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In the 1980s, comedian Harry Enfield mercilessly satirized the social conventions of bygone eras, exposing through his often-profane sketches the shifting mores of British culture in that decade. An early adopter of the mockumentary style, Enfield produced short public service announcements, my favorite of which is called “Women, Know Your Limits,” with a close second being his “Conjugal Rights Guide.” On YouTube, the clip is only four minutes long, but Enfield packs it with all the embarrassment and shame the average British comedian is so famous for. Some of the lines from this sketch furnish me with the necessary cutups and jokes I require to get through the many hours of premarital counseling I and my husband offer to young (and sometimes older) people entering the blessed estate of holy matrimony. Whenever the conversation becomes embarrassing — for me chiefly, most people today don’t have any trouble talking about sex — I pull out these old chestnuts:
“Given time, an atmosphere will flourish in which the conditions for conjugal unpleasantness will become possible.”
“The more foreign-minded of you might even consider sharing a bed.”
“Now it’s time to have a stiff drink, and get on with the ugly business in hand.”
“If this is your first attempt at beastliness, you may have some difficulty uniting your unmentionables.”1
It is useful, in other words, to be reminded that two people enjoining themselves in the act of sexual intercourse has always been fraught, sometimes painful — emotionally or otherwise — and always heaped with controversy. That is because, as the Scriptures tell us, when two people join their bodies together, something more is going on — both in their own spirits and in the spiritual realm where God makes His habitation.
It is in this disposition that I sallied forth to investigate the work of Sheila Wray Gregoire, host of the Bare Marriage Podcast and author of many popular books, including The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended,2 She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings on Sex, Self and Speaking Up,3 and, most recently, Fixed It for You: Volume 1: Rescuing and Reframing Common Evangelical Messages on Sex and Marriage.4
Healthy, Biblical, Evidence-Based
If evangelicals have learned anything in the last twenty-five years, it is that sex is supposed to be enjoyable — for both parties. The fact that “sex is a gift from God,” Wray Gregoire and her co-authors write in The Great Sex Rescue, is likely “something that your pastor says from the pulpit when he can’t talk about sex too explicitly, but he really, really, really wants everyone to know how great it is” (emphasis in original).5 Wray Gregoire herself has been writing and speaking on the subject since at least 2010. In the early decades of her books and blogs, she articulated the prevailing views of the time. Around 2016, however, when the West was convulsed by political upheaval and the #MeToo movement, Wray Gregoire began both to review her own work and critique some of the most popular books on the subject, a project that culminated in 2021 with The Great Sex Rescue. Evaluating the messaging most commonly preached, she writes:
We used the top-selling secular marriage book to serve as a control group, giving us fourteen books in total. We then created a rubric of twelve elements of healthy sexuality and rated each of these fourteen books on those elements on a scale of 0–4. We divided the twelve questions into three categories — infidelity, pleasure, and mutuality — of four questions each. To receive a healthy rating, a book must not have more than two 0 scores. To receive a neutral rating, a book must pass each category. Each of the following questions is framed with the healthy teaching first and the unhealthy teaching last. On our scoring rubric, we also delineated what messages would constitute different scores. You can find our complete scoring rubric at our website.6
By this measure, Love and Respect7 and Sheet Music8 were deemed “harmful”; Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage9 was “neutral”; and John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work10 was “helpful.”11 They posed questions like the following of the various books they examined:
“Does the book acknowledge the effect of pornography on men’s self-perception, sex drives, and sexual function, or does it ignore porn’s harm to marriages?”12
“Does the book frame sex as something a woman will anticipate and look forward to, or does it frame sex as something she will tend to dread?”13
“Does the book explain that sex has many purposes, including intimacy, closeness, fun, and physical pleasure for both, or does it portray sex as being primarily about fulfilling his physical need?”14
Both in The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better, the authors take what, at this point, amounts to proverbial wisdom about the differences between men and women, how men and women relate to each other, and what each expects out of their sex lives, and then the authors deconstruct those beliefs by showing how damage is being done. To elucidate the harm, Wray Gregoire and her co-authors, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky, work through data they collected from 20,000 surveys gathered from their various online platforms. The project was spread by word of mouth, and they evaluated the responses using the measurements they chose for discerning the relative goodness of evangelical women’s sex lives. “Many Christians,” they discovered, “simply aren’t experiencing amazing, mind-blowing, earth-shattering, great sex. We want to change that.”15 For example, in The Great Sex Rescue, they write:
Most (51.3%) of the women in our sample do not have a “guaranteed orgasm” every time they have sex (that is, they do not orgasm in every or almost every sexual encounter), and it’s not necessarily because they’re not more active during intercourse. Grief, relationship problems, and hormonal issues can all impact her ability to orgasm. Yet, while many things contribute to women’s orgasm rates, one stands out more than any other: women need foreplay. The reason for women’s lack of orgasm is not that they’re not active enough during lovemaking; more likely, it’s that he is not active in the right way.16
This is the sort of advice and statistical analysis that permeates Wray Gregoire’s content. The tagline “evidence-based” is repeated at the end of every podcast and appears often in her work. The messaging about marriage and sex that Christians have imbibed for the last 30 years hasn’t been based on sufficient data, according to Wray Gregoire, and doesn’t take into account the real experiences of women.
Throughout, the reader — or, in the case of podcasts, the listener — is invited to consider data and evidence that is not derived from and is largely unrelated to the commandments and prescripts of the Christian Scriptures.17 Wray Gregoire presents the evidence on one hand, and on the other hand, the traditional teachings about human sexuality that may or may not prove to be healthy according to the data she and her co-authors gathered.
A good representative example of their approach can be found in She Deserves Better. They write:
We use numbers throughout this book because they are a beautiful way to tell a story. They offer us an opportunity to zoom out beyond our limited experience. Ultimately, statistics give us a powerful way to examine the fruit of teaching and ideas.…Frequently when we were running our analyses, we separated our respondents into two categories: above-average self-esteem and below-average self-esteem. That way, we can see how being exposed to different teachings, situations, or ideas changes the odds of being in either self-esteem group.18
I can’t think of anyone today who would advocate for low self-esteem as a spiritual or emotional good for young evangelical girls. And yet the self-esteem movement, while it might be useful in some arenas, does not map well over Christian sensibilities or theology. By using it as their measure, the authors lean heavily into the false choice of our time — the division between happiness and holiness. Or, to put it in a way that’s more commonly acceptable, if something doesn’t “bear fruit,” it must not be good.
Holiness or Happiness
“Doctrine is important, yes,” write Wray Gregoire and her co-authors in She Deserves Better, “But Jesus clearly states, ‘By their fruit you will recognize them’ (Matt. 7:20), and, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35).”19 Appealing thus to two of the most commonly quoted texts in the Bible in our day, the reader will not be surprised that a false choice is about to be presented. They go on to write, “When we place doctrinal alignment above how people act, it cheapens what it means to follow Christ. We want to challenge you to think about how you can live in the tension of holding to your doctrinal beliefs without allowing those beliefs to eclipse the fruit of the Spirit in importance.”20 This is a subtle, but crucial rhetorical move. The Scriptures don’t share the idea that you might have doctrinally correct, dogmatically held beliefs that therefore prevent you from living out the call to love. On the contrary, as Jesus Himself says frequently, it is a lack of trust both in Jesus and in the content of the Scriptures that prevents you from obeying His commands. It is because you do not “know” the Scriptures and therefore cannot recognize Him that keeps you from properly loving your neighbor (Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24).
It is important to see this, for the false choice between holiness and obedience, on one side, and happiness and love, on the other, is constantly presented in throwaway lines like this one: “Living out a life of holiness doesn’t matter if that holiness doesn’t stem from love for the world and love for Jesus.”21 By dividing obedience to God’s commands from the love of God, Wray Gregoire makes space to separate sexual purity from flourishing and then to minimize the spiritual consequences of premarital sex:
If we raise girls who practice spiritual disciplines, who are a part of the same ‘group’ as we are, and who successfully remain virgins, but as a result their faith is entirely about outward signaling rather than a deep, aching desire to serve those around them, then have we really taught our girls to love God? Have we introduced them to the hope, grace, love, and faithfulness of our Savior, to the joy that comes from serving him? Or have we given them a false gospel based on outward appearance — even if the outward appearance is good and looks very, very Christian?22
Throughout Wray Gregoire’s content, the reaction against what is now commonly referred to as Purity Culture23 recasts the fruit of a person’s life not as holy obedience to the commands of God but as “flourishing” — a category comprised of mental health, good boundaries, and healthy relationships. These are not defined by Scripture but by what most evangelicals think about them. The sexual purity of young Christians is good only in so far as it does not make them miserable, or compromise the happiness and safety they experience later in life:
For years, the only measure that mattered was whether kids stayed virgins until they were married. Frankly, we think this is a rather heartless measure when it comes to our precious daughters. I (Sheila), as a mom of two daughters who have now been married for a combined ten years, can tell you that their well-being, happiness, and safety are far more important to me now than any virginity status on their wedding day. I want my girls to thrive, and I’m sure that’s what you want too. So let’s expand our list of desired outcomes: we want daughters who have high self-esteem, who choose good marriage partners if they marry, who are more likely to marry if they want to marry, and yes, who abstain from sex before marriage.24
The question of premarital sex arises often for Wray Gregoire. In almost every case, it isn’t to delineate the spiritual danger of disobeying God or the possibility of temporal consequences. In fact, it is “a bugaboo”:
Our study, though, found no correlation between whether an engaged couple slept together before they got married and their future sexual satisfaction when we controlled for confounders. Any correlation between premarital sexual activity and future sexual satisfaction was explained by marital satisfaction — which, incidentally, is something a couple can work to improve without the use of a time machine. Because we’ve made premarital sex into a bugaboo, when couples who had sex before the wedding night end up unhappy in their marriage, they may be less likely to work on their marriage if they believe they’re simply living out God’s punishment. What could have been an easily fixed communication problem becomes years of unnecessary frustration.25
The metric — human flourishing — becomes a measure used to judge Scripture. It allows her and her co-authors to espouse the view about sexuality derived from those promoting the LGBTQ acronym. In a subsection of She Deserves Better, the authors write this (quoted in full):
Your daughter will likely have many friends and acquaintances over her lifetime who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Your daughter may even not be straight herself. But here’s what we do know:
A comprehensive review of over thirty years of research found that when LGBTQ+ youth were not given comprehensive sex education, they suffer. They are more likely to be victims of harassment or bullying, their mental health is more likely to decline, and they engage more frequently in risky sexual behaviors (unprotected sex, using substances before sex, having more sexual partners).
When LGBTQ+ youth grow up in homes with anti-homosexual religious beliefs, their suicide risk increases.
Now, this is not a theological book — and there are many out there that you can read. But no matter what you believe about sexuality, more dead kids is never good fruit. Marginalized people flocked to Jesus. They loved him, and he loved them. We need to take a big step back as a church and ask how we can be more like Jesus. If your child or your child’s friends are part of the LGBTQ+ community, how can you show them Jesus’ love? Look at the evidence, and do what helps, not what harms.26
For anyone seeking to remain faithful both to the biblical text and to the traditions of the church for the last two thousand years, it is important to see the sleight of hand played by Wray Gregoire in her argument. The nebulous threat of suffering is leveraged to scare parents who are already concerned about their daughters. Vulnerable and anxious, they then seek advice from the expert who tells them, effectively, there is nothing they can do except affirm the sexual inclinations of the child and submit to “comprehensive sex education.” Then, when the parent might think, “Wait, what about the Bible?” Wray Gregoire casts biblical Christianity as “anti-homosexual” religion, promises “dead kids,” and exhorts them not to do “harm.” The God of the Bible, for Wray Gregoire, represents hate rather than love, death rather than life, and danger rather than safety. Observe that she quotes no Scripture in this section except to say that Jesus loved “marginalized people.” The two studies she cites are moving and may be helpful for understanding current trends, but they don’t prove causation. Being told that sin is wrong is always painful, especially when one has embraced that sin as a core identity; but telling the truth is an act of love, even if it brings near-term misery to the hearer.
The Law of Love
When you take fruit and flourishing defined by prevailing cultural sensibilities and use them to determine good and evil, you end up directing well-meaning people into some cruel places. Besides scaring Christian parents and minimizing the danger of premarital sex, Wray Gregoire oversimplifies the pernicious pestilence of pornography use. Throughout her work, she clearly and fairly articulates the sexual inclinations and drives of women, but she betrays real ignorance of the way men are wired. She rejects the advice often given to young men that if they direct their desires toward their wives, and if their wives are willing and able to have sex with them, they will gradually be able — by the spiritual disciplines of prayer, accountability, and repentance — to relinquish the habits of pornography and the view of women they produce. Rather, she says, men should become sanctified by the bracing life of the Spirit, and return to their wives fully healed by an almost puritanical view of self-control:
Additionally, Paul is adamant in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–5 that a basic Christian responsibility is for each person to deal with their own sexual sin. “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.” Let us repeat that: “that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable.” Not because your wife takes away the temptation but because you are living in the power of the Spirit! The idea that men need sex or they will watch porn is in direct opposition to how the Bible portrays sexual immorality and temptation. We are called to be holy and renewed — not to remain addicted but placated by having enough intercourse.27 (emphasis in original)
The claim that wives merely having plenty of sex with their husbands will cure a pornography addiction is specious — as many besides Wray Gregoire have observed. But it’s possible to go too far the other way. Young people are subjected to pornographic material at appallingly young ages, even in households where parents are vigilant and proactive. Otherwise godly young men are caught in its net unawares and become addicted. There aren’t very many Christian men for Christian women to marry who haven’t been touched by its effects. Christians need to be able to think critically and biblically about this subject, as well as homosexuality, adultery, fornication, and other kinds of sexual immorality. I find it a bit ironic that Wray Gregoire thinks the inclinations of the same-sex attracted adolescent girl must be affirmed, but healing from a pornography addiction can’t happen by the kindly and forgiving grace of marriage, both by disciplining one’s mind and by getting to have sex with one’s own wife. To “focus” your desire on your wife, for Wray Gregoire, is just lust, yet another means of objectification:
You can’t defeat porn by simply having a husband transfer his lust and objectification to a “safe” source — his wife. You defeat porn by rejecting the kingdom of darkness view of sex, that it is only about taking and using someone to meet your needs, and adopting a kingdom of heaven view of sex: that it’s about a mutual, passionate knowing and sacrificial serving. God never meant for women to be men’s sexual methadone. Gary Thomas agrees. “Addressing this spiritual element of sex is crucial in helping men experience deliverance from sexual addiction. When sex is reduced to pleasure alone, no wife can possibly meet a husband’s expectations.”28
Lust is wrong wherever it occurs, of course, but a man desiring his wife isn’t lust, it is a chaste marriage. How is a porn-addicted husband going to gradually transform lust into proper desire? It isn’t a matter of mind over matter. He is an embodied person and so is his wife. They are both sinners. It will take a while unless God performs a miracle. I agree entirely that “addressing the spiritual element” is the way out of our current troubles, especially in the context of conjugal affection. Unfortunately, Wray Gregoire’s view of marriage and sex is so earthly bound, it is almost no good.
The rise of the Christian sex help manual can be traced right alongside the erosion of sexual mores in American Culture. While evangelicals invested copious amounts of money in Focus on the Family, Hugh Hefner was constructing a grotto for his dissolute mansion housing his hareem of would-be “Bunnies.” Love and Respect was released the same year as Brittney Spears’ auspicious 55-hour marriage. The Promise Keepers movement grew in popularity right alongside the hit sitcom Friends (1994–2004). In other words, Christian views of sex in the modern era have been attempts, however pathetic, to deal with the tidal wave of lust and promiscuity.
Wray Gregoire, for me, represents the last stage in the evangelical world’s “struggle” (a beloved Christian-ese term for failure) to preserve a theological and spiritual grasp of the person. Her view of marriage offers a bare nod toward the Christian telos of that estate. She teaches about sex from the unquestioned assumptions of two decades ago — Christians can have good sex, too! God wants you to be happy! Great sex is one of the markers of Christian flourishing that is essential for what it means to be a healthy, well-rounded person! These messages ring hollow in a post-Christian materialist neverland where young people are happy to identify as “spiritual” but are, ironically, not equipped with the tools necessary to understand what the spirit is, nor what the body is for. The spiritual needs of the person are everywhere eclipsed by carnal ones.
Absent from Wray Gregoire’s work is any discussion of the transcendent, metaphysical spiritual soil that produced the fruit she is so eager to devour. Discussing sex, especially as a Christian, in exactly the same way as publications like Glamour or Vogue is an assumption of a philosophic framework that, to me, feels like sawing at the very branch one is sitting on. The reason that women and men are both to honor each other with their bodies is because God made men and women in His image and redeemed them to be the church. The call to sanctification and holiness requires at least an attempt to honor and uphold the spiritual goods of marriage and sex, even while trying to instruct married people how to do it “better.”
The rubrics and evidence Wray Gregoire aggregates strike a comfortable note with Western Christians who feel dissatisfied with their marriages and sexual experiences. When the goal is to have better and more satisfying sex, she has plenty of advice and techniques for you to try. But, like so many of the elusive promises made by influencers of every stripe, by holding out the promise of great sex and happiness in marriage, rather than directing frustrated and beleaguered Christians to the greater prize of Christ and the holiness of His way, she falls into the same genre as all the books she loves to hate.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.
- Harry Enfield, “Mr. Cholmondley-Warner Presents ‘The Conjugal Rights Guide,’” posted October 31, 2005, YouTube, 4:03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ivsb79-h90.
- Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, Joanna Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2021).
- Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky, She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings on Sex, Self, and Speaking Up (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2023).
- Fixed It for You: Volume 1: Rescuing and Reframing Common Evangelical Messages on Sex and Marriage (self-pub., Amazon Digital Services, 2023), Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 9, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 243–44, Kindle.
- Emerson Eggerichs, Love and Respect (Nashville: Integrity Publishers, 2004).
- Kevin Leman, Sheet Music (Carol Strem, IL: Tyndale, 2003).
- Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Viking, 2011).
- John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, rev. (New York: Harmony Books, 2015).
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 246, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 244, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 244, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 245, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 10, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 44, Kindle.
- As I neared the end of my research, in light of Wray Gregoire’s repeated claim that she offers “evidence-based” advice on sex and marriage, I was bemused to find her promoting the Enneagram. There exists a wide variety of opinions about the relative merits of the Enneagram as a help to understanding personality, but I believe there are theological and philosophical reasons why using it can prove dangerous. In the first place, it wasn’t discovered 1000 years ago by Sufi mystics but was the adaptation of George Gurdjieff’s philosophical paradigm by Oscar Ichazo and New Age spiritualist Claudio Naranjo who claimed he received it through the use of automatic writing. I reviewed the Enneagram in my August 17, 2022, article “The Road Back to Where? A Look at Self Discovery Using the Enneagram,” Christian Research Journal, https://www.equip.org/articles/the-road-back-to-where-a-look-at-self-discovery-using-the-enneagram/. For a catalog of resources, see David Wolcott’s post “The Enneagram: Is It Secret? Is It Safe?” accessed December 13, 2023, https://www.thedavidwolcott.com/enneagram. The Enneagram is a personality typing system that cannot be disproven. Rather than being an evidentiary process to discern personality differences and compatibility, the Enneagram is a self-referential spiritual exercise, whereby previously held beliefs about the self are reinforced by the testing mechanism.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 18, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 37, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 37–38, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 45, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 44, Kindle.
- For a brief primer on Purity Culture, check out Joe Carter’s “The FAQs: What You Should Know about Purity Culture,” The Gospel Coalition, July 24, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-know-purity-culture/; and Amy Davison’s look at the progressive backlash to the movement in her article, “Why Youth Are Walking Away from Biblical Sexuality and What Parents Can Do about It,” Christian Research Journal, June 23, 2023, https://www.equip.org/articles/why-youth-are-walking-away-from-biblical-sexuality-and-what-parents-can-do-about-it/.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 100, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 164, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, She Deserves Better, 160, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 112, Kindle.
- Wray Gregoire, Gregoire Lindenbach, Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue, 114–15, Kindle