'the act of marriage': ch 8-10 (when things go wrong)

See also: introch 1ch 2-3ch 4-5, ch 6-7.

Welcome back, folks, to the ins and outs of Christian marriage and sexytimes. We've reached the middle of the book and it's time to talk about sexual dysfunction. Namely: "the unfulfilled woman" and "the impotent man." There's not a lot for me to rate myself on here ("frigidity" isn't a particular problem of mine, nor is impotence), so I'm going to set aside the Adequate Lady-Spouse Metric for the next three chapters and instead just make a few more general observations about how healthy, positive sex is construed in The Act of Marriage, what major problems the LaHayes encountered in their marital counseling, and what solutions they suggest for those problems.

Overall, we continue to have a number of ... I'll call them tensions in the text between the desire to understand sexual intimacy as normal and God-given, with a number of possible paths to sexual fulfillment, and as a site for self-improvement. A sort of moral and physical proving-ground. So The Act yo-yos back and forth between encouragement (e.g. pointing out that the majority of women labeled "frigid" will respond sexually in situations where they aren't pressured to perform in certain ways) and a fairly narrow definition of what "the act of marriage" entails (e.g. penis-in-vagina intercourse following adequate foreplay). Trying to reconcile these two goals isn't always an easy task, and sometimes leads to baffling or conflicting advice.

Most notably, as I believe I've already pointed out, in the recognition that clitoral stimulation is necessary in most cases for women to experience orgasm while simultaneously holding up mutual orgasm during penetration as the sexual ideal for married couples. This, in turn, leads to a lot of paper and ink and effort spent on instructing couples how to practice just enough "foreplay" to push the woman toward orgasm while delaying male ejaculation so that (God forbid!!) he doesn't come before penetration and/or before his partner. Because "lovemaking is impossible without an erect penis" (128).

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. Let's examine the main sexual woes of women and men in turn, and the solutions presented for each.

"The tragic tale of female sexual frustration winds its way through almost every tribe and people leaving literally billions of married women sexually unfulfilled" (103).

"It is safe to say that, except for Christians, the majority of women do not regularly enjoy orgasm in the act of marriage" (106).

The main sexual woe of women, according to the LaHayes, is Not Enough Orgasms. While "More Orgasms!" is a public health campaign I could totally get behind, the LaHayes give their own particular spin to the struggle of "unfulfilled" women in a couple of ways. The first, as the above quote suggests, is to try and argue that being a Christian will lead you to a better sex life. It's unclear, as yet, why this is the case since they also illustrate this chapter with many examples drawn from pastoral counseling in which peoples' beliefs about sexuality and Christianity are part of the problem, not the solution. But argue it they do: anorgasmia among women is at epidemic proportions, and the cure is a combination of religious faith, sexual education, and ...  the all-mighty kegel.**

So, okay. Points for saying women can, and should expect to, enjoy wanted sexual intimacy. That's the "yay for sex-positivity!" part. But then we get into the "ur doin' it wrong" part of the section, in which women's inability to come is largely attributed to her own moral, emotional, and physical failures. Yes, men are encouraged to slow down love-making and be attentive to their wives' bodies (as well as to delay ejaculation; I'll be getting back to this shortly) ... but the majority of the burden falls on the wife. Which would be okay if the message was, "it's okay to learn, and ask for, what you want in bed!" This is not what the LaHayes have in mind. Instead, they chastise women who don't experience orgasm for experiencing negative emotions such as anger, resentment, guilt, and fear.

Reading "The Unfulfilled Woman" chapter, we learn that women who've experienced sexual abuse at the hands of their fathers should forgive the fathers (!!) in order to experience sexual satisfaction with their husbands. That women who are domineering ("choleric," anachronistically enough), who feel guilty about premarital sex, who are passive, who are overweight, who are tired -- all of these women may suffer from a lack of sexual fulfillment. And, basically, it's the woman's job to sort out her shit and get with the program.

While the kernel of truth in all of this is that each of us, individually, is responsible for exploring and communicating what we want sexually, the tone taken in The Act of Marriage is, well, preachy. And incredibly, incredibly callous toward people who have experienced sexual trauma. And in general absolve the husband of any responsibility to address relational issues (outside of the whole length of sexytimes/ejaculation thing) that might be contributing to sexual unhappiness -- like, for example, a mother of young children who's shouldering an unequal share of the parenting responsibilities, and is thus too worn out and/or alienated from her spouse to find much pleasure in sexual intimacy with same.

"After his fortieth birthday a man's most important sex organ is his brain" (155).

"A rigid penis is absolutely essential for satisfactory consummation of the act of marriage" (157).

While the tragic dearth of lady-gasms can be cured with a combination of better sexual skill, physical self-improvement, and a judicious injection of Christian forgiveness-of-male-sins (and penitence for female ones),  the main struggle for married dudes is ejaculation: "premature," "delayed," or none at all. Like wives, husbands are counseled with a not-altogether-logical mix of "no matter how your body functions, you can still enjoy sex," and "BUT YOU SHOULD REALLY BE FUNCTIONING IN THIS ONE SPECIFIC WAY." While the LaHayes do emphasize that the majority of "impotence" issues stem from anxiety of one sort of another, rather than physical difficulties, they put men in a double-bind by basically increasing rather than decreasing, the cause for concern. To wit, in the section on the types of fear that contribute factor to impotence, they write:
(d) The fear that he will lose his erection. To a large degree, satisfying lovemaking is dependent on the husband's ability to maintain an erection. A limp penis is unsatisfactory to both partners and humiliating to the husband (161). 
So basically, rather than offering reassurance that a "limp penis" can still experience pleasure and that partners can find alternate ways to engage in sexual intimacy, they just end up reinforcing the man's fear that his ability to perform on cue is the linchpin of the entire experience.

Mirroring their advice in chapters seven and eight, the LaHayes concentrate narrowly on men's sexual skills and knowledge vis a vis their wives when it comes to maintaining a sexually-satisfying marriage (e.g. remember to stimulate the clit! don't penetrate too quickly! ohmygod don't come before she does!!***) while it falls to women to maintain the broader emotional-relational health of the marriage. In the chapter on male impotence, for example, women are admonished not to be "nags" or be "passive," and not to have a "sagging vagina" (get on those kegels!).

Once again, I'm left with the impression that while both partners in the marriage bear responsibility for successful marital relations, the work of women is much more nebulous and therefore potentially vast in scope -- while the work of men is physical and weirdly self-absent. Where, in this landscape of orgasm/ejaculation delay and carefully-scripted lovemaking is there time for guys to just be with their partners and enjoy -- without the anxiety or performance -- sensual contact?

Stop back in on Friday to check out what the LaHayes have to say about family planning (I think it might surprise you)!

*For example, their claim that "until around the turn of the century, millions of women each year were cheated out of the exciting sexual climax that most men enjoy regularly" is wince-ably inaccurate. While women prior to 1900 navigated a cultural landscape that treated women's sexual arousal as a disease to be cured, I'm pretty sure lots of them got off in creative and satisfying ways. Likewise, it's not like twentieth-century gals had it easy in the "take my sexual desires seriously" department. If we had, terms like "sex-positive feminism" wouldn't be tossed around with quite such frequency.

**Yep, you heard me right. The reason women's sexual dysfunction takes two chapters and men's only one is that women get a whole chapter on the wonders of the kegel. While I'm all behind exercising pelvic floor muscles, I'm not sure kegels have quite the transformative properties The Act of Marriage seems to ascribe them. They end up sounding like you'll be able to jet around like the elderly kegel-practicing ninja lady from American Dad's Live and Let Fry.

***And what ever you do, DO NOT MASTURBATE. While it may not kill you or make you grow hair on your palms, it's clearly contra-indicated from a Godly perspective and will probably destroy your marriage.


  1. I don't know if you're getting much feedback on this series but I'm really enjoying it, if despairing at times - more often having a giggle.

    You've inspired me to look again at the ancient sex manual I found at the back of a cupboard in my parents house - if I can stop thinking about the fact that my parents might have read it (no, they couldn't have? I'm sure my parents have never had sex, no not ever, not even once!)

  2. @The Goldfish Thanks! I've had a few comments from readers, all along the same lines as yours :) ... It's been fun to write, so I'm pleased it's finding an audience!