Fourteen years into their marriage, Doug and Leah Baxter are no different from most churchgoing couples. Two kids, a house in the suburbs, a loving relationship…and a practically nonexistent sex life. Desperate to restore the romance, they meet with a sex therapist. Week by week, as they follow their therapist’s recommendations, their relationship blossoms, especially as Leah works to cast aside the sexual and spiritual roadblocks that have entangled her since high school. How can she discover the passionate sex life God intends for marriage? How can she overcome her discomfort with her body? How can she become the lover her husband has prayed for…and how can Doug learn to meet her sexual needs?
Warnings: prude shaming, conservative marriage ideology, depictions of trauma
Reviving Leah is a three part series that was published in single instalments, and was clearly originally intended to be longer, as the third part ends on a cliffhanger. Taken together, they form something of an incomplete novella. The author’s intent was to create a story that Christian married couples could use together to rekindle the sexual passion of their marriages. I will start this intro by stating that I was actually rather thrilled in my traversal of the internet to stumble upon a book self describing as Christian Erotica. As strange as the concept sounds, I don’t actually believe that being a Christian and reading erotica are mutually exclusive, or think that it is impossible to create a story that brings eroticism to a Christian marriage. So I was very curious about this, and although I didn’t go in with many expectations, I didn’t go in set in the idea of immediately writing it off, either.
Each part of the story involves one session with the sex therapist and one sex scene afterwards to try out the therapist’s advice. Now, sex therapy is likely not the most comfortable and easy going of experiences; it’s bound to be awkward for many people to open up to a complete stranger about their sex lives, or their lack of sex lives. As such I would expect there to be a certain hesitancy in the characters and a shyness about the topics. But the dialogue is so incredibly wooden that I felt like I was watching one of those staged PSA videos for kids about drugs or bullying. While the prose is fine, the dialogue makes the whole experience feel strange, and limits the ability to make the characters feel like vibrant people. Doug does nothing but smile encouragingly when sex is brought up, Leah calls his penis “his thing” like she’s a preteen who’s never seen one before, and the therapist is a robotic life lessons dispenser. Every kid knows that the best educational content doesn’t feel like it’s actively trying so hard to be educational, and educational content for adults is no exception. The result is a very dry, clunky read that had me rolling my eyes a little.
Leah is the character who’s POV we are in for the duration of the book, and we do get quite a bit attached to her and her struggles with sex and body image. The author does a a very good job at making her relatable, especially to it’s target audience I would imagine, as her struggles are absolutely not uncommon. I’m going to go into the purity culture aspect of the book a little bit later but for now I want to talk a bit about how Leah’s struggles are unfortunately treated like the underlying issue in their relationship, and I was uncomfortable with how much of the book felt like it was about shaming her for not being interested in sex. It treats her lack of sexual interest as a failing on her part, as something she needs to fix in order to please her husband, and the therapist never negates this notion.
Studies show that most women need stimulation other than penetration to achieve orgasm, with around 25% of women routinely faking their orgasms, and up to 80% admit to having faked at some point in the past. These numbers do not change based on whether they are married or single, and married women being sexually unsatisfied in their relationships is a very common issue. Considering that conservative women are both expected to look after the workings of the house as well as the rearing of the children, and then on top of that to find sex an unsatisfying experience when they are already worn out and tired, is it any wonder that Leah, the stand-in character all these women are meant to relate to, isn’t very interested in sex? And why should Leah be expected to have sex to please her husband when he is clearly not interested in foreplay or any activities that would sexually benefit her? Doug seems to do absolutely nothing to help get her into the mood, and the book never explores Leah’s sexual gratification as anything other than a direct response to Doug’s.
I also would have liked more incorporation of a spiritual component, if this is meant to be about how growing together in intimacy also increases our spiritual connection with God. There are a few throwaway references to loving the body that God created, but ultimately how our sexual experiences effect our relationship with God is never really actually touched on. It appears to be incidental in the author’s mind, rather than connected. I would have liked to see something incorporating the reading of Song of Songs, incorporating prayer and worship, making God an integral part of the love making, but instead it really felt hollow, and lacking in that spirituality that could have made this a beautiful piece.
Speaking of Leah’s struggles, the book’s most hauntingly accurate aspect is it’s depictions of the effects that purity culture had on Leah. In a passage that will ring as immediately familiar to any Christian who grew up being taught purity doctrine, it is described how while they were dating sex was an exciting taboo that Leah was forever having to stave off, to resist the temptation of. And how by the time she was married and finally “allowed” to have sex, sexuality had become so embroiled in feelings of shame and self loathing that she couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for it, and began to experience the opposite problem. Now sexual arousal was harder to indulge, because it couldn’t simply be turned on now like a faucet. This could be a hauntingly powerful piece laying the problems with purity culture bare, but that is not what it is as it is never taken to the conclusion of actually coming down on purity culture. Instead, where the author falters is in clearly not understanding that this isn’t a coincidence that happens to happen sometimes, but rather a direct and consistent result of purity culture.
This is evidenced later down the line by the treating of Leah’s lack of sex drive as the problem, rather than Doug’s lack of sexual prowess. The sex therapist’s advice is entirely terrible; starting with the first assignment which was simply “have sex every day, even if you don’t want to.” This is telling in it’s removing of Leah’s sexual agency; Leah doesn’t get to decide if she wants to have sex or not, because she’s said “no” too much, so now she isn’t allowed to. Of course it works in the book, because that’s what the point of it is, but Leah’s reports to the therapist later had me pulling my hair out. She mentions enjoying sex as they get going because it “removed the guilt from having to say no all the time.” She never “had” to say no, she wanted to say no, because she did not want sex. The idea that she had to feel guilty about that and fix it made my blood boil.
The author does her best to create a sexy enough environment that we, the reader, can be excited with the characters. We are consistently told that despite their middle age, the characters are quite attractive. Leah makes frequent mention that good looks are not the reason they haven’t been fucking (not that Leah says ‘fucking’!), as they haven’t put on much weight in their years and Doug has managed to keep reasonably fit, and her breasts, which were already large to begin with, only got larger after her pregnancies! Bully for them! This aspect isn’t horrible, but it did make me roll my eyes. Considering this book is presumably intended for middle aged couples trying to also rekindle their sex lives with each other, it felt a little uncharitable to make these two the epitome of conventional attractiveness when your target audience is, much more commonly, not like this.
As for the sex itself? I will say it’s written well. The author is quite descriptive of the emotions, experiences, and the intimacy of the moment and I can’t really complain about the prose. What I can complain about is the author’s sheer lack of creativity. That makes for… well, really really boring reading. There are all sorts of things the therapist could have suggested to them, like Leah taking time to explore her own body and learn herself, or Doug taking time for foreplay, and learning her turn-ons. I’m not exactly expecting bondage or anything here, but oral sex is probably the number one go-to to help a woman get into the mood. Leah is so skittish about anything remotely new sexually (part two is entirely devoted to the novel concept of “positions other than missionary”) and reacts to sex like a teenager, scandalized by the thought of most of it. (Not to mention her brilliant decision to buy coconut oil for lube instead of just… buying lube.)
So there you have it, Reviving Leah is everything I didn’t want it to be and nothing that I did want it to be. It even ends on a cliffhanger because it hasn’t been continued since 2015, which shows that it was obviously not a successful experiment. As a piece about spiritual marital intimacy, Reviving Leah doesn’t work, but it isn’t that it couldn’t have worked. The issue is that the author fails to understand what about erotica makes erotica sexy. The author also fails to understand the root of her character’s trauma, but that honestly makes me more sad for the author than upset at the book.
Have you read Reviving Leah? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!