1 Corinthians 7:5. That’s a sticky verse. The most common conflict when it comes to sex in marriage is about frequency: one spouse tends to want more sex than the other, and this leads to the higher-libido spouse feeling unloved. Why doesn’t my wife want to show me love? Why doesn’t my husband desire me? Then this starts a vicious circle where the other spouse thinks, “is that all they want from me? Am I just an object?” And it goes downhill from there.
I’m not trying to answer the question how often should married couples have sex–I tackled that here–I want to look at the broader issues so that we can come to that conclusion ourselves, as a couple. So let’s dive into 1 Corinthians 7:5.
Most Things in the Christian Life Are Not Cut and Dry.
We live in constant tension, and indeed, the Bible is in tension. We ask big questions like, Is it grace or works? Is it justice or mercy? Is it free will or predestination? None of these things has easy answers; the truth is always found in the middle, after struggling. And that struggling is important, in and of itself. We’re supposed to wrestle with God on the hard questions.
First, let’s note what 1 Corinthians 7:5 does not say
Do not refuse one another, except by mutual consent and for a time . . .
He wrote do not deprive.
Deprive is not the same as refuse. I believe many people interpret 1 Corinthians 7:5 to mean refuse. Are women obligated to have sex every time a man wants it?
What Does “Do not Deprive” Actually Mean?
If I were to say to you, “do not deprive your child of good food,” what am I implying? I’m saying that your child should get the food that is commonly recognized for good health: three healthy meals a day, with some snacks. I am not saying that every time your child pulls at your leg and says, “Mommy, can I have a bag of Cheetos?” that you have to say yes. You are not depriving your child of good food by refusing a request for Cheetos.
Deprive implies that there is a level of sexual activity that is necessary for a healthy marriage. And, to extend the food analogy a little bit, this doesn’t mean that we should be aiming for the minimum, either: for instance, life in concentration camps proved that you could keep people alive with one meal a day at 800 calories. But that is NOT healthy.
We shouldn’t be aiming for the minimum; we should realize that there is a level where two people can feel intimate and close, and that is likely quite frequently. But it does not mean that it is every single time a person wants sex.
The fact that the verses preceding 1 Corinthians 7:5 say that the husband’s body is the wife’s, and the wife’s body is the husband’s, implies that one person cannot and must not force himself or herself onto the other person. And by force I’m not talking about just physical force. There’s also emotional blackmail, and there’s shutting down, and there’s telling someone, “you’re just not good enough.”
Let’s assume that it’s the wife with the lower libido for a minute (though it certainly isn’t always) and look at it this way: If her husband’s body belongs to her, then she has the ability to also say, “I do not want you using your body sexually right now with me.”
If she feels sick, or is really sad, or is exhausted, then her having ownership of his body also means that she can say, “I just can’t right now” without needing to feel guilty–if she is at the same time not depriving him. Are you TIRED of always being too tired for sex?
I believe that the admonition “do not deprive each other” refers to the relationship as a whole, not to each individual moment.
So if, in the relationship as a whole, you are having regular and frequent sex, then if one of you says, “not tonight”, that is not depriving. That is simply refusing for right now.
This article about 1 Corinthians 7:5 originally appeared here, and is used by permission.