Another Theology of the Body, Part V--Equality as a Theological Precondition to Sexual Morality

At the heart of traditional Christian sexual morality is a fundamental disconnect.  On the one hand, you see St. Paul saying things like this:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  (1 Cor. 7:3-4).

This passage, one of the few that deals directly with the morality of sexual relationships between husband and wife, point to a fundamental, even radical, equality between men and women.  A woman has the same amount and type of authority over her husband as her husband has over her.  As a practical matter, since sex requires the participation of both parties, this means that a married couple has equal "bargaining power" as they negotiate their sexual lives.  Or, more accurately, they should have equal bargaining power in the relationship.

On the other hand, it appears that Christianity has not taken this passage remotely seriously throughout the vast majority of its 2000 year history.  The entire legal and moral infrastructure of the Christian Church and that nebulous thing called "Christendom" has been premised on the notion that men and women do not have equal autonomy and authority in the context of marriage.

As an example, consider the Duggars.

For those who don't know, the Duggars are reality-TV show stars that are part of an aggressive brand of Evangelical Christianity known as the Quiverfull Movement.  At the heart of the Quiverfull Movement is the notion that a couple should have as many children as they physically can, in order that "faithful Christians" (of the right type, of course) become numerous and outnumber the rest of us heathens.  The Duggars are certainly doing their part--they have 19 kids--and we are now into the 2nd generation of Duggars doing the Quiverfull thing.

The Duggars are not allergic to marketing their brand of family life, and they recently came out with an interview proposing a series of tips for keeping a marriage hot.  Piece of Advice #1 is directed to the ladies--never say no to your husband when he wants sex.  Many have noted that this appears to be a one-way street--there is nothing that suggests that the man must say yes every time she wants to have sex.  More fundamentally, a rule that one party gets to dictate the terms of a couple's sexual life makes it hard to see in what way the wife has authority over the husband's body, per St. Paul.

The answer for the Duggars, as well as for more or less everyone else until (as Frank from Letters to the Catholic Right puts it) THE.SEXUAL.REVOLUTION, is that the wife doesn't have authority over her husband's body, or much of anything really. That's a result of two things.  One, everything about marriage has been funneled through the idea of the submission of wives to husbands (see, e.g., Ephesians 5:22), which certainly suggests a lack of equality between husbands and wives.

But also, and I think more importantly, because of the social and cultural norms that portrayed women is fundamentally useless and inferior.
Thomas Aquinas, so thoughtful on so many topics, dismisses the entire notion of female-ness as a kind of birth defect (relying, it must be said, on the biological ideas of Aristotle).  If a female is a broken male, why should she have any authority over any male?  Passages like the Corinthians passage are explained away and dismissed, because the very notion that women need to be respected in their autonomy is laughable.

And, then, of course, there is the fact that this regime of female submission is coming out of an environment where all of the decision-makers and thinkers, both inside and outside of the Church, are men.  Even if you put aside the naked self-interest on the part of men who favor a regime that authorizes them to have sex whenever they want, celibate men like Thomas Aquinas have no particular reason to be concerned about how these doctrines might affect women.  It's like voting for a tax increase you know you will never have to pay--it's pretty easy to be cavalier when the consequences are borne entirely by someone else.  You don't have to be Naomi Wolf or Gloria Steinem to see the problem here.

But that was then, right?  All but the most reactionary Christians claim that they accept the equality of men and women, at least for certain values of "equality."  Maybe so, but it seems to me that the significance of this concession has not be internalized and incorporated into Christian thought and Christian morality.

Let's go back to the Corinthians quote.  St. Paul calls for the wife to have ownership over the body of her husband, and the husband to have ownership of the body of the wife.  Said another way, a husband and wife must be mutually vulnerable.  This mutual vulnerability pre-supposes a fundamental, radical equality.  Absent such an equality, vulnerability is impossible.  And without such vulnerability, a genuinely moral sexual relationship is impossible.  As Rowan Williams says:

These "asymmetrical" sexual practices have some claim to be called perverse in that they leave one agent in effective control of the situation - one agent, that is, who doesn't have to wait upon the desire of the other.  (Incidentally, if this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a "perversion" - well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion.. .)

In other words, the Duggars's marriage embodies a perverse sexuality, because it leaves one party--the husband--in total command of the sexual life of the couple.  The husband never has to be vulnerable to his wife, never has to consider her desires or wishes or wants.  And that is not simply unfair or unjust; it is immoral, a perversion of sexuality according to Williams.  And St. Paul would seem to agree.

Folks who advocate for a traditional sexual morality like to say that progressive Christians want to tear down moral rules, but have no new ones to replace them.  Well, here's one:  a sexual relationship that is not based on equality between the parties is immoral, full stop.  I would suggest that this principle is as demanding on the couple as anything in the traditional moral sphere, if not more so.  It is certainly the case that the kind of formal inequality advocated by the Duggars can be said to be immoral, but there are a multitude of other kinds of informal types of inequality that are similarly morally problematic.

I have a couple of these in mind to talk about, but for the next post, I want to talk about a kind of philosophical inequality in the way that sex is talked about, especially in Catholic circles.  To do that, it is time to take Williams up on his most controversial suggestion in The Body's Grace.


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