In an episode of Friends, one of the show's lead characters, Monica, was sick with the flu. Despite her hoarse cough and weariness, she was overcome by desire and enticed her then-boyfriend Chandler by seductively rubbing Vicks VapoRub on her chest. Monica and Chandler's relationship perpetuates three common lies about sex: Sex is easy; sex is free; and sex can be engaged in with any willing partner. Evangelicals have been quick to tell the truth about the last lie, insisting that sex ought to be reserved for one's spouse. Indeed, virginity, abstinence, and monogamy are essential virtues, but not the whole truth.

Telling less than the whole truth hurts people. This is important to me as a Christian college professor, a fertility awareness instructor, and a married woman. Together with my academic colleagues and students, I strive to critique American culture with both biblical and social science insights. Despite these efforts, I sometimes find that my behavior reveals hidden belief in these lies. I sometimes see a similar disconnect between belief and behavior in my students.

Sex Is not Easy

On TV, people often engage in sex spontaneously, without forethought or verbal communication. On Temptation Island, three women in committed relationships were separated from their partners to be tempted by buff men. One woman was asked to choose her favorite from the available bunch. "I choose Dave," she said, "because he gives the best impromptu striptease." Her choice, like hundreds of others made in popular film and TV, bases attraction and affection on visual signals alone, suggesting that sexuality is a trait separate from relationship, character, or commitment. Similarly, masters of technique are shown as the best sexual partners, while virgins, awkward lovers, or people with sexual dysfunction make for great humor. Even nonsexual things like clothes, food, and music become subjects for sexual innuendoes, joking, and arousal. If sex isn't easy for you, or if you think too hard about sexual choices, something must be comically wrong with you.

An engaged couple, one of whom was my student, came to talk with me about their upcoming marriage. The woman worried that she might not have enough sex drive to make her marriage happy. "On TV, most everyday events are sexual," she said. "Cooking, eating, coming home from work—all these commonplace things spark sexual desire. I'm not like that. I think about sex sometimes, but not all the time. Am I supposed to want it all the time once I'm married?" Though she believed in virginity and abstinence, her immersion in American culture caused her to believe the lie that sex is easy. Because she lacked knowledge of and conversation about normal, real-life sexual frequency, she worried about her possible failure.

Article continues below

Sometimes sex is easy, but whether easy or difficult, it always requires work. At the very least, it requires more verbal communication than pop media lead us to believe. Questions of when, where, how often, and how must be negotiated and renegotiated throughout a marriage. Beyond this basic relational work, many people have deeper difficulties with sex. Many newly married couples find sex painful, awkward, or even boring. They often feel ashamed, because they believed the myth that married sex will be easy and erotic from the first time on. They see "failure" mocked in popular media, and they often remain silent and alone. Sexual pain, dysfunction, emotional stress, or changes in sexual interest associated with illness, parenthood, or other life stresses are the stuff of real life. In real life, women with hacking coughs and achy bodies don't seduce their partners with decongestant medication.

The truth is that sex is hard work. Building a relationship that can contain the intimacy, vulnerability, joy, and struggles of sex takes effort. It also takes community, a network of friends, family, and believers who support the lovers in their marriage. Just like other kinds of labor—parenting, working at a job, caring for the ill, or volunteering—working at a marriage is God-blessed, fulfilling, and worthwhile. If a particular act of intercourse is spontaneous and easy, it's because the partners have worked to build a relationship within which such love can be expressed.

I informally counsel students on contraceptive choices and teach natural birth-control methods to some. One couple reported several months after their wedding that natural methods were working well, mostly because the discipline had enhanced their communication and respect for each other. "A woman is a beautiful thing," the husband said. "I am amazed at what God made." They worked for a year to build a courtship, studied for a few months to learn about fertility and the woman's cycle, and they continue to work together to maintain a beautiful marriage.

Article continues below

Sex Is Not Free

On TV, sex is about pleasure and beauty. After all, who wants to watch people discussing contraception, waiting for a late menstruation, being tested for chlamydia, or receiving treatment for gonorrhea? Like all things beautiful on TV, the most pleasurable and visually consumable parts of sex are shown, and the rest are neglected.

Another engaged couple I talked with struggled with imbalances in sexual experience. The fiancé worried that his wife-to-be would judge his lack of sexual experience. Now in her 20s, she regrets her one awkward and humiliating teenage sexual experience. She does not consider herself skilled at sex, but it was difficult for the two to work through this. A different couple accepted the high probability that his sexually transmitted disease, contracted from sexual partners in the past, would be passed to her. Both these couples chose abstinence during their courtships and received God's blessings in many ways, but both continued to bear the consequences of past decisions.

Christians too often perpetuate a white wedding story, as though we were all virgins when we married, and as though none of us have sexually transmitted diseases, past abortions or adoptions, or prior marriages. These assumptions come to light when we talk about "those people" (not us) who were sexually active before marriage, or "those women" (not us) who have had abortions or pregnancies outside marriage.

When we point fingers at presumably worldly people who bear the consequences of sexual sin, we often deepen the shame and silence of friends and family members who carry those consequences in secret. Silence and shame sometimes have more potential to damage a marriage than the sin itself.

The truth is that sex is costly. Even within marriage, making love is a high-stakes venture that requires a lifelong commitment to forgo other sexual partners and other sexual experiences, and perhaps even intercourse itself, should illness or disease make it impossible. It requires a willingness to give gifts of trust, vulnerability, intimacy, and honesty to one's spouse. It involves an openness to children, whether through human planning or God's providence. It requires a maturity to bear the other person's burdens—physical or emotional sexual trauma, the memories of sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases, or side effects of medications, childbirth, or disease.

Article continues below

Falling for the Lies

Too many Christians engage in nonmarital sex because they believe our culture's lies that sexual intercourse is essential for happiness, that arousal is a must-meet demand, and that sex is free and easy. In addition, too many Christians enter marriage with expectations that hinder their ability to enjoy one another.

When married Christians believe sex is easy, they don't communicate about sex, and problems go unaddressed. Sometimes engaged virgins naïvely believe that because they followed "the rules," sex will be easy and free. They'll be just like Monica and Chandler. When problems come, they may feel like failures because they hadn't expected to have to work so hard at sex. I hope these couples will learn to communicate honestly about sex. I hope they will draw into their union trusted advisers or professionals who can help them make wise choices. I hope sex will be great for them. If it's not great, however, right away or after a year or after 10 years, I hope they know they're not failures. They've just been lied to.

When married Christians believe sex is free, one may resent the other for the ways that results of past sexual sin come to bear on their life together. Others say, "I'm ready for marriage, but I'm too young for children." They believe that sex can be solely unitive and pleasurable—that it's always possible to enjoy the good stuff without the costly result of pregnancy. God made coupling as a whole, and our attempts to slice it up, enjoying only the present and discarding the past, or enjoying the pleasure but not the procreative aspects, often fail. I hope these couples learn to count the cost of marriage, which includes both joyful blessings and painful disappointments.

On Friends, being single is the norm because it allows for multiple sexual partners, opportunities to display one's body, and freedom to enjoy pornography or erotica unashamedly. The actors who play those characters, however, show a surprising fondness for marriage. All three women are married. They dress up and memorize lines to perpetuate lies that they themselves do not live. They see behind their own façade, and make choices that are different from those of their characters. But it is the characters on shows like this that shape American notions of sex.

It's easy to see that actors are playing roles. It's more difficult to see behind cultural façades. When Christians are silent and TV is loud, it's obvious which message will be heard. We evangelicals are doing a good job of telling the truth about God's plan for abstinence for the single and monogamy for the married. We must, however, tell more truth. We need to read our culture closely, looking beyond the messages that promote nonmarital sex to the deeper, undergirding lies. Sex is one of God's good gifts, like friendship, parenting, skiing, or playing the violin. All require hard work, and all are costly in some way. Yet when enjoyed in good stewardship as gifts, they are some of life's great blessings. That's the truth about sex.

Article continues below

Jenell Williams Paris is a professor of anthropology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is also an instructor with Fertility Awareness-Twin Cities.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site this week:
Reflections on Love and Marriage | Quotations to stir the heart and mind. (Nov. 13, 2001)
Make Love and Babies | The contraceptive mentality says children are something to be avoided. We're not buying it. (Nov. 9, 2001)
'Be Fruitful and Multiply' | Is this a command or a blessing? (Nov. 9, 2001)

Christianity Today sister publication Marriage Partnership often discusses the physical relationship of marriage and answers readers' sex questions.

Jenell Williams Paris has also written articles for The Other Side and re:generation.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.