My husband and I have not been ones in our almost 24 years of marriage to read Christian marriage and sex books. We’ve read one—Tim and Kathy Keller’s. And now here I am, about halfway through reading Sheila Gregoire’s, along with Rebecca Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue. I keep talking to my husband about it. Gregoire and her team thoroughly surveyed 20,000 Christian women about their sex lives. She juxtaposes their findings with the teaching in bestselling Christian books on marriage and sex. It is so revealing. I’m quoting some of the stats to my husband, such as how conservative religious women experience more pain during sex than the general population. I’m quoting from the bestselling Christian books, where the whole meaningfulness of sex is often bypassed to talk about men’s innate “needs,” where both man and woman’s satisfaction is placed on the woman, where it’s the married woman’s responsibility is to fulfill her man’s lust and up to pubescent young girls to divert their own friends’ fathers’ gaze! I wrote in the margin and spoke out loud to my husband, Thank goodness we didn’t read this crap!
And thank goodness for Sheila Gregoire. Her work intersects with my own in that as I am addressing the theological hazards in the complementarian movement and how it affects men and women as disciples, she is getting into the practical nitty-gritty of how it affects our sex lives. She has over 15 years of experience writing on this topic. Only halfway through, I see that she is not holding back. Good for her. She gets at the meaningfulness and intimacy of sex contrasted with what we are learning in the church. There’s even a chapter on “Bridging the Orgasm Gap” between men and women. Again, very revealing. Each chapter is loaded with graphs of statistics, practical check-ins for the reader, medical support, practical ways to talk about the content with your spouse and grow together, and a “Rescue and Reframing” concluding section, spelling out what should have already been settled knowledge.
Women as Slippery Slopes
There’s so much to address. Each chapter could be a catalyst for its own book. Today, I want to concentrate on a chapter that addresses a harmful false teaching that I have been writing about since 2013 and basically wrote a whole book about—that a man cannot find a woman attractive without sinfully lusting after her. She quotes from multiple books but one that has taken the steering wheel on this teaching is Every Man’s Battle and its offshoots promoting “bouncing your eyes” away from women. There are so many harmful premises in this teaching: that noticing beauty itself is equated with lusting, that all men cannot make this distinction, that attractive women are their enemy as threats to their purity, that women must conceal their attractiveness, that married women must view other women as threats to their marriage, that beauty must be consumed, that Christian men are animalistic and unable to conquer sinful thoughts, and that women really can’t trust their husbands. This teaching turns women into slippery slopes—not people. I don’t even understand how we can live under this principle.
Should women be suspicious every time the produce guy smiles and says, “hello”? Are men unable to treat them as human beings, made in the image of God? Is this the curse for women, to be viewed only as objects of lust? Are beautiful women more cursed? What makes a woman beautiful—a man’s arousal? And what are we to do with all these temptations that walk the earth getting their groceries, cheering on their children at ball games, or even worse, their younger models who are ignorantly enjoying life like they are more than a cut of meat?
Beauty itself becomes a sinful temptation. And as Gregoire says, “We haven’t just normalized lust; we’ve normalized predation.” She quotes one man who read Every Man’s Battle as a teen, saying,
I can’t say loud enough how much this book specifically made me believe that I was going to grow up to be a monster
The women in her survey named Every Man’s Battle as one of the most harmful resources for their marriage. Their marriages were full of fear and mistrust. Their husbands, and every female they interacted with, were constantly suspect. And their minds and hearts were framed completely wrong—not aimed for true purity at all, but as Gregoire says, objectifying and dehumanizing “those whom Christ values and calls precious.” She reframes with common-sense biblical maturity:
“Bouncing your eyes” tells men to ask the question, Is this woman dangerous to me? A more biblical question to ask is, Am I being respectful to this person as an image-bearer of Christ?
Defeating lust is not about limiting a man’s encounters with women; it’ about empowering men to treat the women around them as whole people, daughters of Christ. The key to defeating lust is not to avoid looking at women; it’s to actually see them.
By all means, looking at women for the sake of fulfilling sexual gratification is wrong. Lust is a horrible sin. It dehumanizes. But that is not the same as noticing beauty or even attractiveness and moving on with your life. We are looking at all this from below and not from above. Purity begins with the vertical unity with the triune God. In this we will see that our sexuality signifies the gift of the Father’s love for the Son in giving him a bride. And this delineates the spousal love of God for his people. When Adam sees woman for the first time, he sees the eschatological beauty of the telos of man and woman, the union of heaven and earth, the union of Christ with his bride and communion of the saints. As God gives man woman, and woman man, they are both authorized to love and promote the holiness of the other in their aim for eternal communion with God and his people.
Beauty is eschatological. I continue to quote Robert Jenson, “beauty is realized eschatology, the present glow of the sheer goodness that will be at the end.” There is an eroticism involved in this, but we have to get it right. The Song of Songs does that for us. Like the holy of holies, it takes us behind the curtain to experience the intimate presence of Christ. We need to begin with Christ’s spousal love for his bride. When we get that, when we know that, then we see our masculinity and femininity expressing this order of love and beckoning the beloved to Mount Zion. This is what my upcoming book, The Sexual Reformation: Restoring the Dignity and Personhood of Man and Woman is about. I’m so thankful for Gregoire’s work, showing the effects of harmful teaching on sexuality in our married lives as well. I hope to write more reflections on it, but I will leave you with some practical tips from the author regarding the chapter I highlighted: