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.