I recently read the newly released book The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended by Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, et al. The book is written out of an evangelical, purity culture context, and surveys over 20,000 women across several Christian denominations to get its data.
The premise was very interesting, and I find the data about the harm of standard Christian marriage/sexuality books and their messages to be compelling. What disappoints me is that Gregoire and her co-authors continually perpetuate other standard staples of evangelical culture that really require more nuance. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised–Gregorie and her co-authors come from a far more evangelical background, whereas I tend to fall more towards sex positivity in my faith than others. I did think it important however, to address a few of the points I think deserve more nuanced treatment so that people who read the book for the data are aware of some of the failings in other areas.
Lack of nuance around non-monogamy, porn usage, and masturbation once in marriage
The authors consistently emphasize non-monogamy and porn usage as blanket sins, and while they don’t address masturbation a whole lot they generally say that both sex and intercourse should happen solely one’s spouse once married. There are some major issues with this.
Many Christians reject multiple partners point-blank, but the reasons for that are not all that solid. Polygyny (multiple wives with one husband) does indeed have a largely negative history, and certainly serves to reinforce negative gender hierarchies and abuse systems. Polyamory, especially in the form of ethical non-monogamy, is quite a different thing. For one thing, there is some compelling evidence for a portion of the population being innately monogamous and another portion being innately polyamorous. The exact portion of each is hard to pin down, ranging from a minority of one or the other to a 50/50 split—suffice to say that there is enough of a population that is innately polyamorous that Christians should be hesitant to advise rejecting polyamoury point-blank. Ethical non-monogamy is also a sub-culture that has grown more open over the past three decades and which has some quite laudable principles and norms, particularly around communication, honesty, and social/personal responsibility that many monogamous couples would do well to take to heart. My general view is that, even if one identifies as Christian and aims to serve Christ in this life, as long as they are aiming for sex between people who are legally and morally able to consent than that is acceptable. Polyamoury falls within that definition from my perspective–though it is not something I personally am drawn to.
Porn usage, and the porn industry, has far more compelling reasons to be wary–and yet even that requires nuance. On the one hand, the porn industry often does favour the graphic and abusive over more loving exemplars, and it also certainly tends to set and portray unrealistic standards. There are also legitimate concerns around issues such as consent and pervasiveness of human trafficking. At the same time, there has been a rise in ethical porn sites, and not a lot of studies done on their effects. The studies that have been done on porn in general tend to draw the drug analogies in popular discourse–but if you look at neurochemicals released during non-pornographic driven masturbation and even sex between attached adults you’d be tempted to draw drug analogies as well–indeed, oxytocin works to bind us to the people we have sex with which seems just as addictive in in its own way as dopamine release. There’s also some merit in recognizing pornography as a modern form of the sex work that has been in every civilization we know of for millennia–and its worth considering that payment for recorded performances have the potential to be of less risk than payment for in-person sexual services. There’s no denying that the porn industry and porn usage has real problems–but there’s another side to the story that complicates the narrative enough that I, as a Christian man who doesn’t use porn, am not quite ready to say its completely out-of-bounds for all Christians.
The authors also don’t address masturbation in marriage specifically, but given some of the areas they do focus on, a reader could be forgiven for assuming solo sex when married is objectionable from their view. I won’t spend long on this but suffice to say that many sex and marriage experts have acknowledged that solo sex can indeed be part of a healthy marriage rather than requiring complete abstinence on the part of one partner or the other.
Cisgender heteronormative exclusivity
One of the most glaring lacks of the book was that all of the anecdotes and cases studies, and most of the data, focused specifically on cis-het couples and individuals with no accounting for trans, non-binary, or same-sex experiences. This can theoretically be excused by a conscious decision to focus on a demographic for the study but some acknowledgment of such in the prose to acknowledge the limitations of the findings would have been far more reassuring.
Sex Before Marriage
The authors refused to challenge the narrative of abstaining from sex before marriage. This is a huge oversight given the findings of others around abstinence-only discourse, the later average age of people getting marriages in the Western world, and others. There was also no coverage of what effect an abstinence before marriage message had on later sexual performance despite the coverage of other messages before marriage on later sexual performance and satisfaction. This is a question that really should be addressed more as there have been some excellent books that have covered the relatively recent advent of a complete, absolutist view of abstinence before marriage.
Anorgasmia, premature ejaculation and delayed ejaculation as dysfunction
The authors challenged many harmful messages to both men and women in evangelical discourse. One of the areas they failed is an emphasis on orgasm rates in both males and females, and a perpetuation of harmful beliefs around premature and delayed ejaculation in men. They view anorgasmia, premature ejaculation and delayed ejaculation as sexual dysfunction point-blank and that is questionable to say the least.
Anorgasmia has many causes, and a good chunk of them are psychological. One of the things that can cause anorgasmia is, in fact, a focus on reaching orgasm. More recent recommendations are, in fact, to focus on enjoyment of the experience, not the end result. Obviously, lack of understanding around the low rates of female orgasm using purely vaginal stimulation lead to their own problems, but so does focusing purely on orgasm.
Premature ejaculation can also be caused by many different reasons–but one reason to be instantly wary is expectations of the average time to ejaculation. Findings vary from 2-4 minutes, but the the time to male ejaculation is in fact, far shorter than many think. Knowing that ejaculating after two minutes of direct penile stimulation is, in fact, quite normal for many, can really help folks to relax on expectations about how long they, or their partners, should last.
Delayed ejaculation is historically less of an issue, but is on the rise in modern times. There are a few reasons for this–dietary issues that lead to restrictions in blood flow and circulation, biochemistry impacted by anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, etc, and masturbatory practices that train the body in certain ways (ie. clenching the fist harder than any vagina can be expected to, etc.)–and again, psychological issues are a huge factor. Erection and ejaculation cannot happen without sufficient relaxation (counter-intuitive for many, but it helps if you move away from thinking of the penis growing “hard” and remember that the penis is, in fact expanding due to increased blood-flow, more akin to a balloon, and that muscles in the groin area are relaxing to increase length rather than tightening to strengthen the erection).
For both delayed ejaculation and premature ejaculation, and even anorgasmia, the authors of the book recommend immediately getting medical intervention. That is NOT what doctors and sex experts recommend–current practice is, in fact, that if it is not causing the patient psychological distress or impacting their life in other disruptive ways, it can generally be left alone. Now, that said, erections should still be happening with some regularity so that blood is going to the penis–if erections aren’t happening at all for weeks at a time that should definitely be checked out to be safe; but ejaculations and even orgasms are less of a focus than many once assumed. Educating all partners about that is key to keeping expectations realistic and building a healthy sexual dynamic.
All in all, I really do appreciate some of the harmful messaging the authors exposed and the statistics they found are quite laudable–but there are some other messages that the authors perpetuated uncritically that remain problematic and which should have been engaged with more given the nature of their work.
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