Sexual Feeling: Temptation, Lust, Romance and Grace
Mortified that my crush might figure me out, I spent much of my early years trying to hide my feelings. I was sure boys didn’t like me. Sure, my mom said I was beautiful, but I was overweight and guys don’t like big girls. I was afraid the guys I liked might suspect that I had been daydreaming of our future wedded bliss. Yes, I was that girl.
Until I wasn’t.
A couple weeks ago my husband and I entertained my step-daughter with the story of how we finally got together. Adam still resents the many years spent in the friend zone. I recounted the night he called while I was in the basement doing laundry. He had flipped through past pages in our community prayer journal and noticed I had been praying for a husband. He wanted to “put his hat in the ring.” At the time, he was recently divorced and I was not interested.
Adam commented how ironic that I would be doing laundry, not knowing that I was talking to the man who would one day wash all my clothes. He really is a dream come true.
In the years that followed, we became close friends. I would periodically receive a text or phone call letting me know he was unsatisfied with our current relationship status. I continued to endure countless comments from friends and family, “Why don’t you date Adam?” It was incredibly annoying.
After he accompanied me and my family to my ordination ceremony in 2013, Adam sent a lengthy email outlining all the reasons we would be perfect for each other. I was infuriated. For example, he and my brother, Sam, were like two peas in a pod. Maybe the two of you should get together then? I thought. Adam’s email listed the things he presumed I was looking for in a husband, as if to say, “Nailed it! I’m the one.” His list wasn’t too far off, but it was the principle of it. Next time, just ask. The answer was easy. Not you.
Adam needed time to grow and heal. I needed to not feel pressured. I was determined to never let someone push me into a relationship decision again. I made that mistake once and I was not going to repeat it. Whenever I felt pressured—automatic no. Thankfully, after several years, he would finally give up.
Tinder had not been good to me. I met a few nice men, but I was on a streak of losers. I hated the cynical person I was becoming. As I complained about being asked to share my sexual fantasies with yet another guy I had never met, my wonderful best friend, Amy, asked, “Why don’t you date Adam?” For the first time it didn’t sound like such a bad idea.
I thought to myself, I must let him know. Should I give him a call? Maybe invite him over for dinner? A text message? Perhaps a lengthy email outlining all of the reasons we should be together. All great ideas, but instead I settled on shameless flirting until he figured it out.
It took him almost two months. He was sure I was messing with him. Then he was pissed because he had given up and was planning to play the field. He was “talking to” three other women.
As I was retelling this story, I explained how I had experienced my fair share of rejection. It never worked to tell a guy outright that I was interested. You have to play this game where you tell them you’re interested without saying any of those words.
As someone with well-developed verbal skills who many call “direct,” I find this exercise extremely asinine. To which my husband chimes in, “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a real turn off when women ask guys out. I remember a girl in high school asked me out and I said no. It was really a shame too. I kind of liked her, but I just couldn’t do it because she made the first move.”
I had to remind myself, this is fine. I am happy with my choice of husband. I learned to play this stupid game where women aren’t allowed to use their words and men are given the illusion of being in charge. This game is so fucking stupid. The more I think about it, the more I want to punch something.
The Sexual Gatekeepers
There’s a tendency toward binary thinking in the Evangelical world (heaven or hell, virtue or sin, absolute truth or lie from Satan, etc.). In the case of women, traditionally we were either virginal angels, the kind that you bring home to mom, or sluts that you use for sex—actual or imagined (in the case of pornography). Sometimes it’s hard to know if this is a church culture thing or simply a cultural thing.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Women have largely preferred to be accepted as the marrying kind. Most of us learned how to act the part and play the game. It’s not ok for us to ask guys out on dates and it’s certainly not safe to want sex (unless it’s private and only for our husbands).
Somehow the game turned into an assumption that women aren’t interested in sex. I say that because in Evangelical Purity Culture, girls are the sexual gatekeepers. Our bodies were viewed as a constant temptation, so we covered them up. I can’t tell you how many times I was reminded that my boobs, ass or legs could be a “stumbling block.” Our bodies were such a temptation to sin that books like Every Man’s Battle taught men to bounce their eyes away to avoid a lingering look. Men weren’t allowed to look at us, much less see us as a person.
As a side note, the passages where the apostle Paul says don’t be a “stumbling block,” Romans 14.13 and 1 Corinthians 8.9, both refer to food. Also, the passages that talk about women dressing modestly, 1 Timothy 2.9 and 1 Peter 3.3, both refer to displaying excessive wealth. None of them have anything to do with sex or lust. Furthermore, there’s not a single passage of scripture that makes anyone responsible for someone else’s sin. When I talk about proof texting and weaponizing scripture, this is exactly what I mean.
Female virginity was characterized as something precious to be protected. We were taught to have physical boundaries in dating relationships. Plan ahead, my youth leaders coached me, so you can stop things before they go too far. The posture is defensive. We had to be the brakes.
Both genders were told, “Wait until you’re married,” but it was different for boys. It was assumed that men have sexual needs. The idea is to keep those urges under control as much as possible until marriage.
Everything was laced with fear and shame. For women, that took on an added sense of responsibility. For men, sexual desire was part of their manly nature. But for women, they were the tempter. In purity culture, men take the lead and hold power but when it comes to sex, women are the responsible ones.
We wonder why there are so many cases of sexual assault in the church. We have trouble understanding why survivors blame themselves.
In church youth groups, there were lots of conversations with boys about masturbation. It was ok, as long as you didn’t imagine yourself having sex with someone who wasn’t your wife. Then it was sinful. So basically masturbation was sinful, but only if you do it right. Apparently, the assumption was that women didn’t masturbate (entirely false, if you hadn’t figured it out yet).
The world wide web began to develop file transfer capabilities around 1994, right around the same time as Lifeway launched their True Love Waits Campaign—the Evangelical version of Christian sex education. By 2001, revenues for internet porn sites were already estimated around $1 billion. Some have even gone so far as to credit the porn industry with being at the forefront of web development and video streaming.
I try not to be judgey about sex and pornography. I tend to have a live and let live attitude about it. That is until I learned that pornography drives a lot of sex trafficking. Many women have been forced into the industry. As a consumer, I imagine it would be difficult to know if the film has been ethically produced.
Youth Bible studies were filled with conversations about how to avoid lust. The assumption was that men want to have sex with women, but wait until you’re married. Keep it in your pants for now, then you’ll be free to have as much sex as you want.
What happens after the wedding day?
Evangelical purity culture produced a lot of material that talked about a man’s need for regular sex. It focused on the necessity of the physical release. It was generally accepted as fact that men were tempted to sin sexually and their primary defense was regular sex with their wives. It was considered a wife’s duty to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs and guard him against the temptation to lust, cheat or watch pornography.
I remember a youth camp speaker saying, “You know who the most sexually satisfied people are?” He paused for affect. “They surveyed…” I can’t remember who. I’m 90% sure it was 75% made up “…and found the most sexually satisfied people were married Christian women.” He punctuated the last three words before adding with much bravado, “and my wife is a married Christian woman. Amen!” Everyone laughed at the innuendo. It was a group of high schoolers, after all. As in, OMG he just said sex.
Now, I can’t remember who the speaker was. Who knows why he decided to brag about his sexual prowess to a group of teenagers. The words resonated with the message I had heard over and over. Sex is worth waiting for. If you hold out until your wedding day, you’ll see, it will be so much better.
While that was undoubtedly true for many men, Evangelical women have not universally had the same experience.
The Definition of Sex
The root of this gap might be in the definition of sex as we know it. Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky coauthored The Great Sex Rescue. They explain that many of us think of sex as penetration until the man reaches climax. Now, let’s insert that definition into a Bible verse and see how it reads.
Do not deprive each other [of a husband penetrating his wife until he climaxes] except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. (1 Corinthians 7.5) 
I think I’m beginning to see how some of the religious folks might have gotten off track in giving out sex advice. I don’t believe God meant for sex to be only for a man’s pleasure. If that were the case, why are women able to have multiple orgasms while men only get one? If anything, our Creator gave us the better deal.
The Orgasm Gap
The lop sided definition of sex may explain the orgasm gap. Science has become curious about how frequently heterosexual women are able to climax with a partner. When surveyed 2% of heterosexual women reported they were always able to orgasm with a partner and 65% said they usually orgasm. Men answered 95%. The gap was not limited to men and women. Lesbian and bisexual women also seem to have more orgasms than their heterosexual counterparts. Women also reported they more reliably orgasm when they masturbate than when they have sex with men.
What about Christian women? Surprisingly, I found there is a kernel of truth to the youth camp speaker’s claim. Some studies have found a correlation between couples who are highly religious and women’s sexual satisfaction.
Unfortunately that has not held true for all religions, specifically evangelical Christian women. You know, the ones who were raised to believe that women don’t like sex and it’s their duty to take care of their husband’s needs. For those women, the gap is even greater.
The Great Sex Rescue surveyed 20,000 predominately evangelical women and only 48% reported that they almost always orgasm during sex. Their follow up survey of 3000 men held similar results to the general population, 95%.
Have you heard that Henry Ford saying, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right.” Purity culture told boys that they can’t help but look at girls and lust. It taught women that their bodies were an object of temptation and that sex isn’t really for them. Many of us still live into the expectations we were given.
Do Men and Women Have Different Sexual Needs?
Real quick, let’s do a little myth busting. Name the highest grossing literary genre. $1.44 Billion in revenue for 2022. Romance novels. Steamy, sexy, make your toes curl and cheeks blush, romance novels. Ever heard of Bridgerton, 50 Shades of Gray or Outlander? All romance novels with a lot of sex. This premise that men have sexual needs and women just aren’t that interested in sex is completely false.
Romance novels are safe and private. The progression is slow and restrained. It builds intensity and compels you to turn page after page (speaking from experience). Authors create a fantasy of men who want to talk about feelings, refuse to have sex unless their partners enthusiastically consent and guarantee multiple orgasms.
If women are as equally drawn to sex as men, why do so many refuse to have sex with their husbands? One might think there’s an epidemic of sexless marriages. The answer is more complicated than an assumption like obviously it’s because they aren’t having orgasms. I’m not going to answer this outright, but I think it’s worth talking about.
By contrast, the action in porn progresses quickly. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve read plenty of sexy romance novels but never been curious enough to watch porn. The pizza guy rings the doorbell. The scantily clad sorority sisters invite him in. While they look for cash, oops! Their clothes fall off and they beg him to join the party. Am I on the right track?
Relationship needs of men and women are actually the same. The perceived distance is created by what our culture deems acceptable by gender. In the same way that women are discouraged from expressing sexual desire, men learn from a young age that emotional vulnerability isn’t safe. They tell each other to suck it up. They use fists instead of words and are taught to “take like a man”—whatever that means.
Just like women, men crave intimacy. Often sex is the primary way they experience emotional connection. Women can get lost in narrative fantasy, allowing them to relax and imagine sexual pleasure without fear. Porn can be that refuge for men too—a safe place where sex is easy and uncomplicated. Porn lets them imagine they are every woman’s fantasy without any uncomfortable feelings or awkward conversation.
The Sin Question
My dad messaged me this week. I appreciate that he reads my stuff and periodically shares his thoughts, even when we disagree. He wanted to point out that it’s not purity culture that calls sex before marriage sin, but the Bible.
I’m careful to use terms like “purity culture” and “evangelical culture” for this exact reason. My fight isn’t with the Bible and Christians. Although the church and society have long shamed women for sex outside of marriage, purity culture is different.
Feminism and the sexual revolution changed a lot of social norms in a relatively short amount of time. This panicked a lot of folks, religious and non-religious alike. How do you keep your daughters for getting pregnant? How do you keep your sons from becoming gay or spending all day watching porn?
Well, the short answer is you can’t. The purity culture machine ratcheted up manipulation by associating sex with powerful feelings like fear and disgust. Evangelical culture doubled down on traditional gender roles. The question isn’t “Is sex before marriage sin?” but rather “How do we teach our children morality as they grow into adulthood?”
Many of my generation are determined to be sex positive. We want to spare our children the damage our relationships still deal with. I love talking about this with conservative Christian friends. There are many who believe you should wait to have sex before you’re married, but are able to teach this without characterizing sex as dirty or shameful. I think you can believe that sex before marriage is wrong and still be sex positive. It’s challenging but certainly possible.
Have I began to unravel some things for you?
I typically get two types of responses from the things I write about sex. The ones who grew up like I did know exactly what I’m talking about. The second response is often defensive—It wasn’t like that in my church. Or I waited until I was married and it was the best decision for my relationship (i.e. purity culture was a good thing).
I hope that what I write is helpful to both. For the first, I want us to unpack the shit we have been given. Let’s toss the bad and keep the good. I want us to learn to honor God through our sexual relationships and quit using his name to manipulate and oppress. More than anything, I want us to find healing. We have been sexually damaged, both men and women. You are not alone. I believe there is hope for us to have incredible sex lives and healthy relationships.
For the second group, I hope you are better able to understand our experiences. Many are pretending that everything is fine. But we are not fine. I hope you are able to have empathy for the men who were shamed for their natural sexual desires. I want you to have compassion for women who have been used and lost hope that sexual pleasure is even possible.
Empathy and connection. That’s how we heal.
I want us to honor God with our bodies. I want our sexuality to reflect the one who created us, who gifted us with the capacity for pleasure and connection. I believe it’s possible. Our sexuality is a testament to God’s abundant grace.
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 2001 Forbes article on the business of pornography: https://www.forbes.com/2001/05/25/0524porn.html?sh=5d95108b7984  1999 Guardian article that talked about the history and rise of internet pornography: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/1999/sep/30/onlinesupplement#:~:text=In%201993%20and%20'94%2C%20the,text%20and%20file%20transfer%20capabilities.  The Great Sex Rescue has an extended chapter on this. Definitely worth the read. I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post.  Gregoire, Sheila Wray, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, Joanna Sawatsky. The Great Sex Rescue. Baker Books, 2021, page 12.  Forbes article that talks about the Orgasm gap and sites studies that confirm these numbers: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicebroster/2020/07/31/what-is-the-orgasm-gap/?sh=e42159660f8e  Baptist News Report on Evangelical’s sex lives https://baptistnews.com/article/do-conservative-evangelicals-enjoy-better-sex-and-marriage-a-response-to-josh-howerton/