Women have desire too: the thing we overlook when we talk about the Billy Graham Rule

by Elizabeth

So I decided to weigh in on the Billy Graham Rule. Sounds risky, I know. But realize before you read this that I’m not attempting either to criticize a rule OR to make new rules for people. I’m just reflecting on the atmosphere of sexual teaching I’ve personally encountered in Christian culture.

I’m not assuming that my interpretation of Christian sexual teaching is universal or even up-to-date. I speak only from my experience growing up in 1990’s middle America. Church culture in various places and in various times will likely be different, as will each of our interpretations of said church culture.

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Growing up in the Church, I didn’t get the sense that the power of a woman’s sexual desire was really acknowledged. A woman’s sexual attractiveness was certainly acknowledged; young men were taught how to fight their attraction to women, and women were taught how to cover their attractiveness. This led to an idea of women as temptresses, but only so far as their appearance goes. The temptation and attraction of the female wasn’t at the soul-level. It was only skin deep.

We were taught that women didn’t have the strong sexual desires or visual natures that men had. This of course meant that no one taught girls how to keep their sexuality under control in any way other than their clothing choices.

I think this does a grave disservice to both men and women. Men become dehumanized through this view: they are greedy creatures who must be sexually satisfied at all costs and who are incapable of looking beyond a woman’s appearance to see her soul. It reduces sexual desire to physical appearance, while I believe sexual desire is very much rooted in the emotional and spiritual.

Women fall by the wayside when we see through this lens. Girls are not taught how powerful their desires can become. They are not taught that forming an intimate emotional relationship with a man could stoke their sexual desire in ways that are later difficult to manage. They’re only taught that they must keep their bodies under wraps so that the men can manage their desires. But girls aren’t taught that they themselves might need to control their desire or given any practical ways to do so.

So the thing that concerns me about the Billy Graham Rule conversation is not whether it is wise to follow it, or whether it is legalistic to follow it. What concerns me is the way the conversation seems to reduce women to an object of desire and not a source of desire.

Perhaps I do not fully understand the conversation, but this is the way I see it: When we talk about women as temptations to men (because we tend to think more about the ways the Billy Graham rule protects men), we are talking about the way women’s bodies are tempting. The impression I receive, then, is that if a man is in a room alone with a woman, he won’t be able to contain his sex drive, especially if that woman is considered societially “beautiful.”

The way I hear it discussed seems to me almost to border on harassment or assault, the way a man wouldn’t be able to control himself in a woman’s presence. In this view a woman tempts a man passively but not consensually. I think this is ludicrous. It means we don’t think men have any self-control at all. It means we don’t think of men as being fully human with a mind and a will that can make self-sacrificing choices.

I know, through both personal experience and years’ worth of conversation and reading, that there is an abundance of bad men in this world. Many men are willing to take advantage of women’s physical and social weaknesses. But I have also met an abundance of good men who respect women as fellow humans and would not dream of taking advantage of them.

I’m deeply bothered when I sense men and women being categorized so simplistically. Men are not merely dominators who, at the same time, are helpless in the face of a pretty woman. And women are not merely seductresses unaware of their overpowering attraction to men. People are more complex than that.

Whether couples or singles choose to follow the Billy Graham Rule should depend on their personal and shared histories. It should depend on their consciences and their circumstances. But it should not depend on a distorted view of male and female sexuality.

For myself, having lived nearly 37 years as a woman in a woman’s body, I will say that if I were going to follow the Billy Graham Rule (but spoiler alert: we don’t), the reason would not be because I don’t trust men to control themselves. No, the reason would be because I don’t trust myself.

I know how strong sexual desire can become. If my husband and I remained virgins before marriage, I have to credit him with the “no.” I cannot possibly credit myself. The strength of desire surprised me — I think in large part because of the pervading idea that women aren’t sexual beings in the same way men are. But perhaps my experience is singular. Perhaps other women did not grow up in an environment that minimized their sex drives.

It is for these reasons that I consider my own self as a potential source of desire. Even as someone enjoying a very happy marriage, I have to be honest and say that temptation or attraction can still occur. This statement is true for both of us (and yes, we talk about these things). Temptation happens simply because human desire is powerful — including the female desire that is too often neglected in these Billy Graham Rule conversations.

So what I wish for the world is not that we would universally follow the Billy Graham Rule or universally disregard it. What I wish is that we could have more and better conversations about temptation and about what it means to be a human made in the image of God.

I don’t want us to treat other human beings as primarily sexual beings, thus reducing their humanity. Nor do I want us treat ourselves and others as immune to temptation, thus living in ignorance and arrogance. What I wish is that the world could be a place where both men and women truly see each other as the fellow humans that we are.

I want us to know ourselves and our spouses well enough that we know what kinds of boundaries to place around our marriages and our other relationships. I want us to pour into our marriages and live in love and trust with each other. I want men and women to be able to relate to each other in the Church and in the workplace with interest, integrity, and respect.

I want us to understand so deeply who God created us to be that we won’t waste time arguing over legalities but will work to build up the image of God in each other through thoughtful conversations, safe relationships, and a shared wonder and worship of the Maker of all things.

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Thoughtful readings on the Billy Graham Rule/Modesty Culture:

Misogyny in Missions by Jonathan Trotter

Misogyny in Missions Part 2 by Tanya Crossman

Women are Scary (and other lessons modesty culture teaches men) by Jonathan Trotter

It’s Not Billy Graham Rule or Bust by Tish Harrison Warren

An Open Letter to Men Who Broke the Billy Graham Rule by Tish Harrison Warren

What Christians Can Learn From a New York Times Article About Sleeping With Married Men

by Elizabeth

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The New York Times recently published an article by Karin Jones entitled, “What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity.” A friend shared it, and I read it. I found I had a lot to say about it, so I commented on my friend’s Facebook share, where it received so much positive feedback that I thought I’d share it here. But my response will make more sense if you take the time to read the article first.

My worldview obviously differs from the author’s – in fact I might say it diverges greatly – but I think she makes some important observations. My thoughts on this subject are influenced, of course, by nearly 18 years of marriage. But they are also greatly informed by my husband’s readings on relationships and sex.

Before you think that sounds too weird, let me explain why he reads extensively about these issues: he works with a lot of couples in his pastoral counseling ministry. For the record, I don’t know who any of his clients are; I only know about the ideas in his books. (The only exception to this would be when a client of his walks up to me and announces, “Your husband is my counselor.” This is not frequent but has occasionally been known to happen.)

And now that I’ve finished all my caveats, we can move on to my thoughts about the New York Times article.

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I know it might sound crazy to say this, but I think a lot of “Christian” wisdom is not super helpful to marriage and that we can learn from “secular” or research-based sources. First off, sex is more important to a marriage than we in Christian circles sometimes like to think. Dr. Barry McCarthy, author of the 2015 book Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy, claims that a counselor simply cannot afford to treat only the communication/relationship aspect of a marriage and assume good sex will follow.

Rather, McCarthy claims, sex must be addressed separately and intentionally, in addition to other relationship needs. Sex is too important to the marriage for a counselor to be silent on the issue. And it’s highly complex and individual. This is part of the reason it needs purposeful addressing, though even many counselors are uncomfortable talking about it.

The research shows that couples in America are having less and less sex, with a good percentage (around 15%) being in what is considered a “sexless marriage” (sex 10 times a year or less). The research also shows that when a couple stops having sex, it’s more often the husband’s decision, not the wife’s (this information was also found in McCarthy’s book, where he quotes H. Feldman’s 1994 article in the Journal of Urology).

The fact that sexlessness was primarily dependent on the man was news to me as women often get slandered in culture for being “frigid.” This mischaracterization seems key to common “Christian” teaching that women want affection and connection, while men want sex. Research shows that this traditional approach is unhelpful in the sexual arena: women want good sex too. This is something the author of the New York Times article touched on and something proponents of the traditional view often neglect. God made us all sexual beings, and satisfying sex is important for both spouses in a marriage.

Another aspect of relationships that the article’s author noted was that men do not just want sex. They want connection and affection as well. Maybe it’s modern American culture, or maybe it’s American “Christian” culture, or maybe it’s both, but men are sometimes expected to be emotionless and connectionless in favor of more “manly” behavior.

If you want support for that claim, you can listen to this radio program about the way men’s human needs are marginalized in modern American culture. I think the church needs to push back against this aspect of mainstream culture and show a better way — one based in our foundational beliefs of a relational Godhead and of humans created in God’s image. The Bible is actually good news for culture, even when culture accuses it of being otherwise.

This artificial differentiation between men’s needs and women’s needs is unhelpful for marriage and society in general. Men are images of God as well as women, and God is a relational God. Men and women both want loving, secure attachments, and men and women both want satisfying sex. I wish we didn’t have some of these stereotypes, stereotypes I learned before marriage as important for maintaining a happy marriage: a man should give his wife the affection she so desires, so that she will be more willing to give him the sex he so desires.

(In my mind this teaching is parallel to the teaching that women only need love and men need respect, which I believe is categorically untrue. Both men and women need both love and respect, and behaving otherwise treats human beings as too one-dimensional and cheats them both of intimacy and relational fulfillment. But I digress.)

The Bible does not even support this idea of “his needs, her needs” or “women give sex to get love and men give love to get sex.” The woman in Song of Solomon showed strong sexual desire and initiation. Paul, often accused of being misogynistic (though I no longer think he was), told married couples that sex goes both ways — the wife’s body belongs to her husband, and the husband’s body belongs to his wife’s. Meaning: the woman has desire too. Men aren’t the only ones who want sex. It seems to me that sex is actually a place in marriage where our theology gets worked out, but we rarely think about it that way.

I do appreciate the author’s note that even the urge to have an affair could be the beginning of an important conversation in marriage. Of course we as Christians believe this: temptation does not inevitably lead to sin. Temptation can be a wake-up moment and lead to increased marital intimacy, but only if we, like the author suggests, are willing to be honest with ourselves and with our spouses.

If we desire something we are not currently experiencing, we need to talk to our spouses about it, and not (if the Bible is our authority) seek out extramarital affairs. Research from the Gottman Institute indicates that being able to talk about sexual issues is essential to sexual satisfaction:  “Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.”

Meaning: if you can’t talk about sex with each other, the likelihood that you’re having mutually satisfying sex is pretty low. But, like Jones explains in her article, talking about sex can be risky. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know. You might feel rejected. And that was apparently too high a risk for the married men she was sleeping with.

Esther Perel, who is referenced in the article, has a fascinating TED talk on the interplay and tension between love and desire. I’ve actually watched it several times as I believe its vocabulary is helpful. It may not be specifically Christian teaching, but there is nothing anti-biblical about it. It frames the monogamy conversation better than it has sometimes been framed, and I encourage you to watch it (TED talks are, after all, fairly short).

The Bible seems to indicate that the intimacy — including sexual intimacy — that we can experience in marriage is only a small picture of God’s love for us and what He intends for us to experience with Him for all eternity. So it only makes sense that Satan would attack our sexuality as it is intended to be lived out, both before marriage and in marriage.

Our cultures are obsessed with sex, but according to research, few people are actually having mutually emotionally and physically satisfying sex. So the ways we as a culture are seeking sexual fulfillment are not working. We’re seeking it in all the wrong ways. Sometimes because terrible things have been done to us, sometimes because we have simply believed the culture’s (Satan’s) lies. There are a myriad of reasons our sexuality gets broken in this world.

If we care about our own marriages and the marriages of our children, if we care about the marriages in the future Church, sex cannot be some taboo topic that we think will work itself out in silence. It won’t. It needs specific cultivating and sometimes outside help (in the form or medication or therapy), and there is absolutely no shame in seeking help and wholeness for a part of our lives that is not thriving.

But if we feel ashamed of needing help, we won’t seek it. So if this article can do any good in the world, I hope it can empower people in marriage whose sex life is less than they desire, to seek out help somewhere. I believe seeking healing is worth it.

 

References:

What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity, by Karin Jones for New York Times.

The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, a 20-minute TED talk by Esther Perel

Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy, by Barry McCarthy.

Couples That Talk About Sex Have Better Sex, by Kyle Benson for Gottman Institute.

How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men, a 48-minute program by Shankar Vedantam for NPR

From Jonathan: On Making Love (book recommendations about sex)

Other articles Jonathan and I have written about sex and marriage

On Making Love

By Jonathan

We read way too little about sex. Sure, we might talk or joke about it a lot, we might think about it a lot, and unfortunately we may even watch a fake version of it a lot, but we read way too little about it.

In an effort to change that, I’d like to give you a list of books that I’ve read and found, um, helpful. Remember, having sex doesn’t take much skill or special knowledge, but really making love to your spouse’s heart and body, now that can take some practice. And research.

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A few caveats.

  1. The goal in all of this is NOT mind-blowing movie sex. That’s too cheap, and in any case, aiming at it isn’t likely to get it for you. No, the goal should be intimate, connected, mutually satisfying sex. Love-making.
  1. Pressure is bad. If you read these books and end up pressuring your spouse in any way, you’ve missed the whole point. The goal is not for you to compare your spouse, or pressure your spouse, or anything of the sort. The goal is intimate, connected, mutually satisfying sex. Pressure will never get you that.
  1. You don’t have to agree with everything someone says to learn something from what someone says. You won’t agree with everything in these books. Rest assured that I don’t either. But there is physiology and psychology that these folks are experts in, and we can learn from them.
  1. If your spouse doesn’t want you reading about sex, he or she probably has a very good reason. You should look into that first. For example, if you’ve violated your spouse’ trust before, or pressured them in the past, they’re probably not going to be too excited about you getting more ammunition. And they’re probably right. Have a discussion with your spouse before purchasing any of these books. Do not read these books in secret.
  1. This isn’t about frequency. A healthy sexual relationship has nothing to do with frequency. It has to do with intimacy. Do you, as husband and wife, regularly connect with each other in mutually satisfying ways, both physically and emotionally?
  1. If you are currently fighting hard against porn, these books probably aren’t for you.

 

Thermometer or Thermostat?
Many people think that a couple’s sex life sets the temperature for their marriage (like a thermostat), and that if they can just improve their sex life, they’ll improve their marriage. Or they think that their bad sex life has ruined their marriage.

But married sex is more like a thermometer, revealing what’s already there (or not). Be careful not to mix up these two terms.

 

And Now, a List
I’m not giving much commentary here, and that’s on purpose. Check them out online, use discretion, and learn!

A Celebration Of Sex: A Guide to Enjoying God’s Gift of Sexual Intimacy, Dr. Douglas E. Rosenau

She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy, Tommy Nelson

Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters–And How to Get It, Dr. Laurie Mintz  [I think this book has one or two clinical photographs of female anatomy, similar to any medical or nursing textbook.]

Woman’s Orgasm, Georgia Kline-Graber‎ and Dr. Benjamin Graber

 

More on marriage and sexuality
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife (Jonathan)

The Purpose of Marriage is NOT to Make You Holy (Jonathan)

What I want to teach my daughters about married sex (Elizabeth)

17 years of marriage, and this is all we’ve got (Jonathan and Elizabeth)

 

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Photo by Luana Azevedo on Unsplash

I’m not writing this to make money. I’m writing it because I want married couples to really enjoy making love! That being said, these links are Amazon affiliate links, so now you know.

17 years of marriage, and this is all we’ve got

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Welp. That was a fast 17 years!

In the last several years, both of us have written various pieces on marriage, relationships, and sex, and we wanted to take the opportunity here, at the inauspicious 17-year point, to share them with you. Our hope and prayer is that you would find marriage to be the great signpost to Christ that it really is. (We hope you find it really fun, too.)

all for ONE,
Jonathan & Elizabeth

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Our Journey to Finding Joy in Marriage (and the things we lost along the way)

The Purpose of Marriage is NOT to Make You Holy 

What I want to teach my daughters about married sex

When Ministry and Marriage Collide

A Marriage Blessing

When We Said “I Do”

Love Interruptus

3 Ways to Care for Heart of Your Wife

Intensity and Intentionality (a note about motherhood and marriage on the field)

Open letter to trailing spouses (and the people they’re married to)

Paul, the Misogynist?

Weaker But Equal: How I Finally Made Peace With Peter

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Top photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash. Used with permission.

I was sexually abused. Here’s what I want all parents to do if their child tells them that they were abused too.

by Jonathan

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I thought I had AIDS.

I thought I was going to die.

That’s why I told my dad about the abuse. That’s why I crawled out of bed late one evening, approached him as he was paying bills with a check-book in the kitchen, and spilled my guts.

I told him I had done terrible things. I told him I was a horrible sinner. I told him I wasn’t a virgin.

It was the late ’80s, and all I knew was that people who did bad things got AIDS. I had done bad things, therefore, I had AIDS and was going to die.

Perhaps that sounds ludicrous, but that’s how my kid-brain interpreted the data, and that’s why I told my dad.

What my dad did next is what he should have done. It’s what any parent should do when a child says they’ve been abused. It’s what any church leader should do when someone says they’ve been abused. But terribly, it’s not what many parents and leaders actually do.

He believed me.

That’s it. That’s the main thing: Believe your child.

 

Innocent until proven guilty
As an attorney, I’m tremendously thankful for our legal system. It’s got issues, for sure, but the general principal that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is absolute bedrock. It’s vital to the just operation of a courtroom.

But we’re not talking about courtrooms.

We’re talking about living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens. And in those places, you should always, always, always start off believing your child. Or friend. Or parishioner.

Somehow we’ve got this false idea that false accusations are the norm. They are not. Allegations that turn out to be fabricated do happen, and we should be aware of the possibility, but our default should be to believe the person who’s talking about being abused.

Because sexual abuse is far more common than made-up stories about sexual abuse.

Now, believing the child in front of you does not mean you automatically believe the accused is guilty. I’m not saying you jump to conclusions and throw the accused under the bus. I’m just saying that you have to start off listening and hearing and giving space to the person in front of you. Start off believing.

 

Know that it’s often unbelievable
Sexual abuse often happens in the context of a known relationship. You and the child will likely know the abuser, and that is typical. For me, it was a neighbor, and the majority of the abuse happened in my house.

You will probably know the abuser. You might even be related to the abuser, and again, that’s what will make the allegation so unbelievable.

If your child tells you about being abused, it will certainly be something you don’t want to hear about, and the thing is, it will likely involve someone you don’t want to think about. But listen to me, please. Don’t rush to defend the accused. Rush to hear the child.

I’ve heard enough stories from teenagers and clients and patients to say, with all the fire in my bones: if your child tells you about being sexually abused by someone you don’t want to think could do it, BELIEVE YOUR CHILD.

My dad believed me. He told me I wasn’t going to die. He told me I hadn’t done anything wrong. He hugged me.

And honestly, I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if they talked to the neighbors. I know I didn’t see that neighbor anymore. I wish I could ask my parents what that was like. What did they think? What did they feel? Unfortunately, that conversation will never happen; both of my parents died many years ago.

I don’t remember many of the facts. But I do remember the feelings.

I felt loved.

I felt heard.

I felt protected.

I felt valued.

I did not feel silenced.

My dad was not incredulous or doubtful or skeptical. He started off believing me, and he kept on believing me.

He hugged me.

And that’s exactly what I needed.

Two Things We Need to Teach Our Kids About Sex

by Elizabeth

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This spring Jonathan and I participated in a panel discussion on issues of sexuality and parenting. During the course of our conversation I verbalized two things I think are important when it comes to talking about sex with our children. First, from very early on we need to be cultivating a mistrust of friends’ information. And second, virginity is not the point: purity is.

Long before we ever thought about talking about sex with our children, we encouraged them to come to us with the things their friends told them. Then we could tell them if their friends were giving accurate information — or not. We happen to be a very talkative family (you probably can’t imagine that, can you??), and our children report back to us with gusto.

The things they tell us their friends said are, almost without exception, incorrect. By now it’s almost a family joke. We started this approach early and are hoping it continues into the teen and young adult years. We’ve now started telling our older kids that when it comes to sex, their friends will most likely not be correct. They appear to believe us because this has been the case for so many other topics over the years.

One more thing about the friendship issue: we need to include Google as one of these untrustworthy “friends.” There are a couple reasons for this. The internet may very well give scientifically or Biblically accurate information — but not necessarily. And young people have difficulty discerning reputable sources on the internet. Additionally, finding porn during a Google search is literally 1 second away. {I know this because it happened to me. Ew.} The internet is not our friend when it comes to sex education.

Cultivating a mistrust of friends’ information is something we can do from very early ages, before we begin talking about sex or even begin thinking about talking about sex. But when we do begin talking about sex, we need to start steering the conversation away from virginity — which has been a traditional way of talking about sex and marriage — and direct it towards purity.

Virginity refers to an event. Its loss might be a past event or a future event, but it is still a one-time occurrence. Purity, on the other hand, is a state of living and a state of being. No matter what our past is, because of Jesus, purity is possible in the present and in the future.

Purity is what Paul means when he tells us to press on. Purity is what Jesus means when He tells the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. Virginity will fail us, but purity is always available.

Our virginity status isn’t a pre-requisite for marriage. God cares more that we are currently living in purity than whether we enter marriage a virgin. (Of course, if you’re a virgin, that means God wants you to remain so until marriage.) But if sexual immortality has been confessed, repented of, and forgiven, those specific sins don’t matter anymore. We — and our children — are clean now.

So let’s not talk about virginity, other than to define what it is. Instead let’s teach our children to walk in the way of purity and commit to walking in that way ourselves.

 

In the future I’d like to address various questions about sex and relationships that I’ve received from teenagers over the years. So stay tuned.

What I Want to Teach My Daughters About Married Sex {Velvet Ashes}

Elizabeth is over at Velvet Ashes today talking about something we don’t talk about very much: sex.

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I’ve been married for 16 years now. While that’s not as long as some of you — and certainly not as long as my husband’s grandparents’ 70 years (!) — it’s still long enough to have seen and heard a lot of marriage advice.

And you know what? Some of that advice makes me cringe. So I can tell you up front: I’m not going to advise you to make sure to meet your husband’s needs by having lots of sex with him. And I’m not going to tell you that the purpose of marriage is to make you holy. (It isn’t.)

What I do want to talk about is walking in sexual wholeness.

How can I possibly talk about a topic as big and complex as human sexuality in a single blog post? While I can’t offer the comprehensiveness or the nuance that a book or a therapist can offer, I’ll give you my basic framework.

These are the things I want to teach my daughters someday: what the foundation for healthy married sexuality is, potential obstacles in the bedroom and what to do about them, and potential temptations outside of marriage and what to do about them.

Read Elizabeth’s 3 points here, as well as her first comment which offers some additional resources.