Whenever the concept of marital duties is brought up, it’s inevitable that the red herring of rape or “forced sex” is thrown out in response. In other words, if you contend that spouses have a responsibility to provide each other with sex, you’re inevitably accused of providing license to take sex by force.
It’s also a straw-man, of course. If a neighbor borrows your hammer and doesn’t give it back, his responsibility to return it doesn’t become your authority to beat it out of him. I’ve yet to see any contemporary Christian claim otherwise when it comes to sex in marriage.
However, I sometimes get the impression that the straw-man isn’t actually deliberate. Rather, I suspect that Americans have grown so mentally and spiritually shallow that many can’t even see any third alternative between feeling like doing something and being forced to do something. In other words, when they hear the equivalent of “Hey man, that’s my hammer and I need it back” or “you ought to return the things you borrow” they end up categorizing it as coercion simply because they wouldn’t be giving it back on a whim.
There are many reasons for this false dichotomy’s hold on our minds: Popular but rancid philosophies like utilitarianism, the dehumanization of consent inherent in our responses to so-called “rape culture,” and the idolization of romance have all played their roles. All of these pathogens have inhibited our ability to mature beyond the childish idea that when the world demands something that we don’t feel like giving, it is somehow being unfair. Instead of embracing those demands and learning to see more of what life has to offer, we remain imprisoned in our own myopia.
This development has not spared our understanding of married life. As a result, when some Christians hear God’s command to be sexually available to your spouse, they’re simply unable to perceive anything except an invitation to rape. Nevertheless, a vast, colorful, and wonderful world exists in the expanse between whim and force. Most of married like takes place there, surrounded by better reasons to care for each other than mere whim. And far from being an imposition, the most profound blessings are only available to us there. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
Wait, how can you be happy doing something you don’t feel like doing? Isn’t happiness just a matter of doing what you feel like? A thousand times: NO. That’s utilitarianism at work again, but even pagans living in antiquity knew that the most important kinds of happiness require effort and discipline.
If you look at many of the fixtures of modern life, you’ll find an astounding amount of superficially entertaining pleasures that divert us away from that effort and discipline. Consider how much time you’ve wasted by mindlessly channel surging, playing mobile games, browsing social media, and so forth simply because you felt like it. Has any of it actually made you happier?
We feel like doing such things because of the way they manipulate dopamine, and once we’re doing them, we never actually feel like stopping. When we’re zoning out watching some inane video, we don’t feel like getting up and engaging in more rewarding pleasures like reading a good book, taking a walk on a nice day, engaging in a favorite hobby, or what-have-you. But if somebody metaphorically drags us off the couch or we work up enough gumption to get ourselves up because we know we should, it only takes about 5 minutes or so before we become much happier than we were zoning out.
There are times when the same dynamic applies to sex. You may not initially feel like it, but it’s nevertheless more rewarding than wasting time on the mindless entertainment that pervades so much of our lives. And yes, sometimes you need to work up the gumption to do it, and sometimes someone has to metaphorically drag you off of (or onto) the couch. But not only do you usually feel happier 5 minutes in, your effort is also rewarded with closeness to your spouse and the simple satisfaction of giving generously. But beyond the moment, it’s also a long-term investment in joy because its an investment in your husband’s or wife’s happiness and well-being.
While the fool will look at his responsibilities as chains which hold him back from doing what he truly wants, the wise man will see his responsibilities as proof that things in his life have value after all. Take, for example, those hard days when sending your kids off to be raised by wolves can seem like a tempting option. Even so, you take care of them anyway–every time. And ultimately, you don’t do it because you’re being forced to, but because your kids are awesome, you love them, and you know wolves won’t do a job worthy of them. Buckling down and doing what needs to be done may not be pleasurable, but its nevertheless *good* because you know that the objects of your responsibility are more important than your whims.
We spend most of our childhood learning that, and coercion does play a role early on. A two-year-old needs to be told that he won’t get a cookie unless he finishes his dinner. But as an adult, we eat healthily for the sake of health itself, not because mom and dad won’t give us dessert otherwise. In other words, as we matured, we became responsible. We’ve learned about what’s valuable in life, developed the ability to prioritize such things over momentary impulses, and became empowered to carry out those priorities.
Well, we have responsibilities to our spouses as well, and sex is one of those. You have made yourself the only person they will ever be physically intimate with for the rest of their lives. How cruel would it be to steal yourself away from them? So you don’t rob them–not because you have no choice, but because you recognize that your spouse is actually valuable. He or she is more important than your whims.
Now, when responsibility is the only thing keeping you going for years on end, that is an indication that something else is wrong–we’ll get to that a little later on. But you don’t get to just shirk the responsibility until you get your lack of desire sorted out. By way of analogy, a husband might find his employment tedious and unfulfilling. That’s a problem a couple can solve together; but that doesn’t mean the husband can just quit his job and let his family starve until work spontaneously becomes fun to him. He knows his family is too valuable for that. The same holds true when a wife or husband feels that way about sex.
Sometimes we do things we don’t feel like doing simply because it’s practical to do so–because it will get us something else we want. It’s not necessarily a matter of responsibility or even happiness per se, but merely deferred gratification. We do our homework right away so we can enjoy the weekend. We plant an apple tree so that we can get apples in a few years. We take an undesirable action now because we know it will be worth it to us in the end.
This is no less applicable to sex in marriage than it is to anything else. No matter how it’s portrayed in media, sex is not some discrete act of entertainment disconnected from the rest of your life. It is an indelible part of a permanent relationship with your spouse. In other words, sex has consequences. We always seem to talk about that in terms of unplanned pregnancies and STD’s for the unmarried, but seldom reiterate the positive consequences for the married.
Children, of course, are one of those. And while having them falls under the categories of both happiness and responsibility, it’s a matter of practicality as well. If you want children, you’ll need to have sex relatively frequently–including times when you may not have done it on a whim. But you do it because it’s worth it to you.
But beyond that obvious practicality, it’s also an investment in your relationship with your spouse. In nearly every case, husbands will take better care of their wives when their wives take better care of them. The Proverbs 31 woman is frequently discussed, but we need to remember the Proverbs 21 woman as well: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” This is not just a warning to men about what kind of woman they marry. It’s a warning to women about what kind of relationship they’re cultivating with their husband. If you’re always bickering about things–including his frequent desire for sex, then you’re simply driving him away from you. Is that really in your best interests? Do you want to spend time with your husband? Do you actually want positive attention from him? Do you want him to work hard in your home? If so, then being sexually available helps to accomplish that. Withholding yourself does exactly the opposite. “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” is a cliché precisely because we need to hear it so often.
The fact that sex is exclusive to marriage is a clue to how central it is to the entire enterprise. It’s not just a matter of making sure children are cared for. Every consequence of sex–from higher concepts like intimacy & romance to mundane details like releasing hormones that facilitate closeness–serves the fulfillment of the relationship between husband and wife. From beginning to end, regular sex is remarkably practical for any marriage. Accordingly, it’s usually in your best interest even if it’s not your current whim.
This is the best reason for the Christian–though even the wise pagans were able to catch a glimpse of it. There are many goods in life, but God is the greatest Good of all. If we call anything else good, it is only because it reflects His Goodness in some way.
Some people can only see threats and coercion when God commands us. “If I don’t do what He says, then He’ll send me to Hell!” Some even see coercion when God blesses us–as though He’s merely choosing to use the carrot rather than the stick in such cases. But God’s instructions are not the quid pro quo of “God will do good things to me if I do what He says and bad things to me if I don’t do what He says.” They’re the reality that God is, Himself, Goodness in person. When we say God is good, we don’t mean that he meets with our approval. We mean that there is nothing greater or better than God. He Himself is the ultimate goodness.
Accordingly, following His Word is the best thing we can possibly do no matter the consequences. Oftentimes we do not feel like it. Sometimes we do not want to. Other times, there is a terrible price to pay for following Him. But it is always worth it simply because nothing can be greater than gaining Him. As Jesus tells us:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Accordingly, many Christians will eagerly try to fulfill the commands that He gives to us simply because He loves us and we love Him. Our whims are as dust beside that. 1 Corinthians 7 is not an exception to this blessed reality. It is only the peculiar sins of our culture that make us think otherwise.
I could go on; the list need not stop at four entries. However, this should suffice to at least give us a peek into a world that’s far greater than our whims–even when it comes to sex. Taking action for such reasons doesn’t make our actions less meaningful, but more. It’s truly unfortunate that the extreme solipsism of many contemporary women makes it all but impossible for them to catch a glimpse of such things. After all, happiness, responsibility, and the like depend on a world outside of ourselves that interacts with us on its own terms. But that world is not a curse; it’s a blessing.
That leaves us with one last item to consider. Surely, if a spouse never feels like having sex, there must be a reason for it, right? Shouldn’t we be trying to address that reason rather than just ignoring it and insisting on sexual availability despite it? Absolutely. Thankfully, these two things are not usually mutually exclusive.
Short-term reasons for rejecting sex are almost always addressed. Reasons like “not tonight, my period’s starting” or “not tonight, I threw my back out” seldom amount to more than a passing frustration. Long-term issues, however, are trickier. The problem still needs to be addressed, but the pertinent question is whether sex must be put on indefinite hold until it’s resolved. There, it really depends on the problem.
In those rare cases like a medical issue involving severe pain or a psychological issue involving severe trauma, then the problem really does need to be addressed first. These kinds of things can make it literally impossible to fulfill one’s marital duties. Though, if that’s something a spouse only finds out about on the wedding night, annulment needs to be seen as a legitimate option. Not everyone is capable of being indefinitely celibate for the years or decades it may take to work through such issues. Having that option is especially important if a spouse refuses to even try to overcome their issue or fights against every offer of help–there’s no obligation to stoically hold to broken vows. And if you know you have this kind of issue beforehand, you need to give advance warning to your partner and not get married unless you’re both willing to work through the issue.
On the other hand, if the problem is something more mundane like waning attraction, infrequent orgasms, being too busy, being too lazy, feeling uncomfortable, and so forth, then sex should absolutely not wait indefinitely on a resolution. These kinds of issues should be addressed, but they cannot be solved without teamwork and loving-kindness. Nothing erodes teamwork faster than deciding to blow off your responsibilities. Nothing injures loving-kindness more than deciding you don’t care one whit about the other person’s needs. Withholding sex over things like this (whether by explicit refusal or by punishing requests for sex) is always either a short and painful road to estrangement or a long and painful road to estrangement.
The West’s childish myopia towards everything other than whim and coercion has caused incalculable harm–both within marriage and without. But Christians need not be slaves to that culture. We don’t have to conform ourselves to the modern Pharisees who insist that sex is wrong if we don’t feel like it. That’s a tradition of men, not a command of God. The Christian must instead consider not only 1 Corinthians 7, but also Hebrews 12:10-11:
[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Marriage does not exempt us from God’s discipline. On the contrary, it’s all the more important that husbands and wives submit themselves to it.