The Line Between Sexual Freedom and Sexual Perversion

I just wrote on the controversy-du-jour regarding the role of “authority” and male headship in the bedroom.  Since I explained it in detail in the preceding post, please go there if you need context.  But I want to respond as well to Rachel Held Evans’ response.

First of all, I strongly agree with this point:

When your sister in Christ tells you that your words trigger upsetting images of rape and sexual violence, you should listen to her, not dismiss her. 

It’s hard to admit you did something wrong when you’re being accused of endorsing sexual violence against women.  So I get why one would be extremely defensive against this charge.  But I do agree with Rachel here.  There are some women out there — do not be fooled, this is an evil world and there are many such women out there — whose husbands regularly raped them in the marriage bed and claimed that God calls upon the woman to submit.  I’ve read the accounts.  Sexual abuse takes place in marriage as well as without, in the church as well as without.  This does not make the Wilsons or Christianity accountable for the ways in which others have twisted and perverted it and used it for evil instead of good.  But it does mean that we should take great care in how we preach and teach, and if someone says “This way of preaching and teaching is leading people astray,” we should listen.

After I originally read Rachel’s post, I wanted to respond to this:


(Note: I get that some folks enjoy getting “conquered” to some degree in bed. That’s fine. Do what you both enjoy. But this should be a mutual decision, pleasurable to both parties, and it is certainly not required by God-ordained gender roles.)

Yet Rachel just added this helpful clarification: “Update: By this I simply mean that some couples prefer that one person be more dominant – not necessarily the man, by the way – and I don’t think that should be categorically condemned. But this is not an endorsement of BDSM.”

Much better.  So I want to explain why I agree with Rachel that we should not endorse people, even consenting adults, playing out rape fantasies.

The modern predilection seems to be: Anything consensual, at least between competent adults, is permissible or even worthy of celebration.  If two adults agree and enjoy it, then it’s nobody’s business being morally judgmental.  Christians can spiritualize this: God created marriage to be enjoyed in its proper context, so as long as you’re married, or (for some Christians) as long as you really love each other, well, party on!  After all, Song of Solomon’s pretty risque, right?

When Patheos was hosting a “Public Square” conversation on sex a couple years ago, I had to scour the web to find writers addressing sex in an evangelical way.  It was less fun than it sounds.  (Like real sex, searching for “sex” on your computer brings a lot of viruses.)  I found some writers and websites who made the case for just about everything.  I’m not going to go into lurid detail, because I don’t want anyone’s porn filter to go haywire, but let’s just say that for every fetish or perversion out there, there is some Christian somewhere who argues that it’s peachy keen.

It’s important to understand why this is wrong.  It’s not because God hates sex or we should hate sex or we should all stick with the missionary position.  There are two reasons I’m aware of: (1) Because human beings are created with dignity and we should not treat anyone, much less those we love, in demeaning or depersonalizing ways, and (2) because we do not want to encourage perverse desires.

There’s nothing honoring, for instance, in defecating on someone or distributing other bodily fluids upon them.  Those acts are not about giving to the other person, not about loving or cherishing or pleasuring, but about demeaning and reducing a person to the status of an animal or an object.  I’ve never understood that desire and I pray that I never will.  And every time we act out on perverse desires, we tend to strengthen them, and may find one day that those desires overrun the bounds of marriage.  Moderns often forget the ways in which desires are cultivated; they’re not static.  They require pruning and nurturing and careful maintenance.

To be clear, this is not about telling other people what to do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.  No one has any obligation to agree with me or to comply.  This is about offering guidance for those who genuinely seek it.

Where is the line between sexual freedom in the bounds of marriage and sexual perversion?  That’s for each person to discern.  I for one am grateful that modern mores permit women to be less passive but more active and expressive in the bedroom.  I think married couples should find lots of ways of giving them themselves to one another sexually.  But rape fantasies, in my view, should have no place.  Neither partner should treat the other in a way that treats the other as a slave or a child, an animal or an object.

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  • R.C.

    You say, “Where is the line between sexual freedom in the bounds of marriage and sexual perversion? That’s for each person to discern.”

    No, it isn’t. It can’t be…not if you mean to imply that the person’s discerning it one way or another makes it correct, so long as he tries to be honest in doing so.

    (Please understand: I don’t believe myself to be lecturing you or anything like that: I’m only calling your attention to what I’m certain you already know, have already thought about.)

    There is such a thing as a life lived perfectly, and we are each of us morally responsible before God for doing it. We’ll fail, of course; and we’ll have to confess our sins and trust that if we keep confessing our sins He will continue being faithful and just to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. (I think a lot of people miss the continual aspect to those verbs because we aren’t reading the Greek originals.)

    But there is nonetheless an objective standard of perfection, not because God is a hardcase but because life lived a certain way is actually, objectively, the way to our fullest eternal destiny.

    This necessarily implies that what we “discern,” even when we’re trying our hardest to discern honestly, might turn out to be wrong through our own error or ignorance. (Think about Peter’s comment re: Paul’s writing: That there is much complexity and subtlety in it, and that as a result the “ignorant and unstable” — who surely don’t know they’re ignorant, who’re surely ignorant of their own ignorance — “twist to their own destriction.”)

    So our moral conscience and moral theology and moral reasoning may be erroneous. Can we “discern” in the fashion you suggest? Dare we?

    Perhaps you only meant that we’re responsible before God for discerning His will as accurately as we can? …and if our discernment, through no fault of our own, goes awry, and we thereby commit sin and contribute to our spouse’s sin cooperatively, it won’t be held against us?

    But that doesn’t scan, either. If our sin was not willful, it’s reasonable to think God won’t hold us guilty of rebellion, of outraging the Spirit and refusing to abide in Christ. But drinking poison kills even if you didn’t know it was poison; and likewise every sin is damaging even if it wasn’t an intentional rejection of God’s moral law. Doing what is wrong produces consequences in the soul and in the Body of Christ and dulls our consciences.

    And yet we know full well that we are imperfect in wisdom and in the spiritual gift of discernment; consequently we know full well we cannot trust our discernment. There is a real right and wrong; even unintentionally doing wrong is dangerous to your soul and the souls of others; and you are not perfect enough to trust your own judgment.

    That means we can’t afford to be cavalier about whether a particular use of our sexual faculties in marriage is in accord with God’s intent or not. We can’t just happy-dance through our lives “discerning” in an ad-hoc way, assuming that whatever notions happen to pop into our heads are from the Holy Spirit, and hoping for the best.

    I would guess that you didn’t intend to use the verb “discern” in the way I have portrayed it. Your “tone-of-voice” indicates you used the word straightforwardly, seriously. My response has a different tone which I hope has conveyed serious concerns…even suspicion. Even bordering on dismissiveness.

    I don’t mean concern about you; I don’t mean I’m suspecting you. I’m not dismissing you.

    But I observe that if “each person discerning” were a reliable guide for Christian behavior in the (myriad! legion!) areas where Scripture is not perfectly, abundantly, directly crystal-clear, then the Christian world would certainly not be teeming with conflicting opinions about sexual matters. If this was the way that the Holy Spirit was planning to “lead us into all truth” then He would have done so, and our voices would be unified.

    (As they are not, one can only conclude that either the Holy Spirit can’t make up His mind what truths He wants us to know, or else this figuring-out-what’s-right-and-wrong-through-personal-discernment methodology was never what Christ intended, from the start.)

    As a practical matter, then, saying “each person must discern” is saying, “do what you like, according to whatever notions you’ve randomly accumulated under the guidance of whatever (presumably Christian) spiritual traditions you’ve been exposed to, and hope that God blesses it in the end.”

    It’s tantamount to saying, “We’re sheep without a shepherd, after all; or maybe we’re sheep who don’t know our shepherd’s voice so well after all…or else somehow the shepherd has been struck, and that’s why the sheep have scattered.”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I do not mean that there is no dividing line between sexual perversion and permissible sexual freedom within the bonds of marriage, or that there are no moral facts of the matter, just that I have given some principles and how exactly those are applied by every couple to every possible sexual act is something for them to discern. I’m not going to go through every position, every scenario, every possible form of experimentation, and say that this does or does not pass muster from my perspective. I’ve mentioned some things that I think are clearly over the line, because they are so demeaning or give expression to such sinful impulses. But, here as in political theology or etc., applying principles to specifics is a matter for continuous, thoughtful, prayerful discernment.

      You’re right; I should have been clearer on that.

  • Two points:

    1. For some damaged people, sexual desire is inextricably linked with rape fantasies.

    2. BDSM is a very wide field. I’m not going to argue with you about defecation (I disagree: I’m all about consenting adults doing as they well, but I see no point in arguing), but I don’t see anything “demeaning” about some other forms of BDSM. Light bondage, for example. If it turns you on, why not.


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      In another comment, I said something to this effect, without getting into great detail. Some “light bondage” as you say has, I think, more to do with restraint (the bound partner has no choice but to be the recipient of pleasure and the unbound one takes on the role of actor/giver) and less to do with rape fantasy. Anyway, I don’t want to get into adjudicating every possibility, because I think how different people apply the principles might differ, but I do agree that the boundaries here are a matter for discernment.

  • CL

    And every time we act out on perverse desires, we tend to strengthen them, and may find one day that those desires overrun the bounds of marriage.

    Why is it that those Christians who argue against anything other than the plainest vanilla sex resort to the slippery slope fallacy? Could it be that an overly repressive attitude toward sex within marriage and looking to women and their emotions for leadership – a role for which they are not designed – is the real perversion? Her emotions do not dictate reality.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Strange comment of the day.

      I’m not arguing for nothing other than plain vanilla sex. But I do think there are good reasons not to act out rape or statutory rape fantasies. Within certain bounds, all kinds of positions and forms of sexual expression should be enjoyed. But that’s not to say that sexual expression within marriage is somehow walled off from the rest of our lives, immune from general moral principles, and has no consequences.

      As for women and emotions, I don’t really follow you there. Men seem quite inclined to emotion to me, although they may as a whole be inclined toward different emotions (on the average) and different ways of expressing them.

    • R.C.

      Besides which, orthodox Christians as a rule aren’t repressed, nor are the religious more likely to suffer from repressions than the populace at large.

      That misunderstanding comes from a failure to distinguish repressions from such things as scrupulosity, prudence, or even self-control.

      A srepression is the exclusion of desires or impulses from one’s consciousness entirely without opportunity for conscious redirection or sublimation. The result is that they emerge in a less healthy form or context without being identified with the original impulse.

      Self-control, prudence, and scrupulosity are all conscious efforts with the sexual impulse clearly identified as such. Self-control, of course, is healthy; prudence is simply self-control combined with forethought and self-knowledge. Scrupulosity is an error — and in Christian thought it is treated as such — of those whose consciences are a bit too hair-trigger sensitive about how close one gets to doing something that’s wrong without, y’know, actually doing anything wrong. A good pastoral counselor or confessor helps the overly-scrupulous to chill out so as to be better able to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t.

      All that applies to orthodox Christianity. Heretical Christianity is another matter. The Gnostic or Manichean influence is perennial inside Christianity and outside, and it’s common enough for a person to get the idea that the body is bad, that sex is bad. This is a long-condemned heresy in Christianity, which teaches that both are “very good” and that sex in particular is glorious inasmuch as it mirrors the consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church.

      At any rate, Christianity, when not lurching into heresy, has no need or inclination to repress sex. Christianity needs only to direct it, particularly to redirect from unhealthy to healthy expression, or to suppress if no healthy expression is possible, or to renounce it “for the kingdom” not because it is something bad but as a good forsaken in pursuit of a higher good. In the latter context it is a sacrifice to God…and one doesn’t offer up bad things to God!

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I love my readers.