Out of the closet: Sexual starvation in Christian marriages

Many know of its rampancy among Christian couples but have chosen to hide or downplay it — the deliberate withholding of sexual intercourse and even romantic intimacy from one’s spouse. Women mostly, but some men as well, are guilty of this behaviour.

This troubling issue first surfaced as a matter of concern some 20 years ago during a postgraduate class I was teaching. Those who were vocal knew that I would not muzzle them, so they spoke very frankly and freely, informing me that they knew personally several couples in their churches that were involved in this behaviour. The faces of those who elected not to speak betrayed guilty knowledge suppressed by cowardice or personal pain.

Though it was not a psychology class, and thus tangential to the subject at hand, I raised questions about the possible reasons behind a spouse’s refusal to share sexually and more to the subject area in the class — the biblical perspectives on such refusal. Some of the responses were as blunt as they were insightful.

I recall one female psychology major suggesting that women refuse to share sexually when they know or suspect that their husbands have committed adultery. A male theology major could hardly wait for her to finish before urging the point: “Yes, we all know that adultery is a sin, but women forget that ‘sexual fraud’, as Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 7, is also a sin, but who talks about that?”

He had scarcely finished his point when a very young-looking lady quickly and innocently asked: “My brother, I don’t know the Bible very well, so where exactly in 1 Corinthians 7 does Paul speak about sexual fraud, because I didn’t know such things were in the Bible?”

I still recall the mischievous glee on the brother’s face as he stood, pulled out his Bible, and proudly said: “Let me read for you all, 1 Corinthians 7: 1 – 5, not from the tame King James Version, but from the more precise and modern Contemporary English Version. Listen up. Quote.

‘Now I will answer the questions that you asked in your letter. You asked, Is it best for people not to marry?

2 Well, having your own husband or wife should keep you from doing something immoral.

3 Husbands and wives should be fair with each other about having sex.

4 A wife belongs to her husband, instead of to herself, and a husband belongs to his wife, instead of to himself.

5 So don’t refuse sex to each other, unless you agree not to have sex for a little while, in order to spend time in prayer. Then Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’ End quote.”

The young lady who opened the door for this revelation just as quickly asked someone to read the text from the King James Version. A mature woman obliged by pulling out her electronic reader and read. “Beginning,

‘Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

2 Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

3 Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.

4 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.’ That’s it.”

Audible laughter came from some students, and smiles broke across every other face when the young student turned to me for help saying: “Sir, you are a Greek scholar. Is the contemporary version faithful to the original Greek?”

I had wanted to let them dialogue further, but now I was put on the spot. It became worse because before I had a chance to explain, a student requested permission to share right after me what he described as an unorthodox view he had had for years. Knowing his usual reluctance to talk in class I told him “most certainly”. I almost regretted that I had said that as I’ll explain presently.

I told the class that Paul indeed spoke of sexual fraud in the text in question, and that the main verb ‘defraud’ in the King James Version’s “defraud ye not one the other” (v 5) is a translation of a Greek verb apostereite (sound= aposterayte, with short ‘e’ as in ‘met’ both times) which suggests depriving someone of what is due to and deserved by the person, with a possible hint of deception in the process; it is ‘cooking the books sexually’.

Then I indulged my innate provocative nature by adding, “Paul, in Jamaican parlance, is here encouraging married couples to tear off each other’s garments regularly, and to break the habit only by mutual consent for a short period to give themselves to [protracted] prayer.”

By the time I was through saying this I could hear lots of “Sir, Sir…” as hands shot up across the room. The student who had sought permission to speak after me stood up and said, “Sir, I have the floor by your permission. Brethren, please brace yourselves for what I am about to say.”

The class fell silent as all eyes turned toward him. He continued: “I have pondered this business of adultery in churches for a long time, and I know many of you will write me off, but if a man — sorry ladies, we are the usual sufferers — is being sexually starved at home he must feed somewhere else.” The mixed mumblings were almost drowning him out when he raised his voice above the din and upped the ante by adding: “Here is another shocker to think about: Not all cases of adultery arise from sexual greed. Some are prompted by acute sexual need.”

He sat down to a mixture of mild clapping and boos with a worried look on his face. So I asked him if he thought sexual need made adultery excusable. He stood again, as if to underline his reply to me, and calmly said: “No, Sir, but sexual need surely makes adultery perfectly understandable for me at least.”

The amens he got were only slightly muted, and even some of those who booed him earlier nodded in agreement, slowly, as if doing so reluctantly.

I raise this very delicate and possibly explosive subject because, over the years, the issue has resurfaced time and again in small male group discussion, but it deserves wider and more public treatment.

If you know this to be a current concern in your church circles, please e-mail me, because I want to take up the matter more clinically with a few of my friends in psychology. But I need evidence that it is not just happening ‘in a corner’, or resident only in ‘the odd closet or two’.


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