If you had asked me to recommend a good book about sex and marriage from a Christian perspective, I am unsure what I would have said before this. Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage is decent, but there are weaknesses because it is a book about discipleship more than anything else. Beyond that, I know there there are lots of bad books about marriage and sex. Some that have good parts but are concerning on the whole. And a whole raft of books that may be okay in some situations but often are stereotypical, oriented toward gender essentialism, do not take into account abuse or other more complex situations, or are just frankly dated. It is not that there are not nuggets of truth in many of those books; for many who are reading books about marriage and sex, they are too naive about sex and marriage to know how to sort through what is good and what is not.
There are three general times when I have read many books about sex and marriage, right before and after getting married, when marriage is tough for one reason or another, or when my wife and I have led small groups for newly married couples. I don’t want books that have some good and some problems for the first two situations because, frankly, I probably would get the two reversed. And as I read books when we were leading small groups for newly married couples, I had difficulty finding things I could really recommend. (And the newly hired small group pastor that came in toward the end of our second year leading those small groups didn’t think that we should be talking about sex at all, so we stopped leading those groups.)
Coming into The Great Sex Rescue, I knew there were problems with several Christian books on sex and marriage. There were some that I immediately threw away once finishing them, like Everyman’s Battle (it is trash and should never be recommended). And some that I read through and knew were problematic and wouldn’t recommend. But as a man, I definitely was reading them from a male perspective. One of the most important reasons we need to be reading books from various author perspectives is that I can’t see what I can’t see without a guide. One of the book(s) discussed frequently is For Men Only and For Women Only. When for Women Only came out, I read it and notated where I thought it was right and wrong about me as an individual. I particularly knew that books based on surveys and that include stereotypes can be helpful for discussion. Still, without an understanding of the particular person that you are married to, they are limited.
The Great Sex Rescue is designed to take the messages of many previous Christian sex books and put them in the context of current polling and research, facilitated with the range of individual stories from follow-up interviews and turn around what is often one-sided advice and make it more helpful. The reframing of ideas at the end of each chapter is probably the most helpful aspect of the Great Sex Rescue. It is not a book that is just pointing out what is wrong; it is also committed to figuring out how to present a positive message.
For instance, there are few things that Christian books on marriage and sex are more sure of than men being more interested in sex than women are. Almost all books assume men wanting sex more often than their wives as the default reality of Christian marriage. But current polling suggests that roughly a quarter of women have higher libidos than their male spouses. And nearly another quarter of women say that they and their spouses have approximately equal libidos. This means that the default assumption (which may be true slightly more often than not) is false nearly half of the time. An assumption that is wrong nearly half of the time, presented as nearly always true, is then not mostly right, but an assumption that should not be presented in the first place.
Another issue tackled that has a nearly universal agreement on in the Christian book market, is that sex is a currency. Women should use it to entice men to their will, and men should ‘voluntarily’ do more around the house or with the kids if they want more of it. That is almost entirely based on a bad reading of 1 Corinthians 7:5 where it is commonly taught that women should always have sex with their husbands regardless of their willingness, interest, health, or arousal. (The original context was nearly the opposite, with men of the era having many sexual outlets, but women having few licit ones and a young church confronting a culture that thought of sex quite differently from the sexual ethic that the early church was trying to convey.) Bargaining for sex is not about love but consumerism. Pushing reluctant partners into sex by negotiation or emotional pressure is closer to prostitution or rape than love.
This brings to mind the discussion of how more than a couple of Christian books on sex and marriage implicitly accept marital rape as appropriate or place the blame for affairs on the offended party, not the one who had an affair. And if you think this might be overstating the case, there is both plenty of evidence in the book, and I could list a dozen clips from sermons that have said exactly that (not from a couple of decades ago, but recently).
The book’s overwhelming message is that most marriage and sex books have prioritized the male experience of sex. The Great Sex Rescue suggests that the way forward is to prioritize the female experience of sex (the orgasm gap) and to orient sex to its rightful place in marriage. Sex is important, but it isn’t everything. It is important, but it isn’t a sin that cannot be overcome. The Great Sex Rescue isn’t primarily about the problems of purity culture, although that is mentioned. Still, much of the problem of Christian sex books is that they are written from a male perspective, maybe with a wife as co-author of a few pages, and without much, if any, biology, physiology, or psychology involved. For instance, nearly 1/3 of all women, and a greater percentage of Christian women than non-Christian women, have problems with painful sex at some point in their lives. But most Christian sex books do not mention it at all, either that it exists or that there are treatments that can be effective. Instead, they tend to say that women are under obligation to have sex even if there is debilitating pain from sex.
When we were sketching out the chapters for this book, Joanna quipped, “You know, we could say it all in just four words: women are people too.” Perhaps that’s the fundamental issue. Sex has been taught primarily through a male lens, mostly by male authors and by male speakers at marriage conferences. Women’s experiences have been largely overlooked or ignored, while women are seen as tools to help men get what they want. That’s not Christian. That’s not of Jesus.
I was not consciously thinking about this when I wrote this Twitter thread on discernment this morning, but that thread applies. No pastor or leader can review and verify all books as helpful or not. Pastors and church leaders should work to teach discernment so that couples can learn to evaluate those books on their own. ‘Women are people too’ shouldn’t be a message that has to be taught, but it clearly is a message that does have to be taught.
Generally, the authors’ surveys found that men tend not to place harmful obligations on their wives around sex. And men were often disturbed when they came to understand that their wives adopted them because of a variety of Christian teaching. And generally, most couples thought that their particular churches were relatively good at not perpetuating bad messages around sex and marriage. But still, those bad messages were adopted, often through Christian media.
One disturbing aspect of the Great Sex Rescue and my following of Sheila Wray Gregoire on Twitter is that even when confronted with information about how messages can be harmful, many Christian organizations and leaders refuse to take in the information and instead double down on the harmful messages. Focus on the Family endorses the book Love and Respect, a book that scored as the most harmful in evaluating common Christian marriage books as part of the Great Sex Rescue. Before the publication of The Great Sex Rescue, the authors contacted Focus on the Family with their concerns and asked them to withdraw their enforcement. Focus on the Family instead re-endorsed the book. Mark Gungor, a Christian comedian who often talks about sex and marriage when confronted on Twitter with some of the ways that his jokes were harmful, blocked many people and doubled down on his approach.
I regret not being more aware of how I did not see the harmful messages directed at women in many Christian books on sex and marriage. But I will now be much more aware of those messages and read future books on sex and marriage with my eyes much more clearly open. I am sure I will not be perfect, but the inability to take in new information and do better is exactly what is wrong with many. Part of being a Christian is to repent, change and do better. That isn’t a message advocating perfectionism, but one that says that relationship is central to Christian faith. If we take our obligations to others inside and outside the body of Christ seriously, then once we are aware of sin and harm, we must work to repair because of our obligation to do better.
It has been a fairly regular theme of my reading over the past couple of years that if we want better for our children, then we have to do the work to repair our own selves and do better for the sake of our biological and figurative children to come. This is the message of Raising White Kids, Permission to be Black, White Awake, and too many other books to name. The Great Sex Rescue isn’t really a book on sex and marriage as much as a guide to what is wrong with books about sex and marriage. I strongly recommend that you read it before you take up any other books on sex and marriage written in a Christian context. I think it is a book that will be particularly helpful for couples to read together, as many books on marriage and sex are. As I said above, one of the strengths of the book is that it reframes many negative messages about sex into positive or at least more accurate messages. And it has many exercises that are designed for couples to work through what they have learned about sex and marriage, some of them will be more fun than others. But relationally I think many of them will be helpful for many couples.
Update: After posting this I was listening to an interview with Jurgen Moltmann by Miroslav Volf. In discussing love, Moltmann says, “The intention of Love is the happiness of the beloved. Love’s intention is not to own the beloved, but to have the beloved happy. Therefore, Love sometimes supports the beloved and sometimes takes one’s self back to make the beloved freer.”
I thought this was a good follow-up theologically to the problems that are identified in the Great Sex Rescue. If you say you love your spouse, but seek to control or harm them, then you are repudiating your love. If you are presented with evidence that your spouse is hurt or has been harmed and you do nothing, you are not actually loving.
The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended by Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition
(This book is lendable on kindle, I can loan it to one person and they have 2 weeks to read it. If you are interested email or message me and I will loan it to you)