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The Church's problem: Pornification of Christian sex

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As I’ve observed the firestorm of Josh Butler’s hotly debated article in The Gospel Coalition, “Sex Won’t Save You (But it Points to One who Will),” I was left with so many questions. Indeed, in what universe did a book describing the vagina as a Most Holy Place get labeled the “Protestant magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for”?

The now withdrawn article reflects a pervasive problem within the church: pornification of Christian sex.

Hyper-spiritualizing sex is no guarantee of getting it right. In fact, doing so might actually be a guarantee of getting it wrong. We make the same mistake as secular society when we frame sex as the endgame of intimacy. Salvation is better than sex; it is based on God's work, not ours; it is received by faith, not by feeling; it is secured by Christ's blood, not our bodies; it is expressed by love, not lust; it is fulfilled by resurrection, not orgasm.

“Mature love enables one to merge with the other, but not to become submerged,” writes Maurice Lamm, a Hebrew scholar. It's far less about penetration and far more about letting "this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)

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Lamm continues, asking: “What, in Jewish philosophy, is the nature of companionship?"

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be as one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). "One flesh," the scholar says, “is the symbol not only of sexual union but of the intimacy of companionship. … It is a joint life venture not only in the passion of brief sexual excitement, but in the profound blending of personalities.”

Why do so many Christian male authors idolize gratification instead of recognizing that the best sexual pleasure is the fruit of intimacy that is already established outside the bedroom? Real oneness is the friendship, companionship, commitment, and safety of two people merging lives.

As a coach for those healing from abusive Christian marriages, both my internal filter and my primary audience likely differ from the average reader. And yet, while publishers and editors don’t view abuse survivors as “average readers,” at least one in three women in the pews is (or has) experienced domestic violence, rape, or stalking by an intimate partner.

What’s more, “estimates suggest 13% of women and 6% of men experience sexual coercion, defined as unwanted sexual penetration after being pressured in a non-physical way.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, close to 80% of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported. Only about 23% of survivors report these types of crimes to the police. To break that down clearly: out of every 1,000 rapes only 310 will be reported to law enforcement, and only 25 perpetrators will spend a night in jail.

Why is this relevant? Because every audience is guaranteed to include a significant number affected by violence and sexual assault. It is no longer acceptable (and honestly, it never was) for Christian writers and publishers to bypass accountability by simply saying, in effect, “we’re not writing for them, we’re writing for normal people.”

News flash: normal people include a lot of abuse victims.

It was through this lens that I read Butler’s article, and the abuse survivor community’s response to it has been notably visceral. While some dismiss survivors as traumatized prudes, what if authors were to treat them as experts on sex-gone-wrong, the same way we look up to those who survive cancer and then invent cutting-edge treatment protocols? What if publishers and editors collectively took time to listen and recalibrate? Might we then avoid repeating these same missteps and misfires?

During my own years of marriage to a porn-addicted pastor, marital sex was both exploitative and robotic. As a virgin bride with no benchmark to compare, I spent 13 years believing that unpleasant, unfulfilling sex was the norm. Back then, Butler’s article would have reinforced my sense that his porn-inspired fantasies dictated my undeniable obligations, regardless of physical or emotional discomfort. After all, if ejaculation is his most sacrificial gift, then closing the doors to the Most Holy Place must equal the ultimate spiritual rejection. You can’t get much more effective with sanctified spiritual guilt trips to coerce sexually exploited wives to never say no.

For survivors of adult assault or childhood molestation, tying explicit imagery to the concept of salvation comes across as both insulting and profane. I raised this topic in some of my private support groups filled with more than 8,000 members. The following are some comments they’ve given me permission to share:

“I felt like throwing up. It brought back memories of incest from my past, and left me feeling dirty and more aware of my sexual body parts than my identity as a child of God who is part of the Body of Christ.” — Greta

“As a child sexual abuse survivor, I couldn't make myself read all of Butler’s article. What I read was so upsetting to me after years of therapy, I can't even begin to imagine how it would have struck me as a teen or young adult before therapy. Might have turned me off on Jesus and church altogether!” — Anna

“Having a porn-addicted husband, this article made my stomach turn.” — Jessica

“It sounded like what a pubescent teenager who thinks about everything in terms of sex would write, thinking it was deep theology.” — Jeff

“Retracting the article with the rationale that it 'lacked sufficient context to be helpful in this format' and implying that the message is somehow more 'helpful' if you read more of it, is weak-sauce and insulting. There is no ‘context’ in which the article's premises, metaphors, and conclusions miraculously become ‘helpful’, or even tolerable.” — Kathryn

In my view, not one more resource should be released on marriage, sex, or relationships without first having been vetted on the potential impact on readers who have experienced sexual and relational trauma. It’s long past time to recognize that survivors of abuse are a significant (if not equal or perhaps even majority) proportion of every audience of normal readers."

And it’s time to create and release content accordingly.

Sarah McDugal is an author, speaker, abuse recovery coach, and co-founder of Wilderness to WILD & the TraumaMAMAs mobile app. She creates courses, community, and coaching for women recovering from deceptive sexual trauma, coercive control, and intimate terrorism. 

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