Latest evangelical book relies on gender tropes, personal anecdotes, and debatable brain studies instead of God’s Word.
Yet another Christian sex book is hurting many brothers and sisters in Christ. Shame on Zondervan for giving a celebrity pastor a platform to speak into a topic in which he is not professionally trained in order to make money. Gary Thomas shares on his blog that the reason he and Debra Fileta partnered to write a sex book was three-fold. One is “given the current sociological climate, my publisher (Zondervan) and I didn’t feel that the time was right for an older male to write a book on his own lecturing men and women about sex.” The second (unstated) reason is Zondervan also knows many Christian men will not read books written solely by a female author. Which leads to the third reason – because “Christian publishing is a business,” they decided to create a book that benefited from a “pastor who focuses on the spiritual side and a licensed counselor who focuses on the practical side.” Gary himself recognizes that he is not a licensed counselor, and that he was brought on board for his male authority and “spiritual” contributions. In his new book, he (ab)uses his spiritual authority to make bold claims about male and female sexuality based on his own opinions and life experiences, instead of the Bible.
Before I explain, let me share why I decided to review this book. I disciple women and am always looking for good biblical resources. I’ve had positive experiences with both Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta in the past, so I was surprised by the negative press on social media concerning their new book Married Sex. I started to investigate, and I was shocked by Gary Thomas’ responses to women voicing concerns about his book. He has not displayed the gentleness and humility that I would have expected from him. Instead of listening and engaging with legitimate concerns, he has responded by doubling down and being dismissive. Everything about his attitude has saddened me and inclined me to sympathize with the women trying to engage with him. (Blogger Shannon Ashley has documented the social media controversary here.) On his Facebook page, Gary Thomas posted a review (Oct 18, 2021) saying his critics weren’t reading his book “carefully and charitably,” implying that if you didn’t come to a charitable conclusion of his book, you weren’t intellectually capable of reading the book carefully. I couldn’t believe how hard he was trying to silence the voices of his female critics. I finally decided to read Married Sex to figure out what was going on. On my initial reading, I didn’t think the book was as bad as social media would have you believe, but that’s only because Debra Fileta’s chapters are mostly good, and most of the bad parts highlighted on social media are subtly woven between the good parts. That’s exactly what makes this book so insidiously dangerous. I’m not going to regurgitate the content that other readers have already raised concerns about in their negative reviews–these women have clearly read the book and their concerns should not be dismissed. In this review, I want to focus on how Gary Thomas dangerously couches several half-truths and ideologies–based on his own personal experiences, very small survey samples, and questionable scientific studies–in biblical language without offering a strong biblical exegesis of married sex.
First chapters of books are important. They establish the tone and foundation on which the rest of the book is built. Chapter One, titled “The Song of all Songs,” opens with information about Jocelyn and Danny’s sex life together. The whole chapter is basically Jocelyn telling us about her sexual journey. (Unlike boys, she never talked about or looked forward to sex as a teenager, but when she realized she liked married sex, she got herself kicked out of a bible study for sharing, because apparently all the other women derived more pleasure from verbally bashing their husbands than from having sex with them, oh, and any women who does derive pleasure from sex with their husband is not welcome, so good-bye Jocelyn). Personally, I’ve never been in a bible study like that, and in another post, The Prude or Slut Conundrum in Evangelic Spaces, I address how women are problematically often caricatured as frigid prudes in Christian resources. Don’t worry, the author eventually gets to the Bible (a little). He quotes Proverbs 5:18-19. Many have already dedicated a lot of ink to his now infamous interpretation: “[Her breasts] give an influence over their husbands that can reset any power imbalances that occur because of other issues. Many young women have learned how one quick flash of their breasts can change the climate in the room like nothing else ever will. This ability to enthrall is a distinctly human characteristic, by the way. A woman’s breast are unique among primates…No animals share this trait” (13). Since this problematic statement has already been covered by many other reviewers, let’s move on. (If you’re new to the conversation, Amazon reviews are a great resource for the pros and cons of the book). The author does quote a few snippets from Song of Songs: 1:2, 1:9 and 5:1, but even these verses are not quoted in their entirety, and I feel like the author twists the opening line of Song of Songs, which is the woman initiating by declaring her desire to be kissed by her man, to ultimately be about the man’s desire, because the author believes women aren’t designed to initiate. (Gary Thomas argues later in chapter five that since the man’s desire is higher, the woman should be receptive to her husband’s desire because her desire can only be awakened by submitting to the man’s (61)). There are so many beautiful ways to open a book about sex, especially with a chapter title like “Song of Songs,” but instead, I felt dirty and not very spiritually enlightened by the end of the chapter.
Gary Thomas frequently invokes biblical design language without backing up his claims with Scripture. One of the worst examples in this book might be on page 55: “The very act of sex speaks of profound differences in gender: forcefulness that requires gentleness, initiating that requires receiving, control met with surrender. The complementary acts of sex reflect the divine truth of two becoming one.” So, according to the author, “divine truth” is that manliness equals forcefulness, initiation, and control. Womanliness is gentle, receptive, and surrendering. (Which, by the way, would also equal a very boring sex life for many.) And someone needs to correct the Shulamite woman in Song of Songs for her unbiblical sexual initiation: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth…Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers” (1:2,4).
When the author invokes biblical authority, he frequently does so in a way that feels twisted and one-sided: “God knew what he was doing when he created her body and then wired my mind” (12). Not only is the creation order wrong, but the author also never follows up with the converse–that God knew what he was doing when he created the male body and wired the female’s mind. Later, the author writes: “Wives can increase their pleasure by remembering what we said earlier: ‘my pleasure increases his pleasure.’ And husbands can prolong their pleasure by remembering ‘her pleasure increases my pleasure’” (230). Um…notice he said the same thing twice. Let that one sink in. And again, the author never actually acknowledges the converse. This lopsided approach occurs several times throughout the book.
Another concerning use of biblical authority without Scriptural backing is found in Chapter 4 – What Gets Him Going: “So by God’s design, the husband’s generally stronger desire (we know there are exceptions) moves him to be sexually intimate with his wife, which requires him to be relationally and even spiritually intimate, so that the couple’s passion is renewed, strengthened, and focused and the husband’s view of his wife’s beauty above all others is confirmed and even enhanced” (63). The author does not cite a single verse of Scripture to support his belief that men are “designed” to have stronger sexual desire than women, and yet this ideology manifests itself repeatedly throughout the book. Even though the author recognizes women are designed to enjoy sex, he always assumes men need sex in a way that women do not. In chapter four, he writes, “I want to point out that when we’re talking about frequency, we’re not talking about a situation where a husband is insisting on sex several times a day…when a husband of a few years tells me that three times a week just isn’t enough, I’m likely to focus on his expectations, not on his wife’s willingness” (64). Again, no comprehension that some Christian women might desire sex daily, or gasp, several times in one day. While more women tend to be “romantic” in their arousal rather than “visual,” most women do desire sexually satisfying experiences. Gary Thomas spends several pages discussing quantity and desire (60-67). He seems to believe only men are hurt when they are turned down by their wives: “We realize that many wives have a higher libido than their husbands, but to those of you who are married to men with a higher libido, the quantity of sexual activity has the potential to create either long-term gratitude or slow-simmering resentment” (61). Notice how he seems to recognize that both partners can have unmet desire, but it is only the husband who is hurt when his sexual desires are unmet by his wife. He continues that for men, “sex feels like a need” (63), and “what I want for every wife to understand is how vulnerable your husband feels when he approaches you for sex” (66). The problem with Married Sex is there seems to be no recognition of female sexual desire or a clarification of how vulnerable the act of sex is for her too. According to the author, a woman feels most vulnerable when she asks, “Do I look fat in this dress?” (66) not when she offers her desire and whole person to her husband sexually. Again, the author mostly uses anecdotes, very small survey samples, and questionable scientific studies, not Scripture, for all his assertions.
Also, notice again the weird, twisted emphasis on the man, because in the following “Her” chapter, no Scripture is quoted and biblical design language isn’t even present. Debra Fileta offers very practical (and sometimes male-centric) suggestions for arousing the female: “Her pleasure impacts your pleasure. Wives who always or almost always have an orgasm are naturally going to be more interested in sex more often. It’s just human nature” (81). I understand that Gary’s the “theologian” and Debra’s the “clinical professional,” but what message is this sending about God’s design for sex when what gets him going is biblical but what gets her going is clinical? I suppose it means woman’s desire (or lack thereof) is a problem to be solved, whereas the man’s desire is God’s “brilliant” design (61).
Gary Thomas goes on for countless paragraphs about how desirable men find the female form, but it’s not until Chapter 10 that he finally gets around to acknowledging that Scripture does recognize the women’s desire for her husband’s body in Song of Songs, but then he oddly summarizes with the admonishment for wives to “Imagine the best, most delicious parts of sex, not the ‘duty’ parts of sex” (146). What parts of sex are supposed to be “duty?” Are women not designed to enjoy sex as much as men? What happened to being drunk with love? In a section about sexual compassion, the author advises that women should have sex with their husbands just like we should all exercise and eat our vegetables. (227-8). He even implies that women should meet their husband’s sexual needs in the same way they would get up and feed a crying baby in the middle of the night, not because they feel like it, but because “it’s the right thing to do…do it out of love…do it out of commitment” (227). So, a wife should exercise, eat her vegetables, feed her baby, have sex with her husband. Check. The continual pressure for women to have obligatory sex with their husbands in Christian resources is beyond frustrating.
In summary, the author makes several strong statements about “God’s design” with very little use of Scripture to back up his claims, and though he emphasizes female pleasure, it feels like it is ultimately always about the man’s pleasure. This is not Scriptural! Furthermore, there is no verse anywhere in Scripture indicating or even implying that men’s sexual desire or libido is stronger (or more frequent) than women’s. God intends for men and women mutually to give and to receive and to sexually delight in each other physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally in a way that is grossly under-emphasized in Married Sex. I will reference the ESV Knowing the Bible – Song of Solomon study by Jay Harvey to try to correct the many imbalances found in Married Sex:
On female desire, Harvey writes, “the voice of the woman is given the place of greatest prominence… Song of Solomon begins with strong statements of the women’s desire for her…. spouse. The woman expresses her longing for the physical affection of her beloved” (13). The Bible gives “full place to a woman’s physical expression of her physical desires for her beloved. Although there are aspects of traditional cultures (both Western and non-Western) that downplay or diminish the appropriateness of female sexual desire, the Song of Solomon stands against such biases…. It is important that we do not downplay the goodness of sex as created by God nor adopt stereotypes of one kind or another regarding the sexual desire of men and women” (16-17).
Song of Songs chapter 5:2-8 acknowledges desire and frequency discrepancies in marriage. In this dream sequence, Harvey explains, “When the man desires intimacy, the woman cannot be bothered. When she is finally captivated, she rises to find him gone” (52). According to Scripture, both the husband and the wife experience unmet sexual desire, and it is a nightmare. Song of Songs does not ignore or diminish the painfulness of sexual rejection, nor does it teach that unmet sexual desire is a phenomenon exclusive to men. In her nightmare, the female symbolically experiences traumatic exposure of her nakedness because she, like all people, longs to be fully seen, fully known, and fully loved; her need is unmet by her spouse and leaves her vulnerable. Scripture teaches us that a spouse will never perfectly be able to meet this need. Thanks be to God that he sees us fully, and through His sacrificial love, we are clothed in his righteousness, and both spouses are able, in Jesus’ power, to selflessly give to, receive from, and forgive one another sexually, even when they experience sexual hurt. Harvey writes, “marriage does not afford couples an uninterrupted stream of physical intimacy. Married couples live together as fallen people in a fallen world. Desires do not always align perfectly, and circumstances do not always provide opportunities for intimacy when desires are present. In Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit works the fruit of patience in us. For married couples, this will include patience when one’s own desires are not matched by the spouse’s or the right opportunity. It is also of note that the man does not force himself on his bride. Sexual union in marriage should be entered into with the joyful consent of both spouses” (52).
While Song of Songs certainly celebrates the wife’s physical form through the eyes of her husband (the book Married Sex spends a lot of time emphasizing the visual nature of men), the biblical poem Song of Songs also recognizes the woman’s love of her man’s body in a way that the book Married Sex does not. I think it’s worth pointing out here that in Song of Songs, the wife praises her husband’s body with a root word that is usually more specific than most of the popular versions imply: “His member [male part] is like an ivory tusk ornamented with sapphires.” (SS 5:14 EXB). Regardless of the translation, this entire section is the woman praising the man’s physical form!
While the Song of Songs does indeed celebrate the couple’s physical appreciation of one another, it’s important to note that both spouses are also aroused by the character of the other. When the man says, “You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners. Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me—” and spends the next five verses describing her face alone (SS 6:4-9), he’s celebrating the strength, complexity, and depth of his wife’s character. The woman echoes his sentiment when she sings, “Your name is oil poured out [his reputation]; therefore virgins love you. Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.” (SS 1:3-4) (Harvey 14, 56).
One last thought – much has already been said about Gary Thomas’ use of Proverbs 5:18-19. For anyone that needs to hear this, even if the root word means “nipple,” Proverbs and Song of Songs are books of poetic wisdom literature. Poetry beautifully works within the confines of human language to deeply express abstract ideas and emotions. So, on one hand, yes, it literally means, “husband, enjoy your wife’s nipples,” but “nipple” is also a symbolic representation of the female form. So if you’re not a boob man, or you’re a woman with no boobs, no worries, Proverbs 5 still beautifully calls for the man to delight in the charms of his woman.
The irony is not lost on me that the ESV Bible Study on Song of Solomon portrays male and female sexuality more wholistically than Gary Thomas’ and Deb Fileta’s new book Married Sex. It’s an indictment of Zondervan rather than praise for Crossway. To be clear, I believe Gary Thomas is a brother in Christ. I believe his books have helped thousands of people grow closer to Christ and one another. I believe his new book Married Sex co-authored with Debra Fileta will help some couples grow closer to one another and I rejoice with those couples who have benefited from Married Sex. But I also know that this book already has and will hurt many because of its small view of male and female sexuality. The “Song of Songs” is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and I was so disappointed with Gary Thomas’ (lack of) interpretation. He uses “biblical” language throughout his book, but he does not offer a strong exegesis of Song of Songs even though he titles the first chapter of his book after it. The book Married Sex contains twisted half-truths and subtle misogynistic beliefs based mostly on personal experiences and gender tropes that are embellished with biblical language without actual biblical references.
Please do yourself a favor, for a Biblical view of married sex, study Song of Songs yourself (or even better, with your spouse), consider using a helpful study guide, and mutually enjoy the delights you have to offer one another!
I recently realized blogger Shannon Ashley wrote a second critique of Married Sex in addition to the one I already referenced in this post. She and I have some eerily similar points, especially our frustration with evangelical resources painting women as “frigid prudes.” I checked my notes, and I think we both arrived at the same conclusions before I discovered her blog, which I find encouraging. Her post is definitely worth a read. (This does not mean our views align exactly.)
This article was revised from the original on 1/7/2022.
Image above is a section from Klimt – the Kiss.
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