Women receive conflicting messages about sex. Journalists, bloggers, talk show hosts, and even religious leaders all have their own idea of what married sex is supposed to be. One common ideology encourages us to focus primarily on pursuing our own sexual satisfaction; this mindset is spelled out in several recent marriage books, including Daniel Bergner’s popular What Do Women Want?, which describes the female sex drive as “omnivorous” and offers up the possibility of women pursuing sexual fulfillment via threesomes, same-sex encounters, and hooking up with strangers. In direct contrast, another equally pervasive message about women and sex can lead us to believe that what we want is less important (if not irrelevant) because a wife’s responsibility is to satisfy her husband’s sexual desires. The former message emphasizes selfishness; the latter a potentially dangerous selflessness. Both miss the mark in terms of helping us to create healthy, satisfying marital intimacy.

After two decades spent counseling couples and leading marriage groups, I’ve witnessed the fallout when women exclusively follow either of these directives. Those who seek pleasure outside of their marriage must eventually face the consequences—which include shame, separation, and often, divorce. Those who are pressured to disregard their own desires or limitations may end up feeling disconnected, guilty, or even used while they’re making love (particularly if they have been abused or experience physical discomfort). If it’s true that neither option accurately represents God’s intention when he created us as sexual beings, how can we reclaim his purpose for our marriage bed?

How Did We Get Here?

The Bible reveals that humankind has been straying from God’s design for sexual intimacy for generations. While some might argue that the current depravity is no worse than it has been in the past, today’s culture certainly presents unique challenges to women of faith. For instance, consider how culture’s understanding of gender has shifted in the past 20 years. The somewhat dizzying increase in gender categories (cis-, trans-, bi-, pan-, and so on) reflects both the growing acceptance of gender fluidity as well as the growing resistance to what some perceive to be limiting categories (including heterosexual marriage and binary gender options). This sociological drift not only opens the door to new possibilities—such as growing cultural acceptance of women leaving their husbands for other women—but also celebrates those who step over this once-forbidden threshold.

Article continues below

The increase in deviant sexual practices adds another layer of complexity to our pursuit of whole and holy sex. Pornography use continues to escalate. This often leads to dissatisfaction with one’s spouse, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the expectation that wives should have a perfect physique. Even more troubling, according to findings from the Centers for Disease Control, 20 percent of all women are victims of rape or attempted rape. According to Christian writer Mary DeMuth and others who courageously write on this topic, the impact of sexual assault on marital intimacy is devastating and long lasting. For women in these circumstances, what was intended to be a source of life and pleasure becomes a battleground of shame and loss.

What’s crucial to note is that it’s not only secular culture that’s guilty of corrupting sexuality. Some church groups, pastors, authors, and Christian bloggers also muddy the water—particularly when it comes to perpetuating distorted ideas about women, sex, and selflessness. Consider, for example, the observation from one such website crudely suggesting that “the way to a man’s heart is through his penis.” Or another that suggested, “[T]he sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.”

When churches or their leaders suggest or imply that one of the wife’s duties is to satisfy her husband’s strong sexual urges, women and men may conclude that Scripture supports a hierarchy of sexual needs (i.e., his needs are more important than hers). This fosters a number of distortions, including one that blames wives for their husbands’ infidelity (a notion that Julie Roys boldly confronted in this CT article).

Combine these distorted messages with our own limitations and reactions and it’s no wonder many of us are confused or ambivalent about married sex! We may wonder, Do my needs and desires matter? Will I be protected and valued in this place of vulnerability or will I be taken advantage of and harshly judged? Is it even possible to consistently enjoy sex? When such doubts and insecurities are lodged in place it can be extremely difficult for us to cultivate a dynamic intimate life.

What Women Truly Want

Article continues below

Though some women admit to having little or no interest in sex, this is certainly not true for all of us—nor do I believe it to be God’s intention for us. In the Song of Songs, Scripture provides an example of a female lover who is every bit as eager as her male counterpart. She is by no means passive or reluctant. Further, the apostle Paul’s teaching on sexual intimacy in marriage seems to imply a clear mutuality of desire:

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. (1 Cor. 7:2–5, NLT)

I may not be speaking on behalf of every woman, but I believe that most of us sincerely desire to have a robust intimate life. And, crucially, we also long to help set the terms for what that looks like.

We want to be pursued but we also want to initiate. We want to satisfy our husbands but we also want to be satisfied. We don’t want to be taken advantage of. (As author Gary Thomas powerfully articulated in a recent blog post, wives should never be pressured to wear risqué clothes or re-enact sex scenes, particularly if they trigger abuse memories or make us feel diminished.) We want our husbands to accept and love our bodies as they are rather than being shamed or criticized for what they might be. We want sex to be about emotional intimacy as much as it’s about physical pleasure. And as often as possible, we want to actually become one with our spouse when we make love.

In Embracing the Body, Tara Owens’s husband articulates this in a letter he wrote to her:

Making love is creating unity. . . . A man that seeks a sexual experience or simple pleasure is not creating unity. He is meeting a need for release or relief or pleasure. It is not oneness. . . . A husband and wife have been unified—have been made one already—but need to reestablish unity between them. They need to repair what has been broken by the harshness of life, sin, and the world. They need to reunite their minds, hearts, wills, and bodies. . . . Making love is creating oneness. . . . If we know this is what we are making, I believe we will honor God and each other sexually.

Though this kind of transcendent sex certainly will not happen every time we are intimate, it is possible for married couples to experience mutually satisfying, mutually honoring sex more often than not. We certainly can’t create healthy marital sex by abandoning the orthodox Christian view of sexuality, withholding from our husbands, or denying our own needs and desires. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul essentially charges husbands and wives to figure this out together. This inherently involves vulnerable, sometimes awkward conversations about frequency, preferences, and pace. These conversations require compassion, prayer, and a willingness to grow.

Article continues below

As we reject broken norms and engage honestly about what we want, we will eventually find the balance between appropriate self-interest and generous self-giving. In the process, we will reclaim the marriage bed as a good gift rather than an onerous obligation.

Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful: Lifelong Love, Joy, and Intimacy Start with You. She is a writer, speaker, and photographer.