Female Sexuality in the Christian Church, Part One: Drive and Desire

The unthinkable has happened: I got pissed off at C.S. Lewis.

For part of my Lenten activities, I’m reading through Yours, Jack, a chronological collection of Lewis’ letters. It has been a wonderful way to observe his spiritual development, gather more of his insight, and see the germs of ideas that would become some of his most famous works.

One night, though, I wanted to sit him down and give him a very stern talking-to. I often find his remarks about women silly and sexist, but usually I just roll my eyes and say “Ohhhh, Jack.” Not this time.

In 1940, a woman wrote to Lewis about the purpose of marriage and male headship in the household, fairly skeptical about the whole institution. I had no issue with the majority of Lewis’ response. I consider myself a Christian feminist, but agree that men should be the spiritual leaders of the household, and had little argument with Lewis’ explanations of why. I did not object when he reminded her of what the Book of Common Prayer lists as the reasons for marriage: 1. reproduction, 2. sexual outlet, and 3. partnership.

My disagreement came when I read his explanations for those reasons:

Then the second reason. Forgive me, but it is simply no good trying to explain this to a woman. The emotional temptations may be worse for women than for men: but the pressure of mere appetite on the male, they simply don’t understand. In this second reason, the Prayer Book is saying ‘If you can’t be chaste (and most of you can’t) the alternative is marriage.’ This may be brutal sense, but, to a man, it is sense and that’s that.

To a man—but not a woman? Is sexual outlet less important for women? This was a contentious issue for me long before I read much of Lewis’ work. I kept telling myself, “He’s still a bachelor at this point…he’s a product of his times…deep breaths…calm down…” But I was seeing red.

My anger is not all directed at Lewis, but at a Church and a society that perpetuates incorrect and potentially dangerous preconceptions about female sexuality.

The Christian church (at least in the United States, where my experience comes from) remains fairly backwards about female sexuality. This ignorance exists in the general, secular culture, too. There are assumptions that women don’t want or enjoy sex as much as men, that they aren’t as tempted as men, or aren’t as visually stimulated as men. This may apply to some women and some men, but I think it is wrong to attribute those things to the sexes in general. I think those preconceptions can be harmful, and can contribute to unnecessary guilt and anxiety, at the very least.

I’m just going to come out and say it:

Many women really enjoy and desire sex. Many women have strong, active sex drives. Many—gasp!Christian women struggle with lust and sexual temptation. Sometimes women are the ones who initiate sex with their partners. Many women are sexually aroused by visual input. Women are not naturally innocent, delicate flowers who are less interested in, or less tempted by, sex than men.

At least one study has suggested that men overall have stronger sex drives. The authors note, however, “The gender difference in sex drives should not be generalized to other constructs such as sexual or orgasmic capacity, enjoyment of sex, or extrinsically motivated sex.” Other sources suggest that the measurements used to determine sex drive may themselves be influenced by outside factors, like social pressures, and are thus inconclusive.

When I started doing research for this post, I learned about the book What Do Women Want?, released last year. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list. The author wrote an adaptation for the New York Times, and this article from The Cut provides a review of sorts. Evidently, women may desire sexual pleasure about as much as men, but social pressures and miscommunication between the sexes have interfered.

Some Christians claim that men are “more sexual” than women. But what does that vague phrase even mean? This makes little sense to me by most any definition, when it is women’s bodies that are capable of conceiving, growing, delivering, and feeding a baby, and are the ones that possess an organ that has no purpose but sexual pleasure (link SFW). There are even resources available for Christian women who want better sex—they wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a demand.

My friend Kara, ever my faithful research assistant, helped me find lots of different sources—both Christian and secular—that address female sexuality. She pointed out that a lot may remain unknown to us because it hasn’t been considered or studied rigorously until fairly recently. One thing that even a little bit of research makes clear is that sexuality in general, and heterosexual female sexuality in particular, is really, really complicated.

What I am certain about is that it would be less harmful for everyone if the Christian church taught and behaved as though sexual desire were equal between the sexes. Yes, there are differences between the sexes, and I do believe that men and women generally are meant to fulfill different roles in marriage. (Though that looks different for different couples.) But I think both should be held to equal standards, in which men and women look out for each other.

scarletaIt’s widely accepted in the Western Christian church that men are more visually stimulated, that men struggle more with lustful thoughts, and that men desire sex more than women. This is a terrible misconception that has unfairly blamed women for men’s bad behavior, and creates a “boys will be boys” mentality that is a discredit to men. In centuries past, women were considered the sexually ravenous ones who could not control themselves, and who tempted men into sin. Sometimes sexually alluring women were believed to be witches, providing literal fuel for the fire. The tables may have turned, but it isn’t much of an improvement.

This is a passionate subject for me not just for the sake of Christian women in general, but because I have experienced some damage from incorrect, skewed ideas about female sexuality in Christian culture.

I fully support chastity. I believe that men and women who profess to follow Christ should keep sexual intercourse within marriage. I think dating/engaged couples should do what they believe necessary to avoid succumbing to sexual temptation. I’m against living together before marriage. I think pornography (a whole other issue that I’m unprepared to tackle) is deeply damaging to individuals and relationships. Practicing chastity—which not only means sexual abstinence before marriage, but monogamous fidelity after marriage—is difficult, but it is not impossible. It may not seem natural, but God calls His followers to do a lot of things that are not natural, such as loving our enemies and denying ourselves for the sake of Christ and others.

Celebrating sexuality does not mean we should overlook sin. What we do still matters. In the same letter that I took such issue with, Lewis wrote on the subject of chastity,

After all, if there is an eternal world and if our world is its manifestation, then you would expect bits of it to ‘stick through’ into ours. We are like children pulling the levers of a vast machine of which most is concealed. We see a few little wheels that buzz round on this side when we start it up—but what glorious or frightful processes we are initiating in there, we don’t know. That’s why it’s so important to do what we’re told.…

(I’m over-quoting Lewis in this piece just to show him I won’t hold a grudge!)

Compared to the experiences of many other Christian women, married or single, I seem to have gotten off easy (no pun intended). I’ve never experienced sexual abuse of any kind, I’ve overcome some hang-ups about my body, and at the ripe old age of 28 and some months, I’ve never been in a serious dating relationship, so I have comparatively little baggage there. When I think about it, I am genuinely thankful that God has spared me from a lot of pain. But it also means that, when I read Christian articles like “The 24-Year-Old Virgin,” even though I do agree with the content, I can’t help rolling my eyes and saying, “Yeah, sweetie, wait another five years or more and then we’ll talk.”

(I need to work on my compassion.)

But my lack of “experience” hasn’t spared me from sexual struggles. I haven’t been wholly innocent in heart or mind, or even actions. There have been guys about whom I thought, “If the opportunity presents itself, I will have sex with him.” Every time that has happened, God flat-out removed the guy in question from my life. (No, He didn’t kill them…I don’t think…) I Corinthians 10:13 is absolutely true. Movies and books that are innocent on the surface might easily become porn when filtered through my mind. (The fault lies with me, not the product.) Christian leaders make a big deal about women hiding their cleavage from leering men, but no one talks about the effect that a man in a crisp white button-up shirt can have on a less-than-innocent female mind.

The church so often emphasizes sexual struggles in men, as though women need hardly worry about how to rein in their sexual desires, to look properly at the opposite sex, to avoid masturbation and/or pornography. This has sometimes made me wonder if I was some perverted deviant because my sexual desires can get really, really strong, or because I can get turned on just by the way a man looks. It’s gone so far as to give me serious doubts about my femininity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Granted, these things are my responsibility, my cross to bear, or my sins to confess, but I think attitudes in the current Christian culture have made them worse.

One of the best things that has come out of writing this post is learning that I am not alone. This post from Soulation.org (a Christian summary and interpretation of this NYT article that I linked previously) was like a breath of fresh air. Jonalyn Fincher talks about how deeply women want to be desired, how women also can be turned on by what they see, and how lust is related to covetousness—wanting to possess something that is not yours to have. She talks about what healthy sexuality looks like, and even suggests that the proper context could make it okay for women and men to notice and admire the opposite sex! The writer’s description of how she and her husband carry this out is adorable:

Often, accountability guidelines for ending lust focus on guarding our eyes from even looking or noticing beauty. But this feels Gnostic to me, a method of denying the inherit beauty in healthy men (and women’s) bodies. I want to be free to notice beautiful men and I want Dale free to notice beautiful women. This allows me to thank God for his creativity.
Once I grabbed Dale’s arm and pointed at a nondescript guys’ amazing legs, “Oh my goodness, see that man’s calves? They were HUGE!” And he’ll notice and we’ll talk about how men with calves like that would have been chosen to be the leaders in of Scottish clans and how so many men do not have calves like that and how gladiators would have HAD to had big calves just like that guy’s. It’s actually pretty fun.
We’ll do the same if a woman with gorgeous legs walks by. Neither Dale nor I have stunning gams, but we love noticing others who do. And in the process, my lust isn’t incited. I’m observing the art of God around me and sharing it with my husband. God called us very good. I’d have to agree.

Other wonderful Christian women not only speak up and declare that yes, women also struggle with lust, but talk about how to address the problem. Carolyn McCulley points out how modern culture has affected female lust and sexual desire, and suggests how to help confused women in the church. Fincher, in a couple different posts, mentions female sexuality in a historical context, what lust really means, how lust can appear, and how to be disciplined in fighting off lustful desires. Julie Sibert writes extensively for wives who want more sex.

I especially love that these women often talk about visual stimulation. I have so many problems with the “men are more visual than women” myth.

Christian churches, books, articles, speakers, etc. are always talking about female beauty. It seems as though, because women are considered “less sexual” and “less visual” somehow, they aren’t expected to care what their significant other looks like. Don’t misunderstand me—physical attraction is a tiny, tiny part of a relationship. It’s also changeable—you might find someone more or less attractive as you get to know them. But is it wrong to want it at all?

From my church experiences, women are expected to look good for their men, and men are supposed to treat their women with love and respect. Those are good things to try to do. I am not saying they should be abandoned. But shouldn’t men also take care to look good for their wives/girlfriends? Shouldn’t women make sure their men feel love and respected? I would like to get married someday, and above all I want a Christian man of great integrity, strong in his faith. Am I wrong also to want him to be someone I enjoy looking at?

Based on the number of people who find my blog by googling “Josh Groban handsome,” I’d say ‘no’

I Samuel 16:7 (“man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”) is often cited as a reason why we should overlook someone’s physical appearance in favor of what is within. As well we should. But the passage is in reference to God choosing David—the youngest and least-promising of his brothers at the time—for the next King of Israel. The same chapter goes on to say that David “was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance.” Good character should take priority over good looks, but you can end up with both.

Based on the Christian articles out there that do celebrate physical attraction between spouses (or dating couples), I’m not wrong about wanting a handsome husband, as long as I keep it from being too high a priority. However, one of these articles, “Why Sexual Attraction Is Good,” is full of great ideas, and yet demonstrates the very problem I’m talking about:

Therefore, guys, don’t believe the lie that Christian men are supposed to marry pious, unattractive women. That doesn’t fit within the context of how Jesus loves you as His bride. You exhilarate Christ, so He wants you to be thrilled about the woman you choose to marry. He wants her unique beauty to satisfy you completely (Proverbs 5:18-19). Thus, if you have not met a Christian woman who possesses integrity and sexually attracts you, keep looking. … Likewise, ladies, treasure your beauty, femininity, and purity. To Jesus, you were worth His sacrifice, and He wants you to find a husband who will treat you in the same way. A man is not worth marrying if he will not cherish you and give himself up for you.

Do you see the issue? He tells guys to not be ashamed of wanting wives they’re attracted to, and he tells women to hold out for men who will love and treasure them. These are good, but it should go both ways. Women also should not be ashamed of wanting to marry men they’re attracted to, and from what I’ve read, men also want to marry women who think they’re attractive. The article seems an example of Christians acting as though women are less sexual and care less about visual pleasures.

Maybe now is the time for the Christian community to acknowledge that men and women have their differences, but their sexual drives and sources of stimulation may not be all that different. Let us also acknowledge that sexual temptation is a powerful problem for both men and women, and that we all need to be careful about what we do or say in that regard.

The good news, as always, is that there is freedom and power in Christ to overcome and redeem our temptations and mistakes. He is able, willing, and waiting to transform our lives and our selves. This might sound like empty encouragement, like I’m just reciting words that Christians have said over and over, but I have experienced this myself. There is such grace and joy and freedom in confessing your sins and sharing your struggles and hopes with God, and in placing them in His hands. It’s not always easy—some days are harder than others, and some days (or weeks, or months…) it will feel like you’re going backwards. You’ll have to keep putting things back in His hands after you take them out again. But however long it takes, whatever it takes, God will transform you into the new creation He intended.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. ~ Isaiah 58:10-12

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world. ~ John 16:33

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ~ 1 John 1:9

Both male and female sexuality should be celebrated as a God-given pleasure. It is one more part of God’s creation to be enjoyed. As with all other pleasures, it should be enjoyed in its proper time and place—and without elevating it to the level of its Creator. Sin is what complicates sex and turns it into something shameful and/or oh so deadly serious, rather than the joyful act of intimacy that God intended.

photo by Vyacheslav Mishchenko

. . .

Part Two: Modesty

Helpful, Sex-Positive Christian Resources:

Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, by Lauren F. Winner
The Fantasy Fallacy: Exposing the Deeper Meaning Behind Sexual Thoughts, by Shannon Ethridge
Intimacy in Marriage
Crosswalk.com: Should I Marry Without Romance and Attraction?
DesiringGod.org: Lust: Not for Men Only
Christianity Today: Confessions of a Lustful Christian Woman
Soulation.org: Lust: Alive and Well Among Women (Part One) (Part Two)
Converge: The 24-Year-Old Virgin
Boundless.org: Your Turn: Lust and Leggings

Secular Resources on Female Sexuality:

The Atlantic: How Strong Is The Female Sex Drive After All?
The Atlantic: Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?
Study: Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive?
NYMag “The Cut”: When Women Pursue Sex, Even Men Don’t Get It
University of Michigan: Women Like Casual Sex Just As Much As Men Do
NYT: What Do Women Want?
NYT: Unexcited? There May Be A Pill For That

10 thoughts on “Female Sexuality in the Christian Church, Part One: Drive and Desire

  1. Yes, indeed.

    “You’ll have to keep putting things back in His hands after you take them out again. But however long it takes, whatever it takes, God will transform you into the new creation He intended.”

    And how!

  2. Just yay!! I agree with you so much. The whole visual/not visual dichotomy thing is especially odd, and I think leads to self-doubt for men and women who don’t fit in to these categories. And when people come together as couples, it sets up a lot of potentially untrue expectations between them, and who needs more of those? The point about men desiring to be found attractive is a really good one, too, and that’s a heck of a lot easier to do if you do, in fact, find them attractive in the first place!

    Also, your writing here is extra-sparkling. And I’m sure Lewis knows you forgive him. (He totally had it coming with that nonsense.)

    • I had SO much self-doubt because of the visual thing! When I said I was questioning my femininity and my sexual orientation at one point, it was partly because of the visual thing. I think it’s natural for all human beings to appreciate beauty, and sometimes that includes other human beings. The NYT article I linked to also helped me realize a lot of things are “normal” that made me go “Uhhh…am I just a perv?” (We can talk about it more in detail in person sometime.)

      Extra-sparkling! Why thank you ever so! I do find it invigorating to disagree with Lewis occasionally–it reminds me that I can still have some of my own thoughts sometimes.

    • P.S. “He had it comin’…he had it comin’…he only had himself to blame. If you’d’a been there, if you’d’a’ seen it, I betcha you would have done the same!”

  3. Pingback: Female Sexuality in the Christian Church, Part Two: Modesty and Girl Power | Em Speaks

  4. If you haven’t already, please, please submit this to a Christian magazine or other source for publication. You are spot-on, and there are roughly a zillion people who need to read this. I spent 23 years in a loveless marriage and searched many times for a book about what to do when your husband wants nothing to do with sex and you do—and there wasn’t a single book out there that addressed the issue, especially from a Christian standpoint. Now remarried, I’m a conservative Christian, middle-aged, in ministry—but I think sex is amazing and I’m very visual. Gasp! As a professional writer and editor, I’m completely serious, get this article “out there.”

    • Oh wow, thank you so much.

      I’ve never submitted anything to a professional publication (not as an adult, anyway), so I’m not sure where to start. I’m open to suggestions, though.

      • A Writer’s Market is a good investment and will give you the run-down as to who accepts submissions and how to go about it, since everyone wants something different. http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Writers-Market-Guide-2013/dp/1414376405 My suggestion is to reduce the word count somewhat (maybe save the thoughts about women meriting a good-looking spouse for a different article and focus on the sexuality aspect), and stress your key selling point in your query letter, i.e. that you’re addressing a topic that no one seems to want to tackle. :)

  5. Pingback: Sex and Wholeness and the Single Christian | Em Speaks

Comments are closed.