There is an episode of The Simpsons where both Homer and Marge are lying in bed together, each one waiting for the other person to make the first amorous move. “Do you want to… you know…?” one says to the other. “Oh, uhh….sure, I guess we could…” comes the awkward reply. As trivial as it seems, initiating sex between yourself and your spouse carries considerable meaning. Does the Bible have anything to say about who takes the lead and why it matters?
It’s not uncommon for couples to feel tension in this area of their relationship; if a husband or a wife feel that they are always the one pursuing the other for sex, or if they feel as though they are never being pursued, conflict can quickly break out. Maybe you rarely take the lead in the bedroom, and you wonder what’s the big deal. After all, as long as you’re having sex, does it really matter who makes the first move? What we often miss are the relationship dynamics that are woven into who makes the first move.
Have you ever been in a friendship that felt one-sided? You invite a couple over for dinner…and out for a movie…and a hockey game…but after awhile, you get the uneasy feeling that your friends aren’t quite as committed to the friendship as you are. You might even question their interest in you. Do they enjoy your company, or do they just enjoy what you do for them? While healthy friendships don’t spend a lot of energy keeping score, they also enjoy a balance of give and take.
Marriage--and sex--is similar. In a way, sex is about more than just physically coming together; it’s also the dance of becoming vulnerable, and expressing desire--and then reciprocating that desire. Communicating your desire to have sex with your spouse demonstrates to them that you find them desirable, attractive, and beautiful--not just physically, but as a whole person. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that lust simply desires a sexual experience, while eros (sexual love) is a desire for a person. Expressing sexual desire for your husband shows that you want to connect with him; expressing your sexual desire for your wife is one way to show your wife that you find her beautiful as a person, because you as a spouse are showing that you have a need to connect with your partner at the most personal level of who they are.
Another way to see this is that when you take the lead in having sex, you are making yourself vulnerable to another person in a way that, when mutually practiced, can strengthen a relationship. When you ask for sex, you are expressing a need and a desire that, in the biblical understanding of marriage, can only be met by one other person. That’s a major expression of dependence and trust in another person! Never becoming vulnerable by expressing your need for sex can leave the impression (to yourself or to your spouse) that you are self-sufficient, that in your marriage you don’t have to risk the rejection of asking for someone else to meet your sexual needs in the relationship.
Does the Bible say anything about initiating sex? Well, yes and no. There are no explicit instructions on who should initiate, and how often. However, scholars have noted that the Song of Songs, a book of erotic love poetry written as a dialogue between two lovers, begins with the woman initiating sex with her husband: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” the woman begins (Song of Songs 1:1) From there, the two engage in a spicy back-and-forth of sexual desire. What is noteworthy here is that the woman takes the lead, particularly in a culture that tended to be more patriarchal. This matters because in more recent times, our culture has communicated a message that “good girls control their desires.” As a result, there are marriages today in which women are reluctant to initiate sex for fear that they will be seen as inappropriately aggressive. The biblical message looks different; sexual desire and passion is presented in a positive light, as is taking the initiative.
Of course, there may be other factors that make taking the lead difficult. Job stress. Exhaustion after spending a whole day caring for young children. Relationship tensions that make sexual intimacy difficult. Personal hygiene issues that can dampen sexual desire for your spouse. Fear of rejection. Any of these, and more, can make sex feel like one more chore on a long list, and certainly not something a person desires to seek out! If you are in a position where your spouse rarely takes the lead, consider what is in your power to remove some of the barriers that may be preventing your spouse from initiating sex.
Every couple communicates differently, and every couple has a different language that they use to express their desire. For some, expressing the desire to have sex is as simple as asking: “Are you in the mood to have sex tonight?” For others, that feels way too formal, and entirely unromantic. Instead, a back-rub, or flirtatious behavior sends the message. Having the conversation with your husband or your wife about their “language” of initiation is a good place to start. Ask them how they express their sexual desire when they are in the mood; you might even find out that they have been amorous, and you’ve just been missing out on their signals! Ask them how they would expect you to communicate your desire. What sorts of messages are you sending? Are these messages clearly understood by your spouse?
Of course, it’s not reasonable to expect that every time you express your desire for sex, that your spouse should respond positively (here’s an article that includes suggestions for what to do when one of you wants sex, but the other isn’t in the mood). However, healthy couples find ways for both husband and wife to express their sexual desire to one another. Make a commitment as a couple to mutually express your desire for sexual intimacy with one another!