Sexual Desire and Sexual Refusal in Marriage:
A Pauline Theology of Consent
This is an article especially for married men.
The Sin of Sexual Refusal
While desire cannot be negotiated in marriage, it can be cultivated, as Bill Smith recently argued. This is an important principle for men to understand, especially men who may not have the kind of sexual relationship with their wives they wish they could have.
Sex should be mutual in marriage -- mutually desired, mutually satisfying. Sex is for both the husband and wife; it is not just something she does for him (as is sometimes suggested), it is something he does for her as well. Indeed, it is something both husband and wife do for their marriage. Sex is the glue that binds a couple together as nothing else can. Sex should be something every married couple enjoys together for the good of their marriage. Sex is a way for a husband to please his wife and a way for his wife to please him. Sex is obviously intended to be procreative. But it is also a form of covenant renewal. It is the ultimate expression of a married couple’s oneness, their one flesh-ness. For this reason marital sex is regularly and beautifully celebrated in Scripture (e.g., Proverbs 5, Song of Solomon), and ought to be regularly celebrated in our marriages as well. But this is a fallen world and sometimes sex and sexual desire are not what they should be.
Paul has given us the rule for marital sex in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5:
Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul is dealing with the topic of sexual temptation. What is the antidote to sexual temptation? Sexual activity — obviously, sexual activity with one’s spouse. This is not exactly rocket science. This is about as mundane and practical as it gets. You are tempted to have sex? Then get married and have sex with the one person with whom you can do so lawfully. But the real force of what Paul says is easy to miss so let me spell it out in more detail. Paul provides a moral framework for the sexual relationship in marriage. He answers the age old question, “How often should a married couple have sex?” In other places, Paul is concerned with the symbolic and typological meaning of sexual union in marriage (e.g., Eph. 5:21ff). But here he is dealing with the most practical and natural realities married couples face.
When a couple gets married, each spouse is (among other things) pledging, in principle, to be sexually available to the other spouse at any and all times. You are, after all, your spouse’s only legitimate option for sex. You have been given to your spouse to satisfy their sexual desires. You are given to your spouse as a form of protection against sexual temptation. You settled the question of sexual consent when you said “I do.” You promised to be a sex partner to your spouse “til death do us part." You married for many reasons, but one of them was that you strongly desired to have sex – and to have sex as God designed it, within a covenantal relationship. Paul is affirming all of that.
To bring out what 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 means as explicitly as possible: Sexual refusal in marriage is a sin. At least ordinarily. To not have sex with your spouse when they desire sex and approach you for sex is to withhold something from your spouse he/she has a right to. It is a form of unjust deprivation. Paul uses legal language to make his point. He uses the language of rights — your spouse has a right to your sexuality. This being the case, you have no right to refuse. And you have a right to your spouse sexually – your spouse has no right to refuse your sexual overtures either. As Nancy Pearcey points out in Love Thy Body, sex with your spouse is an obligation, not an option:
The word used for marital “duty” normally refers to a debt of money. The word used for “authority” included state authority. The word for “deprive” normally means “defraud” or “refuse payment.”
This is the apostle’s inspired command and wisdom for married couples. A sexless marriage is sinful. A marriage in which one spouse is “sex starved” is sinful. If either spouse has reason to think, ‘The next time I initiate sex, there is a good chance I will get turned down,” that marriage is not fulfilling God’s purposes. Paul gives us the default for all married couples: every time one spouse wants sex, the couple should have sex; every time a spouse initiates, there should be an extremely high degree of confidence that proposition will be well received. How often should a married couple have sex? As often as either partner desires it. Whenever one spouse desires sex, the two of them should have sex. It is your calling as a married Christian to do all in your power to keep your spouse’s sexual needs and desires met. If you are the only person your spouse can lawfully see naked, then make sure they can do so as they desire. This is Paul’s practical rule for married life.
To not be sexually available is a sin. Let that sink in. It is a sin for a spouse to not have sex when the other spouse desires it. In other words, the spouse with the lower sex drive will have to adjust. For all the teaching on sex offered in the church today, it is rare for the church to address this fundamental problem, one that shipwrecks many marriages. Sexless marriages, or marriages with infrequent sex, or marriages that leave one spouse feeling sexually deprived, are failing to fulfill God's design.
Let me take this one step further. Note what Paul says in verse 5: Couples should only deprive one another sex by mutual consent. In other words BOTH spouses have to agree to NOT have sex. If one wants sex, the other needs to provide sex. Why? Paul says “so that you may not be tempted.” If you refuse to have sex with your spouse when your spouses desires sex, you putting a bulls-eye on your spouse’s heart, making him/her an easy target for Satan. But I would add as the flip side of this truth: Have sex for the health and strength of the marriage as well. In the previous chapter Paul has explained the Spiritual dimension of sexual union and that is built into Paul’s argument here as well here (1 Cor. 6:12-20). Sex does more than put up a hedge against future temptation; it strengthens and renews the marital bond. Paul has in view the total package of what marital sex accomplishes. Sexual availability and responsiveness in marriage protects against temptation and thus strengthens the marriage.
I have noticed over the years that Christians consistently misread Paul’s actual language in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5. We inadvertently invert the argument. Paul is often taken as saying that each spouse has the right to veto the sexual desires of the other spouse. This is the logic: “Because my body belongs to my spouse, and because my spouse’s body belongs to me, therefore we each have the right to refuse the other. Sex is supposed to be mutual so we must both consent in order to have sex; therefore we should only have sex when I feel like it.” But Paul actually makes the opposite point. If vetoing sexual desire is in view, then how can sex serve its purpose in fortifying us against temptation? If I desire sex and my spouse has the right to turn me down because she has authority over my body, then my spouse is actually of no help in fighting sexual temptation. Paul’s argument moves in the other direction. For the apostle, what must be mutually agreed upon is not the burning desire to have sex, but the willingness to abstain from sex. Our mutual authority over one another’s bodies gives each spouse the right to ask for and expect sex at any time. If we balk at that that (and face it, few husbands will, but many wives do), it is a sign that Scripture is far more “sex positive” than we are. Believers need to get onboard with God’s plan for marriage, even if it means revolutionizing the way the way we honor the marriage bed.
As a pastor who has done a lot of marriage counseling over the years, I can tell you that couples who follow this rule in 1 Corinthians 7 (making themselves sexually available in marriage at all times unless temporary abstinence is mutually agreed upon) are generally very happy. And very loyal to one another. Feelings of closeness will sometimes be the prelude to sex, but other times they will be the product of sex. But a marriage in which both partners are sexually secure and satisfied is generally as very good marriage. If a wife only allows sex to happen when she feels like it (as is common practice in many marriages), it’s very likely her husband will spend a lot of life incredibly frustrated and, yes, tempted. It’s likely the couple will grow apart over time. That’s not God’s design. It has been said Satan wants us to have a lot a lot of sex before marriage and none in marriage. God's will is the opposite. God wants every married couple to experience oneness — sexually/physically, and in every other way — because spouses are one covenantally.
Of course, sexual refusal on the part of one spouse does not in any way justify sexual sin on the part of the other spouse. A man who turns to pornography or who commits adultery because his wife will not have sex with him is still without excuse; his sin is still sin. But she is complicit in his sin if she could have helped protect him and did not. It is clear from 1 Corinthians 7 that God desires spouses to protect one another from sexual temptation and the best way to do this is by having frequent sexual relations. Sexual availability in marriage strengthens both partners against temptation and strengthens the bond between them, making for a much more satisfying and God-honoring marriage. Each spouse should do a self-examination regularly: Am I protecting my beloved from temptation?
Most people would say they would like to have a better marriage. What if I told you that a better marriage is a very easy – even enjoyable – goal for most couples to attain? Simply putting into practice Paul’s rule for sexual availability will do wonders for most any marriage. Men who are sexually satiated are much more likely to engage with their wives in other ways. Most husbands are ready to run through a wall for a woman who is sexually responsive, who responds to passion with passion. Likewise, many women who withhold sex because they do not feel emotionally intimate enough for physical intimacy will find that emotional intimacy can actually be intensified after sex, if she will go ahead and open herself up to her husband as Paul commands. This is not to say that frequent sex can solve any and all marriage problems. But it is a wonderful elixir for most of them. Don’t believe me? Try it.
In counseling sessions, I have had wives ask me: “So are you telling me I have to have sex with my husband every time he wants?” I point out that I am not telling her anything; rather I am pointing to what the apostle Paul tells her to do. But I also fire a question back: “How happily married do you want to be?” What many women do not realize is that a much happier marriage than the one they presently have is available to them. All they really have to do is give into their husband’s sexual desire for them, accepting and surrendering to his sex drive for what it is. All they have to do is decide to enjoy sex regularly within marriage, just as God designed it. All they have to do is decide, in principle, to be sexually responsive. It’s really that simple. Sex bonds, and that bond is the core of a good marriage.
This gets to the heart of what it means to honor marriage and keep the marriage bed undefiled (Hebrews 13:4). Honoring marriage means seeking to fulfill God’s will for marriage. It means a husband loves his wife as Christ does the church. It means a wife submits to her husband as the church submits to Christ. It means husband and wife image the gospel in their marriage. It means they keep their promises to one another. It means they recognize God has called them together into a one flesh covenant union as companions, with the man ruling her for her good and the woman helping him for his good. It means they are, in principle, open to children since God commands couples to “be fruitful and multiply.” And it means they are ready and willing sexually, to fulfill one another’s desires, as the ultimate way of giving to and receiving from one another. God gives a married couple the gift of sex that they might give themselves as gifts to one another, wholly and unreservedly.
Yes, Paul acknowledges there are times when couples will forgo sexual intimacy so they can spend that time in fasting and prayer. But Paul is a realist about the human sex drive and so he quickly adds, “Come together again [soon] so Satan does not tempt you.” Are there other reasons why a couple can forgo sex? Perhaps. But they should be mutually agreed upon times of abstinence. All too often in marriage, one spouse (usually the wife) acts as the sexual gatekeeper and she ends up determining how often the couple has sex. That is contrary to Paul’s rule for married life. Paul does not leave sexual frequency up to the mix of hormonal cycles and emotional swings of the wife, as happens in most modern marriages, both inside and outside the church. Neither does Paul allow sex to be weaponized into a form of leverage. Withholding sex might be a way a wife can pressure her husband into doing what she wants, but both spouses know this kind of manipulative tactic is not the stuff of which strong and happy marriages are made.
Paul’s rule in 1 Corinthians 7 is clear: Couples should only forgo sex by MUTUAL CONSENT. You have to BOTH agree to NOT have sex. Otherwise, have sex. Today, in our sexually confused culture, we tend to use the word “consent” in the exact opposite way from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. The culture says, "Both parties have to consent to have sex – that’s the one rule governing sexual relations.” (Of course, if they aren’t married, no degree of “consent” can sanctify the sex, so the culture is wrong -- but that’s another issue for another time.) Paul says that in marriage, in effect, “Both parties have to consent to REFRAIN from having sex -- otherwise, have sex.”
Of course, it should go without saying that this does not open the door to “marital rape” or any such thing; force is never an option. The Christian West was the first civilization in history to outlaw violence against wives by their husbands and I affirm that tradition as a righteous application of biblical principles. If a man resorts to violence to force his wife to do what he wants her to do, she is justified in calling on the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Her sin of sexual refusal does not justify his use of force. Sin is never the answer to sin; it will only make things worse.
But to return to the main point: In principle, the sexual consent question was settled when you took your wedding vows. Sex is owed to your spouse in marriage. Your spouse has a right to sex with you, and you have a right to sex with your spouse. Obviously, there is nothing more offensive to feminism than this. Modern day feminism seems to be built on a single premise: Feminism teaches women to not do anything for the express pleasure of a man. Feminism trains women to focus on their own feelings, desires, and supposed rights. Feminism teaches women to think of themselves as independent of men, and never obligated to men, even one’s husband. This is an incredibly destructive dynamic in marriage and underscores why the red pill trope, “Never marry a feminist!” is indeed wise. A wife who wants to have a good marriage needs to understand how vital sex is to her husband. She needs to see that central to her calling as a wife is pleasing her husband in this area. Can some men be unreasonable? Sure; some men have very twisted expectations because of their experience with porn or promiscuity. Those things need to be worked through and repented of. But in general, both spouses should make a conscious effort to please one another in the bedroom at all times. There is no place for independence; instead there must be mutuality.
Thankfully God has raised up women in the church today who understand this and teach it to younger women in Titus 2 style. Women need to understand the important in being sexually passionate with their husbands as perhaps the best way to divorce-proof their marriages. Shaunti Feldhahan writes in For Women Only:
Men want more sex than they are getting. And what's more, they believe that the women who love them don't seem to realize that this is a crisis—not only for the man, but for the relationship…. For your husband, sex is more than just a physical need. Lack of sex is as emotionally serious to him, as say, his sudden silence would be to you, were he simply to stop communicating with you. It is just as wounding to him, just as much a legitimate grievance—and just as dangerous to your marriage.
Feldhahn’s work especially stresses that women should work to understand the deep connection between the visual and the sexual for men. Lori Alexander, aka “The Transformed Wife,” writes on this issue extensively (and if you want to see feminists going crazy, just check the comments on her Facebook and blog posts). In one place she tells women:
The Bible is very clear about the husbands' and wives' duty to each other so I am going to be clear also. God commands us NOT to deprive our husbands of sex. It isn't based upon our feelings but upon obeying God.
In another place, she provides a complete commentary on the key verses from 1 Corinthians 7, specifically directing her counsel and applications to wives. In other posts, she provides wives the man’s perspective on this problem of sexual refusal so wives can understand the pain they cause when they are not responsive to their husband’s needs and desires.
Julie Clinton puts it this way in writing for Focus on the Family:
Understand that in his eyes, sex is like oxygen to the relationship. He can't breathe without it.
You may think he doesn't deserve it. You may say to yourself, "He doesn't meet my needs so why should I meet his? I can't do everything around this house and meet his needs on top of it. There isn't enough time, and I don't have enough energy."
This is where I believe we all need to take a deep breath together. The Apostle Paul is pretty bold in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (MSG): "Sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder. The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality—the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to "stand up for your rights." Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out. Abstaining from sex is permissible for a period of time if you both agree to it, and if it's for the purposes of prayer and fasting—but only for such times. Then come back together again. Satan has an ingenious way of tempting us when we least expect it. I'm not, understand, commanding these periods of abstinence—only providing my best counsel if you should choose them."
I am not a fan of The Message as Bible translation, but in this case, it largely captures the gist of the text. I have found when I teach on this issue in mixed company, the women are full of questions – sometimes looking for loopholes or fine print to escape Paul’s command.
Of course, wives also need to understand that being sexually responsive is not enough. If the point is to protect her husband from temptation, then she cannot simply “let herself go" either. While the inner beauty of character is always of greater value than outward beauty, men rightly value the outward beauty of their wives, and wives should be good stewards of their bodies and appearance as a form of service to their husbands (if nothing else). A wife who is completely indifferent to her appearance might subject her husband to just as much sexual temptation as woman who is sexually cold towards him. If the goal is protection from temptation, then wives should take it upon themselves to do all they can to be attractive and available to their husbands.
Wives should realize that a man’s sex drive is a gift to her and to their marriage. Men, on the whole, marry for sex more than any other single thing (especially Christian men who have remained chaste). That’s not to say men reduce their wives to what they provide sexually; a man needs a wife for many other reasons, as she is his helper in a comprehensive way (Genesis 2). But let’s be blunt about it: men marry for sex. Men marry because they do not want to burn. Men marry expecting a ready and willing sex partner. A man whose wife does not cooperate in this area is going to be disappointed and frustrated. He will feel – rightly and justly according to Paul – like he has been defrauded if his wife is not sexually available to him on a regular basis. The sexual passion seen in texts like Proverbs 5 and Song of Solomon should characterize all Christian marriages.
Sexual refusal is a serious sin that threatens the very heart of what the marriage covenant is about and thus if persisted in, it can become grounds for both church discipline and for divorce. There is a well known example recounted by Edmund Morgan of a Puritan congregation in Boston excommunicating a man (yes, a man!) for failing to have sex with his wife over a two year period. This is biblical. In Exodus 21:10-11, a man is required to provide food, clothing, and sex to his wife, even if she is a second wife (polygamy was always sin, but was not criminalized under the law of Moses; polygamous marriages are still real marriages, with all the attendant duties). If the man failed to give her what was her due within the marriage covenant, she was free to leave him without any penalty. This is how serious biblical law treats sexual obligation within marriage. To refuse sex (at least as a pattern) is a form of covenant breaking, on par with adultery (which is also a form of covenant breaking). When Paul commands husbands and wives to give themselves to one another sexually whenever the other spouse desires, he is simply making an application of a truth about marriage already taught in the old covenant Scriptures.
Obviously there is more to marriage than sex. But sex is very central to marriage, and having a good sexual relationship is generally essential to having a good marriage. Husbands must love their wives. Wives must submit to their husbands. A man who loves his wife will love her sexually. A woman who submits to her husband will submit to him sexually. This is God’s command and calling for married couples.
One more sidenote before moving on: If one spouse approaches the other for sex at a time in which it would be especially difficult to come together as one flesh, the spouse that would like to refuse sex should do so in a way that can make it a mutual decision so that Paul’s commands can be followed. The best way to do so is for the spouse that would like to put off sex to affirm the sexual attractiveness of the other spouse, explain why it is not an ideal time to come together, and commit to having sex as soon as reasonably possible. Most godly husbands will be patient with their wives and consent to delaying sex if it happens in this way.
What’s A Man to Do?
Now, this is an article for married men, and so I want to speak directly to men at this point. In the vast, vast majority of marriages, the man has the higher sex drive. Indeed, mismatched sex drives is one of the most common issues to crop up in marriage counseling. Biologically the man’s sex drive is very strong and consistent, compared the woman’s more rhythmic, cyclical drive. The result is that wives generally do not crave sexual union as strongly or frequently as their husbands do. No doubt, this is part of God’s perfect design, and both spouses have to learn how to manage the situation. God is teaching us something in this marital design feature.
If you are a man in an undersexed or sexless marriage, you may be thinking about all exegesis and argumentation above and saying, “Perfect! This is just what I needed to fix the problem. I will simply read 1 Corinthians 7 to my wife, explain it to her or send her a few web links, and then I’ll get to enjoy our rejuvenated sex life!” Unfortunately, it does not work that way. If your wife does not respond to you sexually, simply wrapping a Bible verse around her neck is not likely to change things. It may make her feel guilty. It may make her provide “duty sex” a bit more often. She may add you to the list of chores she does around the house. But it will probably not fix the problem.
You might, just maybe, get a little further if you explain to your wife that you need her to be sexually available so she can help you battle temptation. Help her better understand God’s design for marriage. Help her understand your needs and desires. Teach about the role sex plays in marriage from a man’s perspective – that for men, love is sex and sex is love. Wives with a better, more mature understanding of the male sex drive might show some empathy at this point. But other wives will be made insecure, suspicious, perhaps even angry. Again, this is not necessarily going to solve the problem, though it may be a good first step. Talk about the problem with your wife in a gentle and direct way – but you need to be ready to do more than just talk about it, as we will see below.
You should not try to negotiate with your wife: “I’ll do X for you if you’ll do Y for me. I’ll do the dishes all week if we can be intimate on the weekend.” You cannot negotiate your way into a good sex life. You cannot compromise your way to passion. You cannot haggle your way into the “red hot monogamy” you want. This approach is not going to get the results you seek, at least not in the long term. You might get “duty sex” a little more often, but will not get the “desire sex” you long for. Popular jokes aside, there is actually no evidence that men performing chores (“choreplay”) around the house will stimulate a wife’s desire. And there is at least some evidence it lessens her desire (for reasons that will become clear below).
Here’s another thing you should not do: After experiencing sexual refusal, you should not try to punish her with the silent treatment, or by getting angry with her. In fact, it will be much better if you shrug off her refusal and happily find something productive to do with yourself. Take a cold shower, then redirect that sexual energy into something else, like a hobby. Do not start feeling sorry for yourself; do not mope around the house hoping you’ll become an object of her pity. Women are never aroused by men they pity. Instead refocus on your mission. Let her see that you have options, that there is more to you than your sexual urges and raging hormones. This will get you closer to a solution.
In order to fix the problem, you are going to have to do some work on yourself and on your relationship. You are going to have work at connecting with your wife. You are going to have to make her feel loved and secure, and you going to have demonstrate value as a man. These are not things you do to “qualify” yourself for sex. They are not done to “earn” to sex. Again, sex should never be a bargaining chip in a marriage. Rather, these things are done because, as the red pill gurus tell us, “Desire cannot be negotiated.” But — and this is an important “but” — desire can be cultivated. And that’s what you want to do — cultivate sexual desire in your wife. The best way to do this is to improve yourself. You cannot change her, but you can change yourself. So change yourself. Change your mindset about yourself. Improve yourself. Build frame. Focus on your mission. Develop new skills and competencies that add to your value. Become a man – a better man. Get your act together. Make yourself more desirable. I would tell you to find a “band of brothers” in your church who can help you grow as a man of God. I would tell you to dig into Aaron Renn’s The Masculinist, especially the early essays, which focus on different aspects of manhood in the modern world. I would tell you to dive into Craig James’ Masculine By Design; James offers good and challenging advice on marital “game,” flirting, masculinity, and self-growth, among other things. I would tell you to read Bill Smith’s excellent article on attraction on the Theopolis website which helps explain the theology behind game; understanding more about the mechanisms of sexual attraction can be very helpful as you seek to stir up your wife’s passion and responsiveness. And I would tell you to read everything you can from the dynamic duo of Mike Foster and Bnonn Tennant. These men can serve as mentors to help you grow in masculinity — the kind of masculinity that women find attractive, even arousing. By working on yourself, you will also be working on your relationship. You will be growing in confidence and this will be open the door to a better connection with your wife. You will be tapping into the core of God’s design for the sexes. Masculine and feminine are two poles of a magnet. They are drawn to one another. The way to get a more feminine response out of your wife is to intensify your masculinity; ground yourself in and strengthen your masculine core. Of course, masculinity is easily caricatured. I’m not talking about the overdrawn “macho man.” I’m talking about solid, deep, mature masculinity – a man who is oriented towards dominion, who exercises competence in his various domains, who “gets it” when it comes to understanding his wife, who takes responsibility for himself and his household thus relieving her of anxiety, and so on. Men who are manly in these ways find their wives are much more feminine and therefore much more ready to submit and much less likely to nag. Such women are happy knowing they married a man who has his act together, who can be counted on even in times of crisis, and who has the strength, wisdom, and gravitas to lead his family well. Do you want an affectionate, responsive wife? Then be the kind of man who cultivates responsiveness in her. This kind of cultivation is the essence of husbandry.
Think back to when you were first dating her. You were an alpha. You took the initiative and asked her out. You probably opened her car door, signaling protection, and paid for dinner, signaling provision. You were assertive; you had a direction you wanted to take the relationship. You passed her tests, showing you were a man with a spine. You flirted with her and made her laugh. You took an interest in her; you shaped the conversation and worked your way into her heart. In a word, you were romantic. If you want to ask why your wife is no longer responsive to you, it may be that you are not giving her very much to respond to. If you have become a lug on the sofa, spending most of your free time swapping between different sized screens, do not be surprised if she zeroes you out. If the only time you take initiative with your wife is when you want sex, she is probably not going to follow you into the bedroom. Marriage is a dance of headship and submission; if initiating sex is the only dance step in which you are taking the lead, no wonder she does not regard you as much of a dance partner. She can only follow you into the bedroom if you are actively leading her in the rest of life as well.
Is it possible you could improve yourself and still not get the kind of responsiveness you desire? Sure, it’s possible. It is always possible that your wife has past abuse or sexual shame issues she needs to work through. It is possible there is a health issue. You should try to uncover these things and address them if you have not already. If your wife has been withholding sex to punish you for something, if she has weaponized sexual refusal, you may need marital counseling or you may even need to appeal to the church’s elders for help since there are probably deeper marital issues. It is also possible your wife is in rebellion against you and against God, and simply needs to repent. But beyond these things, the best course of action you can follow is to become a better man — a man who is not only a good man but is (as we often say) good at being a man. Masculine virtue and virtuous masculinity is the goal. If you want your wife to desire you, work at becoming more desirable.
Every marriage takes work. Good marriages do not simply happen. We do not marry a soulmate; we cultivate that kind of relational chemistry over time as we build a life together. But the best way a man can work on his marriage is by working on himself. If your wife is sexually frigid, do not settle and certainly do not turn to sinful substitutes. Figure out what you need to do to and who you need to be to cultivate her desire. Work on yourself as a way of working on your marriage. Keep bringing the subject of sex with her, but do so in tandem with improving your husbandry skills. Virtually every marriage problem traces back to a man who is inadequately or improperly masculine and a woman who is inadequately or improperly feminine. Trust that as you get more fully grounded in your masculine core that your wife will find her feminine core as well. When this happens, the sexual relationship is reignited since the masculine pursues the feminine and the feminine is responsive to the masculine.
Wives most often withhold sex from their husbands because they don't "feel like it." But all that means is that you are no longer the kind of man she desires to have sex with. So why not work at making yourself that kind of man? Why not make it easier for her to obey 1 Corinthians 7:2-5? Why not become the kind of man she wants to be with?
Appendix: What Is Sex For? A Natural Theology of Monogamous Sexual Chemistry
Traditionally, the purposes of marriage as a whole have been identical to the purposes of sex within marriage. According to the Book of Common of Prayer wedding liturgy, the marital bond serves these purposes:
DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be entered into nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.
Marital sex is symbolic of Christ’s mystical union with the church; that is, it is symbolic of the gospel. Marital sex serves to create children, the “godly seed” God desires to build his kingdom (Malachi 2:15). Marital sex is a way of preventing the spread of fornication (1 Corinthians 7:2-5). And marital sex is given for the sake of mutual comfort and joy, as the man and woman serve as complementary companions to one another. These divinely ordained purposes of the marriage covenant give rise to the “job descriptions” of the husband and the wife. It should be obvious that the job description for each spouse includes regular, frequent sexual union. And it should also be understood that marriage is a full time, “always on call” kind of job.
While the procreative and preventive purposes of sex get the most attention, sex does not just create new lives, and it is not just a remedy for sexual temptation. I especially want to focus here on the way sex serves to bond the husband and wife, and in doing so, make a “natural theology” argument that we were designed for monogamy. It is common today for natural lawyers, whether Christian or secular, to argue that while women are designed to flourish in monogamous relationships, men are designed to spread their seed far and wide and so monogamy is “unnatural” for a man. This is not true. Both men and women are designed for monogamy and while the fall and distorted and twisted our sexuality, God’s creational design persists and when we conform to that design, we are able to flourish.
There are many ways to make a case for monogamy from our sexual design, but I want to examine mainly on what we have learned about the chemistry of sex. In a section of her book Love Thy Body that deals with “The Science of Sex” Nancy Pearcey sums up what we have learned about hormones and relational bonding. As in so many areas, the scientists are finally catching up with Scripture. Paul taught two thousand years ago that even sex with a prostitute (the most ‘casual” form of sex possible) creates a bond. Now we have an even deeper idea of what Paul meant.
Scientists first learned about oxytocin because of its role in childbirth and breastfeeding. The chemical released when a mother nurses her baby, and it stimulates an instinct for caring and nurturing. It is often called the attachment hormone.
Imagine the surprise when scientists discovered that oxytocin is also released during sexual intercourse especially (but not exclusively) in women. Conseqiently, the desire to attach to the other person when we have sex is not only an emotion but also part of our chemistry. Oxytocin has been shown to create a sense of trust. As one sex therapist puts it, when we intercourse, we create “an involuntary chemical commitment.”
The upshot is that even if you think you are having a no-strings-attached hookup, you are in reality creating a chemical bond – whether you mean to or not. An advice columnist for Glamour magazine warns that because of hormones, “we often get prematurely attached. ”Even when you intend to just have casual sex, “biology might trump your intentions.”
That may be why Paul said “Whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). Sex involves our bodies down to the level of our biochemistry.
The same holds true for men. The main neurochemical responsible for the male response in intimate sexual contact is vasopressin. It is structurally similar to oxytocin and has a similar emotional effect. Scientists believe it simulates bonding with a woman and offspring. Vasopressin has been dubbed the monogamy molecule.
As Grossman observes, “You might say we are designed to bond.”
Paul’s words ring more true today that in his own time: “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh’” (v. 16). Lauren Winner…translates Paul’s words like this: “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise, whether you do or not?”
The implication is that repeatedly hooking up involves repeatedly breaking that bodily “promise.” No wonder breakups are so painful that many young adults cultivate a cynical attitude just to overcome the pain. In many cases, their emotional detachment is a form of what psychologists call defensive detachment. I’m afraid you will hurt me, so I will build an emotional wall to avoid being vulnerable to you. As a result, however, deep attachment becomes ever more difficult. Even when young adults don’t want to marry, they have a harder time making a lasting commitment….
The hookup culture is unraveling the social fabric. It produces isolated, alienated adults who come together temporarily for physiological release. By repeatedly breaking up (or never connecting in the first place), many people fail to learn how to form strong, resilient bonds needed to create happy, fulfilling, long-term marriages and families….
The latest science is confirming that the human being is a unified whole. The body/personhood divide is not true to who we are. In fact, the reason all the sex education and deprogramming aimed at young people is necessary is precisely because they do not, by nature, thrive on casual, meaningless sexual encounters. They crave intimacy and fidelity.
Pearcey is correct. The act of sex creates a bond. God designed us so that sexual bond would be at the center of a total covenant bond – that is, the one flesh act of sex would be interwoven with our oneness in every other way in the covenant marriage. When we separate sexual bonding from total covenant bonding (that is, from marriage), we are violating are our creational design. The reason people feel violated after fornicating is precisely because they have both violated and been violated – they have violated God’s law, which is the law of their own nature, and they have allowed themselves to be violated by another. If there is anything that has become clear in the sixty or so years since the sexual revolution got underway, it’s that it simply is not working. And yet rather than repenting, our culture continues to double down on the sexual revolution, thinking if that we just get a little more permissive, we will finally attain the shame-free satisfaction that has so eluded us. It is not so. Sex outside of marriage will always destroy us.
But what Percey says is also crucial for understanding how sex works within marriage. The act of sex on the wedding night physically and privately seals the covenant the man and woman have made verbally and publicly in their wedding ceremony. Afterwards, each time they have intercourse, they are renewing that same marital covenant. Sex is to marriage what the Lord’s Supper is to the church. Sex is given to us for this very purpose: that the man and woman may be one, and continually renew their oneness, in marriage. Sex is unique and exclusive to married couples for this very reason.
At the hormonal level it is obvious we are designed for monogamy. The reason women produce oxytocin following intercourse, and men produce vasopressin, is precisely because God wants feelings of trust, intimacy, and love to accompany the physical act of sex. God made us to bond in this way with one person. The cheesy “tape illustration” has gotten bashed a lot in recent years, perhaps because of its association with so-called “purity culture” but it holds true: Just like a piece of tape that gets stuck to something and then pulled off, over and over again, will eventually lose its ability to stick at all, in the same way, when we misuse our God-given gift of sexuality – a gift given to us so we could uniquely bond with a spouse of the opposite sex in a lifelong covenant of marriage – we lose the ability to bond at all. We have cheapened sex, and thus weakened any future relationship we might have. Sure, sexual sin can be forgiven. Jesus died for sexual sinners. But forgiveness does not negate all the temporal consequences of sin. Those who have sinned sexually should repent, and part of that repentance should be recognizing that the loses of virginity outside of marriage is a tragedy that cannot be fully undone. This does not doom one to a bad marriage and should not be used as an excuse for further sexual sin as if “all is lost, so why bother trying?” But we should acknowledge the situation for what it is.
There are many today who will admit that women are better suited for monogamy, but men thrive when they are promiscuous. Rollo Tomassi, the “red pill” guru of the manosphere, is a good example of this. Tomassi’s view arises from evolutionary psychology. For Tomassi, men and women have competing sexual strategies. These sexual strategies are not complementary but competitive. Men and women are playing a zero sum game. Either the man or the woman will have to compromise their evolved sexual strategy. Because women need a reliable mate who will protect and provide for her during and after pregnancy, women have evolved a preference for long term monogamous relationships. Men on the hand desire to scatter their seed far and wide. The whole scheme can be summed up in the saying “eggs are expense, sperm is cheap.” Because sex is potentially a huge investment for the woman, she has evolved to be picky about her sexual partner(s). Not so with the man, for whom sex can be a much more minimal investment since he can choose to leave her and the child much more easily.
No doubt Tomassi has captured something true about a man’s fallen sexuality. Fallen men does desire sex rather indiscriminately. Many cultures have double standards for men and women when it comes to sexual sin because the way sexual sin impacts each sex is significantly different. Tomassi fully admits that a woman who has a high “notch count” will have a hard time “pair bonding” with a future husband. But he will not admit that fornication can damage men in a similar way.
Tomassi is wrong on several counts here. First, the sexual strategy of the man and woman according to our original creation design is complementary, not competitive. Both the man and woman can get what they want in the covenant of marriage; their sexual strategies can actually unite and harmonize in a glorious way. In fact, in surveys, women and men who are faithfully married admit to having significantly higher satisfaction with their sex lives than those who are unmarried and living lives of fornication. Second, while fornication may more obviously damage women, it damages men as well. Men are made for lifelong monogamy – for the covenant of marriage – every bit as much as women. Men thrive when they are tied to one woman; the stability of a solid marriage sets the man’s energy free to take dominion in other areas of life, and this is what builds civilization. Men who are not monogamous are far more likely to wreck a culture than build a culture. Men who refuse monogamy leave a trail of hurting women and children in their wake, and they waste strength that could have been used to construct something of value. Indeed, a man who cannot control himself sexually, a man who does not discipline and channel his sexual energy exclusively towards his wife, is really no man at all. He does not image The Man, Jesus Christ, who is exclusively faithful to his bride, the church. He effeminate, a soft man, living for luxury and pleasure. He is a broken man, a pathetic man, living a disordered life, squandering his strength and capacity for dominion, and failing to leave any kind of lasting legacy in the world. He is cursed rather than blessed (cf. Psalm 128).