About a month ago, evangelical pastor Doug Wilson posted an article titled Courtship and Rape Culture. Let’s pause to remember that Doug Wilson was embroiled in controversy last year when a child predator he had married to a woman in his church (and for whom he had helped secure a light sentence) was found to be guilty of some impropriety regarding his infant son (exactly what happened is unclear, but the judge did find that his wife was derelict in her duty as chaperone). The controversy surrounding Wilson blew up still further when a young women spoke out about how, a decade ago, Wilson had blamed her for her own grooming and rape at age 13 and 14 by one of his seminary students, who had boarded with her family.
And while we’re at it, let’s pause to remember that in 2012 Wilson suggested that rape in our culture was a result of women’s collective failure to remember “the biblical concepts of true authority and submission” within marriage, adding this:
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.
With this background, I read Wilson’s post on courtship and rape culture with no small amount of interest (and no small amount of horror). Today I’m going to to take some time to look at Wilson’s article.
Let me give you a quick outline. First Wilson imagines a society in which women are physically protected by their male relatives from the threats posed by men outside of their family circles. I say “imagines” because the picture he draws is at odds with the world within which we live. Second, Wilson argues that courtship is to be preferred to the alternative, but his understanding of courtship is more than a little bit rosy while his understanding of its alternative is dire indeed—again at odds with reality. Third and finally, Wilson addresses whether women who refuse to be controlled by their fathers and other male relatives are asking to be raped.
Women Need Male Protection
Let’s begin with this paragraph here:
It is the conviction of many of us here in conservative Christian circles that the principal threat to women is men. Taken as a general rule, women need to be protected from men. But because of the superior strength and higher levels of aggressiveness in men — and I know I run the risk of heavy fines and internment in sensitivity camp for saying it — what we must have in order to protect women from men is . . . men. Men are the principal danger, and so men must be the principal defense against that danger. You can complain about this if you like, and you may get your representative to introduce legislation about it, but it remains the fact that something that is 200 pounds weighs more than something that is 130 pounds.
I’m not sure what sort of cowboy world Wilson lives in, but I live in a world where we have laws and a police force. I live in a world where one’s protection is not dependent on one’s physical strength—and thank goodness! I’m not saying physical strength never matters, but it certainly doesn’t matter to the extent Wilson suggests it does. And to the extent that physical strength does matter? Let’s just say that that’s why I have my daughter enrolled in martial arts. I don’t want her to have to depend on another for protection—I want her to be able to protect herself. But again, it’s not like we live in a world where our safety depends on our fists—we don’t, and thank goodness.
Let’s talk about the world Wilson posits for a moment, though. If men really were as much a danger to women as Wilson suggests, it strikes me that the safest course might be for women to join together and form their own society with its own form of protections—its own police force, its own system of weaponry and defenses, etc. Because if men are really so dangerous that women need other men to physically protect them on the regular, who is ensuring that those men don’t become their own threat? It’s the famous “who watches the watchers” question.
Wilson is responding to discussion of rape culture, so he would probably argue that feminists also consider men a threat to women. Not so. Implicit in any discussion of rape culture is the idea that rape culture is not inevitable—that it can be unlearned. Rape culture is the idea that men (and women) are taught from childhood toxic ideas about women, women’s bodies, and sex—that a man is entitled to sex if he buys a woman dinner, that a woman who wears certain clothes is asking to be raped, and so on and so forth. Note what is absent—the idea that men are naturally sexual predators. While Wilson believes women must always be protected from men, feminist discussion of rape culture rests on the idea that if we can as a society can unlearn these toxic ideas about femininity and masculinity, the rate of sexual violence would decrease.
Of course, Wilson disagrees. And who does he think should protect women?
In the older order, the principal responsibility for doing this fell on the men of a particular woman’s acquaintance — her father, her brothers, her husband, her sons. This was not a matter of law imposed from above, but rather a matter of internalized custom.
No, actually, it often was a matter of law imposed from above. Remember that even two centuries ago in the U.S., women became subsumed into their husbands’ legal identity when they married. What Wilson is missing is that this “older order” rested not simply on the idea that women needed to be protected by their male kin but also on the idea that women belonged to their male kin. It was not this: “she’s a human being with worth, and I will hurt you if you hurt her.” It was this: “don’t touch her, she’s mine.” We’re not talking about protection so much as we’re talking about ownership. We’re talking about who gets to control women.
So then, what do we do? Christian men have an obligation to protect the women in their lives. This is one of the permanent things. It one of the foundation stones in the natural order of things. God created Adam to protect and provide. Those are the two central duties of men. It is what men are for.
Okay, so let me ask this. If God created men to protect women—if that is what they are for—what are they supposed to be protecting women from? Did God create men to both threaten and protect women?
The first duty that a man has is a variation on the Hippocratic Oath, where it says, first, do no harm. If a man’s task is to protect “the womenfolk” — and yes, I know I sound like a troglodyte and, also like a troglodyte, do not care — then his first order of business is to make sure he is not the one she principally needs protection from.
This is all well and good, but what happens when a man does do harm? And who exactly determines what is harm? Remember that Wilson preaches a heavy dose of female submission, even within the marriage bed. He believes women are commanded by God to obey their husbands. I do not for a moment trust him to have any idea of what it looks like to be a man a woman needs protection from.
Here’s an interesting idea. In a world where women need men’s physical protection from other men, why not let women choose what men they want as their protectors? That way if a woman feels her father or husband has become a threat to her, she can leave him and find another protector. Oh wait, I know why—implicit in this idea that women need protection is the idea that women need protection from their own silly choices. It’s the trope that women, left to their own devices, would be taken in by some scoundrel, which reveals an utter lack of trust in women’s faculties—and an unreasonably large amount of trust in the faculties of their fathers and husbands. It becomes less about protection and more about sexism.
Courtship v. Chaos
Next Wilson attempts to respond to concerns that the courtship process as practiced among conservative evangelicals has become overly legalistic:
Second, when you have a community of like-minded people, you have to learn how to function within the customs that have developed. You are not dealing with the Sinaitic code, but rather with manners and mores. Let us say, for just one example, that a young NSA freshman has been flirting his head off with a particular girl for a couple weeks. His roommate takes him aside and says, “Have you talked to her dad?” Now out of 100 instances of this kind of “intervention” in our circles, I am quite prepared to grant that a certain number of these incidents are legalistic, fussy, unnecessary, officious, or just plain jealous. Great, and let’s take that as an encouragement to not be that guy. But now let’s take a trip across town to the other college, the land where nobody would ever dream of asking such a stooopid question. We are talking about the land of abortion, STDs, serial crack-ups, and lots of therapy for mangled daughters. We are talking about the land that fathers forgot — and it is truly a miserable land.
And you know what? There is nothing wrong with therapy. I went to see a therapist at my university’s health center for a while, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Going to therapy did not mean I was weak. It also did not mean I was “mangled.” It meant that I sought advice and help from a professional trained in giving people advice and help.
At its core, Wilson is trying to contrast the alleged legalism of courtship with its alternative—“the land of abortion, STDs, serial crack-ups, and lots of therapy for mangled daughters.” And here, again, he’s wrong. I attended college less than a decade ago, and I’ve been a graduate student and a college instructor at a state university ever since, and the picture he paints is not the reality I’ve lived and witnessed. This “truly . . . miserable land” Wilson conjures up exists only in his head. I’m not saying that there are never STDs or accidental pregnancies, but I am certainly objecting to the idea that the college scene is miserable or characterized more by STDs or accidental pregnancies than by self discovery, growth, and change.
But let’s talk about courtship, because Wilson’s portrayal here, too, is far from accurate. He acts as though the alleged legalism of courtship rests solely in one young man asking another whether he’s talked to the father of the girl he’s flirting with. Not so. Because let me ask you this—what happens when he talks to the girl’s father? Wilson leaves that out entirely. I have heard so many stories of exactly this situation, and most have ended badly, with the father chasing men off or setting ridiculous conditions and micromanaging his daughters’ love lives. I know so many women who married solely to escape this madness, wanting to be free of an overbearing father and his growing list of restrictions and requirements. For man, it is only after marriage that they are allowed to be alone with their beau. A number of these women have (not surprisingly) since divorced, but even those who haven’t had to go through hell and back to claw their ways out of their fathers’ homes, and that does take a tole. This is what people are talking about when they speak of the legalism of courtship.
Do you know what is utterly beautiful? Women being allowed to make their own decisions regarding romantic relationships and marriage. Having myself come from a background where courtship was expected, I still marvel at women’s ability to choose who to date and whom to marry on their own, independently of paternal permission. I’m approaching the end of my twenties, and most of my college friends are married now, many of them to mutual college friends. I watched them meet, date, and marry. And it’s not that families are completely shut out of this process, either. It’s just that it’s more about sharing life and asking for advice when its wanted than it is about seeking permission or exerting control. And that’s amazing.
Wilson needs to stop dealing in straw-women and start talking to actual people.
The Propriety of Rape
Next comes this really strange passage where Wilson discusses whether women who have rejected their fathers’ authority deserve to be raped. (Because apparently this is a thing that needs to be discussed at length.)
Now I do understand why someone might argue that I am an over-protective throwback. I disagree, but at least it is a coherent criticism. But when I insist on the duty of Christian men to be a wall of protection for the women in their lives, and I lament the fact that many women have abandoned any such protection, how is it possible for Rachel Held Evans to think that I say that unsubmissive women deserve to be raped? Mark her use of that word deserve.
Say a woman — for some egalitarian and very foolish reason, declines to have her dinner date walk her back to her car in some urban center after dark. Let us say she is raped and murdered. According to what RHE says, my response is going to be some variant of “served her right.” Now you would have to be a fool not to see the connection between her refusal of an escort and what happened to her, but you would also have to be pretty vile to say that walking to your car deserves the penalty of rape and murder. You would also have to be pretty high up among Obama’s advisers to falsely accuse someone of being that vile.
One consequence of rejecting the protection of good men is that you are opening yourself up to the predations of bad men. I fully acknowledge that this is not what such women think they are doing. They think they are rejecting the patriarchy, or some other icky thing, but when they have walked away from the protections of fathers and brothers, what it amounts to is a tacit (implicit, in principle, not overt) acceptance of the propriety of rape.
Does this mean they deserve to be wronged? Of course not. Does John Piper deserve to be mugged because he won’t carry a gun? Do I deserve to have my truck stolen because I left it unlocked? Did the oysters in The Walrus and the Carpenter deserve to be eaten because they were so stupid?
Wilson sends a lot of time talking in circles and insisting he doesn’t mean what he means, but I want to point you to the bold bits. Wilson says that women never “deserve” to be raped, but he also states straight-out that a woman who walks away from the protection of her father and brothers engages in a tacit acceptance “of the propriety of rape.” Can we stop for a moment to remember how “propriety” is defined?
: behavior that is accepted as socially or morally correct and proper
: the state or quality of being correct and proper
I am trying to figure out how Wilson could even suggest that a woman who does not acquiesce to her father or brothers’ control is implicitly accepting that rape is morally correct and proper, and I’m coming up completely empty. Wilson may claim up and down that women don’t deserve to be raped, but he is very clear that he believes that women who walk away from their father or brothers’ control are putting themselves in harm’s way and opening themselves up to (and even tacitly accepting?!) rape.
Note that Wilson uses the term “protection” while I’ve been using the term “control.” Words matter, my friends. It’s important to bear in mind that Wilson terms protection is in fact control. It’s about letting your male relatives have a say in determining who you can and cannot date, where you can and cannot go, and who you can and cannot marry. Wilson might balk at such stark phrasing, but then, he’s the one who preaches that women are to practice submission. I know many people who argue that women are to submit to their fathers’ as practice for submitting to their husbands, and I suspect that Wilson would probably say something similar. I also suspect that he would say that women need to accept the protection God has given them.
I want to leave you with one more thing. It is well known that child sexual abuse is more likely to take place within the family than outside of it. One study found that female victims were more likely to be abused by a father, stepfather, or other male relative than by strangers, neighbors, and family friends combined. Women are also more likely to face violence and sexual assault from their intimate partners than from strangers. The statistics are rather at odds with Wilson’s narrative, and I can only imagine how his words sound to women who have faced violence and abuse from their male relatives and intimate partners.
Wilson’s imagined world where valiant men protect their womenfolk from external threats is just that—imagined. I know so many women who grew up in dysfunctional homes in conservative evangelical communities like Wilson’s, women (and men) who grew up with controlling or abusive parents and toxic ideas about relationships and family patterns. I know women from a variety of backgrounds who have left manipulative or unkind partners. There is no pretty patriarchal formula for keeping women safe.
We need to be teaching our daughters not to obey their male protectors but rather how to recognize abusive patterns. We need to give them the tools to make good decisions, and then give them the space to make those decisions. And if they mess up, we need to be there for them when they need us. We need to be teaching our sons to view girls as equals, and as people. We need to stop playing silly games where we tell girls that boys are mean to them because they “like” them. We need to stop associating manliness with the ability to “get laid.” There’s much to do, but there’s one thing I’m certain of—our world is too big and too complex to solve problems with simple platitudes like Wilson’s.