Women & Sexuality: The Church’s Blind Spot
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, Ellen Dykas discusses three blind spots the Church has about women and their sexuality. One, they do struggle with porn and lust like men; two, wives are not necessarily the ones not wanting sex with their husband; and three, women are hesitant to go to church leadership for help on these and other issues. Ellen goes on to show how the Church can change the way its leadership sees women and their call to live with sexual integrity. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
Crunch! My little Civic didn’t stand a chance when the larger SUV swerved into my lane. Even though I passed it slowly, a few seconds in the driver’s blind spot racked up hundreds of dollars of damage to my car.
Blind spots are dangerous when you’re driving. We have blind spots in our lives and relationships, also. When we don’t acknowledge that we have them, the results can be devastating. Relationships in our jobs, friendships, families, and even in the church are impacted when we fail to see what we can’t or don’t want to see.
I want to address three blind spots I have seen over the past eleven years of my ministry here at Harvest USA, three areas where the church has repeatedly failed women in their sexuality. There are others, but these three are the ones I consistently see when I talk to women who struggle with sexual issues. When churches recognize these three blind spots, they will be better equipped to understand and help women.
Blind spot # 1: Women don’t struggle with sexual sin and lust like men do
A few years ago at a Harvest USA fundraising banquet, I found myself defending my full-time position as Women’s Ministry Director. The conversation went like this:
Well-meaning man: “You’re full time? Are there that many wives who have Christian husbands looking at porn?”
Me: “Well, yes; not only do wives reach out for help, but Christian women who are struggling with things like pornography and casual sex do as well.”
Well-meaning man: “Really? I never thought women struggled with that stuff!”
It wasn’t the first time I had to defend my job. Women have felt invisible in the church. When it comes to sexuality, most of the attention has gone to men. So, when a woman looks for help, no one is there for her because we rarely acknowledge women’s sexual struggles.
Darcy¹ came to me for help because she couldn’t stop hooking up with men. She’d sought out more men than she could remember, and her face and voice communicated shame and pain as she gave me her diagnosis, “Ellen, I guess I’m just more like a man.”
She needed help understanding that lust and sexually-sinful behaviors are gender neutral.
Why did Darcy think that? Because in her church circles, she only heard that men had problems with lust. Yes, there was something wrong with Darcy, but it wasn’t that her sexuality was more like a man’s. She needed help understanding that lust and sexually-sinful behaviors are gender neutral! Idolatrous and lonely, selfish hearts don’t belong to one gender.
I see two reasons that contribute to this blind spot. One has to do with how men perceive women. Men do tend to have stronger sex drives as a result of their biology. And since men are overwhelmingly in church leadership, they know their own issues but somehow think that women are radically different than them. The standard script is: women are drawn to relationships; men to sex. You mean women have libidos? Why does the church have this blind spot when current statistics on porn use show that 60% of females ages 18-30 acknowledge that they look at porn at least monthly?
Secondly, I have noticed that women contribute to this blind spot, too. We don’t talk much about sexual issues (at Bible studies, retreats, etc.). If men are ignoring our struggles, we are complicit in not speaking up. It’s what I call the ABC mentality: A, men don’t think women have these struggles; B, women aren’t speaking about them; therefore C, churches don’t devote resources and ministries to women in this area.
Pardon me, but I have to yell: THIS IS A DANGEROUS BLIND SPOT! It’s leaving Christian women to struggle alone in silence and shame! I have taught on sexuality to women from all over the United States and several countries, and their testimony is consistent: we are struggling, we don’t hear the church talking about this as a women’s issue, and we don’t know where to get help!
How can churches eliminate this blind spot?
First off, recall that Jesus had no problem coming alongside women who struggled sexually. From the “sinner” who most likely was a prostitute (Luke 7:36-50) to the Samaritan woman who had multiple husbands (John 4:5-26), to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus did not ignore women. Jesus engaged these women as who they are: sexual sinners who need forgiveness and truth woven in with compassion.
Here’s how we can follow the example of Jesus:
- Pastors and women’s ministry leaders, teach a full-orbed biblical sexuality. God gifted women with their sexuality for his glory. Even though the Fall has marred its beauty, Jesus came to forgive and transform sexual sinners, women as well as men! When you speak or preach, utilize illustrations and testimonies that highlight how the gospel gives hope, courage, and holiness for women who are bound up in sexual sin. Perhaps do a sermon series or Sunday school class on the three passages listed above, explaining how we can follow Christ’s example to protect and extend grace to women.
- Take the courageous initiative to weave sexual topics into ongoing discipleship ministries, and equip women to come alongside each other. Our workbook, Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness, was written for this purpose and has a companion E-Book Leader’s Guide. Also, our website has loads of free articles and blog posts on sexuality that can give you ideas for rich discussion topics.
Blind spot # 2: The primary sexual issue in Christian marriage is that husbands want sex more than wives
The first blind spot leads to another erroneous belief that married women, in particular, do not care about or lose interest in sex. Wives are often told and counseled that this is why their husbands are looking at porn or have gone outside the marriage for sexual encounters.
The reality is far different. More Christian marriages than we realize have sexually-unengaged husbands. Peek into my ministry world:
- A woman’s husband has not initiated sex, or responded to her initiation, in over two years. She described herself as a woman with a strong longing for sexual intimacy.
- A pastor’s wife who hadn’t had sex in 10 years with her husband said, “I guess life just got busy with his ministry, and we got out of the habit.”
- Finally, there is a young wife who wants sex more frequently than her husband. There’s no sexual sin going on; she just has a stronger sex drive!
Of course, there are many reasons for these stories. And yes, some wives are less than enthusiastic about sex with their husbands. I have met many wives who do not enjoy sex and even disdain it. But if you look a bit closer you’ll see reasons that are important to know.
I see this more all the time: wives who feel like nothing more than an object for their husband’s sexual pleasure.
Past sexual trauma will influence a woman’s view of her husband and her own body. Sex that is not physically pleasurable, like rarely experiencing orgasm, will impact a woman’s desire. A full life of working and being a mom leads to exhaustion. Who has the energy? And, I see this more all the time; wives who feel like nothing more than an object for their husband’s sexual pleasure.
Now, hear me on this point. I’ve already said that women have battles with sexual sin too, including pornography, fantasy, lust, compulsive masturbation, and adultery. And like men, they bring the residue of past sin or current struggles into the marriage. So do NOT hear me playing a blame game on men here.
But in the age of the internet, one stark reality is that far too many Christian men are more than dabbling with a little porn here and there. It should not surprise us, given the degree to which the internet is embedded in our daily life, and the ease with which pornography can be accessed, that Christian men are viewing pornography in greater and greater numbers (with the use of porn among youth and younger men being far higher). As one study concluded, “Men of all ages and stages, but especially married men, are coming to pastors for help with pornography struggles.”
When a husband trains himself to be aroused and satisfied sexually by images or other types of pornography, his ability to be aroused by his wife often diminishes. Real life—and real bodies— pale against the photoshopped, fantasy stories the internet sells. Porn-induced erectile dysfunction is now a thing.
And when porn doesn’t reduce a husband’s interest in having sex with his wife, it can become the coach for what he wants sexually from his wife. The result is wives who feel manipulated and used.
Pastor, when you hear of a marriage problem involving sex, dig for the reasons why.
- Do not accept pornography usage as being either a “small porn problem,” or “just what men do.” Regardless of how often a husband views it, pornography teaches a way of life and relating that is so terribly damaging. Do not say to a wife of a husband who is involved with porn that she should “have more sex,” so that he won’t look at it. I’ve heard so many tragic stories from wives who were counseled this way.
- It is time to offer marriage classes that have discussions on sex. There is a lot of confusion about sex among God’s people. I’ve been asked many questions from Christian married women like, does anything go in marriage as long as it’s mutual? What do I do if my husband wants to do things I’m uncomfortable with? Is it ok if we watch pornography together before we are intimate? I masturbate secretly because I rarely orgasm with my husband…is that ok?
- Be proactive with pre-marriage couples. The best time to catch problems that will likely destroy a marriage is before the wedding. Pre-marriage counseling must include a frank and honest discussion of sexual history, current sexual sin struggles, as well as a clear emphasis on God’s beautifully good design for husbands and wives to serve and love each other selflessly in their sexual relationship.
Blind spot # 3: Women should have no problems talking to pastoral leadership when they are struggling with a sexual issue
There is a sad and tragic reality that I have seen in working with women. Most women do not feel safe going to pastoral leadership to talk about sexual struggles.
A forty-year-old woman came to me for help after two decades of promiscuity. She ran a highly successful business: an escort service which offered sex for money. At age 19, she had been an active member in her church, singing on the worship team, and living a life of sexual integrity. What happened?
She had a secret: she had feelings for girls. She was scared and confused but finally mustered the courage to seek help from her pastor. She explained that she’d never pursued any romantic or physical experiences with girls but needed help.
His response? “We don’t have anything for you here and, it’s best you step down from the worship team.” She did step down—and out of that church and found acceptance in the LGBT community, which became her home for twenty years.
I’ve sat with too many women who have shared stories that have made me ache with tears; others have infuriated me. Single women who have been counseled like this, ‘If you’d just find yourself a husband then you wouldn’t have these kinds of issues.’ Wives who have been told to submit to their husbands in the bedroom, even when that submission meant feeling degraded and used. Wives have been diagnosed as paranoid, because they suspected their well-known and respected-by-the-church husband of infidelity.
Experiences like these teach women to keep their struggles hidden and silent. They live with shame for feeling like a failure in their life or marriage, and they are desperate to talk to someone who understands and is safe.
Women with this history transfer their fear and distrust of men to male leadership in the church. Far too many men in leadership do not recognize this as a substantial issue for women.
And there’s the sober reality of sexual abuse survivors who are in your church. It has become common knowledge, backed by numerous studies, showing that 20% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. This trauma is devastating, and while survivors respond to their abuse in unique ways, it is not uncommon for many women to fear men and authority. Far too many men in church leadership do not recognize this as a substantial issue for women. It’s a glaring blind spot.
Here are a few ways church leaders can cultivate an atmosphere of safety and grace for women sexual strugglers and wives.
- Examine your beliefs about women and sexuality, and discuss this article with women you respect. Ask them: where do you see my blind spots? What do I need to learn?
- Offer anonymous surveys to the women in your church to learn from them about what their reality is regarding sexual struggles and sin.
- Work to make your church grow into a place where women have a voice and will be protected, defended, and helped if their husbands are unrepentant. Raise up and train women leaders to whom the women in the church can go for help. This would greatly encourage women to address their fears of talking to pastors and leaders.
Paul’s pastoral benediction to the Thessalonians, a church obviously struggling with sexual sin, was this, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Brothers and sisters, our God’s peace has been entrusted to us as his ambassadors. It is our calling to extend Christ’s shalom, or human flourishing, to women and their sexuality. Will you engage it? Will you consider implementing changes to the way you teach, preach and disciple your people? Your women? I hope you will and will pray to that end.
Ellen Dykas is the Women’s Ministry Director of Harvest USA. To reach her with questions or advice about her article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
¹All names have been changed.