I’ve written before about sexual coercion in marriage. Since writing it, it has been the blog that people have accessed most by far. I’d then followed it up with a two part series on a cultural perspective and a biblical perspective on sexual coercion in marriage. These similarly garnered a surprising level of attention. It shouldn’t really, research from the late ’90s shows that sexual coercion occurs in anything between 17% and 34% of marriages.
It can happen for all sorts of reasons as my previous blogs start to discuss. There are other windows on this issue that we need to look at though. One element is the difference in sexual appetite that seems (generally) to be a factor between men and women. This difference in appetite can lead to differences in sexual outcomes. As more research is undertaken, there is a move towards understanding sexual activity as:
- wanted (ie consensual);
- unwanted but consensual; and
- unwanted and non-consensual.
For example, there might be times when a husband (or wife) gently pressures for sex and the other partner does not want to have sex but gives in. In this scenario, while there has been pressure brought to bear, the consent is still willing and the episode is not experienced negatively.
A further dimension to our definition is, as Christians, a wife might not want to have sex, but willingly yields herself for her husband as a gift and blessing to him. Again, the emphasis here is on the voluntary and willingness aspect. However, as Christians, this is a real factor in our marital make-up. The main point is that the activity is yielded willingly and consensually. The pressure is gentle and not experienced negatively. The difference between this scenario and a coercive one, is the feeling of choice. A wife does not feel as though she has to have sex or does not feel as though she has no choice but to have sex.
One of God’s first commands to Adam and Eve is to go and fill the earth. As pointed out however, by Tim Challies in his book Sexual Detox, “the appetite far exceeds its biological purpose. If the sexual appetite matched its biological function either a person would only desire sex a few times in a lifetime or he would have thousands of children. Does this not teach us that God desires that we have sex for reasons beyond procreation?”
Having sex, and lots of it, grows the intimacy between man and wife. It connects them physically and emotionally. Not having sex in marriage can be damaging to the trust and connection. But when intimacy is broken, the sex itself can become damaging to trust and connection. It takes us in a horrible circle of brokenness.
The breaking of the trust can come back to a variety of issues – expectation, entitlement, naivete, lack of communication, belligerence – but a big issue can be the difference in sexual appetite (and acting on it). It’s almost as though that becomes the “ground zero” for many problems. As Challies points out, “the appetite for sex is not given in equal measure. It is typically given in greater part to men. Why is this?”. Indeed. Why, in something that God created for good, would he not create sexual appetite in equal measure so that this brokenness can be avoided? God created sex as a good thing so a difference in sexual appetite seems an unnecessary complication.
Challies brings up a good point in that God intended men to be leaders (albeit as we see in Jesus a sacrificial and loving leader), and so a greater desire causes the taking of initiative in the sexual act “taking care to love her so as to draw her toward wanting to have sex with him.”
There may be something in this. But I think Challies is closer to the heart of it when he says that “Generally speaking, a man finds intimacy through sex while a woman needs to first experience intimacy and acceptance before she can be prepared to enjoy sex” (his emphasis). This leads to “a powerful combination: a man’s sexual appetite, plus his love for his wife, plus the sexual liberties granted them by virtue of marriage. These are wonderful things, but if they are all the husband sees, he will end up being a sexual bully toward the woman God has given him to love and cherish. He needs to recognize (and learn to navigate) the differences in how he and his wife experience intimacy and acceptance“.
This, I think, takes us to a real truth in God’s creative purposes. Through the Genesis lens, we see that God created men and women with difference. Men (generally) are physically stronger and tend to be more task and goal oriented. Women (generally) are physically smaller and tend to make connections and multi-task. Perfectly complementary, men and women “fit” together in their difference. Of course this is general, and there their difference is not assigned roles or categories. This is merely acknowledging the difference and the complementarity that God created.
At the Fall, the curse to the woman, is actually a curse on both of them: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16). This curses the very relationships between men and women. It means there is a struggle to get or maintain control or power in the relationship. In key ways, men and women no longer “fit” in a complementary way, but are locked in a struggle.
What we see in Jesus is the perfect example of servant hearted leadership. Leading with compassion, sacrifice, wisdom, mercy. Jesus himself was all power and all might, and yet voluntarily was self-limiting.
Putting our created difference, the curse and Jesus together, provides a picture of what the marriage bed can look like:
- Men and women were created with deliberate differences
- The curse targeted those differences
- There is a certain level of power that both men and women can bring to bear in different situations
- Those areas of power can be exercised well, in a healthy sexual relationship, or poorly which underlies a brokenness in intimacy
- Jesus was the perfect example of sacrificial leadership and voluntary self-limitation. Since we strive to be more like him, we should seek to use the power that we have to grow in Christ-likeness
- This can be most beautifully demonstrated in the marriage bed.
The marriage bed is where both men and women are most exposed and most vulnerable both physically and emotionally. This means its where the curse of the Fall can most dangerously and tragically play out. The man can employ his strength and task focus to the detriment of his wife. A woman can use her contrary desire to the detriment of the husband.
Since this is where the most exquisite level of intimacy is laid bare, it seems to me that this is the place where we must strive to reverse the curse and seek the greatest level of Christ-likeness. The man must lead though love, compassion and sacrifice. He must voluntarily self-limit his strength and task focus (if this is an issue). This will make him feel vulnerable. But if the woman voluntarily self-limits her desire for power (if this is an issue), she can meet him in his vulnerability. Voluntary self-limitation can make both parties feel dangerously exposed. But true intimacy is meeting each other in this moment.
The difference in sexual appetite is part of working out this issue. Sometimes the man must curb his appetite. Sometimes the woman needs to trust her husband to lead her in intimacy. But again, the man must take the lead, as his capacity and opportunity to break trust through his physical strength is greater. This is not where the wife just submits. This is the place where the husband becomes the man whom the woman feels she can voluntarily submit to. The husband leads by listening, learning, voluntarily self-limiting and sacrificing. During his time on earth, Jesus had all the power of the universe. Jesus could have forced everyone to bend to his will with that power – but did not use it. The husband could use his power to physically, emotionally or psychologically compel his wife into sex – where this is used, there is brokenness. So this is the place where appropriate voluntary self-limitation can lead to a greater Christ-likeness in the intimacy of the marriage bed.
Sometimes self-limitation can be curbing a sexual appetite where intimacy is broken and time is needed to heal and restore trust. Sometimes self-limitation is listening and navigating.
So I think Tim Challies is getting to the heart of it – the difference in sexual appetite forces the man to learn and navigate the differences in sexual experience. This is a good thing for the man to do and is a critical part of his created goodness. I think it goes further and deeper though in pushing men and women towards the perfect harmony of oneness. As the most raw and naked place there is in marriage (physically and emotionally), it makes sense to me that this is the place where those issues are to be worked out and where there is a great and beautiful opportunity to be more like Jesus.
I’m not sure we will ever get there perfectly this side of the new heaven and new earth. But I think these are worthy elements of the discussion that should be had – to bring issues into the light, to find a shared language, to gain the support of trusted Christian brothers and sisters and hold each other accountable. And ultimately be led by God in all areas of life, particularly this one, which influences so many other areas of the marriage relationship.