Notice how only the husbands are interviewed about the retreat, while the wives say not a word? And that none of the women even have microphones on, kind of like it never even occurred to the powers that be that wives might have opinions on a marriage retreat, and/or that they might be interesting or relevant? And that every single married woman just stands by as smiling support? It’s a little creepy.
Of course, we can’t know what these couples’ marriages are like just from a few seconds of video. But I think this clip – with the each husband speaking exclusively for each couple, each wife standing in silent agreement with and adoration of her husband – illustrates attitudes and expectations about gender roles in marriage that I’ve seen so often in evangelical complementarian marriages.
When Mr. G and I were engaged, we had premarital counseling with a couple from my family’s SGM church. And by “counseling with a couple,” I mean counseling with a guy whose wife would say nothing until the very end of our meetings, when the husband would turn to her and ask if she had anything to add. She never did. Her husband had said it all, apparently. At our first meeting, she deliberately avoided shaking Mr. G’s hand until he had shaken her husband’s hand first.
At the time I was totally oblivious to what was going on – her husband was closest to me, so I naturally I shook his hand first, unaware of the maneuverings going on behind me. This was one of her ways, I guess, of respecting her husband’s authority over her; the chain of command had to be upheld by having our male leaders acknowledge each other first, before the ladies could be involved or acknowledged. I realized later that she probably considered me to be wildly insubordinate, or some such nonsense, because I had the audacity to shake her husband’s hand without waiting for my fiancé’s go-ahead, without acknowledging him as my “head” and above me.
And then there’s the fact that I’m much more talkative than my husband in unfamiliar company, which meant that I did the vast majority of the talking during our counseling meetings. We both noticed that counselor dude was irritated and offended by the fact that Mr. G wasn’t more forthcoming. I eventually pieced together that our counselor’s problem wasn’t simply that Mr. G didn’t say very much, it was also that I said so much more than he did. I wasn’t being properly submissive and letting my future husband take the lead that was rightfully his.
It perhaps doesn’t need to be said that our counseling meetings weren’t terribly useful or pleasant for anyone involved.
Bizarre as her behavior was, our counselor’s wife was just trying to show respect to her husband (whose behavior, it must be added, was no less strange – a story for another day). And of course, respect between partners is a vital part of a healthy relationship. But in complementarianism, respect is understood as being primarily the wife’s responsibility. This is based on gender essentialist assumptions that men need respect while women need love, and that women find it easy to love but difficult to show respect, especially to men, while men have an easy time treating people with respect but a hard time showing love, especially in the way women need (this is code for “men should treat women as delicate, hyper-emotional creatures incapable of logic and reason”). The complementarian notion of respect is perverted at its root by an insistence that only one gender needs respect in a relationship.
What respect is supposed to look like for a married woman is also quite strange. As our counselor told us, being a respectful, properly submissive wife means “affirming” the husband’s leadership in every. single. aspect. of the marriage. Naturally that includes conversations in public. For a lot of married women I knew at church, that meant they were expected to never contradict their husbands in public, much less argue with them; to never interrupt; to let them “take the lead” in mixed conversation, which meant speaking a good deal less than their husbands, often not until their husbands spoke to them first.
It also meant that women were expected to never complain about their husbands – and more than that, to constantly talk up their husbands as the best and most considerate spouses ever, no matter what. I can begin to count how many times I’ve heard women from church effusively praising their husbands for doing things that should have just been routine. For “releasing” them to go on a trip with friends. For maybe making one measly meal every few months, when their wives are expected to have homemade food on the table for their husbands and many children every night. For “letting” them sleep in or giving them the “morning off” from domestic and childcare duties (even when the reason for this is that the wife is laid up with an illness, or dealing with pregnancy nausea, or has a small infant).
I’ve seen women berate themselves for being justifiably angry with their husbands – for example, for putting their family in danger by repeatedly delaying getting a failing car checked out – because well, nothing serious happened and a wife should focus on their husbands’ strengths and her own sin, not his failings. And if there are few or no good things they can think of, it’s because they, the wives, have a sinful attitude, never because the husband might have any real failings. They are the ones who need adjustment; it could never be that a husband is neglecting or mistreating his wife so much that little positive can be said about his behavior or attributes.
Watching the clip above gave me same tight, sinking feeling I always get when I think about the girls I grew up with in church who are now married. It’s so emblematic of how so many complementarian women experience marriage: as cheerleaders expected to hang on their husband’s arms and words, silencing themselves and suppressing all authentic expression of emotions. When I think of people I used to be friends with living a life like that, so completely muzzled, I feel sick with worry and despair for them.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a young adult novel about a teen girl who is raped, has recently come under fire from a professor at Missouri State University who (to put it mildly) feels the book should not be included in school curricula. Wesley Scroggins, presumably a conservative Christian and a speaker at a recent “Reclaiming Missouri for Christ” seminar, includes Speak on a list of books he deems “filthy” and “demeaning to Republic education,” whatever that is. He also claims that Speak and other books “should be classified as soft core pornography,” and complains that “most of the school board members and administrators claim to be Christian. How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality?”
To talk about a book that depicts two rapes and the devastating effect of rape on a young woman’s life as porn is pretty disgusting, as the author herself points out: “The fact that he sees rape as sexually exciting (pornographic) is disturbing, if not horrifying.” Unfortunately, it’s also very revealing of how for a lot (not all) of conservative Christians, female consent to sexual activity means nothing or very little. For a lot of conservative Christians, rape isn’t really rape – it’s sex.
I was reminded, for example, of a study guide (PDF) created by an Iowa Baptist Church for John Ensor’s odious book on Christian singleness and courtship, Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart. In discussing sexual “purity,” the guide says the following:
If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing? Does it make any difference if the woman is willing? (emphasis mine)
In other words, having consensual sex with a woman outside of marriage is just as sinful as raping a woman. No, scratch that. It’s actually saying something even worse: that consensual sex with woman one isn’t married to is the same sin as raping that woman. There is no difference. And by implication, God is totally cool with rapists so long as they stick to raping their wives.
Or take the heartbreaking story of Tina Anderson, who at 15 years old had already survived molestation by her step-father, and who became pregnant after a 38 year old man in her church (“allegedly”) raped her. Anderson was forced to “confess” to being pregnant in front of her entire church congregation as part of “church discipline” for her “sin” (she was not allowed to tell the church she was raped, of course). She was sent to live far from home, and coerced into giving up her child for adoption. She was urged to write a letter of apology to her rapist’s wife (ht Camille Lewis).
[Anderson] says her New Hampshire pastor, Chuck Phelps, told her she was lucky not to have been born during Old Testament times when she would have been stoned to death. While questioning the girl before church officials crafted the speech she would deliver, Anderson said Phelps’ wife asked her, “Did you enjoy it?”
Anderson’s rapist got away with simply losing his position as a deacon and confessing to “being unfaithful to his wife.”
Rape doesn’t really exist in this world, where all sexual contact, forced or consensual, is sex, and the only distinctions made are between licit sex (straight vanilla sex between a married couple) and illicit sex (everything else).
It’s a world where rape can be seen as titillating, where consent doesn’t make sex any less sinful – and lack of consent doesn’t make sex any more sinful. A world where raping a minor is the same thing as cheating on one’s wife. Where a 15 year old girl can be blamed for the “sin” of having been raped, and cast as a temptress and homewrecker.
And it’s a world that owes its continued existence to a church culture that tolerates abuse and teaches that silence is a virtue. It took 13 years for Matt Barnhart, a former member of Anderson’s church to come forward and alert someone to the cover-up of her case. It took him 13 years to even get to the point where he and his family left the church, even though he felt from the beginning that the church’s handling of the case was wrong.
Just last year, Barnhart quit his membership after 15 years when his family was in “fierce need” of counseling. “How can we go to a pastoral staff when we think they might have let the rapist of a 14-year-old go . . . How can they hurt these kids and call themselves a real place that teaches the gospel?”
While it’s good that Barnhart eventually came forward, it’s alarming to think that it took so long for even one person to speak out, and even more alarming that it took Barnhart so long to realize that this church was not a safe space for his family. It’s scary to think of an entire church tolerating this kind of abuse and being complicit, through their silence, in covering it up. But, sad to say, I don’t find it shocking. This is what happens in insular, exclusive church communities that are distrustful of the outside (“secular”) world and preach an easy forgiveness for the most powerful people in the community; where female sexuality is demonized, and female empowerment is seen as a threat.
In such communities it’s almost impossible for people to acknowledge that rape is not sex, or that rape is serious crime that shouldn’t ever be tolerated.