Once the LaHayes have established that sexual intimacy is God-approved (chapter 1) and that men and women both get things out of it, even if they be different things (chapters 2-3), they move on to the basics of anatomy and how-to. Chapters three and four are a really amusing mix of accurate, fairly non-judgmental sexual health information and prescriptive sexual coaching that would put a drill sergeant to shame. It follows the 90%/10% rule*: You’re reading along with a sentence and nodding and then — what the fuck?! it just takes a u-turn into not-good places.
Let me illustrate with several verbatim passages.
On sex education:
An in-depth study of sex is best pursued just prior to marriage. Let’s face it — the material is simply not that complicated. God didn’t give Adam and Eve a manual on sexual behavior; they learned by doing. We are convinced that modern Adams and Eves can do the same, provided they are unselfish enough to consider their partner’s satisfaction more than their own. A few good books on the subject, studied carefully two or three weeks before marriage, a frank discussion with their family doctor, and pastoral counseling are usually adequate preparation (45).
On “areas of sensitivity” for women:
Both the breasts and the genitalia, a woman having a greater number of sensitive areas than a man. This is probably God’s means of compensating for the fact that the husband is ordinarily the initiator of intercourse. A woman’s breasts are often very sensitive and affectionate caressing helps her to prepare for the act of marriage** (56).
On the hierarchy of lovemaking:
Dr. Miles suggests, “There are three steps in sexual adjustment that couples need to learn. They are as follows: first step – orgasms*** , second step – orgasms in intercourse, third step – orgasms together or close together in intercourse.” A couple should not be discouraged if they do not achieve the second or third step right away. It may take several weeks or longer before they can experience simultaneous orgasms on a regular basis (73).
In all three of these sections one gets the sense that sexual intimacy is both natural and God-given but also difficult to get RIGHT.
- The material is “not that complicated” — but in-depth study is needed.
- Women enjoy sex — but their bodies are also inexplicable and complex to navigate.
- Experimentation and flexibility are encouraged — up to a point.
It’s two whole chapters worth of bait-and-switch. I’m particularly fascinated by the emphasis on orgasm — simultaneous orgasm at that! — as the ultimate goal of sexual intimacy. As an alternative to the message that intercourse is the only acceptable form of sexual intimacy, and that intercourse is only acceptable because of the potential for procreation, the focus on orgasm and mutual pleasure is an AWESOME step forward.
\o/ <– jazz hands of celebration!
(They even put in a word for family planning and birth control — including the pill! — which I’ll get to later in my live-blogging, since they discuss at length later.)
But the problem with replacing one goal with another is you still have a goal. Rather than enjoying sexual intimacy as a process or as a state of being that — as long as all participants are experiencing pleasure it counts as good sex — the LaHaye version of relational sex is still about comparing your own fumblings with what they’ve determined to be the ultimate in successful sex: the simultaneous orgasm during penetration.
How you’re supposed to achieve this goal is still unclear, since they’ve taken on board mid-twentieth-century critiques of Freudian sexology and make it clear that the clit is key to women’s orgasmic capacity. They chastise couples for ignoring the clitoris and firmly instruct them to make clitoral stimulation part of “foreplay.” In the section on sexual positions, attention is paid to how such stimulation can be achieved in each position (for example, when couples have intercourse while spooning, with the man behind, he is supposed to attend to his wife’s clit manually since penetration from behind will not create the necessary friction^). But even so, my point remains that timing orgasms to be close-to-simultaneous, particularly if you’re trying for that rather than having it happen as a happy coincidence? Way, way stressful! Like, the opposite of a relaxed and enjoyable lovemaking experience!
I continue to be baffled by the way simultaneous orgasms are held up as the pinnacle of relational sex.^^ In my own experience, sequential orgasms mean the person who’s not on edge gets to focus on the responses of their lover and really be attuned to what’s going on. Whereas when you’re at the point of orgasm yourself, it’s much more of a pulling in, a focus on internal sensation, in a way that makes it impossible to focus on the other person’s experience in a meaningful way. This isn’t to say that simultaneous orgasms might be fun sometimes, as a certain flavor of making love … but I fail to understand how it’s earned the place of honor in the sexual pantheon.
One final thing that strikes me about these instructional chapters is how much the men-and-women-are-different-species frame really colors one’s approach to sexual intimacy (and instruction on same). Rather than being able to trust your body, and your willingness to communicate with your partner about what does or doesn’t feel good, male and female sexual response is constructed as so utterly different that the newly-wed should beware of assuming that what they know about their own pleasure will translate to satisfactory partnered sex. (And I say “newly-wed” but men, specifically, are instructed not to approach their wives’ bodies as their own; women, it’s presumed, don’t know much about their own sexual response — let alone their husbands!) While I do get that a certain amount of awareness about structural differences is probably useful — it’s been documented, for example, that the type of friction and pressure men and women experience as pleasurable during masturbation diverges somewhat — The Act of Marriage leaves the reader feeling a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information that appears to be required in order to get marital love-making right. And the consequences are dire: a traumatized and frigid wife and/or a frustrated and wayward husband.
I said to Hanna, after reading these two chapters I have this mental image of young brides on their wedding nights clutching lube and tissues to their bosoms while their trembling bridgegrooms approach their wife’s genitalia with The Act in one hand: “Okay, it says I’m supposed to first insert one finger and apply downward pressure on the hymen … and then …” It just seems like so much informational noise to distract both parties from paying attention to their partners’ physical and emotional responses.
IN SUM: The adequate lady-spouse metric.
+20 –> I win hands-down at pre-marital sex education but
-10 –> I’ve been at it for way more than two weeks prior to the wedding and
+5 –> while I’ve stayed current with my pelvic exams
-10 –> I never consulted my doctor about hymen piercing (ew! no!)
+10 –> I’m totally not shy about taking sex, but probably so much so that
-10 –> my prurient interest cancels out any positive effect
+10 –> I experienced no hymen-related pain during first penetration
+5 –> and completely on board with the ample use of lube as indicated
+20 –> I’m very, very flexible about what constitutes a good sexual script
+10 –> first step – orgasms! (we’ve got this one down)
+5 –> second step – orgasms in intercourse (meh — nice sometimes?)
-10 –> third step – simultaneous or near simultaneous orgasms (I honestly don’t get the hype)
+15 –> planning a relaxed honeymoon for mutual exploration
+5 –> belief in the value of family planning
-35 –> not intending to bring any of God’s children into the world
Chapters 4-5 score: +105/-75 = +30
Chapters 2-3 score: +50/-83 = -33
Chapter 1 score: +35/-85 = -50
*xkcd: “I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.’
**This makes it sound like Hanna and I should put aside some time just prior to our exchange of vows for breast-caressing — one more item to add to the day’s agenda!
***I totally want “first step – orgasms!” on a t-shirt. It brings to mind the underpants gnomes from South Park: “phase three – profit!” (Also: “orgasms are the only point of sex, in much the same way that check-mating your opponent is the only point of playing chess.”)
^Note: The husband should always be the one stimulating the clit. You thought it would be easier to touch yourself while his hands were otherwise occupied — say, in caressing your nipples! Too bad. That smacks of masturbation, which is most definitely NOT condoned.
^^Everyone seems to be so sure that once the man has ejaculated he’s, like, instantly bored and/or falls asleep. Do male bodies really operate that differently from female bodies? Because sure, after a really strong orgasm I’m relaxed and a little sleepy sometimes (or, conversely, more alert than ever — it works both ways) and the … urgency? of lovemaking dissipates. But that just means I have a clear head with which to pay attention to my partner, and all the sleepy patience in the world to push her toward orgasm if that’s where she wants to go … so I just don’t get the problem here.