What is Sexually Permissible in Marriage?
Years ago, my wife Lauren and I were doing pre-marriage counseling for a couple who had saved themselves for marriage. They were looking forward to getting married, and we did our pre-marriage counseling with that couple the way we always do. We saved the conversation about sexual activity within marriage until the very last session before their wedding ceremony. When they showed up to talk about this subject, they were ready to go. They were very innocent, but they were also very interested. They had a lot of very specific questions about the different kinds of things they wanted to do together on their honeymoon and on their wedding night. They asked very specific questions – is this activity okay? Is that activity all right? Are we allowed to do this? Are we allowed to do that?
I’m not going to go into specifics in terms of a list of activities. So many things are better talked about in the context of a personal and private conversation. But the question is a good one that many people ask and that I’ve had to answer over the years, which is what is sexually permissible in marriage?
The reality is the question really is best understood when you think about the fact that in the Scriptures, the delight of the marriage bed and the joys of sexuality are what is celebrated. This is important to say because Christians clearly believe that sex outside of marriage is sinful and wrong. We want to admonish anyone who would engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, but inside of marriage, we want to celebrate it. We want to agree with God that this is a good and precious gift and is to be celebrated. And within marriage, what the Bible emphasizes are the joys and the delights and the privileges, not the limitations. In fact, in Song of Songs 2:3-5, it says, “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men with great delight, I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste, he brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.”
Now, this is a very ancient way of speaking, and it’s a very poetic way of speaking. But it is, in the ancient and poetic sense, a very sexual way of speaking. The woman here in the Song of Songs is singing about her desire to participate in all of the joys available to her in the marriage bed. Again, there is not a specific list of activities here, but the marriage sexual relationship is portrayed as a buffet that’s full of delights, that’s full of delicacies, and you are invited to partake of all of them. That is the dominant way that sexual activity within marriage is portrayed in the text of Scripture. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. It doesn’t mean there are no limitations. What I want to do is give you three general limitations on the kinds of behaviors that are limited sexually in marriage.
Three General Limitations on the Kinds of Behaviors that are Limited Sexually in Marriage
1. You May Not Include Other People
The first limitation is that you may not include other people. That is to say that sex in marriage is an exclusive sort of thing and is not to include anyone other than the marriage partners. Proverbs 5:15-20 says, “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulterous?”
This is a passage of Scripture that celebrates the exclusivity of marital love. And there are, quite frankly, many ways that you could include other people in your relationship. You could include real physical people with fornication and adultery in these kinds of ways. You could include digital people with the use of pornography. Pornography is on the rise and is used by married couples, probably as much as single people. The exclusivity of marital love includes forbidding other people even if they are on the screen. Finally, I’d say that you can include other people in your mind. This is when we lust in our hearts, and the Bible condemns the inclusion of other people in your marital sexual relationship, even if that person is only existing in your heart and even if nobody knows about it but you. You may not include other people in your marital sexual relationship. That’s the first limitation.
2. You May Not Harm Each Other
A second limitation is that you may not harm each other. You may not do things to one another that are harmful. Marital sexual behavior is a loving kind of behavior. It is a warm, tender, gentle, loving kind of behavior, and we do not harm other people. Again this pornographic culture that we are living in can train people to think about sex in a corrupt way that might engender thoughts of doing harm. Quite frankly, we live in a violent culture, in a selfish culture where people can think that sex is to be on demand and to be had their way. But when we think of sex, as the Bible would have us think about sex, we’ve got to think of it as a loving, gentle, tender kind of thing. In the Song of Songs passage above, the woman who is enjoying the sexual relationship with her husband says that his banner over her is love. There’s no sense of harm or pain; there’s just a sense of tender joy and delight. So you may not include other people, and you may not harm each other.
3. You May Not Insist on Your Own Way
Then finally, I’ll say you may not insist on your own way. You may not insist on your own way. In 1 Corinthians 13, that great love chapter in the Bible. The apostle Paul was explaining what love is, and in the midst of loving things, he says in verse 5 that love does not insist on its own way.
This is really important. So often, in the marriage sexual relationship, you’ll have one member of the couple who has a specific sexual activity in mind that they are interested in. And often, the other person will say, “I don’t want to do that.” Well, the response, when that happens, is not to get into an argument about it. It is not for the person who wants to try something else or to do something different; it is not to die on the hill and insist on their own way and demand that they get what they want. The Bible says love does not insist on its own.
We’re not talking about the existence of a sexual relationship at all. The Bible commands in 1 Corinthians 7 that married couples are supposed to come together regularly and enjoy sexual activity together. But when it comes to specific and unique requests, it’s not wrong to want to try new things. It’s not wrong to want to enjoy one another in new and fresh experiences. But it is wrong to insist that something be your way. And so, if you are quite frankly, this is often a problem with men. If you are a man who wants to try something that your wife is uninterested in, is nervous about, or is uncomfortable with, then it is your responsibility to love her and to not insist on your own way, and to forget about it. To remove it from your catalog of options and delight in your wife in sexual ways that make you both feel comfortable and both feel joy.
Those are the limitations. There are three really important limitations. They are limitations that are meant to add to marital sexual joy and not take away from it because sex in marriage is a gift and should be celebrated as such by every married person.