Consent is Not a Negotiation: Love, Respect, and Warped Ideas of Sin

[content note: rape, rape culture, disregard for consent, religious and spiritual coercion and abuse]

I've noticed an interesting trend lately of evangelicals co-opting feminist language and ideas into their work. We see discussions of modesty being empowering for women, of maintaining virginity being an assertion of bodily autonomy (which I actually half agree with), and with pleasure and consent being a central part of the sexual act within marriage.  But, a lot of Christian culture is skilled in "baptizing" concepts from progressive culture to mask their actually regressive views. It's a way of stealing the vocabulary from their critics - if modesty is "empowering," then we need to find new ways to discuss how modest disempowers and objectifies. It's an interesting ploy, but it becomes dangerous when it's used in discussions of consent.

Numerous evangelical and post-evangelical voices have developed a new method of talking about consent - partners must consent to sex, of course! We're against rape! [Warning: previous link contains Doug Wilson].

At the same time, if you decide not to consent to sex and say no to your spouse, you are sinning. You are depriving them of the holy sexual union and the pleasure that draws man and wife together. This thinking is evident throughout the Christian dating and marriage industry – in Love and Respect, in Dateable, in Real Marriage, in Wild At Heart, in Sex Is Not the Problem. The idea that “denial” and “withholding” sexual activity is a sin is a through line in almost all of modern Christian relationship advice.

"Withholding sex is sin" comes from an ideological desire to make true the promise that sex within marriage is always and forever better than sex outside of marriage. This is the ultimate promise of purity culture, the carrot on a stick that keeps people pure. Of course, it’s rarely phrased so explicitly – purity culture talks more about how sex outside of marriage undermines or pulls meaning from marital sex, which is about holy union. The flip side, necessarily, is that holy union sex is so blessed by God that it’s gotta be good, right?

It’s a simple story, a simple idea that’s been fed to young people for years. I remember being told that sex within marriage would be so much better than sex outside of it, that sex within marriage doesn’t contain any regret or heartache, that because it’s God-blessed then it’s so much better pleasure. Spiritual union, we’re told, adds that extra element to sex that makes it awesome.

Unfortunately, this vision of sex is so simple that it becomes very easy to become disillusioned with it. In the course of my years long research into this topic (set to release as a book next year), I spoke to many, many women who did all the right things. They waited until marriage. They didn’t date anyone else before their husbands. They followed God and pledged that they would remain pure and they didn’t falter in that task. And then the wedding night came and the fireworks weren’t there. Worse, they discovered that it was extremely hard to give themselves up to the act of sex – there was always that little voice in the back of their mind saying “You’re dirty for doing this. Your body is unclean. Your nakedness is impure.”

It’s pretty hard to have an enjoyable, amazing sex life when you’ve got a voice in the back of your mind constantly lecturing you about sin.

Many of these women have sought therapy, have worked with their husbands and counselors to communicate in better ways about sex. Often, there was a sexless period in the marriage while they and their husband tried to figure out how to proceed. The lack of ability or desire to have sex weighed just as heavily on the women as it did on their husbands, compounded by messages that it was their duty as wives to give sex to their husbands.

But many of them also found that when they weren’t enjoying sex, when they weren’t enthusiastically consenting to the sexual acts, their husbands’ joy was diminished as well. This gave them hope for their marriages, for the future of their relationships. Understanding, grace, willingness to work through this hang-ups and problems with sex together without pleading or trying to negotiate consent – all those helped the marriages of the women I spoke to.

The ones whose marriages didn't survive? Are the ones whose husbands told them they were sinning by denying them sex, that sex was something wives needed to do as a duty for their husbands, that their lack of interest or enjoyment was not a legitimate problem but rather an excuse to deny the husband something they deserved.

The evangelical purity movement proposes a view of marriage and sex in which one person’s pleasure is consistently prioritized over another’s bodily autonomy. It is a view of marriage that insists the spouse is a masturbatory aide for their partner, rather than a full and consenting participant in the act, because they already consented when they said "I do."

It is not consent if one partner cannot stop something that is making them uncomfortable, if partners are told they are being sinful if they decide to withdraw consent in the moment. It is not consent if one person gets veto power over another person’s discomfort, even if they are doing so in the name of God.

Both partners need to be in a position where withdrawal of consent can be done safely, without the threat of guilt, shame, or sin. Both partners need to consent in the moment, not five days or even five minutes before. Consent is continuous, ongoing, and can be withdrawn at any time. It is not, in any way, a negotiation. Marital relationships that are healthy are those in which withdrawal of consent won't be met with emotional, spiritual manipulation and pouting.

Respect looks like ongoing affirmative consent that can be withdrawn without repercussion.

Love looks like ongoing communication about desire, pleasure, and comfort.

Grace looks like standing with your spouse as you work together to have a safe, consensual environment for sex, even if it means “going without” for a time.

These are the things that make a godly sexual relationship – an ongoing conversation in which respect, love, and grace reign supreme, a conversation free from accusations of sin and failure and blame. This is what honors God. Not a sexual union coerced by a sense of duty and the threat of sin.