Bedroom Submission, Birth Control and Tokophobia

Like most fundamentalist churches, mine taught that wives were commanded by God to give their husbands all the sex they wanted. Technically, husbands had to do the same for wives, but it would have been a strange, transgressive woman who wanted more sex than her husband. (Jonalyn Fincher of Her.meneutics and I disagree.) The rationale behind this command comes from 1 Corinthians 7:4:

The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

It’s one of the most stunningly egalitarian verses in the Bible. How did it become so one-sided? How did it become about the negation of consent? How did evangelical-fundamentalist culture construct a model of sexuality and reproduction that implanted a deep-seated terror of sex and pregnancy in my adolescent mind?

Without further ado, I bring you:
How to Construct a Terrifying, Dangerous, and “Biblical” Model
of Reproduction That Harms Young Girls

First, preheat your brain to 1 Corinthians 7:4.

Step 1: Construct a binary model of sexual desire, in which only men are sexual beings. Evangelical culture loves drawing binaries where they don’t exist, and exploiting extant but barely perceptible binaries. Their absolute favorite binary is the intransigent belief that men are visual and women are emotional. (See the first link for the stunningly idiotic statement that men naturally sexually objectify women.) A close corollary is that men want sex and women want romance. These are not Christian myths; they’re cultural ones. In the extremely Christian Middle Ages, women were the ones perceived as sexually incontinent and carnal, whereas men were cerebral and spiritual. But evangelical culture has no time for medieval history, especially when it subverts a supposed timeless truth grounded in nature. The result? The above Bible verse becomes a command almost exclusively given to wives to make sure their husbands are sexually satisfied, whether they themselves want sex or not. Since a woman’s body belongs to her husband, she cannot refuse. Marital rape? Not even possible.

Step 2: Eliminate birth control. Increasingly, the Religious Right has attacked birth control as the next logical step in their longstanding crusade against abortion. Former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum made the bizarre campaign promise to talk about the evils of birth control in America. My church similarly taught that birth control had no place in marriage and that sex had no place anywhere else. The result? Sex can always result in pregnancy.

Step 3: Confine women to lives of childbearing and childrearing with no outlet for the duration of their reproductive lives. This is accomplished through the cult of motherhood, condemnation of day care (gotta love the phrase “liberal slaughterhouses of the mind”) and public school, peer pressure to homeschool, explicit commands that women be “keepers at home,” courtship and stay-at-home daughterhood, vicious jabs at prominent women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, and vague jeremiads about the masculinization of working women. Always hovering in our minds was the implicit judgment of women who refused their husbands sex to avoid getting pregnant; how could they expect their husbands to be faithful in those circumstances? They were forcing their men to be celibate, to act against their natures!

Step 4: Treat single women like suicidal dodos (self-destructive and doomed to extinction). Being single seems like the easy way out, right? If marriage is such a raw deal, just don’t marry!
Not so fast. Not only will some evangelical-fundamentalist churches refuse to acknowledge your autonomy even if you’re forty-five years old and have lived on your own for twenty years, but most will concurrently deny your existence. If you aren’t placed under the “headship” of your senile father or your baby brother, you’ll be told you’re an abomination. An affront to God’s order. An unnatural being. You see, the narrative of femininity perpetuated by this culture requires that women be inherently attracted to wifehood and motherhood. That’s why there’s no equivalent to nuns in evangelical Christianity (besides fear of Catholics, of course). Nuns would be unnatural; every woman secretly yearns to submit to her godly leader-husband and nurture her little arrows for the Lord. If you don’t want to marry, you must be concealing evil spirits of harlotry and lesbianism. Why else would you go against your God-given nature?

The result: I was not a dumb kid. It was painfully obvious to me that I was facing down a life of inevitable,  nearly interminable childbearing with no choice, no agency, and no room for any plans or dreams of my own. If I stayed in evangelical-fundamentalist culture, I would have no say over whether or when I became pregnant. I would be married young through a heavily-supervised courtship process, required to submit to my husband and forbidden to refuse him sex or use birth control. My husband could rape me with impunity, since my body technically belonged to him. Since I was sexually available to him at all times, whether consenting or not, I would also be open to childbearing for the rest of my fertile years. I would also be powerless to space my children. My uterus was my prison, my mammary glands the padlocks on the doors.

Worse yet, in my church, women were told we were merely “incubators” for male seed. A man’s children were his; a woman’s children were also his. There was effectively no difference between a man’s children from another marriage or the children a man and woman had together. All belonged to the father. The mother was just the vice president: a useful source of authority in her husband’s absence, but ultimately powerless.

All of this, combined with my father’s coercive desire for sex and my mother’s submission, made me utterly terrified of pregnancy. Not of men – no, I had male friends who kept me ever conscious of the fact that men had feelings, too – but of pregnancy. Pregnancy was the inevitable prison. Pregnancy was the symbol of all things oppressive and invasive to me. I watched pregnant women in my church dutifully obeying their husbands and felt sick to my stomach. The pregnant belly was a symbol of intimacy in a system that made intimacy exploitative. The elimination of all sexual agency (most importantly the de-legitimation of “no, I don’t want to”) meant that marital sexual relations looked a lot like the rape of a slave by her master. After all, there was precious little in the Bible to protect women from husbands whose intentions were less than kind or respectful. A woman’s only protection was the goodness of her husband’s heart, the absence of which is hard enough to pinpoint in abusive types even with a lot of contact, let alone in the courtship system.

Pregnancy and babies, to me, signaled the dehumanization of women. Once women became mothers, they were trapped forever, at the mercy of their husbands. I looked at pregnant bellies and I saw swollen bee stings inflicted by aggressive overlords. In darker moments, I imagined myself committing suicide if I became pregnant. Abortion would save my life (a desperate realization that shocked me a little bit), but I would be cast out on my face. Pregnancy therefore looked like the end of the road. A death sentence. Once the wedding bells rang, I was a soul without a body in the eyes of the church.

Extreme? Yes. It was an extreme circumstance that led me to these conclusions. Would I have developed a pathological fear of childbearing without being taught that my own reproductive organs were the instruments that would be used to enslave me? Definitely not.

I’m not as tokophobic as I used to be, but I still have no intention of getting pregnant. I’ve spent my entire free life trying to convince myself that it wouldn’t be so bad. I’ve read everything there is to read about pregnancy complications, maternal health and mortality, and medical interventions. I’ve learned about midwives and birthing centers, epidurals and episiotomies, c-sections and homebirths and VBACs. I no longer feel revulsion at other women’s baby bumps, although the foreignness of their experience does make me nervous. I no longer cry when a girl child is born for fear of her future. I understand now why people want children and how beautiful a family can be. But I can’t cross the final hurdle. After wrestling with my fear of pregnancy for eighteen years, I’ve ceased to fight myself. I don’t know whether I would have wanted to have kids of my own if the choice had been left to me. But the fact is, it wasn’t. It was a fate placed on me from the moment I set foot in my church at the ripe old age of seven.

I will never give birth. I’m at peace with this fact. I will probably adopt children later, as I feel that motherhood itself could be an adventure and a wonderful opportunity to love and mentor a young person. But the terror I’ve mostly expunged still lurks at the edges. There will be no baby bump for me, lest I spiral downwards into a place so dark and dangerous that I may never climb out again. I don’t pretend that most or even more than a few girls raised in fundamentalism will make these connections and develop this fear; as far as I know, I stand quite alone in having run away from pregnancy. I do urge all of you, however ridiculous this may sound to you, to think about the messages you send to your daughters about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. Your daughters will be adding up the pieces you give them to make their own worldviews. Stay a step ahead: think about whether the results of your teaching are healthy. Above all, make sure you are teaching your daughters that they are free, that no one can use their bodies without their permission, and that they can be mothers but they can also do other things. If I been raised with a choice, I would not have had to fight an eighteen-year battle for my survival and independence.

  • montanasouthernbelle

    I don’t agree with you on any of this actually. I believe a husband does have a right to your body just like you do to his. It is commanded. Society has made it into something horrible. I do however love the way you write. You have such talent.

    • Sierra

      Thank you.
      I suppose I’m not asking for agreement about much in this post, as it’s mostly a story of my own struggle to overcome bad programming. I have never met anybody who had my reaction to the situation, and I don’t expect to be fully understood.
      My point is just to show that the Bible verse I quoted, when mixed with all those other sexist ideas, gets twisted into something completely different and dangerous. The idea of mutual belonging doesn’t have to be a threatening idea; it becomes so only in the context of the Christian patriarchy movement, which makes it all about women belonging to men and not vice versa. The post isn’t a critique of the verse, but the way it’s used.

      • montanasouthernbelle

        I respect your opinion. I’m actually exciting to see someone “thinking for once.” Most people just sit back and let the brain washing begin.

  • sylvanshadows

    I actually know what you mean. I wasn’t raised in the kind of environment you were, so the roots of the feelings aren’t the same, but I’ve been wrestling with how absolutely terrified I am of getting pregnant for most of my life. The very idea is revolting to me. So don’t worry, you’re not alone in those kind of feelings.

  • noisytarli

    You are NOT, NOT, NOT alone. Not by a long shot. I have ~gender issues~ and am not entirely sure where my discomfort re: pregnancy (and sex, tbh) caused by my gender identity and dysphoria separates from that caused by the culture in which I was raised, from my socialization as a girl in evangelical Christianity. But I’m also not sure it matters, because it seems like, for me, those things are very closely correlated to begin with..

  • Latebloomer

    I love the way you write! My family was not as involved in the Quiverfull lifestyle as yours, but I still got a taste of these some of these feelings. Today I’m mostly just incredulous at how many men in the Movement still smugly believe that they are more loving to “their” women than the rest of society.

    • Your Mom Uses Birth Control

      It’s hysterical when the men start trotting their ladies out from backstage to show them off and brag about how long they’ve been married to them. As if somehow that’s synonymous with respect or integrity. Then they pass bills to cut equal pay or whatever. But at least they got married!

  • broadsideblog

    It is astonishing to me that men get away with this shit. Seriously. Just because they dress it up in religious language to justify their selfishness. I am grateful beyond words to have grown up very very far away from any such toxicity. I completely get why you would feel the way you do. I never had kids and never wanted to (different issues…had to take care of a hopelessly needy mother for too many years.)

  • jwall915

    This is my first time leaving a comment, so first of all, I love your blog! You are not alone. I was raised in fundie Baptist patriarchal world, though not Quiverfull. I may adopt a child someday, but I’ll never be pregnant. I was told that I was allowed to limit my family size, but I was not allowed to work a single day past the birth of my first child. And I was told of how my husband would be in charge and I was to submit. Marriage and motherhood always sounded like prisons to me while growing up and I’m thrilled to be out.

  • sossajes

    pregnancy is REALLY damn scary, and folks who do not acknowledge it freak me out. many of the women i have known have had fine pregnancies, but even in healthy pregnancies things can go wrong. i think it is rational to acknowledge the risks being taken.

    i have been reading your blog here and on “no longer quivering” and i am just bowled over with admiration and respect for you. i agree that you would make a wonderful, loving, and empowering adoptive or foster mother. your hard won wisdom needs to be spread.

  • Sarah Morehouse

    I was raised in a liberal ELCA Lutheran church by liberal hippie parents and I STILL get exactly what you’re saying. I am 33 and am just now getting over my visceral rage and disgust at the thought of pregnancy. (Never had a problem with sex, probably because birth control and access to abortion were always assumed.) It took me forever to figure out where it was coming from.

    My family saw sex as good and children as optional, but once you’ve got that kid, you stay home and raise it the old fashioned way! It’s all about self-sacrifice and transcending your selfish desires for the good of the child! So I grew up with the expectation that I’d go to college and have a career, have fun and find the love of my life… and then give it all up. No more swearing or being sarcastic, no more TV, no more game nights with friends, no more quiet afternoons with a teacup and a good book – read Doctor Seuss aloud instead!, no more camping trips – just take the kid to see relatives, no more going to work, no more going out at all except to grocery shop and go to PTA!

    It is a problem that is way broader than the people who are overt Christian Patriarchalists (although they certainly take it to extremes that remind me of Saudi Arabia) because the patriarchy movement has tendrils in the most mainstream parts of society.

  • Karen

    I, too, avoided pregnancy. I was raised an only (adopted) child by a conservative Catholic mother and a laid-back, unchurched father. My mother made it clear to me that I was supposed to acquire a useful vocational skill, land a husband, and spend the rest of my fertile life making grandchildren for her. Fortunately my father — and the nuns at my Catholic school — were teaching me to reach for the stars, to challenge myself, to be anything I wanted to be. Pregnancy and motherhood were not on my list.

    There was a darker side to all of this, too; I was suffering from undiagnosed depression. I went through my 20s and early 30s being barely functional, except in a work environment, where I excelled. I knew I couldn’t make the transition psychologically to parenthood. Eventually I was unable even to function in a work environment, got properly diagnosed, and treated. But from then on I lived aware that I was on the edge of relapse; a couple of little pills and some encouragement from a therapist were all that kept me back from the edge. There was no way I would inflict such a mother on a child, even though about that time I went through a fairly painful phase of feeling my biological clock ticking.

    So what happened with my parents? My father repeatedly told me, “you make your own life decisions. I’m fine with whatever you decide.” My mother pestered me for grandchildren until I hit (early) perimenopause.

  • Jonalyn Fincher (@JonalynFincher)

    Thanks for the link to my post at hermeneutics… glad you’re writing about this! I think more women need to talk about how women are sexual, too, though not in a binary that excludes or denigrates men. I’ve written more about this at Loved getting this book title for more evidence that the Medieval world believed women were sexual incontinent. Have you read this title? Any others you could recommend?

  • Mandy

    I understand the hurt from screwed up minds living with the idea that they’re being spiritual, when they’re being selfish. I also totally get what Karen said about being barely functional except for at work, and excelling at work, and being afraid of being a bad parent. That was kind of me before I ended up very ill and had to quit my job and be alone in the silence with myself and my thoughts and several dogs at our house in FL where we lived at the time. I have been married for 10 years and am still figuring out pieces of why for so many years I didn’t want to be pregnant and have children. Some of it is parent issues stemming from the ideological foundations you were exposed to by your church community, some of it is fear of miscarriage (My Mom had many, partially the result of that whole anti-birth control-of-any-kind ideology and some physical issues with carrying a child to term, and my Dad’s decision that she wasn’t allowed to get her tubes tied even though several miscarriages nearly killed her because of dangerous drops in her blood pressure and extreme blood loss.), my own miscarriage, and my fear of parenting and making the mistakes my parents made – not average ones but some of the really hurtful ones my parents made because of the lies they believed. Now I’ve reached the point that having a child would be a cool thing, but if it never happens I’m fine with that situation, too.
    I can hear the hurt in your writing. I am blessed with enough chutzpah to stand up for myself when it came time to decide who I wanted to marry, because I also encountered the same situation you did – dread at the idea of having little to no decision-making in the process of who I (not my Dad) would live with and love for the rest of my life. I made the decision for myself following what I saw God wanted for me and what “clicked” in a way that led me towards being a better person, and had the courage to tell my parents that they had enough years to teach me, and now it was time for me to use what I had been taught ON MY OWN and without their interference because they would destroy my relationship if I didn’t. My Dad was and still is (I think – my baby sister might have finally helped shake him loose…long story, and I’m not being flippant. I think the bondage he is in ideologically is saddening.) into the whole courtship idea. I was also taught similar ideas about sex which my husband with a lot of awareness very promptly and lovingly put into the trash can by not having sex with me on our wedding night – the beginning of life with a man full of wisdom and courage and freedom for me to learn how to really love and trust. This was no surprise to me, because it was just like him – to show me real respect and love and trust.
    Coincidentally, reading Jonalyn’s book Ruby Slippers (It really is THAT GOOD and HELPFUL.) took me to places my husband couldn’t because some things, if you either haven’t been there or haven’t lived them, he just hadn’t dealt with. He could listen to me, and encourage me, and help me, but not necessarily completely empathize although he got really close many times. It was like having the opaque plastic removed from my glasses in regards to my awareness of freedom in God and how much he loves me as a WOMAN – a human made in God’s image just like a MAN. I was seeing that idea lived out to me every day by my husband and his parents, but certain ideas one accepts and never even realizes one has through the way one is raised were revealed to me. My husband would know when I had been reading it because I would be more loving and at peace. It was also a middle-aged southern pastor and his wife in Florida who gave a definition of “submission” that eclipsed anything my parents (who are fundy) and previous churches had ever taught me – something that required both the husband and wife to be involved and was as far from what I had been previously taught and really was simply the way people should treat one another in general. It was Dale Fincher’s several-part blog on submission. It was seeing a friend of mine try to live out the fundy definition of submission (which she still is partially caught up in, although partially being freed from) and being hurt by it until she drew a line and is getting help. (You might find some comic relief in the website
    I don’t know where you are in the process of healing, but I hope that you constantly learn more and more about how God’s love feels, and how much value you have because of God and how no matter how stupid the chauvenist preachers and Christian men (I know plenty of totally awesome Christian men and women and a couple of really amazing preachers now who speak truth and hold me accountable just as I do them.) are, God doesn’t change, and they just don’t really know God. I was able to start breaking out of being bitter from their ignorance and stupidity – something I still feel sometimes – by keeping in mind a cool quote from Anne Lamott that either Jonalyn or Dale shared: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
    Something I learned about love that I heard read a time or two but the ideologies I was taught erased it away before I could absorb it is where Scriptures say that perfect love throws fear out. If only I could have felt and known it years ago!
    Thank you for posting your thoughts and having the courage to share even though it’s obviously still painful. You had the courage to share personal thoughts, and I just wanted to share back with you. You are NOT alone.

  • Retha

    I can understand why you don’t want to be pregnant.
    Their way of understanding 1 Cor 7:4 is blatantly out of context. The previous verse say: Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.
    Where :4 is an observation, rendering benevolence – good will and consideration – inside the bedroom is a command to Christian men as well as women. (Some newer translations translate benevolence as intercourse, but the same word is also used in a non-sexual context in Eph 6:7, and translated good will)

  • elly

    I saw myself in a lot of what you said here. My own experience was of a formerly feminist, college educated, highly intelligent mother trying to push us down the path of patriarchy. Somehow I also internalized the motherhood messages as a fear of pregnancy, children, even marriage to a certain degree. Like you, it seemed a prison to me.

    I am now a mother to a little boy, but most people could not understand my aversion to being pregnant. I hated every minute of it, hated the objectification I felt from some (walking uterus, anyone?), hated that all of a sudden my female students, coworkers, friends only wanted to talk about my pregnancy. I refused to have any pictures taken during that time and I stand by that decision. I had grown enough in my understanding of womanhood to acknowledge that I wanted to be a mother, but to me pregnancy was just something terrible I would have to go through to get to that point.

    I am so thankful for women like you who are brave enough to stand up and tell your stories. They have been immensely helpful to me in processing my past and looking forward to the future.