This post is part of a weekly Her.meneutics series called The Sex We Don’t Talk About, designed to feature female perspectives on aspects of sex and sexuality that can go overlooked in the church.
There are some desires that are fine for women to express. We want husbands. We want fulfilling careers. We want children. But we want better sex? We want orgasms? Many Christian women can barely allow themselves to think, let alone voice, their sexual desires.
It took me years as a married woman to admit that I have certain sexual desires—some that aren’t always fulfilled. It took me even longer to start to talk about them. Behind my hesitation lies the fear that wanting more sex, better sex, or different sex is somehow wrong. We mostly still believe the prevailing script: men are testosterone-driven sexual animals who want it all the time, and women simply put up with it. Our warnings to new brides, as well as many of the popular sex resources in evangelical circles (I think of the book Sheet Music), often reinforce that notion. Without other narratives available, women with stronger sex drives can feel abnormal and afraid our perspectives would be dismissed and rejected.
Certainly, things are changing. Recent research has shown that women are just as easily aroused and can have sex drives as strong as men. Daniel Bergner’s 2009 New York Times article “What Do Women Want?” and subsequent book by the same name brought that research to light and began normalizing female desire. One commentator recommended the book be read by every woman on earth—which goes to show how little we address women’s sexuality.
In Christian circles, women are also piping up. Through talking about this topic, we develop ways to express our desires without feeling embarrassed. So much of the typical language around sex and sexual desires centers around men (think “horny” and its phallic connotations) that it can be difficult for women to articulate their own feelings of arousal. In the Fox series New Girl, Zooey Deschanel coins the term “twirly” to refer to her desire for sex.
Beyond not being able to express what we want as women, sometimes we just don’t know what we want, or that we want at all. Researchers have found a bizarre mind-body discord in women. In one study, women were more likely to say they were not aroused when shown various film clips, even as their physiological responses registered obvious arousal. Meanwhile, men’s ratings more closely matched their bodily responses. The researcher surmised “women might more likely have grown up, for reasons of both bodily architecture and culture…with a dimmer awareness of the erotic messages of their genitals.” In other words, we just aren’t as in touch with our sexual selves.
Fear, again, is a major player. Women, more than men, develop a love-hate relationship with our bodies. We often correlate bodily pleasure, such as enjoying a rich piece of chocolate, with sin and guilt, and thus fear what our bodies want. This fear transfers over to the sexual realm, leading us to squelch our longings.
It can also feel selfish to acknowledge our sexual desires. As mothers, wives, givers, and all-around people-pleasers, we’re not used to seeking our own pleasure. We also don’t want to come off as ungrateful or insult our partners. In certain Christian circles, where sex is seen as more virtuous if it is always open to reproduction, wanting sex to feel good can somehow feel less spiritual.
As Christians, we value sex as a God-given gift for marriage. It’s not all about what we want, but about union, self-giving love, and faithfulness to God’s image in us. At the same time, God intended sex to be pleasurable—for women in particular. If it is true, as many sex resources say, that the clitoris is the only organ that exists solely for pleasure, it seems clear that it’s not just permissible, but good, for us to enjoy sex.
It makes sense too within the larger scheme of who God is. God as a lover delights in and yearns to delight his beloved. If our relationships and sex lives reflect in a small way God’s own passion, pleasure should rightfully be part of the picture. It’s a good thing to voice what we want, as long as we’re able to situate our desires within the broader story of God’s character and love.
Yet, it can feel dangerous to be present to our sexual desires, like opening a Pandora’s box. Will our desires be too much to handle? Is it better just to keep them locked up?
It takes much wisdom and maturity to discern lustful impulse from God-given desire, and much grace and self-control to live in the tension of unmet desire (see Tara Owens’ insightful and nuanced discussion of desire in her book Embracing the Body). Yet, I believe that being awake to and voicing our desires, not in a demanding or entitled way, but in a open-handed, trusting way, is to live more fully, to be capable of deeper intimacy, and, in short, to be more human.
May we each walk with God into the fullness of our humanity, desires and all, receiving more goodness and grace than we believed possible.