To the evangelical couple considering sex therapy

I recently wrote a post in which I mentioned that my husband and I went for psychosexual therapy (you can find it here). Much to my surprise, I was soon contacted by someone asking about the therapy – because they and their spouse were also thinking about it. Our correspondence was only brief, but in that time I learned that they, like my husband and me, were Christians and that they came from an evangelical background. Now, I don’t currently identify as an evangelical, but evangelicalism certainly influenced how I was brought up and how I thought about sex. So perhaps it was unsurprising that I felt for this person and ached to tell them something that would be of benefit to them. So I went away, thought about it, and wrote this collection of thoughts.

An open letter to the evangelical Christian couple thinking of psychosexual therapy:

You are not alone

It’s just that people don’t talk helpfully about it, particularly in church, and certainly not to those single Christians aspiring to get married. Too often the idea is that when you and your newlywed start out, you’ll be fine: that fuzzy-romance-love will carry you through the honeymoon and beyond. You’re told the real challenge is being able to step back from your sexual impulses enough to allow a deep and lasting relationship to develop. There is no concept of healthy newlyweds who have spent years getting to know each other, and who love each other, and yet, befuddlingly, aren’t able to find a good sex life.

But that’s where my husband and I were at and I’ve since learned that we’re far from the only ones who have been in that position. So if that’s where you are: it’s OK, you are not alone.

Now, maybe your marriage isn’t quite as young as ours was when we first encountered problems. Maybe you’ve heard of other couples described at your church’s marriage events who also had stages of difficulty in their sex lives. That’s OK too. You are not alone. Even if you don’t (yet) know of anyone who has the problem and concerns that you have.

It was worth the wait, and still is

Did you do that whole “waiting until marriage” thing? My husband and I both did and I don’t regret waiting: it meant I didn’t make myself vulnerable to some utterly unworthy ex-boyfriends (who I thought were ahmaaayyzzing at the time). But it also meant I had a bit of a superior “I’ve got it right” attitude when it came to sex and would therefore automatically have a problem-free sex life.

Um, no.

Instead, I was confronted with something unexpected: a husband whose body didn’t immediately respond to my body. And it left me afraid that something was very, very wrong with me, because all people, especially men, have these overwhelming instinctive sexual urges, right? In time, I realised that the idea of an “uncontrollable sex drive” is one of the most unhelpful things I was ever led to believe. If your bodies are more subtle than you’d expected from all those warnings about fleeing from sexual immorality, be assured, it is very likely that you are, in fact, quite healthy and normal.

So it’s OK; it was worth waiting and you’ve plenty of time ahead of you. And you will still have plenty of time ahead of you even if you need to wait months for a referral (as we did).

You and your spouse are worth professional advice

I got a lot of amateur advice when I started looking for answers. Some of it was neutral, lighting a small spark that then fizzled out. But most of it was unhelpful and compounded my sense of failure.

Do not hold out that you can just get over it by cobbling together your friends’ experiences and top-tips, studying your self-help books, and being consistent in your date nights and morning prayers. You need to be able to ask deep, raw questions and be given honest, unflinching answers. By all means, have a read around while you’re on the waiting list and certainly keep praying about it – my husband and I made a lot of progress between our initial consultation and when the sessions actually started. But nothing, nothing, nothing was a substitute for that salient, professional help, and there is no shame in asking for it.

I’m saying this because I was crippled for a long time by the fear that I would be wasting someone else’s time, and I don’t wish that on you. It was only the advice of an experienced minister that finally persuaded me to get professional help. Thinking about it, it was the best non-professional advice I got.

Marriage counselling is not a substitute for sex therapy

Sure, people with marriage problems may well find their sex life improves when their relationship issues are addressed, but whereas relationship problems and sex problems are related, they are not the same.

Our sex life was not fixed by discovering each other’s love languages, or by communicating better, or by removing stressors from our lives – though those things have much to commend them. OK, yes, there were some points in our journey when I needed to be more open in my communication, but we got over those hurdles ourselves. Fundamentally, the sex problem did not lie in how we related to each other. In fact, after our therapist initially asked us about our relationship and circumstances, her response was, “It makes me wonder what the problem is.”

Now OK, I don’t know much about your circumstances. There may be issues in how you and your spouse relate and addressing them is unlikely to detract from your sex life. But I’m assuming that you’re in a place where each of you wants to have pleasurable sex with the other and each of you wants the other to enjoy it. If that’s the case, then it’s possible that this isn’t so much about how you understand and relate to each other, but more about how you understand and relate to your bodies. You need proper, insightful, professional sex therapy to deal with that, not marriage counselling with sex therapy bolted on.

Allow God to minister to you through your therapist

We were referred for therapy through our local sexual health services and I have no reason to believe that our therapist was a Christian. But that doesn’t mean God didn’t work marvellously through her.

Sometimes in church I hear an attitude that implies that God only works through people who are Christians (or indeed the right kind of Christian). It’s like there are only two kinds of people who matter: Christians, and people interested in becoming Christians. And anything and everything a person does has no value until they become a Christian. I realise I’m putting this in pretty stark terms here and I understand that reality is more complicated than my short caricature. But I also know that I’ve been humbled in the past when God has pointed out my own spiritual snobbery, and it’s something I’m glad to leave behind me. (Assuming of course, that I have…)

What I’m saying is that when you go looking for your therapist, ask God for the right person and be open to who he provides. I have a suspicion that there are disproportionately few Christians who work in sexual health, and if I’m right, then that is a sad failing of the church. What I do know is that there are some people out there who have made a worthy study of human biology and sexual response, and their findings have value. Let God share them with you.

Don’t let masturbation be a barrier

Generally speaking, whenever I’ve heard masturbation talked about in a church context, it was said that masturbation was a barrier to intimacy, and usually it was presumed that masturbation is impossible without lust (which itself gets equated with adultery). I’m guessing you’ll have heard that message too. The thing is, at some point you’re going to need to square with the fact that a lot of people don’t see masturbation that way. And that will probably include your therapist. My point in this section is that I would hate for you to stop listening and write off all their advice if they start suggesting that masturbation is normal and might even help you overcome your difficulties. Here is why.

Firstly, the Bible really doesn’t say much on masturbation; the traditional link with Onan in Genesis 38 is tenuous at best. For one thing, his actions were coitus interruptus, not masturbation; for another the context of his actions was one of extreme disrespect for his deceased brother’s family (plus it wasn’t exactly respectful of his wife). This means you’re going to need to derive your theological view of masturbation indirectly from biblical principles.

Secondly, you may only associate masturbation with an endorsement of degrading pornography, but sex therapists won’t. They will know of people for whom masturbation has been a means of self-exploration (rather than gratification) leading to self-understanding and greater overall sexual health. In other words, they will not presume that masturbation necessitates objectification.

And as an aside, the idea that you’ll go blind if you masturbate is simply untrue.

You may feel that masturbation in your relationship doesn’t have any moral implications, in which case you’re not going to be put off if your therapist suggests it. But you may feel that it’s too self-focussed, and therefore uncomfortable with it as a solo activity. You need to think through what you want to do and if your therapist is worth their salt they will not try and take that choice away from you. Be aware though, that navigating the nether-parts of your body is more tricky to do by proxy than it is to do yourself because you don’t have that direct feedback loop to your brain. It means that you and your spouse need to be patient and gentle with each other, particularly when the slightest movement will take you from “Yes, there!” to “NOT THERE!” (I know – I’ve been there.)

For myself, I would liken masturbation to drinking alone: I don’t do it and I don’t recommend it, because I recognise that it’s something that can be addictive and I want to keep myself accountable, particularly so that it doesn’t become a crutch for when I’m stressed. However, I know some people who do masturbate and seem to be happy and balanced people, though I also know other people for whom I think it’s seriously damaging their health.

That is where I (currently) stand, though I’m being brief here and I recognise that other people have different views. And actually, some of these other views have something to be said for them. For example, people who think of sexual intercourse as a performance shared than a commodity given, may go on to say masturbation is much more analogous to rehearsing than to stealing. You don’t have to agree entirely but this takes me back to my main point: don’t let the suggestion of masturbation become a barrier to listening.

Allow God to work in the small things

As I’m sure you know, God often chooses not to just zap all our problems away. And sometimes he gives us instructions that seem so small, we find it hard to believe that they might be powerful (think Naaman in 2 Kings 5, for example). But if your circumstances are anything like ours were, this is a problem with many thin layers that just need to be peeled away, one by one.

For example, one of the early questions our therapist asked was what I washed with. I used to use shower gel and what I used on the most sensitive parts of my body was the same stuff I used on my feet. Which meant that I never felt like having sex after I came out of the shower. Which compounded our problem, because I never felt like having sex when I felt I wasn’t clean (another layer that needed peeling away). Well, I still use the shower gel; but now I use aqueous cream where it’s needed.

And it’s in small things like this that God will work. The problem you face is only powerful because all of its layers are built together in the same place. The task my husband and I faced was to transform how we thought of our bodies. And it is a transformation of thought that has only been enriched as I’ve discovered the riches of the New Testament teaching on resurrection. Our bodies are a part of who we are; we are spiritual and physical beings, destined for an awesome and very physical resurrected life. Don’t spiritualise your body out of your life.

OK, I’ll spare you the theology lecture. My point is this: if you find yourself faced with a radical shift in thinking, don’t assume that it will take you further from your faith. It might just deepen your understanding of God, and who you are in him, in ways you had not expected.

Allow God to clean out the past

I’ve written this letter on the understanding that you both want your marriage to be lifelong and monogamous, and that each of you wants to have pleasurable sex with the other and each of you wants the other to enjoy it. If that’s the case, you are already demonstrating strong commitment to each other, and that’s fabulous.

But it’s also possible that you don’t feel very holy and pure right now.

Maybe the problem isn’t too little arousal, but too much, or arousal at things you don’t think are morally right. Maybe there are sleazy lads’ mags and copies of 50 Shades lurking hidden in the bedside drawers. Maybe sharing sex with each other is never as good as when you’re on your own, or as the sex you experienced in a previous relationship.

I firmly believe in a holy and righteous God, but I also know that some Christians can get hung up on some very, very bad ideas about holiness and purity. So let’s talk a little about that.

First up, God is humble, not proud (even though he’s in charge of the universe and everything). This means when people confess their sins, they’re not telling him something he didn’t know, and he doesn’t react like a shocked and angry prude. In my experience he reacts more like a relieved parent saying, “Oh at last, she’s finally willing to talk to me about this.” Opening an honest dialogue gives God more room to influence your decisions, and that is always a good thing.

Second, God’s holiness is not weak and fragile. He doesn’t hear you only to start despairing, “Oh, but you’ve ruined everything and it’ll never be the same!” Actually, I think his holiness is awesome and powerful, not just to heal the past, but also to transform the future. The thing is, when God’s holiness works in this way, Christians usually refer to it as his salvation.

Third, God’s definition of what is righteous in the bedroom might not be the same as what you’ve heard from inside the church. Actually, I’d bet good money that they’re not the same. Though, having said that, it’s important to recognise that that cuts both ways. You may find that he’s much more relaxed about some things you haven’t thought are quite right, but you may find there are other things you thought nothing of that God wants to challenge you about. Like with masturbation, you’re going to have to think prayerfully about what you’re doing and derive your theological conclusion from biblical principles. And, as you do this, you’re going need to bear in mind that the same act in different contexts can have vastly different meanings and that your bodies’ sexual responses are complicated.

Do not settle for mediocre

Look for enthusiastic consent. I don’t believe that desiring pleasure is inherently wrong just because some people do bad things in pursuit of it. God gave you a sexual body with amazing pleasure potential and I have every confidence that he will delight in you and your spouse enjoying it.

Lack of pain is not your end goal. Pleasurable experiences that never lead to orgasm is not your end goal. For women, never being sure if you’ve climaxed or not is not your end goal. Feeling only slightly ashamed of your body is not your end goal. Feeling only slightly guilty when you spend time together is not your end goal.

Your end goal is fabulous, celebratory, pleasurable sex. The kind that says “My breasts are like towers” (NIV, Song of Songs 8:10) or “The curve of your thigh is like the work of an artist” (GNT, Song of Songs 7:1). Nothing less.

You will always be learning

My husband and I still get it wrong sometimes. There have been a few times (including at least once after the therapy) when I misjudged where my body was at and we started having penetrative sex only for me to tell him stop. This happens. It doesn’t mean I don’t love him and he knows it. And he shows me that he loves me by encouraging me to communicate and listening when I do. I can’t advise you about the needs of your bodies as you go through the various seasons of life, but they will change. The therapy is a leg-up and a toolkit, but it doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, and it doesn’t mean you’ll never need help again. But that’s OK, it just means you’re normal.

May you discover the riches of God’s goodness as you journey together.


 

PS:

If you’re interested, you could do some further reading as follows:

On the theological side:

  • This post I wrote about why I don’t think Joseph running away from Potiphar’s wife had anything to do with reining in manly sexual urges.
  • For stuff to do with the body and resurrection, I’d recommend going through 2 Corinthians chapters 4 and 5 with Tom Wright’s “Paul for everyone” commentary, or if you’re brave, his academic tome “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (pages 368 to 369), both published by SPCK. There’s also “Surprised by Hope”, which is cracking.
  • I actually first discovered the riches of the theology of resurrection by reading “Living Hope” by Russell Herbert (though I actually read an older version of this book). The book is about palliative care for the dying, but the way it talked about the body was a massive wake-up call for me.
  • At some point, think about picking up a good commentary on Romans and get to grips with chapter 7. When Paul writes about “the flesh” he is not, I repeat NOT, talking about your physical body. Paul uses the Greek word sarx to refer to “corruptible physicality” and also “rebellious creation”, with the two often going together. Note: Paul is not saying that our bodies are inherently corrupt and shameful, but that they are corruptible or subject to decay – hence the need for an incorruptible resurrection body powered by the Spirit. We’ve just sadly thought our bodies are inherently shameful because of a hangover from Adam and Eve’s nakedness and a misunderstanding of what it is to “cover over” sin and shame. Read James 5:20; “covering over” does not mean hiding. It means removing.
  • While you’re at it, read Galatians 5 with a decent commentary remembering the Romans 7 concept of what Paul means when he writes about the “flesh”. Galatians 5 is the passage where the NKJV translation talks about the “lust of the flesh”, but in this context “lust” just means desire, not necessarily objectifying sinful desire, hence the spirit “lusts” as well as the “flesh”. In other words, Galatians 5 is not about sex.

On the sex side (plus some other bits and pieces thrown in):

  • Come as you are” by Emily Nagoski is a very recent book that talks a lot about women’s sexuality. From what I’ve read so far (half way through), it’s a really interesting and insightful book and has helped me understand my sexuality better (and I thought I understood myself pretty well). Importantly, it discusses cultural influences on sexual attitudes and talks about how our bodies react to stress, and it’s very light in tone and readable. I recommend it with similar caveats in my letter above about non-Christian therapists: you may find points of disagreement but don’t let your differences put you off hearing her out. There is a lot of gold here. A lot more than in other books on sex/marriage that I’ve tried to read.
  • Lastly, if you’re open to reading something very different that will undoubtedly challenge your thinking about sex and feminism and lots of other stuff, you could try dipping into “Yes means yes”, edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman. Thomas Millar wrote an essay in it “Towards a performance model of sex”, and I borrowed from it in my letter above. To be clear, I’m not endorsing everything I read in that essay, or indeed the book, but they are very anti-rape and pro-consent and I am definitely with them on that. The book has also given me much more insight into the experiences and ideologies of people who are not like me. On balance, I think that’s a good thing. But then, I’m a Christian blogger who feels called to raise awareness of the problems of 50 Shades of Grey and fight violence against women. My guess is your circumstances right now are quite different. And that’s OK.

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