The Sex Paradox: Why Sexual Freedom Requires Restraint

The Sex Paradox: Why Sexual Freedom Requires Restraint

17 minutes reading time

In our previous essay, Sex is Dangerous, Sex is Good, my intention was to restore a healthy view of sex. It’s common to frame faith as somehow in conflict with healthy sexuality. To be fair, I can understand why many would think that. Usually, preachers just tell us why NOT to have sex and then they stop there.

“Don’t do it until you’re married.”

“Sexual sin will send you to hell.”

“If your spouse wants it, you better do it, or they will struggle with sexual temptation and will go find it elsewhere.”

That is about the sum total of what most people think the bible says about sex, and if that’s all we hear it doesn’t sound that positive. God, in His word, addresses sexuality in a much deeper and finer way. In fact, Christianity may actually be the most body-positive religion in the world. It says that God created sexuality and created men and women for each other from the very beginning. The Bible contains great love poetry that celebrates sexual passion and pleasure. Within marriage, God expects each person to enjoy the other in sex, even to the point that one spouse should not unnecessarily deny sex to the other:

“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).

These verses in 1 Corinthians 7 are some of the most specific, helpful, and misunderstood scriptures of the bible on sex. When women were legally considered the possession of their husbands, the apostle Paul made a revolutionary claim that “the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife”, and likewise that the wife’s body also belongs to her husband. Paul was teaching that in marriage, each partner, male and female, consents to give themselves fully to the other in sexual relations. Nothing like this has ever been said before. Most of us will find this text satisfying because of our contemporary Western view of human rights, but that is not the main point Paul is communicating. He is giving us a remarkably positive view of sexual satisfaction within marriage. The view of the Roman culture in which the Corinthian Christians lived was that men had wives in order to have legal heirs, while sexual pleasure would typically be found outside the marriage. Paul in effect redefines marriage as a context for the mutual satisfaction of sexual desires.

Furthermore, the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 also tells us that sex is designed to be a form of giving oneself entirely to the other; “the body of each belongs to the other.” This is what sex is about. Sex is not a commodity to be transacted, not something to be bought or taken, but something to give and a means of devotion to your spouse. The focus is on the other person, and so each is to give to the other what is their right in marriage. “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” The focus is on serving each other. This means that in marriage the concern is about giving pleasure, not getting it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have likes and dislikes, preferences and turn-offs, and that you should just shut those down and only think about your spouse. In fact, it is crucial to communicate openly and honestly about what you prefer.

If your primary intention in sex is giving pleasure, then a person who doesn’t have as much of a sex drive physically can give to the other person as a gift. This is a legitimate act of love, a way to serve one another. This principle also teaches that sex is not a way to impress, but to become vulnerable and offer each other a unique expression of yourself – your sexuality, and to know the satisfaction of giving one another pleasure.

Sex is supposed to be an act of self-donation, yet how often do we abuse sex, using the other person primarily for our own pleasure? Even in marriage we can be guilty of that. We turn to our spouse seeking to satisfy our concupiscence with the intention of using them as an object to be subjected to our carnal longings. What happened to marital respect? Even in marriage there will be times when you need to restrain your sexual desires so that you can be united with your spouse in an act of true mutual giving and not one of mere simultaneous or one-sided taking. Remind yourself of what sex is meant to be about – a true reflection of your marriage vows.

Sex is an act of uniting and devoting yourself to your spouse. Keep it that way. Furthermore, it is the only means by which a couple can create a new life, and that is why the act of sex is regarded as the most distinctive expression of marital love and self-giving. It is the deepest and most vulnerable form of communication.

My advice to married couples – keep banging

The next thing to remember is that since sex is a bonding experience for marriage, it ought to be practised and maintained. In other words, keep at it. Early on in the marriage, sexual fulfilment may not come straight away, especially as you are both getting used to each other in this way. Some people may find this phase awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a fun learning experience. Great sex is not about instantly knowing exactly what gets your partner going. Great sex is about having an open mind, listening to feedback, and wanting to get more and more in tune with your partner. 

Think about it this way: let’s say you could maintain a romantic session twice a week, that’s 100 times a year, and over 30 years that’s 3000 times. So what does it matter, therefore, if, say, the first 30 romantic sessions are a bit difficult before managing one that just about verges on acceptable? 30 out of 3000 is only a fraction. Keep at it. Is there not some possibility that you could devote a fraction of your time to perfecting your technique, seduction, communication, and lovemaking? Most things worthwhile take commitment, practice, and effort, and I see no reason to think that romance with your partner is any different. It’s not.

On a practical note, often for women, foreplay is more important than the actual act of intercourse itself. While women like to simmer, men tend to reach boiling point much faster. According to a 2005 Society for Sex Therapy and Research member survey, the average man lasts anywhere between three and seven minutes in bed. Harry Fisch, who is one of America’s leaders in the diagnosis and treatment of male infertility, reports that 45% of men finish within two minutes. Whatever the case, the reality is that most men don’t generally last long. So gents, slow yourself down. It is the tender touches and kisses of foreplay that bring her to the point of desiring sex and ready to experience the pleasure of climax. Because sex is partly about giving pleasure, you are less concerned with yourself and more concerned with what works for them. This applies to both the husband and wife. So continue to work out what’s better for your partner and how to improve and maintain sex within your marriage. Over time, in marriage, you get better and better at giving your spouse pleasure in bed. You learn what they like. That’s why sex can be fun.

The fundamental rule of marriage, however, is that time marches on. Time, stress, children, illness, and age all bring changes that may require creative, disciplined responses to rebuild sexual intimacy that was once easier at an earlier time. If you don’t confront and adapt to these changes, they’ll erode your sex life. The reality is that attraction can be difficult to maintain over the years, so you may need to vary what you do with your partner. There are a hundred and one different sex positions, so try a new one, have a laugh about it. Do some exercise and get in shape. Take a trip away for the weekend. Decorate/order your bedroom so that it becomes a nice atmosphere to be in. Pop some Viagra if you need to.

Remember that sex is a good gift for marriage; don’t neglect it.

If you are wondering how you should plan and diligently maintain the romance in your relationship, then remember that play requires peace, not resentment, and peace requires negotiation. Negotiation requires a willingness to make sacrifices and serve the other in order to bring a solution to the differences between the two of you. Good luck trying to maintain a decent sex life when you’re both stressed, frustrated or resentful towards each other. If you negotiate and work on this first, it might well make room for a better sex life. So maybe start by taking out the trash. Clean up after yourself. Sort out the bills. Make time for each other. Communicate more than you think is necessary. Set plans and make goals together… then romance may have room to flourish.

Surveys suggest that the typical couple manages a reasonable romantic interlude on average once a week – alongside the business of general life, all that worry, responsibility and concern. That frequency, if handled well, seems to work out well for both partners. But no sexual intimacy in marriage is detrimental to the relationship. While the frequency of sexual intimacy will likely decrease with age for obvious reasons, if you go to zero while at least one of you still maintains a drive, then one of you is tyrannising the other. On zero, the chances of an affair occurring – physically, emotionally, or maybe in some other way, dramatically increase. I am not recommending the affair at all or seeking to lay blame, but that is what you are risking if you stop serving one another in this way.

According to The US National Health and Social Life Survey in 1992, 22% of relationships among couples aged 18–59 admitted that their relationship is “sexless’’ according to the official definition (no sex, or fewer than ten times in the past year). That’s almost a quarter of relationships. So, for those of us who are married, let’s reverse the trend. As mechanical as it may seem, it will help to be deliberate and structure sex into your weekly routine.

Sexual abstinence

Sex is for marriage, this is the case we made previously in Sex is Dangerous, Sex is Good. If you agree, now you have a choice to make: will you keep sex in its rightful place? Will you reserve sex for marriage?

To many in our secular age, the idea of sexual abstinence (reserving sex till marriage) would be interpreted as a threat to freedom. Most people define freedom as the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want, with whomever we want. But is that really freedom? I don’t think so. Freedom is the ability to do whatever you should. To enjoy the world as God intended it. Freedom to do the right thing even when you don’t feel like it because it’s ultimately for our good. To live fully awake and alive. When it comes to sex, freedom is seeing it as a gift. Nothing less and nothing more. Not as a dirty secret to be swept under the rug and not as a god to be worshipped, but as a gift for marriage, and a good one at that.

Sexual urge is a powerful influence in our lives. The difficulty is controlling and focusing those urges in the context of marriage and not outside of it. Marriage is meant to be a beautiful blend of love, virtue and sexual intimacy. Sex is good for marriage, and outside of marriage sex is morally wrong. It is precisely because the body and sex are so precious that the abuse of sex is so damaging. Being careful and particular about something is a sign of how much we value it. God declares that there are categories of sexual behaviour that are wrong, prohibited and ought to be avoided. But there are also forms of sexual behaviour regarded in the scriptures as thoroughly good and right, which ought to be celebrated and enjoyed. Marriage creates immense freedom and security for loving, sexual intimacy without fear of critique or abandonment.

Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that if you withhold sex for marriage then you are promised to have an infinitely better sex life. If our reason for saving sex until marriage is because we believe it will make sex better or easier for us, then we’re missing the point entirely. Those of us who choose to wait do so because we hold certain beliefs about the sacredness of marriage and about God’s intentions and wishes for humanity, and we honour these regardless of whether they feel easier or harder.

Be prepared: reserving sex for marriage is going to be hard. Really hard at times. Every cell in your body wants to cave in, to take matters into your own hands. To follow the crowd rather than the ways of God. His path is narrow, and few walk by it. Follow the ways of God. Master your sexuality. Sexual urge is powerful, and it is perhaps the most difficult urge to master. But if you don’t, it will master you. When sex is your god, you have to watch porn. You have to jack off. You have to sleep with your boyfriend. You have to let him touch you. You’re stuck on the hedonistic treadmill and you have to give into your body’s cravings, even if you know it’s going to steal from your future. You have no choice because you’re a slave. If you follow the path of hedonism then you will no longer be lord over yourself because pleasure dominates. This is why abstinence before marriage is so important, it demands the character of controlling desire, preparing in us a strong will and a correct focus on priorities.

We need to take our sexual desires and make them subordinate to a rational purpose of love and virtue. The reality is that sexual urge easily disconnects itself from love and virtue and is drawn in a direction that love cannot or ought not to go. Such is the case, for instance, of a single person who feels a powerful attraction towards the husband or wife of a friend. Even a married person can be suddenly beset by an unwanted and perhaps apparently uncontrollable sexual desire for a third person. Few married people never have the desire for sexual intimacy with someone other than their spouse. Every Christian is called at times to deny certain desires. In some sense, the whole “me too” movement is a vindication of this view – we should all control our desires for one another’s good.

Whoever values sex more than love will become more and more subject to the dominion of the former, and less and less capable of experiencing and expressing the latter. But when sexual desire is directed and subordinated to conjugal love and made a proper part of it, it becomes a glorious expression of love – an act of giving yourself to your spouse.

In reality, it’s rare for anyone to abstain from sex until marriage. According to ‘Waiting Till Marriage’, an organisation that supports abstinence before marriage, around 3% of the United States population waits until they are married to have sex. Now I know the struggle. When it comes to dating, it’s hard to be patient, after all – where do you draw the line? How far can you push the boundaries without it being actual sex? I guarantee you, if you and your dating partner start running on the sexual treadmill, it will be blimmin’ difficult to control. My advice is that if you find yourselves burning with passion for each other and are confident that your dating partner is worthy of making marriage vows to, and you have both seriously thought about the commitment of marriage, then why torture yourselves? If you’re both struggling with self-control, worried that you might not be acting honourably towards God and your partner, and if your passions are too strong, then it is better to marry than burn with passion (1 Corinthians 7:9).

If you wait till marriage to have sex, you won’t regret it, because you’ll know you’ve gone about it the right way. In fact, I have never met someone who regrets reserving sex for their spouse. And they even tend to do better off. In a study of 2,035 couples published in Psychology, those who hold a “no sex until marriage” principle rated the quality of their marital sex 15% higher than people who had premarital sex. In addition, those who waited until marriage expressed 22% more stability in their marriages, with a 20% higher satisfaction rate. So when someone says, “Waiting for marriage is a bad idea because you don’t know how good someone is in bed if you don’t have sex with them.” Well, modern research consistently shows that those who wait for marriage report higher satisfaction in the bedroom, not less. And if you’re looking to marry someone simply based on their performance in bed, it’s definitely time to reevaluate what you are looking for in a relationship.

Why is it that those who wait till marriage generally report a more satisfying sex life? Perhaps because they have exercised self-restraint in the interests of keeping sex special. It’s reasonable to suggest that having chosen a lifelong partner, such people are having more meaningful sex than the people who embraced sexual openness. A young woman whose first sexual experience is with someone who vowed in a public ceremony to spend the rest of his life with her just might find that experience more meaningful and exciting than a teenage girl who has sex because she feels embarrassed about still being a virgin. Tell me, which is likely to be hotter: a casual one-night stand or a kiss after allowing sexual tension to build over weeks or even months? Which delivers more of a charge: a photo of someone’s genitals or seeing your partner naked for the first time on the night of your wedding?

Desire is like a liquid: if you spread it over a large open area it will start to evaporate. But the more it’s pressurised, the more forcefully it will flow. Real “sex-positivity” means mounting a paradoxical, countercultural defence of human sexuality, by embracing the power of restraint as an erotic accelerant. Restraining from sexual experiences till marriage is what makes the marriage experience all the more exciting, and the sex all the more valuable.

So, the ball is in your court – how will you treat sex? 

This is a matter of faith. Which way will you follow – the way of this fleeting world or the ways of God? What do you trust? Your own subjective moral compass of God’s absolute wisdom? The “serpent,” if we use a biblical analogy, says the best sex is found in short, risky, promiscuous relationships with beautiful people. God says sex is for when a man and women say to each other, “let’s do this thing called life together, let’s join up till death do us part.” It’s all about who you trust.

Healing our sexual brokenness

Reviewing the overall theme of Christian theology regarding sexual intimacy, the general message is clear – abstinence → marriage → sex → children. Firstly, we are to learn to control and master our sexual urge, by which we strengthen our will and build our character. From this pedestal we may choose to enter into marriage with someone we love and are willing to continue loving, and in that union, enjoy all the pleasure and purpose of sex. But, let’s be honest, who has really been successful in obeying that process? Not many.

I have not upheld God’s standards for sexual ethics, and I wish I took it more seriously in the past. When we realise what God teaches about sex, it leaves us all very much fallen short of His ways. There are not many things I can think of that are more honourable than two people coming together in marriage without the baggage of previous sexual partners to compare. Each partner knows that each has resisted the temptation to give themselves away, and can honestly say they have reserved themselves to be physically vulnerable to just the one person they believe is worthy of making those vows to. Isn’t that precious? However, the issue is that the vast majority of us have thrown that opportunity away. Not one of us is innocent of sexual immorality, regardless to what degree that may be.

The uncomfortable implication of the message of Christianity is that it puts us all in the same boat. We are all sexual sinners. You are, I am. It doesn’t take long for our minds to start thinking of others in a way that does not honour their sexuality: a way that dehumanises and commodifies them. We need to know that God’s capacity to forgive and heal is far greater than our ability to mess things up. Thankfully, God’s response to our mess is not simply to get rid of us but to help us.

God is not only the reference of moral good, He is good even in how He responds to us when we break His ethical standards, inviting us to a change of heart. God reveals Himself to be “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Amen.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be “poor in spirit” is to recognise you’re not as ‘spiritually great’ as you may have previously thought. Our twisted hearts taint every part of life. It’s not to say that every part of life is as bad as it could be; just that no part is as good as it should be. To recognise our poverty is a blessing because it makes us open to God’s good solution.

Jesus has shown that the real issue is what goes on in our hearts. We are all broken in this area of life. We might be broken in very different ways and even to varying extents, but none of us can truly claim self-righteousness. Even the great King David was in the same position as he wrote: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” So if the problem is what our hearts are like, then starting by trying to conform to certain external ethical standards is not going to ultimately help us. It would be like trying to improve the symptoms without addressing the underlying issue.

The realisation that there is something fundamentally wrong with us is deeply uncomfortable. We misuse sexuality because of what our hearts are like. Our sexual brokenness is a sign of a more fundamental brokenness in our human nature. The message of the gospel is that God does not scold us for being as we are, but steps into our reality and takes all our brokenness onto Himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus paid the price for our moral debt and offers to transform our nature. The good news is that God doesn’t just forgive us without also transforming us. The gospel is our reference for love, a God of love who demonstrated His love for us and showed us how to love, and in knowing Him we find a love that brings ultimate value to our lives.

As we learn about the significance that Christ took our moral blemishes on himself, we start to have a different attitude. It is not that we are no longer incapable of sin but that it doesn’t taste as good, like drinking orange juice after you’ve brushed your teeth. The juice hasn’t changed, but the taste has. In redirecting my life to Jesus, I have found that what is called ‘sin’ gradually loses its flavour. It is painful coming to terms with what the Bible says about our sexuality being so broken, but such recognition is the way into the joy of knowing forgiveness and transformation.“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” God (Ezekiel 36:26).

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