When it was published last year, Sheila Gregoire’s marriage book, The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended, came as a stark contrast to what many Christians learned from the church about sex and marriage.
Drawing from her own research, including a survey of 22,000 Christian women, the Canadian author affirms that sexual pleasure is for women too—and chronicles the damage done to women, men, and their relationships when people operate on distorted views of sex in marriage.
Gregoire’s critique of earlier iterations of Christian resources has put some on the defensive, but for many, it’s a refreshing change in approach. Women from Reformed believers to progressive stalwarts have found solace and healing in her teachings—and some pastors, professors, and counselors are also beginning to shift their approach as a result of her findings.
“I think Sheila’s work brings a much-needed balance to conservative church circles,” said Craig Flack, a pastor from Findlay, Ohio, who has used The Great Sex Rescue in his pre- and post-marital counseling. “So many works largely ignore female pleasure, and then people wonder why women may not enjoy intimacy.”
Gregoire targets the idea that men “need” sex and their wives are there to provide it—a premise she sees in books like Love and Respect, The Act of Marriage, and Every Man’s Battle.
Her survey showed that Christian women were taught that boys would push their boundaries and they were responsible for keeping them from going too far. In marriage, they saw their role being to never deprive their husbands of sex and that doing so kept their husbands from using porn. Christian women in Gregoire’s survey were less likely to enjoy sex, talk openly with their husbands about their sexual desires, or have a partner who prioritized their sexual pleasure if they believed those teachings.
Though Flack doesn’t agree with “every area in the book,” he said he’s changed the way he counsels couples to incorporate directly addressing the wife’s pleasure, real intimacy, and “how it brings mutual sexual joy.”
The Great Sex Rescue took off largely based on word-of-mouth recommendations, personal testimonies, and Gregoire’s own discussion on Twitter. Gregoire said she is encouraged to be making headway with individual pastors like Flack and Christian therapists, who have learned from her research and are incorporating her approach into their work with couples.
She has seen Christians from a variety of denominations unite against what she views as a misguided and male-focused view of sex that’s been preached or quietly accepted among evangelicals for years.
While other Christian authors have criticized purity culture teachings in general, Gregoire has deliberately named the teachers she believes are responsible for perpetuating harmful ideas about marital sex. “The only way to stop the hurt is to do this in public,” she said in an interview with CT. “And if those authors were truly committed to serving the sheep, they would welcome it.”
Fellow authors, though, say her quotes and presentations of their teachings come out of context. Focus on the Family (which published Emerson Eggerichs’s Love and Respect) released a statement saying Gregoire “has seriously misread and misjudged” the book. Shaunti Feldhahn, whom Gregoire mentions multiple times in her book, issued a statement saying that accusations against her were “inaccurate” and “calculated attacks.”
She previously told CT how even her early work is subject to her current criticism—she pulled old blog posts as a result of what she learned in her research and is committed to course-correcting with her new material.
Kevin Schulz, a pastor in the Mennonite Brethren (USMB), has purchased Gregoire’s “Honeymoon Course” for multiple couples. Gregoire’s work, he said, is “a much-needed counterpoint to the one-sided and biased church teaching” of the past.
Gregoire is committed to a Christian sexual ethic but identifies areas where she believes Scripture has been twisted to harm marriages, create pain for women, and perpetuate abuse.
For example, Matthew 5:28 says, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” When young men are told that looking at a woman is lusting after her, Gregoire said, women become immediately objectified as sexual objects. “Is looking lusting?” asks Gregoire in her book. If the answer is “no,” she says, that changes a lot.
In her research and in response to the book, women recounted negative sexual experiences ranging from dissatisfaction and pain to abuse and trauma. Courtney Wright said reading The Great Sex Rescue opened her eyes to abuse in her former marriage of nine years, where she was coerced into sex, strangled, and treated “like a servant.”
“I’ve rediscovered my strength and courage to speak up,” Wright told CT.
Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, a coauthor of the book along with epidemiologist Joanna Sawatsky, recounted the horror stories from women like Wright, who suffered abuse only to defend it in their own heads or have their pastors respond, “Well, it’s technically not not allowed in the Bible.”
“The number of people who we talked to in these horrific situations where their husbands were addicted to porn, to the extent that they were forcing them to act out what they'd watch,” Lindenbach said in an interview. “And they would have Shaunti [Feldhahn] and [Emerson] Eggerichs and [Stephen] Arterburn’s words in their head, saying, ‘But if I can meet his needs, then maybe he'll be able to stop.’”
Some Christian leaders, however, think her pointed concerns are worth response and amplification. Sean McDowell is a theologically conservative speaker and author of a new book on sexuality for teens, Chasing Love. McDowell has advocated for Gregoire’s work, even inviting her to speak in one of his classes at Biola University.
“I think they should certainly engage her ideas because I think she’s raising some fair questions and these are consequential issues,” said McDowell of those whom Gregoire criticizes.
McDowell said he was drawn to her work because it challenged him to think about marital sex in a new way, and he respects how Gregoire always points readers back to Scripture.
“So much of the teaching we’ve had on sexuality is male-centric,” McDowell said. “I think we’ve adopted that within the church uncritically.”
Along with Gregoire’s work, McDowell sees positive movement in the evangelical world when it comes to sexual teaching. His new book is part of Lifeway’s renewed True Love Waits movement.
Gregoire’s corrective is part of a wave of authors who adhere to a traditional Christian sexual ethic but are offering a critique or alternative to purity culture, including Talking Back to Purity Culture author Rachel Welcher, as well as Christopher Yuan, Sam Allberry, and Nancy Pearcey.
Christian therapists and counselors are also working against damaging or abusive sexual relationships in marriage. Julie Hilton, a licensed social worker in Georgia, often recommends The Great Sex Rescue to clients.
“They have described feeling validated, understood, and even angry,” Hilton told CT. “I believe her work is helping women heal and encouraging healthy marriages.”
Halie Howells, a therapist in Illinois, calls Gregoire’s approach “monumental,” and one of the only resources of its kind. “She is providing new language, new expectations, and new connection for married couples while integrating faith,” Howells said.
This point of female arousal is nearly always missing or downplayed in Christian sex books, Gregoire asserts, while men’s sexual desire is the focus. “Your wife can be a methadone-like fix when your temperature is rising,” wrote Arterburn in a line Gregoire made infamous from Every Man’s Battle. She’s concerned that sentiments like these objectify women and ignore their own desires and pleasure in the relationship.
Gregoire’s survey found that Christian women report vaginismus, an involuntary muscle spasm, at twice the rate of the overall population. As many as 1 in 5 reported a condition that made penetration painful. Their findings suggest this may be due to the fact that Christian women who see sex as an obligation lose their sense of autonomy in sex and become more likely to force themselves into sex even if it’s painful.
When I put a call out for self-identified “theologically conservative” women who have benefitted from Gregoire’s work, my inbox was immediately flooded with hundreds of messages from women eager to share their stories. Complementarians and egalitarians alike have applauded Gregoire’s primary message that Christian couples have been misguided on the purpose and pleasures of sexual intimacy for both husband and wife.
“I think Sheila’s work validates what so many women feel and have felt for so many years but have been unable to articulate,” wrote one reader, Talia Bastien Reha. She said she appreciated how Gregoire’s work “points to the heart of Jesus.”