I’m pretty passionate about women needing to embrace their own sexuality without shame and without regard to male sexual desire, and today I’m over at The Friendly Atheist to review Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery’s book Pulling Back the Shades, their Christian response to 50 Shades of Grey.

This [is] a pervasive problem in Christian relationship books aimed at women: the assumption that female sexuality begins with the initiation of a woman into the world of male sexuality. This can be through abuse, rape, regretful premarital sex, or happy married sex, but it always starts and ends with a penis. This gets taken to such an extreme that even masturbation is condemned if it uses any sort of imagination or fantasy to speed things along — that would be making oneself dependent on a man other than your husband, even if he’s fictional. Which would be cheating, and a misuse of sex (by their definition of the act).

Gresh is known for her interpretation of the Hebrew references to sex in the Old Testament (yada, according to her) as “to know, to be deeply respected,” and she explains that this is a sign of how sex was intended by God for marriage, where you can have that sort of intimate knowledge of your partner. She further asserts that sex always transcends the physical act, which is how she explains that cheating is wrong (again: no mention of consent here) and why she believes that no-strings-attached sexual encounters are also wrong.

She concludes this little explanation by saying:

“Erotica places undue emphasis on the physical and disables your ability to connect emotionally.”

I find this hard to believe, seeing as erotica is entirely based on the imaginative capabilities of a sexual human being to use fantasy for arousal, and doesn’t require anything physical at all. The focus in the fantasy, I agree, is physical rather than emotional, but can’t it also follow that heightened sexual awareness can help improve intimacy in the bedroom and increase emotional connection during sex? I suspect that Slattery and Gresh both have trouble connecting their own experiences of moments where they owned their sexuality to themselves as whole human beings in positive ways. The over-emphasis on the spiritual and intellectual understandings of sexuality leave the physical out in the cold in a very Gnosticdualistic sort of way.

Gresh brings this split out further in a later chapter, where she tells a story from her marriage where she considered herself to be owning her sexuality in her marriage in a positive way: one evening, she wore a somewhat sheer black top to the dinner table on a night when she and her husband were dining alone by candlelight. He checked her out across the table, and she congratulated herself and felt empowered. Essentially, she was exploring her ability to perform for her small audience’s male gaze and felt good about her success in catching his eye.

But again, this is about him and his arousal and her sexuality is entirely defined in reaction to or performing for his sexuality. He is the fixed point and she orbits him. It’s as if she has no sexuality outside of him, and while she is quite articulate about how women should not be ashamed of their bodies when they are with their husbands, she shows little capability of being aware of herself as a sexual being independent of her sexual relationship with her husband.

This is not a critique of Gresh or Slattery as individuals. Their stories happen to be very common, compared with the many I have heard and witnessed in my years in the church. Evangelical American Christians don’t have a framework for female sexuality that doesn’t start and stop with a husband’s penis. And I think this is ultimately why erotica is seen as a threat: it’s a primarily female-focused genre, and it explores female sexual pleasure in ways that are infrequently seen in our society.

Read the rest here.


  • Chigau

    Can you provide examples of male sexuality that don’t start and stop with a wife’s body? I’m not arguing against you, just trying to complete the picture in my head.

    • Sarah Ashley

      Your comment caught my eye. Obviously I won’t speak for HE — this is purely my own (unsolicited!) opinion:

      The wife in the example above understands her sexual arousal only by the reaction of her husband. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, “I like how I look in this (sheer black top), and it makes me feel attractive and alluring,” and using that as the starting point, her efforts are to elicit approval/allure *before* deciding her own sexuality is, indeed, manifested.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to dress attractively for a partner/spouse — and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with wanting a partner/spouse to be drawn to what you choose to wear. [Though that should not be your only or primary motivation] However, most Christian women have been consistently told to think and believe, “It’s okay if I don’t like/feel attractive in/am empowered as a sexual being by this, because my husband (and only my husband) does — and that’s all that matters. His desire is what I should want, anyway.” It’s healthier, more holistic for a woman to understand that it’s okay and healthy to like, feel attractive, and feel confident in her own sexual desire (and allure) before her partner/spouse even sees her. And it is entirely possible to experience these thoughts and drives independent from a partner/spouse, without it being directed *at another man*.

      I’ve never once, personally, read or seen Christian men consistently told the same thing about their sexuality, as it relates to their wives. (“It doesn’t matter how you interpret/feel ___; your wife enjoys it! “) Men are exhorted not to lust, not to cheat, or not to check out other women, certainly; however, their existence as sexual beings apart from a partner is (in my second-hand experience) always presented as a granted. And that’s the point here: it isn’t principally that Gresh/Slattery are encouraging women to find their arousal and sexual interest in their *husbands* — it’s that they’ve continued perpetuating the false doctrine that female sexuality can only exist *if it is first inspired by and directed at* said husbands. The thought that husbands, as sexual creatures in their own right, are the ones MEANT to make a woman realize, “I’m sexual and alluring and have desires.”

      I don’t know how you identify, so I won’t guess. If you are cis-male and interpret how an individual’s innate sexuality is presented to Christian men and women differently than I/we do, I would genuinely like to hear your thoughts. Personally: As a cis-female Christian woman, I can say for certain that the “husband-centric sexuality” was the only dialogue I heard, read, or was given, growing up.

  • Kammy

    I am not trying to start an argument, I am sincerely curious and trying to develop a more holistic understanding of sexuality as a female in particular. I was wondering if you would be able to give me your theological thoughts for supporting sexual fantasy. The Bible is no longer a black and white guidebook for me, but it is still very important to my life as a whole. Have you thought through the theological implications of sexual fantasy? There is no judgment if you haven’t, I am simply looking for good resources to facilitate my research.

  • I’m thinking that there is some confusion; I’ve never seen anyone of any persuasion, arch-feminist to arch-patriarchal, that denies the reality that women or men are sexual beings, regardless of their marital status. It’s simply that the lawful Christian expression of that sexuality belongs to the spouse. So your argument is really something of a straw man.

    Moreover, what exactly is being embraced when someone, male or female, embraces their own sexuality? It seems that this sort of thing is rather open-ended and that there is no obvious barrier to that sexuality being embraced in some rather odious and even unlawful ways.

    For example, someone may decide that a poorly written book that makes soap operas look like high art, celebrating some pretty nasty abuse of a woman by a pathetic excuse for a man, is about the most important thing in the world.

    http://time.com/3030375/dave-barry-50-shades-of-grey/