Growing up in a conservative Christian subculture, I learned many things about sex that I was confident were true… until I learned otherwise. Now, as a marriage and family therapist, it is my job to know accurate information about the human body, emotions, relationships, and, specifically, sex. As a person who follows Jesus, it is my joy to learn more and more about God and His creation, His Word, and the ways in which I can further the message of His goodness.
If you can get past the cultural myths surrounding sex, you will quickly discover the evidence-based science and scriptural truths about God’s design for relationships. Purity culture, the weaponization of scripture, and silence all lead to internalized lies about sex. Equipped with my therapeutic training and broader study of the Bible, I’ll walk you through the lies many of us believe about sex and debunk them with you.
Here are 6 myths I believed about sex before learning the truth…
1. Sex = intercourse
Every mention of sex I remember hearing as a child referred to intercourse alone. People would “make out” or “mess around,” but those activities weren’t considered sex. In fact, if you wanted to hang on to your virgin badge of honor, you just kept things from “going too far.” Was there an actual line? You tell me.
Those other activities, some of which you might even call “oral sex” somehow weren’t sex. Now, those other activities were still shamed like sex, but they weren’t sex. No one taught me about them directly. I only knew they existed from my peers, porn, and my own exploration.
As with all sexual activity, I felt shame regarding these other activities partially because the respectable adults were silent. It also meant for a while at least that I could take pride in my “purity” because I hadn’t yet had a penis in my vagina. (Please no one mention here that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Or that God looks at the heart. I don’t want to hear that silliness, I’m feeling good about myself here.)
The Bible doesn’t even use the word “sex” like we use it. Instead it says things like, “Adam knew his wife Eve,” which translated REALLY DOES MEAN “to KNOW,” like in knowing your best friend well, or knowing what it’s like to take a bath. It’s a deep, experiential knowing. Yes, Jewish tradition read those words and understood it to include intercourse, but let’s be clear that you can stick one of your organs into something and still not know it very well. Knowing is so much more than that.
Christians would do well to expand our understanding of the word sex to mean something more like, “To behave in such a way as to know someone erotically.” That behavior includes everything from flirting and anticipating erotic connection to holding hands and snuggling all the body parts. In this way, we engage in our sexuality long before a relationship progresses to include intercourse, and that is part of God’s good design of getting to know someone.
This doesn’t need to mean we have to avoid all contact before marriage, but we should recognize that even mildly erotic interactions need to be considered special and should be protected with intentional devotion and explicit clarity about what they mean. (i.e.. Please don’t play the game where you act flirty, show sexual interest and special affection, but are also acting that way with six other people you are dating on the side. It’s confusing.) There’s room for fun and flirting and exploration, but those need to be paired with intentionality, clear and honest communication, and a consideration of the other person’s feelings.
Certainly deep intimacy and sex can include intercourse, but we don’t need to rush quite so quickly to what we’ve too often thought of as the “culminating event” especially since most women experience only moderate pleasure at most from simply having something stuck inside of them (that is, without the additional physical stimulation and deep intimacy happening at the same time). There’s much more fun to be had by all parties involved with a more expansive definition of sex and intimacy! Connection and knowing is more passionate, joyful, and satisfying if we can open ourselves up to all the activities that help us to feel known. If we could each get curious about what makes our partners feel known, our sex lives would improve tenfold.
2. Sex is primarily for men.
From the pulpit on Sunday mornings, my youth group, and the culture around me, it seemed obvious that sex was designed for men and without it they would suffer. Therefore my job as an eventual wife would be to serve my husband and care for his needs by providing my body for sexual intercourse. I don’t know that I even considered that I might enjoy the process.
What I know now is that while basic sexual intercourse (e.g. “penis in vagina”) does primarily benefit the male experience, sexual intercourse is only one small part of sex. If sex is actually about knowing, then each partner has a lot more work to do to actually know each other. Sex isn’t just for men and it’s not just about intercourse. In fact, many men I’ve met don’t enjoy intercourse without the knowing. Sure, it’s nice to have a release, but if his partner is checked out emotionally or just providing duty sex, he doesn’t really feel known, wanted, or accepted.
We also know that the moment you allow sex to be more than intercourse, you add in a bunch of pleasurable activities that both partners can enjoy. There are an endless number of options to enjoy together. Sex is for both partners!
3. Women don’t want sex (or at least they shouldn’t).
I don’t know that I even once heard my parents or any other respectable adult in my childhood speak about sexuality positively regarding women. Any hint of sexuality in a woman’s clothing, mannerisms, or speech were all looked down upon. Women’s bodies were certainly shamed for overt femininity. “Good girls” were “modest,” meaning they hid all sexuality in public.
Think about that: just HAVING a female body made you an object of shame.
This objectification and shaming made it very hard for any woman to explore or even be open to her own sexual desire. While some of us experienced secret excitement, we spent considerable energy telling it to shut up, which meant, of course, that the moment we got married, we had to work pretty hard to rewire our brains and bodies to relax.
The truth? Statistically, women experience desire just as much as men do… but different things often turn them on. Women often (not always) experience what we refer to as contextual desire, meaning they need several conditions met in order to feel like getting sexual. While men often (not always) experience spontaneous desire, meaning their bodies and minds remind them regularly about connecting in a more physical way. (To learn more about this topic, you might consider reading Come as You Are, by Emily Nagoski).
Women also often desire sex in a more philosophical way even before getting turned on. It’s like knowing that a trip to Hawaii would be really fun, even though you haven’t made a plan to get there yet. You want to go, you know you’ll like it, but you’re not ready to go yet. In order to experience full arousal, she needs those conditions met.
Regarding God’s design, if the point is to connect in a deeply intimate way, to be fully known and to know another, why in the world wouldn’t women desire sex? Aren’t they human? Aren’t they created by the same lovely passionate God that created men?
4. If I don’t provide sex for my spouse, they’ll cheat.
This lie was told to women as an added pressure making them responsible for their husband’s actions. This lie was told to men, discounting their own self-control. If men are ravenous, gluttonous sex monsters, who will save them from themselves but women? If a man can’t control himself with porn, who needs to save him? His wife. It’s a pretty gross equation for codependency and abuse. It dissolves men’s responsibility for themselves and sets the stage for duty sex. But if you can’t really say no to sex, can you freely say yes? What kind of intimacy develops in resentful obligation?
God’s Word says that men should be self-controlled. God models self-control over and over in his choice not to punish even when he has every right to. And while the Bible was written in a pretty patriarchal context, nowhere does it prescribe that wives should be owned like slaves. We are commanded to love one another and to “not deprive” one another, but this is not a command for sex. It is a command to care. You may really care about your spouse’s need, but still be unable to whole-heartedly provide for it. Your spouse could need connection and you provide that in some way other than sex. The Bible also says that God loves a cheerful giver. You can’t fake cheerful. If your heart’s not in it, something has gone wrong way before this moment and needs to be addressed before moving forward erotically.
Wives, especially Christian wives, should be elevated above the cultural average to equal status with their equally believing husbands. Wives are humans created by God, daughters of the One True King. Men can be self-controlled and should be expected to be so. If there’s an issue of unmet sexual desire in the marriage, both parties need to consider the damage done and how to heal so that they can actually reconcile (not just exacerbate the issue by moving forward in a physical-only way, causing dissociation and trauma).
5. My spouse using porn means they’re cheating on me.
I hear this one often from Christians who feel betrayed by their spouses' regular use of porn, especially when it has been hidden. There’s much to be said about porn, but one thing the Christian community has gotten wrong is that porn is JUST about sin. This simplistic thinking fails to address the real human needs of attachment and connection that drive A LOT of our “bad” behavior.
Lying and lusting aren’t excusable and absolutely need to be confronted. If you are committed to someone who is practicing these things, it’s appropriate for you to be upset and reasonable that you are angry. You need support and are entitled to that through the Body of Christ.
But also, a person not knowing how to get their needs met appropriately requires compassion and grace. There is phenomenal research by Jay Stringer that illustrates how obsessive porn use, as well as other troublesome sexual behaviors, are driven by unmet attachment needs. In fact, the argument can be made that ALL of our unique desires point back to our attachment experiences! “Bad” people get punished, but people who are hurt need help. What does God say we should do with our enemies?
When a person is struggling with porn, it’s not helpful to think of them as a disgusting sex-craved lunatic. They are fellow humans struggling with injury and likely trauma. Again, not that their behavior is excused! In fact, any person not willing to deal with their injuries is guilty of passing on the problem. In order to heal, they have to own the damage, admit there has been harm, recognize how it affects their relationship with themselves and others, and DO. THE. WORK.
If your spouse has a problem with porn, or lying for that matter, I hope you can find the grace to forgive them for your sake as well as theirs. (And by that I don’t mean forgetting or pretending it’s not a problem. I mean figuring out how to let go of your desire to punish them). As a committed spouse, you absolutely have a right to expect them to do their healing work as it affects you both and you have a right and responsibility to take care of yourself if they choose not to do their work. I also hope you get your own support (counseling?) for the harm you have experienced in your relationship.
6. Thinking about sex is automatically lusting.
There has been a lot of talk in Christian youth groups and men’s breakfasts about lusting. It has been primarily a scare tactic for males who may be masturbating or chasing porn. It was also a shame tactic to manage women’s clothing and to make them (again) responsible for the minds of men.
The general fear preached to youth was that boys were on the edge of sin all the time, dangerously close to the enemy’s highly attractive snares hidden around every corner. Therefore, they needed to be afraid and ashamed 99% of the time. (Because of course, how could young male adolescents with a fresh batch of testosterone running through their veins NOT think about sex in the newly discovered womanly bodies developing around them?!?)
Adult men, who produce testosterone at the rate of five to sixty times more than women, have been embarrassed and shamed relentlessly for their natural inclination to notice and be spontaneously excited about sexual connection. The problem is that this framing of lust actually suggests that all sexual attraction is BAD. Sexual attraction... you know, the delightful stuff God put in us to draw us into romantic and erotic relationships with one another. Sexual attraction: a lovely part of our good design.
What if we redefined lust as “the ravenous use of one’s mind to imagine what it would be like to consume something that does not currently belong to you.”
If that is true, then lust is a choice, not a compulsion. Thinking about sex, or even considering it is just that: thinking about sex. Call thinking about sex curiosity, awareness, or even attraction. It can be a pretty short event that ends with moving on to the next thought, or it can be twisted into an unchecked ravenous fairytale of conquest.
Lust is a conscious choice to objectify another human. It is seeing the opposite sex as merely a piece of meat to be consumed or used rather than a fully whole, fully human person, a fellow creation by the good Creator and a fellow sibling in the family of God.
The owner of the mind has the responsibility to decide what they will do with each passing thought. What does God say? To be self-controlled. To be thankful for what we have. To praise Him for his goodness. To ask Him for what we need. We can all happen to think of sex or even actively choose to think about it, without moving into the sinful behavior of lusting.
Final Thoughts on these Relationship Myths
While I may have been misled in my early years to believe sex was dangerous, patriarchal, and legalistically limited, I now know it to be a beautiful, well-designed part of God’s creation in us. It’s not just for men. It’s so much more than intercourse. Being curious and unafraid with our loving, protective God is a great way to experience His blessings without shame.
If you’re interested in delving deeper into this topic, consider my online course Sex is Good—on sale for $25 through Nov 24 with code SIG23! It’s an inexpensive snapshot into my broader Truth About Holy Sex curriculum. In the meantime, see if you can absorb these eight truths about sex: