We had been married for about a decade. My husband and I were great friends and enjoyed parenting our three sons, but sex was not an easy area of our marriage. From the very beginning, sex had been physically painful or, at best, uncomfortable. Add the exhaustion of three young children, and having sex was right up there with the most dreaded household chores on my to-do list. As a Christian in the marriage ministry space, I understood the priority of regular sex. It was important to my husband, and my “duty” to be a willing wife.
My story about “duty sex” is like many I’ve heard over the last several years. God loves the heart of a wife who wants to meet her husband’s sexual “needs,” which aren’t truly needs, but desires. Even so, the pattern of “duty sex” is not the fullness of what God designed for marital sex. In fact, it may actually distort the purpose of sex in your marriage.
God gave sexual intimacy as a gift to both a husband and a wife. If it’s not a blessing to both of you, something is wrong. Getting stuck in the cycle of one person dutifully meeting the needs of the other (even with the best of intentions) will eventually sabotage love and intimacy in your marriage rather than nurture it.
Do you owe duty sex?
Many point to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 to reinforce the concept that you owe your spouse sex. This passage is a response to specific questions the Corinthian church posed to Paul. In response, Paul highlights the importance of sexual integrity for Christians living in a corrupt moral culture. His advice can be better understood as a call for both husband and wife to minister to one another sexually.
Duty-sex thinking assumes that only the person with the higher sex drive has a “need” and only the person with the lower sex drive (or barrier to sexual pleasure) must sacrifice. God created sex to be about far more than a physical act. It’s the most vulnerable and powerful invitation to intimacy, requiring both husband and wife to sacrifice for one another.
What you owe is love
Husband and wife: You do owe your spouse something, but it might not be what you think. There is a duty that husbands and wives owe to each other both inside and outside the bedroom. It’s the all-encompassing obligation of love: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
Consider the context of everything Scripture says about love and marriage. Without exception, every passage about Christian marriage and Christian love teaches both husband and wife to be unselfish, kind and humble, looking not only to their own interests, “but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). This is to be a mutual unselfishness that applies to all areas of a Christian marriage.
Why, then, would we assume that as soon as a man and woman enter their bedroom, all bets are off — that one spouse can expect (and even demand) to have his or her sexual needs met at the expense of the other? If a husband loves his wife as Christ loves the Church, would he ask, expect or even allow her to engage in a sexual act that is physically or emotionally harmful for the sake of “meeting his needs”? Likewise, would a wife who has a committed love for her husband refuse to work on their sexual relationship?
Duty sex undermines intimacy
What many don’t realize is that working toward sexual intimacy is not the same thing as simply having sex. Sex is about much more than what happens between two bodies. It’s an invitation to a journey of intimacy that requires safety, trust, vulnerability and freedom. Even under the best of circumstances, a couple engaging in duty sex is undermining these aspects of intimacy as they attempt to “check the box” of having sex.
For example, a woman who has experienced sexual trauma in her past may be retraumatized every time she feels she must give her body to her husband to satisfy him. While this couple may be having married sex, they are destroying essential elements to building intimacy in their sexual relationship.
Real love in the bedroom
Your spouse is not an acceptable outlet for your sexual lust, nor is he or she your safeguard against sexual sin. Self-control (sexual or otherwise) is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work as you surrender your life to God (See Galatians 5).
Your spouse is God’s son or daughter, whom you are called to love as He loves. In the same letter containing the so-called “duty sex” passage, Paul fleshes out the practical application of this kind of love.
This call to love isn’t meant to be suspended when you step across the threshold of your bedroom. Instead, it informs how you are meant to love each other sexually.
- Is patient in the bedroom.
- Is kind in the bedroom.
- Does not envy and does not boast in the bedroom.
- Is not proud in the bedroom.
- Does not dishonor others in the bedroom.
- Is not self-seeking in the bedroom.
- Is not easily angered in the bedroom and keeps no record of wrongs.
- Does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth in the bedroom.
- Always protects, hopes and perseveres in the bedroom.
In most marriages, you will have some significant and even long-standing barriers related to sex:
- Physical ailments or limitations.
- Secret battles with lust.
- Emotional wounds that make intimacy seem impossible.
- Incompatible desires.
- Memories of betrayal.
God’s call of love is to minister to each other in this very intimate area of sexuality.
At times, the duty of love may compel you to:
- Be honest about your hidden porn use.
- Seek professional counseling to address the shame or trauma from the past.
- Get naked with your spouse despite your insecurities about your body.
- Speak words of love and acceptance even when you’ve been disappointed.
- Postpone sex for the sake of your spouse’s rest or healing.
- Courageously tell the truth so you and your spouse can get the help you need.
Don’t just check a box
Reducing our sexual “need” to a weekly conjugal visit and duty sex is a gross misunderstanding of the gift of sex in marriage. What we really need from each other is not just an available body, but a person committed to loving every aspect of who we are. We need vulnerability, mercy, compassion, kindness, laughter and forgiveness.
In those early years of our marriage, what I “owed” my husband was to not simply have sex with him to check a box. I owed my husband my willingness to journey with him toward intimacy — to consider his needs and desires and to share mine with him. As Christ-followers, we owed each other the commitment to surrender everything (our sexual wounds, disappointments, expectations and failures) to the redemptive work of our Lord.