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Tue, Mar. 7th, 2006, 01:30 pm

Monsters under the Bed

The Marriage Bed is a Christian sex advice site run by Paul and Lori (no last names given--not that I'm in any position to give them grief for that), who are qualified to dispense medical and theological wisdom by their clear and intelligent writing, their happy marriage, and, um, that appears to be about it, actually. These days, Christianity is divided into several different sects, as you may have heard, but Paul and Lori aren't explicit about which one they belong to. I rather suspect that someone more sophisticated than I in Christian jargon could read their allegiances from their Statement of Faith, but all I can say is that they're certainly Protestants, and appear to be part of the Evangelical movement.

As such, a couple things are beyind the pale. In particular, homosexuality and abortion are so taboo as to go almost unmentioned. Gender roles are rigid and unquestioned. Pre-(or non-)marital sex is forbidden, and legalisms about what constitutes 'sex' are briskly dismissed. Most alien of all to my own worldview, strict and explicit standards are set of what it is legitimate to think and to imagine.

Within this far-from-trivial framework, The Marriage Bed is genuinely and enthusiastically pleasure-positive. Their What's Okay page, which serves as a frequently-referenced authority figure for Christian sex toy sites Book 22 and My Beloved's Garden, endorses vibrators and other sex toys, oral sex, light anal play, light BDSM, dirty talk, and even home-made porn, so long as scrupulous precautions are taken against a third party ever seeing it.

Since they argue "it's wrong to fantasize or act out anything it would be wrong to actually do," and given the prohibitions above, they are comfortable with role play, but only so long as the characters you play are married to each other. Masturbation is acceptable, but only so long as you fantasize solely about your spouse. So if you're not married, you can't masturbate, right? Nope. A guest essayist argues that teenage boys (the only people, of course, who would ever be both unmarried and horny) are permitted to jerk off, so long as they keep their minds fixed on Jesus throughout the experience: "Johnny was amazed at the thought of how he could thank God for the pleasure he was experiencing, and how such a focus of keeping his eyes on Jesus and keeping his thought life under control--while at the same time enjoying the sensations and giving God the praise--would be a tremendous help to him, and would alleviate the false guilt he had been experiencing." Needless to say, the Pavlovian effect of all these teenage boys being conditioned to get hard-ons whenever they see a crucifix is not addressed.

They're aware that their position on masturbation is not without the potential for controversy, and they devote many column inches to scriptural excegesis in support of it. One featured letter of support from a Southern Baptist pastor describes a particularly interesting experiment he performed:

At one speaking venue, I would not masturbate for a week before speaking. I had great power and anointing in the pulpit. Many responded to the call of God. (When I finished and went back to the hotel room, I got naked and masturbated four or five times in an hour. Then got up, put on my suit, went back to teach in the evening session. I had great power and anointing in the pulpit. People responded greatly to God. I noticed *NO* difference in anointing.

On matters of medicine and biology, they are usually well-informed and reasonable, though with the occasional jarring flash of ignorance: "It is also known that the intensity of the male orgasm is directly related to how much fluid he ejaculates; the more he ejaculates, the better it feels. " "the anus is not designed for "two-way traffic," nor is it designed to be stretched open as far and for as long as anal sex can cause." Basic biology sections are presented in illustrated and text-only versions for the scrupulously nudity-averse.

Though never quite baldly juxtaposed, one subtext of the site is that if a woman isn't interested in sex, it's because her libido is low; if a man isn't interested in sex, it's because his wife is failing to attract him. There's much discussion of a wife's "responsibility" to "fulfill her husband's needs," possibly the most anerotic way to describe consensual sex in the english language.

After some time reading their testimonials and forum, I realized that world-views like this are immensely self-reinforcing. Many of the messages begin with something like, "What a relief it is to see stories like mine." That has a flipside: in the climate they've established, it would take a very brave woman to say 'my libido is higher than my husband's.' It would take a very brave man to say 'my libido is lower than my wife's.' I'm sure Paul and Lori have heard hundreds of absolutely true stories confirming their prejudices by now.

Paul's piece on Headship shows the site at its best and worst simultaneously. It's a genuinely nuanced, thoughtful, and humble discussion of what it means to be head of the household as he believes God has commanded him to be. His insights into the paradoxes and responsibilities of being in charge will resonate with anyone how has seriously attempted to top a lover. The problem is that it isn't an essay for tops. It's an essay for all men, everywhere, always. He's found a model that works for him and his wife, and he's pushing it as the only correct one. Submissive? Gay? Too bad, buddy. You just think you're naturally that way--actually God wants you to be just like Paul.

They rail frequently against the body-fearing, pleasure-fearing conditioning that so many of their readers have had implanted. They're aware of the emotionally-stunting lessons that so many Americans--especially conservative Christians--grow up with. Yet I didn't find a word about how to avoid passing such lessons on to one's own offspring. Most of the mention of child-rearing is repeated admonitions to take every precaution to ensure that your children never encounter any evidence of your sex life. Disconnect here? Not that they seem to notice.

I don't want to sneer too much here. Reading the forum, it's clear that numerous people have been helped to be more comfortable with their sexuality by the site, and they're folks who Heather Corinna and Susie Bright just ain't gonna reach. This strikes me as a clear and positive good. What's disturbing is the rigidity, the gender essentialism, and the willingness to draw arbitrary lines (spanking is good; 'real' BDSM is bad) and set them as moral standards for others to follow.

Thu, Mar. 9th, 2006 09:17 am (UTC)

Cool! Please keep me updated on how the discussion goes. If it's okay with both of you, I'd love to post the conversation--in part or in full.

Sat, Sep. 16th, 2006 02:19 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): One correction

Paul Byerly here -

I can't fault most of your report on out site - some of it is a bit one sided, but there's a lot there and it would take a lot of reading to see that we cover more than one side of many issues.

The one thing I want to comment on is the "men have big sex drives and women don't" concept. We don't say that, we know it's not a hard and fast rule, and we write about the horny wife with the under or uninterested husband often. In fact, an entire article is devoted to how to get a guy horny! This topic is also often discussed on the message boards.


<>< Paul

Tue, Nov. 28th, 2006 02:11 am (UTC)
vinnie_tesla: Re: One correction

Welcome, Paul!

You're absolutely right. That was an unfair and inaccurate criticism. I started out trying to make a subtler one, and fell into the error you describe.

Let me try again: What I saw in The Marriage Bed's discussion of asymmetrical desire was a tendency to put the wife at the center of any inbalance. The sentence from my essay above was "Though never quite baldly juxtaposed, one subtext of the site is that if a woman isn't interested in sex, it's because her libido is low; if a man isn't interested in sex, it's because his wife is failing to attract him."

Both phenomena are acknowledged, but each is centered on the woman. As you say, you have an article about how to turn-on your man--I linked to it, in fact. What I didn't find was any analogous article about how to attract your wife. Given the absolute statements about the imperative urgency of male desire in the "Physiology of Male Sex Desire" article (including a bunch of biological assertions that I will charitably say that I haven't seen in more secular sources), it's hard to avoid the conclusion that if a man isn't desiring his wife, there must be something wrong with her.