I’m not the first to comment on this, nor will I likely be the last. Over at The Gospel Coalition, there’s a quote from Doug Wilson that has resulted in much discussion trying to parse out what he intended, what he didn’t mean, and how anyone who dares to suggest this isn’t true or biblical must be a feminist in need of smelling salts. Sometime during the course of this discussion, someone saw fit to add a trigger warning to the top of the original blog post noting that the language of this quote might be disturbing for people who have been sexually abused. Doug himself maintains that Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man, from which this quote originates, had its own built-in trigger warning, when, at the front of the book, Wilson says that the book should only be read by women if it is delivered into their hands by their own husbands.
First of all, I’ve read the book. I read it in college, plucking it off the shelf of a female housemate who went to his church. My biggest impression at the time was that Wilson seemed to know all about what constituted Biblical sexual practice and what didn’t based on nothing more than some shady conjecture. For instance, lingerie is not Biblical, because it is the garb of prostitutes (Wilson 142). Also, no action during menstruation, because the Old Testament forbids it. Never mind that the Old Testament actually prohibits menstruating women from touching anyone or anything without uncleanness, so the line Wilson draws is rather arbitrary.
The abridged quote in question, though, is this: “When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual ‘bondage and submission games,’ along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the ‘soon to be made willing’ heroine. . . True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity” (Wilson 86-87).
I find it weird that Wilson insists “however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party.” Especially in a book that is supposed to be directed to men about their sexual relationship with their wives. Wilson tells men how sex is supposed to look: they’re supposed to colonize and conquer. Women are supposed to surrender and accept. If they’re truly feminine, that is. Wilson assures his audience that men dream of being rapists, and women dream of being raped. Wilson insinuates not very subtly that if you follow the Biblical mandate of authority, you won’t have to dream of rape, because you’ll have the true authority to conquer your own wife instead. The fact that this is directed specifically at men with little to no broader sexual experience does not make this suggestion any better.
I’ve heard of a lot of married men in Wilson’s immediate circle complaining that they don’t get enough from their wives, and one thing this book mentions in that line is that you should not require your wife to give in when she doesn’t want to. I remember being assured by someone extremely close to Wilson that it was impossible for me, as a woman, to have urges comparable to that of men. This proved to be untrue, and after a quick survey of some of my happily married friends, even in Wilson’s own church, I realized I was not a bizarre species. Although I’m pretty sure none of these women are telling that to their pastor, or suggesting ways in which the men of the congregation might improve their luck. Hint: it has nothing to do with “colonizing,” and does, in fact, look a lot more like an “egalitarian pleasuring party,” not to put too fine a point on it.
I say this because I think Wilson’s attempt at biological commentary is actually quite skewed, and since it’s the whole basis for his argument, that skews everything else.
Premise 1: Men penetrate. Premise 2: Women accept penetration. Conclusion: Female submission falls within the natural order of things.
Or we could look at it a different way. Premise 1: Women surround to the point of momentarily obliterating a man’s natural shape. Premise 2: Men enjoy this. Conclusion: Females naturally insulate men from the outside world (Note: since women carry both genders in their wombs, this has more than one biological argument).
Or we could look at it a third way. Premise 1: Women do, and enjoy, a number of things. Premise 2: As do men. Conclusion: Human sexuality is naturally more complex than mere impregnation.
As evidenced by his own blog, Wilson seems to think that any woman who finds fault with his point of view is just too fragile and hysterical to be able to make heads or tails of it — because, of course, she’s a feminist. Additionally, in the comments of the original blog post, he says, “Only a person with a poetic ear like three feet of tin foil would maintain that penetrates can only be used of a Nazi invasion of Belgium, or that plants means that a man must treat his woman like dirt, or that conquering can only be done by ravaging Huns, and that colonization can only occur in a Haitian cane break… Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class.”
Well, Wilson, I’ve taught ESL classes on three continents. If you remember, we took an English class together, actually — Old English. You sat in the front row and talked a lot. I sat in the back. And as you may recall from Old English, words are not static and they are not divorced from their surroundings. When we translated passages from Beowulf, we had to choose which shade of meaning to focus on, had to shape our texts to reflect the tight, gleaming poetry of the original. Yes, words are polysemic. Thanks for pointing that out, but that argument changes nothing. Because words are polysemic, you study them as they appear in the immediate surroundings of the text, and in the larger context of the immediate era they were written in.
I’ve read a lot of your writing, so it’s not practice of Wilsonism I lack. I find it prone to sarcastic pseudo-wit, which is not the same thing as real wit, real insight or real satire. Something that sounds pithy is not the same as something that is actually true. If you submitted something to my own magazine, even if I had no idea who you were, I would probably send the article back with a lot of critiques in yellow, assuming I decided it was worth my time at all. If you’re going to be a decent and compelling writer, you have to learn to accept critique of your writing style gracefully. Not insist that none but the man who agrees is qualified to critique your writing style.
What I’ve found egregiously lacking in any of your discussions is backing of the claim. If egalitarianism results in rape and BDSM, then clearly, egalitarians are more likely to engage in BDSM and rape than complementarians or patriarchal types. Ok, Wilson, interesting theory. Now back it up in some way that doesn’t start and end with “because I think so.” As I’ve already discussed, I personally suspect the opposite based on the evidence.
This matters, Wilson, because I’ve just gotten off the phone with a woman who has been left destitute, at least for the moment, because she has abandoned her sexually aberrant husband, for whom she has raised children and kept house for a decade. He deeply believes that she should accept his need for sexual conquest, forgive him when he goes too far, and get on with life. During their marriage counseling, they studied your books. I doubt you would agree with his personal method of conquest, but the fact is, he has been heavily enabled by theology like yours. You may not like it, but that is the truth.