This is the first part of a three-part series on the nature of consent.
In fundamentalist religious circles, much has been made of the idea that acceptance of consent as a positive standard for sex will lead to the crumbling of the moral foundations of society. This is often tied to the idea that some LGBTQ people are supposedly trying to undermine marriage by defining marriage as a loving, committed relationship between two consenting adults while rejecting the more traditional* view of marriage as only being a loving, committed relationship between a cisgender man and cisgender woman.
The idea is that consent is a low moral standard for sex, and to set consent as the universal standard would be to regress to a lesser state of morality. But the truth is, if a C for consent is considered a passing grade, the sexual mores of many cultures and nations would receive an F.
For those of us who grew up in fundamentalist Christian cultures in the United States, it’s easy to point fingers at other nations, other cultures, and other religions. Forced marriage, child brides, sex trafficking, honor killings, female genital mutilation, corrective rape — we wave aside those obvious examples of non-consent (and the punishment and prevention of consent and pleasure) as being relics of some nebulous culture that we call “African” or “Muslim.” Not only is this a huge generalization that is unfair to people from the many countries and cultures within Africa (it’s a continent, yo) or to the many moderate Muslims who reject the extremist teachings of some of their brethren, but in pointing fingers, we ignore the failings within western Christian cultures in the United States.
In this first installment, I’ll discuss a few harmful teachings about consent as it relates to marital sex.
The complementarian and patriarchal models for marriage are rife with failures of consent. In an appendix to Debi Pearl’s execrable book, “Created to be His Helpmeet…” her husband Michael Pearl writes:
“Has your husband reviled you and threatened you? You are exhorted to respond as Jesus did. When he was reviled and threatened, he suffered by committing himself to a higher judge who is righteous. You must commit yourself to the one who placed you under your husband’s command. Your husband will answer to God, and you must answer to God for how you respond to your husband, even when he causes you to suffer. Just as we are to obey government in every ordinance, and servants are to obey their masters, even the ones who are abusive and surly, ‘likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands’…You can freely call your husband ‘lord’ when you know that you are addressing the one who put him in charge and asked you to suffer at your husband’s hands just as our Lord suffered at the hands of unjust authorities…When you endure evil and railing without returning it, you receive a blessing, not just as a martyr, but as one who worships God.”
The Pearl standard for responding to spousal abuse is to simply endure. Not a good sign for their thoughts on consent.
From page 163:
“There are a multitude of excuses women use to explain why they would ‘rather not’ or why they ‘cannot respond’ sexually. I believe I have heard them all. Her husband knows in his spirit that all her excuses are just that: excuses for not wanting him.”
From page 164:
“No woman really loves her husband if she does not seek to please him in this most important area. If you are not interested in sex, then at least be interested in him enough to give him good sex. If you are not loving your man, you are in danger of blaspheming the word of God – ‘to love their husbands.’ The Bible says, ‘Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin’ (James 4:17). Hopefully you just didn’t realize that your lack of sexual interest in your husband was sin, but now you know.”
From page 170:
“Don’t talk to me about menopause; I know all about menopause, and it is a lame excuse. Don’t talk to me about how uncomfortable or painful it is for you. Do you think your body is special and has special needs? Do you know who created you, and do you know he is the same God who expects you to freely give sex to your husband? Stop the excuses! Determine to find a way past your ‘excuses,’ and provide the pleasure your husband wants only from you.”
Really, Debi Pearl? A wife never has a legitimate reason to say no? By this standard, spousal rape just doesn’t exist, since the wife has no right to say no. The standard of consent cannot exist under these conditions.
In the twisted logic of those like the Pearls, the woman chooses to give up her right to choose, or, alternatively, chooses to always consent, so she’s not actually being forced, because she’s just choosing to give up herself in the endless downward mindfuck spiral that ensues when fundamentalist patriarchy appropriates the language of choice. Of course, these women who choose to always submit and joyfully have sex with their husbands despite any personal qualms are choosing to do this because they are told that not to choose this option is to blaspheme against God. Hey, you have a free choice to either retain your ability to choose, or give it up forever. But if you choose the first choice, you’re blaspheming God. The choice is yours. Way to stack the deck, Pearls.
But the Pearls aren’t the only Christians with damaging messages about sexual consent.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, stirred up controversy a few years ago by stating that spousal rape did not exist.
“By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape,” she said.
I’m honestly not even completely sure how to respond to this level of — what is it? Willful ignorance? After the part of the marriage vow that says, “I take you to be my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” is there some fine print that says, “Also, I will have sex with you any time you want it, no matter how I feel that day”?
Jeffrey Hamilton at La Vista Church of Christ in Nevada places some responsibility for spousal rape on the rapist, but says the rape victim is guilty of sin as well:
“It is possible for a man to rape his wife. However, given Paul’s statements, it should not be against a wife’s will to have sex with her husband. Therefore, if such an event happens, sin rests with the wife who is resisting fulfilling her duty in marriage. Sin also lies with the husband who is forcing sexual relations. Spousal rape is not a case where only one person is guilty of a sin.”
And in a response to an angry reader after the above post:
“The point you are purposely overlooking is that the term ‘rape’ cannot apply to the relationship between a husband and wife.”
This makes my head hurt.
“When a husband or wife pulls away from their spouse sexually, outside this kind of situation [a mutually agreed upon sexual fast], that person is stealing. Bitterness, grievances, resentments, and so on, do not give a person grounds for fraud. If a man is bitter against his neighbor, this does not provide grounds for sneaking over in the middle of the night and taking his stuff, or running a fraudulent scam operation against him. In the same way, and for the same reasons, husbands and wives do not have the right to go on strike. If grievous sin has made sexual relations impossible—as does happen—then it is time for divorce.”
Again, any lack of consent is seen as being the problem of the one who is not consenting. Frequent sex or divorce: those are the two options in Wilson’s mind.
In a post about the four stages of persecution, Wilson says:
“The second stage is that accusations are made against a victim or victims who are alleged to be the cause of ‘all this.’ The accusations usually fall into three categories: the first is that the victims unforgivably violated or attacked those whom it is most criminal to attack. In ancient societies, this would be figures of authority. In societies affected by the gospel, the accusations are more likely to be of child abuse. Ask yourself: what accusations are most likely to make everyone absolutely forget the rules of evidence? Every society has such categories: ours would be child or spousal abuse.”
Notice how the word “victims” is applied to those accused of abuse, not to those who claim to have been abused.
I could go on, but I think I need to throw up.
Rather than being a step backward, rallying around the standard of consent is a step in the right direction. Redefining healthy relationships by instituting the cultural standard of consent could mean progress for many relationships. Consent should be the starting line for healthy relationships, not the finish line. But for many relationships, they haven’t even made it to the starting line.
In the next couple of installments, I’ll tackle the dangerous idea of implicit consent as defined by rapists and abusers, and then wrap up by confronting the slippery slope arguments some people use in attacking the minimum standard of consent, particularly as their arguments relate to LGBTQ issues.
*Traditional? This view of heterosexual marriage is not universal and does not have a long history in every culture. That whole pesky “wives as property” period, you know.