Denying sex is the modern Christian wife’s go-to method of maintaining her control of the marriage. Judging whether he loves her sufficiently is effective as emotional manipulation, but it lacks the raw power that withholding sex has. In this sense, judging him as not sufficiently loving her is as much a rationalization for her use of sex as manipulation as it is manipulation in and of itself.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul neatly frames the morality of sex and how it relates to marriage. As he explains, marriage is the one and only safe harbor for sexual desire. It is the Biblical answer to those who burn with desire. Because of this, he makes it clear that neither spouse is to withhold sex, and that each spouse has authority over the bodies of the other in this regard. This is very different than the modern view that sex is moral if it involves “love” and/or (serial monogamous) “commitment”. As Paul describes it there is nothing wrong with burning with sexual desire so long as it is directed towards your spouse, and so long as you don’t defraud your spouse of the marital sex which is their due. He states that to deny sex to your spouse is to invite Satan to tempt your spouse with sexual sin.
But as you can imagine this presents an obvious problem. How can a Christian wife exercise control of her husband by withholding sex? How is she supposed to make him submit to her if she lacks this powerful tool in her arsenal? In fact, as Paul explains it she actually is commanded to submit to her husband sexually! Clearly there must be a mistake. If there is one thing she knows, it is that she isn’t really supposed to submit to her husband, despite the clear language and the frequency of the command.
So she goes to work looking for a rationalization. Certainly there must be a loophole. What if she isn’t in the mood? While no other commands from God require that we be in the mood to fulfill them, certainly this one is different. Otherwise she would have to submit to her husband in a very profound way, in a way which the Book of Oprah explains should only be reserved for the heroes of romance novels. Her husband is her help meet, her holy kitchen bitch, not a gallant knight on a white steed!
But all of this sounds so arbitrary. If one isn’t careful it could sound like manipulation. And she is of course a submissive Christian wife, just not in that way (or any other meaningful way). There must be another test, something which only she can be the judge of. Luckily she already has one, in the form of testing the purity of his love. With a slight adaptation, she can combine the concept of judging the purity of his love with the non Biblical idea that sex gains moral purpose if it is expressed only out of love, not out of that dirty lust that men have and women don’t.
Behold the modern Christian wife’s frame regarding sex in marriage. Sex in marriage is good, so long as it is on her terms (she isn’t submitting) and so long as it is strictly romantic in nature. If her husband wants sex when she isn’t in the mood, well it probably is because she is too tired. Surely he would have better chances if he did more of the housework so she would be fresh and rested when he made his advances. Also, his need for sex must not actually be a need for sex. If he burns with the passion the Bible tells us marriage is a safe harbor for, his thoughts are impure and she will turn him away.
I’ve referenced Sheila Gregoire previously in this series, but this really is her area of specialty. Sheila has written multiple books on sex aimed at Christian wives, and has devoted large segments of her blog to the topic. Sheila’s frame is very much the non Biblical frame I describe above. When prodded she will at times acknowledge that denial of sex is an act of defrauding, but her overall tone is to validate the idea that sex will happen on the wife’s terms. Her fundamental approach to wives denying sex to their husbands is to find ways for the wives to decide they want it. This of course leaves the Christian wife safely in the driver’s seat.
The idea that husbands have to prove the purity of their sexual intent is a common theme from the women who read her blog, and I’ve never seen her bat this down. In her post How A Marriage Changes she quotes a commenter named Timbreldancer from a previous post confessing about why she denied sex to her husband (emphasis in original):
What made the biggest difference for us, in the long run, was that I began to realize that my husband wasn’t the big, selfish “jerk” I thought he was, just because he wanted to have sex on a regular basis. I give 100% credit to God for the change that saved our marriage. On a practical level, though, it came down to the fact that I didn’t really believe my husband loved me like he said he did. Despite all of his selfless service to me, I always felt he was doing it either because (a) he wanted to anyway or (b) he was trying to manipulate me into doing something he wanted (like have sex, for example). Because of that, I either didn’t recognize the basis of his caring acts, or I assumed they had a completely selfish basis and I resented him. Resentment turned to bitterness turned to hatred turned to almost divorcing him.
Note the threatpoint of frivolous divorce weaved in there as a caution; don’t push your rebellious wife men if you know what is good for you. Elsewhere in the quote she reinforces this in reference to a husband commenting on another thread:
I think George is doing an awesome job of being caring and thoughtful, and having him become uncaring and unthoughtful (or demanding) is not likely to have the kind of effect he would hope for. It may, however, wake his wife up, but possibly at the expense of his marriage. My husband chose the route of becoming uncaring and unthoughtful, and it did eventually wake me up, but it also greatly endangered our marriage and also caused some serious problems with our children. If I hadn’t been extremely committed to staying married and if I hadn’t had numerous friends who were willing to pray for us, I’m fairly certain we would be divorced now.
There is only one way to deal with a wife denying sex, and that is compliance. Husbands must prove to their rebellious wives that their intentions are pure, that they aren’t like all of those other men. Sheila reinforces this in her commentary:
I strongly agree with the idea that this commenter put forward, about having an honest talk where you ask what you can do to help your spouse feel more loved. I know this sounds backwards; you, after all, are the one who doesn’t feel loved. But the truth is that neither of you is connecting, and by showing her (or him) that you realize this, then your spouse will probably start to feel more positively towards the relationship, too.
A reader named Toni commented with the same message:
It’s taken some time, but my husband and I have learned the very fine art of having a wonderful sex life. We both had to let go of expectations and misunderstandings along the way. One of the things I had to learn and accept about my husband is his absolute desire to please and satisfy me. I now understand that he doesn’t just want sex, he wants sex specifically with me! And the same goes for me! This helped me understand the difference between just having sex and the beauty of love making.
The larger comment received Sheila’s enthusiastic stamp of approval:
Exactly, Toni! Great point. Thanks so much for sharing.
Another commenter weighs in with the same frame:
I was like Toni for a long time, in that I didn’t understand that my husband wanted to make love to me – I thought he just wanted sex because he’s a guy, because that’s the message we get everywhere. That made me resentful. I still desired him – I have always desired only him – but I eventually started to feel disconnected when we had sex. I didn’t know why until I started reading your blog, Sheila.
Commenter Phyliss weighs in with a success story about how her withholding sex ultimately lead to the husband she had always wanted. Her happy ending involved the “Love Dare”, from the movie Fireproof.
I suggest reading the entire post and comment section, but I will warn you that it is a flat out rationalization hamster stampede with a great deal of random darting back and forth. One of the commenters actually recognized that her not submitting to her husband was causing her to not feel attracted to him, but she framed this as strictly his failure. He needs to learn game to please her; he doesn’t need to be restored to his rightful position as head of the household.
While the last wife I mentioned had part of it wrong, she definitely was on to something. Sheila herself brushes against this truth in her book Honey, I Don’t Have a Headache Tonight: Help for Women Who Want to Feel More In the Mood. Chapter 7 is tantalizingly titled “Who Wears the Pants in This Family?”. In that chapter, Sheila explains that the origins of Feminism were good and pure, but that it was corrupted by non Christian women in the 1960s. She does criticize the war on men/boys, and at one point suggests that women “wave the white flag” in the war of the sexes. But all of this strikes me as just touching on the surface of the issue. In the same chapter she tells us that while women should embrace their femininity, there are limits:
There’s also no need to become what he thinks is pretty. Some men, like my husband, have a preference for women in long hair. Keith, however, is oblivious to all of the mousse and blow drying that would be involved in making my long hair do anything other than hang there limply. I think it’s difficult for most women over thirty to pull off long hair with panache. Cut my hair and highlight it and I look much more sophisticated, and I feel far less frumpy!
One thing she does describe is how when she lets her husband lead her she feels attracted to him. On those occasions where he is twirling her around instead of twirling around doing chores for her, she feels a sudden increase in libido. For that brief moment, he leads and she follows. Instead of quoting the book I’ll let her husband describe it to you in one of their promotional videos:
Christian wives employing denial of sex have another problem, however. The Bible is very clear that this creates an opening for Satan. Yet if the husband isn’t kept sexually unsatisfied she will lose much of her power over him. This means not just denying him the sex which is his due as her husband, but ensuring that he doesn’t have any other outlets of release. And what of her own culpability for creating sexual temptation in her husband contrary to specific Scriptural injunction? The answer here is to invert the meaning of the command to not deny sex at risk of creating temptation for sexual sin. In this new twisted version of the Scripture, wives are commanded not to deny their husbands sex unless their husband is tempted by sexual sin. As Sheila explains in Chapter 4:
If your husband uses pornography, Marnie Ferre advocates refusing to have sex with him. Think of it like an alcoholic; you wouldn’t offer an alcoholic a drink, so you shouldn’t offer a pornography addict something that will feed his addiction, either. That may sound drastic, but he is committing adultery because he’s lusting after somebody else (see Matt. 5:28). And the more he has sex with pornography in his mind, the harder it becomes for him to change.
Aside from conflating viewing porn with porn addiction and adultery her analogy is simply not Biblical. Denying a husband who is tempted by porn the healthy sex which is his due as your husband is better compared to denying someone clean water because they are so thirsty they are tempted to drink out of the sewer. The rebellion of wives in this area is very clear, and Sheila knows it. Yet when Paul’s warning comes to pass, she takes that as reinforcing the wife’s justification for rebellion.
- Reframing Christian marriage
- Reframing Christian marriage part 2: rebelling wives aren’t to blame for their own rebellion.
- Reframing Christian marriage part 3: husbands as helpmeets.
- Reframing Christian marriage part 4: judging the performance.
- A Tale of Two Beaches