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marriage advice


"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.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: Understanding and Accepting Men

russian woman

One thing I will say for Helen’s writing: she is organized. The book is split into two primary halves based on Angelic and Human qualities, and each quality is broken down into parts in order to be explained efficiently. The Angelic quality “Understands Men” is introduced by chapter three, “Accept Him.”

This chapter does have some solidly good advice, which can be summed up in two words: “don’t nag.” I think most people would agree with that– in general, nobody likes a nag. This was one element of the chapter that I could basically agree with, although I completely disagree with where she goes with it. Don’t be a nag becomes, quite easily never talk to him about things that could create conflict, and, if it is absolutely necessary, be as insipid as possible.

that be great
This is a nag. Don’t be that guy.

Helen does make caveat-like statements all the way through this chapter; don’t be a doormat, don’t deceive yourself into thinking your marriage is perfect when it isn’t, don’t resign yourself to unhappiness. However, sometimes in the same sentence, she contradicts herself. So, while she does make these caveats, she completely overrules any help they might give through everything else she says.

Accepting him, to Helen, is based on a concept I’m the most familiar with as a joke: women marry men expecting they’ll change, men marry women hoping they won’t. Personally, I think this is a ridiculous stereotype that I’ve never seen played out. People have expectations, especially expectations for what their marriage will be like, but Helen completely dismisses this. Women don’t get to have expectations. They are not allowed preferences or wants; in order for a woman to be happy, she must have a husband who loves her, and in order to have a husband to love her, she must do everything she can to cater to him.

She gives a list of the things women try to change about their husbands (which could as easily be read as a list of things that men like to change about their wives) which includes things like spending habits, ignoring the children, and social behavior. The most interesting thing to note about this list is that none of the items she lists are insignificant. They are all things that I would discuss with my husband and have major concerns about if it wasn’t something we could come to an agreement or compromise.

If he would only change, you may say, your life would be better, happier. Review your husband’s faults to see if this is true. If he changed, would your life be more pleasant? Would your eliminate some problems, have more comforts . . . or other benefits?

These questions, Helen goes on to say, are the completely wrong questions. Because you’re the wife: your happiness and personal comfort don’t matter. Talking to him about anything you are concerned about could “create discord,” and “no matter how carefully you word it, he will likely respond with resistance.” And to that I say: what human being doesn’t occasionally respond to any kind of critique without resistance? I want to meet that person.

The discussion that follows this idea, though, is downright disturbing, because she starts using words like unhinged and violent, and she concludes with “isn’t love and harmony in marriage of greater value [than talking to him about your concerns]?” If your husband is doing something you’re uncomfortable with, like spending money unwisely, and you can’t even talk to him about it without him becoming “angry” and “unhinged,” that is a serious problem worth addressing.

Next, she uses one of her historical examples by referencing Leo and Sophia Tolstoy. Tolstoy is well-known for eventually giving up all his wealth and embracing voluntary poverty, even giving away the publishing rights to his books. Understandably, this caused some tension in their marriage; after all, Sophia had married a financially stable Russian noble, and expecting continued financial stability . . . well, at the time financial stability was the primary motivation for women to marry. The fact that her husband completely abandoned the responsibility to support his family for the sake of his ideals . . . if I’d been Sophia, I’d have been just as pissed. She’d supported him all through his literary career– she hand-copied War and Peace seven separate times. And then he pays her back by forcing her, a doctor’s daughter and a Countess, to live in abject poverty.

But that’s not what happened in Helen’s point of view. To her, Sophia tried to “change her husband.” She was selfish, she “longed for wealth and riches.” She claims that it would have been “noble” for her to have “accepted his way of life” to “let him have his freedom.”



When one of my best friends told me she knew someone I should meet, one of my first questions was is he employed? When she said he was an engineer, I was more than ecstatic. It’s not that I would never have considered someone who was unemployed, especially nowadays, but with my health conditions it is difficult for me to support myself. When it turned out that he was more than capable of providing for us, it was a huge comfort for me.

If he ever decided to leave engineering and pursue a dream, I would be supportive– because we would discuss it, and I would know exactly what the plan was. And it wouldn’t be to go live in poverty for no reason except that living in poverty is some sort of “ideal” that I didn’t agree with. Maybe we’ll end up in Nigeria with him being an emergency pilot and me working in a fistula hospital, I have no idea, but it would be a decision we would make together, and my concerns and desires would be just as important as his.

One of Helen’s main arguments through the book is that what women are “used to doing” just doesn’t work. Do it her way, and presto, your husband will love you and your marriage will be fantastic. However, this is what she describes as being normal behavior for women:

You might as well give up trying to improve your husband because it doesn’t work. Hints, carefully worded suggestions, or even pressures won’t change him . . . Sometimes women try to change men by force in the form of demands, ultimatums, or threats. Usually, however, they resort to pushy suggestions, criticism, disapproval, or nagging.


Notice how none of this is open communication. It’s not a wife engaging her husband in a conversation and treating him like a human being. It’s women playing coy, beating around the bush, and expecting passive-aggressive manipulation to work. In this case, I do agree with Helen; passive-aggressive behavior, while it can be effective in the short term, isn’t about building a productive, healthy relationship, but about control. However, she doesn’t go on to say “communicate your concerns,” but, in fact, the exact opposite. One of the more hilarious parts of this chapter is an explanation of how a man’s freedom to make his own decisions is crucially important– and why is this the case? Because God gave man free agency and autonomy, that it is one of the “most fundamental laws.” But do women get free agency? Hell no.

Interestingly, Helen does answer the question “should I ever try to change him?” with “yes.”

At first, I was shocked. Yes? You mean, women actually get some sort of say?

Not really, though, no.

She lists out a specific set of circumstances: when he is blind to a fault that is causing him damage. In this case, it is alright for his wife to point out that flaw to him– but not as a flaw she personally feels is there, but a flaw she supposedly thinks his authority or “the world” could see. “I think you’re just absolutely wonderful, sweetie, but don’t you think showing up two hours late for work everyday could make your boss think you’re lazy?” There’s no way this could come off as anything except disingenuous.

The second circumstance is when is abusive to his children, and she is perfectly clear that she does mean abuse, and not just harsh disciplinary methods. She says that a mother has a moral obligation to remove her children from an abusive situation for their safety, but then she turns right around and says:

Don’t judge him or condemn him for his actions. Be firm but kind, letting him that you are doing it for the protection of the children. Your firm but kind attitude, accentuated by your actions, may humble him and bring him to repentance.

What the.

 This is one of the reasons why I don’t trust Helen– because she has no concept of abuse, abusive patterns, or of the people who are abusers. People who abuse others in the way that Helen describes aren’t doing it because they just don’t know any better– they are abusing the people in their life because of a hugely overblown sense of entitlement, a consuming and absolute need to control, and the willingness to do anything to get what they want. If your husband is abusing your children, leave and never look back. Maybe one day he’ll get counseling and grow into a realization that what he did was evil, but it is NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO BRING THAT CHANGE. You need to get out. That’s it. Don’t focus or worry about anything else– getting away from an abuser is hard enough as it is.

She also applies the same advice to husbands who verbally abuse their wives:

Should you try to put a stop to his behavior? No, count this flaw as a human frailty. But, do respond to his mistreatment in the right way: don’t be a doormat. Don’t shrink back and act wounded, or retreat behind your shell. Instead, have some self-dignity. Stand up to him and he will love you more because of it. But take care you do it in the right way.

This . . . this passage is horrifying.

I survived an abusive relationship– it was emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually abusive, in that order. Verbal abuse is supremely dangerous because people who use verbal abuse are good at using their words as weapons to get what they want. Very good. They purposely create triggers, they use “set ups,” they trick and deceive and manipulate. Verbal abusers are ruthless.

And do you know what happened when I “stood up” to my abuser? When I confronted him about how he was treating me and how it made me feel? It escalated to physical abuse. The first time he hit me was when I stood up to him. As our relationship progressed, he deliberately trained me to “cower” and “shrink back” and “retreat.” If I did anything else except almost literally bow down to him, I would be severely punished and degraded.

Sadly, this manner of viewing abuse and abusers continues through the rest of the book.

And she wraps up with this:

Try to understand that any advancement to a better, happier life is difficult. For example, living the Christian religion is not easy. You are taught to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . . a devout Christian does not set aside these goals because they are difficult. The ladies talking over the back fence [about accepting their husbands being too difficult] might as well give up being Christians as to give up accepting their husbands at face value.

In one sense, Helen is right. Living out Christian values like turning the other cheek and loving those who curse you: not easy. Impossibly difficult, at times, and I realize that is true.

However, loving your enemy does not require anyone to remain in an abusive relationship, as Helen continuously maintains. Even when she says “take your children and leave,” she only means physical absence, not cutting off the relationship. She believes that continuing an abusive relationship is the only right thing– in order to “bring him to repentance.”

To compare the two– living out Jesus’ teachings and staying in an abusive relationship– and saying that giving up on one means giving up on the other is insane.


This is the fourth post in a series. You can find links to the rest of the series here.