Not every Christian couple feels guilty about sex, but a surprising number do. In fact, we’ve even been asked the question, “I’m married now, but I really, really look forward to and enjoy sex with my husband. Is that OK or is there something wrong with that?”
To give you some context here, our moral convictions are that sex is intended for married couples only but inside of that marriage bond, it is intended to be enjoyed and explored in a way that grows and deepens and becomes a richer and richer experience over the lifespan of one’s marriage.
So, we’re not here to try to help you get comfortable with extra-marital sex or polygamy or anything else that falls outside the bounds of healthy marriage sex.
Yet, in coming to this issue, we’re not only speaking to couples today to try to encourage you to embrace the full opportunity of being sexual with your spouse, but also to those who lead our churches and who teach about marriage and who speak to young people about chastity: we need to be very careful how we talk about sex to make sure that while we communicate the boundaries that God has placed on sexuality, we also communicate the blessing part as well.
Caleb talked to a guy who once said, “I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had sex in our many years of marriage.” The issue there was the teaching that she had received that sex was dirty and wrong and bad, and when she finally found herself in a situation where it was legitimate, she just couldn’t flip that switch.
We’ve also heard from a wife in our survey telling us that she lives in a sexless marriage and it’s tearing her heart out. He’s a great guy, but has the same hang up.
Something needs to change with regards to guilty feelings about sex. Let’s start by looking at the impact of religion on sexuality.
The Impact of Religion on Sexuality
Over the past few decades, many research studies have been completed on the correlations between religion and specific sexual attitudes and experiences.
In 1970, Masters and Johnson examined how religious upbringing affected sexual arousal, orgasm, sexual satisfaction, and pain during sex. Their results were published in the classic book Human Sexual Inadequacy and was cited by Woo (2012). They found that a “strict religious upbringing in Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism was associated with different types of sexual dysfunction.”[i] These sexual dysfunctions included:
- Impotence: erectile dysfunction
- Anorgasmia: inability to achieve orgasm despite adequate stimulation
- Vaginismus: painful spasms in the vagina during sexual intercourse.
These are all very real issues. Other Christian sex therapists also point to strict, anti-sexual teaching from our pulpits as one of the root causes of these types of sexual dysfunction.
If you’re out there and you’re experiencing pain during intercourse, or you can’t get an erection or experience orgasm because of the feelings of guilt and shame that arise whenever you think about your private parts of feel attracted to your spouse, you’re not alone.
Not only are you not alone, there’s probably actually nothing physically wrong with you. You may have just been so burdened by unhealthy messaging that it’s affecting your body’s ability to respond appropriately to what is legitimate.
Maybe in your head you can believe that sex with your spouse is good but you can’t get your heart and body to follow. Or, maybe it’s been so hammered into you, that you can’t even accept that sex is possibly a good thing, never mind one of God’s greatest gifts to married humanity.
Sex Without Shame
If you’re having trouble experiencing sexual arousal because of feelings of guilt, this audio track explains what is going on and what you can do about it so that you can move towards embracing the blessing that sex can be to your marriage. Become a patron today to listen to this track!
The Problem of Sexual Guilt and Shame
What is the reason for these complications between religion and sexuality?
Woo et al (2007) set out to determine the bridge between religion and sexual desire. Their hypothesis was that feelings of guilt related to experiences of sexuality may be the reason that some religious individuals struggle with sexual desire. Their results showed:
- Higher levels of religiosity were associated with high levels of sex guilt.
- Sex guilt mediated the relationship between spirituality and sexual desire and between fundamentalism and sexual desire.[ii]
Keep in mind, they’re not blaming or saying that fundamentalism is bad, they’re just observing a statistical relationship. In plain English, what they are observing is that if you’re more fundamental in your beliefs then sex guilt is a huge factor in determining your sexual desire. Lots of guilt = much less sex. No guilt = sex is fine, so more of it.
They’re also observing that generally there is more sex guilt amongst more fundamental and more religious people. This is confirmed by other studies as well.[iii]
To recap: if your faith background is strict, you’re more likely to experience sexual dysfunction, and if you’re fundamental, you’re more likely to experience sex guilt.
This is correlation and what we’re proposing is that in many situations like this, the cause of sexual dysfunction stems from guilt which itself is caused by strict but incorrect teaching about marriage sexuality. While you may have been blaming yourself for a long time, it could actually be that you yourself are not the source of the problem. It’s outside you, and because of that, change is possible!
Where Do Sexual Guilt and Shame Come From?
Where does this sexual guilt and shame come from, and why is it so prominent in conservative religions such as Christianity?
In his article Sex Without Shame, Miller (2009) talks about the history of sexual guilt saying that the words “sex” and “sin” have been so closely united that many of the faithful regard them as synonymous.[iv]
The Bible does talk about the lusts of the flesh, and it condemns that, but where this perspective goes off the rails is in its failure to acknowledge that even though this body is corrupted and will one day be buried, God saves our whole person so that even our mortal bodies will eventually put on immortality (1Cor 15:53).
In the meantime, in our bodies we are capable of both sexual immorality and moral, good, healthy sexual pleasure. In our Bibles, both the Lord Jesus and Paul affirm the truth that was established at the dawn of creation that when two people marry, they become one flesh. That’s an endorsement of marriage sex without any caveats or fine print or need for second guessing.
As Christians, what we are called to do is understand that while our bodies can be used to sin, they can be used to glorify God. That sin can look like anything we do with our body: striking someone in anger, speaking words that cut others down, thinking wrong thoughts, or having sex with people we’re not supposed to. That’s all bad. But we don’t have guilt about hugging instead of hitting, or affirming instead of cutting our spouse down, or thinking loving thoughts about our spouse versus lustful thoughts about someone else. Why should we have guilt around sexual desire, arousal and intercourse with our spouse?
Our bodies are given to us to be used redemptively in this world, in every day moments to speak words of blessing, give hugs to those we love, and to engage in rich, connected sexuality that expresses mutuality and is monogamous.
Moving Towards a “Redemptive Sexual Counterculture”
Miller also discusses multiple mind shifts that we need to change in our Christian view of sexuality to move towards a “way to both love sexuality and live faithfully”.[v] As a community, here are six things we need to do differently:
- We need to talk openly and directly about sexuality in our homes and churches. Teens actually want to hear about sexuality from their parents and from their churches – really!
- We need to start living life fully with our bodies, and remember that not everything we do with our bodies is evil!
- We need to love sexuality and live faithfully! Sexuality is about more than what we do with our genitalia – it’s about our full body-selves, about love and connection and attachment and friendship – about relating in its many forms.
- We need to become thoughtful critics of exploitative sexual images in our culture. Pornography and the use of it is wrong, and is hurting your marriage.
- We cannot assume that all that passes for sexual freedom actually is. “Hooking up” and “open relationships” are not actually sexual freedom.
- We need to recognize that what we really yearn for in life is intimacy rather than the stimulation of genital nerve endings. Don’t get me wrong, within appropriate contexts and relationships, I’m all for stimulating genital nerve endings as part of sexual expression. But sex is just one part of intimacy.
So there you have it. I don’t want to pretend that if this is something you’ve struggled with for years, reading this is going to flip that switch. Maybe for some of you it will! That would be awesome. I’d love to hear from you if this has been an issue for you and you can let me know if this was helpful or not. The best way to reach out is through our website, just click the link for “Get in Touch” and that drops straight into my inbox. If you reach out, I will respond. I’d love to hear from you.
[i] Jane S. Woo et al., “Sex Guilt Mediates the Relationship Between Religiosity and Sexual Desire in East Asian and Euro-Canadian College-Aged Women,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 41, no. 6 (December 2012): 1485–95, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-9918-6.
[iii] Kelly M. Murray, Joseph W. Ciarrocchi, and Nichole A. Murray-Swank, “Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 35, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 222–34.
[iv] Keith Graber Miller, “Sex Without Shame,” Sojourners Magazine, October 2009.