Marital Rape? Doug Wilson on Dominance and Submission in the Marriage Bed

*Trigger warning for survivors of sexual or domestic violence*

The blogosphere I follow has lit up in horror over the last day or so in reaction to a blog post which makes a connection between the prevalence of rape in our society and sex as practiced in the marriage bed today, and, some have argued, responds by endorsing marital rape. This post, which contained a lengthy quotation by prominent conservative evangelical reformed pastor and leader Doug Wilson, was posted by Jared Wilson of The Gospel Coalition, a conservative evangelical organization that involves such prominent evangelical leaders as John Piper and Mark Driscoll, on that organization’s website. Here is the quotation:

A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.

But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.

True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours.

This post immediately received a lot of attention, so much so that Jared Wilson then wrote a follow-up post. Did he retract his endorsement and praise of the quotation of Doug Wilson quoted above? No. Instead he said this:

If I could summarize the excerpt — as I have already — I would do it this way:

The Bible lays out complementary roles for men and women in covenant contexts, in which men are meant to be the heads of the household and the church and women are meant to be their helpers. Because of the fall, this authority/submission design has become perverted. It has even become perverted in the arena of sexuality when authority/submission becomes about violent rape and even “rape fantasies” as found in role playing by kinky husbands and wives or in popular pornography for women.

That is why I was tying it into 50 Shades of Grey’s popularity. I thought it a deft point; perhaps what we see in this sort of BDSM fantasy garbage is a perverted overreaction to God’s good design of authority and submission.

I am a proponent of marriages that mutually edify, marital sex that is mutually submissive, and Christian relationships in general that “serve and protect” rather than “devour.” If someone keeps finding that sickening, horrifying, deplorable . . . well, I’ll just keep finding that bewildering.

For all his accusations that his readers had reading comprehension issues regarding Doug Wilson’s words, I think Jared Wilson is actually the one with reading comprehension issues. I read and reread the Doug Wilson quote, and I most certainly did not get the idea that sex within marriage is to be mutually submissive!

What exactly does Doug Wilson say, then?

He says the opposite. What Wilson says is that it’s that egalitarian mutuality in marriage that is causing men to be rapists and women to have rape fantasies, because when it comes to sex men have the need to dominate and women have the need to be dominated, and when they don’t get that in the marriage bed, well, they look for it in perverted ways, i.e. becoming rapists or dreaming of being raped. In other words:

  • God set marital sex up to be about authority and submission.
  • Men have a need to dominate just as women have a need to be dominated.
  • Most people now practice egalitarianism and mutuality in the marriage bed.
  • Men and women are therefore not having their sexual needs met.
  • As a result, men become rapists and women fantasize about being raped.
  • Therefore, we need to make marital sex be based on authority and submission.

Let me paraphrase Doug Wilson one last time: You think marriage should be an “egalitarian pleasure party” rather than about “authority and submission,” the male “conquering” and the female “surrendering”? Then you’re the problem! Because if men don’t conquer in the marriage bed, and if women don’t surrender to being conquered in the marriage bed, then they will look elsewhere to have these god-given needs for domination and subjugation filled, finding fulfillment for these needs in dreaming of raping or being raped! Doug Wilson is saying the opposite of what Jared Wilson seems to think he’s saying!

Is Doug Wilson endorsing rape? 

Doug Wilson’s argument is not that husbands should rape their wives, but rather that wives should submit willingly in the sexual act to their husband’s god-given need to conquer and dominate, and that in submitting she will find her own god-given need to be conquered and dominated fulfilled as well. In other words, Wilson would argue that we’re not talking about a man having sex with his wife against her will. Rather, we’re talking about the man and woman willingly carrying out their roles in the marriage bed and through that having their needs fulfilled.

There are some problems here, though. First of all, it’s very easy to see how someone could hear these ideas and see them as justification for marital rape. After all, he has just been told that he has a god-given need to dominate in sex and his wife has a god-given need to be dominated in sex. If she doesn’t want sex and he forces it on her, well, isn’t he ultimately fulfilling her needs, giving her what she really wants whether she’ll say so or not? Or even more simply, what if the wife is simply not so very interested and would prefer not to have sex that night? After reading a passage like this, what’s to stop a husband from pressing the issue and the wife from feeling that she must surrender even if she doesn’t want it? Even though Doug Wilson would inveigh against this sort of activity, its easy to see how his words could be used in this way as an endorsement of some form of marital rape or coercion.

Next, it’s very hard for us to understand what dominance and submission in the marriage bed means outside of our conceptions of either rape or consensual BDSM. Doug Wilson assures us he does not mean marital rape, but he is also emphatic that he is not talking about BDSM:

But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.

True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity.

In other words, it is because married couples have stopped making making authority and submission the norm in the marriage bed that BDSM has developed. BDSM and rape fantasies, he says, are a natural perversion of the way God set sex up. All married sex must, as God designed it, be wrought through with authority and submission, with conquering and surrendering. He’s saying that is what sex is naturally supposed to be. 

But what does that even look like, really? If a man is sexually dominating his wife and his wife is being sexually conquered by him, well, how do we understand that outside of BDSM or rape? The truth is, we don’t have any other way to see it or understand it. To any normal person, the sort of sex Wilson is endorsing sounds extremely rape-y.

And indeed, the things Doug Wilson says in that quotation promote a culture of rape in several ways. First, Wilson says that women have a need to be dominated, thus playing into the idea that even if a woman resists sex, it’s not rape because she’s actually enjoying it. Second, Wilson argues that rape is prevalent today because women refuse to submit to men, thus blaming the victim and making rape the woman’s fault. Both of the Wilsons can inveigh against rape as much as they want, but that won’t stop the fact that the ideas they are promoting here actually help to promote rape.

Oh, but they’re all about servant leadership!

I want to come back to something Jared Wilson said in his defense of his quotation from Doug Wilson:

In the final analysis, I come back to my original analysis, which is that Douglas Wilson’s view of women is that they are to be cherished and protected and served humbly by men, even men in authority over them. This is the kind of authority the Bible prescribes, the kind that edifies and helps wives to flourish, not wither. That is my view of complementarian relationships in the home and the church, as well.

Maybe it’s just me, but promoting the idea that men need to conquer in the marriage bed and women need to be conquered doesn’t sound very much like the men “cherishing” “protecting” or “humbly serving” women. Doug Wilson says in his excerpt not that men are to serve women in the marriage bed, but that they are to “conquer” and “colonize” them. And somehow, this is “protecting” and “cherishing” them?

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, really. Doug Wilson did write this gem, after all:

Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. … Slave life was to [the slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.” (Southern Slavery As It Was, pages 23 to 25)

Links to other posts on this issue: 

The Gospel Coalition, Sex, and Subordination, by Rachel Held Evans

If This Is What Christian Sex Looks Like, No Thank You, on the Friendly Atheist

The Men of the “Gospel Coalition” Really, Really Hate Women, on the Slacktivist

More on the Bad News Boors of the Gospel Coalition and Doug Wilson’s demented views on slavery, on the Slacktivist

Rape: A Punishment for Egalitarians? on Sarah Over the Moon

The Writer’s Burden, on Dianna Anderson

Doug Wilson, The Gospel Coalition, and Sanctified Rape Culture, on Are Women Human?

Doug Wilson Is in Need of a Good Blowjob, on Incongruous Circumspection

Are Evangelicals Rejecting Legal Marriage?
The Charleston Shooting and Christian Persecution
Guest Post: You Can Call Me Rita: Coming Out Lesbian to My Evangelical Parents
Conservatives Grapple with Marriage Equality
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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