‘I Didn’t Want to Deny My Husband His Marital Rights’: For Many Evangelical Women, Sex Comes With Pain and Anxiety

A generation of evangelical women is struggling to navigate the aftermath of purity culture

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‘I Didn’t Want to Deny My Husband His Marital Rights’: For Many Evangelical Women, Sex Comes With Pain and Anxiety

Christy was raised like a lot of conservative Christian and evangelical girls in the 1990s. She was in high school when author and former pastor Joshua Harris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye—the now disavowed Christian bestseller that advised against couples even kissing before marriage. She read Elisabeth Elliot’s chaste love story Passion and Purity, a popular evangelical book about waiting for God’s timing for romance. Christy followed the rules at camp and stuck to a one-piece swimsuit, sometimes with a T-shirt coverup to protect the boys from temptation. Her North American Baptist church wasn’t extreme—girls wore pants, for example—but modesty was central and the message was clear. “Boys were always thinking about sex and so you need to take care of yourself, need to cover yourself up,” she recalls.

But for Christy, who asked not to share her last name, the mandates didn’t end once she was safely ensconced in marriage. When she wed at 26, she was a virgin. She believed “sex was only for marriage and then God would bless it.” Taught never to refuse sex with her husband unless it was an absolute necessity, and paired with her then-husband’s demands, Christy was left submitting to what felt like obligatory sex and guilt over how miserable she felt.

In recent years, persistent critique from a generation raised in the 1990s and 2000s purity movement has led to a broad interrogation of its teachings—particularly those directing adolescent girls to guard against young men’s sinful appetites. Harris rejected his own books’ central premises in a multi-year walk back (as part of the reversal he also stated there is no one right way to date, deconstructed his own faith, announced a divorce from his wife, repented for his views on women and the LGBTQ+ community, and says he no longer considers himself a Christian). While Harris tried to detangle himself from the movement for which he’d long been posterchild, the #ChurchToo movement—a Christian offshoot of #MeToo—was already doing the work of making clear how purity culture worked to normalize abuse.

But a similar probe of evangelical sexual teachings within marriage is long overdue. Faithful girls grew up into women who believed marriage mandated perpetual sexual availability, that their sexual performance would protect their husbands from straying, from sinning. A study of thousands of Christian women published in the book The Great Sex Rescue suggests the consequences of some influential, evangelical marital sexual teachings are just as scarring, long-lasting, and in some ways, more problematic. The damaging shadow of teen purity lessons still lingers and expectations around sex in marriage last a lifetime, impacting Christian women’s everyday interactions with their husbands.

Among the popular books that shaped this mindset is Every Man’s Battle, a book released in 2000 (with multiple subsequent variations such as Every Young Man’s Battle, Every Single Man’s Battle, Preparing Your Son for Every Man’s Battle, plus a 2020 anniversary workbook edition). Every Man’s Battle promised a practical, detailed plan for men who desire sexual purity and argued “the prevalence of sexual sin among men” was derived “naturally—simply by being male.” The authors assert that due to sperm production, men naturally desire “sexual release about every forty-eight to seventy-two hours,” leaving them highly susceptible to temptation within three days of their last ejaculation. And temptation lurks everywhere: from lingerie ads to female joggers, beer commercials, movies, and even receptionists.

The flipside of evangelical purity culture stressed that through marriage, women can help their husbands keep from losing in their war against temptation, or so the theory goes. Immediately upon the wedding night, women are expected to transform from a chaste protector of purity into an eager sexual partner geared to prevent her husband’s sinful eyes from straying. As Every Man’s Battle put it, “your wife can be a methadone-like fix when your temperature is rising.”

Jumping there after a purity upbringing—from diligently pure to temptress in the marital bedroom—can be a difficult physical, psychological, and spiritual leap. For many Christian women, this transition has lasting impacts on their relationship with sex and their own bodies, erasing the concept of consent to align with certain interpretations (or perhaps manipulations) of scripture.

Years into untangling the lasting impact of girlhood purity culture, after #ChurchToo outed a raft of abusive pastors, the Abuse of Faith exposé revealed hundreds of Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse cases. Books such as Jesus & John Wayne and The Making of Biblical Womanhood have left evangelicals reevaluating gender roles as they’d been taught, and now, some voices are trying to help women objectively survey how their—and their husband’s and church’s—views on marital sex have also shaped their lives. Marriage is a central institution within evangelical culture, and a full reckoning requires believers to confront where damaging theology has done harm, twisted this covenant.

Sheila Wray Gregoire, Christian marriage blogger, author, and podcaster at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, averages 800,000 readers at her blog monthly with posts like “8 Weird Sex Facts About the Romans” and “Pastors Watch How You Talk About Marriage Because You Could Be Hurting Your Congregants.” She’s become someone women turn to in order to share what it’s like to go from years of careful modesty to the first time they have sex on their wedding night, which can feel like “you don’t have a choice because this is what you have to do on your wedding night,” Gregoire notes.

Gregoire recently published The Great Sex Rescue with her daughter Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky, MPH. Beyond the grandiose, self-helpish title and end-of-chapter “Explore Together” intimacy activities (Naked Couples’ Yoga, “Learn to laugh again!”), the book also touts the largest-ever study asking Christian women about their sex lives, marriages, and beliefs about sex and marriage, with a thesis that questions broader purity culture that has alternatively shamed and then sexually coerced married women for generations.

Gregoire, et al’s survey of 20,000 Christian women demonstrated that while other studies have shown an orgasm gap, with 95 percent of men and only 65 percent of straight women reporting having an orgasm every or almost every time they have sex, Christian women fared even worse, orgasming just 48 percent of the time. “I thought it would be worse,” admits Gregoire.

It isn’t sexual dissatisfaction without reason, The Great Sex Rescue argues. Behind such figures are women who have internalized “gatekeeper” obligations to keep pre-marital relationships “pure” and what feel like present mandates to satisfy their husband’s sexual urges.

Among the women the authors spoke to in interviews and focus groups was one was named Piper. She described how she and her husband were dedicated to waiting until marriage for sex; whenever she felt things had gone too far, she would declare a 40-day fast from kissing. After the wedding, the couple attempted vaginal sex, but discovered Piper had vaginismus, a medical condition involving muscle spasms of the pelvic floor that can make penetrative sex or inserting a tampon difficult or impossible. It took six years to achieve penetration. She now wonders what would have happened if they’d had sex one of the times she felt “steamy” before marriage, or if the first time they’d tried in marriage, she’d been aroused.

They’ve done what they’re supposed to do—they get married. Sex hurts, and they don’t even realize that this is something that other people deal with… So they don’t even know they can get help

The Great Sex Rescue underscores the importance of women enjoying sex—of intimacy and mutuality—while also noting that sexual pain rates (unrelated to childbirth) are higher among Christians. Among women surveyed, 22.6 percent reported vaginismus or some other form of primary sexual dysfunction that makes penetration painful. Overall, 6.8 percent had such bad sexual pain that penetration was impossible.

“They’ve done what they’re supposed to do—they get married. Sex hurts, and they don’t even realize that this is something that other people deal with… So they don’t even know they can get help,” Gregoire said.

Linda Kay Klein grew up within the purity movement and as she worked to understand why sexual shame followed her into adulthood, spent 12 years talking to others about their own experiences, ultimately publishing the book PURE in 2018. Since publication, Klein founded a nonprofit, Break Free Together and started offering one-on-one and group coaching for people processing purity culture’s impact in their own lives.

And years out? Klein says “I hear from so many women who are experiencing vaginismus.” In her book, she noted the condition is more common among women who saved themselves for marriage, those who due to religious or cultural reasons develop an overriding fear of penetrative sex. It’s unclear why Christian women experience such high rates of vaginismus, knowledge that’s hindered in part by the general lack of research on the disorder. But Gregorie suggests a correlation between vaginismus and purity culture. “It’s the first time you have sex, you’re having sex because you have to,” she says. “Even if you want to, there’s still that ‘you have to’ message. […] It’s not a free choice for many women.” Women, Gregorie argues, “feel like, well, this is my wedding night. And so I need to, even if I’m not aroused, even if I’m super tired, even if I’m scared I have to do this.” The message that sex is a mandate, she says, “contributes to vaginismus.”

An often-quoted verse from the Bible, treated as core theology by many Christian sex and marriage writers, comes from 1 Corinthians, 7:5 in a section on sexual morality: “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Much as snippets of scripture were drawn out into popular books and a sprawling purity industry, a little Bible verse-quoting can go a long way toward normalizing extreme teachings among evangelicals, who often draw their spiritual beliefs from an amalgam of Christian bestsellers.

The Act of Marriage, a book that sold 2.5 million copies and was popular among Gen X Christians, described how conflict over sex—whether because of a woman’s disinterest or, in one example, due to an abusive spouse’s “awful beatings of our children”—could be resolved by the woman repenting and giving herself sexually to her husband.

Some teachings even formalize the idea that sex cannot be refused in marriage. In 2020, a post of Gregoire’s went viral after she shared a document saved by a woman who had attended a Solomon, Sex, and Marriage conference in 2000 led by Shane and Phyllis Womack who run the marriage ministry Exhilarate and have coached thousands through their seminars. Attendees received a “Sexual Refusal Commitment” contract to be signed by husband and wife, pledging “to make ourselves 100% willing and available for Biblical lovemaking and to not directly or indirectly refuse my spouse’s sexual needs and desires.”

Love & Respect, published in 2004 and still sold by Focus on the Family, uses the example of a mother arguing with her daughter to give her husband more sex, saying, “Why would you deprive him of something that takes such a short amount of time and makes him sooooo happy!?” Gregoire and her co-authors note, “we can’t imagine anyone expecting sex to feel good for a woman would emphasize its brevity above all else.”

Even women who had been taught they were obligated to have sex within marriage but rejected the notion were still 85 percent more likely to only have sex out of obligation than those who hadn’t been exposed to those teachings

In The Great Sex Rescue, Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, and Sawatsky reported women who agreed all men lust were 79 percent more likely to have sex out of a sense of obligation and 59 percent less likely to be frequently aroused during sex. Just having exposure to teachings that sex in marriage is obligatory, whether women accept the idea or not, has a lasting impact. Even women who had been taught they were obligated to have sex within marriage but rejected the notion were still 85 percent more likely to only have sex out of obligation than those who hadn’t been exposed to those teachings. This latter segment of women were also more likely to be in a sexless marriage, have vaginismus, have a spouse with a sexual dysfunction, or have a history of abuse.

There are many links between a sense of obligation, coercion, and marital rape, but this is not a distinction widely made within Christian marriage and sex books. His Needs, Her Needs included a quote from a man who complained “I feel like a fool—like I’m begging her or even raping her, but I can’t help it. I need to make love!” As Gregoire and her co-authors write, “We are supposed to have sympathy for the man who feels like he’s raping his wife, but not for the woman enduring it.”

In The Great Sex Rescue, Gregoire and her co-authors’ survey showed when women enter a marriage believing they are obligated to have sex with their husbands whenever their husbands want it, they are 37 percent more likely to experience sexual pain and 29 percent less likely to frequently orgasm. When asked how they feel after sex, 16 percent of women in a follow-up survey chose the word “used.” For women who believed, prior to marriage, that a wife is obligated to give her husband sex when he wants it, vaginismus and dyspareunia rates go up 37 percent.

One woman interviewed for The Great Sex Rescue described how hurt her husband feels if she denies him sex: “I curl up in a ball on my side and let him do it. I’m detached emotionally… and this hurts him. I love my husband. He’s my best friend, but sometimes I want out!” She feels like she’ll either lose her best friend or continue to feel abused. She tells him it hurts when they have sex too often or when she’s on her period, but she says he tells her “then why would God say to NEVER deny each other?”

“Probably the number one thing that my clients talk about is disassociation,” says Klein. “When it comes to sexuality, they just shut off. Whether they’re able to do it physically or not, their mind shuts off.”

Four or five years into her marriage, Christy realized her husband had an alcohol problem. Eight years in, she tried to leave, but he talked her into coming home. She told him not to touch her. Within about a week, he took to following her around the house, harassing her to have sex with him. She refused, “and then he’d be like, we need to have sex every night in order to restore the covenant.” For a while, they did, but due to frequent yeast infections, she negotiated down to every other night. She was enraged inside.

On the nights she tried not sleeping with him, he’d sit beside her as she tried to read, hounding her, asking to pray for the kids together, and then, once he had her attention, ask until she relented. Or he’d promise to help more with the kids. “That’s the way it works,” she remembers him saying. “Guys are more helpful and more expressive if you have sex with them.”

In the mornings, he told her how she screamed at him in her sleep.

She was miserable and wanted to make sure their marriage couldn’t be saved, “I’m searching for answers… I’m trying to honor God.” Online she found Created to Be His Help Meet, a book that advises navigating troubled marriages through obedience to one’s husband, written by Debi Pearl, who with her husband Michael writes books on family and “child training.” (The Pearls are best known for the “Pearl Method” of training children which includes “swatting” babies and toddlers with plastic tubing, spoons, or a small branch in order to teach them discipline. The Duggars are perhaps the method’s most famous practitioners.)

Pearl, her messages of honoring God through obedience, were what Christy “started leaning into. It was all perpetuating this guilt, me saying he’s not hitting me. He’s not forcibly raping me… I guess I have to stay married.”

She remembers one day, she was seven months pregnant with their fifth child, exhausted from chasing a toddler and preschooler while homeschooling the oldest two, and her husband started demanding sex. She said no at first but he just wouldn’t stop asking. Finally, she agreed. While they were together she looked at him and felt that he could sense her feelings. “He knows, and he doesn’t care.” It had happened so many times before, but “it just hit me super hard that time.” He left for work and she laid in bed “and was broken.”

She stayed there throughout the day, the following day. As she once shared on an abuse blog, “I called a pastor. I asked God. I didn’t want to sin. I didn’t want to ‘deny my husband his marital rights.’”

One might be forgiven, seeing the example of Harris’s long but sincere-seeming reconsideration of purity teachings, for expecting retractions and apologies as The Great Sex Rescue hit bookshelves.

Since its publication, The Great Sex Rescue has been met with gratitude from many readers who see their own struggles mirrored in its pages, but also dismissal and public scorn from evangelical leaders. After publishing a compilation of women’s comments, including those who said Love & Respect enabled abuse, The Great Sex Rescue’s authors sent them to Focus on the Family, which published and still promotes the book. Focus on the Family issued a statement saying Gregoire, a former Focus on the Family Broadcast guest, had “orchestrated a concerted campaign against the book Love & Respect,” and “Focus on the Family maintains that Love & Respect has a biblically sound, empowering message for husbands and wives…” (italics original). Gregoire and For Women Only author Shaunti Feldhahn wound up sharing dueling statements over The Great Sex Rescue’s conclusions about Feldhahn’s work.

Mark Gungor, a pastor who offers comedic marriage seminars, including with military chaplains, blasted Gregoire on social media. Gungor called her “disgusting” and “arrogant” and suggested she believes she can “lift yourself up by tearing others down.”

“I don’t even understand what happened there,” says Gregoire. She’d posted on his Facebook page about the study, noting, “Simply telling women ‘you have to have sex’ with no concern for what she is feeling is a toxic belief.” As the online disagreement continued, Gungor posted that Gregoire tried to make him look evil. Gregoire referred back to the study of 20,000 women, replying, “I used to teach exactly what you did UNTIL I looked at the results of our survey.”

While The Great Sex Rescue takes hard strides against bestsellers that have informed generations of American Christian marriages, it is not without gaps. It’s a heteronormative book that does not deal with the damage such messages have done to queer believers. Asked why The Great Sex Rescue’s survey did not push beyond heterosexual marriage, Gregoire explains it was a strategic choice: “the problem was if we ask any questions about homosexuality early in the survey, we would have lost the people that we really needed.” That is, conservative, Christian women.

I had to reconcile that expectation with reality

Gregoire describes herself in a theological in-between space. “In some ways, I’ve been evangelical, in other ways, I’ve really left evangelicalism, and I’m not really sure where I belong anymore.” She believes in Jesus, in following the Bible. Most of her readers are evangelicals, and that’s where her heart is: “I just have a lot of compassion for women who have been taught really terrible things.”

Unpacking a faith you love while reconciling some of its teaching’s harms creates a natural internal resistance. It can test definitions of faith; it can linger in your body. Even when a person no longer believes lessons once core to their worldview, Klein notes, often “their body is still functioning as though the old worldview is at play, because their neural pathways have been so deeply paved to do so.” Physically, spiritually, it’s a difficult gap to cross.

Christy, who spent 12 years with her now ex-husband, finally left. She is remarried and in a healthier marriage. Still, “there’s no justice or retribution.” She’d grown up believing if she was modest and remained a virgin until marriage and followed all the teachings she learned in youth group, then her marriage would be blessed. “I had to reconcile that expectation with reality,” Christy says.

As for the faith that she worked so hard to serve, “I do know that God is there, Jesus is there. But the God I grew up believing in, that’s not who he is, and I have to restructure my understanding of him.” She adds, “I haven’t really been able to do that.”

Sarah Stankorb is an award-winning writer in Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O Magazine, and the Atlantic, among others.

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