I’m going to start this book with a challenge: let’s not settle for enough sex so that our husbands stop bugging us. Let’s get the whole works. Imagine you and your husband enjoying a truly intimate, satisfying relationship, with both of you willing and eager to make love. It may sound impossible, but let’s think of that as our potential.
In other words, let’s not make improving your sex life an exercise you have to do grudgingly to make your marriage better. That hardly sounds fun, and it sure isn’t going to inspire very many amorous thoughts. Instead, let it be an exciting adventure! You don’t have to understand now how you’re going to get there; just dream that it can happen. After all, what have you got to lose? Let’s get excited—if you’ll excuse the pun—about the prospect, and imagine what our lives could be like if all these relationship dreams came true.
But before we delve too deeply into this topic, relax! Often we take sex far too seriously. After all, if you think about it, sex more closely resembles a big cosmic joke than it does anything else. Our bodies are actually quite gross with all the different fluids and odors they produce. And what can be sillier than sex, where your desire is determined far more by the state of your house, your grocery list, or your children than by the state of your beloved? C. S. Lewis wrote that he was fairly certain God didn’t mean for sex to be perfectly serious.1 He meant it to reveal all our flaws, and yet also to help us accept each other nonetheless, just as God accepts us. It isn’t meant to always be a perfectly mystical union, but instead meant to show grace and, perhaps even more frequently, God’s sense of humor. “Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you may let in a false goddess,” Lewis warns.2 Take sex too seriously and you risk losing love altogether. So laugh a little with God, and commit this area of your life to Him. You can do it.
Many people believe the sexes are not essentially different (they think we’re just raised to be different), but when sex drives come into the picture, it’s not hard to prove the case. Why do so many men frequent strip joints and buy Playboy? Playgirl has a much smaller readership (and many readers are actually gay men).3 Most women don’t get turned on by a flip of a switch.
Roy Baumeister and his colleagues surveyed the psychological literature regarding sex drives and concluded that men’s sex drives tend to be more “fixed, urgent, and biologically driven,” whereas women’s sex drives are more “fluid, flexible, and influenced by social settings.”4 In other words, men’s sex drives arise from the urgency their bodies feel, whereas women’s sex drives arise more from their relationships. Although we can enjoy sex as much as men can, it won’t meet all of our needs. It may temporarily feel nice and help us to feel closer to our husbands, but that’s not our primary emotional need. Instead, we want to feel loved, and, ironically, sex doesn’t always provide that.
Yet relationship worries aren’t the only things that can jeopardize our sex lives. You could be warming up with some loving kisses when you suddenly remember, with stark panic, that your teenager needs an application for a college scholarship filled out by tomorrow, and you’re not sure if she has finished it or not. Or that you promised to carpool your daughter to gymnastics this week, but your son has to stay after school to practice for a play, and you don’t know how you can pick up two children at different parts of the city at the same time. Sometimes it’s something far more mundane, such as realizing you need to go grocery shopping, and then starting to tick off in your mind what should be on the list. We don’t mean to think about these things; they just pop into our heads, and before we know it we’re no longer concentrating on our husbands. And when we do this, our ability to physically respond gets turned off.
Think about our different responses to headaches. When a woman has a headache, she can’t have sex. The pain is stopping her from concentrating on pleasure. Even the flu, though, is not enough to keep many men from being interested in sex, something that causes new brides no end of incredulity. We can’t picture ourselves ever being ready, let alone eager, for sex when we’re sick, so how can he?
At this point many of you are probably waiting on the edge of your seat because you are ready to start talking about sex. I’m sorry to say you’re going to have to wait awhile, because we aren’t even going to get to the logistics of sex for several chapters. No matter how tense a topic this may be in your marriage, unless you have a health condition that lowers your sex drive, sex is not your primary problem. That’s because, as we’ve seen, for women sex is a “head thing.” We have to sort out what’s going on up there before we can move further south.
Some of us, though, do suffer from physical conditions that can lower desire, such as diabetes, anemia, arthritis, thyroid problems, or angina. Some medications, including the birth control pill, can also kill our libidos. If you believe your lack of desire may have a medical component, ask your doctor for advice on how you can cope in the meantime. Other women have specifically sexual problems, like vaginismus (pain during intercourse) or even pain during orgasm. Usually these have psychological roots, and talking to a Christian therapist may prove helpful.5 Finally, a few of us truly do have nonexistent sex drives because of lower testosterone levels (both for men and women, testosterone fires us up). New medications can counteract this, so speak with your doctor if you suspect this may be the case.
Other physical conditions affect our sex drive, too, but there’s nothing we can do medically because they’re perfectly normal. Hormonal changes, menopause, pregnancy, and childbirth all affect our libidos, and we’ll deal later in the book with how to cope with these things that all of us, to varying degrees, will face.
But most of us don’t have medical problems. We just aren’t as interested as our hubbies. It would actually be easier if our lower sex drive was due to some medical problem—like lower testosterone—because then there could be a quick solution. My husband is a pediatrician, and he frequently finds himself sitting across from desperate parents who want pills to control their hyperactive children. In many cases, though, the problem is not medical but behavioral. There is no quick fix.
That’s where we women find ourselves, too. There is no pill we can pop to cure ourselves, much as we might like one. That’s because there’s nothing wrong with us if we don’t want sex as much as our husbands do; we were created that way. Our problem is not that he can’t “turn us on”; it’s just that we don’t always want him to. And the reason is because “it’s all in our heads.”
Though we may instinctively understand how women work, many of us feel completely blindsided by the way our husbands do. I remember as a teenager dressing without giving any thought to what effect it would have on hormone-raging seventeen-year-old boys whose thoughts turn to sex about every 2.3 seconds. My eyes were opened when I was married and Keith would comment favorably on some outfit I had once worn. I’d look at him in amazement and say, “But, darling, that made my knees look fat.” He’d look at me, equally bewildered, and reply, “Honey, fat was the furthest word from my mind.”
In conversations we’ve had with other couples, all the men, without exception, have said something like, “It is so hard to learn math when someone is sitting next to you wearing a tight sweater.” And all of us girls looked at these Neanderthals with disdain for thinking that way.
But apparently boys do think that way, no matter how pathetic we women think that is, and it doesn’t change when they grow up and get married. Biologically, men feel a need for sex far more frequently than women do. If they don’t get release, their bodies will do it for them in their sleep. But even more frequently than they feel the need for sex, they think about sex—one study in Britain reported it’s as many as twenty times a day (though other studies say it’s as much as every eight seconds!).6 Indeed, the majority of Christian men still say they suffer from lust, including 38 percent of pastors, according to a Leadership magazine survey.7 It is men’s Achilles’ heel.
Men are tempted toward lust far more than women because sex is always on parade for them. They see an attractive, curvaceous woman and the first thing they notice is not her intelligence. This doesn’t mean that they are evil, or sinning, or even that they’re sick. They are tempted, which in and of itself is not wrong. As Gene Getz, in the bestseller The Measure of a Man, says, “In our culture, men have little control of fleeting thoughts.”8
We women may have difficulty understanding this temptation because we’re not as prone to it. And when our husbands try to explain their struggles, we may ourselves feel temptation: the temptation to hit them over the head with something hard. But we shouldn’t react in anger, because that’s simply a man’s nature. When men are exposed to sexual stimuli day in and day out, sexual tension can build up that is very difficult to deal with. It’s similar to how you may feel when you skip a meal: you get really hungry for the next one. When men keep “skipping meals”—building up sexual energy without getting release—they can become almost desperate. They may, to us, appear so pathetic that we wonder, Who is this sex maniac I married? But most likely, your husband is not sex crazy. He’s just . . . a man.
So here’s your first lesson. Repeat this to yourself over and over: “My husband is an alien.” He is not made like you. If he desires you frequently, there is nothing wrong with him. Judging him according to your framework isn’t fair. He doesn’t share it. His desires are not wrong any more than your need for affection is. It’s just different. But it’s also the way God made him. Obviously he needs to exercise self-control—we all do—but he is not a freak. He is simply a man.
And as a man, he probably saw marriage a little differently than you did. Most Christian men wed rejoicing that now, finally, they can get that release their bodies crave, and they can get it frequently. After all, what’s stopping the two of you from having sex as many times as you want to? It’s legal now! His liberation has come.
Unfortunately for men—and, it turns out, for women—we don’t work the same way. We may dream of making love (we do, after all, have sex drives of our own), but that’s not all we need. Men, too, need to feel respected, appreciated, and loved, and not nagged, but good sex can cover a multitude of other problems. Sex is their currency to feel loved.
It’s easy to throw up our hands in despair and say, with Kipling, “Ne’er the twain shall meet.” Yet no matter how much frustration we have with differing sex drives, at least we’re acknowledging the problem exists. The media and the wider society pretend it does not. Popular culture doesn’t deal with the difference in sex drives; it portrays women as if we’re just like men. When my husband, Keith, was in medical school, professors taught these future doctors that when counseling couples who have sex problems, they should advise the couples to watch pornography together. Pornography, it was thought, would make women excited enough to want to make love. Here’s a news flash: women don’t work that way. It’s not that pornography can’t make us excited—it can be a big temptation and even an addiction for many—but watching it will not solve the underlying reasons we don’t want sex frequently and, as I’ll show later, will even make our problems worse. To feel sustained excitement in and commitment to a sexual relationship, we have to feel commitment to the man. He comes first, not his hardware.
Our culture does not understand this, as any perusal of magazines or reality shows will testify. I find magazines especially disturbing, since there is virtually no difference in the covers of Cosmopolitan (meant for women) and Maxim (meant for men). Both men and women are to be lured by the image of a woman—how does one put this politely?—who looks slutty, even though sex-centered lifestyles have horrible repercussions.9
Yet the harmful effects aren’t limited to those who act out these lifestyles. We, too, internalize some of the messages, including the belief that women should, and do, want sex all the time, too. Before we’re married, it’s easy to believe it. We have no contrary evidence. When we do marry and find that our sex drives don’t require us to act like rabbits twice a day, we’re heartbroken. We wonder what’s wrong with us. It’s not only our husbands who feel cheated; we do, too.
If society treated sex more honestly, this wouldn’t be as big a problem. If the women on television weren’t as eager to jump into bed as their partners, regardless of what had happened during the day, our husbands might not expect us to act in the same way (and we may not hold that up as our ideal, either). But change in the popular culture is unlikely to happen, so it’s time for us to reclaim what is “normal.” Normal is not what you see on a magazine cover, or on TV, or in the movies. There may be no such thing as normal. And in a marriage, it doesn’t really matter whether Pamela Anderson wants sex all the time, or whether Britney Spears is still a virgin. It doesn’t matter how often the average couple makes love or even how often your friends do. All that matters is you and your husband.
Anything you can do to help both you and your husband to stop comparing yourselves to “normal,” then, is bound to help your sex life. So here we get to one theme that I will keep coming back to in this book: the biggest enemy of a healthy sex life is in your living room, and I don’t mean the dog drooling in your slippers. I mean your TV. It shows unrealistic relationships, tantalizes with beautiful bodies, and helps you feel inadequate and him tempted, all at the same time! Switch off, and both of you are more likely to “turn on” appropriately.
Letting go of unrealistic expectations may be liberating, but we’re still left with that pesky discrepancy in our sex drives. How could this be the way sex was supposed to be? Yet if you think of the alternative, perhaps it’s not so crazy after all. C. S. Lewis says this difference is like “a divine joke; made, I grant you, at our expense, but also [who doubts it?] for our endless benefit.”10 If this benefit isn’t immediately apparent, ask yourself this: what would life be like if your husband wasn’t interested in sex? Some of you may welcome the temporary reprieve, but in reality, what would happen?
One nice by-product of men wanting sex so much is that they have to be attentive to our needs or risk being rejected. And as they try to butter us up, they also spend time with us. They share our interests and our concerns. They listen to us, and they inevitably become more emotionally attached. Perhaps you’re wondering whose husband I’m talking about exactly, since yours has never seemed too interested in this “wooing” business. But most men will consider their wives’ feelings to some extent, because that’s the only route to what they need.
I’m being a little cynical, since it’s in his best interest to be nice to his wife no matter what. After all, everybody is better off if we treat each other with love. Nevertheless, knowing this doesn’t stop flare-ups around the world, as any nightly news show will testify. The fact that a man must pursue his wife or risk losing one of the most important things to him means that he is more likely to treat her kindly.
At the same time, imagine if we were just as interested in sex as he is. He wouldn’t need to treat the relationship well then, either. If sex were purely physical, we would start living out the empty lives spewed across the covers of Cosmo—constantly in search of the next greatest pleasure. How easy it would be to drive a wedge between couples! You wouldn’t be as interested in whom as much as you would be in what. With the way God designed it, though, we’re creating true intimacy as we meet each other’s needs. He becomes more attached to you as he woos you, and you become more devoted to him.
Of course, one could argue that I have just made the case for continuing the status quo. If, for instance, we women all realize that men are desperate for sex, then we can wrap them around our little fingers! Like Herb’s wife on WKRP in Cincinnati, we could say, “Better mow the grass, Herbie, or no num-nums tonight!” But then two things are going to happen: the intimacy that he hopes to gain from sex is going to evaporate, because as much as he wants and needs it physically, on a spiritual level he wants so much more. He wants a wife who is actively engaged in the process as well, who is eager to show him love by making love instead of just going through the motions. And any attempt at blackmail is going to erode the intimacy that he wants from the act.
But we also jeopardize ourselves. Though we don’t need sex to the same extent physically, it still is very beneficial. It releases stress; it builds our immunity; it helps us to feel more intimate; it even increases our lifespan.11 If we degrade it, we degrade our marriages and ourselves and lose all the positive benefits we derive from a fulfilling sex life.
If we take things one step farther and even give up on sex altogether, what’s to distinguish the marriage relationship from any other? We can feel unconditional love for our children; we can be unconditionally supported by our parents; we can live with friends; we can share our problems with counselors. The only thing that is truly unique about marriage is sex.
This uniqueness is something God planned. In 1 Corinthians 7:4–5, Paul writes: “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” This isn’t, of course, meant as a sentence of perpetual sexual slavery for women. If your husband’s body is yours, then he is not to use his body to take advantage of you, either! But God clearly says the sexual part of your relationship is important and shouldn’t be neglected.
I know that may be the last thing you want to hear. I also know that this message has often been distorted. If sin is involved, for instance, I don’t believe God wants you to acquiesce to your husband’s every sexual demand. Far too many women have allowed their husbands to carry on affairs while still making love to them, hoping that if they don’t rock the boat their husbands will come home. Nothing is further from the truth, and if that’s where your marriage is, you don’t need lingerie; you may need a locksmith! If your sexual problems are this serious, please seek out a Christian counselor or refer to some of the resources listed at the back of this book. But remember, even if you have neglected your husband, you are not to blame for him straying.12
Others of you face sin of a different kind. Perhaps he wants to introduce pornography into your sex life, or wants you to do things that you are sure are wrong. In this case, talking to a pastor or a marriage counselor is probably in order.
For most of us, though, it’s not adultery or perversion that’s worrying us. It’s us. Maybe you feel taken for granted and tired. Or perhaps you feel flabby. Deep down you wonder whether your husband really finds you attractive, and until you get that reassurance, you can’t let go and give yourself to him. Maybe things in your past haunt you. Or perhaps you actually have a great relationship, but you wonder why sex is always such a sore spot. It’s the last hurdle you have to cross to make your marriage truly intimate.
Before we move on, let’s remember three key things: your husband is an alien, you are not alone, and God made both of you with differing sex drives for a reason. If you understand these three things and can accept by faith that there is a purpose to God’s design, then it’s time to turn to what that purpose might be.
As we do this, though, I’ve got to warn you: I’m going to be talking about some difficult attitude shifts we may have to make in order to build truly wonderful and intimate marriages. Of all the chapters in this book, this next one will probably be the hardest, because changing our attitudes about things near and dear to our hearts is always so much harder than changing our wardrobes or our hairstyles. Reading it may even be hazardous to your pillow, if you’re the punching type. But give it a chance. Once you get to the end of the book, it will be easier to see how important these attitude changes are and, I pray, easier to let God help you make them.
Here’s your first lesson: Your wife is an alien. She is not like you. Biologically you were made to want sex frequently. She was not. Sex, for a woman, involves letting someone into her body, so it’s extremely personal. She has to feel close to you to truly enjoy it, and if your relationship is strained, that’s hard. So don’t expect her to respond like you do! I’ve also explained to her how your mind and body work, and told her that you are not abnormal if you want sex frequently.
If you look at magazine covers or people in TV shows, it’s easy to believe that women are just like men—that most women salivate for sex at the drop of a hat. Please try not to compare your wife with the women on TV shows. First, they aren’t realistic, and, second, you didn’t marry them. You married her. Honor her, and try to find solutions to this issue that respect her true nature. Remember, she probably wishes she wanted a little more lovin’ too, just like you do!
God made you both with differing sex drives for a reason. Your need for sex is primarily physical; hers is primarily relational. If she was as interested in sex as you are, it would diminish your need to care for the emotional aspects of your relationship. As God designed it, if you desire sex, you need to meet her relational needs so that she is willing. It’s in your best interest to be nice to her, and as you spend time with her, you’ll become more emotionally attached, thereby strengthening your marriage relationship. So there’s a purpose to this libido discrepancy!
We’re going to turn now to our responsibility for bridging the gap.