A few years ago, the Church decided to start talking about sex–particularly, married sex. The Church wasn’t doing enough to address it. The sexual revolution had occurred, and the Church had suddenly acquired a reputation for being stuffy and avoidant on the topic. Young people wanted to know about God’s design for sex. Couples wanted to know that sex within marriage was wholesome and healthy, not shameful or dirty. So, the Church has been talking about sex. A lot.
What it hasn’t been talking about, though, is sexual empowerment.
Those words may seem foreign, even unthinkable, in a Christian context. But I believe embracing sexual empowerment is absolutely vital to having a healthy, vibrant, thriving marriage.
First, it helps to define what sexual empowerment is. Our secular culture, like our churches, have a poor understanding of the term. To many people, sexual empowerment is equated with raunch and promiscuity. We claim that strippers and sex workers are empowered because they lack sexual inhibitions. They have thrown off traditional mores and use their sexual skills to profit for themselves. But that’s not what empowerment really is.
Empowerment is about exercising authority over what is rightfully yours. It is about knowing what you want and how to get it. It is about giving enthusiastic consent within the boundaries that you set. Sexual empowerment has nothing to do with aluminum poles and lingerie; rather, it is about confidence and communication.
Unfortunately, the Church has fallen prey to our pornified culture in its teachings on sex. Some pastors (*ahem* Mark Driscoll *ahem*) tell couples that men want to see scantily clad women on poles who will do all of the things portrayed in their favorite adult film. Otherwise, why would they go to strip clubs? So these pastors encourage wives to do things that many find degrading and uncomfortable. And when she balks or does them halfheartedly, her husband becomes frustrated and discouraged and feels rejected and unloved.
The Church compounds the problem by setting up false dichotomies: Men want sex all of the time; women want it almost never. This teaching results in all kinds of dysfunction. Men who don’t want it all of the time think there is something wrong with them or that they aren’t attracted enough to their wives. Women who actually want sex–especially if they want it more than their husbands–think they must be dirty.
And because men’s sexual needs are prioritized and women’s are ignored–or worse, denied–women are never encouraged to examine or communicate their desires and preferences. Whatever desires do surface are often suppressed.
This exact scenario played out in the early years of my marriage. Because I believed that my husband’s sexual needs were stronger and more urgent than mine, I didn’t take time to explore or nurture my own libido. Sex was a duty, a performance I had to put on for my husband’s pleasure. Everything I did in the bedroom was for him. At the same time, I was terrified to initiate sex; that was something only men did. So I just laid beside him…and waited.
But because I never initiated sex, my husband came to believe that I, in fact, never wanted it. He believed I was only participating for his benefit and wasn’t really enjoying it. Every time he tried to pleasure me or encouraged me to engage in an act that would have primarily benefited myself, I hesitated–or anxiously tolerated it. Because I couldn’t allow myself to receive pleasure, my husband erroneously believed he could not pleasure me.
I cannot fathom how many bedrooms this is happening in. Women waiting for men to initiate. Men feeling rejected and inadequate. It boggles the mind.
The sad part is, this reality is actually feeding men’s appetite for porn. We sit and wonder how in the world conservative Christians could comprise the largest percentage of porn viewers in America with all of those sermons on how immoral it is. But is it any wonder? Porn offers what men want:
Women who want sex.
Women who are confident in their own skin.
Women who can articulate what they want.
Women who are enthusiastic about giving and receiving pleasure.
And this is why the church should teach sexual empowerment. Without it, we are robbing both men and women of the joys of sexual exploration, maturity, and mutuality–and pushing them toward the counterfeit pleasures of porn.
So, what does the Bible have to say about sexual empowerment?
Unfortunately, not much. But there are some lessons we can garner from the Bible’s book of erotic poetry, the Song of Songs. Check out these words from Solomon’s Shulamite lover:
I am a wall,
and my breasts are like towers.
Thus I have become in his eyes
like one bringing contentment. (8:10)
Notice what she is saying: “My breasts are awesome! They can satisfy my man!” Ladies, when was the last time you looked in the mirror and said, “My breasts are awesome!” Or when did you think of your body as offering “choice fruits” to your husband? Much of our consumeristic culture shames women’s bodies, making us think that we’re inadequate or inferior. But the truth is, our bodies–no matter how they look–have much to offer. They are a part of a glorious package that was designed by God–a package that your husband loves and wants to explore.
The lover in Song of Songs simply oozes with confidence and assertiveness. She knows what she wants and asks for it. She is enthusiastic about being intimate with her beloved. She says, “Let him kiss me. Let him come into my garden. Let him taste what I have to offer.” That is a sexually empowered woman!
Certainly, there is much more to explore on this topic. Becoming sexually empowered requires building communication and emotional intimacy with your spouse, as well as time and experience. Overcoming the damage caused by poor Church doctrine, purity culture, porn and sexual abuse adds another layer of difficulty. But the joys of sexual empowerment? Worth it.
Thanks for this post Kelsey, I found it very helpful. This article from The Age (Melbourne, Australia) may also be relevant: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/sex-the-bible-says-go-for-it-20100725-10qkt.html
This is a great post, though I’d like to see some discussion on how to “flip the switch” from sex being evil and dirty as a single person, to suddenly awesome and fulfilling after marriage. I’ve struggled with this in my first year as a wife.
I’m going to attempt to write about that.
I was going to say something similar to Beth. Good post, April.
Love God with all your mind and heart, never do unto another what you would NOT want done unto you and, be fruitful and multiply…and being kind–that about covers the bases for me.
On Friday night, after the Sabbath candles are lit and we take them upstairs to our room, it becomes a sacred place where the joy of our being together is often expressed. If more people approached their joy as a sacred obligation (to oneself!) it might be easier. Our bodies ARE the temporal housing of our spirit/soul– sexual play is one doorway to the kingdom. The women I know who are happiest have full knowledge of body/self, mind/self, spirit/self and in their lovemaking engage all of their being…our skin is a huge sensory blanket, from ticklish clavicle to curling toes. Without the intimacy of heart, mind, spirit–a four letter word for “intercourse” is TALK! –The full expression of being–well, plastic is out there for everyone. If Christ has truly covered your sins and you have/are willing to have done in you the “fulfillment of the laws” then in so acting in good faith, shamelessness in your consecrated bed could be the best part of your life. I learned this only after 30 anguished years of partnership with a gay drug addict who shamed me constantly for any needs at all. I was reborn at 47 into a truer sense of all “selves” and praise God/life itself with my sacred sexual worship.
Great opening April for the sexually hungry, unfulfilled, baffled (abused) as I was Christian community.
I am grateful to my mom for debunking the myth of female interest in sexuality — she explained the problem is when men ignore their wives needs. My mom mentioned wives will often cheat(and the husbands rarely know; that’s a rock-the-boat idea!) She also told me attention to her needs leads to more interest. One of the top conversations my mom and I had!
In a recent conversation we both agreed it’s heartbreaking that women are told sex is a chore and shamed for desiring it, since this is a gift of God. I was appalled by the tweets I read under the PurityCulture hashtag! I just wanted to shout in a bullhorn how untrue such messages are!
Just a few comments:
1) What she said. Right on!!!
2) Sex was nearly a taboo subject for my now deceased Christian mother who was born in 1910. It rarely came up as a subject in conversation except for one time. On that occasion, my mother made it clear to me how she felt about sex, and here is my best paraphrasing of it:
“Sex is the awfullest thing that ever was. It is just plain nasty. I just don’t see how an entity that claims to be a loving God could have created something so terrible and then expect his children to go through with it? How could He.???!!!”
Yep. Only by the grace of God and the eye of a needle did I even get here. Christian women of America!!! Please listen up!!! If you are contemplating marriage and your feelings about sex are like those of my mother or anything near it, please either change or contemplate staying single instead. My poor dad was angry at my mom even when he was on his death bed. Take what April has just written seriously.
3) James Michener: “The century was coming to a close. Lame Beaver had lived half of it and seen many things.” I am now much older than Lame Beaver was at that time, and I have seen many things too. As a male, one of the things I have seen is that nearly all men love the idea of sex—and actual sex. It really is on our minds almost constantly—porn floats through male college dormitories like particles of dust in the air—reflecting the general level of interest within those buildings–and that interest does not slow down until about age 50 when our male hormone levels start dropping in the direction of low. Interest in sex drops off with it. Despite what you might have heard or read, something “like” male menopause does exist. Been there. Seen that. Surprised the heck out of me!!!
4) Most men like sexual adventures beyond the ordinary, but they are honestly afraid their partners will “freak out” if they bring it up. If you are female and like the idea of some sexual adventure, do not be afraid to bring up the subject. Just talk about it and mutually determine boundaries of comfort for any contemplated adventures. Within those boundaries, go to the mat with enthusiasm (no pun intended.)
5) Picture this. A man and a woman are sitting far apart on the two ends of a sofa. Sex is on both of their minds. Each person has a comic book thought box above their head. They read: “I’m scared he’ll think…” and “I’m scared she’ll think…” Don’t just sit there. Talk it over.
6) Thanks April. It now becomes clear to me that I should have been a sex therapist. Maybe it is not too late.