Sexual Desire and Sexual Refusal in Marriage:

A Pauline Theology of Consent

Rich Lusk


This is an article especially for married men.


"When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice: they are dictated by the nature of the situation."- Edmund Burke


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. Can there be exceptions to this rule? Sure -- Paul gives one such exception in this passage (abstaining from sex for the sake of prayer time) and we could surely come up with others (e.g., illness, necessary travel, etc.). But before we can deal with exceptions to a principle, we have to establish the principle. The principle here is the mutual obligation to sexually fulfill one's spouse.

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.

Now, someone might ask, "What exactly constitutes sexual refusal? What if one spouse asks for sex and the other says it cannot happen now but could at sometime in the next 24 hours?" I would guess many godly couples have worked out such a system that allows for a "delayed acceptance" of a sexual overture. Such a pattern might be a completely faithful way of fufilling Paul's intention, namely that married couples keep one another sexually satisfied not only to bond with each other as one flesh, but also to minimize the possibility of sexual temptation. Each married couple will have to work out the best way to apply Paul's teaching in their shared life. But the basic principle of sexual obligation in marriage should be upheld. The Bible is completely "sex positive" when it comes to sex in marriage. We are the uptight prudes; Paul is the one who is essentially commanding us (under divine inspiration) to have more sex than most husbands and wives are currently having.

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 final reminder before moving on, lest I be misunderstood: 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 command 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 the 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.

Here's the bad news: You cannot change your wife. Perhaps you can connect with her better -- which you should try to do -- but you cannot change her. But here's the good news: You can change yourself. And if you become a better man, the odds are very high that she will find herself attracted to you. If your goal is to simply get more sex, you will likely fail. If your goal is to lead your wife in repentance so she can obey 1 Corinthians 7, that's better, but still not adequate. Your goal needs to be to become a better man -- a better man who is better at being a man, to spell it out further. But as you become a better man, you will also become more attractive to her. That's the key thing. As you become more fully and faithfully masculine, you will draw out her femininity. Your masculine energy will intensify her feminine energy. And you will discover the deep truth that both Scripture and nature teach, namely, the masculine and the feminine are pulled towards to one another. If you are not attractive in your wife's eyes, it is likely because you have a distorted masculinity. Fix that, and your sex life is likely to follow. However, all of this needs be unpacked in greater detail.

In order to fix the problem of a sexless or low sex marriage, you are going to have to do some work on yourself and on your relationship. Yes, 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. Again: 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.


Many men do not realize how many of their behaviors -- specifically their unmasculine behaviors -- are a turn off to their wives. We have to be careful here. There is a kind of exaggerated masculinity that becomes a caricature of itself. That's not the goal. But once you understand the secret to attraction -- namely, the divinely designed polarity of the masculine and feminine -- you can begin to improve yourself in ways that will heighten attraction. Ask yourself some hard questions and get ready to make some deep changes. Have you become the kind of man who whines and complains? Obviously, you want and need to be able to share things with your wife, e.g., struggles at work. But if she senses that you are not competent or capable of dealing with the challenges your life mission requires, her anxiety about you is likely to kill attraction. You will seem more like a child who needs mothering than a strong man who arouses her affection. Why complain when you could be solving the problem? Why talk when you could do something to extend your dominion in the world? Are you going to make excuses for why you cannot get things done, or are you going to actually do something worthwhile? If you want to be attractive to your wife, she needs to see you are a man on a mission. Have a vision for life, make a plan, and execute on it. Show her you have ambition, that you are going somewhere worth following. Be decisive. Indecision means inactivity and inactivity makes you appear low energy and being a low energy man is never going to be attractive.

Things that make you look insecure, anxious, fearful, or lacking in confidence will be a turn off for the same reasons. Women know that men will experience anxiety because they are human, after all. But too much anxiety will put burdens on her. She will feel like she needs to be "the man" -- and nothing kills sexual energy more than role reversal. For her to operate in her feminine -- and thus to be responsive to you -- you have to operate in your masculine. Your confidence and competence will provide her with a sense of security. How you project yourself physically is even a key here. While women are certainly not visual in the same way men are, how a man looks and presents himself does matter. This is more than just dressing decently and staying reasonably fit (things you expect of her as well). It's also a matter of your aura, your vibe. Do you stand up straight? Do you speak with confidence and decisiveness? Or do you slump, as if you're ashamed to take up space? How do you communicate? Are you passive-aggressive, too insecure to speak directly and freely? If you mumble, it's going to make her think you you don't really want to be heard. And if you don't think you have anything worthwhile to say, why should she? Do you have nervous habits that indicate insecurity? Do you easily lose control of your emotions? A man who cannot control his emotions cannot control himself and (as a woman intuitively knows), this means he can be easily controlled by others. A man who is that weak will not likely generate attraction.

Understanding hypergamy is another key. Hypergamy is the almost universally recognized phenomenon that women want to "marry up." A woman wants to marry a man who is superior to herself in keys ways, e.g., physical strength or earning power. She is the weaker vessel. She will be the one to bear and nurture children. She will be dependent on a man in key ways. When she is married to a man she is proud of, when she believes she got a good deal in her marriage, when she believes she got a desirable man, her desire for him will be intensified. If you are an embarrassment to her, if she feels like you are beneath her, she will hard a time being sexually attracted to you. Men need to know their own value. You can be fully humble before God (knowing all you have comes from him) while also owning a sense of your own worth. God has given you talents; use them. Show your wife she is married to a high value man. The key truth to note is that when her hypergamy is satisfied, she will be much more responsive and submissive. If she feels like she is better than you, like she could lead better than you, then you are going to have sexual issues in the relationship. When she admires you, she will be happy to follow your lead -- and will follow your lead right into the marriage bed.

Again, we have to be careful here because there is a fine line to walk, but it is important to not be too anxious to please your wife. Yes, pleasing her is a concern you must have, and Paul will actually mention that later in 1 Corinthians 7 (see 7:33). But some men overdo it and it backfires. They think, "If I just give her everything she wants and asks for, if I let her always have her way, she will be pleased with me and attracted to me." Christian husbands should never be jerks to their wives. But neither should Christian husbands live scared of their wives, as many men do. When the wife knows he is scared, when she knows deep down that she is really the one in charge and calling the shots, she will not respect him. And women are generally going to have a hard time being attracted over the long haul to a man they do not respect, admire, and look up to. Christian husbands must not be proverbial "nice guys" or simps. They should be able to stand up to their wives when the situation calls for it. Indeed, they must if they are going to maintain frame and and act as head in the marriage. Bad things happen when men abdicate and harken to the voice of their wives, as the examples of Adam and Abraham show (cf. Gen. 3, 16). You take into account her desires, but in the end, you have to make the decisions that will lead your family in a good direction, as you see fit. Listen to her but do not be controlled by her. Hear her out, but know it is your right and your responsibility to rule your household. Too many men become "yes men" -- or perhaps we should call them "yes, dear" husbands. They take orders from their wives. Think they are leading by serving, but actually they are not leading at all. They are leading from behind, which is no leadership at all. Get it straight: abdication is not sexually attractive. Always giving her what she wants to to try to keep her happy will result in her being unhappy. Constantly deferring to her communicates you are needy, incompetent, and insecure -- all unattractive traits. Simpishness and indecisveness suggest you cannot make decisions and would rather her be the one held responsible for whatever happens. Man up! Just as the church is attracted to Christ because of his powerful, transformative love, so wives are attracted to husbands who are strong, who love in powerfully masculine ways. Humility and strength are not incompatible. In fact, in a godly man they must be paired together. A godly man certainly be humble. But he will also recognize that God in his Word constantly calls upon us to strengthen ourselves by his grace. The whole point of acknowledging our weakness before God is so that he can make us strong before men (and women).

To be attractive you need to be cheerful. Overly emotive, depressed men are not attractive. She wants to know you can hold yourself together in hard times so she knows you can hold the family together in hard times. Obviously, there will be trying times for all men, and you will need to fight through them. But men who have too much negative emotion, especially in circumstances where it is not fully warranted (that is, where it is an overreaction), are going to find they are repelling their wives. Men who are optimistic, hopeful, and joyful are much more likely to draw their wives in. Joy is actually deeply connected to grit. Joyful grit is the key to conquering life's challenges. We need a bedrock of joy in our lives to overcome obstacles and do hard things during hard times. To lead well in the midst of chaos that comes upon us regularly in our lives means rising above the swirling emotions of others so you can be a calming presence. Paraphrasing Edwin Friedmann, to lead well in the midst of crisis, a man must always be the calmest person in the room. Leaders who are undaunted, who inspire confidence, who can be counted on when the chips are down, are going to be attractive. When disaster happens she wants to be able to look at you with that "now what?" look that damsels in distress give to their heroic rescuers in the movies when the villain makes one last attempt to catch them. Women are attracted to men they trust to protect them and guide them through valleys, back to the mountaintop. If you want to win the affection and admiration of your wife -- and have the sexual relationship that comes with it -- make yourself the embodiment of the man described in Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." When you are her hero, when you are the most admirable man she knows, she is not likely to refuse your sexual advances. She might even make a few advances of her own.

The bottom line is that if you want her to respond to you, you need to lead her. Good leadership makes for happy followers. Husbands who lead well (usually) have happy wives. And happy wives are (usually) sexually responsive. 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. Likewise, she may have insecurities or body image issues that keep her from wanting to be sexually open and available; in such cases, a husband may not only need to make sure he is being desirable to her, but will also need to make sure she knows she is desirable to him. This takes work because it requires building a relationship in which she will feel safe being vulnerable. If you have committed adultery in the past or physically assaulted your wife, all bets are off and the advice I have given here is not going to work; you are going to have to repair other aspects of your marriage before getting her to open up sexually. If your wife has been withholding sex to punish you for something, if she has weaponized sexual refusal, you may need marital counseling (though good counselors are hard to find) 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 I: 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).


Appendix II: Response to a Critic


One critic of my essay believes that I have taken away agency (especially from wives), that my view will lead to husbands coercing wives into sex through guilt, and that I am not preserving the dignity that comes with imago Dei. Further, this critic argues I have misread the passage in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 because I have gotten the context wrong. While it is always risky to only give one side of a conversation (though, ironically, that's what we have in Paul's first and second letters to the Corinthians), I am going to post part of my reply to this critic here since it might bring added clarity:


1. You asked about wives being "coerced" into sex through guilt. Why do you bring the word “coerced” in? That’s highly prejudicial language. Do you use that language every time you talk about biblical commands/obligations? But to answer your question, yes, a husband/wife should feel guilty for failing to satisfy the sexual needs/desires of their spouse. That is a covenantal obligation taken on in marriage. Sexual refusal is a sin.
One thing that concerns me is that you talk about the wife’s feelings as if they had authority in this matter. But making feelings the standard is very dangerous because then feelings can trump any command God gives. Are gays “coerced with guilt” when told God’s Word forbids homosexual activity? Are transgenders “coerced with guilt” when they are told “God made them male and female”? If a wife’s feeling are out of line with the Word, it is her feelings that need to be changed through repentance, not the plain meaning of Scripture.

You think I've contradicted myself by saying that a husband citing 1 Corinthians 7 to his wife will not solve the problem of a low sex or sexless marriage, because I then go to great lengths to explain it (even quoting female teachers who are writing for women). But when I said husbands simply reading and explaining 1 Corinthians 7 to their wives will probably not solve the problem of a sexless or low sex marriage solely by citing this passage, my point is that a man in that situation likely has bigger problems in his marriage that will have to be addressed. Sexless or low sex marriages are not primarily due to a faulty reading of 1 Cor. 7 (though that may be part of it) but due to a lack of sexual attraction, which should be abnormal for a marriage and is a sign something is amiss.
To paint the bigger picture: Sex in marriage should be mutual between the husband and wife, given to and received from each other, full of love and desire. Sex is not just something spouses do for one another but for the good of their marriage. Ideally, sex will be a frequent, passionate, bonding experience of covenant renewal for the husband and wife. Every time a couple has sex, they strengthen their bond, physically/chemically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yes, sex is a marital duty but “duty sex” need never enter into the discussion because they are already fully satisfying one another. Ideally, duty will be a delight — not only in this area of life, but in every area of life, because we are conforming our desires and feelings to the Word of God. But in 1 Cor. 7, Paul lays out a framework for understanding sexual obligation in marriage because sometimes sin drives a wedge between duty and delight; Paul is commanding married people regarding their sex lives precisely so they will not be at the mercy of their (fickle) feelings all the time. Again, ideally, this would never enter into the conversation because a husband and wife are so devoted to pleasing one another in this area and because they so strongly desire each other (cf. Song of Solomon). But because there was so much confusion over sex in Corinth, Paul had to spell it out. I would argue we have a lot of those same confusions in our day, and thus this passage is very relevant to addressing some of the main problems married couples face. The passage provides an objective standard for cutting through feelings and anything else that might cloud our vision as to what love requires in the marriage bed. It leaves spouses with no excuses for failing to satisfy one another sexually. 
It should also be noted that what Paul teaches here absolutely forbids what has been called “transactional sex.” All too often, the alternative to “duty sex” is “transactional sex” — a spoken or unspoken contract in which she agrees to have sex with him if he does x, y, and z (I suppose it could go the other direction, but it's usually the wife withholding sex until certain conditions are met). For Paul, sex is not something a man has to earn; it is not conditioned on his performance in this way or that way. Sex is at the heart of the covenant the man and woman have made with one another in getting married, and thus should always be readily available whenever either spouse desires it. That is Paul’s rule. 
The fact that sex is a divine obligation in marriage underscores the goodness of marital sexuality. It also highlights one of the main purposes of marriage as a one flesh union. The reality is that sexual refusal not only harms the spouse who gets rejected, but harms the marriage itself. The experience of sexual refusal is incredibly painful, even humiliating. For men, sexual rejection is emasculating. For women, sexual refusal creates fear and insecurity. The internet is filled with testimonies of married persons who have been devastated by sexual refusal. And how could it be otherwise? When one spouse rejects the other spouse’s sexual initiation, it is really a rejection of the whole person. How can spouses justify giving anything but their sexual best? How can they justify withholding a gift they alone can give? We do grave damage to the institution of marriage and to particular marriages by “excusing” sexual refusal. Just as every time a couple has sex, they are strengthening their marriage, so every act of sexual refusal weakens the marriage. Marriages in which sexual refusal is common are weaker marriages, more vulnerable to external temptation and internal strife. The spouses are not as deeply bonded as those in which sexual overtures are ordinarily accepted favorably. If our goal is to build stronger marriages in the church, we should call sexual refusal what it is: a sin against God, a sin against the marriage, a sin against one’s spouse.

2. You wrote, "That view of 1 Corinthians 7 away any sense of agency or choice in the sexual relationship. In this way of thinking sex is no longer a gift that is freely given and received but instead something that wives must give whenever a husband asks for it and she must bear guilt whenever she fails to do so. This view of marital sexuality is more about coercion and a move away from the Bible’s teaching on Christ-like, sacrificial love.” This sounds like antinomianism to me. You set up a false dichotomy between obligation and gift, as if my obligation to give something implies it can no longer be a gift. That’s unbiblical logic. Sex can be both a marital duty and a gift of love at the same time. All biblical commands in every area of life work this way: in obeying the Word, I am fulfilling an obligation and freely giving of myself. But the rule of obligation is always Scripture, not what I feel like giving to another — and that seems to be the issue between us here. You say a spouse should only give sex when they feel like it. I say they should give sex according to the rule laid down in 1 Cor. 7:2-5. You make her feelings the rule; I make the inspired words of the Apostle Paul the rule.

Let’s try a parallel case. Suppose a husband thinks he should get to decide whether he will go into work each day in order to provide for his wife and children. He has to preserve his own agency, after all. To say he is obligated to go to work and make a living each day takes away his agency; its coercive. He’s not a slave or a “success object," after all. His work on behalf of the family should be a sacrificial gift of love, given when and how he chooses. But to make him feel guilty for not going to work is coercive, not Christ-like. He should only go to work on those days he feels like it.

Hopefully, you can see how idiotic this pattern of reasoning is. 
Here's another parallel case: Should Christians decide every Sunday morning whether or not they will go to church? Should they only go to church when they feel like it? No. When a person became a Christian, the decision to go to church every Lord's Day (unless providentially hindered) was already made, in principle. So it is with marriage. When a couple says "I do," they have, in principle, promised to make themselves sexually available to their spouse. They have given consent, in principle, to sexual union. It's that simple.

Your problem seems to be with making sex obligatory. I agree that sex is best when the desire to have sex is there -- just as obedience to any of God's commands is more enjoyable when we want to do what is right. But sex within marriage is no different, in principle, from other obligations and responsibilities we have in life. Our obligations are what they are, no matter how we feel about them. Obligation does not destroy agency or dignity. Lots of things are obligatory. If a person does not want to take on sexual obligations to a spouse they should not get married. But if they do they take on those obligations by getting married, they should fulfill those obligations. Again, “destroying agency” has nothing to do with it. If a person takes a job, they take on the obligations of that job, answering to the boss, etc. This does not mean their agency has been destroyed. It means they made a choice that has certain downstream implications.

The main issue in our conversation is what will be the rule that governs marital sex: feelings or the covenant? Is it feelings that sanctify sex in marriage or is it the covenant? Is it feelings or Scripture that determine sexual obligation?

A related question/issue: By denying that sex is a right/obligation in marriage, you open up the possibility of a spouse (usually the wife in this instance since they typically have the lower drive) weaponizing sex. On your view, a spouse can easily withhold sex as a form of power, to manipulate, to get what they want. This is one reason why Paul insists that sex is always a right/obligation in marriage: only in this way can the structure and integrity of marriage be preserved.
Wayne Grudem says, citing 1 Corinthians 7, "when some suspension of sexual activity is contemplated, Paul repudiates unilateral decision making by the wife or by the husband. 'Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time.'" (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 88). In other words, when it come to sex in marriage, it takes two to say No. The decision to have sex cannot be made unilaterally by one spouse. If one spouse wants to have sex and the other is reluctant, Paul is commanding the couple to have sex. Paul is, in effect, telling the lower drive spouse to meet the needs of the higher drive spouse. When it comes to sex in marriage, neither has the power to trump the other as a sexual gatekeeper. Neither has the right of refusal. A repeated pattern of sexual refusal can actually constitute breaking the marriage covenant (Exodus 21:10-11). Obviously, we could qualify and nuance this with safeguards about abuse, about being thoughtful/kind/considerate of one's spouse's situation, and so forth. But the basic principle is clear.

3. Let's look more closely at the key passage. You misunderstand the context of 1 Cor. 7:2-5 and the result is that you get the meaning of the passage backwards. The problem in Corinth (as seen in chapters 5 and 6) is widespread sexual immorality. Some Corinthian Christians were recommending abstinence (even in marriage, perhaps) as a solution. This is why they wrote to Paul the words he quotes in verse 1, “It is good for a man to not have sexual relations with a woman.” Presumably, the quoted words represent the emerging Corinthian view. As if to say, "Since sex is such a problem for us, what if we just do away with it altogether and try to be celibate?" But Paul develops a different, more realistic solution to the problem of sexual immorality/temptation in the following verses. Paraphrasing and summarizing, his argument in verses 2-5 goes like this: “You Corinthians have proposed celibacy as a remedy to sexual immorality, arguing it is good for a man to not touch a woman. But because the temptation to sexual immorality is so strong and so widespread, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. In other words, if you desire sex strongly, go ahead and get married because then you will have a lawful sex partner. Sexual activity in marriage is the answer to the sexual temptations you are facing. Contrary to what you wrote to me, I write to you: It is very good for a man to touch his wife! And for her to touch him! In marriage, the husband is legally and covenantally obligated to give sex to his wife, and the wife to her husband. Each spouse has a right to sex; each spouse has a duty to give sex; no sexual needs or desires in marriage should go unfulfilled. The wife does not have authority over her body once she gets married, but her husband does. And likewise, a man no longer has authority over his own body once he gets married, but his wife does. And so you should be sexually available to each other at all times. If you deprive one another of sex in marriage, you are actually defrauding one another; it is an unjust deprivation, since you are refusing to fulfill an obligation. It is a form of theft since you are not giving what is owed to your spouse. So only refrain from having sex when you both agree it’s a good time to be apart, so that you can give yourselves to fasting and prayer. But these agreed-upon times of sexual abstinence should not last for too long, because otherwise Satan will tempt you, and remember, one of the reasons you had for getting married in the first place was to minimize sexual temptation.”

To be blunt (and repetitive): Sexual refusal in marriage is a sin. Can that be qualified or nuanced? Sure. But before you can nuance the point, you have to establish the point. That’s what Paul does here. If you want to ask dumb questions like, “Does this mean she has to have sex the day after she gives birth or while she has the stomach flu?” I would just point you to the Golden Rule — which should be more than sufficient to answer those types of questions.

Then in verse 6, Paul goes on to give permission for some to remain single/celibate in the church, provided they have the gifting (which in context means they are able to live without sex) the way Paul does. In verse 7 he says the single life has many advantages (a theme he will come back towards the end of the chapter when he connects it to the coming persecution) — but he also recognizes each person has his own gift, and very few are actually gifted with celibacy (which, again, in context, is the ability to live with sex and with minimal sexual temptation). Thus, in verses 8 and 9, he acknowledges it would be good for the unmarried and widows to remain as they are, but he quickly adds it would be better for them to marry than to burn with sexual desire — which brings us back around to Paul’s answer to widespread sexual temptation/immorality in Corinth, which is regular sexual activity in marriage.
This is 1 Corinthians 7:9 in the Phillips translation: “It is far better for them to marry than to be tortured by unsatisfied desire.” The burning sexual desire in itself is not an problem. Strong sexual desires are rooted in creation; they are God-given, and should not cause any shame. The issue is in how those desires are satisfied. But if the spouse that burns with greater desire cannot count on the spouse with lesser desire to quench those desires, then marriage is not actually solving the issue. To give one example: Proverbs 5 says a man should delight in his wife’s breasts “at all times” and should “always” be intoxicated with her love. But if she withholds herself from him, she not only disobeys 1 Cor. 7:5 herself, but she also makes it impossible for her husband to obey Proverbs 5:19. 
When you start to mesh 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 with other texts from Scripture, you see just deep these issues go and how the whole biblical architecture of marriage depends on sexual availability.

Now, on your reading of this text, friend, a spouse can refuse sexual activity in marriage any time they do not feel like having sex. But if that’s the case then the spouse with stronger sexual desire is left “burning” and thus tempted — the very thing Paul says marriage should alleviate. On your view, Paul does not actually provide a solution to the problem he is addressing. If couples take your view, their marriage will fail to fulfill one of its chief purposes.

It seems to me there is a contradiction in your reading of the text. You admit verse 5 teaches sexual activity should be a “regular part of marriage,” but what does that mean and how does that avoid all the problems you are accusing me of creating? After all, the whole issue here is: How regular? Who’s to say? I think the issues between us are very sharply defined right at this point. For you, a wife’s feelings or desire will determine sexual frequency. For me, it’s 1 Corinthians 7:2-5. This is one of the great battles in the contemporary church: Will we be ruled by our own feelings and desires or by Scripture? You are on the wrong side of this line.

What if a wife (or husband) never wants to have sex with their spouse? Then what? Given what you’ve said, it seems that abstinence in marriage would have to be a legitimate option. One spouse — the spouse with the lower drive — holds all the sexual power in the relationship. If you insist that there has to be some degree of sex (even once a month, or once a year), your own words could be used against you: You are being coercive, removing agency, etc. Your view leads to a disastrous dead end. Your view is an absolute disaster for marriages.

4. On your questions about “agency” and “personhood” — I do not think you are clear enough for me to give any answers. Of course, persons have agency. Nothing I have said denies that. A person can choose to do what is right or wrong in any given context, including when it comes to marital sexuality. But what "agency" can never be allowed to do is trump the clear commands of God’s Word, which is what you are doing. Frankly, I think when you are talking about "agency" what you really have in view is "feelings" -- and that brings us back around to issues I've already addressed. We must resist the pull of therapeutic culture.

The fact that you jump from there to abuse reveals another huge part of the problem. First, I bracketed out situations where adultery or abuse have occurred in the essay. But the problem I see with your interpretation is that abuse has become the only lens through which you can see things, and so you bring abuse into your reading of a text even when it is not there in the text. There are good biblical answers to questions raised by abuse, but 1 Corinthians 7 is not addressing that issue or those questions. If you want to discuss abuse, fine, but that's a different topic with a different set of texts.

5. On personhood and gender roles, I think you are veering in an anti-Trinitarian, Gnostic direction. I don’t know how else to read what you say. You seem to think that because we image God, roles are not a deep part of who we are. I draw the opposite conclusion. Men and women image God, and thus our sexually distinct roles are intrinsic to who we are. Roles are not added to personhood, the way a house is built on top of foundation; they are intrinsic to personhood. Consider the Trinity: What makes the Father the Father is precisely his role as the one who begets the Son. And what makes the Son the Son is his role as the only-begotten of the Father. You seem to have a adopted a very postmodern view of identity — as if human identity were an onion and the way to get to the “real me” is by peeling off the layers of various roles, privileges  responsibilities, obligations  etc. that I have, in order to get to some undefined inner core or essence of my personhood. But that is not a biblical understanding of personhood. In Scripture and in the Trinity, personhood is defined relationally, which means roles and responsibilities are built into personhood from the outset.
6. You say you still believe in the marital roles of headship, submission, etc. But I doubt that — or at least I see no evidence of that in what you have written. From what you have written, it seems the only kind of power you can see a man having in marriage is abusive. And the obligation of the wife to submit somehow excludes their sex life. You may still pay lip service to the categories of headship and submission but I think you have eviscerated them of meaning.
Appendix III: An Interpretive Paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 7:1-9

[1] You wrote to me, “It is good for a man to not touch – that is, to not have sexual relations -- with a woman.” Many in your church feel this way about sex because sexual immorality has been such a problem for you. Some of you have a lot of sexual baggage from your past. Some among you are suggesting that perhaps it would be best, and more spiritual, to do away with sex altogether and try to be celibate. Some of you are ashamed of sex and sexual desire – and no doubt some of this shame is tied back to sins many of you committed before you came to believe the gospel (1 Cor. 6:9-11).


[2] Let me give you a more realistic solution to the problem of sexual temptation – a solution that traces back to God’s original creation design for men and women. Your sexual desires are not evil in themselves, they just need a lawful way to be satisfied. Instead of trying to be celibate (and failing, since most of you do not have the gift of self-control required to live a celibate life), the answer to sexual immorality and temptation is marriage, and sex within marriage. That’s right: the solution to sexual temptation is sex within marriage. Thus, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. Because the temptation to sexual immorality is so strong and so widespread, go ahead and get married! Then you will have a lawful sex partner. Sexual activity in marriage is God’s remedy to the sexual temptations you are facing. Contrary to what you wrote to me, I write to you: It is very good for a man to touch his wife! And for her to touch him!


[3] In marriage, the husband is legally and covenantally obligated to give sex to his wife, and the wife to her husband. This may sound radical because in your culture only men have sexual rights. But in the culture God is building, wives have sexual rights too. This was even taught in the Torah (Exodus 21:10-11). Each spouse has a right to sex; each spouse has a duty to give sex; no sexual needs or desires in marriage should go unfulfilled. That’s God’s desire and design for marriage.


[4] The wife does not have authority over her body once she gets married, but her husband does. And likewise, a man no longer has authority over his own body once he gets married, but his wife does. When you get married, you promise to give yourself completely and unreservedly to your spouse. You do not get to withhold yourself. In fact, if you withhold sex to manipulate your spouse, punish your spouse, or for any other reason, you will not only frustrate your spouse, your will frustrate God’s design for marriage.


[5] Thus, you should be sexually available to each other at all times. Sexual refusal in marriage is a sin (though you can use sanctified common sense to come up with some exceptions to this rule). If you deprive one another of sex in marriage, you are actually defrauding one another; it is an unjust deprivation, since you are refusing to fulfill an obligation you took on when you got married. It is a form of theft since you are not giving what is owed to your spouse. Note that I am using legal language here! So only refrain from having sex when you both agree it’s a good time to be apart, so that you can give yourselves to prayer. But these mutually agreed-upon times of sexual abstinence should not last for too long, because otherwise Satan will tempt you, and remember, one of the reasons you had for getting married in the first place was to minimize sexual temptation. If you deny your spouse when you have not mutually consented to abstain, you actually put a bullseye target on your spouse, making him/her an easy target for Satan. You should do all you can to protect one another from Satan’s temptations.


[At this point in the argument, Paul could have inserted a reference to Proverbs 5:15ff, which is proof God desires us to have mutually enjoyable sexual activity within the marriage covenant. Solomon says a husband should “let [his wife’s] breasts fill you at all times with delight” and should be “intoxicated always with [his wife’s] love.” The “at all times” and “always” of Proverbs 5:19 fits well with what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:5.]


[6-7] Now, I do have a concession to make to your view that a man should not touch a woman (7:1). I do not give this as a command, obviously, given what I have just said about the goodness of marriage and sex within marriage, but I will make a concession to the view some in your congregation have taken. The concession is this: It would be good for people to be unmarried. In fact, right at this moment, I wish all were unmarried, like me, because marriage brings with it certain burdens and difficulties, especially in times of persecution, such as we are about to face. If you are single during the coming distress, it will be a great advantage to you. I’ll say more about this in a bit (see 7:26 in context). God has given each of us a gift. To some, he gives the gift of a spouse and family. To others, he gives the gift of being able to live faithfully without a spouse. So those of you who do not have strong sex drives certainly have my permission to live a celibate/single life. I am certainly not saying every Christian must get married (the way some Jewish rabbis do).

[8-9] To those who have not yet married and to those who are widows, I say it is good for you to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control – if they do not have a gift to live without sex – they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn – that is, to burn with sexual passion, which, if it rages out of control can lead to the burning fires of hell. See, sexual desire is a fire, and it belongs in the fireplace of marriage. If it burns outside of that fireplace, it causes destruction. It is better to marry than to burn, even if marriage means you will face certain hardships in the coming persecution. This brings us back around to the issue we started with in verse 1, namely, widespread sexual temptation/immorality in Corinth. Once again, the answer is lawful sexual activity within marriage. My point is that you should not be ashamed of your strong sexual desires – they are rooted in how God made you and they serve his good purposes – but those desires must be channeled. This is why I said earlier that husbands and wives should satisfy each other’s sexual desires – and if you refuse your spouse, you are frustrating one of the chief purposes of marriage, which is the prevention of sexual immorality/temptation.


APPENDIX IV: Luther on Sexual Refusal as Grounds for Divorce


Martin Luther, in his treatise "On the Estate of Marriage," addressed sexual refusal and divorce. I am not advocating all that Luther says here, but it is useful information from church history. In this section of his treatise, Luther interacts with Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:1-11:

The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say, “If you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.” Only first the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did [Esther 1:1 :17].

Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7 [:4-5], “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone's life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others?

In addition to these three grounds for divorce there is one more which would justify the sundering of husband and wife, but only in such a way that they must both refrain from remarrying or else become reconciled. This is the case where husband and wife cannot get along together for some reason other than the matter of the conjugal duty. St. Paul speaks of this in I Corinthians 7 [:10-11], “Not I but the Lord gives charge to the married that the wife should not separate from her husband. But if she does, let her remain single, or else be reconciled to her husband. Likewise, the husband should not divorce his wife.” Solomon complains much in the Proverbs about such wives, and says he has found a woman more bitter than death [Eccles. 7:26]. One may also find a rude, brutal, and unbearable husband.

Now if one of the parties were endowed with Christian fortitude and could endure the other's ill behavior, that would doubtless be a wonderfully blessed cross and a right way to heaven. For an evil spouse, in a manner of speaking, fulfils the devil's function and sweeps clean him who is able to recognise and bear it. If he cannot, however, let him divorce her before he does anything worse, and remain unmarried for the rest of his days. Should he try to say that the blame rests not upon him but upon his spouse, and therefore try to marry another, this will not do, for he is under obligation to endure evil, or to be released from his cross only by God, since the conjugal duty has not been denied him. Here the proverb applies, “He who wants a fire must endure the smoke.”

What about a situation where one's wife is an invalid and has therefore become incapable of fulfilling the conjugal duty? May he not take another to wife? By no means. Let him serve the Lord in the person of the invalid and await His good pleasure. Consider that in this invalid God has provided your household with a healing balm by which you are to gain heaven. Blessed and twice blessed are you when you recognise such a gift of grace and therefore serve your invalid wife for God's sake.

But you may say: I am unable to remain continent. That is a lie. If you will earnestly serve your invalid wife, recognise that God has placed this burden upon you, and give thanks to him, then you may leave matters in his care. He will surely grant you grace, that you will not have to bear more than you are able. He is far too faithful to deprive you of your wife through illness without at the same time subduing your carnal desire, if you will but faithfully serve your invalid wife.

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