Some final thoughts on The Gospel Coalition, sex, and submission

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

**See Update Below**

This will be my last comment on The Gospel Coalition post about sex and submission for a while. I just want to clear a few things up and pose a question before moving on. 

First of all, I was disappointed by The Gospel Coalition’s response to the situation. Even after multiple women expressed concern and hurt over the forceful imagery invoked in the post to describe male authority and female submission in sex, Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson responded dismissively, suggesting that the only reason a woman might react negatively to the idea of being “conquered and colonized” is if she had problems with "reading comprehension."  The Gospel Coalition stood by them both, refusing to alter or take down the post, even after prominent and respected evangelical leaders—both men and women—asked them to take it down or at least amend the language. Sadly, this reaction is reflective of patriarchy’s overall posture toward women, which dismisses their pain and perspective as unworthy of acknowledgement.  I think the Gospel Coalition’s response to this matter has spoken more loudly than the original post.

Second, I never accused Jared Wilson or Doug Wilson of promoting rape or sexual violence against women, so let’s just strike that narrative from the dialog. I think their position on sex and submission is troubling, and I think the language they used was irresponsible and insensitive, but I would never go so far as to say that their views represent an endorsement of sexual violence.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they did not mean to be hurtful, and let’s engage the content of The Gospel Coalition post instead of criticizing the character of the authors, who very few of us know personally. 

 Which brings me to my third point. Less troubling than their dismissive response, but equally frustrating, is the fact that neither Jared Wilson nor Doug Wilson have engaged the content of our criticism.They’ve focused their responses on how they feel  attacked and unfairly accused, but neither of them have responded in depth to the questions many have raised or  the biblical considerations we've addressed. How is male authority and female submission in sex compatible with 1 Corinthians 7? And what about Song of Songs? In my post, I pointed to the fact that Doug Wilson selectively quoted the poem, leaving out the fact that the Shulamite woman often initiated and took “authority” over the couple’s sexual relationship. He has not explained how his position on male authority in sex is compatible with Song of Songs.

And finally, amidst all the impassioned rhetoric on both sides, we seem to have lost the  main point a bit. I have yet to receive a straight answer from Jared or Doug regarding what it means, practically, to preserve the complementarian ideal of male authority in sex? The two have insisted that they advocate mutuality in the bedroom, and yet, according to Doug, “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party,” but instead “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” while a woman “receives, surrenders, accepts.”  What does he mean by that? What’s wrong with an “egalitarian pleasure party”? (Sounds like fun to me!) In other words:  How is complementarian sex supposed to be different than egalitarian sex? Does preserving male authority mean that a man must always initiate sex? Does it mean that the missionary position is the only acceptable one for Christians? Is it too “egalitarian” for both a man and woman to be pleasured? Does “submission” mean that a woman must perform sex acts she doesn’t like in order to please her husband?  The Wilsons have yet to clarify what they mean when they assert that “true authority and true submission erotic necessity.”  They've said a lot about what they don't mean, but nothing about what they do mean. As one commenter put it: “If an appropriate sexual relationship within marriage is not an ‘egalitarian pleasure party’ but is not legalized rape, what exactly is it?” A clarification here would really move the conversation forward. 

Anyway, I don’t want to drag this out longer than necessary, but I do think it’s important for us to talk openly and honestly about these issues and try to forge a productive dialog. In the past, evangelicals have been uncomfortable with women joining this conversation, but I think it’s time for us to speak up. I’ve been criticized for “sowing disunity" and shamed for critizing male leaders (which I realize is part of the blogging process, and I don’t blame the Wilsons for what their supporters have said). Please know that I don’t enjoy conversations like these; I don’t relish the conflict. But I guess I feel like, if I use my platform to say, “Hey, that’s not cool; please speak to us with more respect,” maybe other women will feel empowered and encouraged to do the same. 

Let’s keep it respectful in the comment section. Thanks so much for you input! 

We’ll move to another topic shortly...


Update: I wanted to share some of these posts from folks who said it even better: 

Eric Reitan  with “‘Benign’ Christian Patriarchy and 50 Shades of Grey: A Response to Jared Wilson

“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?...
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."

Dianna Anderson with “The Writer’s Burden

“My point is this, so as my meaning is absolutely clear: Words mean things. And they may not always be interpreted as what we intend when we as writers choose them.The onus is upon the writer to own up to the fact that their words hurt when a reader pipes up and says, “Hey, that’s not good.” The proper response is not to say “You’re not reading it right!” but instead to go back, look at the words in the context in which they were given to the reader and figure out how this reader arrived at their interpretation. And even if it doesn’t make sense to you right away, the proper response is not to leap into the defensive and accuse them of wrongly interpreting things, but to let them know that you are taking what they’ve said into account, reexamining what you said, and then actually examining and being introspective about your choices.” 

Libbey Ann makes some good points in this post. 

"But what does that even look like, really? If a man is sexually dominating his wife and his wife is being sexually conquered by him, well, how do we understand that outside of BDSM or rape? The truth is, we don’t have any other way to see it or understand it. To any normal person, the sort of sex Wilson is endorsing sounds extremely rape-y."

[As I've said before, I'm not sure either Wilson intended the language to sound this way, but it does.]

Michael Bird with “Sex is what I do with my wife not to my wife

“The biggest problem I have is that some guys just do not understand the link between sex, language, and power. They do not comprehend that there is a cross-section between the way you use language about sex and the way you think about the opposite gender and the way that you treat your sexual partner. The language of penetrate, conquer, and colonize imply aggression, control, and disempowerment. What is more, the men who talk this way do not think about, consider, or perhaps even care about how this description of sex sounds to women.” 

And finally, I've received private messages from a heartbreaking number of women who have survived sexual abuse - (some of which, they have said, was justified by this sort of theology) - who have urged the rest of us to keep speaking up. So we will.

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