When a man brags about his wife's looks, body, or smoking hot prowess, we may consider his remarks loving compliments from a husband to his better half, but when I hear a man say those things, I bristle. Especially if he's a pastor, a man apportioned by God to shepherd not only the men in their congregations, but the women too. Wounded women. Tired women. Abused women. Women with so many "godly" expectations thrown at them that they'll either break under the weight or bootstrap themselves, try-try-trying harder, experiencing burnout, and never quite living up to anyone's expectations.
These expectations get laid out in blog posts, books, sermons, conferences, and keynotes, all directed at us, Christian women. Earlier this year, I wrote "The Sexy Wife I Can't Be," sharing what it felt like to attend a "sexy wives" conference, where the speakers talked about ways to entice, offer our bellies as fruit bowls, and become the sex kittens our men deserve. I felt bile rise up in my throat. I knew I couldn't have been the only woman in this audience suffering from flashbacks from unwanted sexual abuse. I left that conference feeling less than. I tried some of the things they suggested, but I ended up feeling even more cheap, more used, thrust backward in my oh-so-long journey toward healing. I playacted; I disconnected; and when I couldn't keep up the charade, I felt even more guilty. Smoking hot, I was not.
Several years ago, Pastor Mark Driscoll wrote a response to the Ted Haggard scandal. While the original entry has since been pulled from his site, these are his words:
Most pastors I know do not have satisfying, free, sexual conversations and liberties with their wives. At the risk of being even more widely despised than I currently am, I will lean over the plate and take one for the team on this. It is not uncommon to meet pastors' wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either.
He's not the only man who holds these expectations. Earlier this month, blogger Vaughn Ohlman wrote on Christian men's site Persevero News, "Scripture clearly teaches that the married man is to seek out his wife, sexually, continuously, and that a failure to do so will expose a man to temptation … We are not called to come together when the time is perfect for both people; we are called to come together frequently, continuously, when it is needed or desired by either person!"
This line of thinking tells wives that if they struggle in the sexual area and their husbands look elsewhere, it's partly their fault. They've violated that scriptural call to be a smoking hot, sexually satisfying wife.
If the Song of Solomon is a prescriptive marriage manual, where we're always wowed and awed by our sexy spouses, where is there a need for forgiveness, acceptance, forbearance, love, kindness, and selflessness? The beauty of marriage is two flawed people living under one roof, choosing to be faithful, even when we're disappointed.
Besides, how can we uphold Solomon as a godly husband? He had thousands of "wives." (). He gave into every base desire, embracing fleeting passion to his detriment. To equate his encounters with the Shunnamite woman as prescriptive for married love seems shortsighted.
What's a wife to do? Or a husband, for that matter? How can we patiently love each other, give grace, and find deep fulfillment in the marital union? (I'm not an expert. I'm wife of 22 years to Patrick, mother of three, and a sexual abuse victim who's healed so much.)
1. Understand the difference between what our culture espouses versus what God requires of us.
The culture is oversexed, immersed in pornography, sex trafficking, and prostitution. It's a cheap, horny view of sex that insults the beauty God intended. If we try to emulate what our culture applauds, the result will be a shallow sex life. A broken one, too.
2. Dare to talk about sex with your spouse.
This is one of the hardest things to do, whether you've been abused or not. Healing for us came in the context of excruciatingly open conversations, even talking about what triggers awful memories. Talking openly also includes sharing your fears. Several posts have been written of late about crossing the line from forbidden sex before marriage and celebrated sex within marriage. It's not always so easy to move from "This is bad," to "This is good." I was utterly, profoundly petrified of my wedding night. It's taken me years to move from bad to good. (Side note: If your spouse doesn't understand your past sexual abuse, share this article I wrote for Today's Christian Woman. It's my story, but it's also my husbands' perspective.)
3. Sacrifice for each other out of love.
Take care of yourself, not because the culture dictates a "smoking hot" you, but because you love your spouse and you want to be a blessing. Sacrifice for the other, being an example of humility and authenticity and loving each other despite each other's shortcomings. Isn't that how Jesus treats us, His church? With grace? With kindness? With beauty? With hope? With authenticity? With sacrifice?
4. Maintain a higher, more holistic view of your spouse.
Women are not the sum of their anatomical parts. Men aren't helpless against the onslaught of our sexually charged culture. Women are heart, decisions, sacrifice, inner and outer beauty. Men are gentle, strong, wild, yet not held hostage by sexual urges. Together we all represent a holy, outrageous God. We need each other to complete the picture. And to see each other with dignity, as whole persons, we dignify our God.
5. Heal for the other's sake.
My husband and I had a rocky start because of the violations I experienced growing up. It's hard for me to think sex is beautiful. I tend to disconnect from the act, just as I did when neighborhood boys violated me at age five. I could make a case for never having sex, and I know several people whose marriages have broken up because of this. But that doesn't make room for the gospel--that overflowing beauty of Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection. I am truly broken in this area, haunted by the smoking hot wife, tortured by awful flashbacks from the past when I was a body to be used for others' gratification. My brokenness is actually an oxymoron-gift. It forces me to run to Jesus, to let him know I can't heal in this area without him. It helps me need him more. And in that state of need, he has healed and continues to heal me.
When Patrick takes note of my pursuit of healing, he's encouraged. I am, too. Remember, too, that healing isn't a one-time event. It continues. I recently wrote an open letter to my molesters, a letter of anger, yet forgiveness, and experienced a little more light, a smidgen of healing.
6. Applaud growth.
Here's a helpful analogy. Consider a drive through a typical neighborhood. Some yards are weedless, pristine. Others are overgrown, weed-frenzied. If the owner of the weedless yard mows his lawn, the effort may take an hour, but the result is further beauty. If the person with the weedy yard spends a day in the yard, yanking, hauling, sweating, beautifying, his yard will still not look as pristine as the other. And yet hours of work is represented.
People who have walked through sexual abuse or dysfunction or shame-filled choices have weedy yards. Please don't compare us to the other yard. Please see that we have so much farther to go. Applaud the one weeded patch we sweated over. The problem with comments like Driscoll's is that it assumes we all come to marriage pristine, unmarred, and that it's just a simple choice to be sexy and available. Honestly, just putting on a piece of lingerie represents hardwon growth for me.
I may not be a smoking hot wife. But I'm so well loved by my husband. And I love him well. I think he's handsome. He thinks I'm beautiful. Together, we're learning that there's more to marriage than silly sayings and stereotypes.
Mary DeMuth is the author of over a dozen books including her memoir Thin Places, which reveals her story of past neglect and abuse in raw clarity. She speaks around the nation and the world about living an uncaged life. Her greatest accomplishment? A dear, dear family in Texas—a husband of 22 years and three nearly-grown children. In her spare time she gardens, runs, leads a high school girls' group, and cooks-cooks-cooks for family and friends.