Sexual Consent in Marriage Part 1: Our Cultural Baggage

Up to a third of married women experience unwanted and non-consensual sex. Research in the US has revealed that the most likely situation of those experiencing it are 30-45 years old, white, college educated and going to church every week.

Does that shock you? I hope so. It should alert us to the fact that non-consensual sex in marriage is far more widespread than we thought, and that it’s not those other people that we see on the news from time to time. This is women we sit next to in church.

I’ve written previously on sexual coercion in marriage which helps to define what we’re talking about here. This is not explicit rape (although that it an issue as well). This is more insidious, more normalized and more habitual. This is sex that occurs by the bullying or coercive behaviour of one party on another. That can include demanding, manipulation, or any behaviour that causes one party (usually the woman) to feel that she has no choice but to give in. For Christians, this can include misusing, or even weaponizing scripture to make the woman perform her marital duty.

How did we get here? This is not just people with bad attitudes and a poor understanding of appropriate behaviour in marriage. There are centuries of baggage that follow us into the bedroom. Vivien C. Fox, in her review of historical perspectives on violence against women, stated that:

“For most of recorded history the concept of marital rape was not recognized since the marriage contract presumed wifely consent……Love may have been the language of the husband, but subjection expressed conjugal love of the wife. Another component of the husband and wife relationship, was the cultural consensus among medical and religious men that marriage incurred a “marital debt,” and conjugal sexual relations were at its center, forced or not forced. Marital rape, therefore was not part of the Christian lexicon. In 17th and 18th century England and America the presumption of the “marital debt” prevented any legal recourse or recognition of the notion that rape within marriage could transpire.” [1]

Marriage pre-supposed consent. Marriage formed a contract between man and woman in which consent was implicit and therefore could be assumed.

This assumption is borne out in the fact that it was not until very recently that marital rape was recognized by law. In Canada marital rape was criminalized in 1983. In the UK, marital rape was legislated in 1991. In the USA, marital rape was not recogised in law until 1993. In Australia, marital rape was recognized in law in South Australia in 1976 but didn’t make it into law in all states and territories until 1994.

In some countries today, not only is marital rape not recognized, it is explicitly excluded from the criminal codes. In Antigua and Barbuda, Article 3 (1) of the Sexual Offences Act, 1995, includes in the definition of rape: “with a female person who is not his wife”. This kind of explicit exclusion exists in the laws of The Bahamas, Bahrain, Brunei, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica, Tanzania, and many, many others. Even in the countries that have changed legislation, there is still the marital rape myths – that it doesn’t really happen or can’t exist because consent is implicit. There are even myths around how many women are telling the truth. This could be largely based on an unwillingness to change the perception of what is and has been happening. To accept the true picture would require some very difficult self-analyses.

But lets start. Lets get into where this “implied consent” within the married relationship issue came from. In Part 2 of this blog, we’ll look at the biblical view on marital duty. Here, lets do a quick tour through the history.

The earliest liturgical vows were not recorded until at least the 9th century but the start of what is acknowledged as set vows were not recorded until the Sarum Missal in the 11th century. The woman would say:

“I N. take thee N. to my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonnair and buxom, in bed and boord [board?] till death us depart, if holy Church will it permit, and thereto I plight thee my troth.[2] (The man was not required to be “bonnair and buxom” in bed.)

We think of “bonnie” as “pretty” and “buxom” as someone who is voluptuous. But the etymology of these words is actually “agreeable” and “compliant” which is how they are used in this Medieval context. Essentially, what sounds quaint and fondly amusing to our modern ears, is actually unquestioning sexual obedience. This was the understanding of the marital bed.

This was reinforced in this same order of service, where the man is asked if he will “esteem her, to honour, hold, and protect her” whereas the woman is asked if she will commit to “obey him, to serve, esteem, honour, and guard him”

By the time of the Book of Common Prayer in the mid-sixteenth century, a man “taught by the Priest shall say”:

“With this ring I the wed: with my body I the worship: and with all my worldly goodes, I the endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Sonne, and of the holy Ghost. Amen.”[3] 

It is interesting that this is only something that the man professes to his bride. “In professing that his intent was to add by his person, honour and worship unto hers, he took her plainly and clearly to be his Wife, not his Concubine. This is it which the Civil Law doth mean, when it makes a Wife to differ from a Concubine in dignity.”[4]

The worship is to be ascribed by the husband to the wife. The wife has no such vow to make. Also, the wife no longer has to commit to being bonnie and buxom. However, in the same service:

“I, N. take the. N. to my wedded husbande, to have and to holde, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickenes, and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us departe, accordynge to godes holy ordinaunce: and therto I geve the my trouth.”

This is reiterated by the Priest’s questions “wilt thou obey hym and serve him, love, honour, and kepe him, in sycknes and in health?” Here again, only the woman is to obey. This phrase is omitted from the man’s vows which are: “Wylt thou love her, comforte her, honour, and kepe her, in sickenes, and in healthe?”

Now, this is by no means a comment on complementarianism or the ordering of family relationship along theological lines. Framing our families in line with our theological convictions is a good and beautiful thing when applied with God’s grace and Christ-like gentleness. This review of marriage vows and attention on obedience of one spouse to another is merely to observe how assumptions regarding consent (or the assumed lack of need for it) have been influenced and ill-used. The confluence in marriage vows of sex and obedience have underpinned attitudes to marital sex that have then been amplified by cultural attitudes to women, and that now need to be brought into the light. Even by the 19th century, John Stuart Mill in his 1869 work, The Subjection of Women had identified:

“[A] female slave has (in Christian countries) an admitted right, and is considered under a moral obligation to refuse to her master the last familiarity. Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to—though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loath him—he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations. ”

The ideas of sexual availability and entitlement have become entwined, as have assumptions about dominance and intimacy. It is these very ideas that second wave feminism protested against in the 1960s. Unfortunately, freedom of sexual expression for women, has since become reframed into sexual availability for men. Again, the push (or push back) is about availability twisted into the sinewy gristle of entitlement.

This is what still frames a lot of our thinking about sex in marriage – whether we realise it or not. And popular media does not help us to reframe it in a healthier way. Remember in Gone With The Wind when Scarlet O’Hara struggles against Rhett Butler? He overcomes her and carries her upstairs with her fighting all the way. The next scene is her propped up in bed looking glowing and content, the implication being that they had fiery passionate sex and now all is well with the world. This type of portrayal feeds into our deeply held assumptions about sex in marriage. The man’s role is to dominate and woman’s role is to be available – her willingness is not a factor.

This is only a part of what we bring into the marital bedroom. There are whole other avenues that require deep thought and reflection. What ideas we have inherited from our parents and our peers, our ability and willingness to listen (and read subtle cues), our naivete about consent, about sex and about marriage – the list goes on.

But here is a start. In Part 2, I’ll be looking at a key biblical passage and how it has been weaponized, what it actually communicates to us and, as Christians, how this ought to influence our behaviour:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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 Corinthians 7:3-4)


[1] Vivien C. Fox, Historical Perspectives on Violence Against Women. Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 4 #1 November 2002

[2] Order for Consecration of Marriage: Sarum Use

[3] http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1559/Marriage_1559.htm

[4] Anthony Sparrow, A Rationale upon the Book of Common Prayer, 1672

4 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this. So eye opening this article changed my life. It made me realize I had a right to say no to my husband. For 24 years he did what he wanted and really mentally tortured me with sex. I can relate to the car accident because that has been my life for all these years.

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    1. Thank you for commenting Lisa. I’m so sorry this has been your experience. Please know that you are not alone. Many women have shared their stories with me. I pray that your husband has the grace and strength to recognise your current status is not God’s plan for intimacy – and I pray that he has the courage and conviction to work with you on changing it. x

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