There’s been a lot of talk over the last week or so about the ethics of consent, and there’s a common refrain that I keep seeing in Christian contexts: “this is what comes of seeing consent as the only morally relevant thing in sex. If instead we just stuck to traditional marriage and objective sexual ethics, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”
So, I want to point out that throughout a lot of the history of Christendom, giving women away without their consent (or with only the most nominal forms of consent) was fairly common. This is not to say that it was approved by the Church – Leo XIII laments the practice in Arcanum Divinae – but rather that the valuation of traditional marriage and the promulgation of a much stricter sexual ethic in the 19th century did not protect women from being used against their wills.
Nor does a focus on traditional marriage address the issue of spousal rape, a problem for which traditional Christianity certainly bears some responsibility.
When St. Paul wrote about the importance of spouses not refusing one another, he wrote within a context where concern centred more on the problem of husbands refusing sex to their wives. In Roman society, a woman’s virtue was sacrosanct, and a wife was often seen primarily as a vehicle for the production of legitimate heirs. A male, on the other hand, was practically expected to make sexual use of extramarital partners – whether prostitutes, male or female slaves, or mistresses. While there were some philosophers who proposed male fidelity as a virtue, social mores generally permitted men to seek sex outside of marriage if they wanted it.
This meant that if a man did not wish to have any more children (usually because he was concerned about inheritence issues), then he would often neglect his wife in favour of other partners. Within this context, then, sexual neglect was largely something that men inflicted on women and Paul’s injunction against it fit in snugly with the Christian assertion that a man was to enjoy relations only with his wife. Paul first asserts what everyone in the Roman world would have believed – that “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – but then adds to this a radical dimension of reciprocity, “likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)Over time, however, the emphasis shifted away from a model where both spouses were to practice consideration for the other, exercising authority over one another’s bodies with the same kind of loving solicitude that one exercises over one’s own body, towards a model where men’s sexual rights over women again took centre stage.
Sex came to be conceived as a “debt” which a woman owed to her husband and which she was obligated to pay even in cases where it manifestly not in her best interests to do so (cf. The discussion of whether a wife is obligated to render the debt to a leprous husband, Summa Theologica citation.) In some cases, failure to put out was actually punishable by religious or public sanctions. Naturally, since men could always claim biological incapacity whereas women could not, it was generally women who were punished.
In practice, this meant that traditional marriage not only frequently involved women being forced into coercive or semi-coercive marriages, it also meant that a married woman had no right to refuse sex however little she might want it. If you consented to marriage, even if it was only a very technical kind of consent, then you consented to fulfill your husband’s sexual demands from that time forward.
(It’s probably worth noting that the Church, going back at least as far as Humanae Vitae, has been increasingly vigorous in its condemnations of this attitude. Francis explicitly condemns the sexual subjugation of women as an improper interpretation of St. Paul. Cf. Amoris Laetitia, 154-156.)
I don’t see that pushing rape back into the marriage bed is a great way to deal with rape culture. What needs to be dealt with is the idea that many men have that a woman’s body is a thing which is owed to them because they need it to relieve their sexual frustrations. The problem is that women are seen as objects of use, not as human subjects with inherent dignity who ought to be able to exercise reasonable autonomy over their own bodies. And history tells us that this problem can flourish in traditional marriage just as it can flourish in hook-up culture.
Which is why, yes, we really do need to focus on teaching people about consent and we need to emphasize that obtaining consent does not mean manipulating or coercing someone into sex mostly against their will.