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The Many Shades of Coercion

The Many Shades of Coercion April 10, 2017

This week OK Magazine called attention to a recent sermon in which Kenny Batson, a pastor friend of the Duggars, discussed marital intimacy. In his sermon, Batson referred to a marriage retreat Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar helped put on:

“What they talked about was this matter right here. Intimacy in marriage. And Michelle said something that I’d never thought, I mean I knew of it but I never thought like she put it,” he explained.

“She said ‘Ladies, your husband can get his laundry done by other women, he can have his meal cooked by other women, he can have all kinds of things done for him by other women, but there’s only one woman who can meet that strong need he has that god put in him, and its you. Only you, lady.’”

As OK Magazine notes, Michelle has said things like this before:

This isn’t the first time Michelle has spoken out about a woman’s role in a marriage. In a previous blog published by the Duggar matriarch she advised married women to be “joyfully available” to their husbands despite exhaustion and/or pregnancy.

“And so be available, and not just available, but be joyfully available for him,” she wrote. “Smile and be willing to say, ‘Yes, sweetie I am here for you,’ no matter what, even though you may be exhausted and big pregnant and you may not feel like he feels.”

In his sermon, Batson was only more explicit:

“It is one of the greatest sins of women today, is a self-centered narcissistic view of how they are to have control of their bodies,” he told his congregation. “The Bible says your body is not your own, sister. It is your husband’s.”

OK Magazine suggests that these words may be an indirect indictment of Anna Duggar, who recently announced her fifth pregnancy, two years after the world learned of her husband’s infidelity. I think this is likely reading a bit into things, though it is absolutely true that in conservative evangelical or fundamentalist circles the wife is often assigned some blame if her husband cheats on her. But I want to touch on something slightly different.

Growing up in an evangelical home, I was taught that it is the wife’s duty to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs. Men, and not women, were portrayed as having a fundamental biological need for sex. Women should be open to their husbands, and meet that need, even if they were tired or not in the mood, just as both Kenny Batson and Michelle Duggar explain above. I’m interested in thinking about how this affects notions of consent.

Is a woman with five young children who says “yes” to her husband in bed even when she’s exhausted and just wants to sleep consenting to sex? I suspect that most people would answer in the affirmative. After all, she’s saying yes! But would this same woman say yes in bed when she’s exhausted and just wants to sleep if she had not been taught, by her parents, her church, her Bible study group, that it is her duty as a wife to say yes, and that if she does not satisfy her husband sexually he will go elsewhere? Probably not.

When we think about coercion, we often think about it as external. For example, a man may coerce his wife into having sex with him via threats or intimidation, as well as through physical force, but in either case it is the man doing the coercion. But what about when it isn’t? What about when a woman has sex even when she would rather not, because she has been persuaded by her community (and not by her husband) that if she doesn’t, her husband will cheat on her?

Oh certainly, in many such cases the husband himself will contribute to this belief, perhaps reiterating to his wife that it is her duty to fulfill his sexual needs, to ensure that he will not stray. But this is not strictly necessary. We can imagine a scenario where the husband does not repeat or emphasize these ideas, but his wife nonetheless consents to sex she would rather not have, because she has internalized the ideas herself, via church, via her women’s fellowship, via magazines like No Greater Joy.

Perhaps most troubling, we can imagine a scenario where a woman, acting on these ideas, consents to sex she would rather not have even if her husband does not share these ideas and would prefer to only have sex with her when she genuinely wants to have sex. After all, Michelle Duggar and others who speak on wives’ duty to provide sex emphasize that wives should enthusiastically consent to sex any time their husbands express interest. In other words, just saying okay and going along isn’t enough. No, you have to be involved, joyful, and smiling. You have to look like you’re interested and excited, whether you are or not.

Remember, Michelle put it like this:

“And so be available, and not just available, but be joyfully available for him,” she wrote. “Smile and be willing to say, ‘Yes, sweetie I am here for you,’ no matter what, even though you may be exhausted and big pregnant and you may not feel like he feels.”

Be joyfully available. Smile.

Michelle understands that very few men want to have sex with a woman who looks exhausted or out of sorts or like she’d rather be anywhere else. Her solution is for women to fake it. She appears to be ignoring the reality that most men—or at least, most honorable men—do not want to have sex with women who are faking interest and enjoyment any more than they want to have sex with women who look exhausted or like they’d rather be somewhere else.

It took me a while to understand that my husband—who was not raised on these ideas about wifely duty like I was—would genuinely prefer not to have sex if I wasn’t in the mood. He didn’t want me to fake it. He didn’t want me to put up with it. If I wasn’t into it, that was enough. It could wait for another time. It took me a while to accept not having sex every time he was in the mood wasn’t going to predispose my husband to cheating (an idea that, in retrospect, assumes a truly low view of men).

What are we to think of women like Michelle, who tell women that if they don’t have sex with their husbands on command, and enthusiastically (faking it if they have to), their husbands will look elsewhere? We would call a man who said that to his wife and abuser. What does that make Michelle?

What are we to think of men like Batson, who tell women their bodies are not their own? We would call a man who says his wife does not not have the right to control her body an abuser. What does that make Batson?

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