The bible does not set up a space for coercion, exploitation, a power dynamic or the right to demand sex by either of the partners. Rather it encourages a mutual pursuit of each other’s wellbeing.
When it comes to the bible and sex there are a handful of verses people generally quote. Whether it is the verses relating to man and woman ‘becoming one’ (Genesis 2:24) , honouring the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4), sexual immorality in its many forms and fleeing from it (1 Corinthians 6:18) and finding sexual enjoyment in your spouse (Song of Songs and Proverbs 5:18-19). However, there is one verse that is spoken about in hushed tones...and that is 1 Corinthians 7:4-5.
“The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife and likewise, the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive one another except by mutual consent for a limited time, so you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you through your lack of self-control.”
Clearly there is potential for this verse to be appallingly misused to justify rape within a marriage context by undermining personal boundaries and consent. It might lead to beliefs that it is one’s duty to accept any sexual advance on the grounds that their body is not their own but ‘owned’ by their spouse. However, this is gross misrepresentation of a verse that is implying the very opposite.
Firstly, the bible presents sex as a gift that we receive from God (Gen 2:24) and not an entitlement, need or hunger that must be fulfilled. No one ever died for lack of sex. Therefore, sex can be requested, but not demanded and the answer needs to be respected. In other words, there is no biblical ground on which to force, threaten or guilt someone into having sex.
No one ever died for lack of sex. Therefore, sex can be requested, but not demanded and the answer needs to be respected. In other words, there is no biblical ground on which to force, threaten or guilt someone into having sex.
Instead, the verse refers to mutual authority over each other’s body in a beautiful vision of protective other-person centred love where the focus is not what do ‘I’ need, but in our one-ness what does our relationship need. It is not one person’s issue, but mutual pursuit of the other’s pleasure which would have been a radical concept in Paul’s day given the cultural status of women. It re-orients the reader to addressing this issue with the other person in mind which cuts across our innately sinful and selfish tendencies to make sex all about us and our pleasure.
At the time, it would have cut across cultural norms that accepted sexual relations (for pleasure) outside of marriage and reinforced the exclusive nature of sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship – another radical concept at the time. Paul also speaks into cultural context where vows of celibacy were being made (without consent from one’s spouse) as a demonstration of ascetic piety and as a way of resisting the sexual promiscuity that was rife in Corinth as indicated by 1 Corinthians 7:1. He therefore makes it clear that depriving one another sexually (except for a time) is not recommended and may open up the possibility of sexual temptation.
In our current context, and especially in the context of all the changes that happen after children the message is no different. Abstinence (except for a time) can open up sexual temptation which is why it is important to address obstacles that may be interfering with sexual intimacy. Having sex with whoever we want is not a viable option as our partner owns the exclusive rights to sexual intimacy. Finally, to ask ‘can we have sex’ or answer ‘no’ are valid options. However, for the sake of the relationship, don’t let ‘no’ always be the first answer and be curious as to why there might be hesitation to engage in intimacy and whether it can be addressed. On the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of ‘no’ it is important to respond with grace and love, because in both instances, your spouse’s body is also yours to care for in love.
Starting to adapt to this other-person centered model might initially leave you feeling like you’re losing out when it comes to your own preferences, but in taking a step towards each other's preferences a couple can work toward what sexologists call 'good enough sex' and your relationship wins. No one is judging (except maybe you!) so as a couple you get to decide what you make of it. It doesn’t always have to look like a 10-course degustation meal over several hours – it can look like a simple vegemite sandwich and that’s just fine so long as you’re both taking the opportunity to mutually care and connect to the other in a way that is safe, enjoyable and acceptable to both. Of course, there are also other aspects that can be explored with a sex counsellor that means one or both partners can explore why sex may not be enjoyable or painful or difficult and influences of upbringing/past experiences.
All in all, the bible does not set up a space for coercion, exploitation, a power dynamic or the right to demand sex by either of the partners. Rather it encourages a mutual pursuit of each other’s wellbeing. The important thing is finding it within yourself (amidst fatigue and busyness of everyday life) to lean in to your partner and listen to what they have to say and allow their voice and preferences to be equally as valued as your own.
Want some practical advice on how to ‘get back in the SAK’? Tune in to Part 3…