CTBHHM: In Which a Woman Dares to Assert Agency

by Libby Anne cross posted from her blog Love Joy Feminism

Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 138-139

In this section, Debi tells a story.

A few years ago, I attended a meeting with my husband where a group of leading men were discussing grave matters, trying to come to a conclusion as to what course of action they should take. The men sat in a circle, with their wives sitting beside or right behind them.

Remember, in Debi’s world the men do all the discussing and make all the decisions while the women sit quietly by smiling and nodding.

Sitting across from me was a sober, earnest, young man whom I will call Charles. He was there with his attractive wife.

Notice Debi’s descriptions here. Charles is “sober” and “earnest.” His wife—who is never given a name, even though this story is actually about her—is “attractive.” Since there’s no way I’m going to go through this entire post referring to the main character as “Charles’ wife,” I’m going to do what Debi fails to do and give her a name—Lydia. But then, I think this is a really good example of what I see threaded through this whole section—Debi contends that women should not have independent agency. To have independent agency is to dishonor your husband.

In the midst of an intense part of the conversation, Charles leaned back and draped his arm around his wife’s shoulder. She immediately reacted with obvious irritation, shaking his hand off her shoulder, and leaning forward as if to get away from his embrace. Then she carefully fixed her hair where his arm had disturbed it.

Remember that all we have is Debi’s side of the story here. Debi interprets Lydia’s actions as showing “obvious irritation.” All we actually know is that Charles tried to embrace his wife and she wiggled out of his embrace—which of course makes her persona non grata in Debi’s book. Now is it embarrassing to have your significant other reject a public display of affection? Sure. But it’s can also be ver embarrassing to be on the receiving end of an unwanted public display of affection, put in the position where you either put it off and embarrass your partner or put up with unwanted public contact—contact you may yourself find embarrassing.

While I don’t know why Lydia wiggled out of her husband’s embrace—she might have been tired after a long and trying day, she might have felt it was inappropriate, or perhaps being constantly left out of the decision making—it ultimately doesn’t matter. Her body is her body, and she is under no obligation to receive an unwanted embrace

That said, I felt an immediate bond with Lydia when reading this passage. See, I have personal touch issues. If Sean suddenly drapes himself over me without warning, I have an immediate physical reaction. My personal space is suddenly and without warning invaded, and that feels very very bad. And Sean knows this, and tries to respect it, but sometimes forgets. Now, I don’t have a problem with personal touch when there is forewarning and I can prepare myself for it—and I especially don’t have a problem with physical touch if it’s planned—i.e., if Sean suggests that we have some cuddle time. But when it’s sudden and unexpected? I’ve done exactly what Lydia did in that situation plenty of times.

Again, I don’t know what made Lydia decide to refuse her husband’s embrace, but I do know that Debi’s interpretation is far from the only one—and, in my opinion, far from the most likely one.

But back to Charles:

His mind was jerked off of the serious problem at hand and was focused on her, now—as was the attention of almost everyone in the room. To her, brushing him off was nothing, but to all those in the room (including her husband) it was an act of putting him down like a thoughtless, inept child. Everyone felt his humiliation.

So . . . Debi read everyone’s minds. I mean seriously, how would she know that Charles felt humiliated or that everyone in the room interpreted it as humiliation? Granted, she could judge from the expressions and body language of those in the room, but I really don’t get the feeling from this book so far that Debi’s all that good at that—or that she’s all that honest about it.

But really, assuming that Debi was right and everyone in the room did feel that Charles’ wife had humiliated him—I mean, really? Lydia takes a stand for her own physical space and asserts personal agency, and that’s somehow her “humiliating” him? Actually, this makes sense—in Debi’s world. In Debi’s world, women don’t have personal autonomy, and their not supposed to have agency or wills’ of their own. In Debi’s world, women exist to serve their husbands—and Charles’ wife did not properly serve him by acquiescing to his advances (which, I might add, brings up another point—women are not obliged to accept male touch or physical affection, ever—and to suggest otherwise is rapey).

After that, Charles had nothing else to contribute. For the duration of the meeting, he sat downcast, properly chastened, with his hands in his lap.

Your wife pushes your arm off her shoulders and as a result you clam up and stop engaging with the world? Really? That doesn’t sound very mature. It does, however, play into Debi’s argument that it is men’s wives who make them or break them—who have the potential to build them up by being a good help meet, or tear them down by being a bad help meet.

I wanted to get up and shake that girl until her teeth rattled.

Debi is a violent person.

It would have shocked her to know that everyone in the room felt extreme disdain toward her for her self-centered response.

Two things.

First, that’s all it took? Lydia pushes her husband’s arm off her shoulders, and suddenly everyone feels “extreme disdain” toward her? Talk about judgmental. Talk about closed minded. If they feel “extreme disdain” for a Christian woman who has the nerve to not make her body the constant toy of her husband, what must they feel for those who are non-Christian, or who sleep around? These do not sound like loving people.

Second, note that Debi calls Lydia’s response “self-centered.” Here’s the thing. In Debi’s world, “self-centered” is a very bad word and what it means is anything that’s not completely and totally selfless. And that’s what wives are supposed to be—selfless, as in, not having a self. They’re supposed to exist to serve their husbands. And that, you see, was Lydia’s fault—rather than accepting her husband’s embrace as the proper selfless individual she was supposed to be, she had the nerve to assert her own agency. And that, quite simply, is what being “self-centered” means in Debi’s world.

She continued to straighten her hair, unaware that she had just shown a complete lack of honor and reverence toward her husband, and unaware that she was wasting her time trying to look pretty, for she had lost all that was lovely and feminine in that one act of disdain.

So suddenly, Lydia’s brushing off her husband’s arm was an “act of disdain.” And again, I ask, who died and gave Debi the power to read minds? But seriously, the idea that by asserting agency Lydia suddenly “lost all that was lovely and feminine”? Well. Isn’t that telling. Also, note that showing “honor and reverence” toward your husband means accepting his every embrace. And if you translate that into the realm of the bedroom . . . let’s just say things start getting really ugly really fast.

Carrying that kind of rejection on a regular, daily basis, Charles will never really be able to cherish his wife, and he will never have what it takes become an effective minister or leader.

Debi knows this happens on a daily basis how? Also, note that if a woman exerts agency and (god forbid!) isn’t always accepting of her husband’s touch, he will never be able to “cherish” her. That’s . . . both wrong and extremely unhealthy.

Yes, she is his wife, and he will undoubtedly continue to love her. But his love will always be more of an attempt to win her. Until she repents, he cannot love her with abandoned joy.

Until she repents? For what? For daring to not welcome his every touch and embrace? For showing some sense of independent agency? This might more properly read “Until she gives up her agency and sense of self and submits to her husband entirely, he cannot love her with abandoned joy.” And that is bullshit and the rhetoric of abusers.

A man’s ego is a fragile thing.

Speak for your own man, Debi. My Sean’s ego is not at all that fragile. But then, my Sean is a mature adult.

How can a man cherish someone who cares so little for his reputation?

. . .

All of a sudden I am having visions of a high school guy pressuring his girlfriend: “Don’t you understand? If you don’t sleep with me, my reputation will be nothing! No one will see me as a man! Don’t you care about my reputation?

Debi’s right that people should care about the reputations of those they love and value. But that’s not the same thing as saying that another person’s reputation should be the thing that is of primary importance to you, or that preserving someone else’s reputation should mean being willing to compromise your own personal boundaries. Caring about someone’s reputation should not have to mean sacrificing your own agency. And the idea that a man’s reputation is based on his wife’s willingness to publicly submit to his every touch and whim? That is disgusting and abusive to the extreme.

Her act was a testimony to the state of her heart. She thought more of her hairdo than her husband’s honor. She was rebelling against God in not reverencing her husband.

Honestly, Debi’s claim that she can read Lydia’s heart based on this one little action reminds me of the time my mother claimed she could tell a bride had had premarital sex just by looking at her. In both cases, I call bullshit.

To reverence is an active verb. It is something you do. It is not first a feeling; it is a voluntary act. As we reverence and honor our husbands, they are free to mature before God and to minister to others. Charles was not free; he was troubled and bound inside.

This idea that a man is not free to mature and grow and help others unless he has a wife reverencing him? I’m pretty sure that’s something a goodly number of Christians would consider blasphemy. Whether Debi thinks so or not, I’m pretty sure men have agency too.

Ugh, this seemingly innocent little story is just gross to its core.

Comments open below

Read everything by Libby Anne!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Libby Anne blogs at Love, Joy, Feminism
Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the religious right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the problems with the “purity culture,” the intricacies of conservative and religious right politics, and the importance of feminism. Her blog is Love, Joy, Feminism

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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