The Prude or Slut Conundrum in Evangelical Spaces

Did God design women to be less sexual than men? Or do we live in a culture that shames women to behave like prudes?

dedicated to all the complex biblical whores recognized by name in Jesus’ genealogy
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary
thank you for your faithful witness
may we not grow weary and lose heart

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

In the literary world, the phenomenon for authors to portray women two-dimensionally as either virginal and pure or sexual and dangerous is known as the madonna/whore trope. Recently, popular evangelical authors Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta released Married Sex, a book that was expected to become the new go-to sex handbook for Christian married couples. The book stirred up a lot of controversy on social media, and you can read my review of the book here. One of the things that stood out to me this time around was how much the church and its resources have been influenced by the madonna/whore trope that’s embedded in our culture at large, instead of redeeming the narrative and portraying women as sexually complex beings bearing the Image of God.

Before I explain, I must digress. The book I Kissed Dating Good-bye exploded onto the white evangelical scene when I was fourteen years old, and it was devoured by me and my middle school friends. Almost every book that followed in my Christian sex and marriage education in the years after (and there were many) conveyed in some way that a women’s value is rooted in her virginity and/or that men desire sex more than women. I generally stopped reading Christian sex and marriage books years ago because I began to realize they contained a lot of harmful material within their pages. (Apparently, I’m not alone. Thankfully, there’s been a birth of female voices taking a stand against the flood of bad sex advice we’ve been giving men and women over the last 50 years, and I’m so thankful for the many voices speaking up to correct the narrative.) The latest book on the scene, Married Sex, stirred up many memories of all the bad advice floating around in those old books I used to read. It’s just one more book in a long line of Christian resources relying on over-simplifications of female (and male) sexuality. I will be using the more modern terms “prude” and “slut” to explore the ways we still harmfully employ the madonna/whore trope in white evangelical culture. We not only view women through the lense of this false dichotomy, but through this very act, we force women into these roles, and in doing so, reinforce gender stereotypes of our own making.

In the latest evangelical resource Married Sex, the male co-author establishes a woman named “Jocelyn” as his everywoman to explain female sexuality to his readers in his opening chapter. Jocelyn attends a women’s Bible study where the women enjoy bashing their husbands: “And the worst is when I come to bed with my robe on and am reading my book, and he thinks I actually might be interested in sex! Honey, this robe is your clue that the store is closed for the night!” (5) When Jocelyn shares that she and her husband sleep naked and sex is always on the table, the women act like “she had uttered something profoundly offensive” (6). Jocelyn wonders, “Sex isn’t a chore…it feels so wonderful. Why wouldn’t you want to have good sex?” What did the group think about this? The author shares “talking positively about her sex life got Jocelyn thrown out of her first married women’s Bible study.” We’re also informed that Jocelyn is surprised by how much she enjoys married sex: “When I was a teenager, you’d hear boys talking about masturbation and porn and wanting sexual stuff from girls, but my friends and I never talked about sex like that; it was a whole different level of interest, so I grew up thinking sex is for boys, not girls” (8). Using this story as the foundation of the book, the author establishes that women are virginal prudes with little to no sexual desire. Even Jocelyn has to remind herself that she likes sex: “I have to turn off the rest of the world and focus on the moment, refusing to think about children and work and the house. At the start I’d remind myself, This is good. This is what the Lord wants for Danny and me” (8).

I’m so tired of women being caricaturized as sexless prudes. It’s just not true. Females may tend to explore their sexuality differently than their male counterparts, but women generally experience a sexual awakening at puberty the same as boys. Most of the women I know grew up playing “bad barbies,” poring over the corset-ripping sex scenes inside the romance novels hidden under their grandmas’ beds, (secretly) touching their teenage bodies and realizing it felt good, french-kissing knees for practice, dancing romantically with basement poles, giggling about “it” at sleepovers, and eagerly anticipating their first time. In my eighth-grade year at my conservative Christian school, I remember every girl reading and rereading Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, a sexually explicit book in its time by Christian standards. Recently, the book series Outlander came in at #2 for PBS’s The Great American Read, and Fifty Shades of Grey is the best-selling book of the last decade. I doubt it’s for the prose. I can’t help but wonder what books those women in Jocelyn’s bible study were taking to bed with them.

How and what generally arouses women may be different than what typically arouses men. There is lots of room for variation, but men tend to be aroused visually and by “direct” touch, and women tend to be aroused emotionally and by “indirect” touch. This does not, however, mean that women are designed to desire sex any less than men. I do believe, however, that we sure do a good job as a culture, especially conservative Christian culture, to nurture women to be less sexual. There are several ways we do this. I already mentioned one earlier: we paint women as either prudes or sluts, and we teach to be a prude is holy. Most women can’t even bring themselves to utter the “m” word as adults to describe some of their teenage touching because they have so internalized their sexuality as shameful. Our culture has almost always placed the burden of sexual responsibility on the woman’s shoulders. When an unwanted pregnancy occurs, the woman has historically been labeled a slut, but the man’s just a “boy being a boy.” Satyriasis is the male equivalent of the female term nymphomania – a clinical disorder marked by compulsive sexual behavior. Because our society doesn’t believe compulsive male sexual behavior is a clinical disorder, most people don’t even know there’s a term for it, but the nymphomaniac trope is common in horror films. Christians are no better. Can you come up with a male equivalent Christian euphemism for Potiphar’s wife? When was the last time you heard a person preach, “Beware the Amnon’s!”? Several female characters in the Bible—Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Bathsheba, and the Woman at the Well, to name a few—are often depicted as “prostitutes” in popular retellings of their stories despite the lack of evidence in the text. Even Jezebel gets an unfair rap. She was a vindictive, power-hungry queen, but nothing in Scripture indicates she was sexually-loose, yet she is commonly associated with the “whore of Babylon” in Revelation. Women raised in the church know there is no greater insult than being labeled a “Jezebel” (and again, there is no similar “biblical” slur for men.) From a young age, women often begin to believe that their bodies are dangerous and often internalize that their sexuality is shameful, which often results in unhealthy boundaries on both ends of the sexual spectrum.

Another major reason for unhealthy female behavior is negative sexual experiences. Really this should be broken down into two sections. The first being the non-consensual sexual encounters that a tragic number of girls and women experience. Sexual abuse has far-reaching consequences, and though the outcomes are different for each individual, we know this can damage sexual desire and enjoyment for individuals. I think as a culture we are beginning to understand that sexual abuse creates long-lasting harm. While I don’t feel equipped to give this topic the justice it deserves, I’m so thankful for all the women and men courageously advocating for truth, justice, and healing.

In this article, I’m going to focus on the less discussed topic of consenting sexual trauma. Because of our culture’s tendency to define “sex” by male ejaculation with female consent, many women have been sexually traumatized, even when they are consenting participants. I recently read a novel that heartbreakingly sums up when female desire often goes to the grave called Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I did not particularly enjoy the book overall, but I thought the author did an excellent job of describing what female sexual trauma can look like even when consent is given. After meeting a boy, the protagonist Kya develops a crush. She’s anticipating his arrival one evening, but when he no-shows, she lays on the beach and has an orgasmic experience rolling around in the sand:

[Warning: Poetically Explicit Female Orgasm]

Kya walks from her shack and lies back on a sliver of beach, slick from the last wave. She stretches her arms over her head, brushing them against the wet sand, and extends her legs, toes pointed. Eyes closed, she rolls slowly towards the sea. Her hips and arms leave slight indentations in the glistening sand, brightening and dimming as she moves. Rolling near the waves, she senses the ocean’s roar through the length of her body and feels the question: When will the sea touch me? Where will it touch me first?

The foamy surge rushes the shore, reaching toward her. Tingling with expectancy, she breathes deep. Turns more and more slowly. With each revolution, just before her face sweeps the sand, she lifts her head gently and takes in the sun-salt smell. I am close, very close. It is coming. When will I feel it?

A fever builds. The sand wetter beneath her, the rumble of surf louder. Even slower, by inches she moves, waiting for the touch. Soon, soon. Almost feeling it before it comes. She wants to open her eyes to peek, to see how much longer. But she resists, squinting her lids even tighter, the sky bright behind them, giving no hints.

Suddenly she shrieks as the power rushes beneath her, fondles her thighs, between her legs, flows along her back, swirling under her head, pulling her hair in inky strands. She rolls faster into the deepening wave, against streaming shells and ocean bits, the water embracing her. Pushing against the sea’s strong body, she is grasped, held. Not alone.

Kya sits up and opens her eyes to the ocean foaming around her in soft white patterns, always changing. (151-2)

The girl clearly has sexual longing. On her next date, when the boy actually does show up, he moves pretty abruptly towards intercourse, but Kya rejects his advances:

“Kya breathed hard. Last night, dancing alone on the lagoon shore, swaying about with the moon and mayflies, she’d imagined she was ready. Thought she knew all about mating from watching doves….she knew the details from her biology books and had seen more creatures copulating…than most people ever would. But this was too abrupt—picnic, then mate the Marsh Girl.”

After she pushes him off, she runs away to a quiet place:

“Finally, she bent over and, heaving, fell to her knees. Cussing worn-out words. As long as she ranted, sobs couldn’t surface. But nothing could stop the burning shame and sharp sadness. A simple hope of being with someone, of actually being wanted, of being touched, had drawn her in. But these hurried groping hands were only a taking, not a sharing or giving” (162).

The boy continues to court her, and unfortunately, she eventually consents to intercourse:

[Warning: Consensual Traumatic Sexual Experience]

She was ready. Her body had been longing for months and, after the talk of marriage, her mind gave in. She nodded…Before, during all those almost-times, when she had stopped him, his wandering fingers had taken on magical touch, bringing parts of her to life, causing her body to arch toward him, to long and want. But now, with permission finally granted, an urgency gripped him and he seemed to bypass her needs and push his way. She cried out against a sharp tearing, thinking something was wrong. ‘It’s okay. It’ll be better now,’ he said with great authority. But it didn’t get much better, and soon he fell to her side, grinning. As he passed into sleep, she watched the blinking lights of the Vacancy sign.” (193-4)

For Kya, sex with the beach was more fun than sex on the beach with a boy. Novel after novel written by female authors captures the burning sexual desire of young women that grows cold with time as they experience sexual disappointment over and over again. (Stone Diaries, Middlemarch, The Color Purple, The Awakening, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the list is pretty endless actually.) Because of the general visual/direct-touch nature of male arousal, men usually can achieve orgasm easier than females. Because female arousal tends to be rooted in emotional bond/indirect touch, relationship generally plays a larger role in female orgasm, but this does not mean women desire sexually satisfying experiences less than men. The church, with a book like Song of Songs, should know better, but often does a worse job of recognizing, understanding, and celebrating female sexuality than the broader culture does! I can’t help but wonder why those women in Jocelyn’s bible study weren’t interested in sex with their husbands. Had their experience of “love-making” been centered around male ejaculation?

Sexual shaming, abuse, and trauma are endemic problems across the world that often lead to dampened female desire, which is often mis-interpreted as prudish behavior. Sadly, within conservative religious cultures, there’s often an added insidious factor at play. In Christian purity culture, we teach women, from the cradle, to keep it zipped up (be a prude) because the boys certainly won’t, and if you don’t, you’re definitely a slut. Then, after marriage, we burden women with the responsibility for their husbands’ faithfulness. We encourage wives to be a sexual twenty-four hour buffet, because, guess what, if you don’t keep it unzipped, your husband, who has little to no self-control when it comes to sex, might eat at someone else’s buffet (or at the very least look at pornography) if yours is closed. So, be a prude before marriage, and then be your husband’s own personal porn star after marriage. Some women have difficulty making the mental switch from prude to porn star, and also, when their husband’s faithfulness is at stake, it turns sex into a chore (that if not performed well will lead to dire consequences.) When was the last time you found a chore sexually arousing? Do the dishes. Check. Fold laundry. Check. Have sex. Check.

Author Sheila Gregorie, one of the first women to sound the alarm on the results of these toxic teachings in the church, sums it up best in her article, “Is the Evangelical View of Sex at the Root of Our Sex Scandals?”:

When abuse scandals like Ravi Zacharias or sex scandals like Carl Lentz are exposed, we should stop being surprised. These men acted out exactly what so many evangelical resources taught them: Men need physical release; they can’t control themselves without women’s help; if they don’t get help, they could easily become predators. And this is all presented as God’s design….Too many of our resources have stolen dignity from women while demeaning men and denying men’s sanctification, and the result has been abysmal….We found that messages like “all men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle”; “a wife is obligated to give her husband sex when he wants it”; “women should have frequent sex with their husbands to keep them from watching porn”; and “boys will want to push girls’ sexual boundaries” are all widely taught and widely believed. And that’s grievous, because we also found these beliefs are correlated with lowering women’s orgasm rates, their ability to get aroused, their trust in their husbands and their marital satisfaction — and even increasing the incidence of sexual pain. Jesus told us to look at the fruit to judge the tree, and the fruit of this tree is nasty. 

I’m tired of evangelical sex authors writing books to rescue women from their frigidity when their very messaging is part of the problem. Most of these authors want women to know they’re supposed to enjoy sex too, and I think they genuinely want couples to have mutually satisfying sex lives. Unfortunately, if the latest popular Christian book on married sex is any indication, it seems white evangelicals are hell-bent on continuing to believe that in order to solve the libido discrepancies couples continue to encounter, they need to keep teaching the same message they’ve been screaming for the last 50 years. Maybe though, as long as the church continues to teach that men need sex in a way that women do not, men and women will continue to play out their respective roles. It’s called self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what you expect.

Women (and Men) are complex sexual beings made in the image of God. Please stop reducing us to two-dimensional caricatures.

I’m a forty-year old woman raised in conservative evangelical culture. I have never been in a bible study similar to the one Jocelyn described. I’m sure they’re out there because we have nurtured many women to feel sexually jilted, but personally, I have attended study after study where women are studying Christian marriage resources because they are striving to be good wives to their husbands and long for good marriages, but they don’t realize they are being fed counterproductive teachings. (And I know just as many men faithfully trying to love their wives well, and they are harmed by these toxic teachings too.) I know many women who are the higher-drive spouse. I know women who are visually stimulated. I know many women who have tried wearing lingerie to bed (or sleeping naked) because the book told them that’s the only way to show love to and be loved by their husband, and instead of making love, their husband turned over and went to sleep. More than once. I know women who keep their legs spread and their husbands keep looking at porn. I know women, married to church leaders, who serve their husbands and church faithfully and have never experienced an orgasm. And all these women keep reading Christian marriage resources that assume they don’t like sex as much as men. Please see these women. I am sooo tired of female sexuality being misunderstood and misrepresented in the evangelical industrial complex. Women (and Men) are complex sexual beings made in the image of God. Please stop reducing us to two-dimensional caricatures.


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


The sexually higher-drive woman/lower-drive man dynamic in marriage is often painfully overlooked, especially in evangelical resources. For more information, check out:
The Christian Couple’s Guide When He’s Not Up To It


Title image:
Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua


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1 thought on “The Prude or Slut Conundrum in Evangelical Spaces

  1. Patrick (G)

    I don’t think that people realize how much of current Christianity’s sexual culture/teachings/legacy don’t come from the judo-Christian Bible but from Roman empire culture. E.g. Vestal virgins is a Roman thing, not a “he who is without sin cast the first stone” Christ thing.

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