Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Benign" Christian Patriarchy and 50 Shades of Grey: A Response to Jared Wilson

A few days ago at The Gospel Coalition's blog, Jared Wilson offered a critique of the bestselling erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey--in the form of an extended quotation from Douglas Wilson's book Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man.

The quoted passage, in essence, blames the "twisted" forms of domination and submission between men and women--including rape and sadomasochism--on our failure to accept the God-ordained domination/submission relationship that, supposedly, is part of the natural reality between men and women. Denying and suppressing this hierarchical relationship--the one supposedly endorsed in the Bible--leads to this hierarchy coming out in twisted and violent forms.

In other words, the pursuit of genuine equality between the sexes, the critique of fixed gender-role expectations and the requirement that men and women uniformly be shoe-horned into these roles and relationship structures regardless of the unique features of their personalities and relationships...all of this is, apparently, leading men to rape and abuse women rather than benevolently cherish and protect their precious submissive little feminine flowers.

It seems that lots of people were horrified by this message. Jared Wilson was perplexed by the horrified responses and so, today, offered a response.

His response was utterly inadequate. It certainly missed the problems that I have with his (and Douglas Wilson's) original message.

So what did Jared Wilson say? He corrected those who seemed think, mistakenly, that the quoted passages as in some way explicitly endorsing violence against women. In responding to those who found something misogynistic in Douglas Wilson's claim that the male/female sexual relationship is naturally about male "conquest" and "colonization," Jared Wilson quoted the other Wilson's response, which accused everyone making this charge of possessing "a poetic ear like three feet of tinfoil." He said some other things, too, but you get the point.

Neither Wilson seems to get it. So let me try my hand at explaining why the Wilsons' message is so horrifying. And while I could spend hours on the subject, I will limit myself to two features of the message that are particularly bothersome. One I will discuss at some length. The other I will treat only briefly.

1. The message treats gender egalitarianism as the problem and gender hierarchy as the solution, but it seems clear that the reverse is far more likely to be true.

Wilson and Wilson explicitly support the idea that the pursuit of egalitarianism in heterosexual partnerships is central to the problem of distorted and aggressive sexuality. Here's the money quote from Douglas Wilson:

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....But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.

In other words, the Wilsons take it that the pursuit of gender equality amounts to repression of an inescapable reality, and that such repression leads, in Freudian fashion, to dysfunctional expressions of what has been repressed. Men rape because men need to have authority over their women, and when they are denied (presumably by the feminists and other supporters of gender equality) the opportunity to get this need met in the benign patriarchy of a head-of-household family, they're going to get it by fantasizing about raping women, or maybe by actually doing it.

Likewise, women who don't have the opportunity to submit to benevolent patriarchs are going to fantasize about being raped (and, dare we say, take risky actions that make themselves more vulnerable to the real thing, thus opening up the door to a whole new "Wilsonian" avenue for blaming rape victims?).

This is the message that makes me want to vomit.

Part of the problem is that this message assumes that the male desire to have authority over women is an essential part of the human condition as opposed to a culturally malleable one.

It isn't. A big part of the reason I know it isn't is because I don't personally have this desire. Somehow, being socialized by egalitarian Norwegian parents, I ended up not wanting to wield patriarchal authority, benevolent or otherwise, in my intimate relationships. I suppose the Wilsons will say I'm in denial--but that's easy to say. If I am in denial, it isn't a denial that has produced any bondage and submission games or dreams of being a rapist. It has, instead, generated a relationship with my spouse that is characterized by mutual respect and compassion and care, in which the relational dynamic isn't "authority and submission" but egalitarian partnership.

What do the Wilsons offer in support of their essentialist view of gender differences? Metaphors about sex. But do these metaphors simply describe the reality of sexuality, or do they create and nurture a certain perception of a reality that is far more malleable? What would our culture be like if we talked about sex in terms of the woman "enveloping" while the man is "enveloped"? The woman "consuming" while the man is "consumed"? Are these metaphors any less descriptive of the reality of sex? Isn't it more the case that the metaphors we use are cultural realities that help to shape what sex becomes?

In the face of this, I suppose the Wilsons may point to biological evidence that speaks to generalizable differences between human males and females on not just the physiological level but the psychological one. But what do these differences demonstrate, if anything?

Even if there may be some psychological generalizations that can be made about the human sexes--dispositions that are more frequent in one sex than the other because of biological differences--such generalizations are not universal. There are men and women who don't fit these generalizations, and who suffer when they are culturally expected to fit.

Furthermore, psychological dispositions are subject not only to cultural accentuation but also to cultural muting. Even if there is a tendency for the more testosterone-laden sex to be more aggressive when they don't get there way, what follows? A gender-role division that instructs women to submit to their husbands and tells men that they have the authority to get their way is a recipe for a relationship in which men consistently impose their wills and their wives consistently acquiesce. In other words, a relational template of this sort, if it is paired with a biological tendency for greater male aggressiveness, is likely to lead to a situation in which women's needs and interests will be consistently suppressed in favor of their husbands' preferences.

A gender pattern that affirms male authority and female submission makes it less likely, not more likely, that husbands will respect the needs of their intimate partners. It doesn't matter if endorsing that relationship pattern is paired with an injunction for men to be benign monarchs over their wives. Yes, such an injunction may soften the harmful effects of hierarchy; but it doesn't follow that the hierarchy doesn't have harmful effects. Kings who were invested with authority to rule, unconstrained by others with equal power to impose checks on that authority, would sometimes listen to the moral message that they should use their power benignly. But not always. After all, power corrupts, as they say.

Here's another way to think about it: In a world in which male authority and female submission is the cultural norm, women are more vulnerable to exploitation by their husbands. Many men are persons of good will who'll resist the temptation to exploit their wives; but in such a culture, women will be more dependent on the good will of their husbands because of their increased cultural vulnerability to exploitation. And if there is a biological tendency for men to be more aggressive in the pursuit of their desires, there will also be a temptation on the part of many men to take advantage of their wives' vulnerability.

Conservatives insist that falling prey to such temptation would be wrong, and that men have a duty to be benevolent patriarchs rather than abusive ones. But conservatives Christians like the Wilsons also believe in original sin. And we don't realistically deal with the reality of original sin by setting up social structures and institutions that increase the temptation to sin and make it easier to get away with it. Rather, we realistically confront our human propensity to fall prey to temptation by setting up conditions which make it easier to "avoid the near occasion of sin"  and harder to avoid overt negative consequences.

If we want those with a disposition towards domination and oppression not to dominate and oppress, we don't set up social institutions in which domination and oppression are made easier. We set up social institutions that discourage domination and oppression. We set up gender socialization that mutes tendencies to dominate and oppress and builds up the sense of self-worth and dignity required to stand up to oppression or walk away from oppressive situations when they arise. Getting drummed with the message, "Submit to your husbands," doesn't do that.

In other words, Wilson and Wilson have identified an important contributor to the problem of women's exploitation and oppression, and they have touted it as the solution. And they have put their finger on one of the chief remedies to women's exploitation and oppression--namely, the cultivation and nurture of a culture of gender equality that expects and encourages egalitarian intimate partnerships--and declared this to be the problem.

2. Wilson and Wilson are trying to hold everyone hostage to their view of gender relationships.

The other reason the Wilsons' message is so disturbing is that it amounts to an attempt to hold hostage everyone with views about human sexual relationships different from their own. It is one thing to demonstrate that denying a view has dangerous consequences. It is something else again to simply assert that it does, to a large extent in the teeth of evidence to the contrary, in the hope that fear of dangerous consequences will lead to conformity.

I don't know if the Wilsons were intentionally doing the latter--but they sure haven't done the former. And the effect comes much closer to the latter. Basically, the message seems to be this: "If you don't see things our way, then you are suppressing reality in a way that is magnifying the abusive exploitation of women." We'd better do things their way--resist our egalitarian impulses--or more women will be violated. If we don't toe the line and make sure we wrestle every relationship into the particular mold that they read into the Bible, then we have only ourselves to blame for the violence against women in the world.

As if rape were less common when patriarchy was the uncontested norm.

(For more about my own experience with an egalitarian relationship, see my next post.)


  1. That last line was a slam dunk. Good stuff

  2. I'd say that people like the Wilsons make me ashamed to be a Christian, but in fact they make me ashamed to be a human being.

  3. The last part is really important. They aren't just saying that this dynamic works for them. They are directly blaming egalitarians for the existence of rape because we have messed with the natural order. That was the part that by far offended me the most (most complementarians are happy to agree to disagree and I am happy to respectfully converse with them).

  4. The message treats gender egalitarianism as the problem and gender hierarchy as the solution, but it seems clear that the reverse is far more likely to be true......In other words, Wilson and Wilson have identified an important contributor to the problem of women's exploitation and oppression, and they have touted it as the solution.

    AMEN! I have a post up today about that very thing. This issue can't be honestly addressed without championing women's equality, so they are going to be unable to really address the serious issues here. When you frame the topic as authority/submission is obedience to God, then to deviate from that equals sin, and that ends the conversation because they aren't going to support something they think is sin. This is just two polar opposites colliding, and they are sticking to the oppressive, painful position.

  5. Very good insights in that post. The "benign" part is essential for the comp idea of marriage to work and that depends greatly on the spiritual maturity of the husband. It is simply reckless to teach comp doctrine to a bunch of immature believers. So egal teaching on marriage is inherently safer. Anyone can be an abuser or take advantage of another, but the risk is much higher in a comp marriage.

  6. Thank you so much for this post--what an excellent response! So many people responded with so much anger that it was hard for the message to come through clearly--I can almost understand why Jared Wilson was so perplexed (I'm sure it's hard to think clearly when you're being hammered with nasty accusations). But this is exactly the message that needs to be heard. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Really fantastic. Thanks for the thoughtful response. You do have a there/their issue in the sentence about "testosterone driven sex."

  8. well written, well spoken, thank you.

  9. The Wilson's are very scary poeple. These are the kind of people that stop me from calling myself Christian. Then I do not have to submit to making myself more vunerable than I already am as a woman in society. I have been raped and by no means will I ever believe it had anything to do with acting inappropriately. This is all a bunch of bull to most women and it seems like the men have to put their big boy pants on and confess they either cannot control themselves or the have a need to have some kind of "POWER" CONTROL Issues. I say take it up with another man and leave us weaker body people alone.

    1. Another anonymous here. I'm so sorry for what you've been through. I've been through it, too. And I think for me, I struggle with terrible feelings of self-blame and shame. And articles, teachings, posts, etc. like those of Wilson's (ones that espouse hierarchy, etc.) do a lot to 1) reinforce the self-blame/shame I feel about what's happened to me and 2) scare me away from the church and from feeling God can be trusted, or even a Christian man someday.

    2. And yet another anonymous! What I've been through can't be classified as rape since it was technically consensual - i.e., desperately unwanted intimacy in a deeply dysfunctional marriage where I believed (thanks to thirty years of complementarian teaching) that I had no choice in the matter. While the emotional damage is less than what you almost certainly had to sort through, it's hard to speak up about my healing process since many complementarians would say (and some DID say) that if I just had the right attitude toward my husband and trusted God, it would all be fine.

      Eric, thank you for calmly and clearly stating your issues with the Wilsons' posts. I have felt for a long time that the theological position of inherent male dominance somehow lent itself to abuse by men who may or may not even admit what they were doing, and your post clarified the muddled thoughts I'd had on the subject. Thank you.

  10. Excellent, excellent response. I'll be pointing people this way for sure.

  11. Rachel Held Evans Routed Me HereJuly 19, 2012 at 3:22 PM

    While Wilson's post was appalling, sex just isn't always Egalitarian, in terms of role. There is usually a dominate person (the guy or the girl), and a submissive one. Rarely are there two dominate sex partners. This is reality. And there's nothing wrong with that. Stay out of my sex life! Thanks! :)

    1. This depends on your definition of dominate. What makes someone the dominate person? If your definition is "the person on top" or "the person getting the most pleasure" then your definitions are skewed. When sex is ONLY about pleasure then maybe that's the case. But as Christians, isn't it more?

    2. How about if neither partner dominates? Contrary to your assertion, that's how it works in my marriage. Each of us doing our best to see the other receives maximum pleasure.

  12. "This is the message that makes me want to vomit." <— technical philosophical term

    Awesome post. Now a subscriber.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I am a big fan, and someday hope to meet you face to face!

  15. The whole idea of benevolent authority is incoherent. If a husband respects his wife's wishes and needs, and gets his wife's enthusiastic consent for sex (consent necessarily implying the possibility of saying no and having it respected without question or shaming) then he is not 'dominating' her, at least not in any sense that egalitarians object to. And if he doesn't, he is raping her, even if he emotionally or spiritually bullies her into 'accepting' it. If the Wilsons here are not saying men should be free and willing to rape their wives, they are saying nothing at all.

  16. Wilson & Wilson probably ought to be embracing 50 Shades rather than pointing to it as sinful or an example of the "wages" of egalitarianism. The book has probably done more to soften up society to the idea of male domination over women than any preacher or lay religious person could ever have done.

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