Note: This article contains references to sexual trauma.
IT WASN'T SHEILA Wray Gregoire’s initial plan to make a career of writing about the intimate lives of evangelicals. But when she began her “mom blog,” To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, in 2008, she found her readers responded most when she wrote about sex.
Four years later, Gregoire wrote The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and quickly found herself as a keynote speaker at conferences and churches throughout the United States and her home country, Canada. Recently, with her daughter Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and statistician Joanna Sawatsky, she wrote The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended to free women from toxic messages about sex and marriage often promoted in the church.
Gregoire told Sojourners she initially wasn’t aware of how pervasive these toxic teachings were. But after hearing from women that Love and Respect, a marriage advice book by popular Christian speaker Emerson Eggerichs (which boasts more than 2 million copies in sales), had been harmful, she read it for herself. She was horrified to find that the entire chapter on sex was addressed solely to women, instructing them to care for their husbands’ sexual needs. “Until then, we were working with blinders on as we created helpful resources to improve people’s marriages and sex lives,” Gregoire wrote in The Great Sex Rescue. “Once we read it, we realized that we needed to do far more.”
Sex as control
AS A CHRISTIAN couples therapist, I’ve been following Gregoire’s work and the backlash she has faced from some conservative evangelical men. Gregoire believes the teachings on women’s sexual obligations are due in part to who writes the books on sex and marriage popular in white evangelical churches: namely men, such as Eggerichs and Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage. Other commonly read books are co-authored by couples, such as The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller and The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye.
As Lindenbach told Sojourners, “When you look at the best-selling books, when you look at who is running the organizations like Focus [on the Family] and Christianity Today, when you look at the people who are the most influential voices in evangelical Christianity, they are [mainly] men.” This influences how the church thinks about sex, she explains. “Most of the time, even the women who have influential voices are speaking on behalf of men.”
In writing The Great Sex Rescue, Gregoire, Lindenbach, and Sawatsky analyzed the popular marriage and sex books commonly read by evangelicals. They began with the top 10 Christian marriage books on Amazon, excluding those that did not significantly discuss sex. They also included other influential Christian books about sex, such as Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker, and added a top-selling secular book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, for comparison.
While not all the books they reviewed were problematic, several contained harmful messages, such as viewing sex as a physical need only men have, rather than a mutual experience of intimacy, or blaming women for their husbands’ pornography use or affairs. Gregoire, Lindenbach, and Sawatsky also found exhortations that wives should maintain their appearance or weight as it was when they got married, arguing that failing to do so would be sinful. Many taught that women were prohibited from saying no to sex unless it was for a time of prayer and fasting approved by the husband. Of all the Christian books studied, none mentioned consent.