A surface reading of the scriptures can give the impression that God has a very prudish, narrow view of human sexuality. So many rules, regulations, and constraints! How can He limit sex to a monogamous, opposite-sex marriage and not be a total killjoy? Doesn’t he realize that sexuality is fluid? That we need to express ourselves? When will God get with the program?
But this is folly. God doesn’t impose boundaries on human sexuality arbitrarily. More than simply prescribing a set of rules, His law describes the way life and love work. On the issue of what the Bible calls “fornication,” what social science calls “sexually active but unattached,” one study from Norway showed that “the sexually active unattached were the least satisfied with their sex lives.”[i] Casual sex doesn’t work. It lays us open to sexually transmitted infections, broken hearts, disappointed expectations, unwanted pregnancies, and—maybe worst of all—dissatisfaction with sex itself! God isn’t sex-negative; He’s so sex-positive that He wants it to be as good as it can possibly be. So, he rules out the ineffective sexual practices like fornication.
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Sexual passion is like fire. Without fire in the form of the sun, we’d all die. Even if we could avert the instant freeze-over of the planet, we’d still run out of food. Fire brings life, but outside of boundaries that same fire brings death. Like a cast iron stove containing a blaze that brings warmth to the home, the firm, thick walls of moral purity keep us safe from both the cold and the excesses of the fire itself.[ii]
Moral purity is rooted in the principle of self-sacrificing love. Jesus came from heaven to hell to save humanity, and He bids us to “Let this mind be in you” (Philippians 2:5). Bringing the principles of agape into our human relationships creates a safe context in which they can thrive on every level. Blossoms open fully where root systems are strong.
God is so positive about pure sexuality that he presents marriage as a metaphor of Christ’s love for the church:
Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25, ESV, italics supplied).
In sexual union, the man’s body “gives up” something to the woman’s body. The book Song of Solomon was considered so erotic that Jewish boys were not to read it. Verses like this one make us understand why:
I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night’ (Song of Solomon 5:2).
Jesus through John the Revelator also shamelessly showcased the thrill of sexual love, echoing Song of Solomon with:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20).
The woman opens, the man enters. True, sexual love happens, and God is happy.
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God puts boundaries on sex because He wants more sexual joy, not less. And as we delve into the way His design actually works, we see his signature on every level from neurological, to biological, to psychological, to spiritual, and back again. A deeper look into human sexuality reveals that spousal sex is the best sex out there, for a whole bunch of reasons, the chief of which is that it helps build loving relationships.
Good Sex for the Win
Most married couples were once an unmarried couple in love, experiencing an amazing symphony of brain chemicals designed to ultimately deepen and strengthen the relationship. Many remarkable things occur in a “falling in love” brain. First, attraction boosts adrenaline and produces a state of high-alert, preparing a person for the heroics of romance. The adrenaline releases the next in the tag team of brain chemicals—dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Dopamine gives the couple that dizzy, head-spinning sense of thrill. At the same time, mood-elevating serotonin drops, producing brain chemistry remarkably similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder. This may be why lovers tend to obsess over one another, giving the little attentions that help form a bond.
Levels of testosterone and estrogen also play into the attraction game, with the greatest potential for attraction occurring when the levels of these hormones are highest. With this maelstrom of brain chemicals de-stabilizing in-love people, should we not thank God for guiding principles? The social and moral structure of marriage creates a kind of holding tank without which these potent brain processes would dissipate. And interestingly enough, Jesus called immorality “dissipation” (See Luke 21:34, KJV).
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Holding the first rush of new love in a vessel of commitment and sacrifice, we can receive constant drafts of divine love to mingle with a natural affection and produce lasting love. This is how passionate love moves to compassionate love, from hot to warm, as the songwriter Carly Simon described it, “The stuff that dreams are made of, the slow and steady fire.” And the passion phase ministers to this long-term attachment process. The high levels of oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, and other hormones involved in lovemaking create a neurological environment conducive to deep bonding. Outside of a committed relationship, this bonding can result in very painful separation, but within a committed relationship, it provides the building blocks for true, lifelong, marital love.[iii]
And Now for the Sex
Good sex, especially in the early stages of a marriage, keeps the brain chemical game strong. For this to occur, the same principle of sacrificial love and others-centeredness must thread its way into the relationship. Part of what I mean by good sex is sex where both partners experience orgasm. Orgasm brings forth the greatest rush of oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine that form the “glue” of the bonding process.[iv]
It’s interesting. It takes a bit more work and know-how to bring a woman to orgasm. This is why women proverbially fake them. In a casual sex context, women fear coming off as “frigid,” and wanting to massage the sexual egos of their partners, pretend to be less complex, and more easily pleasured, than they really are. But in a loving, self-giving marriage, women don’t worry about impressing their partners. The safety of a committed relationship makes vulnerability possible, and women more effectively communicate what they need.
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Let me give you a little insight into female sexual response. Only about 25 percent of women consistently orgasm from intercourse alone. Most women need direct clitoral stimulation to climax. Men’s sexual organs are on the outside of their bodies, and receive abundant direct stimulation in intercourse. Women’s organs are on the inside and receive less direct stimulation. As Mr. Roger’s sang:
Some are fancy on the outside/Some are fancy on the inside/Everybody’s fancy/Everybody’s fine/Your body’s fancy and so is mine.[v]
The Genesis account uses different verbs for God’s creation of Adam versus Eve. One might say God “sculpted” Adam like a potter sculpts clay (yatser); but God “architected” Eve (banah). Which sounds more complex? Architecture. And women are a bit more complex—physically and emotionally. Peter said,
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
Perhaps because they have less relational intuition, but also perhaps because women require a steeper learning curve, God tells husbands to “understand” women. This need for understanding applies as much to the sexual pleasure response of women as to their complex emotionality. I wonder if more female orgasms, which would create more emotional “glue,” would mean fewer divorces—because after all, women file for divorce more often than men, about 70 percent of the time.[vi] I can’t prove it, but it’s worth a consideration.
Different response cycles
The male response cycle from arousal to orgasm can be as little as five or ten minutes, but a female’s response cycle can take 30 or 40 minutes. While it can be overstated, the proverbial directness of male sex drive proves true. Often men find a quick, athletic sexual encounter sufficient to meet their emotional and physical needs. Many are the women who find this “quickie” approach to sex unsatisfying if not degrading. But this should never be construed into women being asexual. The Jewish tradition of mitzvah onah states that men owe women their conjugal rights, including regular times of sexual pleasure. One teacher of mitzvah onah said,
The woman is supposed to enjoy. In fact, the husband is not fulfilling his commandment of onah if you don’t enjoy. So that means that if you want sex, or whatever, then he has to agree, and you have the right to ask for it.[vii]
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Men’s sexual response tends to be accessed more directly, women’s more indirectly through their emotions. This gives both partners an opportunity to stretch. Men must learn to romance their wives effectively, activating their somewhat-slower response gently, drawing out their pure affections. Women can learn to roll with their husband’s more direct approach without unduly censuring what isn’t sinful, but rather just male. Some women would benefit from casting their inhibitions to the wind with, “Sex for sport? If he’s a gentleman about it, why not?” Negotiating these differences requires communication, adaptation, and creativity. It requires us to stretch ourselves in knowing someone whose basic emotionality and physiology differs from ours.
Open, honest communication lies at the heart of love and lovemaking. A committed, secure relationship enables a person to communicate intimate, personal details. The trust necessary for true intimacy—and sexual fulfillment, which coincides with it—can only be built if we know that person is “all in” with us. Transient, casual romances, as hot as they may temporarily be, can’t ultimately bring out the best in lovers. Committed, forever relationships can.
Three Sex Systems
We might say that the brain possesses three basic partnering systems: lust, romance and attachment— correlating with hormones, dopamine and oxytocin. God gave us all of these chemicals to create a kind of brain symphony that gives pleasure, joy, and ultimately, deep, abiding love. We may attempt to separate them, living in lust with its casual sex, or go from one romantic fling to another. But these things bring sorrow and pain unless they’re closely bound up with, and minister to, the highest object of our relationships, which is unfailing love.
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The Creator designed sexuality to build lasting love, but we still need Him to show up personally in the middle of our marriages. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Couples that pray together, really do tend to stay together.[viii]
Though difficulties, perplexities, and discouragements may arise, let neither husband nor wife harbor the thought that their union is a mistake or a disappointment. Determine to be all that it is possible to be to each other. Continue the early attentions. In every way encourage each other in fighting the battles of life. Study to advance the happiness of each other. Let there be mutual love, mutual forbearance. Then marriage, instead of being the end of love, will be as it were the very beginning of love. The warmth of true friendship, the love that binds heart to heart, is a foretaste of the joys of heaven.[ix]
[i] Willy Pederson & Morten Blekesaune, “Sexual Satisfaction in Young Adulthood: Cohabitation, Committed Dating or Unattached Life?” Acta Sociologica, Sept 2003.
[ii] Sex isn’t needed by every individual, but the human race needs it to flourish.
[iv] Amanda Chatel, “How Love Changes Over Time: From Lust to Attachment, Chemically Speaking,” Bustle, Aug. 2014.
[v] Fred Rogers, “Everybody’s Fancy,” 1967.
[vi] Brittany Wong, “Women Initiate Divorces More Than Men, But Not Breakups, Study Suggests,” HuffPost, Aug. 2015.
[vii] Rabbi Yael, retrieved from https://library.yctorah.org/2009/12/two-approaches-to-marital-sex/.
[viii] Morgan Lee, “The Data Don’t Lie: Couples That Pray Together Actually Do Stay Together,” Christianity Today, March 18, 2016.
[ix] Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 361.