Someone approached me not long ago, wondering what the Bible says about sexual activity that lies outside of sexual intercourse. It’s a good question; Christians aren’t exactly known for embracing variety in their sexual repertoire. Is God’s design limited to vanilla sex? Is sexual experimentation a compromise with the world? Or may Christians feel free to explore ways of spicing up life in their bedroom?
The Bible, of course, doesn’t give us an exhaustive index of all sexual behaviors, listing which are acceptable and which are not. The bible doesn’t mention, for example, anal sex, sex toys, role play, sexual fetishes, or other sexual activity considered kinky. However, neither does Scripture leave us without guidance as we navigate how we may – and may not – enjoy our sexuality.
Understanding God’s purpose for us in sex helps us both to set proper boundaries and to embrace what God permits. At creation, God's designs his image-bearers as embodied and sexual beings, and he creates marriage as the context for sexual expression. God establishes marriage as a covenant relationship that both unites as one flesh and forsakes all others (Genesis 1). Furthermore, Paul writes in Ephesians 5:32 that the relationship between husband and wife mirrors that of Christ and the church--marriage reflects the glory of Christ’s covenant-love for his bride. Marital sex, then, is a way we may glorify Christ by experiencing the joy of covenant intimacy. The pleasure of sex points us to the ultimate reality of our relationship with Jesus.
The Old Testament book Song of Songs gives fuller expression to what this looks like. This lengthy and sexually graphic poem describes what sex can be between husband and wife when it points to Christ. Because some of the metaphors are admittedly strange, the message can be missed (I’m pretty sure I’ve never told my wife that her nose looks like the Tower of Lebanon). But with careful reading, the sensuality of this book begins to emerge. In the pages of this book, we find the woman admiring her husband’s erection (5:14), and her husband delighting in his wife as she becomes sexually aroused (7:2). It is clear that God’s intention for sex is our sensual enjoyment of one another. The two lovers enjoy one another with all their senses, and they embrace the delight of sexual pleasure – including (quite likely) oral sex (2:3-6).
This means at least that God intends sex to be sensual, playful, and exciting. Sex isn’t just for procreation or physical release – it’s a way that we enjoy the bodies that God created. And that can allow us the freedom to explore a variety of sexual activity. However, other factors must be considered.
Some forms of sexual activity between a married couple fall outside the realm of the usual. Perhaps your spouse shares a sexual fantasy or desire that is…different. Or, sex toys pique our curiosity. May we include these in our marriage? It is helpful to distinguish between activities that are forbidden by God and those that are just different.
Since marriage leaves all others and cleaves together (Genesis 1) and portrays the covenant relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32), any behavior that would take away from that covenant is off-limits. This means including others in our sexual relationship (whether in person, or through pornography). Going outside of our marriage for sexual gratification is also a violation of this relationship, as is anything that could become an obsession or a necessity in your marriage bed. Yet, within those boundaries, God allows much freedom for sexual experimentation and play.
Some sexual activities may not be explicitly forbidden in the bible, but are nonetheless unwise. Any sexual activity that puts you or your spouse at risk of injury or illness would be unwise. Anal sex, for example, exposes a person to significant risk – risk of infection and risk of damaging tissue. Sending explicit pictures of one another carries the risk of the images falling into the wrong hands. As we consider what is and is not acceptable in our marriage bed, we must weigh the wisdom of what we wish to try – even if it is not explicitly forbidden by God.
Finally, we must consider honestly whether or not the sexual activity that we want to try communicates love and respect to our spouse. Our God-glorifying covenant unity is the whole point, after all. In particular, we may wish to try something new, and find that our spouse is uncomfortable. Repeatedly pressuring a spouse to do something they don’t want to do runs counter to the unifying purpose of sex. Participating in sexual activity that harms their dignity will harm your marriage. The lines here are not always clear-cut, of course. What one couple considers degrading or harmful will be seen by another couple as acceptable. Honest communication and prayerful discernment will lead to an appropriate understanding. Thinking of sex as something given rather than taken is a good place to start.
God designed sex as a playground for marriage. Around the playground is a fence that protects us from what may harm us, and creates the space for experimentation and intimacy. Within this playground, we may embrace the variety of God’s gift to the glory of Christ.