Are Christians “called” to have “amazing sex”? According to a recent article for Relevant magazine, the answer is a resounding “no.” In that article, Rachel Pietka rightly takes the Christian abstinence movement to task for “exaggerating … the benefits of saving sex for marriage.” She also correctly points out that modern Christians’ preoccupation with having amazing sex within marriage “smacks of an inferiority complex that wants to compete with mainstream culture’s view of sex rather than modeling a rightly ordered sexual ethic to the world.” However, she also uncritically accepts one aspect of “mainstream culture’s view of sex” which I believe to be seriously mistaken: namely, the notion of “sexual incompatibility.” Consequently, while Pietka makes an important point, she appears to end up with a view of sex within marriage which is far too pessimistic.
Pietka begins by citing a few reactions against the Christian abstinence movement’s tendency to over promise the joys of remaining virginal until marriage. Among these, she focuses on an article entitled My Virginity Mistake, written by Jessica Ciencin Henriquez. Henriquez attributes her “quick divorce” to her sexual incompatibility with her husband and blames her teenage abstinence pledge for keeping her from discovering the lack of a sexual spark before she tied the knot. Henriquez’s account of her premarital commitment to purity was undermined by sarcastic references to her relationship with Christ, comments about underage drunkenness, and other indications that her “press[ing] on in stubbornness” was driven more by legalistic righteousness than a sincere desire to please God. In spite of this, Pietka draws the conclusion: “Henriquez’s story is important because it highlights an issue the abstinence movement rarely acknowledges: sexual incompatibility within marriage.”
Pietka never bothers to define “sexual incompatibility within marriage” or to explain its causes and symptoms; she merely asserts that “Couples may find themselves incompatible in the bedroom” and that sexual incompatibility is a “cross” that some Christian married couples will have to bear. The ethical point she wants to make is that “bad sex” (also never defined) is “neither a reason for divorce nor an excuse to stop investing in a marriage.” That is certainly an important point. God never promised that sex between those who were virgins when they married is inherently more ecstatic and satisfying than sex between the promiscuous or even the perverted, yet much Christian teaching about abstinence seems to make that very promise. Marriage is about more than “amazing sex,” and the absence of “amazing sex” is not a reason to “put asunder” what God has joined together (Matthew 19:6).
While Pietka’s point is an important corrective to the excesses of much recent Christian teaching about sex, the idea that a husband and wife may be “sexually incompatible” strikes me as terribly pessimistic and rooted in worldly assumptions about sex. One such assumption is the notion that sexual pleasure is primarily the result of chemical attraction and physical stimulation. The implication of that belief is that great sex depends on finding the right partner and using the right sexual techniques. If a couple does not experience a sexual “spark,” they must try to generate that spark by employing the right technique. If every technique has been tried and ecstasy does not result, then the problem can be written off as a lack of sexual chemistry between the partners. No one is to blame; they just need to find someone who is more compatible. While Pietka would deny that those struggling with “sexual incompatibility within marriage” should look for a more compatible partner, she nevertheless seems to accept these basic assumptions about sex.
I’ve been married long enough to know that sexual intimacy and ecstasy have far more to do with what’s going on in each partner’s head and heart than on which nerve endings happen to get stimulated. The most erotic physical contact can be dulled if one or both of us is tired, sick, stressed out, distracted, frustrated, feeling unattractive, or worried about a child knocking on the bedroom door. Conversely, whenever we are absolutely enamored with each other, even the most incidental touch can feel electric. The aforementioned article by Henriquez on her “virginity mistake” revealed that she was distractedly making grocery lists during sex and that she and her husband no longer kissed with the same intensity once they were married. She likewise admitted that she “was not a willing student” but then complained that “he was no teacher, either.” I read all that not as an indication that this couple was “sexually incompatible,” but that they had unrealistic expectations and did not deal honestly with their deeper issues.
Many Christian advocates of premarital abstinence have oversold virginity as the key to ecstatic marital sex. Remaining a virgin until marriage is not merely a means to an end, a pragmatic delaying of sexual gratification so that sex will ultimately be more satisfying. On the contrary, premarital abstinence is a virtue to which Christians are commanded and called by God. Failure to keep that command does not ruin one’s chances for sexual satisfaction, and success in keeping that command is no guarantee of a great sex life. At most one can say that the virginal bride and groom may have less baggage to deal with in the bedroom than those who have had previous sexual partners. To the extent that such a lack of baggage can facilitate a frame of mind and condition of heart conducive to passion and intimacy, it can be understood to help lead to great sex, but it’s really just one ingredient of a much more complicated recipe.
As Christians, we are not “called” to have amazing sex, and sexual satisfaction is not a promised attribute of the Christian life. Nevertheless, Christians who are having problems in the bedroom need not resign themselves to bearing a cross of “sexual incompatibility.” Rather, they need to realize that their struggles are more likely a matter of head and heart than of chemistry and mechanics. It is then they will be able to turn for help to the God who has the power to change hearts and minds.
Like “amazing grace” and “amazing love,” amazing sex is a gift from God. We can’t demand it as a reward for premarital abstinence, but neither should we be afraid to ask him for it.
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” —James 1:16–17, NIV