An Australian church leader recently said that men should assert their rights over their wives’ bodies. Simone Richardson explains why this is not a good idea.
I was thumbing through an Australian Christian magazine recently, and an article about sex caught my eye.
The writer was bemoaning the fact that many couples were having “infrequent” sex. He presented this as a pressing pastoral problem and described non-voracious couples as “sinful”. He argued from 1 Corinthians 7 that sex is a debt we owe our spouses, and while allowing that age, accidents and illness may create exceptional circumstances, said that the biblical norm is that a couple will be having sex “frequently”.
He went on to define “frequently”, placing once a week at the outside edge of acceptability but stating that the biblical ideal is probably close to every night. He acknowledged that between husbands and wives there may be a difference in libido, but argued that men have “legitimate needs” and that any marital compromises should bring the couple closer to the “biblical norm” instead of towards “sin”.
The most bewildering part of this article was the writer’s assumption that his argument would make a positive difference to a couple’s sexual habits. Who was his target audience? Was he writing for husbands? Were they to read this and tell their wives to up their game? Or was he writing for women? Did he want us to read this, repent of any lower libido and enthusiastically jump into bed?
Because that isn’t going to happen.
I read the article, bemused and infuriated, but at one level I did sympathise with the writer’s concerns. A husband and wife have promised to love and cherish each other. A cold and sexless marriage couldn’t be in keeping with this. But by arguing the way he did, the writer revealed his profound ignorance of the dynamics of female desire. Does he not realise that pressure is the number one libido killer for women? Can he not see that nothing will turn her anticipation into dread faster than feeling that she must, that it’s expected, that she owes it and that he’s entitled to it? Under such circumstances, what could be a delight will become burdensome for her, a chore.
But what of 1 Corinthians 7? Does Paul not say adamantly that we are not to deprive one another? Wasn’t the writer just echoing Paul at this point? I would argue that Paul wasn’t addressing libido issues in 1 Corinthians 7, rather the false teaching of asceticism. The Corinthians thought that abstaining from sex would make them more spiritual.
Paul vehemently denied this. I cannot help but think that if he had been addressing the complex relational issue of sexual desire rather than the error of asceticism then he would have written differently. Perhaps he would have sounded more like he does in 1 Corinthians 13, speaking about patience and kindness and gentleness and self-sacrificing love for others – and urging husbands to have the laying-down-your-life leadership that Jesus so embodied, rather than a laying-down-of-the-law approach. But when it comes down to it, I wonder if God is much less interested in how much sex we are having, and much more interested in how we are loving one another through the frustrations. For given the differences between men and women, frustrations in this area seem somewhat inevitable. What might love for one another actually look like?
As I see it, for women, love for husbands is best not expressed through short-term gritted teeth submission, but in a long-term quest to actually want it more. This may involve a change in attitude towards sex (and towards him), better communication skills and compromise. Our libidos are something that we can control – to some extent at least. Exerting control over her desire may be something a wife chooses to do to enrich her marriage.
Husbands will need to take seriously their call to self-sacrificing headship. There is no place anywhere in Christian marriage for demanding, bullying behaviour, and especially not in the bedroom.
Being Christ-like in marriage may mean deciding to be satisfied with less sex than you’d like for the sake of your spouse. Notice here that I am using the word “like” instead of “need”. Sex is not something essential like water or oxygen. No one has ever died from not having it. If it were a need, then how could we ask the single and those who experience same-sex attraction to abstain?
Grown-up men know that sex isn’t about having a bodily lust satisfied. It is a relational oneness so much more profound and wonderful and complicated than the mere fulfilment of fleshly desire. It’s an expression of affection and trust and self-giving. A mature husband will communicate to his wife that she is desirable and desired – she specifically in her own personal embodiment of the female form.
She is, for him, what the Shulamite was for Solomon. He sees her and his heart will sing out:
How beautiful you are, my darling,
How beautiful you are
She satisfies him physically, but that is the least of what she does. She gives him connection, a home. He reaches for her and she accepts him. Receives him. He is affirmed at the very core of his being and stands taller and walks more confidently because this person who he adores has adored him back. Because he has been able to please her as she certainly pleases him.
This kind of love-making is simply not possible to demand. It is always a gift given freely from one to the other, a joy passed back and forth between the two and enlarged with every giving. She glories that he glories in her body. It delights her that he delights in her. And it is her triumph that he who is her strength and comfort should find strength and comfort in her.
He gives her pleasure and she is as pleased with his pleasure in pleasuring her as she is with the pleasure itself. Such is the mutuality of their love-making that it is hard to tell in which direction the gift is being passed. Both emerge from it stronger and closer. He feels profoundly grateful for her. She echoes the Shulamite and confidently asserts “My beloved is mine and his desire is for ME.”