Over the last few weeks, I have had several conversations with wives who were feeling guilt-ridden. Each feared that failing to meet their husband’s expectations for sex would push their husbands to satisfy their desires in sinful ways. This fear might seem extreme, but the belief that wives are responsible for keeping their husbands from sexual sin is more common than you might think, so I want to draw attention to it. Here are just four samplings of those discussions:
- “My husband leaves for a business trip next week, and if I do not sleep with him before he goes, I will leave him vulnerable to cheating.” When pressed why she had this fear, she said, “My pastor once spoke on the need to make sure your husband is satisfied before leaving home, or he might stray.”
- “I am really struggling with my post-baby body. I fear if I cannot pull it together soon, my husband will lose his desire for me.” Knowing the couple, this fear seemed out-of-place. Asking why she would conclude this, she said she heard a sermon telling wives to keep up their appearances “so that your husband doesn’t get distracted by someone who does.”
- “Next week, I know it will be hard for me to keep up with Bill’s eagerness for sex, but I fear if I fail him, he will turn to porn. It just adds so much pressure.” After drawing her out a bit, she revealed that her husband had been fighting a porn addiction for years. Their previous counselor encouraged her to keep up with his need for sex, lest he fall into sin, leaving her crushed and feeling responsible for his failures.
- “I fear not being enough for my husband. He is never pleased with my ‘performance.’ I really am struggling to bring him more pleasure, but when he is critical and threatens to get his needs met elsewhere, I just freeze. I fear I will lose him if I cannot deliver what he wants.”
Each of these wives believed that she was responsible for her husband’s purity, so if he strayed in any way, the blame would circle back to her. In the first two cases, these wives had no fact-based expectation that their husbands would be unfaithful; these were honorable men. But other Christians taught them to fear their husbands’ potential for sexual sin. This belief hindered their ability to enjoy sex and take delight in their husbands. In the last two cases, the women believed that their husbands’ sinful sexual desires were commonplace but also overwhelmingly powerful. It was up to the wives to keep their husbands from sinning, and this enslaved them to their husbands’ distorted demands. In some ways, these women are all hearing the same message: their husbands’ bodies produce an irresistible level of sexual desire that must be satisfied, and wives are responsible for meeting that desire so as to maintain their husbands’ sexual purity.
Discussing the frequency of sex with married couples is often difficult because it’s so complex and personal. But one issue we can clearly talk about that is relevant to most marriages is this: Do men need sex? Is this how God made men? Simply put, no. Men do not need sex. Sex is not something men need to survive, nor is it a temptation they are unequipped to resist. There are many times throughout a marriage when a wife is unable or it is deemed unwise for her to have sex with her husband: post-childbirth, after surgery, during an illness, or when abuse is present. God does not set us up to need something he does not provide (such as an ever-available partner) or permit (such as fornication or adultery), nor does he create our bodies to experience irresistible temptation (James 1:13).
Debunking these beliefs has at least two important impacts. It removes the burden of guilt that comes from inaccurate teaching, and it enables wives to at least start more balanced conversations about sex with their husbands.
To support that effort, there are some simple principles on display in 1 Corinthians 6 that I hope will bring some added clarity.
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (v.18–20)
First, notice that Paul’s instructions are directed to the person tempted. It is their responsibility to flee so that they do not become enslaved to their sexual desires. Paul is placing the burden directly and exclusively on the person being tempted; spouses are not mentioned.
Second, consider that Paul’s top strategy for dealing with sexual immorality is to run. Paul was speaking into a culture much like ours, where all kinds of sex and sinful desires are normalized. Paul’s directive for dealing with sexual immorality is simple and straightforward—Run! Flee!—get as far from it as you can. He is not saying to stop and reason with it, consider it, negotiate with it, or flirt with it, but rather to run from all temptations leading to it, as Joseph did with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:12).
Third, notice why he tells us to flee. Paul wants us to treat sexual immorality as the danger it is, lest we harm our own bodies, which is where the Holy Spirit dwells. He knows the enslaving nature of sexual sin and that our bodies were created to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.1 To entertain means of bodily satisfaction outside of what God has given us ultimately violates our connection to Jesus, so Paul urges us to instead glorify God in our bodies.
Fourth, by highlighting the tremendous damage done by sexual sin, Paul’s warning here should lead tempted people to hate their desire for sin. I would put it this way: it is good for each of us to cultivate a horror for our sin. Indeed, we should be repulsed by it. And while we can pray for our spouses to no longer be captivated by sinful desires, we cannot change their taste for it. That is up to them. It is not your fault, nor is it your responsibility to break them from their evil passions. They will need to fight the battle themselves, enlisting Jesus’ help. Only he has the power and ability to break the bond of sin.
Troubles in marital sex life are complex, and this distortion is just one of many. But given its prevalence, I suggest husbands consider asking their wives about this one. Find out what she has read or heard about the need to tend to you sexually. This conversation will bless you both.
For the rest of us, expect to encounter women who believe that they are responsible for their husbands’ purity. When you do, I encourage you to slow down, find out how they came to this conclusion, and then point them to passages like the one above. We all instinctively know that a wife is not responsible for her husband’s eating habits, his daily devotions, or whether he is a thief. But many wives need us, and especially their pastors, to help them make this same application to their husband’s potential for sexual temptation.
1. When we think about being enslaved to sin, it is not that we are powerless or helpless, but rather that the bondage to sin is a direct result of our own choice to sin (John 8:34).