We don’t talk about sex very much. Sure, we might joke about it (the first working title for this article was The Missionary Position), but we don’t actually talk about it very much. Truth is, most folks are scared to death to have an honest, non-joking, realistic talk about sex. Maybe with a good friend, but with their spouse? Gasp. But the truth is, it matters. It’s not the biggest deal, but it’s a real deal.
And it comes up all the time in my role as a pastoral counselor to missionaries.
A healthy, mutually enjoyable sex life is a good thing and is worth pursuing. It won’t make everything rainbows and butterflies, but it is a great mediator for the hard times, making things a little less awful.
That being said, it’s even more important to talk about this in the context of non-satisfying love lives. Turns out, the power of a non-functioning sex life to taint everything is stronger than the power of a healthy sex life to improve everything.
Dr. Barry McCarthy, researcher and writer, says,
“A core concept is the paradoxical role of sexuality in the lives of individuals and couples. Healthy sexuality has a 15-20 percent positive, integral role. Dysfunctional, conflictual or avoidant sexuality has an inordinately powerful negative role. Clinicians underestimate the impact of sexual dysfunction and conflict. Sex needs to be dealt with directly—sexuality is more than a symptom.” 
In other words, a healthy, satisfying sex life contributes, at its maximum, to about 20% of a person’s happiness and well-being. But when things aren’t so great, when a couple is “demoralized and alienated,” McCarthy says that “sexuality has a 50-75 percent role of subverting intimacy and threatening marital stability.” 
He further clarifies that he’s not talking about a problem that is acute or new, but a problem that’s been festering and has become “chronic and severe.”
It would be great if cross-cultural couples didn’t wait until their sexual issues were chronic and severe. It doesn’t have to be so difficult so often and for so long. But we must be willing to talk about it.
Discussing sex openly and honestly is crucial to having sex openly and honestly.
Writing for The Gottman Institute, Kyle Benson writes:
“Let’s talk about sex, because it turns out the most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.”
Elizabeth referenced this statistic in one of her articles, explaining,
“If you can’t talk about sex with each other, the likelihood that you’re having mutually satisfying sex is pretty low. But talking about sex can be risky. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know. You might feel rejected.”
So let’s talk about married sexuality on the field. Let’s figure out how to have healthier conversations about sex with our partners, conversations that are filled with safety, mutual trust, and deep attunement. Men, consider starting here: 3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife.
But before we go any further, a word to our friends who are single:
Of course, single people are sexual beings too, and we need to talk about Sex and the Single Missionary, and not just in the negative “don’t do this and definitely don’t do that” manner. I hope somebody writes that article, but for now, that’s beyond the scope of this piece. Seriously though, if you write it, send it to me and we’ll see about getting it published here. It needs to be written.
Sex is really complex, and the opportunities for it to go sideways are many. Sex in marriage is often a place of deep insecurities, unmet needs, fear, shame, anger, and even grief.
And that’s in your passport country.
For the cross-cultural couple, challenges start before you even arrive. Pre-field training and fundraising might have you traipsing all over, living in spare rooms, sharing space with kids, camping out in hotels, etc. These things do not necessarily lead to a vibrant and exciting sex life. They don’t have to kill it, of course, but they don’t necessarily help.
Once you arrive on the field, you may discover local taboos that impact your marriage (no touching in public, for example) or a climate that’s way too HOT for warm bodies. Sweaty bodies under a mosquito net may look romantic in the movies, but that’s because in the movies you can’t hear the neighbors’ chickens, there aren’t giant lizards (or rats) squirming throughout the ceiling, your kids didn’t just throw up, you’re not in language school, and you don’t smell like this.
You might lack access to regular showers (or water in general) and privacy might be harder to come by; even if no one can see you making love, you might live in a place where people can hear everything. If that’s different than where you came from, chances are it’s not an aphrodisiac.
Conjugating verbs all day might not leave you with enough energy to conjugate anything else.
People often begin their cross-cultural service with a young family, or they start having kids while they’re on the field. Across the board, this is a challenging time for couples, with sexuality necessarily changing. This season always requires a couple’s sexuality to pivot. That doesn’t mean it has to be worse, but it will change. If that change is happening at the same time as all sorts of other stressors, you may not have enough bandwidth to address or deal with things.
I was discussing a draft of this article with my wife, Elizabeth, and she so eloquently put it like this, “Basically, everything in the world is conspiring against your sex life.”
But again, there is hope!
Lots of folks have written about sex, and it’s not all slutty. In fact, much of it is very helpful, and even researched. There is help available!
If this is an area of your life that is not going well, check out some of these ideas, get a book or two, and begin talking about it. If this is an area of your life that is going well, check out some of these ideas, get a book or two, and keep talking about it!
Talk about it, but not right after it. Analyzing a sexual experience right after you’ve had it risks all sorts of negative things, so DO NOT DO IT. Set aside a time that feels private and safe and talk about it. If you feel like you can’t talk about sex with your spouse, find a trusted and confidential person and begin to explore why talking about it is so hard. This does not mean you shouldn’t talk about sex during sex. In fact, learning how to state your needs and desires clearly (and kindly) during sex is one of the skills many of the books linked below deal with.
Prioritize it. Do you need to schedule it? People think that scheduling sex is not romantic, but we schedule other things that we enjoy or that we think are healthy for us. So why not this? Also, I find this reasoning compelling:
“It could be argued that the importance of spontaneous touching is one of the most overrated aspects of intimate connections, particularly in the context of a long-term relationship. As we have suggested, to have a successful party, one must plan ahead. That doesn’t mean anything about the spontaneity that may happen once the party is underway.” 
Plus, if you have kids and you live abroad, NOT scheduling it is nearly the same thing as PLANNING to never do it. Are hotels cheaper where you live? Get a room. Even if you only use it for an afternoon. It’s probably cheaper than dinner and a movie where you come from.
Recognize that women have desire too. If you’re a woman who has a sex drive or whose desire seems stronger and more frequent than your husband’s, you’re not a weirdo or a freak. You’re actually pretty normal. It’s time to put this damaging myth to rest. Elizabeth wrote about this:
“The fact that sexlessness was primarily dependent on the man was news to me as women often get slandered in culture for being “frigid.” This mischaracterization seems key to common “Christian” teaching that women want affection and connection, while men want sex. Research shows that this traditional approach is unhelpful in the sexual arena: women want good sex too.”
Get a Do Not Disturb sign (or a pink thing). Many of us live in places without central air conditioning, meaning the door is closed when the air’s on, whether or not we need privacy. Years ago, we decided to tell our kids that they can knock on our door unless we have “the pink thing” on the door. For us, “the pink thing” is just an old pink hairband; it’s also a fantastic sex aid. We have four kids, and we want them to know they can knock on the door without making us mad or irritated — unless the pink thing’s on the door. When the pink thing’s present, they can only knock if someone’s bleeding or if the house is on fire. It might not seem like a big deal, but having a lock on the door AND the pink thing provides a zone of safety that is very helpful. And if my kids ever read this article, Hi. We also use the pink thing when we just want some privacy to talk or read the news or browse Facebook. It’s not always sexy time, so don’t freak out thinking “Whoa. That thing was ALWAYS on their door!” I mean, sometimes…
Recognize the impact of sexual assault or abuse. If abuse or assault is part of either spouse’s history, and if you feel like there’s any chance that it’s having a negative impact on your sex life, I highly encourage you to figure out a way to talk with a trained therapist who can walk with you through whatever needs to be walked through. I also realize that ongoing sexual harassment is common in some contexts. If that’s the case, again, make sure you are regularly processing with someone who can help bear those stories. You don’t have to hold those experiences alone, and you’re not weak or faithless if they leave a mark.
Deal with porn. Porn use by either spouse will change the sexual relationship. Andy Bruner wrote this:
“Recovery is possible. It’s a ton of work, for sure. But it does happen. Kay said for years that when she wrote her memoir, it would be called Pornography Saved My Marriage, because that was our experience: after going through the pain together, after healing together, our marriage was stronger than it had ever been before.”
Read his full article here.
Resources to continue the conversation
Here’s a list of sex books I recommend all the time: On Making Love
Three fantastic articles from Elizabeth:
What I Want to Teach My Daughters About Married Sex
What Christians can Learn from a New York Times Article About Sleeping with Married Men
Women Have Desire Too: The Thing we Overlook When We Talk About the Billy Graham Rule
I know that one article can’t fix anything, but maybe many can. So check these out, read some books, start talking.
A woman with decades of experience in living abroad and serving cross-cultural workers recently said, “Here’s to sexually satisfied and great missionary marriages around the globe!”
Yup, that’s my prayer too. God bless, and have a fantastic day!
— Jonathan Trotter
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
 McCarthy, Barry. Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy (p. 5).
 Ibid. (p. 31).
 Weiner, Linda, and Constance Avery-Clark. Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy (p.118).