skirmishing over good sex #pietka

Skirmishes about good sex (bad sex?) are breaking out all over the place. With her recent, widely read and distributed post, Rachel Pietka has set the cat among the pigeons, arguing as she does that Christians should not assume or expect that sex in marriage will be great. It might never be great, and that’s ok, she says – just take bad sex as an occasion to grow in grace and focus on the more vital aspects of life and marriage.

Pietka is particularly taking aim at the false claim of abstinence education programs that insist that if you just wait until you are married, you will have the reward of great sex. She thinks this emphasis on great sex is setting an awful lot of people up for disappointment in the bedroom when the wedding night is a flop and there may be years of sexual dissatisfaction.

But as an orthodox Christian, Pietka also doesn’t believe the answer to this problem  is an abandonment of abstinence before marriage (which is, of course, the prescription contemporary culture offers). Rather, as mentioned, she suggests that sexual incompatibility, or bad sex, is something that Christians just might have to endure faithfully and prayerfully, as we endure many other things.

And in the other corner we have Sheila Gregoire, who has written a book entitled The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex. So you can imagine where she comes down on all of this. To sum up her counter-argument to Pietka: “After a decade, whether your honeymoon was great or not, you experience roughly the same levels of sexual satisfaction. Sex is a learning curve, and the best thing to do is just relax and be happy you can truly be intimate. Don’t worry too much. Things will happen and will get great with time.”

Accent on get great with time. So, just stick it out and things will get great, even stupendous. There may be issues to work through, but with time and patience you and your spouse can do it. And really, that’s what God wants for you together – great sex, in the fullest sense of that phrase.

It sounds almost like a health and wealth gospel for the bedroom. God wants you to have a new BMW. God wants you to have the athleticism of a 20 year old when you are 59. God wants you to have a great-paying, rewarding job. God wants you to reach orgasm every time you make love to your husband (she writes mostly for women!). In the bedroom, things really can (say it with me) “get great with time.”

Ok, so I’m torn on this one.

I think Pietka is right to highlight the fact that there are women and men who live with sexual incompatibility over many years – a physical relationship in which neither finds real pleasure or satisfaction or fulfillment; a physical relationship in which each partner walks away from the sexual encounter with feelings of regret or pain or shame. And on this point I think Gregoire doesn’t take Pietka seriously enough, though she does acknowledge these realities.

I suppose that my kind-of-cranky nature also puts me in Pietka’s camp – which means that, with her, I want to oppose the hyper-sexualized culture we live in. Contrary to everything the entertainment industries want to tell us, life isn’t about great sex.

But in many ways I WANT to agree with Gregoire. At some level her thoughts on sex are wise, compassionate and timely. Husband and wife can and should be patient with each other, work through struggles together, be selfless with one another (a lesson particularly vital for the men out there, perhaps), and should know that they can grow and mature together over time. All of this may be done prayerfully, seeking to be faithful to Christ who gives the other to us in love and service.

I must say, however, that there are aspects to Gregoire’s blog post that I find it hard to accept. Let me enumerate three:

1) Reading her post I’m left with the impression that it represents a common form of contemporary Christianity in which the gospel is equated with God’s desire for us to have a fulfilled life. And great sex is part of that fulfilled life God wants for married couples. But when I read the New Testament, it just isn’t about the wonderful fulfilled life that God wants for me or for my family. Life in the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ just isn’t like so many evangelical worship songs – all about me. It’s about formation in the Body and way of Christ for service to the world that he loves. When you add to this the fact that Paul didn’t even think marriage (let alone sex) was vital to life in the kingdom, it’s harder than ever to be in any way preoccupied with the idea that God just wants us to have a fulfilled life (including great sex for those who are married).

2) To raise a more specific concern, Gregoire says that “we married people have access to the most intimate experience people can have this side of heaven.” Really? Who says it is the most intimate experience people can have? This seems to be a wholesale embrace of the contemporary elevation of sex. Does Gregoire really want to say that Jesus never experienced the most intimate experience that people can have this side of heaven? Is this not the epitome of idolizing sex?

3) Finally, Gregoire says that because they know the author of sex, Christian married couples can have a level of intimacy that others don’t and that this should just make sex better. “The spiritual intimacy feeds the physical side, and sex can be much more stupendous.” But I just don’t accept this. In fact, I think that non-Christians have sex that can be just as faithful or meaningful as that experienced by Christians. I can’t help but feel that Gregoire’s language of “intimacy with one another and God” reduces life and faith to a pop-psychological category (intimacy) that is so nebulous as to be meaningless. Further, it seems to raise the bar even further – not only are we supposed to have great sex, we are supposed to have stupendously intimate sex, whatever that means. Set up for failure, again?

Admittedly, these responses to Gregoire’s post are impressionistic, and I cannot know her wider theological and ecclesiological commitments. Further, I’m responding to only to one blog post. I want to agree with her – I like much of what she says – but I just can’t accept that sex is everything she makes it out to be.

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