Tag Archives: #sex

Towards a better understanding of sexual coercion in marriage and how Christians can respond

A week or so ago, I wrote an initial piece on sexual coercion in marriage, looking at what it is, whether it is actually a problem and how we should deal with it as Christians. You can read it here:

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

Since then, I have also taken part in a live Facebook question-and-answer session. We ran over time because there were so many questions but hopefully we helped start a conversation.

We talked through 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 and what some critical terms mean – like “marital duty” and “authority over the body” mean. These can be particularly difficult terms for us to wrangle with and have been the source of much damage and distress in the past.

We explain what sexual coercion is with far more depth and nuance – including things like context, intentions versus reception, whether it is a repeated pattern of behaviour and so on.

We tackle tricky questions like “Is it all abuse?” and “Should we submit anyway?”

We talk about how it is damaging to women and to men and to marriages and in what ways.

We start to look how we can continue a collaborative conversation about this – seeking a positive and godly way forward that is biblical and supportive of our bodies, mental health, motions and ability to give joyfully and voluntarily (spoiler alert – its not an easy fix, but its possible if we have a language, have courage to communicate and have humility under He who gave us the picture of what marital intimacy should look like).

I hope you can engage, ask questions, take the conversation to your churches and ministers.

The Q&A session can be accessed here from the Facebook page:

Sexual Coercion in Marriage with GuruNow with Ruth Baker

If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, concerns please feel free to contact me. the work on this will continue so the more input the better. Send me your stories, your observations – anything!

If you feel you are in need of help, please speak to a trusted friend, pastor or professional.

GuruNow is the platform by the way – check them out on Facebook because the cover all manner of subjects from worry and anxiety, to bullying in the church, to Christian leadership and beyond.

 

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

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 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**

Some of these seem more overtly “abusive” than others and so the less apparently “abusive” behaviours could be down played.

They shouldn’t be.

Firstly, because individually these behaviours are wrong. Secondly, when taken over many occurrences over weeks, months or even years, the damage this causes to a woman cannot be overstated.

The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode a marriage or make it implode.

The damage to the woman can last a lifetime. Once is bad enough. The real problem is if there is a pattern and especially if this becomes the “normal” approach to intimacy in a relationship.

There is trauma. 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. She exists. Broken.

Perhaps this is part of the issue facing men and women. Given that men and women treat and experience sexual intimacy differently (generally speaking, of course), it is next to impossible for a man to understand the effect of broken sexual intimacy on a woman. Again this is highly individual, but there is enough research to show the effect on women as being highly damaging emotionally and psychologically and traumatic.

It hurts women. It breaks women.

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.

I think the difference we need to focus on though is this:

Men don’t need sex. It might feel like they do, but not having is not going to kill them, like the removal of air or food and water will. Yet the importance placed on it can be disproportionate. However, there are deeply felt and real emotional needs and these need to be brought into the light and taken seriously. But there is an opportunity to communicate about these, and that’s as it should be.

Women, when having sex without wanting to, feel violated. That is not a feeling that goes away. Ever.

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. It’s still not OK.

A woman can feel traumatised and damaged, experience panic attacks and irrational fears – and think that it’s her own fault. 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?

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

Second, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, anticipating blame and confrontation. So there can be a tendency to want to ignore the issue because perhaps women have just decided to raise it now. We need to be clear that women have never been OK with this, and it has never been acceptable behaviour – we just haven’t been able to talk about it before. 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. 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.

So, men and women, start with reading the definitions of sexual coercion. Understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Recognise and accept that it is what it is, and there is a chance that you could be experiencing it, or perpetrating it.

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.

* https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/sexual-coercion#7

** https://www.1800respect.org.au/violence-and-abuse/sexual-assault-and-violence/

*** https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

**** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12477095/ and https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

***** https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/violence-against-women-survey-shows-concerning-attitudes/10568638?smid=Page:%20ABC%20News-Facebook_Organic&WT.tsrc=Facebook_Organic&sf203239950=1

Why I regret my early sex life

For as long as I can remember, all I could think about was having a boyfriend. My teen and young adult years stretched through the 1980s and 90s. There was Madonna, Rick Astley, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, shoulder pads, shaggy perms, bright make up – it was a great time to be alive.

I grew up atheist and everyone I knew were atheist. So everything I understood about the world came from TV and people I knew at school. When we hit 14 and 15 years old, my friends paired up. They had grown up relationships with older boys. They were cool. They had a hint of swagger. They’d done things. They knew things.

As I grew older, it seemed everyone had boyfriends except me. Everyone was having sex except me. I was missing out. Nobody wanted me. Two terrible truths to grow up with – a yearning to belong and a yearning to be wanted.

Getting a boyfriend was what underpinned everything I did. In the atmosphere I grew up in, that meant having sex. At the time, sex was everywhere. If you didn’t have it, you were a sad lonely single. If you didn’t want to have it, you were frigid. Sex was what you did to have a good time. It was a trophy. Sex was how you got boyfriends. And it’s how you kept boyfriends.

I know what you’re thinking – that’s just not true. I know. That’s why I regret it.

Now, as a Christian, I look back on those years and wonder why I didn’t have more self-respect. This might sound offensive to some – many people in the world think sexual freedom is a way of people expressing themselves. I get that. There may be people reading this who just want to have sex. It’s not an angry thought, it’s not crazy, it’s not a yen to be having sex with everything that moves. It’s just a deep yearning to be like everyone else. To have those doors opened. To see what it’s like. To experience that deep intimate connection.

One of the reasons I regret my early sex life is because it was never like that. I confused sex with romance. I thought it would be like it is in the movies. I thought it would be graceful, beautiful, with soft lighting, everything airbrushed. It’s not. It’s fumbly and clumsy and and there’s embarrassing noises and squelchy bits and it’s just….well…real.

The other reason I regret it is because it wasn’t sex in and of itself that I wanted. It was what it represented. It represented me having joined the world. It represented me being like everyone else. It represented me being wanted and found desirable. Those are all the wrong reasons to pursue sex. It was about my self-esteem. And if that’s what feeds the self-esteem, then you get into a cycle of always seeking someone to show they find you desirable.

Now, as a Christian, I read about what I wish I had been. Proverbs 31:25 describes the woman of noble character as being “clothed with strength and dignity.” That is what I wish I’d known – that my validation came from God, not from someone wanting to have sex with me. I have dignity because I am God’s image bearer and he loves me so much that he did not even spare his own son to bring me to him. That is a staggering truth.

I wish I had known that sooner. But I praise him that I know it now.

But if you are reading this and wanting to belong and are wanting to open that door, please know that I’ve been where you’re going. I know it must seem restrictive – this whole no-sex-outside-of-marriage thing. But having been there, I understand completely why God designed relationships the way he did.

Doing what I did leads to brokenness and regret. It’s a way of lacking self-control. It’s a way of giving in to temptation. Obedience to God doesn’t make us perfect, and it’s not easy, but it clothes us in dignity. Its a quiet confidence that our value comes from him and not what the world can hold so cheaply. I am worth more than that.

There are heaps of good books on Christian perspectives on sex. I recommend you read them. I just want to say I get it. I was there. I was you. And I chose wrong.

Sex is great but it can be awful. It needs thoughtfulness and intentionality. It needs to be for the right reasons. I was an atheist. I had no framework for understanding the world through the lens of Jesus Christ so I had no idea that I could carry myself with confidence. I had no idea that I could wait for the one who would connect with my soul as well as with my body. I had no idea I could be different from the world, and that different is good. I was so busy looking at myself through the lens of the world, I didn’t even think there could be another way. And having been where some of you may want to be, I look back and wish I had known.

Don’t be swayed by the world. Know that you are so valuable. You are so loved. You are clothed in strength and dignity. Listen to God. Follow Christ and be different.