A twitterer recently tweeted this at me:
“In marriage it is her duty but if her husband truly loves her he will never make her have sex just because they are married.”
If I had a dollar for every time someone said something like this, I’d be rich. It goes like this (and Debi Pearl’s books are really chock full of it): God requires women to submit to their husbands, but truly loving husbands won’t take unfair advantage of that.
Let’s dissect this, shall we?
Requirement: According to those who embrace patriarchy, whether they actually use the word “patriarchy” or instead call themselves “complementarians,” God requires women to submit to their husbands. No qualification to that. It is women’s duty to have sex with their husbands. Again, no qualifications. Statement of fact. Absolute requirement. God’s command.
Problem: Now of course supporters of patriarchy are faced with a problem. If women always submit, well, it’s really easy for a husband to take advantage of that, to make his wife do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. Basically, it’s totally set up for the husband to become a dictator. And this goes for sex, too – if a woman always consents because that’s her duty, her husband can have sex with her even when she isn’t into it, or even if it’s painful for her. Anyone, including supporters of patriarchy, can see that this is a problem.
Solution: Supporters of patriarchy solve this problem by saying that a good and loving husband will not take advantage of his wife. A good and loving husband will not dictate to his wife, and will involve her in decisions and think of her well-being. A good and loving husband will consider whether his wife wants to have sex with him or not. In fact, a good and loving husband will put his wife’s needs before his own needs.
See! Problem solved!
See, there are several problems with this solution.
1. Men can say they are being “truly loving” even if they’re not
Because love is an emotion and submission is an action, it’s easy for a man to claim that he loves his wife even when it doesn’t look like it, but it’s impossible for a woman to claim that she is submitting when she isn’t. I’ve explained this in depth before. Here’s a quote from my previous post that gets to the heart of it:
It’s a heck of a lot easier to tell if a wife is not submitting to her husband than it is to tell if a husband isn’t loving his wife. The one is an action, the other is an emotion. If a man is being dictatorial to his wife and, say, ordering her to do this or that a certain way or believe this or that as he commands, well, he can say that he is acting out of love for her because his orders are all for her own good. He’s protecting her, keeping her safe, making sure she stays on the straight and narrow. Isn’t that what a loving person does? If a wife refuses to obey her husband, in contrast, it’s obvious. And there’s no escape gate.
In other words, it’s easy for a man to make whatever decisions he wants, regardless of his wife’s needs, and yet claim that he is acting in his wife’s best interests. To say that he is being a loving husband, even if it doesn’t look like it at the moment and even if she doesn’t feel like he’s being very loving.* The result is that it’s easy for a man to claim he is acting out of love for and in the best interests of his wife even when he is absolutely not.
Edit: A reader has pointed out that evangelicals and fundamentalists often state that “love is an action, not an emotion.” This is absolutely true, and I heard this growing up as well. This does not, however, change the point I’m making here. Just like a parent spanking a disobedient child can say “this may not seem loving, but it really is for your own good, and if I didn’t love you I wouldn’t be doing it” (something I heard all the time growing up), even so a husband can say to his wife “taking control of the checkbook/cutting off your contact with one of your friends/whatever may not seem very loving, but it really is for your own good, and if I didn’t love you I wouldn’t be doing it.” Love being an action does not change my argument because love is a subjective action while submission is nothing of the sort.
2. The idea that “truly loving” men somehow automatically know what’s best for their wives is ridiculous
This whole system is premised on the assumption that men will automatically somehow know what’s best for their wives. Even if a man really does love his wife and really does want to do what is best for her and really tries to do it, well, why do we assume he somehow knows what’s best for his wife? The answer, of course, is because of patriarchy. Because of this idea that men are somehow superior to women and need to take care of them, and women are somehow inferior to men and need to be taken care of. The idea that a woman doesn’t even truly know what is in her best interests – her husband or father does. Now of course, complementarians insist that men and women are equal, they’re just different. But if men know what’s best for women and women are too silly to know what’s best for themselves, well, the claim that this is somehow “equal but different” is shown for the lie that it is.
3. What about men who don’t give a shit about being “truly loving”?
Even if we assume that “good and loving” men will truly act out of love for their wives and actually know what’s best for their wives, we still have a problem: What about the men who are not “good and loving”? Here is where supporters of patriarchy have no real answer. They may argue that their ideas work fine by pointing to couples where it appears to work – where the husband “thinks of the wife’s needs” to the extent that he involves her in decision making and defers to her when he realizes that her suggestions or advice are sound. But what about the couples where this is not the case? What about the couples where the husband takes up the mantle of dictator and takes advantage of his wife’s submission? There is no exception clause for those women.
In other words, the whole “women are to submit, but loving men won’t take unfair advantage of that” line fails for men who are not “loving” – and it doesn’t let women in those situations off the hook. Instead, it still requires them to submit. In other words, supporters of patriarchy, including those using the term “complementarian,” command women in abusive marriages to just buckle under and accept the abuse. As in, buckling under and accepting the abuse is their duty, and is commanded of them by God.
In fact, people like Debi Pearl and Mark Driscoll insist that by submitting to their abusers, women in abusive relationships will help bring about the conversion of their abusers. The more you submit, the more likely the abuser will see that there is something different about you, something that he wants too, and to come to see that the Christianity you follow – and submit in the name of – has something to it. This is really and truly what they say, and part of how they encourage women married to abusive men to buckle under and take it. Because, you know, that’s what God commands of them.
So no, I’m sorry, but saying “if the husband truly loves her” he won’t require his wife to have sex with him does not somehow make the claim that “it’s her duty” okay. No actually, I’m not sorry. I’m angry.
I’m angry about the number of women who have been tricked into living lives of inequality out of the backward notion that their husbands somehow know better than them what is best for them. I’m angry about the number of women who have been conned into believing that God has called them to submit to their husbands with the promise that good and loving husbands won’t take advantage of that. I’m angry about the number of women in abusive relationships who stay there and endure horrors I don’t even want to imagine because they believe that is their duty to God.
This is not okay. Someone please make it stop.
* The whole “it might not look like I’m acting in your best interests right now, but I really am” line is really lifted straight out of the evangelical playbook. Over and over pastors and evangelical advice books and Bible study leaders tell evangelicals that God is doing what is best for them even if it doesn’t look like it. Oh, your house burned down? You may think that’s awful, but it’s actually for the best in the long run, because it’s part of God’s greater plan. Oh, your child just died of cancer? It’s God’s will, and God knows what’s best for you, even what he’s doing doesn’t make any sense to you right now. So if a patriarchal husband uses this line on his wife – “this may not seem like it’s the best for you, but I assure you, it is” – it’s something she has heard over and over again and is conditioned to accept.