"Real Marriage" review: 107-122, "Sex: God, Gross, or Gift?"

This chapter seems to be Mark and Grace’s attempt at establishing a historical context for arguments they’ll make later; it’s basically nothing more than an extremely truncated and condensed version of how sex has been viewed in Ancient Near Eastern (“biblical”) and Christian cultures. The unfortunate thing is that their history lesson is … well, I think it’s deceptive. Mark seems principally in control of this chapter, and he makes a lot of unsubstantiated claims, or he makes claims based on debunked arguments, or he omits relevant information because it would destroy his argument.

Perhaps most of this is due to inept research and ignorance, but … I don’t think so.

Ideologically, the biggest problem I have with this chapter is that Mark is demonstrating a concerning lack of empathy.

He dismisses whole groups of people who approach human relationships more analytically. I’m a hopeless romantic in pretty much every way that term applies, but I’ve had many friends who interact with their significant others primarily on a rational level, and who aren’t overly given to emotional displays, who don’t have the “sense of poetry and passion” which Mark says is “required” for people to “be any good at [marriage]” (108).

He talks a lot about people who view “sex as gross” for a variety of reasons (including referencing sexual abuse as a possibility multiple times), and then he says stuff like “Are either of you prone to view sex as god [meaning idolatry] or gross? If so, you are in danger” (121). He repeats this sentiment all the way through this chapter– if you don’t have sex frequently enough, or “freely” enough (I’m guessing his definition of “freely” is where some of the controversy around this book comes from), your marriage is in terrible danger to all sorts of outside threats– adultery, pornography … the usual boogie men of conservative screeds on marital “responsibilities.”

In short, the message seems to be: “have sex as often as I think is ‘often’ and as uninhibited as I think counts as ‘freely enough,’ or one of you is going to cheat or end up addicted to porn. I don’t really care if you’re an abuse victim. You need to get over it in order to protect your marriage” (120).


I’m going to take the time to examine where I think Mark has either omitted or misrepresented key facts as I think this re-envisioning of history is going to play a part in arguments he makes later. I can’t address every single claim he makes without support or with misleading support, though, because there were just too many. I’ll keep it to what I think were the biggies.

Claim 1: Porneia means “sexual immorality” and encompasses all sorts of sexual sins. It is a “junk drawer term.” (109)

According to pretty much every concordance American protestants use, Mark’s not wrong. However, he doesn’t even address the full meaning of the term– porneia can also mean “the worship of idols, especially animal sacrifice,” and its principal historical meaning is prostitution. This linguistic history is even evidenced in the Bible; many times when the word porneia appears, the surrounding context references prostitution or idol worship either singularly or principally (Acts 15 and 21, I Corinthians 6 and 10, Ephesians 5 …). Considering that prostitution as usually practiced in the ancient world is much more like sex trafficking than it is modern consensual prostitution, it seems obvious why biblical writers might have had a problem with it.

However, if Mark admits to this linguistic history in porneia, he might have to start talking about concepts like consent, and he doesn’t want to go anywhere near that because he needs to maintain the belief that sex acts are right or wrong because God Said So and not because there’s any holistic ethic surrounding sex.

Claim (by omission) 2: Sexual incompatibility does not exist. (110)

He describes a husband who wanted certain “sexual experiences” that his wife was not interested in because it “violated her conscience.” This husband cheated, a choice he rationalized because the other woman was willing to engage in those activities. I have absolute zero judgment for the wife in this situation: if she wasn’t interested in certain sex acts, that is her decision and her husband should have respected that.

I believe that many couples through communication and research and love and trust can overcome some issues surrounding sexual incompatibilities– two people who got married not really understanding what they wanted out of sex (so, pretty much every Christian person who “saved themselves”) will probably encounter some unexpected hiccups, and that’s ok. A lot of those can be worked through with graciousness and understanding.

Some of them can’t.

I’ve known women who cannot have PIV sex with their husbands because his penis is just too big and no matter how slowly they go or how aroused she is intercourse is excruciating for them. I’ve known women who needed certain stimulation (anything from oral to kink) to orgasm and even after trying to work it out for over a decade their husbands were totally unwilling to provide it, preferring to think of their wives as crazy, broken, deranged, or sick. Some of these couples have remained married and chose to focus on building strong lives together based on friendship, some have given up on vaginal intercourse, and some have gotten divorced. They all chose the best path for their lives, but it’s sad that sexual incompatibility played a part.

In Mark’s wold, though, concerns like this don’t seem to exist.

Claim 3: Adultery is wrong because God Said So. (111).

Adultery is wrong because it is a violation of consent. When people marry with the understanding that they will remain romantically and sexually exclusive, violating that expectation without the consent or their partner is wrong. It is a breach of trust, a betrayal.

However, if Mark were to say that instead “adultery happens because of idolatry,” he’d have to address things like polyamory more honestly instead of just dismissing it in a gigantic list of evil things (109).

Claim 4: Porn addiction is real. (113)

No research exists to support this claim. Researchers have noticed that some people experience problems with “excessive use,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the vast majority of people who watch pornography. I have issues with some porn– namely, the kind that features rape, non-consensual pain, degradation, and humiliation. That many women in the porn industry face contract and verbal agreement violations near constantly is also a problem. However, Mark doesn’t talk about that at all– and I’m wondering if it’s because of where he’s going to go with the “freely” definition.

Claim 5: Church Fathers got their “sex is gross” idea from Plato. (115-16)

Well, yes. Also, they got it from the Bible: I Corinthians 7:8. Pro-tip, Mark: if it’s in the Bible, you shouldn’t ignore it.

Through these pages he also grossly misrepresents modern Catholic teachings about marital intimacy. I have my own problems with Catholic teachings about contraception, but you can’t assert that the Catholic ethic surrounding intimacy is completely and totally wrong without explaining what it actually is. Straw men do no good, and that’s all he builds up.

He also pissed me off when he said that the clerical practice of celibacy “has, at least in part, resulted in a global scandal.” This is why I believe that feminists think better of men than anti-feminists do: I believe that men can be celibate without resorting to rape or pedophilia.

There were a lot of other claims– about Hinduism, about the temple prostitution at Corinth, about connections between the sexual revolution and porn … all of which were made with absolutely no support whatsoever. He just said them like we were supposed to believe him, but he was almost always just baldly wrong.

That should be concerning, because a man who can’t be trusted to get that many basic facts straight shouldn’t be trusted with your sex life.

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  • “lake of empathy” – lol now I have quite the visual image in my mind.

    I’m not Christian, not married and intend to likely never get married, etc, but I still always enjoy these reviews you write. I’ve been following along for every chapter. Keep up the great work.

    • HAHA OOPS.

      I’m a teensy tiny little bit hungover. That’s hysterical.

      • Mark could use a lake of empathy…(or a teaspoonfull would be an improvement, really…).

        I hope you had fun at the party.

  • This really reminds me of that blog you reviewed awhile back. How prevalent is this idea that turning down one’s spouse for sex is more or less sinning, and the responsibility for getting over hang-ups with sex is purely on the person who has the hang-up? The writer of the blog told me that if I’m not comfortable with a sex act because of past abuse, it’s my responsibility to go get therapy so I don’t neglect my husband’s penis. There’s a husband who posted talking about how his wife has a vaginal growth that makes sex painful, and they’ve told him that it’s her responsibility to go to the doctor and get cured so she can engage in sex with her husband.

    This just seems so out there to me. Obviously, sexual compatibility is important, so if I’m always turning down my husband’s requests for sex, it’s eventually going to interfere with the quality of our relationship. That being said, before you posted a review of that blog and of the Driscolls’ book, I’d NEVER heard that turning down sex or sex acts is how adultery happens or that it’s more or less sinning. Then again, I got out of fundamentalism before I was married and really before I was like 20, so I might just not have had a chance to encounter that thought. Is this something that’s widespread in the fundamentalist church?

    • Short answer: yes.

      • That’s… disappointing. Not surprising.

  • They all chose the best path for their lives, but it’s sad that sexual incompatibility played a part.

    In addition to the things you said here, some people are just asexual. If someone with a high (or even low but existent!) sex drive marries someone who’s never going to want to have sex, it’s likely to be disastrous for both of them–in a way that’s completely avoidable if they started out understanding that things like “sexual incompatibility” and “asexual” exist.

  • There may not be researched evidence for it, but I do believe porn addiction is real. Of course, my dad is a recovering sex addict, so…yeah. Then again, I don’t think it’s something that everyone falls prey to. Addiction is a disease of the mind; the organic and/or emotional underpinnings are usually present beforehand.

    • I’m inclined to agree. It’s all about conditioning. If a person is used to watching the same sort of porn again and again, than he/she could get so accustomed to what he/she sees in said porn that anything else done with his/her partner that is not his/her porn-created preference may no longer be arousing. It’s about preferences being modified through repeated exposure to something. Of course, I’m an accounting student, not a psychologist, so I am not incredibly well qualified to talk about this subject, but I’ve read too many instances of porn wrecking havoc on relationships to believe that addiction (Although I’m not sure that is the proper term.) to it can’t happen.

    • The research that does exist indicates that possibly 10% of porn viewers have a problem with “excessive use,” in that it interferes with their ability to live their life, such as keeping a job in really extreme examples.

      There’s also research that indicates some other people may become desensitized to the effects, so they need to escalate (the “hardcorinization effect”) but that research is somewhat iffy.

      There’s plenty of sociological research that stays that porn use among men, especially depending on the type of porn being viewed, can be deleterious on their relationships and sex life.

      However, none of those things are addiction. There’s plenty of conversations to be had on whether or not porn is a good thing, or a neutral thing, or an actively harmful thing, but addiction is pretty specific and as far as any researcher can tell doesn’t happen with porn. Addictive substances are addictive no matter who is consuming them, and the fact that plenty of people can watch porn without having the “excessive use” problem, whatever that is, answers “is porn addiction real?” with a pretty conclusive “no” in my book.

      Can porn cause problems in people’s lives? Sure. Doesn’t make it an addiction.

      I care enough to quibble about this because evangelical culture tries to “medicalize” ethical questions. There’s an ethical question about something? NO THERE ISN’T YOU’RE JUST SICK AND YOU NEED HELP. This is why “reparative therapy” has been a thing. This is why women were treated for “hysteria.”

      Words mean things.

      • Okay. I understand and agree.

      • So, in your view, there’s no such thing as food addiction or sex addiction either, because food and sex aren’t themselves inherently addictive subtances/behaviors? Does that view extend to things like hoarding and obsessive hand washing? I care enough to quibble about this because there’s another, equally destructive side of evangelical culture that says YOU’RE NOT SICK, YOU JUST NEED TO PRAY HARDER AND HAVE SELF-CONTROL. I can’t tell you how many years my family paid for that one (and is still paying now). Your point is legitimate, but I think it ignores a lot.

        • I think there’s many ways for people to have unhealthy patterns, or who struggle with impulse control or a variety of other ailments that are completely legitimate and should be treated for what they are.

          And yes, denying mental illness is a gigantic huge problem. Chalking up unhealthy relationships with food or sex to “you need more self control” can be so incredibly damaging, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t work on changing that.

          I just don’t think it’s ok to change what words mean. Addiction is one thing, compulsive behavior is another.

          • aquilamaris

            If it isn’t too derailing, I’d appreciate some elaboration on the difference you see between addiction (as it applies to behaviors) and compulsive behaviors, because I am not understanding what you mean, and it seems important to this conversation.

      • Divizna

        Addictive substances are addictive no matter who is consuming them, and the fact that plenty of people can drink alcohol without having the “excessive use” problem…
        Would you also claim that alcoholism isn’t an addiction? If not, what makes the difference?
        (And, by the way, personal disposition to form a substance addiction is a factor. Some people get addicted easily, others are not very prone to it. A friend of mine wasn’t able to quit smoking no matter how she tried after just a few months. I simply realised I didn’t really like it. Some older relatives even suddenly decided to quit after decades of heavy smoking, and just did it. So I guess it’s a matter of genetic luck.)

        • There are physical dispositions at play, of course. Not everyone who tastes alcohol will become an alcoholic, but alcohol as a substance will cause dependency at some point, which changes from person to person. Every person has a limit of alcohol consumption that if they were to suddenly stop drinking they’d experience withdrawal.
          Same thing goes for coffee.

          There will always be personal factors to consider. Porn, alcohol, coffee, sex, cigarettes, you name it, can all be “habits” that depending on the individual can become problems. That’s really a seperate conversation.

          Addiction is a combination of physical dependence, tolerance, escalation, possibility for withdrawal, mental state, AND behavior. Compulsive behaviors on their own can be a significant problem, but it doesn’t equal addiction.

          • Tim

            I think this entire discussion is pretty interesting. I think the fact that Driscoll doesn’t address the reality of possible sexual incompatibility is probably the most problematic part of this chapter, followed by the lack of any rigor in his historical overview (it’s a pet peeve for me, maybe not for everyone. But when I grew up as an evangelical a whole lot of the culture of inter-denominational squabbling was fueled by ignorant caricatures of historical events.)

            But on the definition of “addiction” and whether compulsive porn viewing fits, I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that the word is commonly used in more than one way. And the fact that porn doesn’t fit the narrow medical definition because of, for example, the apparent lack of physical dependence and withdrawal, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fit some broader definitions of addiction because of its similarity to other patterns of behavior also labeled addictions. For example:


            From which I quote: “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” “This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

            Compulsive porn viewing in some individuals can fit this definition of addiction, be a significant problem, and be something that responds to treatment similar to a chemical addiction.

          • “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” ”

            This. EXACTLY this. This is what most people mean when they talk about porn addiction. To be sure it’s not a chemical dependency, but when you want to stop watching it, when you feel ashamed, when you make promises to yourself, your spouse, and to God that you will stop and yet you keep coming back to it, when the craving comes and it’s late and you just go for it and then afterwards wonder why you did it….that is a thing. It’s a very, very real thing. It may not be an addiction, but it is a problem, a serious problem. People should have control over their pleasures: if someone finds that no matter how sincerely they want to stop doing something they just can’t get away from it for any significant period of time, then they have a problem. Maybe it’s not medically an addiction, but that doesn’t make the problem go away.

  • Could you elaborate a bit on your own views on sexuality, Samantha? I haven’t ever seen a post of yours that really clearly explained your own views on sexual morality.

    • That’s a really big question. Can you be more specific?

      • I suppose what you think is “okay” or not. Perhaps you could describe the contrast between your current sexual ethic and that of the A Beka environment from whence you (And me.) have come. For example, what you think of premarital sex versus what the white evangelical fundamentalist subculture thinks. I dunno. It’s your blog. 😀

        • One of the biggest reasons why I haven’t gone into this in-depth in a post is that I haven’t fully made up my mind. At the moment, I’m leaning toward an understanding of certain biblical passages in the context of asking the question “if these passages truly are condemning all pre-marital sex, why? Is it because there’s something intrinsically wrong with all pre-marital sex no matter what, or could there be another reason? Could biblical authors, writing in their culture, have been aware of something else– such as the fact that losing “virginity” could literally ruin a young woman and leave her destitute in that time and place?”

          I don’t have an answer to that question yet, but I think it’s an important one.

          • Newbie

            One thing that always occurred to me is that those passages were written at a time when there wasn’t much available in terms of reliable contraceptives, so an instruction to have sex only with one’s spouse was a way of assuring that any resulting children would be raised and supported by both parents. It’s not something I have studied in depth, I was raised Catholic-on-paper and not uber religious now, but it’s a point that was sometimes raised when talking among friends

          • We had an interesting discussion on it over on iMonk today. Go check it out. Lots of interesting stuff.

  • *deep sigh* I wish I’d known more about my own sexuality growing up. I wish that I’d known that “alternate sexualities” were real, and legitimate, and not just accusations thrown by cruel people trying to be cruel. I wish I hadn’t had sexual ignorance held up as some ideal for life. Maybe I’d be happier now. I don’t know.

    Sam, you have my absolute respect for wading through the soul-sucking muck that is this book. Thank you.

  • You’ve said so many good things here, Samantha. When I got married to my preacher ex, we both thought that all a marriage needed to succeed was that both people had been put together by our god. Of course, we assumed we had been told this thing. Sexual incompatibility was a huge problem for us–and for many couples we knew. We thought if we just prayed enough or tried enough, any problem we had could be fixed. But the dogma we got taught fell apart in the face of cold, hard reality. Thank you for highlighting this shortcoming in teaching.

    Driscoll really was just preaching to the choir here. His audience already thinks this way, so he doesn’t need to support his claims or cite actual real facts to back up his assertions. I used to think that way myself–every one of the claims you outline here is stuff I got taught as a young Pentecostal.

  • Thanks for taking the time to unpack this; there are some good points here.

    I wonder whether what we see here is the tension between what we might call a ‘purity-oriented ethic’ and a ‘person-oriented ethic’. In the former, an action would be good or bad based on whether it aligned with a certain purity code. In the latter, an action would have to be understood in terms of its impact on real, concrete people.

  • On the debate concerning porn and sex addiction, does it fit the chemical dependence pattern? Yes, a natural hormone is in play, just like gambling is an adrenaline addiction, sex and porn can become a dopamine dependency. Dopamine is the natural painkiller that opium and it’s derivatives mimic and is released during sex even non-orgasmic sex. The withdrawal of heroin addiction is caused by the brain stopping the manufacture of the hormone and the symptoms are caused during the lag of getting the external drugs and the brain starting to release it again. It is possible for men who in greater numbers orgasm the most during sex having withdrawal symptoms should the wife stop wanting sex less often, but it’s highly unlikely as it may be more a dependency thing than actual withdrawal.
    Porn issue, if there are sexual incompatibility issues in a marriage and the couple decide to stay married pornography would be preferable as a sexual release than infidelity or prostitutes. If one partner for whatever reason can’t or won’t have sex surely the one with the sex drive should be able to find sexual release.
    Premarital sex from a Christian perspective: I grew up fundie and it wasn’t as crazy as it is today, but I dated girls whose parents insisted on a chaperone or only double dates with no alone time for too much intimacy, and this was in the 60’s with free love and women burning underwear. Charles Shedd’s book: The Stork is Dead had the best advice, he even spoke at chapel services at my Baptist college forty miles from the nearest known sin. One chapter was entitled: If you’re going to do wrong, do it right. Yes he advocated birth control. I still remember his line that it’s better for a boy to come home hot and bothered than satisfied and worried. Another chapter was: Masturbation a gift from God. I wonder why that book is out of print when his other two books Letters to Karen and Letters to Phillip are still available.

  • Trigger warning: child abuse, rape, child rape, general jaw-dropping vileness

    I stand by my assertion that Romans affected Christian sexual mores to greater degree than the other way around: http://expreacherskid.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/the-role-of-women-in-christianity-and-rome/

    So, Mr. Driscoll, from Lloyd deMause’s chapter in History of Childhood:

    The favorite sexual use of children, however, was not fellatio, but anal intercourse. Martial said one should, while buggering a boy, “refrain from stirring the groin with poking hand…Nature has separated the male: one part has been produced for girls, one for men. Use your own part.” This, he said, was because the masturbating of boys would “hasten manhood,” an observation Aristotle made some time before him. Whenever a pre-pubertal boy was shown being used sexually on erotic vases, the penis was never shown erect.

    Richard Lyman, Jr., from his chapter in the same book, cites Jerome from 384:

    “…a child born from marriage is virgin flesh…I praise matrimony. But only because it produces virgins.”

    So Driscoll is going to maintain that 300+ years after the founding of the Church “sex is gross” still derives from Plato? No one in three centuries had an original thought about sex being gross? He’s effectively admitting that Greek and Roman thought influenced the Church more than Jesus or other early Church leaders, making it less of a ‘revolutionary’ movement and just an evolutionary step in human history.

    • Ack – hit ‘post’ without making a point. Basically, the point being that child rape was a problem with Romans and Greeks waaaaaaay before this priest/celibacy thing came along.

    • I feel like I’m spamming my own comment, but here’s another tidbit from The History of Childhood that Driscoll might find interesting:

      Even the Jews, who tried to stamp out adult homosexuality with severe punishments, were more lenient in the case of young boys. Despite Moses’s injunction against corrupting children, the penalty for sodomy with children over 9 years of age was death by stoning, but copulation with younger children was not considered a sexual act, and was punishable only by whipping, “as a matter of public discipline.”

      • Crystal

        What you’ve shared is VILE. I know you don’t agree with it, but YUCK!

        YUCKITY YUCKS!!!!

        Personally I do think porn can be addictive, so I slightly disagree with Samantha there, but she might be right on this issue, so I’m keeping an open mind on the definition of addiction.

  • a wife

    I’m a 56 year-old female and have been married to a man for 32 years. You can say that porn doesn’t fit your definition of addiction, but you can’t say that it’s not a problem. Porn can really mess up a good relationship. My husband and I read several marriage help books, both Christian and non-Christian. One book suggested using porn together to “spice up” the relationship. Instead it caused a rift.
    We tried looking at pictures and videos together. Nothing too strong. At first it was fun, but it got old. He would reach past me to look at the next picture, like I wasn’t even there. He stared comparing. He used it as an excuse to not spend time with me and our young kids. He would lock the door to the computer room, so the kids wouldn’t walk in on him. which meant he was unavailable. His personality would change. I could tell when he had been looking at pictures by the way he acted when he came to bed. He was normally considerate and good about wanting to please me. But when he had been looking at pictures, he was more demanding, and acted entitled.
    It’s been a struggle for me to learn to express my needs, which are more emotional than physical. Porn did nothing to improve that. I don’t get very excited about the idea of having sex, but it turns out that when I get my emotional needs met, I can be fun and quite playful. It turns out that spending time with me and the kids is a real turn on for me. Doing the dishes with me in a fun way (instead of criticizing me for not doing it) can lead to a lot more fun afterwards.
    Porn may not fit a definition of an addiction, but it can be a compulsion or an obsession, and it can be destructive.
    My personal favorite authors for marriage advice are Charlie Shedd and Kevin Leman. They both give good practical advice about how men and women can be caring and considerate of each other.

    • Crystal

      You’re saying, “Don’t touch the porn.” I totally agree with you. I hate porn.

    • a wife

      The effects of using porn can be overcome, but for us it took several years.

    • I hope it’s clear that I never argued that porn is never a problem. It can be a problem, absolutely.