Marital Rape in the Bible

Marital Rape in the Bible June 1, 2015

The newest Christian site making the rounds on atheist Twitter is Biblical Gender Roles. The author says only that he’s a white man and a conservative Christian (so of course he’s qualified to tell everyone else how they should conduct themselves in accordance with his archaic notion of gender roles). Today I wanted to focus on one of his recent posts, which is exactly as awful as you’d expect given the title: “Is a husband selfish for having sex with his wife when she is not the mood?

In this post, the BGR author says that regular sex is a nonnegotiable duty in a Christian marriage and doesn’t have to be “earned” through displays of love, regular communication, or acts of kindness. In fact, he says, it doesn’t even especially matter whether either partner feels kind or well-disposed toward the other. The happiness of married people is irrelevant; their purpose is to have sex so they can raise more culture-warrior babies because God said so. (I’d wager there are a lot of loveless Christian marriages built on exactly this template.)

But it gets worse. He goes on to argue that married women have a duty to have sex with their husbands whenever the husband wants to, and that a wife never has the right to say no to sex. At most, she can ask for a delay, “but only for legitimate physical or psychological reasons and the judge of what is legitimate or not is her husband”.

Since the rape-culture implications of this are screamingly obvious, he adds a qualification in huge, blaring red text:

I have several “disclaimers” on this hot topic throughout the post but I will put this most important one at the top in red so one thing is crystal clear since I have been falsely accused of promoting rape and physical abuse to women:
I have not, nor would I EVER advocate for a husband to force himself physically upon his wife or to physically abuse her in any fashion.

That disclaimer would be more reassuring if he didn’t immediately follow it up with this:

But I will say this, despite American laws to the contrary, Biblically speaking, there is no such thing as “marital rape”. In the Scriptures, the only way rape occurs is if a man forces himself on a woman who is not his property (not his wife, or concubine). A man’s wives, his concubines (slave wives taken as captives of war or bought) could be made to have sex with him, no questions asked.

I realize this entire scenario is appalling to our modern western notions, but I choose to not challenge God’s wisdom in the laws he gave. If you want to argue with God about this at the judgement, be my guest.

Except that, as the BGR author doesn’t seem to recognize, he is “challenging God’s wisdom”. He expressly doesn’t condone marital rape, but he also says that it’s permitted by God in the Bible and that he believes the Bible. It must take a vast amount of cognitive dissonance to overlook the contradiction in these side-by-side statements. If marital rape is allowed by the Bible, why does he condemn it?

The only possible answer – although it’s an answer he won’t acknowledge – is that he understands, at some level, the rationality and moral goodness of modern notions of consent. Yet that understanding clashes with his professed adherence to a much older and more savage moral system derived from patriarchal religion. He can see for himself that this older system is “appalling” in light of the newer, but like Pilate washing his hands, he can’t bring himself to do more than shrug and abdicate his own independent moral judgment.

One thing I will say is that BGR’s author is correct that the Bible doesn’t have a category for rape as we understand it. Deuteronomy chapter 22, which has the most direct rules on the subject, says that if a man rapes a woman who’s engaged to someone else, then the rapist is put to death. Appallingly, if the rape happens in the city and the woman doesn’t scream for help, then she’s put to death along with her rapist. Meanwhile, if a man rapes a woman who isn’t engaged, his “punishment” is to pay a fine to her father and then marry her.

However, there’s no rule addressing what happens if a man rapes a woman he’s married to, because the Bible’s authors didn’t think in those terms. In their minds, women were property and their consent was irrelevant. In fact, the Ten Commandments list wives along with slaves and livestock as the property of men, as possessions that other people shouldn’t covet. To the Bible’s authors, rape was a crime only insofar as it meant one man trespassing on the property of another man, whether that was the father, brother or husband of the woman.

This is the legal code and view of the world that you should think of when you hear the words “biblical gender roles”: half the human race treated as property, consent as irrelevant, violence against women normalized and accepted. If BGR says he doesn’t endorse violence or rape, that’s only because moral progress has influenced his thinking to the point where he glimpses, dimly, the awfulness of the belief system he professes. But it hasn’t influenced him enough for him to do the right thing and reject it entirely as the misogynist atrocity it is.

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