Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

This article is a re-worked blog I originally wrote a year ago. Since that time, I have engaged with a wise and godly man who challenged me and my assumptions incredibly graciously. He allowed me to challenge him also, and I think the updated blog below is getting closer to real wisdom on this sensitive topic. This is an ongoing thought process though as I read and pray and research and think. But I do pray that we can work through this together, under God.

I tinkered with lots of clever and pithy titles for this blog, but in the end, I decided to go with the basic rule of advertising – “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s obvious, but it’s clear. The reason for that is that this is something we don’t talk about much except in high profile cases. When it comes to sexual coercion in marriage, it’s something we don’t really talk about it at all. I wanted the title to be clear so people could engage with it straight away. Because sexual coercion is real, it happens in marriage all the time and it’s horrifically damaging. Which means we have work to do.

But here’s the thing. We have work to do together – men and women together. Sexual coercion is generally an issue that is visited upon women, but women can not solve this problem alone. This is not a women’s issue. This is an everybody issue. So please, let’s engage in this together.

Before we get into it, it’s important for us to be on the level. I know that sexual coercion happens. I have spoken to so many women who struggle with this. Most think it’s something they just have to put up with. Others know it’s wrong, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Some don’t even know it’s wrong and have suffered for years without realising it was not OK.

How can this be? Well, for starters here’s a conundrum. I’ve heard Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon speaking once about how women are like slow cookers – you turn them on and they need to warm up. Men are like toasters – generally you turn them on and they pop up almost immediately. This being the case, if a woman isn’t “in the mood” when her husband is, does that mean we are heading for sexual coercion? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. Getting in the mood is part of the intimate experience. How people do that is very individual. The problem arises when “encouragement” becomes coercion.

I should say at this point that there is a problem of definition right here. Encouragement becoming coercion is a moving target. What one person experiences as coercion, another might experience as encouragement. This can be as unique as the person – as as unique as the situation. But I think this is why we need to get to grips with the nuance, and why we need this conversation, to translate to a language of intimacy that can read and respond to what is happening in the moment.

In the way things are at the moment (generally speaking), I think some men may not realise that they’re doing it. And that’s a problem of awareness and communication.

Some men may realise they are adding pressure, but may not realise it’s wrong. This is a problem of awareness and accountability.

Some men, at the more extreme end, know it’s wrong but feel justified, and that’s just a problem.

But because this isn’t talked about, neither men nor women are equipped to communicate about it – with each other, or with other trusted Christians and pastors. Women can’t raise awareness that the behaviour is not OK, which means they can’t communicate how they feel to their husbands. Men can’t keep each other accountable, or talk honestly about what is appropriate behaviour in marriage, and where the line is.

It’s time to address that. So let’s start with being clear about what sexual coercion is.

What is it?

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways that include:

  • Being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex
  • Being lied to or being promised things that weren’t true to trick you into having sex
  • Having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors about you if you don’t have sex with them
  • Having an authority figure, like a boss, property manager, loan officer, or professor, use their influence or authority to pressure you into having sex.

The Australian national group 1800Respect includes sexual coercion under sexual assault and violence and describes it as “when someone pressures or tricks you into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. It involves behaviour that may not always be criminal, but is usually abusive in some way. Sexual coercion can include someone:

  • Saying they’ll leave you or have sex with someone else if you don’t have sex with them
  • Trying to get you to drink more than you want to so you’ll agree to sex
  • Making you feel guilty for not having sex when they want
  • Telling you it’s your duty to have sex with them
  • Saying that you owe them
  • Making you feel scared to refuse because of what they might do. This might be a fear of physical violence, but can also include fears of them saying bad things about you to others, sharing private or damaging information about you on the internet, or taking away support, money, children or pets.
  • Saying they will get you out of debt, provide you with drugs, let you stay at their house, or help you with a problem if you have sex with them
  • Holding you down, yelling at you or trying to scare you into having sex

These are important and useful definitions, but there are two main issues. First, definitions can make things quite black-and-white and can miss the nuance. Second, as Christians, there are some additional things for us to consider. So here’s some additional thoughts:

Gentle and loving cajoling from “not in the mood” to “in the mood” is a normal and acceptable part of the marital intimacy. In addition, a woman not necessarily feeling like it, but “going along with it” to allow the foreplay to do its work (so to speak) is also normal and acceptable. If the woman can’t or is unable to get in the mood, that could become a context in which cajoling becomes coercion.
We can all be kinda jerky sometimes. Going too far on the cajoling can happen as a one off. Depending on the context, this could be something that is rectified and repented of (the man recognises the stop sign, just a little delayed).  If it is repeated, sexual coercion in a marriage context, can be representative of a pattern of behaviour that defines a couples language of intimacy.
This is critical and describes a pattern of behaviour at its most damaging. For example, when I got a new dog I trained her with negative consequences (being put outside for example) so that now, all she has to do is see the look in my face or hear the tone of my voice or my general demeanour and she knows to do what I instruct or there are known consequences. Unfortunately for some women, once a certain demeanour is perceived, they know to capitulate for otherwise, things will go badly for them. Women will capitulate to avoid bullying behaviour which is words, emotional abuse, mood swings, anger, volatility – even self-righteous indignation. And if a woman regularly capitulates to avoid the consequences, there is no clear signal that shows evidence of it- so it can be easier for the man to not see, accept or recognise that his wife is yielding unwillingly.
And so, through habituation, the language of intimacy becomes more and more broken, and increasingly damaging. The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode the marriage relationship. The damage to the woman can last a lifetime.
Biblical context
How do we understand this in the context of passages like 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 in which we are told that:
“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. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Are women just supposed to submit? There is a lot to unpack in 1 Corinthians 7, including what we are to make of rights and authority, but the main thing is this: “mutual consent is the standard for decision-making in things like sexual activity”. This was stated in specific relation to this passage by Canon Sandy Grant, Senior Minister, St Michael’s Cathedral, Wollongong, chair of the Domestic Violence Task Force in an article he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and which is quoted in the Sydney Diocese “Responding to Domestic Abuse: Provisional Policy and Good Practice Guidelines”

I am deeply encouraged by this public statement as it is an tragic thing that this passage of the Bible has been ill-used by some in the past, which I have heard from women who have approached me with their stories.

But this begs an additional question: Is it really a problem?

Unfortunately, yes.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands.

A survey undertaken in 2018 revealed some scary results including:

  • Almost 20 per cent are not aware that non-consensual sex in marriage is illegal (just in case there is any doubt – it is!)
  • 1 in 7 believe non-consensual sex is justified if the woman initiates intimacy (so if a woman tries to get in the mood so her husband can have sex, but then cannot go through with it, 1 in 7 people believe the man would be justified in forcing her to go through it it)
  • 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to
  • 1 in 8 believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.

What this shows is an alarming number of people who do not see or understand that sexual coercion is wrong, damaging and traumatic. This being the case, it is easy for a husband not to know where the line is if culture largely remains silent on this. Equally, it is easy for women to never know they are being abused even though they feel all the feelings and responses of an abused person.

Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating for creating abuse where there is none. What I’m saying is that the abuse is happening already, we just don’t know to speak into it. Just because the abuse is not understood, does not make it not abusive behaviour, especially when the woman is feeling and exhibiting all the effects of trauma.

If we speak into this issue, we can free women from this added burden and actually be clearer about what is appropriate behaviour.

We can equip both men and women.

So what do we do?

The first thing is to recognise the existence and effects of this issue. Women experience trauma effecting from habituation to sexual coercion. And with trauma comes nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, a deadening of any interest in intimacy (which can then exacerbate the issue), a problem being touched at all….it is akin to having a major car smash where every bone in the body is broken and which then requires intense medical intervention, healing, time and rehabilitation. Untreated, the woman is just such a car smash victim but has never had any medical intervention or healing and the injuries continue to be inflicted.

I realise there are impacts to men too. Facing unwillingness to engage in intimacy can feel like rejection. It can feel hurtful. It can be disappointing, frustrating, and, given the right emotional environment, can feel damaging to a man too. And I am not talking here about withholding sex as a deliberate leverage of power over a man which is totally wrong on so many levels. That can be deeply damaging to a man.

Second, let’s approach this issue together. Remember, this is not a women’s issue, this is an everybody issue.

Third, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, in anticipation of blame and confrontation. It can also be driven by an assumption (coming from a place of hurt) that the woman is withholding, not because she is feeling damaged, but because she is making a power play. These kinds of assumptions are especially dangerous. So all assumptions need to be put to one side.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse for man-bashing. The only way to deal with this is to tackle it together. Many men have no idea that this is not OK and we need to equip men to understand the effect of certain behaviours. In fact, we need men desperately in this endeavour. We need men to be talking about it with each other, exploring it, even weeping over it. We need them to feel empowered to grow in gentleness. Biblically speaking, such gentleness is having enormous power, but using it for the care and protection of others. We need our men to grow in this Christ-likeness. To explore and mature in biblical gentleness is critical to this.

We also need to recognise and acknowledge that this is not a blanket issue. There is nuance. There is complexity. There are grey areas. Not being in the mood can most of the time, become being in the mood, as part of the honest, trusting and loving intimate experience. What we are talking about here is the genuine cross over into coercion where one party (usually the woman) has sex without wanting to because they feel pressured into it – once, or as a repeated pattern.

Fourth, we need to look to passages like 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 with fresh eyes and in humble faith. We cannot throw this passage out because it has been weaponised by some. We need to dig deeper into what it is saying about the marital bed, the language of intimacy and what God’s plan is for sex in marriage at its most pure and beautiful, unbroken by human sinfulness. Trust me folks, I am working on this so watch this space! I think we need to humbly exegete God’s word though so the language of mutuality that lies at the heart of this passage, informs the conversation that we have.

Fifth and finally, here is where we need our God, and our Christian brothers and sisters. We need humility to recognise there may be some things to repent of. We need the courage to speak with our trusted Christian friends. We need to call each other out, gently and lovingly if we see behaviour or hear words that raise red flags. We need to be able to talk about this issue in the light – understand it, change it.

And we need to support and enable husbands and wives to talk to each other about this. Do a temperature check in your relationship. This may not be an issue for most of you, but talking about it cannot be a bad thing – it is a deeply intimate but profound issue of trust to be discussed. It may help you as a couple to support another couple for whom it might be an issue.

We need to not dismiss each other’s feelings or experience. This is an area that is extremely difficult and what will make it worse is being confrontational. We need to approach this as far as is possible in the most collaborative and positive way possible.

That said, if this is an issue in your marriage, and it is in any way repetitive, seemingly justified or escalating, please seek help. Immediately. It is not OK and you must be safe. At least seek the guidance of a professional and trusted Christian pastor or friend.

Most importantly, we must lean on God. This is where we need him most. Intimacy can be so broken. Experiencing it is traumatic. Recognising it can be equally traumatic. Seeking to rectify it can be challenging. It is us humans at our most vulnerable.

We need Him. Through and in Him we can seek the best – which is a bringing this issue into the light, talking about it openly and honestly, facing our issues humbly, supporting each other and keeping each other accountable.

Dealing with brokenness. Together. In Him.

You can read more of my ongoing thoughts about consent within marriage, how we got to where we are and what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 7 in a 2-part blog with Part 1 on the cultural baggage we bring into the bedroom and Part 2 exploring the biblical perspective.

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