John Piper on sex and “masculine leadership”

Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault, transphobia.

So I was listening to a podcast (disclaimer: not feminist, LGB or T friendly, or sex-positive in any way, and only referenced as a source of information and not as an endorsement of the content) about John Piper’s teachings on sexuality in marriage, which discussed the passage below from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the complementarian bible edited by Piper and Wayne Grudem, a prominent reformed evangelical and complementarian theologian.

This excerpt on what “mature masculinity” looks like in “romantic sexual relations” (what a quaint term) manages to be rapey, hetero and gender normative, transphobic, misogynist, and damaging to female, male, and non-binary sexuality all in one go. I’m not sure I have the strength or stomach to unpack it in full, so I’ll just make some brief comments on the dangerous falsehoods about gender and sexuality in this passage.

Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.

This is very difficult to put into words. But sexual relations are so basic to human life we would be delinquent not to at least try to say how masculinity expresses itself here.

It is the mingling of tenderness with strength that makes the unique masculine quality of leadership in sexual relations. There is an aura of masculine leadership which rises from the mingling of power and tenderness, forcefulness and affection, potency and sensitivity, virility and delicateness. It finds expression in the firmness of his grasp, the strength of taking her in his arms, the sustaining of verbal adoration, etc. And there are a hundred nuances of masculine pursuit that distinguish it from feminine pursuit.

What exactly does Piper mean by “forcefulness” here? It’s a very dangerous word to leave undefined when talking about sex, especially given Piper’s insistence that forcefulness, power, strength, etc., and “strong and tender pursuit” are absolutely necessary to “mature” masculine sexuality. The idea that a “real man” forcefully pursues a woman for sex, and that his masculinity is expressed in grasping a woman firmly and taking her strongly into his arms undermines the importance of the woman’s consent – of mutual consent – in a sexual relationship.

It is important to say that there is, of course, a feminine pursuit in sexual relations. This is why the word “initiate” is not an exact way of describing masculine leadership in sexual relations. The wife may initiate an interest in romance and may keep on initiating different steps along the way. But there is a difference. A feminine initiation is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense then you could say that in those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.

Again, there’s a lot of dangerous vagueness here. How does a woman “invite” a man to initiate sex with her? With the clothes she wears? The way she walks? A look? Piper doesn’t say, and his later comment that “mature femininity” means being “sensually receptive (vs. prudish)” gives no more clarity on the question. Without any specifics given, the idea that ‘real men’ pick up on subtle cues that women want to have sex with them veers dangerously close to the misogynist trope that women solicit sexual contact – “ask for it” – in ways that don’t involve, you know, actually asking for or explicitly consenting to sex. To put it bluntly, these are the kinds of assumptions that perpetuate rape culture: that all women want men to “pursue” them sexually; that women want sex even when they don’t say so; a woman would rather leave it up to a man to figure out if she wants to have sex than say so herself.

No amount of semantic gymnastics can hide the fact that Piper is saying “real women” don’t ask for or initiate sex. Women are being taught to be ashamed of wanting to initiate sex, or wanting to be explicit about what they want sexually. Men are being taught to be threatened by female expression of sexual desire, and to be threatened by wanting to be desired. You become less than a “real man” if you want your wife to be explicit about finding you sexually desirable. In effect, any sexual desire not expressed by men for women is to be denied and suppressed. Such arbitrary limitations on the expression of human sexuality are very damaging both to men and women in heterosexual relationships, completely deny the possibility of legitimate non-hetero sexual expression, and erase the existence of people of non-binary gender (i.e., neither or not completely male or female).

It will not do to say that, since the woman can rightly initiate, therefore there is no special leadership that the man should fulfil [sic]. When a wife wants sexual relations with her husband she wants him to seek her and take her and bring her into his arms and up to the pleasures that his initiatives give her.

Have I mentioned that it’s extremely disempowering for women (for anyone, really) not to be able to enthusiastically and vocally express a desire for and right to pleasure? And that it’s also disempowering to have to wait around for someone else to figure out how to bring you “up to” pleasure instead of being a full participant in making that happen? Yea, it is.

Consider what is lost when women attempt to assume a more masculine role by appearing physically muscular and aggressive. It is true that there is something sexually stimulating about a muscular, scantily clad young woman pumping iron in a health club. But no woman should be encouraged by this fact. For it probably means the sexual encounter that such an image would lead to is something very hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying. The image of a masculine musculature may beget arousal in a man, but it does not beget several hours of moonlight walking with significant, caring conversation. The more women can arouse men by doing typically masculine things, the less they can count on receiving from men a sensitivity to typically feminine needs. Mature masculinity will not be reduced to raw desire in sexual relations. It remains alert to the deeper personal needs of a woman and mingles strength and tenderness to make her joy complete.

Oh dear god. First off, super creepy. Secondly, there’s so much wrong here it’s difficult to know where to start.
– Women should decide what exercise to engage in based on what it makes men want or expect from them sexually. Right. Not self-absorbed or misogynist at all.
– Being muscular = being masculine. Implicit assumption: whether or not you are a real woman (or a real man) depends on how you look. This is gender essentialist and extremely transphobic. Gender is a personal identity, it’s not dependent on the presence or absence of muscles, or genitalia, or any other physical characteristic.
– (Real?) Men are constitutionally incapable of having romantic relationships with muscular women, apparently.
– No (real?) woman could ever possibly be interested in having sex with someone without any expectation of or desire for romance.
– Romance is a “feminine need.” Women who want sex without romance are not real women. Men who need romance are not real men. Men who don’t need or want sex, well, they don’t even exist.

Pro tip, John Piper: lots of women are quite fond of sex.

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Losing your virginity is like drinking spit, apparently

Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was.   After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).

Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church.  Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly.  Then again . . .

h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).

Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught.  That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex.  I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.

Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic.  How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight?  Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God?  What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)?  How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?

These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages.  Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination.  They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with.  They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.

Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course.  Just premarital sex  – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people.  Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted.  Well.  The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is).  The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully.  A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message.  If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.

And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted.  The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind.  A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals.  A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality.  Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework.  Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members.  For example:

I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.

I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage.  That’s a legitimate choice to make.  The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous.  It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies.  And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas.  It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.


What passes for sex “education” in evangelical churches

In case anyone thought I was exaggerating, this is a representative and very classy (sarcasm alert) example of what I heard about premarital sex growing up.

h/t Jesus Needs New PR.


Rethinking sex ed, pt. 2

Part 1

Most of the things I was taught about sex were lies, many of them deliberate.  Withholding information about sex and sexuality was seen as a virtue.  It was unquestioned orthodoxy that good Christians stay as far away from sexual expression as possible before marriage (after all, “purity is a direction, not a line”).  I had no framework for even beginning to process the idea that someone could be a “real” Christian but not see premarital sex as necessarily and completely evil.  I had no accurate information with which to make a reasoned choice, and lots of deliberate misinformation that made it impossible for me to examine my options impartially.  Sorting through all the falsehoods, half-truths, and omissions has been long and difficult process.

I had it drilled into my head that “staying pure” before marriage was a sign of self-control, and respect for the institution of marriage, and I believed this completely.  Of course, this was an incredibly judgmental view of the sex lives and marriages of people who didn’t believe as I did, and a pretty smug and self-righteous view of myself.  I at least had the good sense to mostly keep this aspect of my beliefs on sexuality to myself.  And as I got to know more people who had different views on sexuality, the more unsure I became about the supposed superiority of my beliefs.  I became friends with quite a lot of people who challenged my associations of premarital abstinence with self-restraint and being able to commit.

With time I realized that my sexual status when I got married isn’t, as I was taught, anything to be proud of, or anything to be ashamed of.  It just is.  And I no longer consider it to be a sign of my self-control so much as a sign of how completely brainwashed I was by my upbringing.  It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with reserving sex for marriage (that would be pretty hypocritical of me).  I believe in choice, and if someone makes a free choice to abstain from sex until marriage, I respect that.  It’s just that I don’t see that choice as inherently more respectable than choosing to be sexually active before marriage.

I also don’t feel that being abstinent was really my choice.  Had I been better informed, I may still have made the decision to wait until I was engaged or married – I doubt it, but it’s not impossible.  As it is, there wasn’t much of a decision to make.  Premarital sex was equated with being dirty and evil, “defiling the marriage bed,” “defrauding” my future husband (because it was a given that I’d get married, and marry a dude, naturally), and choosing STDs, unwed pregnancy, lifelong unhappiness, loneliness, and poverty (seriously).  Abstinence was presented as staying pure, respecting God’s plan for marriage, and giving my future husband a beautiful gift by “saving” myself for him.  And I had plenty of examples of the intense judgment and ostracism people often faced if they were “caught” being sexually active before marriage – with some literally losing their entire family and church support network overnight.

No real choice is possible in such an environment.  The decks are completely and arbitrarily stacked in favor of abstinence.  Having premarital sex was literally not an option for me.

Joshua Harris was a homegrown celebrity in SGM, and his books on relationships and marriage were literally treated like scripture.  He taught that obeying God meant restricting not just sex, but also emotional intimacy to marriage alone; any serious emotional entanglement with someone we didn’t ultimately end up marrying was “giving away a piece of your heart,” something that rightfully belonged to your future spouse.  By “guarding our hearts,” we could avoid all the pain that a “worldly” approach to relationships brings.  We wouldn’t have to go through difficult breakups or divorces; we wouldn’t struggle to get over exes, or feel jealousy over a partner’s sexual past.

I understand why people would want to believe all this is true, but frankly, it’s a crock of shit.   There’s no approach that can guarantee a marriage won’t end in divorce.  It’s dangerous and deceptive to teach people that marriage is some sort of magical protection from deep pain, betrayal, or psychological trauma (especially in a context where spousal abuse isn’t taken seriously).  While it can be the case that minimizing romantic or sexual entanglements before marriage lowers the chances of getting hurt, it also also preemptively shuts the door on opportunities to love more, enjoy more, to learn more about ourselves and others.  Sometimes it’s worth taking the risk of getting hurt to experience more joy and intimacy.  Sometimes the pleasure and fulfillment you get out of something in the here and now is worth the risk that it might not last forever.

Evangelical teachings about sex, love, and marriage are based on the myth that only guaranteed lifelong commitment is worth investing in.  They insist that sexual activity before marriage is purely self-indulgent and meaningless (a loaded word if ever there was one), and that having a sexual history with someone other than a spouse necessarily undermines the strength and value of marital commitment.  None of this is true.  Most of our married friends lived together beforehand and had other romantic and sexual relationships before they met each other.  Contrary to everything I was taught to expect from a “worldly” relationship, marriage is deeply meaningful to them.  They’re committed to each other.  They don’t take their vows lightly.  And while marriage is generally a black box experience – you can’t really know what it will be like until you’re in it – I think most of our friends understood better than my husband and I did what they were signing up for when they got married, in part because they had more relationship and more sexual experience than we did.

My friends who have had more than one partner often understand things about themselves as sexual and emotional beings that I’m just starting to figure out about myself.  They didn’t rush serious decisions because they believed it’s wrong to stay in a relationship not clearly headed for marriage, or that you give someone a piece of your heart when you kiss them (which means that if you break up with them, you’ve given a piece of your heart to someone who isn’t going to be your spouse).  Unlike a lot of young evangelical couples, they didn’t get married because they were desperate to have sex; they got married because they knew they were compatible and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.  From where I stand now, there’s a lot of respect for marriage as an institution in this approach.  It’s just not built on the assumption that the value of marriage is based on confining all legitimate sexual expression to marriage (or on the ability or desire of a couple to procreate, I might add).

A constant mantra of abstinence-only sex ed is that nobody ever regrets waiting to have sex; no one ever regrets saving themselves for just one person.  That’s completely false.  I regret it.  I regret that it was something imposed on me.  I regret that I’ll never know what I would have chosen for myself, what I might have learned about myself, or what I could have experienced, if I had approached things differently.  I regret that my transition into becoming sexually active after getting married was full of awkwardness and shame, and that we had no one to talk to about it.  It put a lot of unnecessary strain on our new and vulnerable marriage.

I regret that I was taught that an arbitrary compilation of ancient literature, shot through with errors and contradictions and open to all sorts of different interpretations, was the word of God and had to be interpreted in a particular, narrow fashion if I didn’t want to go to hell.  My “decision” to be abstinent before marriage was based entirely on ridiculous and faulty assumptions, apart from which I’m pretty sure I would have had sex well before getting married (and also probably married at a later age, if at all).

So yes, I regret that I’ve only had sex with one person.  I regret that I went through all of college without ever having sex.  Sex is great.  I don’t feel any shame in admitting that I regret all the years I spent not having it for no good reason.  Ok, that’s not strictly true.  I feel some shame in admitting it.  I’m working on that.  Writing about this is awkward, and difficult.  But I think it’s important for people raised like I was to understand that life is a lot messier and complicated than we were led to believe.  And let me tell you, it sucks royally to realize all this after you’re married and have kids, to try and make the best of the decisions you’ve made and not get caught up in wishing you had a chance to do things differently.


Sunday roundup

Some of this week’s religion, gender, and sexuality news, starting with some international news:

Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be executed for allegedly committing adultery, has “confessed” to being an accomplice in her late husband’s death.  The likely coerced confession has led Human Rights Watch to sound the alarm that Iran may be planning to execute her shortly.  An interview with Ashtiani’s former lawyer, now seeking asylum in Norway, is here.  A petition to free Ashtiani can be found here. (Via Elizabeth Esther.)

Mexico’s Supreme Court has upheld Mexico City laws allowing gay marriages and adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.  Gay marriages and adoptions are legal only in Mexico City, but must be recognized throughout the country.  Mexico mayor Marcelo Ebrard has filed a lawsuit claiming defamation against Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Sandoval refused to retract accusations that Mexican Supreme court took bribes to make these rulings.  Sandoval is also under fire for using the Spanish equivalent of “fa**ot” in decrying the Court’s decision to uphold the adoption law.  Meanwhile, an archdiocesan spokesman claims the mayor has caused harm to Mexico City than the drug cartels and has compared him to Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet in being a “fascist . . . [with] an undeniable desire to persecute the church.”  Unsurprisingly, he is also being sued for defamation by the mayor.  Good heavens.  Stay classy, Mexican Catholic officials!

Closer to home, 10 year old Will Phillips is putting marriage equality opponents on notice.  This kid must scare the pants off the NOM crowd.

Laura at The Redheaded Skeptic has a great four-post series on how Focus on the Family ruins families, starting with a post on Dobson’s book The Strong Willed Child.

Vyckie at No Longer Quivering on how women get lured into and stuck in the patriarchy trap: Husbands love your wives: the peanut butter in the patriarchy trap.

Excellent post by Rita Nakashima Brock on marriage in the Bible that carefully picks apart marriage equality opponents’ claims that the Bible unanimously supports their definition of “traditional marriage”:

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. “Traditional marriages” in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her — for this, she was supposed to be grateful. When women seek marriages, such as Naomi arranged for Ruth, it was to avoid an even worse fate such as destitution.

GLAAD also has a great weekly LGBT religion news roundup.