I’m going to confess right now that I will not cover every aspect I could or want to cover in this post. Because abuse in marriage is the kind of topic that could get a 50-page paper and I try to keep my posts under
1200 1500 words.
However, I answered a reader question on Monday about a wife whose husband was making forceful sexual advances in the mornings. When I read the entire email, it appeared to me the wife — although having said she’d talked to her husband and explained her feelings — was still trying to find ways to be cooperative and engage sexually with her husband.
My answer covered a lot of ground that she’d brought up, but a few commenters stated outright that this husband’s actions — pursuing sex despite his wife’s pain — constituted rape.
Given the responses, I wanted to lay out more of my thinking on the topic of sexual assault and marriage.
Marital rape is a real thing, and I written about it before. Those who contend that you cannot be raped in marriage because you owe your spouse sex and they are only collecting what’s due to them are wrong and, frankly, cruel. I have repeatedly said on this blog that, no matter what, a spouse should not force or demand sex from their mate. There is no positive reference to that behavior in the Bible, and it violates every principle of love God lays out for His people.
If your spouse says no, the answer is no.
If your marriage involves sexual refusal, you have other options available — communicating about the problem, seeking marital counseling, seeking individual counseling (for ideas on how to approach the issue), educating yourself on what might be going on, approaching your spouse with your pastor or an elder in your church, etc.
If you’re the spouse who has been forced to do something you said no to, that is not okay. It is a violation of your body and your marriage vows. You need to seek help from your pastor, a counselor, or perhaps a law enforcement officer. If the problem is ongoing, seek assistance from a counselor or organization that deals with domestic abuse.
Your communication must be clear. In the case of the wife I answered on Monday, I believe she was giving mixed signals. Now I am not blaming her! I want spouses to understand what God’s design for sex is and be empowered to act in ways consistent with His desire for their lives and their marriages.
All too often, I see wires crossed when we believe we are communicating with our spouse but our message is not fully received. I considered it possible that such a thing was happening in this marriage since it happens in many marriages.
It can happen when a spouse wants to have sex and doesn’t communicate clearly, and then an opportunity is missed because the message wasn’t received. But it can also happen when you express what you don’t want to do in the marital bedroom, but your spouse doesn’t seem to hear you. Were you clear enough? Did you say it outright, with no qualifiers or timidity?
Honestly, a lot of women in particular are raised to be soft-spoken in our approach, and we may not be getting across what we really want to say. Jennifer Degler, PhD. co-authored a fabulous book titled No More Christian Nice Girl: When Just Being Nice–Instead of Good–Hurts You, Your Family, and Your Friends about this unfortunate trend.
Some wives have engaged in sexual behaviors — from BDSM practices to threesomes — they are absolutely against, partly because they didn’t want to push the subject with their husbands. It’s important for you, wife, to understand that you can speak up for your desires in the marriage bed and against things you’re absolutely not willing to do.
Guys get bad teaching too. There are so many wrong messages about sex floating around in our society, I almost feel like we marriage bloggers play Whac-A-Mole trying to smack down each one in turn. Wrong assumptions about sex come both from church and secular sources.
For instance, there’s an underlying message among too many Christians that sex is for the man. The belief is that men have a much higher libido, women don’t like it as much, and thus sex — even in marriage — is primarily to satisfy the male drive. In this scenario, a husband might hear that his wife is experiencing discomfort or pain in sexual intercourse, but since he wasn’t expecting deep-down she’d enjoy it anyway, he downplays her concerns. Is he trying to be a total jerk? In some cases, yes; in other cases, no. For some husbands, their perspective is just colossally messed up due to bad teaching.
How about the crazy messages from porn? For instance, porn has been noted to be lacking in foreplay. Why bother getting a wife’s body ready, since all those women in porn seem ready to go at the drop of a hat? The point communicated to male viewers is you can just go in with all guns firing and take your woman right then and there. A husband who has had a steady diet of porn may be surprised at how a real woman’s body works. The wrong message is so deeply ingrained in his brain that he has an extremely difficult time pulling himself out of that quicksand.
And in this case, I have some sympathy for the guy. What he needs is for truth to permeate his life and for God to redeem his view of sexual intimacy.
Sexual assault has lost some of its meaning, and that is a complete and utter shame. It rattles my nerves when someone claims to have been sexually violated when what really happened is someone made an inappropriate comment or when they’re falsely accusing someone of rape. Some studies have claimed a higher prevalence of sexual assault than actually exists, when you define it properly. I believe that takes away from those who have been really and truly raped, molested, or sexually assaulted when we act as if minor harassment is the same thing.
Consequently, I’m not eager to randomly throw out the word rape. That said, I absolutely know it happens — and people it’s happened to. When you are genuinely sexually assaulted, you need to speak up against the perpetrator and get help for healing for yourself.
So how do you know if you’ve been sexually assaulted? How do you know if your own husband has sexually abused you?
The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”
Sexual contact or behavior includes touching, sexual activities, and intercourse. And reading that list of examples should indicate the seriousness of sexual assault.
I’d argue that in marriage there is some implicit consent to have physical intimacy. It’s part of God’s plan, one of the things typically covered in the vows (“keeping myself only unto you”), and largely understood to be part of the marriage deal. You expect to touch, fondle, and make love with your spouse. I would hope that you don’t require your spouse every single time to give verbal explicit consent or sign on the dotted line; rather, you can read their responses and glean their willingness and engagement in the moment.
But if your spouse explicitly says no to something, it means no. You shouldn’t have to look it up in the dictionary, play “devil’s advocate” in your mind, or try to negotiate to get what you want. Your spouse is not your sex tool, but your beloved blessing from God. You have no right to mistreat God’s child in that way.
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. – Ephesians 5:28-30
God’s design for sex in marriage is frequent, mutual, pleasurable, relationship-building, exclusive, loving, and intimate. That’s the goal for sexual intimacy in your marriage and in mine.
Many couples aren’t there yet, but they have hope of reaching that goal. But if actual sexual assault is occurring in your marriage, it must stop. You must stop it.
17 thoughts on “Sexual Assault and Marriage”
Thank you so much, J, for taking on a very difficult subject in such a thoughtful way. I agree with you that rape can occur in marriage, which happens when women are seen as objects to be controlled rather than as people to be loved. I also agree that our culture has messed up sex so much that it can be very difficult for people to say what they need and hear what their spouse needs. I pray for the woman who wrote to you and others like her; they are dealing with incredibly difficult situations.
Thank you, Gaye. I know this is a tough topic, and some have raw wounds surrounding it. I truly appreciate your encouragement and prayer for these wives.
It’s even worse than that. Even as a (now loosely affiliated) Christian woman I can say that most religions (in this case I mean Judaism, Christianity and Islam) actively teach that women are property. This can’t be denied. This implication makes it possible for people to teach things like this in any of those religions.
It happens in all those religions b/c the underlying tenant (women are property) is built into the foundation of the religious writings because of when the religion was founded.
This is the main reason I am now loosely affiliated. It is hard for me to come to terms with what I want to believe vs what is written and taught.
This saddens me. Because I know many, many Christians and churches who would not agree with that. And the evidence of the Bible is that, given whatever time the people lived, God insisted on better treatment of women than existed in that era. Women being treated as property was never God’s plan.
Thanks for commenting, Janine!
I have to disagree with you. Islam may or may not have an underlying assumption of women as property, but certainly not Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Christianity teaches that all people have worth. Not just men, but women, children and slaves as well. Christains were a major driving force in the abolitionist movements as well as the child labour laws etc. in the industrial revolution. Precisely because the bible teaches that all people are valuable.
Just a few choice examples: Gen 2, the creation account. God made man in his image, male and female he created them -> both men and women bear the image of God.
Genesis 5 reaffirms that God created men *and women* as image bearers of himself
Genesis 16 -> The Lord appears to the slave girl Hagar. He appears to her again later when Abraham sends her away and saves her life.
Genesis 25 -> Rebekah asks the Lord why the two children are bumping against each other in her womb. God answers her directly. The revelation is given to her, not Isaac.
Genesis 29 -> The Lord sees Leah’s plight and blesses her with children, because her husband loves Rachel much more than her.
I could go on. This is just examples in the first half of Genesis that I ran across while teaching Sunday school this semester. Women may have been mistreated in that time, but pay attention to what God does with these circumstances. There is no way anyone who actually reads all of scripture can claim that women are not valuable to God. These examples do not include the passages where men are called to servant leadership, specifically told to love their wives as their own bodies and exhorted again to love their wives in the letters from the apostles. There is also that famous passage that says that there are neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave or free in Christ (meaning all people are equal before God).
I personally have never heard anyone teach that women are inferior to men in any way. I’m sorry if you’ve encountered that. In J’s words: people who teach that are just flat out wrong. I encourage you to read the Bible in its entirety, for yourself. Try to get the big picture. Read commentaries. Read books by people like Gary Chapman. We did this fabulous book in pre-marital counseling “Each for the Other” that I believe presents a very balanced, biblically accurate view of gender roles.
Don’t give up on religion because some people have messed up, misguided ideas. Seek the truth for yourself.
I’ve always loved that the first person to see the resurrected Jesus…was a woman. That was rather scandalous for the time, having a female as the eyewitness. But it showed that God valued the faith of women.
Indeed. Thank you for taking this up again. That e-mail from Monday bothered me all week.
I believe the people teaching that women have no value is not the church, but the culture. Radical feminists want to destroy any expression of femininity and make us all like men. Or even better unisex. Queer theorists try to deny gender entirely. Hookup culture and pornography treat women as commodities which leads directly to rape culture. Porn is inextricably linked to sex trafficking, where women are just straight up sold as slaves.
Then we have the whole 50 Shades thing where abuse of all kinds is glorified as “sexual freedom” or some nonsense. What is the Anna other than a commodity/ sex slave? And the portrayal of such behaviour is endorsed and celebrated by the culture. Nowhere in the bible did God approve abuse. I don’t even think the way out quiver full people actually explicitly puts a stamp of approval on abuse.
I agree with what you say. But I will add that some Christian wives, throughout history and today, have received messages from churches and other Christians to put up with all kinds of terrible stuff in their marriages, often using the “submission clause” as an excuse. However, God never intended for us to enable sinful acts. His Word states that we are to obey God above men (Daniel 3:16-18, Acts 5:29) and that abuse should be counteracted with justice (Isaiah 1:17). Moreover, the Bible simply cannot get any clearer in its position against domestic violence than this verse from Psalm 11:5: “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” Why? Because such violence hurts His child.
Whac-A-Mole? “Whac-a-husband!” We husbands need to be whacked with a bat once in awhile. It took me 7 years of good whacking by my wife until I finally understood what it took to begin to be the right kind of husband God wanted me to be. It has taken another 43 years to grow into a loving husband. It seems that I am just beginning to get it. I did not have all of you bloggers giving such great help as we do now. Don’t give up on us. We might be dense, but we can learn!!
Wow, J. Thank you for this empowerment. The implicit consent of physical intimacy of marriage is the tricky part. But, when we look at husbands and wives first and foremost, as Christian brother and sister (I know, it sounds weird), we need to respect each other. (Eph. 5:21, submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.) Christ’s interaction with women never showed disrespect or implied women were chattel. You’ve added such wise advice that 1. there are options if sexual refusal is a part of your marriage and 2. GET OUT if your spouse is forcing sex after you have said no. I join Gaye in praying for our young wife and other marriages who are experiencing this.
Well-said! Thank you, Bonny.
I’m so thankful that my mom told me that rape can and does happen inside of marriage. When I was a teenager and she first told me this, I didn’t understand how that was possible. She explained that we have a right to say no, even to our spouse. It’s my body and I get to decide what is done to it, even if it is my spouse. Women, men, children, everyone needs to be given permission to stand up for themselves.
Ah, I think I disagree with you about how to define rape. In the sections which begin, “Marital rape is a real thing,” and “your communication must be clear,” it sounds like the position you’re advocating is that a clear “no” is the only way to indicate non-consent, and that mixed signals and crossed wires, where the spouse gives some indication they do want sex and some indication that they don’t, or that the spouse says “no” but not in a way that comes across as clear to the other spouse, do not constitute rape. In the section which begins “Sexual assault has lost some of its meaning,” you cite the DoJ definition of sexual assault, which defines rape as the absence of a clear “yes.” So under this definition, the mixed signals and crossed wires examples above would be treated as rape. But then you move away from it, saying that marriage implies some level of implicit consent, that is, an explicit “yes” is not required.
I more or less agree with the DoJ definition, where an explicit “yes” is required, regardless of circumstances. It doesn’t have to be verbal– the spouse can show that they are eager and willing through their body language– but if the spouse says yes but their body language says no, or their body language says yes but they say no, then you don’t have consent and you need to stop, or else it’s rape. Mixed messages, where any part of the message is “no”, = no consent.
I feel that such a definition is necessary for all of the cases in which non-consensual sex occurs in the context of an abusive relationship. The abused spouse may not want sex and not want to consent to it, but cannot explicitly stand up for themself or say “no” clearly without risking physical or emotional violence. In that case, maybe the best the spouse can do is weakly protest, or indicate that they’re not into it with their body language. And that has to be good enough.
And this kind of abusive relationship is one of the scenarios which is strongly implicated in the original letter– “If I don’t engage in sex at his desire, it quickly leads to resentment, emotional distance and eventually hurtful words.” That’s manipulation and emotional blackmail, if not verbal abuse.
I don’t think we disagree really. However, having known quite a few women in abusive relationships, and knowing some of them get wrong messages even from other Christians that they “owe” their husbands sex no matter what, my “communication must be clear” is intended to encourage wives to speak up for themselves when they don’t want to engage.
Of course, if she’s pushing you away, dude, that’s a no. A husband doesn’t get to declare “mixed signals!” and go for it. I repeatedly say on this blog that a spouse cannot force or demand sex from their spouse. That’s not God’s design for sex, period. Thanks!
Also, I like how you let the topic of rape/not rape turn into a discussion instead of just shutting it down, even though some of the commenters were quite critical (but polite) about your views. I appreciate it.
I do not mind debate and discussion at all. I do delete personal attacks, because I want this to be a respectful forum. Thanks!
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