How Christian Teachings on Sex Enable Abuse

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

January 9, 2024

By Julie Roys and Sheila Wray Gregoire

Men need sex. And it’s their wives’ job to give it to them—unconditionally, whenever they want it, or these husbands will come under Satanic attack.

Stunningly, that’s the message contained in many Christian marriage books. Yet, research shows that instead of increasing intimacy in marriages, messages like these are promoting abuse.

In this edition of The Roys Report, featuring a talk from our recent Restore Conference, author Sheila Wray Gregoire provides eye-opening insights based on her and her team’s extensive research on evangelicalism and sex.

Out of a desire for evangelicals’ conversations about sex to be healthy, evidence-based, and rooted in Christ, Sheila and her team have analyzed many popular Christian books on sex. Many teach that men are incapable of not objectifying women. And instead of training men to control their urges, these books teach that women must save these men.

If a husband struggles with porn, for example, it’s his wife’s job to give him more sex so he can go cold turkey. If a husband is abusive to his wife, it’s his wife’s job to pray the abuse away. And if you’re a single woman, it’s your job to dress in such a way that your body never “intoxicates” a man.
With messages like these, is it any wonder that abuse victims often feel like it’s their fault if someone hurts them? Is it any wonder that pastors like John MacArthur can convince wives that it’s her duty to stay with a man who abuses her and their children?

As Sheila explains, the patterns of abuse we’re seeing in the church today are a symptom of these toxic evangelical teachings. And to solve the problem of abuse, we need to analyze and challenge these unbiblical teachings.


Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire is an author, podcaster, and researcher into evangelicalism and sex. Her goal through Bare Marriage, a popular podcast and ministry, is to change the evangelical conversation about sex to be healthy, evidence-based, and rooted in Christ. She lives in Ontario, Canada, with her husband. They have two adult daughters and two grandbabies. Learn more at


Julie Roys  00:05
Men need sex and it’s their wives job to give it to them unconditionally whenever they want it, or these husbands will come under satanic attack. Stunningly, that’s the message contained in many Christian marriage books. Yet research shows that instead of increasing intimacy and marriages, messages like these are promoting abuse. Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys, and what you’re about to hear is an eye-opening talk by Sheila Ray Gregoire at our latest RESTORE conference. Sheila is an author and podcaster who’s done extensive research on evangelicalism and sex. And what she’s discovered is that many evangelical books teach an unbiblical message that men are incapable of not objectifying women. And instead of training men to control their urges, these books teach that women must save these men. If a husband struggles with porn, for example, it’s his wife’s job to give him more sex so he can go cold turkey. If a husband is abusive to his wife, it’s his wife’s job to pray the abuse away. And if you’re a single woman, it’s your job to dress in such a way that your body never intoxicates a man with messages like these. Is it any wonder that abuse victims often feel like it’s their fault if someone hurts them? Is it any wonder that pastors like John MacArthur can convince wives that it’s their duty to stay with a man that abuses them and their children? As Sheila explains in this important talk, the abuse that’s rampant in the church is just a symptom of this toxic teaching so prevalent in evangelicalism. And unless we address this false teaching, we’ll never solve the problem of abuse. So, I’m very excited to share Sheila’s eye-opening talk with you.

Julie Roys  01:57

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Julie Roys  03:02

Well, again, you’re about to hear a talk by Sheila Gregoire on how evangelical teachings on sex promote abuse. Sheila is the founder of BAREMARRIAGE.COM. She’s also the author of several popular books, including The Great Sex Rescue, and She Deserves Better. Sheila’s goal is to change the evangelical conversation about sex to be healthy, evidence based and rooted in Christ. And so, I’m so excited to share this message that Sheila gave at the RESTORE conference.


It was a Friday afternoon in January of 2019, and I was sitting on my yellow chair in my living room trying to figure out how to procrastinate. I had a migraine, and I didn’t want to work, and so I was on Twitter. And I was reading a conversation between some women arguing whether or not they needed love or respect. And I thought, well, I’m a woman and I need respect. And so, I started chiming in and we were getting all spicy. And then I thought, I have that book. And I had never read it. So, Love and Respect, written by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, who got his PhD from somewhere, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s based on the idea that women need love. and men need respect. Oh, actually, no, it’s not. The subtitle is, the love she most desires, the respect he desperately needs. So, she has desires, and he has desperate needs. But I realized I have that book and I’ve never read it. And so, I thought this is a great way to procrastinate. So, I went, and I got it, and I opened to the sex chapter because I’m kind of the sex lady and that’s what I do. It was only about 12 pages long. And that was when the nuclear bomb went off in my living room. Because I read to my horror, if your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have, and that need is for physical release. So, if he doesn’t get physical release, he will come under satanic attack. And through that chapter, he keeps referring to sex as a man’s physical release. There was not a single word about intimacy. There was not a single word about women feeling pleasure, too.


So, I called my team, and we freaked out a bit. And we decided to write a post on our blog about the way that the book handled sex. And that post got so many eyeballs that we spent a whole week on love and respect. And over that week, we had email upon email, and comment upon comment about how that book had enabled abuse in their marriage. Working with me, was a young woman in her late 20s at the time, who has a master’s in epidemiology and is the statistician, but she was home with her baby. And so, she was just working remotely part time for me. And she said, you know what we should do Sheila? we should create a mixed-methods, qualitative analysis of the comments, and we should send it into Focus on the Family, who publishes the book, because maybe they don’t know. Maybe they don’t realize how harmful this is. And so, over the next few weeks, Joanna proceeded to do that. And we sent it to Focus. I knew Jim Daly; I had been on Focus on the Family several times. And we sent a nice letter about how harmful the book had been. And we never heard back. And so, Joanne said to me, “You know what I should do? I should go back and get my PhD so that I could do a study of how messages in the evangelical church are hurting women’s marital and sexual satisfaction. And I said, Joanna, I bet I could get a publisher to pay us to do it. And that is what we did.


Until that day, I had never actually read another Christian book on sex and marriage. I mostly just wrote my own stuff. I was really scared of plagiarizing. But then we decided that we needed to open our eyes and see what was really going on. So, we surveyed 20,000 women for our book, The Great Sex Rescue. It’s the largest study of evangelical women’s marital and sexual satisfaction that’s ever been done. Did any of you take that study? Were any of you in mind, thank you. I know that was like half an hour of your life you can’t get back. I appreciate it very, very much. We’re doing a new survey that will be out in about two weeks. So, if you follow me, we will be putting out soon we will have a great need for people to take that one as well. But we surveyed 20,000 women measuring how various evangelical messages affected their marital and sexual satisfaction. And what we found was that there was four big messages in the church that really hurt women. And these messages are not biblical. They’re not from Jesus. They are what we have decided, as a church collectively are true. And we’ve done great harm with them.


And so those messages are a woman is obligated to give her husband sex when he wants it. 39% of women that we surveyed entered marriage believing that. All men struggle with lust, it’s every man’s battle. A woman should have frequent sex with her husband to keep him from watching pornography. And boys will push your sexual boundaries and so girls need to be the gatekeeper. The sum total of those messages does great harm. These were all widely taught, widely believed and hugely destructive. We also did a survey of 3000 men a year later, and guess what? The same messages hurt men’s marriages too. These are universally bad. And yet, when we took a look at 13 of evangelicalism’s bestselling sex and marriage books, these are everywhere. There were only three books that we looked at, that actually scored well on our rubric, the vast majority of them of the books that we looked at scored in the harmful category, including Love and Respect, which scored zero out of 48, literally. Even Every Man’s Battle did better, it got nine. Last year, we did a survey as Julie was telling you of another 7000 evangelical women, this time looking at how messages that we give to teenage girls, end up hurting girls long term. And the same messages that we studied before? Yep, they do harm, but we added some new ones, like the modesty message. When we tell girls, you need to be careful what you wear so that you don’t cause one of your brothers to stumble. Well, that makes her feel like her body is a threat to her. Because by no fault of her own, he could look at her and have these bad thoughts. And then because he can’t control himself, he could end up hurting her. And so that message makes us feel like our bodies actually cause ourselves to be put into harm.


Research shows that far too many of our common relationship teachings in evangelical culture are hurting us. And I have been trying to sound the alarm on this. And while those in this room are likely to hear it, the powers that be often don’t. This has become a grassroots movement, which I think tends to be the way that Jesus works. He doesn’t tend to talk to the churches, the big places, the big people in power. He sets up 12 disciples and all of the women that were traveling with him, and they go, and they set the world on fire. And that’s what we found in the reception to our books, which are actually selling quite well, is that people want to hear this, even if the powers that be won’t talk about it.


We have painted men in the church as being created by God, to not be able to do anything but objectify women, which by extension, means that it is women’s responsibilities to save men. And then we’ve somehow managed to sell the message that this is the way that God intended it. So let me give you a few quotes. And I want to do a big trigger warning here, and I’m quite serious about this is that some of you, it might be good to step out of the room. All I’m going to be doing is reading you things from our bestsellers, but they’re not pretty. And so, if you feel like you need to step out of the room, now would be a good time. But let me tell you what Every Man’s Battle said. If you’re looking for the reason for sexual sin among men, we got there naturally, simply by being male. The same authors repeat, men just don’t naturally have that Christian view of sex. So, I guess women were created with more of the Holy Spirit than men, I don’t know. And how then, are men supposed to quit lusting and watching porn? Well, they have the solution. The book, the original edition of the book, told women when he stops cold turkey be like a merciful vial of methadone for him. It explains that well before when you were lusting, you may have been going to your wife for five bowls of sexual gratification a week. Now you’ll be going to her for 10. And she will be happy about this. I don’t know how you can write a book and know so many little about women, but nevertheless.


So, think about that. We are the methadone for our husband’s sex addictions. And what is it that methadone does? Yeah, methadone is basically something which numbs you so that you don’t go after the thing you really want. And that’s how they raised a whole generation of boys and men to think of girls. That book series has sold 4 million copies. Or how about this? This Gary Thomas and Deborah Phyllida echoed their sentiment in their 2021 book Married Sex, where they encouraged women to send nude photos to their husbands so that neurologically his attention will be focused on her and not other women or porn. And they didn’t really ever talk about the problems of revenge porn, and they minimized any concerns that she may have about cementing an objectified view of women in porn. Even if it’s not about sex, we get the message in our best sellers that we’re just supposed to pray the abuse away. Women you have so much power over your man. Don’t you understand that? So, in Stormy Omartian’s book, Power of a Praying Wife, she has this quote, which is echoed throughout the book. You can submit to God in prayer whatever controls your husband, and she lists a number of things, including alcoholism, and abusiveness, and pray for him to be released from it. That book sold 10 million copies of women being told if he’s abusive, you can pray it away. You just need to pray more.


I bet John MacArthur likes that one. I think the evangelical version of the gospel too often looks like this. Jesus saves women, so the women can save men. And it’s even in the little things. Last year, the Gospel Coalition put out an Instagram reel, where Ligon Duncan claimed that wives can’t expect their husbands to do risky things, unless their wives unconditionally respect their husbands first. And what are these risky things that a woman can’t expect her Christian husband to do? Pray, read the Bible, think about life from a Christian point of view. You cannot expect your husband to do these risky things that you by the way are already doing unless you first give him unconditional respect. This really quietly puts the wife in the leadership role, while having to pretend that it’s the husband who’s actually the one leading. Honestly, it’s like the bar is so low, it is in the basement, isn’t it? Over and over again, our evangelical teaching tells everybody that it is impossible to expect men to act honorably. Tim  LaHaye, in The Act of Marriage, told a story about Aunt Matilda, and he berates Aunt Matilda for telling her niece how terrible sex was just as her niece was getting married. But then he goes on to explain that on her wedding night, Aunt Matilda’s husband held her down kicking and screaming and raped her and continued to do this throughout the marriage. Then Tim LaHaye talks about Aunt Matilda, and her equally unhappy husband. He called the rapist equally unhappy as his rape victim. That book published by Zondervan has gone through four different editions, and nobody ever took out that anecdote. That sold two and a half million copies. His Needs/Her Needs, which I think has also sold two and a half million copies, has a line in there where a 32-year-old executive complains, I feel like I’m begging her or even raping her, but I can’t help it. I have to make love. And Willard Harley, the author uses that to explain that men just have a really high sex drive, and women need to understand that. And then, of course, there’s For Women Only. Shanti Feldon based her book supposedly on research. Which is why I think people have given these books more credence than they really need to have. I’m going to give you an example of her survey question, which has become fundamental in evangelicalism and for several different books. But Emerson Eggerichs actually based his book Love and Respect on the foundational survey question that Shanti used in her book For Women Only, which came out in the same year, 2004, as Love and Respect. So, Shanti asked, I think it was about 450 men, would you prefer to be alone and unloved or inadequate and disrespected? Okay? So, you could be alone and unloved or inadequate and disrespected. 72% of men said that they would prefer to be alone and unloved than inadequate and disrespected. And so, she took this to say that men want respect more than they want love. And that is what Emerson Eggerichs used to base his ideas on for Love and Respect.


They never asked women; think about that. A whole doctrine of how men need respect and women need love. They never asked women. When other people, other survey people asked women the same question, 68% of women chose alone and unloved as well. There is no gender difference. But beyond that, okay, I’m just gonna get a little survey geeky with you for a sec here, okay? Alone and unloved, inadequate, and disrespected. That’s what’s called a double-barreled question where you don’t know whether they’re responding to alone or unloved or inadequate and disrespected. When my son in law looked at that, he said, well, the one that I would hate to be the most is inadequate, because alone unloved and disrespected are all how other people are treating me, inadequate is how I feel about myself. So, I would choose alone and unloved because I don’t want to feel inadequate, because inadequate and disrespected are not synonyms. That is the state of research that evangelicalism based a foundational doctrine, love, and respect, that we hear everywhere. And church, we simply have to do better. That’s not okay.


Now, there are many other things and for women only that Shanti Felden, that I find quite problematic. But one of the worst is this line, when she’s talking about the need that men have to feel unconditional respect, she says, If you are wondering if you’ve crossed the disrespect line, watch for anger. So if you’re wondering if you’ve disrespected him, watch if he gets angry. So, your husband’s anger is a sign that you have done something wrong, rather than a red flag of a behavior problem or abuse. And again, her book series has also sold 2 million copies. The worst thing though, is that these messages are not just being given to adults, they’re also being given to children. And for our book, She Deserves Better, where we looked at the messages that were given to evangelical teen girls, we found horrific things that were said to girls as young as eight. And I would like to show you something from the Secret Keeper Girl curriculum by Dannah Gresh. Secret Keeper Girl became an event that was seen by about a million little girls and their moms around North America. It’s now called True Girl. So, they’ve rebranded but a lot of the messages are still the same. And in that curriculum, she encouraged girls to take the Raise and Praise test, okay. So, here’s what you do, you put your arms up in the air. And if any belly shows, that’s bad. And the reason is because bellies are intoxicating. Later in this curriculum, she has a conversation that mothers are supposed to have with their daughters to explain what this means. And you’re supposed to talk to your daughter and explain that to be intoxicated means like being under anesthetic or being drunk when you’re out of control. And God created our bodies to intoxicate men. But you are only supposed to intoxicate one man, your future husband, and so you need to make sure that you’re not intoxicating to anyone else. She told eight-year-old girls, that their bellies have the power to make adult men get out of control. And we did nothing about it. We took our little girls to these events, and they internalized this message. I could go on and on.


Whether it’s sheet music by Kevin Lehman, telling women that it’s a good thing to have sex when you feel forced and want to shove him off of you. Or explaining that your period is a very difficult time for your husband. I’m not kidding. And so, it’s important to give him sexual favors during your period or when you’re postpartum so that he’s not tempted to watch porn. I can tell you about Every Man’s Battle, telling women that if your husband demands or coerces sex more than once a day, that’s a bad thing. So, there’s a quote, I guess that’s acceptable of coercion. I don’t know. The abusive messages and our evangelical resources are horrifying, and honestly, it seems endless.


But the sum total of these teachings is that men are entitled to women’s bodies. Men deserve unconditional deference free from being challenged for any bad behavior. And men cannot be expected to act honorably, or even safely. So, when men do harm, it’s likely because some woman somewhere hasn’t done her job. It’s not hard to imagine how disastrous this can be. In a survey done by the Institute for Family Studies, about 27% of highly religious men who believe in complementarianism, or believe in male headship, claim that they have been violent with their current partner. Marital rape is more difficult to measure because it depends on the definition of marital rape. But from what we’ve seen in the literature, and in our own results, it looks like a rate of about 10% with a very narrow definition, to about 25% of evangelical marriages if you include things like obligation sex, which lead to trauma. So, this is what’s going on in the pews. One quarter of the women in our churches are currently victims of abuse. And a lot of that is caused by our messages which prop up and enable abuse.


And it’s not only abuse. There’s also rates of sexual pain. This is one of our big research areas that we’re trying to dig down deep into. Because it’s been known for about 50 years in the literature that evangelical women suffer from sexual pain. Specifically, a sexual pain disorder called vaginismus, which is when the muscles of the vaginal wall contract and become really tight, so that penetration becomes really difficult, if not impossible. Even things like inserting tampons can become difficult or pelvic exams. And we’ve known evangelical women suffer from this at way higher rates than the general population. But what we haven’t known is why. And it was assumed that it’s just because well, they’re just ashamed of sex. That’s not actually what we found. We discovered two big things that are highly highly correlated with vaginismus. The first is the obligation sex message. So, when women enter marriage, believing in obligation sex, whether or not their husbands do, it’s just what you have internalized, your chance of experiencing vaginismus increases to almost the same statistical effect as if you had been abused. Because our bodies interpret obligation sex as trauma. Because abuse says, you don’t matter, he gets to use you however you want. And so does obligation sex. The other big thing that’s correlated with it is the modesty message as a teenager. So, when a girl has internalized that she is at least partially responsible for keeping boys from sinning., she’s also far more likely to experience vaginismus. This is our problem. It’s not nice to talk about it, but this is our problem. We have an incidence rate of about 22.6% of evangelical women and in the broader population is closer to seven or eight. This is what we have done, and it’s largely because of what we have taught people.


And that’s why I am so passionate about changing the way we talk about sex and marriage in the church. Because what we have done has had real world effects. It has caused abuse to rise. It has caused actual physical changes in our bodies. And there’s other research which has shown that it actually solidifies porn use and makes it much harder to stop. We need to talk about this in a different way. And what’s been so exciting to me as we have done our work is that people have told me again and again, that when they read our stuff, they start to recognize abuse in other places too. Like, once you start to see, oh, this isn’t okay, in one area, you see it everywhere. One woman told us that it’s like peeling an onion, you know, and you take off one layer. And then you see it again and again. Another woman said, you know, I read The Great Sex Rescue, and I recognized that there was some really abusive patterns in my marriage. And thank God, my husband saw it, too, and we’re on the road to recovery. But it wasn’t just that. I also in that same week, realized that my boss was sexually harassing me, and I stood up to him, and I reported him. And we left our church. Because when you see abuse in one area, you’re able to recognize it in others.


This is gonna sound weird to say, I don’t actually care about sex that much. Like, I know, this is my whole life, and I know this is all I write about. I don’t actually care that much. You know what I care about? I care about people thriving. I care about emotional health and wholeness. I care about ending abuse. But there’s a lot of people that are doing that work of calling out abuse, and you know how hard it is to get people to listen to you. You know, it’s like banging your head on the wall, and they just don’t want to hear. And on the other side, there’s a lot of people addressing the theology of men and women in the church, and how harmful that theology has been to many women. And I can’t speak Greek, my husband reads the New Testament in Greek, but I don’t, you know, I can’t tackle it on that side. But you know, the one thing people like talking about? sex. Everybody wants to talk about sex. And so, this has been our way in. We’ve been able to open up that conversation about sex, so that people will listen. Even people who, maybe you’re normally in more fundamentalist spaces, because everybody wants good sex. And when you can tell them, hey, here’s the way forward, here’s what we need, here’s why women need to matter too. When they start to see it in that one area, then they’ll start to see it in others. And I think that’s where we can work together. You know, I know so many of you are recovering from church hurt, and you’re wondering where to go and how to move forward. And I’ve been there. But I believe that as we speak up about this stuff, we’re going to empower others, that they can speak up too, and we’re going to cause a grassroots movement.


I spent a lot of years hitting my head against the wall, trying to convince Focus on the Family to change. It doesn’t work. Interestingly, they’re now using all of my talking points in their Instagram reels. They’re just not referencing me. It’s pretty funny. But so, you know, that’s good. You know what? I don’t care if you don’t reference me, as long as you’re actually starting to teach healthy stuff, do not trust Focus for healthy stuff. Okay? They might be saying a few good things. And I’m glad about that. But this is not an endorsement. But you know, things can change slowly from the grassroots. But we’re not necessarily going to get the big things to change. And it used to really frustrate me when I couldn’t get the big organizations to change, when I couldn’t get the megachurch pastors to listen to me, when I couldn’t get the big media organizations to listen to me. When nobody big would interview us about The Great Sex Rescue, even though we did the biggest study that’s ever been done. Even though we spoke at the American Physiotherapy convention because pelvic floor physiotherapists think we’re groundbreaking. And we can’t get  the big names in the church to listen. But maybe that’s because they’re not supposed to. Because Jesus works at the margins. And I think Jesus is working at the margins here. And I know so many of you are hurting and a lot of It is because of this crap that was in so many of the books that taught you that it’s your fault if someone hurts you, and that you’re just not praying enough. And don’t you know that Jesus put up with it? So, what are you to say that you shouldn’t have to put up with this? You should have the mind of Christ. And you’ve heard those messages. But let me tell you that Jesus wants to tell you that you matter, that you matter.


One of my co-authors on The Great Sex Rescue said that we could sum up the whole book with just four words, women are people too. And we are. And men are people too too; we all matter. But when we live in a church culture, which is trying to be based on power instead of on love, and emotional wholeness, we’re going to end up with abuse. And we’re going to end up with hurt. And so, as we’re fighting abuse, my plea, if I can make a plea, is that we also fight that which underpins abuse. That we don’t just fight abuse, but we start calling out the teaching that has enabled it. Because when we call out the teaching, we make it far more likely that people will recognize abuse in other spaces, too.


One of the things that so disappointed me in the Mars Hill podcast series, I don’t know how many of you listen to that. Some of you, yeah, they just didn’t go far enough. They treated it like Mark was the problem. Mark was a symptom. All of the things that one episode they did about women, all of the things Mark preached about women, were in all of our best sellers. I could have pointed you to everything he said was in all of our bestsellers that are still our bestsellers. Mark is not the problem; Mark’s awful, but Mark is not the problem. The problem is that we have this whole culture of teaching that enables the Mark’s to get power. If we didn’t have this teaching underpinning it, if we didn’t have these ideas of power and kingdom, then there would not be a Mark Driscoll who would have that kind of power, there would not be a John MacArthur who told Eileen Gray she needed to go back to her abusive husband. And so, as we fight abuse, and I am so grateful to those of you who are out there in the trenches doing that, I pray that you will also join me in some of my mission too, in fighting the teaching that is given about marriage and sex that is underpinned abuse and enabled it to flourish. Because I think, until we can eradicate that teaching, we’re just going to be playing abuser whack-a-mole. Thank you.

Julie Roys  38:12

Wow, such an important message. And I’m so grateful for Sheila’s ministry, and the way that she’s addressing the root of the abuse problem in our churches. And I’m grateful for you too, who listen and support these podcasts and help us get these important messages out. As I’ve noted before, many ministries charge for conference talks, but because of your continued generosity, we’ve been able to make these messages available free of charge. And I’m just so grateful to the hundreds of you who donate to The Roys Report. As I’ve said before, we don’t have any large donors or advertisers, we simply have you the people who care about abuse victims and want to help. If you appreciate this ministry and want to support us, just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE. And in January, if you give a gift of $30 or more, we’ll send you a copy of The Great Dechurching. This is a great resource exploring what’s causing the current exodus out of the church, and what can be done to stop the bleed. So again, just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE. Also, just a quick reminder to subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcast, Google podcasts or Spotify. That way you won’t miss any of these episodes. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then please share the podcast on social media so more people can hear about this great content. Again, thanks so much for joining me today. Hope you’re blessed and encouraged.