"Holy Sex" by Michael Pearl: A Balanced Book Review
What Is Right About This Book...
Michael Pearl, the author of Holy Sex, has many good things to say. He addresses The Song of Songs (Solomon) in a straightforward, uncomplicated way, and gives a well-researched, happy, and practical assessment of it in fewer than 80 pp.
He believes that this book of the Bible is intended as a play, performed to celebrate the passionate and sincere love of a shepherd couple-turned-royalty. He believes it portrays the natural love-making of an average, young, uninhibited couple. He does not spiritualize the story into an allegory, nor does he neglect the fact that the Creator has chosen sex to represent His longed-for, close relationship with each one of us. He keeps a good balance along these lines, by spending half the book going step-by-step through each verse of the eight chapters of Song of Songs, then the second half exploring what else the Scriptures say about clean sex in an appropriate relationship. In this way, he makes clear that the book can be taken at face-value, as a celebration of erotic love, given by the Creator as a gift to married couples. He spells out that sex is intended to be fun, clean, guiltless, and helpful to both partners.
So far so good.
...And What Is Wrong
At this point, Mr. Pearl starts to fall off the tracks. He touches on sexual abuse, and then concentrates on the results of willful sexual uncleanness and misuse. The transition between these subjects is poor, and that's what I want to talk about. Mr. Pearl comes off as condemning when speaking of abuse, and how to come to enjoy sex in spite of pain and guilt associations. If I were following his advice, I'd still be stuck in a cycle of shame, horror, physical nausea, and hatred concerning all aspects of sex.
Namely, his advice is to inundate yourself with Scripture, seek and accept Christ's forgiveness, then will yourself to enjoy sex, and get on with it.
Pretend to like sex until you really like it. Just do it, and keep doing it with your spouse until you realize it's fun.— Premise of this book
Sexual Problems Which Have Nothing To Do With Promiscuity
But I have some questions:
What if your spouse does not accept that you have been wounded, and is neither tender nor patient in the sexual relationship?
What if you are not sure how to free yourself of the thought perversions and nightmares presented to you by unclean spirits, which may have been present in your life since a young age, supposing you were first sexually abused as an infant or young child?
What if you never intentionally did anything sexually perverted or wrong, but could not help what others did around or to you?
Guilt Is Not Always Due To Choices You Made
Topics Which Are Skipped
Other concerns -
Forgiveness of self is not covered.
Understanding there is no condemnation from God for what others may have done to you is skipped.
Nightmares and other spiritual and emotional issues which cannot simply be willed away are not dealt with, nor hinted at.
Generational sin, and adults passing on attitudes and spiritual issues to their children - whether born or not yet conceived - is never mentioned. Also neglected is the fact that these “spiritual gene mutations” can occur without parents intentionally involving or abusing their children in any way.
Abusive partnerships are not touched on in any manner.
Qualified To Counsel Regarding Abuse?
Michael and Debi Pearl, to the best of my knowledge, both come from stable, loving, Christian families. I am glad therefore that they do not generally give counsel regarding abusive situations. This is wise, since they apparently have no personal experience from which to speak.
However, they have made a serious mistake in speaking as if all out-if-tune relationships are due to the couple's intentional failures to behave. Abuse triggers are often at the root...not a lack of will power. And about this subject Mike and Debi are not qualified by experience to teach.
Furthermore, Mike seems to believe that physical abuse (see video below, from 2010) is the only kind which rates as horrifically harmful or worthy of attention. He is absolutely wrong. Maybe he's learned a thing or two since he had this chat.
Is Non-Physical Abuse Worthy of Marital Separation?
To Whom Is This Book Useful?
So, basically, the book is good for those wishing and hoping to enjoy and deepen their sexual union with an already decent and understanding spouse. Beyond this, it has, to my way of thinking, very limited value. It fails to cover any aspects of abuse, whether intentional or otherwise.
Problems Even Though I Married As a Virgin
My major concern while reading the second half of this book was whether Mr. Pearl had any advice concerning what to do if your experiences with sex have been primarily negative or harmful. Many of mine have.
Let me begin this section by saying that I have no sour feelings now about sex as such. I recognize it is meant to be a beautiful thing, and, in fact, was influenced by reading Song of Solomon when I was 14 to consider that marriage can be fun and healthy. I did not see this demonstrated while growing up.
Still, I have had a rough time. Almost half of my 17+ years of being married to the same man have been a continuous struggle to honor him sexually. These years have not been fun. They've been hell. Some of this has been his fault for at times being demanding and rude, not to mention oblivious of my needs (sexual and otherwise). Some has been my fault, for being afraid to speak my mind. Some has been neither of our fault--simply the same mental and spiritual struggles thousands or millions of women face every day. These include fears and loathings, and self-talk brought on by relationship problems which pre-date our marriages, and which are difficult to resolve through even the most strenuous and consistent efforts at forgiveness and healing. So where does this leave my fellow strugglers and I?
Mr. Pearl is quick to point out that pre-marital sex makes for a guilty conscience, and "dirty" feelings, leading to a distaste for sex once the honeymoon feelings wear off. Obviously, this is true in many cases.
But I was a 19-year-old virgin when I married. Clearly physical, pre-maritial sexual involvement isn't the origin of the problems for some of us.
Spirits and Fears Abound
Now let me mention what I have experienced, with the suspicion that some of this will seem familiar to you.
I have experienced sexual assaults by unclean spirits ever since I was a young child. I was sure of these experiences by the time I was nine years old, though I had no name for what happened. By the way, in parts of Asia, as I understand, they call females who have experienced such assaults "fox girls". It is a real thing.
In my early marriage, I recognized problems stemming from these assaults, and told my husband about my memories and ongoing nightmares. He passed the buck to some missionary friend in Thailand, who never so much as responded to his email. So I tried to live with the problems as best I could.
Years later, I got up my nerve to discuss this issue with a friend. He suggested I may have been physically sexually abused, as I carried all the emotional and psychological trauma symptoms of a rape victim. After exploring this issue at length, I came to the conclusion that there is zero evidence that I was ever sexually molested on a physical level. But many counselors say that what happens to the soul affects a person in much the same manner as do physical events. So I am in the same boat as any sexually abused person, as far as my emotions and reactions are concerned.
Furthermore, I know from seeking out others' stories and listening to case histories that my experiences are not unusual. They are common.
Mr. Pearl's Advice
Now to return to Mr. Pearl's advice: Pretend to like sex until you really like it. Just do it, and keep doing it with your spouse until you realize it's fun.
I've tested this advice in such a way that I believe I'm qualified to comment. I gave this method a three-year test run. Yes, three solid years.
My Test Results
In light of this, let's briefly explore some common reasons women don't enjoy sex.
1) Physical exhaustion.
2) Feeling emotionally sucked dry, or feeling out-of-sorts.
3) Hormonal changes, resulting in either simple disinterest or physical/sexual pain.
If my reasons had centered on any of these factors, three years should have been long enough to allow good things to happen, and everything should have come to rights. However, remaining frigid no matter what I tried, and feeling raped an average of twice a week did not improve my outlook on sex. I remained compliant, which kept my marriage together...in name, at least - but this never resolved any of my heart-issues. I still felt nauseous, humiliated, and enraged after every episode of "fun", and often cried myself to sleep, while my spouse snored obliviously by my side.
This story remained similar for another two years, while I worked my way through counseling to learn how to forgive myself and others. I concentrated on learning new patterns mentally, emotionally, and sexually.
Bitterly Depressive Nights
I can now tolerate being with my spouse sexually. Sometimes I even enjoy going to bed with him, though he is still largely oblivious, and sometimes rude and demanding. It is because of the power of Christ's forgiveness acting through me that I can honor him sexually, at least most of the time. It has nothing to do with, "Try, try again," or personal willpower. It is Christ acting through me.
The other questions given out earlier - about false guilt, and deliberate abuse of an emotional, sexual, or psychological nature - remain unanswered, as far as the book Holy Sex is concerned. They are apparently non-questions to Mr. Pearl.
So what is the upshot? To whom is this book valuable, and for whom might it be destructive? If I had a single concern which loomed above the rest, it would be this:
Those who have experienced abuse of any kind frequently feel guilty enough without having someone else tell them that they did something wrong. Therefore, having questions of abuse or ignorance or spiritual shame ignored, and being told that you are wrong for not liking sex, is one of the most harmful things possible. As I said earlier, when seen on video the Pearls are often warm and down-to-earth. But sometimes, they come across as condemning know-it-alls.
If I picked up this book looking for answers (luckily I was merely curious), I would have felt punched in the gut by the "advice" given. It definitely would not have felt like an encouraging arm around my shoulders. And if I had not already gone through a period of feeling scathed by fellow Christians, and come through it stronger for the Creator's mercy and grace, I would have been further soured on Christian "help".
I Enjoy Being Challenged...But Not Yelled At.
Good Commentary, Bad Self-Help Book
Therefore, as a commentary on a lovely Bible book meant to inspire lovely relationships, this book is good. As an instructional or self-help book, it falls short of the most necessary marks. And as a book demonstrating Christ's love, it feels cut off in the middle.
Perhaps the Pearls were aiming to keep the book short. That it is. Too short. For someone in a happy relationship, I've no doubt it makes a satisfying read. For the rest of us, it is worse than a tough steak sans sauce, with a plain baked potato on the side, and no beverage at hand.
I believe Mr. Pearl would have done well to stop with the commentary portion. If he felt the need to talk about how guilt and intentional sexual misconduct destroy good marriages, then I'm glad he did that...but I wish he would have put this challenge in its own booklet or article. Since he didn't, he might at least have included a section on how to truly forgive others and yourself. Without this, the book has the probability of increasing suicides and self-harm among struggling couples...not of fostering fellowship and understanding.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit."— Romans 8:1
Jesus Wants Friendships, Not Fights
Happiness vs. Holiness
For someone who is in Christ, the ultimate goal should never be personal happiness. We are not called to be happy, we are called to be holy. Love does not seek its own happiness above others' needs. It sympathizes, empathizes, is patient but corrects where necessary, and always leads by example. (I Corinthians 13)
Love gives chances, but is not a pushover.
When we allow Christ to work these things into our beings--our thinking habits, our feelings, and our actions--we will be living circumspectly, and will be becoming fit to be His bride. Christ wants a partnership with us. Where do you think all those natural longings for the "perfect marriage" come from? They are a reflection of the desires He has put into us to be with Him, in eternal relationship and partnership. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
In light of this, physical marriage is an opportunity to practice being in relationship with Christ, and to come to understand what He wants and thinks a little bit more. Knowing Christ deeply will not make all the hardships go away, nor will it automatically turn your spouse into a delightful marriage partner. But it will change you from the inside out, allowing you to be all you were created to be, regardless of circumstances or what anyone else in your life does.
One day, all the brokenness will be healed. All the pain will be put away. All the sorrow will be turned to joy. All the fear will be erased by perfect love. And all our longings for the perfect relationship will be turned into reality. (Revelation 21:4)
Meanwhile, if your spouse is truly abusive, not just human and imperfect, you need to ask God to show you when enough is enough. But do not leave or call it quits simply because your feelings get hurt. Learn to forgive. Learn to live in grace and fullness, too, which can mean not continually getting beat up by someone's intentional efforts to destroy your spirit. Christ is the ultimate authority on marriage, and as such, needs to be consulted as to your particular situation. Keep your eyes on Him, and what He wants for the two of you; not on your spouse, and whatever they are doing or not doing.
NOT Michael Pearl...But Instructive and Relevant to Spirituality and Sex Within Marriage
I am eager to hear your thoughts on this book (supposing you have actually read it), or on what the Bible has to say about developing and maintaining healthy sexual relationships. Please comment with your most constructive thoughts.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Joilene Rasmussen