The Answer To Sexual Shame is Not MORE Sexual Shame, Carson T. Clark

[Content Note: Sexual and Spiritual Abuse]

When I was 16, I dated an abuser who was constantly coercing me into having sex with him. I had been raised in fundamentalist purity culture, so I thought of sex as something gross and scary. My boyfriend at the time tried to combat those feelings by sending me on guilt trips and by holding me to his manipulative, subjective standards of “responsibility.”

He’d say things like,

“You hugging me turned me on. You’re a horrible person if you turn a guy on and then just leave him like that.”

“This relationship isn’t going to work out if you can’t give me something. You’re making me cheat on you.”

“You’re such a prude. There’s nothing wrong with ____. Why do you have to act so self-righteous?”

“You’re selfish. You want me to hug and kiss you and give you what you want, but then you won’t give me what want.”

You get the picture, I’m sure.

This was an abusive relationship. That’s pretty obvious.

Yes, I had a lot of hang-ups about sex because the the culture I’d grown up in, and it was liberating and healthy for me to learn later in life that my sexuality could be a good thing. But the fact that purity culture hindered my acceptance of my sexuality does not excuse the way this person treated me for over a year.

Being in a relationship like this was a horrible process. I constantly felt guilty for not having sex, and then guilty for having sex. Even when I consented to sexual activity, I felt violated. I never felt like I really had a choice in the matter. I thought it was my responsibility to have sex with him, or I felt afraid of what might happen if I didn’t. I felt trapped, like I didn’t belong to myself and was no longer a person. 

Does anyone want to deny, even just from these few details, that this relationship was abusive? Anyone?

Now, take this same scenario and put it in a different context:

Pretend that my abuser and I were a few years older and that we were married. 

Now is it abusive?

Would the different context have magically changed the way his words impacted me? The way they caused me fear and misery, helped make me a self-injurer, and led in part to the mental health problems I still have today, eight years later? 

If you don’t think it is okay to coerce a woman into sex before marriage, but feel that people have the right to coerce married women into having sex with their spouses, I want you to stop and think about why. 

I bring up my story because  I recently read this post by Carson T. Clark that has been making the rounds on the Christian internets for the past couple of weeks. In this post, Clark tells the story of a male friend of his who is in a sexless marriage. This friend’s wife grew up in purity culture and now “cannot shake the deeply held belief that sex is gross, men are pigs, and restraint (i.e. abstinence) is more holy,” so now they don’t have sex.

Clark’s post gives no indication that the friend is abusive to his wife in anyway, so I am not making that claim. It sounds like the friend is frustrated and confused about what to do, which is understandable. I have been on both ends of sexless relationships where sex was wanted by one or both people but never happened. It can be extremely frustrating for everyone involved.

Clark’s appraisal of the situation–which he bases only on his friend’s side of the story, never sharing his friend’s wife’s perspective–however, uses language that mirrors the coercive tactics my abuser used on me.

Let’s look at some of the things Clark says about people (mostly women, according to Clark, even though I know plenty of women in heterosexual marriages where their husband is the one who is much less interested in sex):

1. He calls the wife’s dislike of oral sex, lingerie, and sex toys “self-righteous.”

Where purity culture manipulates women into pre-marital abstinence using stereotypes of “The Whore,” and telling women, “You don’t want to be that girl,” Clark utilizes the stereotype of “The Prude.”

This woman, whose story from her own words is not important enough to Clark to make it into his blog post, gets called “self-righteous” because she won’t consent to some of the things her husband wants to try in the bedroom. Rather than tackle the purity culture teachings that tell women certain sexual acts are sinful, he goes after a woman affected by these teachings.

2. Echoing the teachings of Mark Driscoll on this topic (as described in this post), Clark insinuates that the wife is being selfish for not having sex with her husband, and flat-out accuses her of sinning against her spouse. 

He states that, in order to get out of having “regular sex” with one’s spouse, one needs a “valid medical or psychological reason.” I hate that he thinks he gets to determine what a “valid” reason is, and I hate that he doesn’t see years of brainwashing from spiritually abusive purity culture leaders as “valid.”

3. He accuses people  who marry without informing their spouse if they have a low sex of trying to “trap” (yes, he uses this word) a spouse into marriage. He tells people to make commitments about the frequency of sex before marriage, and calls a person who cannot keep these commitments “a horrible person.” 

He never stops to think that maybe people who grew up in purity culture often have no idea what their sex drive is like because they’ve never been allowed to explore it.

He also states earlier in the piece that his friend’s wife had a high sex drive before she got married, which means he should know that sex drives change for many, many reasons. I cannot predict today what my sex drive will be like next year or even next month, especially as someone who is attempting to find medications that work to treat my mental illness.

To accuse those who marry and end up not wanting sex as often as they thought they would of being “horrible” people out to “trap” others into sexless marriages is a pretty significant empathy fail.

4. He thinks more evangelicals should tell women, “It’s not OK to not fulfill your sexual responsibilities.” 

Newsflash, Carson T. Clark: They tell us this ALL THE FUCKING TIME.

Clark claims to be “Livid at the Evangelical Subculture” for the way it shames women about sex. He thinks his perspective is radically different, but it’s really not. Do Evangelicals shame women into abstinence before marriage? Yes. Is Clark right that this often leads to shame that carries over into marriage and can cause frustration, confusion, and hurt for everyone involved? Yes.

But Clark’s solution to the Evangelical Subculture’s shaming tactics is to heap more shame on women who are already drowning in it. As I pointed out before, this isn’t much different from Mark Driscoll’s take on the subject. Or Emerson Eggerichs’. Or Focus on the Family’s.

Sorry, Carson T. Clark. But your view on marital sex is the Evangelical Subculture’s view and it is both spiritually and sexually abusive. 

Being in a sexless marriage/committed relationship is already an experience that carries shame with it [edit: not always. Many people are asexual and in sexless relationships by choice and happy with this arrangement]. That shame can keep people from working things out in whatever way is best for them. People in these relationships need to hear, “This happens to lots of people and you aren’t alone.” They don’t need someone coming along and telling the person who is less interested in sex, “You’re horrible and selfish! Suck it up and do your duty.”

Clark states that “[f]or the longest time…a marital rape culture existed. Just awful.” I’m sorry to say, that marital rape culture still exists, and Clark’s words serve to reinforce it

Most of us (I hope) would be horrified if we heard a teenage young man say these words to a 16 year old young woman, trying to persuade her into sex. I don’t understand why we are not also horrified to hear a pastor saying them to married women or married people in general.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    He never stops to think that maybe people who grew up in purity culture often have no idea what their sex drive is like because they’ve never been allowed to explore it.

    Plus there’s the fact that people’s sex drive isn’t necessarily fixed for life. It can fluctuate.

    • http://carsontclark.com/ carsontclark

      A valid, nuancing point.

  • http://mittenatheist.blogspot.com/ Kari Lynn

    People don’t believe me when I say that sex (or at least talking about sex) is sooooo important to the health of the relationship. It’s normal to have a sex drive, whether it be high or low. However, it’s not fair to your partner if they have a different sex drive, and that’s okay. It’s okay to not be sexually compatible and decide to end a relationship based on that factor. What’s not okay is to coerce your partner into doing something they don’t want to do.
    I had an incredibly low sex drive when I was with my ex because he was a sexually abusive nymphomaniac. I ended that relationship. Now that I am in a healthy relationship, my sex drive is much higher and more comparable to my partner. I have friends who grew up in purity culture and have no idea how to even approach the subject of sex and they ended up being married super young, having kids and being divorced before the age of 23 because they were never taught how to approach sensitive topics like sex.

    • http://carsontclark.com/ carsontclark

      “I have friends who grew up in purity culture and have no idea how to even approach the subject of sex and they ended up being married super young, having kids and being divorced before the age of 23 because they were never taught how to approach sensitive topics like sex.”

      Tragic. I might be the last person on earth whose thoughts you’d want to consider on this point, but these thoughts seem applicable if you’d be willing to read them: http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/35298/thinking-about-sex

  • http://carsontclark.com/ carsontclark

    Greetings.

    Even amidst disagreement I always appreciate thoughtful comments, so please know that I’m not angry nor is mine a defensive posture. My tone is one of civility.

    Responding to your points:

    1. It seems to me you’ve conflated “dislikes” with what I wrote, i.e. “self-righteous.” Though they can be intertwined notions, there’s a conceptional distinction there. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t like lingerie. It makes me uncomfortable.” OK, cool. It’s quite another thing to say, “Woman who wear lingerie are tramps. I’ll never be like that. I want to be a godly woman.” Not OK. Two different things there.

    2. I followed-up with a miniblog post about this once specifically, which I would ask you to read: http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/35674/miniblog322

    3. That’s why I wrote this blog post: http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/35298/thinking-about-sex

    4. That certainly has not been my experience and that of many, many friends I know. Of course, I keep my nose out of the conservative evangelical blogosphere and didn’t grow up in the Driscoll/Reformed corner of the evangelical world. (My was the emotive/Pentecostal corner… For whatever it’s worth, these days I tend to describe myself as an Eastern Anapiscopanglican Christian. I’m definitely hanging out with guys like Roger Olson in the post-evangelical camp.) Besides all that, however, I think we could both benefit from having a careful discussion about this point. I’m willing if you are.

    By the way, what I find interesting is how much we both dislike the purity movement. I suspect we might actually agree on a good deal more than you suppose. I would remind you that my blog is Musings of a Hardlining Moderate. That first blog post and the many subsequent ones have drawn the ire of progressives and traditionalists alike: http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/35451/miniblog319

    Final thought for now. I’d sincerely appreciate it if you’d be more careful with the abusive language. That is, the explicit reference to one being abusive. I was raped by a person in my church as a child (http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/34041/rape ), so that accusation is a good way to get me to stop being civil. That’s not a threat. I’m just telling you how I tend to emotionally respond when I, as the one who was abused, am accused of being an abuser. It ain’t fun.

    • http://carsontclark.com/ carsontclark

      I edited, i.e. clarified and expanded, my comment a few times. Sorry if that causes confusion. Pretty sure I’m done with that now.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Being abused as a child does not excuse you using your power as a spiritual leader to coerce and shame women into sex. That is still an abusive act. As a survivor of similar abusive acts I can tell you that it is extremely damaging to many people to hear words like the ones you use in your post.

      • http://carsontclark.com/ carsontclark

        Hello, Sarah.

        I’ve already responded to a similar criticism under the original blog post so I’m just going to copy & paste my response:
        —————————–

        Gohl. I’m not reinforcing the dang rape culture. Could you guys please give me the benefit of the doubt? I’m reminded of the quote by Richard Mouw, “Too often in life we proceed with a hermeneutic of self-assuredness and criticism of those for whom we disagree rather than a hermeneutic of self-criticism and grace for others.” What’s annoying about Dianna’s comment is that she led with the least charitable interpretation possible. This world would be a better place if blog commenters made fewer declarations and more inquiries.

        Of course a wife has the right to say, “No.” That’s why I wrote, “For the longest time husbands could force their wives to have sex and few really saw this as a real problem. A marital rape culture existed. Just awful.” At the same time (not “But”), there are consequences for a woman’s marriage in rejecting her husband all or most of the time. Having sex is the primary act that distinguishes roommates from spouses. To remove the sexual union, especially when it’s not by mutual consent, is to seriously harm the marital relationship. That’s not coercion. It’s an acknowledgment that behavioral choices have real relational consequences.

        ————————
        I expanded these comments in one of the subsequent blog posts I linked… Thanks for your time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

      Being a survivor doesn’t mean you’re somehow magically immune from using abusive language. Perhaps instead of deflecting, you should take criticism more seriously. Like Sarah M., I’m a survivor of an abusive relationship, and had exactly the same reaction to your post.

      I can’t speak for Sarah M. But I can tell you why I hate the purity movement. I hate it because it policed my sexuality. And that, Carson, is exactly what your post did, too.

      • http://carsontclark.com/ carsontclark

        Hello, Sarah. I’m sorry you were abused. That’s awful. I’ve already responded to a similar criticism under the original blog post so I’m just going to copy & paste my response:
        —————————–

        Gohl. I’m not reinforcing the dang rape culture. Could you guys please give me the benefit of the doubt? I’m reminded of the quote by Richard Mouw, “Too often in life we proceed with a hermeneutic of self-assuredness and criticism of those for whom we disagree rather than a hermeneutic of self-criticism and grace for others.” What’s annoying about Dianna’s comment is that she led with the least charitable interpretation possible. This world would be a better place if blog commenters made fewer declarations and more inquiries.

        Of course a wife has the right to say, “No.” That’s why I wrote, “For the longest time husbands could force their wives to have sex and few really saw this as a real problem. A marital rape culture existed. Just awful.” At the same time (not “But”), there are consequences for a woman’s marriage in rejecting her husband all or most of the time. Having sex is the primary act that distinguishes roommates from spouses. To remove the sexual union, especially when it’s not by mutual consent, is to seriously harm the marital relationship. That’s not coercion. It’s an acknowledgment that behavioral choices have real relational consequences.

        ————————

        A few more brief thoughts. First, I too hate the purity movement. Second, I cannot help but wonder if you’re projecting other experiences upon that post that simply are not there. For example, I think of the distinction I made above between “dislikes” and “self-righteous.” Third, my response has not been to deflect but to write subsequent posts clarifying my comments.

        OK, well, you may have determined in your heart that you hate me already. I don’t know. But if so, nothin’ I can do about that. But if you’re willing to have a civil discussion in which we carefully unpack these things, I’m willing. Either way I hope you have a good day.

      • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

        Yes, yes, yes. And I’m flabbergasted by that whole “I don’t mean this by a threat but you may want to watch what you say or you may not like the way I react” bit. How is that not a threat?????


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