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Published Date: September 26, 2018

Published Date: September 26, 2018

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The Good News About Sex After Marriage: You Can Still Say “No”

Editor’s Note: This is one of our top 15 2018 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

“If you don’t have sex with your husband anytime he wants, he’ll find it somewhere else.”

Fresh out of college and a new Christian, this was my introduction to what I thought was the “biblical” approach to marriage. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t even in a relationship. After graduation, I’d returned to my hometown to take a job and most people my age were either already married, engaged, or dating with marriage on the horizon.

In the evangelical church I was attending (I would later call it fundamentalist), the college kids or recently graduated—but not yet married—were funneled to a single Sunday school class. For one lesson, the married couple teaching the class separated the men and women so we could talk about “sensitive” topics. The females learned “how to be a good wife,” even though some of us hadn’t even met the men who would become our husbands yet! I can only imagine what the guys learned.

One woman in the class was shocked to hear that she’d have to have sex with her husband on demand. She couldn’t imagine sex at all, much less having to participate in it whether she wanted to or not. I was too embarrassed (and sexually repressed) to respond to the female Sunday school teacher’s message, and I definitely didn’t challenge it. Honestly, it made sense to me then—because I didn’t know any better. We didn’t talk about sex at home, and even though I’d gone away to college, I had lived a fairly sheltered life. In my naivety, I believed the word of a married woman willing to talk about it.

Even though I didn’t need the information at the time, it stuck with me. Nearly an entire decade later, I married a man with a sexual addiction I didn’t fully understand. While we were dating, I discovered he had a pornography problem. When he continued looking at pornography after we were married, I thought it was my fault. Maybe if I was more enthusiastic about sex. Maybe if I wanted it all the time, he wouldn’t struggle as much. The words of that Sunday school teacher and the implications behind them haunted my early years of marriage to the point where sex felt more like a hellish duty than the promised land of matrimonial bliss.

Three years into our marriage, my husband committed adultery. I fought the need to blame myself and the maybes continued. I’d been pregnant twice and we had two children under the age of three. Maybe I should have taken better care of my body. Maybe we should have had more sex.

As we sought healing and recovery from this wound in our marriage, I still thought this was the answer: more frequent and more exciting sex. As my husband battled his addiction, I read books on the topic. Some that suggested I make myself more available to him so that he wouldn’t seek out pornography. The responsibility was still on me to meet my husband’s sexual needs—whenever and wherever.

It took us years of counseling with different therapists to undo the damage of these toxic messages. One therapist encouraged us to not have sex for a period of six weeks as a way to break my husband’s thought patterns on sex-equals-love. It was a difficult but valuable span of our relationship, and neither of us regret it.

Since then, we’ve learned—and are still learning—how to communicate with each other, and to seek the other’s permission and consent before engaging in sexual activity. I never thought about consent in marriage before I was married. I assumed I had to have sex even if I didn’t want to, and my husband entered marriage thinking he could have sex whenever he wanted it.

This message—that wives owe husbands sex and husbands are allowed to take it—was implicit and explicit in the church. Bible verses like 1 Corinthians 7, especially verse 4—“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”—were taken out of context and used to justify the sexual entitlement that almost destroyed our marriage.

Sex is a healthy part of marriage, but only when it’s consensual. Our bodies might belong to each other but that does not mean either of us owns the other. This is a crucial distinction. As my therapist reminded me during difficult conversations about sex in our sessions: “If you don’t get to say ‘no’ it’s not a choice.”

Telling my husband “no” on nights when I’m seriously just too tired or not feeling well has felt like I’m rejecting him, but he has the same right to say “not tonight.” This is good and right in a marriage, a form of mutual respect that is far more biblical—“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)—than the idea that a husband has a right to his wife’s body whenever he wants.

“If you don’t have sex with your husband anytime he wants, he’ll find it somewhere else.”

When I recall my old Sunday school teacher’s words, I feel sad. Her message hangs on women’s fears and insecurities—that they aren’t enough; that their husbands will be unfaithful if they don’t perform to a specific standard; that marriage itself is a twisted game with unknown rules and never-ending demands. It places an impossible burden on women, one that none of us are able to bear. Women have needs and desires of our own and we don’t exist to fulfill our husbands’ fantasies.

Our marriages will not be healthy if our sex lives are tainted by anxiety, guilt, and emotional manipulation. But sex after marriage doesn’t have to be about lies, tricks, or fear. I’m still not completely comfortable talking about my sex life, but I’m determined to paint a better picture of sex after marriage—one that celebrates the beauty of mutuality, emphasizes respect, and encourages honesty.

This is the good news about sex after marriage.

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