August 31, 2016

Celebrating “Okay” Sex

Gary Thomas — 

Celebrating Okay Sex (1)


What if “okay sex” is okay?

Where do we get our expectations that every act of marital sex is supposed to be a candidate for the highlight reel of marital ecstasy?

In our ever present desire to “one up” the world, Christians are fond of exaggerating. That’s in part what led me to write Sacred Marriage. Most Christian books in the 1990s were presenting an idealized view of marriage: “Apply these five principles and marriage becomes easy.” I thought someone needed to be honest—marriage can be wonderful, but it’s rarely easy.

And now I fear we’re occasionally doing the same exaggerating with marital sex. With new blogs, books, articles, and seminars, there’s so much focus on having a fantastic sexual life that we risk creating expectations in which “okay sex” seems like a crime. I’m grateful for those women and men who are serving the church by speaking and writing and blogging about improved sexual experiences—it’s a good and holy work. Many couples used to struggle for years without any such help and I’m glad so many can anonymously receive great and specific advice today.

But let’s remember that for the vast percentage of human existence, parents slept within about six feet of their children with, at most, a curtain between them. Even worse, for many people, you shared a room with your in-laws. I remember that famous scene from Dances with Wolves when the Kevin Costner character wakes up in the teepee to see the holy man making love to his wife. He’s at first transfixed but the holy man motions for him to turn away.

Historically, most marriages were far more similar to sharing a room than a married couple being tucked away in a penthouse suite or even a distant master bedroom. In such circumstances, it goes without saying that the wife couldn’t scream out her pleasure, “talk dirty,” get into any position that would leave her uncovered, and the couple most definitely did not leave the lights on.

Even going back to the 1970s, almost all the homes in my childhood neighborhood were maybe 1200 square feet, at most. “Master bedrooms” might be on the corner of the house, but they often shared a thin wall with one of the kids.

Today’s houses tend to be bigger, but all the stuff usually mentioned by blogs to increase the quality of marital sex today (lingerie, lighting, sounds, certainly anything like “sex toys”) just wouldn’t have been practical for most of human existence.

And yet marriages survived and thrived.

I celebrate the fact that many slightly larger modern homes (though I realize many of you still have much smaller homes) have given married couples greater freedom and possibilities, but what I see happen so often is that when a couple discovers these blogs, realizes something is “wrong” with a boring sex life, and starts reading and then implementing all the ideas, putting the kids to bed early, creating a drawer or closet with a lock, they may see a renaissance of sorts in their marital passion—for a while. But it’s like building a fire with newspaper. You get a big flame, but you can’t keep it going.

The husband gets sick. The wife gets pregnant. Kids have nightmares. Real life keeps showing up.

Let’s be honest: normal marriage means many moments of “normal” sex and that’s okay. Healthy couples will take advantage of making certain times special, but what makes these times special and keeps them special is the fact that they are “different” from the norm.

 River Cruise BoatLisa and I have some “foodie” friends who own restaurants and love Michelin 3 star restaurants. In an act of unbelievable generosity, they invited us on a French canal cruise that featured gourmet meals three times a day. Desserts, salads, and entrées weren’t just delicious—they were veritable works of art.

I’m not a foodie, but Lisa certainly is. The main enjoyment I get from eating is that I hate being hungry, and eating makes me feel full. Lisa likes being hungry because then she gets to eat something yummy. For me, eating is utilitarian; for Lisa and our friends, it’s an experience and a delight. That’s why Lisa enjoyed the cruise with our friends so much—it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun for her to share it exclusively with a Joe-lunch-bucket like me.

When we got off the cruise after seven days of being spoiled gastronomically, our friends decided to hit up another 3 star Michelin restaurant with a tasting menu. I had had so much good, fancy food that I was more than happy to settle for a hamburger at a local stand (which is sort of what we did). I can appreciate the very best cuisine (though not as much as most), but I don’t want a 3 star Michelin meal every night; maybe not even once a week.

Marital sex can be a little like food. Sometimes, it could be really special to go to a 3 star Michelin restaurant. Sometimes, I can be just as happy with one of Lisa’s organic, no preservative, 100% grass-fed beef hot dogs on a gluten free bun (Lisa keeps up certain standards even for comfort food). I don’t have to evaluate every meal by asking, “Was that one of the best ever?” Sometimes, I eat whatever is in front of me, wash the dishes and am just grateful that I’m not hungry and the food was okay.River Cruise Meal

Is it wrong for us to look at sex like that? We’re in a new age, with new possibilities of sexual freedom within marriage. There are more blogs, information, help, and creative accessories to make sex more pleasurable and more exciting than ever. Thank God for that. But if our expectations rise proportionally, then are we really all that better off? Will we be truly more content? Not if every act of sex is supposed to rival the best ever. We’ll be like the 3 Star Michelin snob who complains when he has to eat at Applebee’s (while many people in the world starve). He’s not really any happier, because he’s raised his level of expectations beyond reality.

Sex is amazing—what it does for a couple. How it can create children. The neurochemical bonding that follows. The memories that last longer than the passion. The sense of anticipation. The special hugs or smiles later in the day when just the two of you know what you’re smiling about… I love and am grateful for all those things. I’m also grateful for the new opportunities suggested by new homes and new information. And there will always be a special place in my heart for what Lisa and I affectionately call “hotel sex.” But if I don’t adjust my expectations to what is commensurate with real life, I’ll let a really good sexual relationship feel somewhat below par because every act doesn’t quite measure up to the Super Bowl of passion—even though we may have had more times of wild abandon than ninety-nine percent of our ancestors ever could have dreamed of.

Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, sex is okay. And that’s okay. It’s always a gift. Whether that gift feels like a Rolex or a Timex, I want to receive it gratefully. I can tell time with either and my great-great-great grandfather had to make do with a sundial.

What do you think? Let’s start a conversation here. I’d like to get your reactions to this post.

(P.S. Please do not use this post as an excuse for putting too little time and energy into the sexual relationship, particularly if your spouse already feels cheated in this area. It’s more directed toward evaluating our own personal expectations and bringing them in line with reality.)

When you subscribe to Gary’s blog, you will receive blog posts directly to your e-mail inbox. You will be one of the first to learn about the latest in Gary’s writing.

54 responses to Celebrating “Okay” Sex

  1. A similar trap that we can easily fall into is the “numbers game,” whereby expectations of the quantity of sex can be exaggerated. This can come from the TV shows/movies we watch, magazines/online articles we read or even a conversation with a friend (not that I’m condoning taking with friends about your sex life, but each to his/her own). If some checkout aisle magazine – say, one that rhymes with “metropolitan” – has an article that guarantees the answer to “mind-blowing sex five days a week,” suddenly our expectations are heightened. It’s even more dangerous talking about it with friends, because then we start comparing, and it turns into one of those “who’s got the bigger truck” kind of scenarios. This breeds envy, and not only do we look to improve our numbers for the sake of our own satisfaction, but also for bragging rights. I’d like to think Christian spouses don’t fall into this trap, but I’m sure it happens.

  2. Such a great reminder and well said. I always said that the coming together in the complete intimacy of sexual union was the icing on the cake. The better the cake the better the icing !

  3. This is an excellent post! I definitely agree, and not only where sex is concerned. I think in our modern age, where so many things are available to us that didn’t used to be, as a whole our society’s expectations have risen greatly in every area of life. I’m sure a lot of it comes from what we see on tv and the Internet as well. We expect to have amazing sex lives, gourmet meals all the time, the latest fashions in clothes, a beautifully decorated home, etc. etc. Sometimes I get down thinking that in many areas of my life, I have less than other people around me – yet then I remember that my life is still easier and more luxurious than the lives of almost all humans who have come before me! For instance, my husband and I might not have a big house with soundproof walls, but at least we have our own bedroom, with a comfortable bed, not a heap of straw on the floor, and there are no cows or pigs in the corner, either, like many people had in the Middle Ages. Luxury! 🙂

  4. Great thoughts Gary! I love the food analogy as it brings to light a very important part of our physical makeup. The way we are designed allows us to experience highs and lows. You don’t know the highs without the lows and vice versa.

  5. Excellent!

  6. Domestic Church August 31, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Totally on the $! Thank you!

  7. Thanks Gary. I learn a lot everytime I read your blogs

  8. I think that too many men are using porn as their standard for what sex should be like. It changes their expectations and makes them dissatisfied with “normal” sex. it puts new ideas in their mind and when their wives don’t perform like what they watch they begin to feel cheated and like they are missing out.
    It is sad that our culture worships sex undo many ways. Sex has become perverted and cheap. More about what can be got and less about giving to each other. Like something done to someone not with them.

  9. well said. my generation gets everything to the extreme… I believe in moderation in everything.

    thank you Gary for this. I’m a silent follower of your posts.

    God bless

  10. Very good. There was not any TV or Internet to portray a man or woman being this super sexual being. Pornography was not as accessible to give people the illusion of how sex should be like. I like the title “Celebrating Ok Sex” because of the addiction to pornography Ok Sex Was never good enough. I always needed better and more. Rubbing my wife’s back was a chore. Now just to looking at her stimulates me. Rubbing her back I feel closer to her than ever. Oh and I have been married to same woman for 31 yrs.

    • Fantastic, Rusty. And this should give hope to those couples whose sexual experience has been tarnished by porn. God can and does heal and renew.

  11. Michelle Crumpler August 31, 2016 at 8:42 am

    For me and my hubs the tenderness and connection are the first thing. Sitting in that space and feeling the connection, building on what’s already there from our history together, being grateful for all our blessings within the special space of intimacy on multiple levels. Anything after that is a joy – sometimes simple joy. Making it a high stakes game with Olympic expectations caused us a great deal of problems in the past. Being able to open up and talk about sex and intimacy, how we each miss some invitations to connect is helping. Praying together, being silent together, kissing, all really good enhancements to marital “inertia reduction”. If you’re grieving a rut of disconnection or routine, it can get better and more deep spiritually. There’s nothing wrong with “what usually works”. Cuddling afterward is a big part of what makes sex intimate for me so it is good that I am able to voice that need and explain how that draws us together. I can also get over the downer of having him fall asleep sometimes.

    • What a great testimony! Thank you Michelle. In regards to the last sentence, unfortunately, biology has a tendency to win out sometimes with us guys… Thanks for your understanding.

  12. Gary, This post is such a necessary topic to address. I’ve heard from many couples who feel deprived because their sex life is average. What a gift you’re providing by saying that’s okay!
    It’s amazing to me how quickly we can turn blessings into expectations that eventually turn to demands. Sex is a gift in whatever way it is given.
    Thank you for adding your “real” voice to this often avoided topic.

  13. Gary, I think this is so true for not only marital sex but so many of the ‘things’ that we in America have. We need to practice being thankful… just look up the words, ‘with thanksgiving’ in the Bible…and how often do we practice ‘with thanksgiving’? The world of social media makes us feel like we are missing out when in fact we are missing God.

  14. I believe many married couples will feel a sense of relief in seeing these thoughts stated so eloquently. I like your comparison with the experience of dining, and believe this line of thought could be applied to other areas of married life, such as communication. Would you consider writing a blog post on this topic? “Is okay communication in marriage okay?”

    • Karlyn, thanks for the kind words. In a sense, I think the entire book of Sacred Marriage kind of deals with this–accepting marriage in its reality, good and bad. But that could be interesting to specifically focus on communication in a particular post. I’ll think it over.

  15. Two really frustrating things about sex:

    1. We have the capacity to continually imagine it as more amazing than it can really be, practically speaking, particularly as we age. All the more so with the ubiquity of pornography. And this isn’t just when we make a choice to fantasize. Our dream life does it too!

    2. Committed long-term sex can’t compete very well with the lure of sexual adventure. But sexual adventure clashes with our desire for long term relational intimacy.

    I’m glad you are in charge of the answers here, Gary, because I don’t have many. But I think this does highlight the deep wisdom of the Christian view of sexuality.

    • Rob, maybe I’m misunderstanding your post, but I think committed long-term sex totally trumps “the lure of sexual adventure.” I don’t think porn as it is normally described can possibly compete with healthy sex. In fact, I think that’s one of the biggest lies behind porn. If porn was so satisfying, I don’t think so many would join recovery groups to stop looking at it. People lose more than they gain, always. When I think of the entirely of what a healthy sexual relationship provides to a marriage, porn seems silly by comparison.

      Let me give an example: one time I was in a hotel room with a very thin adjoining door. Sound poured through it, and a man or couple (don’t remember which) was watching pornography. Let me just say–when there are no pictures to go along with it, porn sounds ridiculously silly and not at all appealing. Now, maybe it’s different with other porn. Maybe this was just a bad couple of videos (they watched a lot, unfortunately) but the last thing those videos did was tempt me to watch the same channel in my room. I was practically laughing.

      I don’t think fantasy is ever better than real life, not when you look at the sexual relationship in its totality.

  16. I’m single but I really like this post and am grateful for it. It makes so much sense and I believe it would help a lot of us to be grateful for what we have everyday.

  17. Totally agree! It’s similar to the new standards of beauty thanks to the air-brushed and edited magazine photos that women are compared to these days. In fact, in many of these same periodicals, sex is sensationalized.

    • Yes, exactly. It goes beyond sex to appearance, doesn’t it? Though I think Christians have tried to be careful about elevating appearance alone too highly, we may not have been as careful about raising the level of expectations regarding sex.

  18. I totally agree with you. Like you’ve said too keep the right value of something it must be evaluated in its whole and considering in a real way the highs and lows of that. If you try to get always over the limit you’ll soon overburn and if you stay too low maybe for lazyness you’ll get annoyed and frustrated. To be sober but active in relation of the circumstances and opportunities is how to keep that just balance between highs and normal or even lows with gratitude to GOD for everything good comes only from Him even if we as still sinner (saved by grace) don’t deserve none of it. Thanks for your blog posts and your books a really useful instruments to walk according to the Word of God in the Spirit and not in the flesh. GOD bless you & your family!

    • Davide, I love the way you emphasize the balance–that we can fall off on either end. My fear that my blog post was a bit too unbalanced can be seen in the final “postscript” so I’m grateful for you emphasizing that here more eloquently.

  19. beautiful. Well summed up and A common quote in 12-step circles says my resentments are inversely proportional to my expectations. what a way to help defuse anger and resentment in a marriage by taking away idealized sex in our minds.

  20. I love this post. I believe it is very important to be content and realize, like you have stated, not every time is going to be better than the last. If we’re always looking to up the experience, we could wander into dangerous territory i.e. Porn. We should appreciate the time we are able to have with our spouse and enjoy coming together as one.

    • Shannon, I think that’s a really important point to emphasize. Too many expectations on each sexual experience really can tempt us to wander into dangerous territory to reach a new high. Thanks for pointing that out.