Latest evangelical book relies on gender tropes, anecdotes, and debatable brain studies instead of God’s Word. A book review of Married Sex by Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta
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 “[celebrity] 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. He was brought on board for his well-known name, 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.
In his new book, Gary Thomas (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.
I’ve had positive experiences with both Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta in the past. I was looking forward to their new book, so I was surprised by the negative press on social media concerning their new book Married Sex, and even more 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. Everything about his attitude has saddened me. (Blogger Shannon Ashley has documented some of the social media controversary here.) I finally decided to read Married Sex myself. As many other readers have already pointed out, the problematic content overwhelmingly lies in Gary Thomas’ chapters. If Debra Fileta had written a stand-alone book, this would be a decent resource, but Gary Thomas’ paternalistic opinions doused in “spiritual” language makes this book insidiously dangerous. I’m not going to regurgitate other reader’s concerns–these (mostly) women have clearly read the book and their concerns should not be dismissed. (If you’re new to the conversation, Amazon and Goodreads reviews are great resources for the pros and cons of the book). In this review, I want to focus on how Gary Thomas dangerously couches several half-truths and ideologies–based on anecdotes, 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. Gary Thomas establishes “Jocelyn” as his everywoman to explain female sexuality to his readers. (In fact, Thomas may quote Jocelyn on sex more frequently than he quotes the Bible throughout his book.) Unlike boys, Jocelyn never talked about or looked forward to sex as a teenager. 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. Personally, I’ve never been in a bible study like that, and in another post, The Prude or Slut Conundrum in Evangelical Spaces, I elaborate on how women are problematically caricatured as frigid prudes in Married Sex specifically and Christian resources generally. Don’t worry, the author eventually gets to the Bible. He interprets Proverbs 5:18-19: “[Her breasts] give an influence over their husbands that can reset any power balances 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 problematic issues of power dynamics and objectification of female bodies has been covered by many other reviewers, let’s move on. The opening line of Song of Songs, initiated by a woman declaring her desire to be kissed by her man, is twisted by the author to ultimately be about the man’s desire, because the author believes women aren’t designed to initiate (61). I felt like his constant emphasis throughout the book that God “designed [the woman] to be desired by [her] husband” (227) without also emphasizing the converse diminishes the agency and passion of the woman introduced in the opening line of the Song. He consistently uses a paternalistic tone to rescue women from their frigidity. Also concerningly, as his main thesis, the author asserts that married sex is the Song of Songs, on the same level of the biblical language of King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Holy of Holies: “So when describing the sexual relationship between a man and a woman as the ‘song of songs,’ the Bible doesn’t call this physical union merely the most powerful human experience, the most pleasurable human experience, or the most celebrated human experience–it’s called the experience beyond all others” (4). I find this interpretation of the Song of Songs to be deeply problematic, for only a minority of God’s people—happily married straight couples in their prime with no debilitating physical or mental health issues—are able to participate in this Song. Not to mentiony, no one will be given in marriage in eternity. Certainly, the poem can and should be read as an erotic song between a husband and wife, for poetry allows for more than one meaning, but I would argue that the correct interpretation of the ultimate “Song of Songs” is the historical understanding of the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the church, a song in which all of God’s children get to participate. Aimee Byrd writes “We cannot begin to know the richest way to love our spouse if we do not have our desires properly oriented to our Great Lover, Jesus Christ. Is this not imperative for both singles and marrieds?…The Song does not teach us how to perfect our marriages or single life. It teaches us how to perfect our love for Christ in a knowledge of his love for us” (Sexual Reformation 30). To elevate married sex to the level of the “Song of Songs” feels idolatrous. Like I said, first chapters of books are important. In the opening chapter of Married Sex, the author paints women as frigid prudes, objectifies women’s bodies, and elevates married sex to an idolatrous level.
Throughout the rest of the book, 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 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.
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, 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. Though more women may tend to be aroused emotionally and by “indirect” touch rather than visually and by “direct” touch, most women do desire sexually satisfying experiences.
Gary Thomas 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: “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). 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 uses anecdotes, very small survey samples, and questionable scientific studies—not Scripture—but he couches his assertions in biblical “design” language.
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).
The author admonishes wives to “Imagine the best, most delicious parts of sex, not the ‘duty’ parts of sex.”
Gary Thomas goes on for countless paragraphs about how desirable men find the female form. In Chapter 10, he finally gets around to acknowledging the woman’s desire for her husband’s body in Song of Songs, but he oddly summarizes with the admonishment for wives to “Imagine the best, most delicious parts of sex, not the ‘duty’ parts of sex” (146). Excuse me, duty? What happened to his sermon in Chapter 1 about being drunk with love–that sex was meant to be the most pleasurable experience on earth for a woman? When the Shulamite sings of her lover, “He is altogether desirable” (SS 5:16 ESV), how on earth does Gary Thomas read “duty” into his interpretation? I guess he’s priming the reader for his forthcoming sermon on obligation sex. In a biblical-sounding section titled “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). So much for sex being like wine. He even disturbingly 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). This atrocious analogy manipulates women, infantilizes men, and validates addictive/predatory behavior by elevating a man’s sexual needs to the same level as a hungry infant. This sort of manipulative pressure for women to have obligatory sex with their husbands in Christian resources is borderline abusive.
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 a tragic! 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.
A Healthier View of Sex, Rooted in Scripture
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. Thanks be to God that he sees us fully, and through His sacrificial love, we are clothed in his righteousness. Harvey adds, “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 Debra 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!
For more on how women are problematically caricatured as frigid prudes in Married Sex specifically and Christian resources generally please see my related post:
The Prude or Slut Conundrum in Evangelical Spaces
For specific ways I found sexual healing in Scripture as a woman raised in a Christian culture that overwhelming focuses on male sexual desire, see my article:
Sexual Healing in the Song of Songs
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.)
Klimt – The Kiss.
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