must surrender it.
Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that so many women are feeling nauseous!
What do you think? Does this idea of disgust psychology make sense? Let’s talk!
The Obligation Sex Series
- 10 Things to Know about Obligation Sex
- Why Obligation Sex Destroys Libido (and how it affects us long-term)
- Are Obligation Sex and Marital Rape the Same Thing?
- A Way Forward to Recovery from Obligation Sex
- Why Obligation Sex Can Make Sex Feel Disgusting
- You Don't Need to Consent to Being Used (what to do when your husband insists on obligation sex)
- How Higher Drive Spouses Can Avoid Giving the Obligation Sex Message
- 10 Ways Men Can Initiate Sex Without Pressuring Her
- The Obligation Sex podcast
Previous Posts on Obligation Sex
- Can We Honor our Bodies' Rhythms?
- Does 1 Corinthians 7 Mean that Women Have No Sexual Autonomy?
- What Happens When Men Believe the Obligation Sex Message?
Previous Podcasts on Obligation Sex
- New Research on the effects of Obligation Sex
- The Myth of the Magic Penis
- Marital Rape, Consent, and the Problems with Obligation Sex
Plus please see our Great Sex Rescue Toolkit for handy downloads about the effects of obligation sex that you can give to your pastor, counselor, small group leader--anyone who teaches it!
And see chapters 9 and 10 in The Great Sex Rescue for all our charts, stats, and commentary!