Excerpted from 25 Questions You’re Afraid to Ask About Love, Sex, and Intimacy by Dr. Juli Slattery. © 2015 by Moody Publishers. Used with Permission.
"I hate sex. It makes me angry to hear you even suggest that I’m supposed to be enjoying it. I’ve been married twenty-three years and have never enjoyed it. Frankly, I do it because I’m supposed to.”
I hear from women like this one quite often. They feel ripped off, gypped out of something that they were supposed to enjoy. The message that sex is a gift from God sounds like an insult. Instead, they view sex as a gift that they must grudgingly give to their husband.
To some degree, that describes my feeling for many years of my marriage. No, I didn’t hate sex, but I certainly dreaded it. As a woman who longed to be a godly wife, I determined before the Lord that I would meet my husband’s needs. Although God was probably pleased with that attitude, it didn’t represent the healing He wanted to do in my heart and in my marriage.
I want to share a few things God has taught me (and is still teaching me!) on this journey. I know that every woman’s story is different; I am not offering a simplistic formula that will guarantee a miracle in your bedroom. However, I do believe God is able to bring healing into every woman’s heart.
Some want to have it every three hours and others once a week, but men almost universally find sex pleasurable—as we have already discussed. This is not true for some women. Female sexuality is far more complicated, providing the opportunity for more barriers to pleasure. Obstacles to sexual pleasure typically fall in three categories: physical, relational, and emotional.
The female sexual response involves many functions of the body, including the endocrine, circulatory, skeletal, muscular, and reproductive systems. That means a lot can go wrong. For example, an underactive thyroid can destroy sexual desire and sexual response. An imbalance of hormones will do the same. Medications like anti-depressants and even decongestants may affect sexual function.
Jennifer Smith’s book The Unveiled Wife chronicles her journey through years of sexual pain in marriage. One day, she and her husband researched a hunch to find that an acne soap she had been using contained an ingredient that disrupted hormone balance. A week after she stopped using the cream, her sexual functioning immediately improved.
Physical obstacles to sexual pleasure may be difficult to diagnose, partly because physical pain and lack of pleasure can also have psychological roots. Don’t just give up after a doctor can’t answer your questions. Search for the answer. Find the right doctor, midwife, physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner who understands sexual functions and disorders.
While most women resign themselves to a “broken” sex life, others relentlessly pursue a solution. My friend, Kathy, couldn’t have sexual intercourse with her husband for over a decade. Her doctor gave her the advice to “have a drink of wine and just relax.” Instead of solving the problem, this led to a substance addiction. Kathy’s counselor challenged her to research a condition called vaginismus that causes pain during sex. Kathy found that some women have a learned fear response to intercourse, causing the vaginal muscles to tighten.
Like Kathy, don’t just resign yourself to painful sex or a lack of pleasure. Be tenacious in prayer and in seeking a solution.
You can have a great marriage and a rotten sex life. However, the quality of your marriage is the foundation upon which you build sexual intimacy. Do you trust your husband in the bedroom? Is he sensitive to your needs? Do you communicate with each other about sex? Do you have secrets, bitterness, or unforgiveness between you?
Sara is one of those women who hated sex. Over the eleven years of their marriage, it was a demand her husband, Jake, made several times a week. He never asked if she would like to have sex--he assumed it was his God-given right as a married man. Sex made Sara feel like an object. She wondered if Jake even cared that it was her body he was caressing.
Joyce and Ben had a different barrier between them. Throughout their nineteen years of marriage, Ben had dabbled with porn off and on. Although Ben confessed to a one-night stand on a business trip, the matter was quickly swept under the rug as if it never happened. Joyce felt like a part of her heart was dead. She consented to share her body with Ben, but kept her heart closed to intimacy.
Sexuality taps into some of our greatest areas of vulnerability. In the daily routine of marriage, we often don’t stop to consider how we’ve been wounded in marriage or why we don’t trust the man who sleeps besides us every night. However, until these issues are surfaced and addressed, physical pleasure and freedom is unlikely to be a reality.
I believe the most common barriers to enjoying sex are emotional. Some women have a history of trauma or destructive choices that has paired sex with extremely negative and painful emotions.
Sex = shame
Sex = guilt
Sex = sin
Sex = exploitation
Sex = I’m only good for one thing
Putting a wedding ring on and saying vows in a church doesn’t erase those messages. The emotional trauma connected to sexual brokenness is often so deep that you may not even be aware of it. Many women don’t remember the details of childhood sexual abuse until adulthood. They may simply carry a vague sense of “something isn’t right.”
Other women have no history of sexual trauma or guilt from past mistakes, but still can’t seem to enjoy sex. I meet women who have saved themselves for marriage, dreaming of the ecstasy that sex is supposed to promise. No matter how hard they try, they simply can’t feel free to enjoy sex. The idea of trying something new brings panic and waves of disgust.
Because sex is such a private area of struggle, women often don’t know where to go for help. They simply settle for frustration in this area of life. We live in a day and age in which help is readily available, even related to sexual problems. Yet, reaching out to a counselor or even buying a book on the topic is frightening.
If you have sexual trauma in your past or events in your life marred by shame, the thought of talking through this pain may seem unbearable. Emotional wounds can be more painful than physical wounds, but you can’t see them. It takes tremendous courage to seek help knowing that you will be sharing with someone else an area of your life marked by shame and sorrow. It may seem easier just to ignore the pain and move on in your marriage, but God is Jehovah Rapha, the One who invites you to healing.
Healing from physical, relational, and emotional barriers to sex takes work and effort. It begins with a commitment to identify them and address them. If you are tired of disappointment in the bedroom, your journey towards healing may mean overcoming a few commonly held lies about sex. These lies keep women from pursuing healing. They just assume, “This is as good as it’s going to get. I guess I’m just not one of those women who will ever enjoy sex.”
Lie #1 – God created sex primarily for a man’s pleasure. Because women believe this lie, they build sexual intimacy around a man’s needs, having sex when and how he wants it. After years or decades of marriage, you may never have considered that your needs matter too! It is worth exploring how sex can be satisfying for you. It is worth pursuing counseling to work through the pain of the past. Don’t settle!
Lie #2 – It’s not right for a godly woman to be sexual. No one says this lie out loud, but a lot of women live by it. Sexual excitement is automatically linked with sexual immorality. Other women “punish” themselves for past sexual mistakes by not enjoying sex now in their marriage. They have bought the lie that to be sexual means to be sinful.
One reason why women have difficulty enjoying sexual pleasure is because they think they need to simply wait for it to happen. They don’t realize that enjoying sex or having an orgasm requires their active participation. It’s not going to happen if you are thinking about the mold growing on the shower curtain or your three year-old in the next room.
Most women report that they don’t actually even want to have sex until they start thinking about it and anticipating it. When women view sex primarily as a wifely duty, they don’t even consider that their own arousal is as important as his. A woman has her own mental and physical “pathway to pleasure” that may take time to discover and pursue.
As I mentioned earlier, Linda Dillow and I wrote a Bible study called Passion Pursuit to help women understand God’s design for passionate love in marriage. We have seen many women set free and enjoy sex even after decades of an unsatisfying sex life.
As obvious as it sounds, nothing will change if you change nothing. Just like your kitchen won’t magically clean itself, your sexual struggles and wounds won’t simply disappear one day.
No one can promise you that your sex drive will go from zero to sixty in ninety days. We live in a fallen world filled with disappointment and brokenness. Would you be willing to take one small step? That might be calling a counselor, going through the Bible study Passion Pursuit, or maybe even praying with your husband about your sex life. It takes effort, prayer and courage to step into healing, but it’s worth it!