Does “Every Man’s Battle” Enable Abuse? | Book Review
Mar 26, 2021
Wait, whaaaaaa.... But didn't Every Man's Battle sell over 4 million copies? My church's mens' group studies it every year! I bought my son a copy of the teen version to get him started off on the straight and narrow!
Don't hyperventilate on me... yet. (Although you might feel like it before you reach the end of this post.)
There's been a lot of conversation over the past few years about problematic books like Emerson Eggerichs' Love and Respect, ever since Bare Marriage's 2020 research study where L&R ranked #1 most damaging Christian marriage book in a survey of 22,000 respondents.
Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes my discussions exposing damaging resources get me in a bit of hot water. But most of the time there's this outpouring of responses sharing just how healing it is to see these issues addressed.
I believe we have a moral obligation to point out teachings that don’t align with Scripture.
So I decided to do a thorough side by side review of the original Every Man's Battle and the new 20th anniversary revised edition. It says right on the cover, “Four million copies sold” in the series.
Instead of just talking about things that I perceived to be issues with the EMB series, I decided, I’m going to buy the original one, I’m going to buy the new one, and I’m going to sit down and compare them. I’m going to go through, page by page, and I’m going to see what I really think of them--knowing what I know now, and doing the work that I do now--and I’m going to share it.
You ready to dig in with me?
TRIGGER WARNING! This book... whew. This was one of the ones I wanted to just chuck across the room almost 20 years ago, when I read it as a young new wife.
If sexual assault or sexual addiction is a trigger for you, this may not be the most comfortable article to read.
Let's start with some of the good things... cause it's always nice to open with the positive. Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoekker definitely got these things right:
Every Man's Battle (EMB) purports to address sexual addiction and lust to help men achieve purity, by following Christ and being faithful to their spouse or your future spouse. This is a terrific goal. The idea that putting effort into becoming a pure-minded man is a practical way to become a hero to your wife, or your future wife (p72, EMB verson2) is outstanding. There is nothing more heroic than a self-metered man. There is nothing sexier than a self-regulated man who is in control of his attractions and passions and has surrendered them to God. That is absolutely a winning way to be a hero to your wife.
EMB describes Jesus as having “hands that never touched a woman with dishonor”.I think that’s beautiful! That’s the standard, right? What a goal!
EMB states unequivocally that God intends for men to choose mental and emotional purity too, not just physical purity. They highlight the passage from Job, “I will make a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully.”
EMB talks bluntly about issues such as masturbation (p 102). Their approach is basically, hey if you desire holiness, masturbation is not going to get you there, because masturbation thrives off mental adultery and lustful thinking habits. I happen to agree with their perspective on masturbation, but that's a topic for a different post, not my main focus today.
EMB says acting on lust through masturbation, porn or the sex trade (going to prostitutes and massage parlors, etc) creates false intimacy. It's a get-rich-quick instant gratification without the investment or sacrifice or empathy that genuine intimacy requires.
EMB clearly states that sexual acting out is a habit formed over and over again by choices. The book also presents some contradictions (I’ll address those in a bit, p 103).
EMB's 20th Anniversary Edition removed references to the false concept of "the 72-hour rule", which appears to have originated with James Dobson rather than any medical or scientific study. If you're lucky enough to have not heard of the 72-hour rule, it suggested that men have a three-day cycle of semen production, and that--if you’re married--it's the wife's responsibility to relieve your husband at least once every 3 days, in order to avoid driving him to porn, prostitutes and brain fog. In other words, if he's not getting sex at home every 72 hours, you're making it impossible for him to keep pure thoughts. I'm relieved they removed this junk science from the new edition.
EMB pushes back on the cultural assumption that manly men don't need emotional connection (p109). Instead, they say that if you are a manly-man, in order to be truly fulfilled as a man, you do need authentic intimacy and connection. And I agree.
EMB's 20th anniversary edition workbook--most of it is really very good. I was impressed with the blunt, reflective questions, and the challenges to dig deeper into your core habit-change process, and the exercises addressed to men about really assessing themselves and how they think in order to take stock of where their trigger points are.
EMB says you should see your wife as a whole person. On p225 they emphasize making sure that when you connect with your wife, that you’re not just looking at her physical “tent”--her physicality as a sexual body--but seeing her as a whole person. They talk about even during sex, having sex with her inside meaning--recognizing her as a woman, not just viewing her as a collection of sexual parts.
But despite those ten positive messages, EMB falls far short of actually showing men how to see women as whole persons. Despite the book's attempts to change the directional flow by telling men to pour all their sexual energy on their wife instead of on all the women “out there”, it completely overlooks the fact that doing so is still essentially being a consumer of women. The only difference is that you're consuming one woman, your wife, instead of many.
Arterburn and Stoekker say they disagree with the idea that women exist for male pleasure, but EMB essentially communicates this exact same concept.
On the surface, the core message of EMB claims to be, “men, control your own eyes.” But... the simultaneous message to women is: you must be constantly available so he can feast unlimited his sexuality on you as his wife. So get ready girl, because as he cuts out other stimuli his sexual attention is going to explode and you need to be there for it, or you’re failing as a wife.
This places tremendous (and inappropriate) pressure on the wife, who is potentially dealing with intense betrayal trauma due to her husband's porn addiction or infidelities.
The 20th anniversary edition does show improvements over the original edition, and I want to give the authors credit for that. However, it still contains numerous problematic statements that should be addressed and retracted. (NOTE: page numbers referenced in this article are from the 20th anniversary edition.)
Important caveat: if Arterburn and Stoekker choose to address these, I would be absolutely happy to promote their retractions, changes, and apologies for the damaging concepts still being promoted in the book.
Now, let's break down what’s harmful in EMB.
Buckle up and hold onto your seats. Because there is an awful lot that is not good. I went through both the original and the revised edition, page by page.
Now, I'm a girl. I realize some would say "hey, you're a woman, you can't possibly get it." In fact, the authors say that themselves. (We’ll get to that.)
So, the possibility exists that I can’t comprehend EMB simply because I was born with lady parts.
But I have enough male friends who say the EMB philosophy is rubbish, to make me question whether the problems I see with the teachings here are purely because I’m female.
The biggest flaws?
First -- the erroneous assumption that all men are sexually lusting basically all the time.
Second -- the core premise is that men function in a state of lust because of their God-created male-ness.
So, this foundational philosophy communicates that God made men visually predisposed to sexual sin, and you can’t help it because it’s simply how you were created and wired. The underlying premise is that God created men predisposed to sexual sin.
Men, isn't this grossly insulting?
Isn’t it both emasculating and discouraging? You're supposed to pursue pure-mindedness, but you might never get there because God created you male, and male equals lustful. So basically, the gospel is wasted on testosterone?
Third -- the degrading, devaluing, and diminishing way Arterburn and Stoekker describe women throughout the entire book. It’s shockingly dehumanizing.
Not anywhere throughout the book do the authors give the sense that women are truly, innately, equally, valuably human. Granted, they say the words. But the tone, stories, and phrasing choices communicate a vastly different mindset.
It's possible the authors may not realize they come across this way. But, intentional or no, misogynistic sexism is rampant in the language from start to finish.
For a book that claims to be focused on retraining a man’s thought life away from sexual compulsion, EMB uses descriptions that diminish women to collections of sexualized body parts all the way through the book! It’s not even a tantalizing beginning to get men hooked on reading the book with a pivot toward holiness as you reach the end!
I’ve had multiple men tell me that reading EMB made them feel aroused and inspired greater sexual interest than they had had before reading it. One man wrote me that EMB, while supposed to be teaching him to have better sexual control, actually sparked his initial interest in porn.
EMB completely fails to describe women using words that indicate a sense of honor, of soul-beauty, or of creatures worth respecting as equally valuable, intelligent human beings.
Here’s some of the stuff that’s downright disturbing.
EMB uses consistently distasteful and hypersexualized descriptions of women.
As I read through the two editions, I started writing down phrases used to describe females. I can't imagine Jesus -- whose hands would never touch a woman with dishonor -- would use his words to describe women this way. I don’t believe godly, converted, Spirit-filled men are comfortable describing women this way either.
“A hot looking babe”
“A goddess-like blonde”
“Her ample bosom”
“A banquet of glistening flesh”
“Her lithe figure”
“This striking blonde bombshell”
“Those passing babes”
“The prettiest one, with the largest cup size”
“The curvy gym rats”
“This one blossomed early up top”
“A sensual serpentine”
“Buxom young babes”
One of the most horrifying ones - “curvy teenaged babes”
This last one is from a story of one of the authors at the gym with his tenth-grade son, watching the boy's classmates work out. That means these girls, might have been what, 15 years old?
He’s describing minors in hyper-sexualized terms.
Near the end, Stoekker describes his wife's health struggles and subsequent weight fluctuations. He calls her a “full-bodied curvy knockout”. Then she lost a lot of weight, and he describes her as a “wispy, anorexic, pre-pubescent girl”. Then she gained some weight back, and he describes her as a “wonderfully curvy, full-bodied woman”. Then he says she lost weight again, and there was this “thin babe thrust into my bed without warning”.
That’s how Stoekker describes his wife, with whom he’s saying he has deep, emotional, soul-connected intimacy; but he doesn’t once describe her mind, or her soul, or her heart, or her humanity, or her personhood! Always just her sexuality, her appearance, her collection of consumable body parts.
EMB's descriptions of men aren't much better. It describes men using phrases such as:
“snarling in frustration”
“snarling against a beautiful woman in a dream”
and other equally degrading terminologies.
Every Man's Battle is permeated with the 4 tools of abuse, presented as normal male behaviors.
“I am frustrated and angry with the church," EMB quotes a young man on p19. "The bible says women should dress modestly, but they don’t. I look at them worshipping God, but all I see are curves and legs.” The passage continues blame-shifting -- showing the young man's thought patterns and issues related to women in church, who don’t dress as he thinks they should.
This isn't to suggest females should just walk around naked and boldly assume they will never be assaulted by anyone. (Clarifier - I do think women should never be assaulted by anyone, regardless of what they're wearing or not wearing.)
But a lot of people in the world do believe that wardrobe advertises consent. That being said, no abuse victim (adult, child, boy or girl) is ever responsible for being assaulted.
One brilliant art exhibit in 2014 displayed the outfits of sexual assault victims, poignantly illustrating that clothing has very little to do with getting sexually assaulted. If revealing female outfits were the cause of sexual assault, then it would stand to reason that only provocatively dressed adult women would be assaulted, right? Except that isn't true. Sexual assault happens to women, teen girls, toddlers, infants, young boys... were all their outfits to blame? Certainly not.
There is exactly one cause of rape: choosing to rape someone else. Here's a handy visual to help with that:
There is exactly one cause of abuse: choosing to act abusively to someone else. Here's another handy visual to illustrate the concept:
EMB consistently deflects, manipulates, and minimizes criminal sexual behavior as "normal".
Page 22 describes a man who rushes home every day after work to catch his neighbor sunbathing in her bikini and masturbate while watching through his window.
That's voyeurism. If he were caught, that’s actually something she could press criminal charges over. It's not just everyday guy stuff.
Page 63 tells the story of Alex watching TV with his young sister-in-law, who falls asleep. Then it describes him masturbating to the sight of her curves while she’s innocently asleep beside him.
Not once do Arterburn and Stoekker state that this behavior is actually a form of sexual assault, or indicate the seriousness of Alex's actions toward his sister-in-law. It's implied as a typical male thing.
Page 73 talks about a youth pastor who was dismissed from his leadership position after soliciting sex from a minor in his youth group.
There’s no mention at any point in the book of the fact that this is predatory behavior, or that the church was required to file a police report, or that best practices would include paying for counseling for the victim, or that the "woman" was not, in fact, an adult woman--she was a child.
This would have been an excellent opportunity to outline the legally required course of action for church leaders to take in similar cases -- reminding readers that when a minor is endangered it is the mandated responsibility of the church to involve law enforcement and Child Protective Services (CPS). But no, Arterburn and Stoekker mention nothing about reporting criminal behavior. Again, this is negligently passed off as typical, to-be-expected male behavior.
Now, let's address some of the discrepancies and contradictions:
On page 103, sexual acting out is described as a habit formed by choices. EMB notes that sexual addictions often begin as an attempt to self-soothe after trauma, and combined with early exposure to pornography often contributes to sexually compulsive behaviors. This can be true.
However, on pages 24-28, EMB states the exact opposite. First the authors outline clinical definitions and levels of sexual addiction, based on the research of Patrick Carnes, from Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. EMB lists these clinical levels of sexual addiction as:
Level one: behaviors regarded as normal, acceptable, or tolerable, including masturbation, pornography, prostitution.
Level two: behaviors that are clearly victimizing, for which legal sanctions are enforced, and nuisance offenses such as lewdness, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and so on.
Level three: behaviors that cause grave consequences for victims and legal consequences for the addicts (I’m assuming they mean criminal consequences as opposed to civil), examples being incest, child molestation, and rape.
Arterburn and Stoekker go on to reject these levels of clinically defined sexual addiction, and to deflect blame for men's propensity for sexual compulsion onto God's creation of maleness, rather than placing the responsibility on sinful, dangerous, even criminal, choices.
On page 24, EMB acknowledges that Level One addiction clinically includes masturbation, pornography, and prostitution.
On page 25, EMB states that “viewing pornography and masturbating were rampant among my Christian brothers.”
Then they backpedal everything.
The author asks, “if I wasn’t an addict” (clearly he doesn’t want to admit that his behavior patterns align with a clinical level of sexual addiction), “and the other men” mentioned in this chapter “weren’t addicts, then what were we?"
So let’s review what is meant by the "other guys" who are being defined as not sex addicts:
the man who rushes home for voyeuristic masturbation to his sunbathing young neighbor.
the guy who overtly blames church women for his inability to control his sexual thoughts.
the man who masturbated next to his sleeping sister-in-law.
the youth pastor who had sex with a minor.
other situations illustrating clinically sexual compulsive and addictive (and even criminal) behaviors.
Stoekker describing himself dating three or four women at a time, sleeping with three women at a time, and being engaged to two women simultaneously but insisting he “wasn’t a sex addict”.
These behaviors meet the criteria for all three levels of sexual addition, but Stoekker claims the men described (including himself) were not sex addicts, even though in clinical terms they all fit the definitions of sex addiction.
Despite admitting that sexual acting out, masturbation, and pornography use was “rampant” among the Christian men he knows, he rejects the seriousness of these behaviors and tells men they shouldn’t consider themselves sex addicts.
Then EMB introduces the concept of “fractional addiction”. In doing so, the authors undermine real, scientific, clinical definitions of sexual addiction.
On page 25 - “If we categorize being totally pure and holy as zero, most Christian men we know would fall somewhere between zero and level one.”
Wait... they just described level one and higher clinical definitions sexual addiction as "rampant" among Christian men, but then--they nullify it by implying we think all the men who are doing all these things that meet clinical criteria for sexual addiction should not be called sex addicts. We're not clinicians, but we're going to invent a new ranking system because this behavior is so common we need to normalize it in order to feel better, and we don't want to admit that this many Christian men would qualify as addicts.
Even if the behavior patterns are clinically defined as sexual addiction.
On page 27, EMB quotes Barna group statistics indicating that 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors self-disclose as struggling with porn, in addition to the statement that this behavior is rampant among Christian men. Yet they again reiterate we weren’t sex addicts even though they met clinical criteria for addiction.
It's a self-contradictory circular word salad the whole way through.
The entire book fails to clearly articulate and identify compulsive sexual behavior and its accompanying deceit as any form of abuse. Not once. Not anywhere that I could find. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Next, EMB states that recovery from sexual addiction can be achieved in a matter of days to weeks. This is in direct conflict with data from leading experts in addiction, such as Dr. Omar Minwalla, at The Institute for Sexual Health. Minwalla's extensive research outlines the level of deception involved with sexual addiction, as well as the intensity of abuse and trauma caused to partners of sex addicts. EMB glosses over the lasting consequences of this trauma entirely.
On page 111, in fact, Arterburn and Stoekker overtly encourage continued deception during the "recovery" process. Here are direct quotes:
“Don’t be in a big hurry to tell your wife.”
“Perhaps you’ll want to tell your wife about your battle for purity so that she, your gracious wife, will help you win, but don’t be in a big hurry. Remember; our habits are rooted in our maleness.”
“Wives who learn of their husbands’ struggles with impurity will often see this as betrayal, and they will see their husbands as perverts.”
Again, we see the tools of abuse in action:
deflection of responsibility to blame God--He created men this way, you can’t help it.
deflection of blame for pain caused--as a woman you simply cannot comprehend sexual drives.
manipulation of male readers--encouraging them to justify ongoing deception while calling it "recovery".
manipulation of female readers--implying that betrayal trauma is the outflow of God-created maleness, rather than sinful habit choices, so if you have wounded feelings in response to your husband's sexual betrayal you are actually rejecting the way God created your husband, instead of responding to sin.
EMB blatantly encourages ongoing deception related to an addiction that thrives on deception, after minimizing the clinical criteria for addiction.
Why? They provide a few reasons:
One: you might give up before winning the battle and let her down. Better to just hide it, right?
Two: it'll create too much pressure to keep your eyes from looking at lusty images. In other words, truthful accountability is considered counter-productive.
Three: you may not be ready for her to watch you like a hawk whenever there are billboards or other attractive women around. Meaning, you don't need to bother with the traumatic consequences of her sense of betrayal.
In fact, Stoekker admits that his own wife still, after all these years, watches his eyes when they drive past sexy billboards to see if he’s checking them out.
You know what he doesn’t acknowledge? The name for his wife's actions.
It’s called residual betrayal trauma and hypervigilance. She's still living with unresolved trauma or the broken trust that is the result of it.
“Women often swing between judgement and mercy. Sometimes by the day, sometimes by the hour. Their emotions run high and it plays with your head on the battlefield.”
“The best time to bring up your struggle to your wife is after you’ve won the battle, ...which is the only genuine can’t-miss proposition in this discussion.”
In other words, if she knows and she’s hurt by it, you’re going to have to deal with her pain. You don't need that kind of bother.
Don't tell her the truth, because then you’ll have to face the consequences of the emotions she feels due to your betrayal.
Blunt reality -- there is no convenient or pain-free time to disclose sexual betrayal to your partner. The longer you wait, the more you are practicing deceit, and the greater her sense of betrayal will be. There is no scenario in which disclosing to your wife after you’ve won the battle, isn’t still going to make her feel like your relationship history was based on a lie.
Delaying is not going to make her feel better about it. Delaying merely allows you to continue living in compartmentalized deceit.
According to Arterburn and Stoekker, full honesty isn’t actually required for the intimacy they say that they’re advocating for in healthy Christian marriages.
EMB explicitly instructs men struggling with sexual compulsivity to avoid taking the steps that require facing consequences head on, moving into the truth of accepting responsibility, releasing control, and attempting to rebuild trust.
Myth: Avoid riling up the wifey, men. Good old boys know better than to disturb the little lady. She'll get hysterical and emotional and she probably can’t handle the truth. The best way to protect her is by lying to her. Truth: Someone acting in sexual compulsion cannot keep secrets, hide sin from your partner, continue living a lie, sidestep repercussions -- and still achieve intimacy and connection. You cannot battle secret sin, in secret--and expect to conquer it.
If someone tells you that disclosing to your spouse after you’ve "won the struggle" somehow means she's not going to still feel like you've ripped the rug out from under her world, they're leading you astray.
Arterburn and Stoekker, perhaps unwittingly, are teaching the same lies the serpent told Eve in the Garden of Eden.
“You will not surely die.”
You can disobey God, betray your commitments, do as you please to gratify yourself, and still experience no death to relationship. False.
You can continue patterns of compulsive deceptive behavior, maintain a facade of faithfulness, and avoid the death of trust in your marriage. False.
Betrayal admins addiction recovery does not take place without radical, total, complete, brutally painful honesty. The goal cannot be merely a “can’t-miss proposition”.
To experience healing, the goal must be a humble and genuine and disclosure of total honesty in all areas of one’s life, of giving up control over the power of keeping your secret sins, secret.
Your wife is a whole person and she has a right to make her own fully informed decisions about the level of connection, intimacy, and honesty in your marriage. Deceiving her and continuing to live a lie, is not going to fix anything.
Studies show that when a woman is living in an environment of betrayal, she’s already suffering the effects of it, even if she doesn’t know the details yet.
(If you want to know more about this, read Your Sexually Addicted Spouse by Dr Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means, based on more than ten thousand hours of research on betrayal trauma.)
“Choosing to make full disclosure on your own can be a huge mistake. Even if you decide to tell your wife, I would strongly urge you to consider telling her with a pastor or counselor in the room. This third party can help ensure that your wife hears exactly what you are saying and will be there to help her process and work through her shock from your initial revelation.” (EMB p113)
But wait, EMB repeatedly states that this is simply normal male behavior as men were created by God. Why would disclosing in the presence of a third party be necessary if it’s just the way all men are?
it’s a hugebetrayal trauma big enough that your wife might need some support when you disclose, or...
it’s really no big deal at all, in which case, why not tell her everything all the time?
Can’t have it both ways. Pick a lane.
Now, qualified counseling for your spouse after the disclosure of betrayal is a good thing.
Seek a licensed trauma therapist who understands betrayal trauma, who can through the guaranteed challenges and issues that she is going to experience.
Last but not least, let's look at how EMB teaches men to "avoid lust".
On p164 the authors outline how to handle it if you’re attracted to a woman or if a woman is attracted to you, particularly if it’s someone at work.
“Bounce your eyes.” Look anywhere but at her, in other words.
“Avoid her.” Don’t actually teach yourself to treat women as intelligent human beings, just focus all your sexual energy on your wife at home, and avoid making eye contact with any good-looking women.
“Play the dweeb.” Literally. That's exactly what they say. “Be bland and uninteresting”. Also a direct quote. “Commit social suicide,” it says. “Help her out by choosing to be boring,” if you think someone is attracted to you. “Later, when she’s no longer attracted to you, you can be your normal, interesting self again.”
In other words, reduce yourself and your identity and hope all the dangerous temptresses will forage elsewhere.
Is that how Jesus Christ related to the women around him?
Or did he focus on being real, genuine, and treating women with wholistic humanity in contrast to the unkindness of societal norms. Didn't Jesus show an example of respecting personhood, females included? Honoring women as whole humans created in the image of God, rather than collections of sexually available parts?
Every Man's Battle consistently defaults to the idea that it's okay to replace sexual compulsivity “out there” by treating your wife as a sex object. Just reroute all that sexual objectification onto the person you’ve married and instead of surrendering polluted thought patterns to the purifying of Christ, and treating women in general as creatures of immense value.
In the last 40 pages, Arterburn and Stoekker do mention that husbands should love the wife for her soul and her identity, not just her body.
But these few statements are not enough to redeem the relational strychnine woven all the way through.
The foundational premise of Every Man's Battle reveals a pervasive sense of entitlement and misogyny, an abusive self-centered mindset that treats women as less-than.
If your pastor, therapist, or counselor is recommending this book, or others in the series... please consider sharing this article with them. Find someone who is trauma-informed, who understands the nature of addiction and betrayal trauma.
If you're a spouse trying to figure out which way is up after betrayal, don’t be afraid to look for help as you journey out of the wilderness, and into the WILD.