Welcome to the first post in a series we’re calling The Sex We Don’t Talk About, exploring elements of female sexuality that rarely come up among Christians. While the church has grown more comfortable with addressing sex in sermons, seminars, and marriage books, rarely do we hear a female perspective on teaching meant for the whole church. Even conversations among women can shy away from taboo topics like sex in singlehood, masturbation, and sex after menopause. (Stay tuned: That’s about to change.) To begin, we’ve enlisted an expert to answer the big question: Why don’t Christian women talk about sex more often? – Kate, editor of Her.meneutics
As a clinical psychologist who writes, speaks, and counsels on women’s sexuality, I’m not easily shocked or offended by sexual conversations. But as soon as I asked a group of my friends, “Are we comfortable having positive sex conversations?,” I was struck by how pervasive this taboo has become. Even the smart, open-minded women I know had been hesitant to bring up basic aspects of their sex lives in conversation.
For many of us, the cliché is true: Women can talk about anything… relationships, careers, social justice, theology, politics. Yet when it comes to sex, our chatter turns thin. Sure, we’ll discuss sex as reproduction: using birth control, getting pregnant, or struggling with infertility. We may even bring up regrets from our sexual past, or lament a lack of sexual desire or pleasure during a certain season. But rarely do women talk about sex positively, discussing their sexual appetite or what has made sex better for them.
When my clients mention their sexual relationships with their husbands in counseling, they sometimes preface the discussion with an apology, implying it’s not appropriate for a woman to bring up sex. No wonder they feel so guilty about it: our sexuality remains tied up in a series of shameful double-binds.
- If we have a lot of sex and enjoy it, we may see ourselves as atypical, overeager, unladylike. (Thank the so-called Madonna-whore complex for that one.)
- If we don’t enjoy sex, we may feel like something is fundamentally wrong with us or our bodies.
- If we don’t enjoy sex but do it anyway, we may feel bad that we don’t get as much pleasure out of it as our husbands.
- If we don’t have sex for a period of time, we may feel guilty for not being a good wife and performing our “duty.”
Wives take on their spouses’ sexual shame as well. If our husbands view pornography or become unfaithful, then we may blame ourselves for not keeping them satisfied. If our husbands struggle with lack of sexual desire or other sexual dysfunctions, then we may wonder if we’re not attractive or exciting enough.
Amid all this cultural baggage, being able to open up about sex with close female friends can be wonderfully freeing, encouraging, and healthy. Women can assure their friends that they are not the only ones. They can validate each other’s feelings and offer advice. These conversations about sex are valuable for us personally, our marriages, our friendships, and our communities.
As Christians, many of us have grown up in a culture of silence around female sexuality. We may not know how to bring it up, or deliberately avoid such conversations because they make us uncomfortable. We may have been taught us in overt and subtle ways that women’s bodies are seductive, dangerous and embarrassing.* During one of my first lectures on human sexuality for an upper-level college psychology class, I used the word, “vagina,” and a student gasped. When even speaking the names of body parts involved in sex unnerves us, how can we expect women to have productive conversations about sex itself?
This culture of embarrassment has left many women in the dark when it comes to their sexual functioning—to the point that women can typically understand how men reach orgasm, but may not know enough about their own genital anatomy to understand how it works in the female body. Even if we did have adequate sex education, female pleasure and orgasm isn’t typically a major emphasis.
As Christians, though, we also believe that sex is a good and beautiful thing created by God. In marriage, husband and wife become “one flesh,” committing to each other physically and emotionally in this special, intimate way. Some choose not to talk about it with friends because they believe privacy honors the sanctity of the marital bed.
Boundaries are essential when talking about sexuality; what seems appropriate and respectful to one person can come across as offensive or violating to another. Our popular culture seemingly lacks any kind of boundary around sexual discussion or expression, so it can be tempting for us to overcorrect for that. In our desire to separate from the sexual raunch that surrounds us, we may cut off all sexual conversations.
But if we indeed believe that sex is a good gift created by God, our silence on sex—or more likely, our limited and often negative conversations about sex—do not reflect the full goodness of this gift. Here are three reasons Christian women can benefit from a little more sexual talk.
1. You can and should enjoy sex.
Sex is for women, and conversations about sex are for women. Sex was designed and created by God, in part, for female and male pleasure. Since sex is not just “for the man,” it’s important that women hear about sex from fellow women—not just their male pastors, male authors, or male-driven cultural messages.
Women sometimes form negative opinions about sex out of their own difficulties with sexual desire, enjoyment, and orgasm. In many cases, though, our struggle to enjoy sex stems from our (and our partner’s) lack of knowledge about female sexuality.
Talking about sex empowers women to take ownership of their own sexual experiences and develop healthy expectations. Silence around sex makes the act more fraught and anxiety-ridden, but the freedom to speak about it opens us up to enjoy it more fully. The more comfortable we are talking about sex, the more likely we will be to want to have sex and find ways to make it a better experience for both partners.
2. You’re not alone.
When we don’t talk with trusted friends about sex, we inevitably compare our bedroom experiences with ideas formed from books, magazines, TV, and movies. Thus, even if we enjoy our quiet, middle-of-the-night lovemaking, it’s hard not to feel inadequate next to steamy Hollywood depictions. Reality-based conversations about sex allow us to affirm and explore the good in monogamous, lifelong sex with our spouse.
We also need to talk with each other so we know we’re not alone. Sex can be a source of pleasure and joy, but also a place of deep disappointment, hurt and loss. Open, affirming conversations can be a salve for broken, shame-filled spaces in our souls, and they can remind us that our God-created sexuality is good—even if and when it doesn’t feel good.
3. You can change the legacy.
When we talk about sex with our girlfriends from time to time, we also begin to engage in open, affirming conversations on the topic with our spouses and children. We can model for our children that sex is not wrong, scary, or shameful by talking frankly (and age appropriately) about its good, proper place in marriage.
This sets the tone for them to understand themselves as sexual beings in responsible, healthy, and joyful ways—and hopefully opens the door for them to ask us questions about sex or their bodies as they grow older.
Old habits are hard to break, but now might be the time for you—whether single, married, or single-again—to take a renewed and welcoming approach to discussing sexuality with the women around you. The conversations on Her.meneutics over the next weeks may serve as a great place to start.
If you instinctively tense up when sex comes up in conversation (or even sermons), try this: Take a slow, deep breath. If you notice an inner voice of shame threatening to take over, notice it, name it (“ah – there’s shame”) and then let it go it. Choose to listen to another voice instead —one that affirms, empowers and enables you to know yourself and others in more intimate ways.
God created us, in his image, as sexual beings, and that is good. When we remember God’s creative design, talking about sex doesn’t have to be shameful, embarrassing, or crude. Instead, we can talk to one another in ways that whisper of God’s goodness, grace, and mystery.
* For some women the discomfort in conversations about sex goes beyond shame, embarrassment, or maintaining healthy boundaries. For women who have experienced sexual trauma or unwanted sexual experiences, certain words, phrases or images may trigger unwanted thoughts, feelings or sensations. In those situations, talking with a knowledgeable counselor is the safest way to begin the healing process.
Kim Gaines Eckert is a psychologist and author. She is learning to delight in ordinary adventures with her husband and four little ones in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her website is drkimeckert.com. For more reading on this topic, check out her book Things Your Mother Never Told You: A Woman’s Guide to Sexuality, A Celebration of Sex, or Intended for Pleasure.