Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 20 winners from the 2018 CBE Writing Contest. Enjoy!
“Do you want a divorce?”
My husband was momentarily speechless.
We’d been married for more than two years. We were in our twenties, both Christians and from similar church and family backgrounds in the UK. We’d met at university, bonded by intellectual pursuits and theological contemplation.
From the earliest days of our marriage, we struggled with sex. By the time I asked the question that so shocked my husband, it was apparent that we couldn’t resolve the issue by talking to each other or to our friends or by reading books. So, as we tucked ourselves into bed one evening, I finally found the courage to ask the question I felt morally obliged to offer.
I didn’t want a divorce, but that was beside the point. I’d been taught that a wife’s duty was to keep her husband sexually satisfied. One woman told me very clearly: “Yes, you hear about all these vicars running off with their secretaries, but… have you looked at their wives?” I had to reckon with that idea when the chaplain at my school had an affair with his secretary.
My husband, however, hated the one-sidedness of my question. When I asked if he wanted to leave me, he sliced through the lie that I bore more responsibility for the success of our marriage than he did.
And no, he didn’t want a divorce.
Over the coming months, our marriage and sex life progressed through psychosexual therapy and beyond. The experience was undoubtedly positive and our relationship has since gone from strength to strength. In hindsight, I can now identify several powerful factors that brought me to make that offer of divorce, and I’d like to share them.
The first factor was gender essentialism related to men’s and women’s sex drives. I’d been taught that men’s innate biology meant that they are barely or unable to control their sex drives. For example, in the story in which Joseph runs away from “Mrs. Potiphar,” those around me celebrated Joseph as an admirable example of fleeing sexual temptation. I never heard the church discuss the power imbalance (Joseph was a slave; she was his mistress) or mention that he was sexually harassed. He was praised for denying his almost undeniable male urges.
The truth is that men can control themselves; sex is not a right; and men’s sexuality has nuance too. I used to blame myself for being inadequate when my husband wasn’t aroused very quickly, or when his arousal fluctuated. Now I know that’s just normal.
Then, there was the lack of sex education. At school, I’d been taught about reproduction and contraception, but I knew next to nothing about sex itself. This wasn’t helped by Christian pre-marriage courses that used unhelpful generalizations like: “Men are like microwaves, women are like ovens; men heat up and cool down very quickly, but women take longer to heat up but stay warm for longer.” These broad claims don’t always hold true and even when they do, they’re really not very helpful.
When my husband and I married, I didn’t know what a female orgasm actually was (for those who may not know: it’s a sudden release of tension during which the muscles in the vagina walls involuntarily contract several times) or even where my clitoris was. Looking back, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I never had an answer when my husband asked me what I wanted in sex.
Another thing that reinforced my ignorance was the belief that my body was a temporary, and ultimately expendable, part of myself. This might sound ridiculous, but I believed that physical pain was something you put up with and could hopefully eventually escape from. I’d already been called pathetic in my teenage years because I found high heels and platforms uncomfortable. So, I endured entirely avoidable pain both during and after sex. I thought I was being fussy because people assured me: “the pain will stop if you have sex more frequently.”
I didn’t know that my low view of the body was largely drawn from the Greek philosopher, Plato. It was completely at odds with Paul’s high view of the body and his theology of resurrection in the New Testament. Once I read various books by Tom Wright and Paula Gooder, I realized my body was a part of me—to be enjoyed, celebrated, and fully reconciled with. After that epiphany, caring for my sexual function no longer seemed an indulgent waste of time.
My Christian upbringing never drew a strong link between sex and play. Instead, sex in marriage had been framed as a very sacred and serious affair. I’d heard Christians scoff at extreme sex negativity, but I still didn’t hear sex-positive messages. Only a few weeks before my wedding did someone mention to me that sex was a time of vulnerability. No one spoke of enthusiastic consent.
Sex is deep, mysterious, and prophetic. But I also believe that sex is, at its core, play. This ethos resonates with the imaginative poetry of Song of Songs and underscores why sex can’t be forced—because coerced play is not actually playful. I also think it’s important to talk about the clumsy and humorous qualities of sex, things I couldn’t appreciate in the early days of our marriage.
And finally, there was my sense of wifely duty. Strangely enough, I wasn’t brought up to believe that wives should always submit to their husbands’ leadership. But for some reason, when it came to sex I had a very, very strong sense that I should allow my husband to do whatever he wanted with me.
To be frank, I find it frightening that I used to think like this. A person who says they will consent to anything is not giving meaningful consent. I remember using that word, “anything,” in the bedroom at the beginning of my marriage when asked what was okay. I didn’t feel I could push back or speak for myself.
And when my husband asked if I wanted to have sex, I lied. And then I was in pain. And then he was upset. And then he grew afraid of hurting me. I lost count of the number of times my husband said he wanted me to enjoy sex. I don’t know why his affirmations fell on such deaf ears. I guess I just couldn’t compute that I and my body had value in the bedroom.
None of my friends or family would’ve guessed that I struggled with this self-dismissive mind-set because I was so confident in other areas of life. For a while, neither my husband nor I really saw it either. Or if we did, we didn’t recognize its impact on our sex life. But with prayer and love and professional help, it began to crumble.
I later told my parents that the sense of duty I’d previously felt was like a ball and chain. My dad gently frowned and said, “That’s a very strong image. A ball and chain around your ankle.” Immediately, I replied: “No, around my neck.”
If someone had tried to solve our problems with sex by telling me to be more sacrificial or more submissive, it would’ve been a disaster. I already felt unable to say “no” to sex, even to my kind and loving husband. I think there are many other evangelical women, who like me, have felt pressured to consent—to submit in the bedroom—no matter what.
Having come through this journey of shock, shame, and anxiety, I wanted to spare others the same experience. So, I began to study the dynamics of sexual assault and domestic violence. I started a blog in 2015 to help raise awareness of consent, especially among Christians. I wanted to wrestle with awkward, grey areas and offer Christian contemplation on these challenging issues.
After I mentioned that my husband and I had done sex therapy, people started asking me about it. One of my most-read posts is an open letter to an unnamed Christian couple considering sex therapy. People in the US sometimes ask how my husband and I found a therapist. I have to reply that I’m in the UK and that the clinic we used wasn’t specifically Christian. But undoubtedly, God worked through our therapist. I’m very grateful that we were able to make that investment in our relationship and that our respective employers were supportive of us taking the time we needed.
I also wrote another post that made a lot of waves; it was an epic 5,500 word (!) essay on what good consent looks like for abuse advocate Ashley Easter’s website. I wrote it knowing that Christians would read it, but I was also trying to be accessible to non-Christians. In that post, I outlined two key principles: 1) honoring consent is a form of faithfulness and 2) the giving and receiving of consent is a form of wisdom.
I want to transform the church’s message about sex. I want to see the church value the medical expertise and knowledge of those who have studied human sexual function. I want us to discuss sex as a form of play and integrate this idea into a body-positive theology and worldview.
I want to hear marriage discussed as a partnership between equals that requires free and mature consent at its outset. I want to send the message loud and clear that no one is entitled to sex and that the marital relationship confers a right to approach one’s spouse for consent, but not a right to expect, require, or demand consent. Of course, these conversations should happen alongside other discussions about inequality, purity culture, and abuse dynamics too.
I want believers who are struggling with similar issues to know that sex in marriage doesn’t have to be a burden. It can mean joy, play, growth, imagination, and exploration. But only when it’s consensual. Only when it’s a mutual exchange of vulnerability, trust, and adoration. This is what the church needs to say about sex.