Complementarian Theology is the Rapist's Wingman

When Bill Cosby appeared on Larry King in 1991, he decided to tell stories about his youth, about women, about sex. And in Cosby’s world, that meant drugs – specifically, drugs meant to incapacitate the woman so that Cosby could have sex with them. He talked openly and jokingly about a drug called “Spanish Fly” that he had apparently been introduced to at a young age – eleven, according to Cosby’s words in the interview. “She’s drinking some of that and ... hello America!”

Larry King laughed along with Cosby as he told this story. “Put some in her Coca Cola …. She’s yours,” he says before both men laugh as though telling a very funny joke.

This interview happened 24 years ago. If you knew what to look for in terms of how men talk about women, you would quickly and easily realize that these men were not talking average sexual practice, but instead affirming and confirming narratives of rape. Cosby, in telling the story, knew that King would not check him on it. He was not expecting any kind of hardball questions about his behavior toward women. Cosby, at that point, had [allegedly] been molesting women through a very specific modus operandi for decades. We can accurately assume that Cosby is a serial rapist with a very specific method of behavior. Forty-seven women, at this point, have told the same story, the same details, the same results about Cosby.

Had Larry King listened well in 1991, and not gone along with the narrative, not become compatriots with Cosby in laughing about the rape of women, perhaps the Cosby narrative would have fallen apart much sooner. Perhaps women could have come forward sooner. Perhaps Cosby’s career as a rapist would have been stopped in its tracks then and there.

Rapists are constantly looking for confirmation that everyone else thinks like them. They will tell stories of sexual encounters of persuasion, of “a little help here and there” and speak of women as objects to be won. Part of living in a rape culture is the knowledge that our culture constantly affirms the narratives of rapists. The stories we tell about pursuit, about romance, about love are rape-centered, consistently undermining the autonomy and right to be inviolate of women.

As a student of religion and feminist culture, there is one area in which this rape culture is starkly on display – indeed, it is possibly even encouraged. In this culture, rape is not seen as rape, especially if it happens within marriage. A husband has a right to his wife’s body; his insatiable sexual appetite is all that matters when a wife is called to serve him.

Complementarian theology opens the church doors to rapists and laughs along with them as they loudly confess their crimes. Complementarian culture tells rapists that consent is not a priority, that sex in marriage is an act of worship necessary for union (and therefore a necessity for true love, regardless of consent).

Sure, there are disclaimers. There are comments that if you take husbandly leadership as dominance, then you’re doing it wrong. But the fact remains that the theology itself is built not on consent, not on the seeking of mutual pleasure, but rather on the leadership of one over the other – a rape culture that opens the door for coercion and force in the marriage bed.

Complementarians becomes the talk show host laughing along about Spanish Fly. They’re the frat brother who high fives his roommate for “scoring” with a girl who could barely walk. They’re the wingman serving up the spiked drink.

Despite noble intentions about Scriptural adherence and godly focus, the bare fact remains that complementarian theology teaches women that their role in a marriage is to submit to their husband’s sexual desires, that his pleasure and need for sex is a priority, that their own sexual drive does not exist, that consent does not matter when it comes to performing this “act of worship.”

There’s a reason my teenage visualizations of losing my virginity always looked like rape. Strictly gendered roles that demand specific behavior from men and from women, particularly within the bedroom, open the door for rapists to justify their behavior, for them to go unchecked in their abusive ways. Women suffering at the hands of these men are told to submit in the hopes of drastically changing the man’s outlook, while the man is affirmed as a leader and spiritual guide.

And when the abuse can no longer be denied, when a woman finally breaks free, she is told that her husband was misusing the theology, that he wasn’t a true complementarian.

I have spoken to so many women in this position – wondering what to do with a husband who demands sex from them on the basis of his theology – that is becoming clear that the True Complementarian is a mythos created by men who seek perfection instead of grace. The True Complementarian, it seems, is the pastor who callously ignores the calls of abuse within his own congregation because they do not jive with his interpretation of a biblical church.

If complementarians continue to refuse examination and interrogation of how their practices of wifely submission open the door to abusive men – because abusers will flock to theologies that justify their actions – then they will continue to be the Larry King to the rapist Bill Cosby. The evangelical church will continue to laugh along with the rapist while his victims look on, horrified.