Doug Wilson’s semi-obsession with dissing 50 Shades of Grey ties in directly to the abuse cases I’ve seen coming out of the CREC.
A caveat, in case this isn’t obvious enough: I am aware that the CREC is not some homogeneous bedsore on the body of an otherwise-perfect world. Each church is different, and each individual within each church is different. But still, within the CREC, something bad is happening over and over, and that something involves dismissing cases of abuse (of various types) because they’re “outliers” or because they’re “exaggerated.” Or because the abuse is assumed to be theologically on-point and not abuse at all, just another “bitter” person spreading gossip. But it’s happening often enough that you’d be blind to deny the existence of the pattern and to fail to examine the rationale behind it. Calling the church’s wounded “malcontents” and “screeching harpies” doesn’t actually make the church’s wounded disappear.
Another caveat: what follows may be triggering to those who have been wounded in this way.
I know a woman, a friend of mine, whose abuse at the hands of a CREC pastor sounds like something straight out of 50 Shades — all through childhood, and up until the age of 15, she was stripped naked from the waist down and beaten by him.
This was completely in line with his theology and the theology of the CREC as a whole, because he was her father — and this was called “Biblical correction.” Her mother, she said, was even worse. She was struck with a rod almost daily through her younger years, and then, after puberty, less frequently — anywhere from 10 to 100 strikes at a time. “Bloodied bruises from one spanking would sometimes break open from spankings the next day. The scabs would soften and come off in the bath. And I would wait for them to reform in my underwear. If I bled, I was told it would not kill me, but save me. ‘Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. Proverbs 23:13-14.’”
In her church, this was normal — she used to compare her stripes with those of the other children at the church and brag about how she hadn’t cried. “My parents taught ‘biblical’ parenting classes, complete with how to spank children and all the Bible verses to back it up. My mother included tips about how to dress children after a particularly bad spanking so stripes wouldn’t show and people wouldn’t call the police. They liked to say how bruises hurt for a short while but hell was forever.”
They are not evil people, she said, “but what they believe has made them so cold, hard, twisted, and blind to the plight of women and children.” Her PTSD over these events lingers well into adulthood; she told me that when she watched 12 Years A Slave, the scenes of corporal punishment gave her flashbacks, and she sobbed uncontrollably in the theater. Such was her agony as a child over the way she was physically abused in the name of God, she tried to kill herself as young as five years old.
I’ve mentioned before that people who were spanked as children have statistically higher instances of fascination with BDSM — in fact, the majority of people who are spanked a lot in childhood are aroused by masochistic sex. And this makes sense. They’re taught from the cradle that pain equals love, they’re taught from the cradle that they’re supposed to submit to whatever those in authority dish out to teach them better manners, no matter how much it hurts them. When they’re additionally bent over and spanked for 14 years straight in the (almost) nude, into pre- and full-blown adolescence, you can imagine the psychological tweaking that takes place in their developing brains. My friend says, “When I told my father a few years ago the effect that spankings had on me, that they would force me into arousal, and how that made my sex life a nightmare for the first few years [of marriage], he told me that I was lying because God commanded children to be spanked in the Bible and therefore it was not possible for them to be aroused by it.”
My friend is by no means alone. Over and over, I’ve heard the same kinds of confessions, the same kinds of stories coming out of the CREC and Christian organizations like it, all immersed in guilt — and, yet, ironically, as another person told me, “if you’re being ‘forced,’ then it’s not wrong, so the guilt isn’t as bad.”
So maybe 50 Shades isn’t popular because submission is an “erotic necessity,” as Doug Wilson claims. Maybe it’s popular because a lot of women have been trained to internalize submission as pain, and both with their proper place in life. The actual BDSM community hates 50 Shades because it reinforces the patriarchal myth that women should be manipulated and forced into things they are uncomfortable with — and that they like this manipulation. The actual BDSM community sees making the choice to bring spanking or submission into an adult relationship as potentially therapeutic, in large part because for once, you, the submissive one, the smaller one, can actually say yes or no and be heard, be heeded. You can say: I want this. I don’t want this. I want to feel this. I don’t want to feel this. I’m aroused by this. I’m working through figuring out this arousal with my eyes wide open.
Consent is the key word here. Full consent. No assumptions, no pressure. No manhandling because the other person is supposed to submit to you, is supposed to give you what you want. Being able to say yes or no is an incredibly powerful thing.
Doug Wilson does not seem to understand consent, and this is why he doesn’t understand people’s issues with how he deals with abuse and abuse victims. I’ve written about this before; we’ve seen it before in how Josh Duggar responded to the abuse of his sisters, for example.
Girls (and boys) who are underage cannot legally consent to sexual relationships because they are easy to manipulate and manhandle by those in authority over them — or merely by those more experienced than them. And Doug Wilson either doesn’t get this, or doesn’t agree with it. Which, honestly, would be consistent — if you don’t want to believe that submission can land you in abusive situations, the easiest thing to do is to pretend that the fault of the abuse lies not with the abuser and in the principle of submission against your better judgment, but in the abuser and the person being abused — or the parents of the person being abused.
Consent, again, comes into the idea of against your better judgment. If you “submit” to someone only when you agree, it’s not actually submission at all — it’s agreement. If you “submit” when you disagree because you’re a rational, reasonable person and you understand compromise, that’s not submission either. If that’s submission, egalitarian couples “submit” to each other all the time. So, truly, the concept of “submission” only comes into play when one party really doesn’t want to do something.
So imagine that you’re trained to think that your job, particularly as a woman, is to do things because the people in charge tell you that you should, even when everything within you rebels. How impervious do you think you will be to the abuses of those who are bigger than you, stronger than you, older than you, more male than you? If you’re taught to ignore your intuition, ignore your own feelings, and do things because you’re supposed to, then you’re robbed of 90% of your tools against abusers. Abusers operate well within the confines of “rules,” manipulating systems because systems are easy to manipulate. Intuition and rebellion aren’t easy to manipulate — but they’re easy to squash, if you get the girls (and boys) young enough.
Add to all this the bizarrely lackadaisical attitude Doug Wilson appears to have when measuring the “repentance” of abusive people. Even in the case of the sexual abuse of the incredibly young, Doug Wilson gave Steven Sitler extra-Biblical leniency — why else would he consider him “repentant” when all Steven did was plea-bargain out one count of abuse, when everyone, including Doug, knew there had been many, many more victims? An actually repentant person is willing to admit his crimes — all his crimes — at a bare minimum, and recognize and apologize to his victims — all his victims.
And for this, if nothing else, Doug Wilson should be taken to task by his church. And for this, if nothing else, the church as a whole should re-evaluate its theology of abuse.