Can Christian marriage books actually harm women? (Spoiler alert, the answer is yes.)
THE BACKGROUND OF THIS POST
Sheila Gregoire, who blogs at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum has written for years about the topic of sex in marriage, and over the years as she walked with women through their struggles in this area, she noticed that no matter how much healthy content she put out there, people still had the same questions and problems.
As she asked more questions of people and dug deeper, she learned that most people who were experiencing significant obstacles to physical intimacy with their spouse held deeply entrenched beliefs about sex that they had obtained from Christian marriage books. Some of the beliefs were good, but some were not. Some were subtly harmful, and some were more overt.
Here are some of the harmful ideas the women Sheila talked to had gotten from Christian marriage books:
-A wife cannot ever say no to her husband when he wants sex.
-Wives need to have frequent sex to prevent their husbands from pornography or affairs.
-Women whose husbands are addicted to pornography or have committed adultery are partially to blame.
-Wives whose bodies are not attractive as they used to be (even from life’s normal changes and not from lack of care) should work harder to be “hot” so their husbands won’t be tempted to lust after women with better looking bodies.
-Women’s pleasure during sex is not important; only the man’s.
-Husbands are entitled to having sex whenever and however they want with no say-so from the wife.
The effects that these ideas have on women are devastating.
Feeling obligated to have sex or feeling afraid that she is responsible for keeping her husband from sin makes a woman feel resentful, fearful, or used. In many cases those beliefs are the underlying source of sexual pain.
No one should experience physical or emotional pain from sex with their spouse. Sex should not leave a wife feeling resentful or fearful or used or even frustrated. Sex should be about experiencing deeper intimacy and oneness with one’s spouse.
THE PROBLEM WITH LOVE & RESPECT
As Sheila continued to ask more questions of the women who were reading her blog, she had her attention drawn to the fact that a best selling marriage book, Love & Respect, was the most frequently mentioned Christian marriage book that had done significant harm to women.
(Side note: As someone who works with Christian women escaping domestic abuse, I can tell you that if you ask around among these women, you will learn that Love & Respect was their abuser’s playground. An abusive man uses the term “respect” as a weapon to control his wife. Any time she refuses his unreasonable demands he claims that he does not feel respected by her and that is why he acts unloving to her. He holds basic kindness hostage, knowing she will strive to meet every demand in order to feel loved. And when she still does not receive love from her husband, she believes it is her fault because she still failed to make him feel respected. Instead of realizing that this form of coercive control is abuse, she believes from the book that she can help him be more loving to her by doing whatever it is that he says makes him feel respected. She does not realize that there will be no end to his demands. No husband should be making demands, large or small, of his wife, and to do so by manipulating her desire to be a godly wife is ungodly on his part. There is nothing in the Love & Respect book that explains to a woman that this dynamic is abusive. Any offhanded disclaimer that a woman experiencing abuse should seek help is of no value because virtually all abuse victims do not even realize what they are experiencing is abuse. This is especially true if the abuse is perpetuated without physical violence but instead by using a godly wife’s tender heart against her by making her feel that she is to blame because she somehow failed as a wife.) Update: After more questions, I've started working my way through writing an entire series that explains the problems with Love & Respect very thoroughly. You can read the series on Love & Respect here.
So horrific was the abuse being perpetuated in the name of this book that Sheila tried to reach out to Focus on the Family (whose logo appears on the book and who promotes the book heavily) to make them aware of the hundreds of women who had told their stories of having Love & Respect weaponized against them by abusive husbands. She thought they would be horrified that so many women were being abused with this book’s ideas as one of the primary weapons. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to be concerned. In fact, they at first ignored her altogether, and then ultimately stated that Sheila’s efforts to raise awareness about the problem was a “concerted campaign against the book” and that she was at fault for having misread and misjudged the book.
But here’s the thing. Perhaps enabling abusive men to use the book to control their wives was not the intention of this book. But that can’t erase the fact that hundreds of abusive men ARE using the book as an excuse to control their wives.
If someone misunderstands your words in a way that hurts them, wouldn’t you want to re-frame what you said in a way that undoes the harm? If having your words misunderstood in a way that harms women is regularly occurring why would you actively promote the words that are harming people? Why wouldn’t you seek to ascertain what is causing the misunderstanding and then re-word what you want to say in a way that cannot be misunderstood and cannot hurt people? (Here is a link to an open letter Sheila wrote to Focus on the Family about Love & Respect.)
If you are in a good marriage with a loving husband, perhaps your mind is having a hard time grasping exactly what I mean by “harm.” I understand. I have been there too. I have seen women who speak about their pain and thought, “Phsst. She just needs to grow up and quit getting her feelings hurt so easily.” Abuse and the emotional pain that women experience at the hands of a controlling, selfish husband is only a vague, nondescript idea in the mind of someone who has never experienced it.
It is only when you sit and listen to their stories – their descriptions of living in a world where they have no human value and are nothing other than an object to be played with – that you can begin to grasp how “not okay” we should be with what is happening to them.
I wish I could invite you to hear the stories I hear. Stories from women in churches just like yours. Stories where everything looks nice on the outside, but at home behind closed doors wives are made to stay up all night scrubbing the grout on the tile with a toothbrush while largely pregnant. Stories where their husbands will not give them money for groceries until they fulfill his repulsive sexual fantasies. They are told they are lazy and stupid when dinner is on the table five minutes later than their husband said it had to be. And then they clean it all up after he throws it on the floor. They listen to his words as he screams that he wouldn't have done that if she hadn't been so lazy. When they go to their pastor's wife, they timidly try to tell her that things are not going so well at home, but they don't realize they should tell her they're being abused. After all, they've read Love & Respect at the ladies Bible study, and want to be a godly wife, so they think that their husband won't do that anymore if he feels more respected. They will just work harder to get dinner on the table faster next time. Meanwhile, the pastor's wife, believing there are only some hiccups or communication gaps, gives her a different book to read which reinforces more of the wrong concepts she believes. “Maybe if I give him more sex he won't feel so grouchy.”
I cannot invite you to listen to these women's stories because they are theirs to share when and how they want. However, I can share the collection of public comments that Sheila compiled from her blog posts about Love & Respect. Comments where women told of how Love & Respect affected them. I invite you to browse the document and just listen to some of the snapshots of these women's lives. Don't listen to object, (“but that's not at all what I got out of that part of the book!”); don't listen to dismiss (“she used a curse word in her comment; her story is invalid!”); just listen. Listen to love your neighbor and to feel what she has felt. Your analysis can come later after you have taken the time to just listen. Please be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19.)
You'll see stories like this:
“I can attest firsthand that following this theology with my abusive husband almost left me dead by his
hand. When we first dated/married, I would stand up to him when he was in one of his rages, and when
our marriage was fractured I turned to biblical advise to learn how to “fix” what was obviously my issue
if he was constantly so unhappy. When I lost my fight, so to speak, he turned even more dangerous, trying to provoke me into a fight. I left the day he genuinely tried to choke me to death, and I refused to stand up to him. I now know I did everything I could to save our marriage, but following this bad advice to be even more submissive almost cost me my life.”
Here is a link to the complete data compilation of comments Sheila received about Love & Respect.
Although the question as to whether or not Christian marriage books can be harmful has already been answered, perhaps the bigger question is, “Should we be okay with things as they are when our Christian marriage resources are being weaponized against women? If we liked a book and found it helpful should we dismiss the voices of those who were hurt by that same book?”
THE INSPIRATION AND IMPETUS FOR THE GREAT SEX RESCUE
The disheartening realization that a bestselling Christian marriage book was actively harming women while still being intentionally promoted by a large Christian organization caused Sheila to wonder what other Christian marriage books might be contributing to the same problem.
She decided it was time for her to dig deeper into the beliefs that were hindering couples from experiencing true intimacy and re-frame those beliefs in a healthier way.
The first step was to collect data on exactly what ideas Christian women were taking away when they read these books. Together with her daughter and her friend Joanna, an epidemiologist trained in statistics, she launched “The Bare Marriage Project,” which is the largest, most scientifically sound research project into Christian women’s experience that has been done to date. This project surveyed over 20,000 women asking about their sex lives, their marriages, their beliefs about sex after marriage, their upbringing, and more. The data collected from this survey gave Sheila and her colleagues the insight they needed to identify what wrong ideas women were believing about sex in marriage.
The next step was to create a rubric and use it to evaluate books on marriage and sex based on twelve teachings about female sexuality. Books could score between 0 and 48 points, with 0 being the most harmful and 48 being the most helpful when it came to what a book taught about sex in marriage. The scoring rubric evaluated what each book taught about: lust and infidelity (e.g. whether a wife holds any responsibility for her husband’s sexual sin,) women’s sexual pleasure (e.g. does it emphasize that sex is meant to be mutually pleasurable or is a man’s need for release all that is mentioned,) and mutuality (e.g. does it emphasize the husband's responsibility to work toward intimacy or are all the expectations placed upon the wife.) (Unfortunately, Love & Respect scored a zero.)
The final step was to write a book detailing what wrong ideas about sex in marriage women were believing, which books had the most likelihood of perpetuating those beliefs, and then rescuing and re-framing those beliefs in a healthier way. The goal was not to have the last word, but to open up the conversation and encourage husbands, wives, and church leaders to entertain different perspectives beyond those that circulate in the best selling Christian books.
The result of this effort is called The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended.
It is obvious that this project is of grave importance to Sheila because she cares so much about people, and she is not okay with Christian marriage books helping some people if they are also going to harm others. I fully stand behind her in that.
ADDITIONAL HARMFUL EFFECTS OF POPULAR CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE BOOKS
I mentioned the problem of husbands using the premise of Love & Respect to control their wives, but I'd like to share some additional kinds of harm that have been done by popular Christian marriage books. I will let the data speak for itself, in the form of quotes from The Great Sex Rescue:
-“Women who get married believing they need to have sex with their husbands to help prevent their porn use are 19% more likely to experience significant sexual pain unrelated to childbirth.”
-“What often makes this even worse for Christian women is that we feel like God condones our pain because we’re told the Bible says we can’t say no.”
-“To our amazement, and our great dismay, far too many Christian books include incidents of marital rape or other forms of sexual assault and then dismiss these incidents as unimportant.”
-“We are left with the strange situation in which the people who most strongly relate to the examples given in Christian marriage books are often the ones acting the least like Christ.”
-“We suspect that the teaching that sex is something men are owed by their wives is being used as a weapon by abusive husbands.” (As a domestic abuse advocate, I don’t just suspect this, I know it! It’s pretty much standard practice for abusers to use this concept as a weapon.)
-“When asked how they felt after sex, used was the word 16% of women in our follow-up survey chose.”
-“When the books, magazines, blogs, radio programs, and conferences in your Christian circle are all telling you that every time you say no to sex, you are being selfish due to the depth of his need, you may start feeling guilty about having any needs at all.”
-“Our concern is that many Christian books, in their efforts to free couples of sexual sin, reinforce pornography’s view of sex by encouraging men to use their wives’ bodies without consideration for their hearts.”
-“Of the thirteen Christian bestsellers we analyzed on our rubric, only three books asked all the following of husbands:
- stay faithful (without offering caveats)
- make sex pleasurable for her
- do not insist or expect sex of any kind when your wife is physically or emotionally unwell
- seek consent from your wife”
“However, these same books that couldn’t ask the bare minimum of men asked, on average, over five of the following of women (and five books asked all of them):
- Have intercourse as frequently as the husband would like.
- Have intercourse even if he is watching porn or has a lust problem.
- Understand that without intercourse, her husband is more likely to have an affair, and if he does, it will be partly her fault.
- Help him reach climax in some way even when she is on her period, recovering from postpartum and not sleeping, or during any other problem she may face, since her problems are not reasons to refuse sex.
- Prevent weight gain to stay attractive.
- Let her husband feel that he is a good lover (without necessarily any caveat that he should actually be a good lover.)
- Initiate intercourse and be enthusiastic.”
“Instead of saying ‘no man should be satisfied unless his wife is also regularly satisfied,' too many books have said, ‘men feel more satisfied if their wives are satisfied, so wives — make sure you’re satisfied,' without any charge to him to care for her needs.”
Below are some additional comments I have seen made by other women that were unrelated to The Great Sex Rescue which confirm the far-reaching negative effects of these wrong ideas:
-“I actually followed this [advice to have sex regularly to keep him from affairs] to a T in my first (very Christian) marriage. Not only did he take advantage of this but he cheated on me. Multiple times.”
-“Women were taught to prioritize meeting that “need” no matter what they were feeling emotionally or what else was going on in their marriage.”
-“What an overwhelming message to Christian women and wives: you are disposable and valuable only for what physical pleasure you bring to your husband. No wonder so many women are unhappy in their marriages and struggling to be a good spouse and still trust God.”
WHO SHOULD READ THE GREAT SEX RESCUE?
-Anyone who finds sex within marriage to be a source of guilt or shame
-Anyone who has found themselves in physical or emotional pain after sex.
-Anyone who fears that having sex too infrequently will drive their husband to pornography or adultery.
-Anyone who enjoys intimacy with their spouse, but also hates the days they feel obligated.
WHAT IF YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND HAVE A GREAT MARRIAGE AND SEX LIFE?
I am truly happy for you and thankful you are in a marriage where both spouses seek to love God and each other well. However, even if you are not personally experiencing any struggles with sexual intimacy in your marriage, I still strongly recommend reading The Great Sex Rescue.
First of all, it will empower you to recognize teachings that have the potential to harm others. When you have a husband who loves you as Christ loved the church, you will read marriage books through that lens and you will speak to other Christian women from that perspective. But women whose husbands are not loving them well will read the exact same books and see them in a way that places all the responsibility for their husband’s sin on them.
Knowing what harmful ideas other women are getting and which books they are getting them from will give you the ability to steer your friends and those you mentor away from anything that has the potential to damage them or damage their marriage. There is no need to recommend books that have the risk of causing harm when there are healthier alternatives available.
Second, when you start to examine unhealthy beliefs about marriage and sex, you may realize that some of what you believe yourself has also been harmful in subtle ways. I’m not saying that I hope you dredge up some imaginary marriage problem that you never knew you had, but it’s possible you may find yourself untangling ideas that are not quite right. I’ve discovered over the years that the more I read perspectives that are outside of my own, the more I grow as a person.
And that is really the heart that I see behind this book – to help you think about marriage and sex from a bigger perspective. You don’t need to agree with every single word written in the book – in fact, you probably won’t – but you should listen and learn and grow. You can do a world of good for others when you listen to their experiences. You can protect other women when you realize what angle they might be seeing a certain aspect of marriage from and why the explanation of it from popular books is not what they need to hear.
Together, we can work towards stopping the harm that Christian marriage books have done to women, and we can encourage them with better messages that can help them untangle the lies they have believed about God's wonderful gift of intimacy with their spouse.
You can pick up your copy of The Great Sex Rescue here.