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Sex, Submission, and Evangelicals: Doug Wilson's Controversial Words

July 19th, 2012 | 7 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Gospel Coalition

Evangelicals have been beset by another controversy, and this one’s a doozy.

Jared Wilson was attempting to critique Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that I have no plans to read ever.  But the bit he excerpted from Doug Wilson to make his point was, to put it mildly, not well received.  The main offending part:

A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

The comments on the post are instructive, as are both Jared and Doug Wilson’s (no relation) replies.  Rachel Held Evans is worth reading too, to get a sense whence the controversy springs.

The disagreement, at first blush, appears to be driven by semantics and the responsibilities that authors have for the unintended consequences of their words.  Jared Wilson’s suggestion that beneath all this is a wariness about authorial intent strikes me as interesting, but not quite complete.  Authorial intent is a helpful guide, but cannot be solely determinative of the meaning of the passage.  To refer to a cup as a “shoe” and then object when readers don’t get it would be an authorial error, and strikes me as just as “postmodern” in its approach to meaning as those dastardly deconstructionists.  We ought not be, I don’t think, semantic voluntarists.

That case study is, of course, more obvious than the one under discussion, the one where all this really counts. Here the question is not one of reference, but rather the range of connotations that the above words have and whether the author is responsible for the whole lot of them, or only those they intended.

As to that, Doug Wilson suggests that it does us no good to use different words and that people looking to find offense invariably will.  Perhaps.  And given the rush to judgment by their critics, I sympathize with that complaint.  The problematic excerpt should have raised a question before it issued forth in condemnation, but the "dismiss first and then move on" culture is one we are all now complicit in.

But I am not convinced we cannot use other words, even if it deprives us of vast portions of our rich linguistic heritage (and as a conservative, trust me, this is hard to say).  The emptying out of our language pool may have good reasons or bad, but in certain cases it is prudent to work to avoid the offense.  And the upside is that redrawing the boundaries may, as Chesterton might have argued, cause us to find a more innovative and expressive stock of images that themselves are more accurate.

In this case, then, it’s very helpful to have the clarification that Doug Wilson thinks conquest is mutual.  I’m not comfortable with the inherent militarization the word implies, but there is a certain sort of irresistibility that I feel when my wife raises her eyebrows.

Yet affirming "conquest's" mutuality and adding the nuance makes its omission within the original text all the more striking.  (And here I commend Alistair Roberts’s fine comment to you.)  Not that an author affirming one side of an issue need always mention the other.  And as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, Doug Wilson’s book is written to men and their sons, which seems helpful for setting the context.

But as a good rule of thumb, if it is an issue not only where offense is possible, but genuine trauma has occurred, then that is a good time to be overly sensitive—perhaps especially when speaking among the company of men.  Inculcating care begins there, after all, in the older men teaching the younger.  And it does seem to me helpful for men to value and appreciate such mutuality, even when it exists.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that Doug Wilson affirms it elsewhere.  But can one drive the point home often enough, particularly during such controversial moments?

Amidst pushing back against the critics, then, I think it would be helpful to hear what (if anything) Doug Wilson might change about the original.  An author’s errata is a worthy genre, though these days ours seem to have to come sooner than we might like.  And the fact that it is critics who are calling for it seems, to me anyway, neither here nor there.  So what if they are not satisfied?  Was the thing right, or is it wrong, in all that it said and all it did not?

So much for semantics, though.  Now for the substance.  And here, I have confess to being flummoxed by a question to which I do not know the answer:  what, if anything, is uniquely distinctive about the male experience of human sexuality that sets it apart from the female?  Or is every difference to be collapsed into an amorphous mash of homogeneous sexual desire?  And what might be the language that is appropriate and acceptable that explains that phenomenon and Scripture’s witness to it (again, if any)?

C.S. Lewis, of course, famously used the language of “possessiveness” and “pride” to try to get at it, and I suspect that causes just as much of an offense these days (and is lurking, for what it’s worth, somewhere in the back of the now infamous excerpt).   But now that the objection to such ways of speaking has been registered, it seems important explore a more excellent way--and, in this case, also the more excellent verbiage.

That path won’t lead, I don’t think, through affirming the substance of conquest within marriage, provided there’s consent—as Evans does in her unfortunate qualification that people should "do what they enjoy."  That is an amazing admission in this context, really, as the question at hand is which sort of practices that create cultures of violence against women.  Weirdly, Evans's admission seems to suggest that the language of violence does more harm than the actual practice of violence within the home, even if such violence is itself consensual.  But while reforming a culture’s attitudes toward sex is all sorts of difficult, it seems like beginning at home is a pretty decent start.  Allowing couples to play at domination simply because they both like it strikes me as incommensurate with decrying the practice elsewhere.  Our playing, simply put, matters and we get our ideas for it somewhere.  The bedroom is not so self-contained and isolated from the rest of our lives as Evans seems to imply, and if looking at porn implicates us in a culture of hostility toward women, than certainly playing with sadomasochism must do the same.

(Here I note the paradox: it was Doug Wilson who took the lead on that score against Driscoll’s Real Marriage, a book that Evans was up against as well.  I registered my complaints too, which, like this post, were overly long.)

I might add to all this an exegetical point that I made in my book that I suspect no one disagrees with but needs to be said so people know where I stand:  the language of mutual authority in 1 Corinthians 7 is certainly there.  But Paul deploys it strategically:  because the authority exists, we are to give to one another, rather than demand.  In fact, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the same language of authority to describe his ability to take the Corinthians’ money, but specifically says that he won’t for the sake of the Gospel.  A different case, of course, but still instructive.  It’s this self-denial in sex, this recognition of the authority and its willingness to lay it down that grounds our pursuit of each other in the self-giving that is love.

What strikes me as tragic in all of this is, well, that Jared’s worthy intention to object to a cultural trend that is doubtlessly present in our churches has been entirely and completely superceded.  There’s an important lesson here for communicators, as when the jot and tittle gets away from us then it’s the substance of our point that loses.  But it’s for those errant words that we’ll someday give an account.

Which is reason enough to quit before I get any further behind.

Update:   Rachel Held Evans has clarified her position over at her blog.  The full text:

(Note: I get that some folks enjoy getting “conquered” to some degree in bed. That’s fine. Do what you both enjoy. But this should be a mutual decision, pleasurable to both parties, and it is certainly not required by God-ordained gender roles. Update: By this I simply mean that some couples prefer that one person be more dominant - not necessarily the man, by the way - and I don't think that should be categorically condemned. But this is not an endorsement of BDSM. )

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.