I recently received the following comment from a reader. Her question addresses a specific situation, but the issue is more general.
I was wondering if you could address an issue that I’ve been uncertain on how to deal with. Previous to our marriage, my husband viewed porn. His favorite fantasy is bondage. He told me this before we got married. This is what arouses him the most. I am fairly certain that he has not viewed any pornography in a long time. While we can and do have sex at times without any bondage taking place (that would be him tying up and gagging me, mostly lightly but sometimes hard), he always wants to tie me up when we have sex.
I feel like this is not right, a carryover from a warped view of sex. He does not see anything wrong with it; more an issue of what arouses him the most and makes the experience the most pleasurable for him. He is very good to me sexually, in that he’s learned what physically stimulates me. He will loosen the bonds if I am uncomfortable.
I have a hard time discussing sex with him. I don’t feel like I have ever learned how to discuss sex in an appropriate way – the world’s way is raunchy, the church way is hush-hush, and the first time I ever remember either of my parents speaking about sex that didn’t have to do with morality was on the day after we got married. I’ve told him several times that I don’t enjoy this, once gently that I didn’t think it was needed, but I still give in. If I don’t go along, then we don’t have sex, or I’ve killed the mood because the issue comes up along with initiation. (By the way, the children are 6, 4, and almost 2, so sex happens after they’re asleep.)
The bondage makes me feel objectified, even though he’s told me that he’s “seeing” his wife and not anyone else. So where do I go from here? Obviously I need to take the time to tell him how I feel at a time outside the bedroom where we won’t be interrupted. I don’t feel like I want to strong arm him into “MY WAY,” or berate him. I’m just at a loss on what to say and how to say it, and if I am right in that he’s wrong in this area how to gently persuade him. I do NOT want to give up on having sex with him (it’s too good even when it’s not great). So now what?
On Monday, I talked about whether you should share your sexual fantasy. Today, let’s look at whether you should go along with your spouse’s sexual fantasy. In this case, the issue is bondage. But the desire for a specific sexual activity could be a number of things, so I’m answering this question more generally.
Is it biblical? There are prohibitions against certain sexual activities in the Bible, including adultery, bestiality, incest, and other extremes. However, there are also principles of kindness, respect, love, and gentleness (see Galatians 5:22-23 and Ephesians 5:21-33). Whatever you do in the bedroom should not rise to the level of sinfulness and should aim for the ideal of 1 Corinthians 13 love.
Does it involve third parties? Oftentimes, we think this applies merely to adultery, threesomes, or voyeurism. These should be obviously off limits. However, third persons should not be allowed in your visual or thought life either. Watching pornography is inviting people outside of your marriage to arouse you sexually or demonstrate acts for you to copy. Reading erotica and calling to mind fictional characters to become titillated is a way of getting third parties involved. Keep your sexual energy focused where it should be–on the spouse God has blessed you with.
Does it call to mind other relationships or pornography? One question that has been asked of me more than once goes something like this: “Hubby wants to do X which he saw in porn. Should I do it?” I don’t believe that anything and everything that appears in porn is off the table; after all, porn shows intercourse, and that’s clearly on God’s go-to-town list. To my mind, the concern appears when performing a sexual action taps into pornography or past relationships. For instance, perhaps your spouse did something with another person in his sexual past and doing the same thing makes him think of her. Not a good idea. So the issue is not whether the fantasy could be found in porn or his sexual past, but whether it brings to mind someone else. If it does, try to come up with a new fantasy and create memories all your own.
Is it painful rather than pleasurable? One of the expectations of sex in marriage is that it will feel good. When it doesn’t feel good, something is amiss. Usually, people want to experience pleasure and try to avoid pain; yet sometimes a spouse confuses the two. Here’s a tip for why pain in the bedroom might appeal to some: Pain can bring your attention to a localized body part; then the body’s response to pain is to release natural opioids, such as endorphins, to combat the discomfort. Friction in the injured area (like when you naturally rub a stubbed toe) can also relieve pain. The juxtaposition of these sensations, coupled with arousal, can cause people to link pain and pleasure. And yes, there’s more to it than that.
However, my general point is that the Bible never indicates that pain should be part of sexual intimacy in marriage. The Song of Songs communicates tenderness between the two lovers; Deuteronomy 24:5 says that a newlywed man should “be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married”; Genesis 2:24 says that the two become “one flesh”; and Ephesians 5:28-30 is clear about how we should approach our spouse’s body:
“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
You should not expect your spouse to be in physical pain, nor to be put in physical pain by your spouse for their arousal.
Does it compromise others? So here’s where I’m going to put having sex in public places where there is a high likelihood of being seen by someone else. I understand the rush of danger pulsing through your veins and the heightening your arousal, but that’s just not fair to someone to have their eyes assaulted by viewing you and your spouse mid-coitus. Beyond treating your spouse with respect, just respect others and keep your sexuality private between the two of you.
Does it gross you out? Okay, yeah, this isn’t so straightforward. But I’m nothing if not frank on this blog, and really, some stuff is just off limits because it’s so totally icky to you. If you have a good sexual relationship with your spouse, you should be able to say sometimes, “No, not that.” It’s never okay to demand or force your spouse to perform sexual acts with or for you that are utterly repulsive to them. (If biblically-mandated intercourse is repulsive, there are serious underlying issues that need addressing.) Degrading your spouse in the bedroom is not God’s design for sexual intimacy. So if the thought grosses you out, ask yourself why. You might be able to try something out of the ordinary after all. But if your stomach is still twisting like a tornado, I think you can opt out. As long as you are putting your full effort into participating in your sex life within marriage and satisfying your spouse sexually.
As to the original scenario above, I don’t think this wife is obligated to continue with bondage. Her husband is relying on it for arousal; she is in pain at times (“mostly lightly but sometimes hard; he will loosen the bonds if I am uncomfortable”); she does not enjoy it and feels objectified. There isn’t the loving, respectful, pleasurable feel to this story that should be indicative of a good sex life within marriage.
So what do you do when you don’t want to go along? Start by praying. If the fantasy is not clearly unbiblical to you, ask for God’s wisdom on whether you should oblige or pass. Then open up a conversation with your spouse (outside the bedroom) about what you want your sex life to look like. Reassure him that you desire him sexually and want to experience satisfaction and intimacy. Gently explain your reservations and reasons for not wanting to indulge the fantasy.
If he continues to demand or cajole, set boundaries. In my opinion, the best resource for how to do this is the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. They also have an edition for Boundaries in Marriage. I defer to the quality work of these Christian psychologists.
Final note: Prior sexual abuse can complicate this whole issue. Previous victims may not be able to participate in something that reminds them of the horrendous experience they endured. Professional help may be needed to work through what’s normal, what’s not, and how you can successfully approach sex with your spouse.