"Damage is done... by the insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal, when the facts of the situation are that an enormous number of 'sanctioned' unions are a framework for violence and human destructiveness on a disturbing scale: sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion." -- Rowan Williams, "The Body's Grace"
(A tiny foreword: The story I’m about to tell is one I have permission to tell, having asked first. I want you to know that up front.)
It remains one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had: walking with dear friends who are Christians through the experience of marital rape.
It was a Friday evening when she broke the news to me rather calmly over the phone. In the immediate shock of what had happened, her mind was working over time just to get her to safety. By this point, a few hours had passed, and she was coming back around to language.
My head was spinning, trying to make sense of what she was saying. Her words struck my ears like a jumble of letters and sounds I was then puzzling to fit together, the sound of my own breathing swelling as she talked.
Somehow in my confusion, I managed to tell her we needed to report it, and take measures to be sure she was safe. I asked her to meet me in town, where we went to the police department to file a report and get an emergency restraining order in place for her and her children. I waited with her as she shook through the nearly two hours it took them to see her. I listened to them not believe her, question her role in it and victim blame, asking why it had taken time to report it.
But the crux of their suspicion of her story was bound up in the fact that this happened within the bounds of marriage.
The next months are mostly a blur in my memory, listening to her tell the story over and over, trying to narrate and make sense of what happened; and listening to him confess, just to take it back and justify it on grounds that they were married, just to confess again; and sometimes being present as they ushered their children back and forth with no-contact orders between them and supervised visits for him as we waited for court dates. In the end, the no-contact order didn’t stick permanently, charges were dropped, and there was no recourse – just months of sorting, re-sorting, trying to put life back together.
At some point, I stepped away from friendship with him, a choice tangled up in a great deal of grief and confusion. I felt divided and fragmenting, like to love one was to betray the other, and in the end, my strongest loyalties were to her. I was devastated for her and what she had gone through.
Still I loved him. I loved his stories, and fighting with him like a brother. I loved the safety of his friendship and embrace, the ways he was hospitable in welcoming me into his story, his family, his home, his life. I loved him. Walking away from that friendship nearly crushed me.
I learned a great deal in the course of their lives coming undone.
I learned that marriage is no guarantee of sexual safety.
I say I learned this, but truthfully, I already knew it from my own marriage. This was just a new lens on what was already my own reality – namely a deep sense of sexual obligation to my own spouse’s desires and fantasies, and consequences to my dignity for expressing needs and limits, for saying no.
Part of what made this so difficult was that my own marriage was deeply marked by a similar incident during engagement. But in my mind, rape was something that happened between strangers in dark alleys or if someone broke into your house, not between people who love one another. We were also both Christians, and I immediately took the blame, since I’d been the one more sexually experienced before we met; maybe he was as naive as he claimed, I thought. Maybe as a woman, my body was just dangerous. I decided the only appropriate thing to do in light of what had happened was to marry and “make it right.” It took a lot of therapy for me to name it rightly as rape.
I learned that the confusion about what was acceptable or could be expected of one spouse by another was rooted partly in bad hermeneutics of biblical texts – a bad hermeneutics of which my friends’ particular tragedy was a symptom, but which was generally wide-spread in certain parts of Christianity.
I knew this confusion too as a wife: did I have a right to consent or not? In my case, saying no often meant public humiliation, like the time he involved a church eldership at a church where he was on staff, and I was told by a man in his seventies that I should consider “laying with him” more often, because church work is stressful; I could relieve his stress maybe. Never mind the part they didn’t know, which was bound up in his own infidelity and where my expressed limits were for my safety since he wasn’t trustworthy. When infidelity became a more prominent problem, eventually ending my marriage, I was blamed for it because I was “withholding.”
I learned that the sexuality of a couple touches more than just their own commitment, but instead affects an entire community of friendships and family.
I wasn’t the only one on the outside of my friends’ marriage blowing apart. There were others who loved them, and who were in the crossfires, trying not to take sides, realizing they’d probably have to take sides, and grieving deeply. There were church communities involved, and family members too, all of us navigating the tragedy as together as we could be. And there were those who held me together while I helped hold her together.
I learned that this isn’t an isolated incident – that the confusion about marital roles is widespread, that the bad hermeneutics are widespread, that the need for consent in marriage is unbelievably still a question, that there are others who are also not sure how sex fits into the rest of life or Christian faithfulness.
I learned that we would rather talk about “safer” topics – like the ethics of “homosexuality” in reference to specific biblical passages, making scapegoats for all our sexual struggles in the church, rather than getting honest about the questions we have, and the wounds we’ve created in one another, the things we do in secret and the shame we carry. We’ve demonized particular configurations of relationships, while upholding heterosexual married love as the epitome of holiness. But truthfully, all of us are a mess, often making up our sex lives and relationships as we go, living in the complications of what it means to even be bodies, let alone questions about how to join bodies or not. We fear touching our brokenness intentionally, burying it when and where we can, keeping the pain private.
On some days, it’s tempting to wonder if I’m just out here alone talking about sex and the nature of it, while others have it figured out, or see it not as a big deal, or would just rather not talk about it. If this one friend was the only one, I could see her story as an exception. But I have multiple friends who have experienced marital devastation due to these kinds of questions and spouses who have committed infidelity or sexual violence. And all of them are Christians and so were their spouses, and all in heterosexual contexts – which leads me to believe that whatever the church is saying is either not enough, or is impotent.
It’s why I keep talking about this. There’s a reason sexuality is considered one of the most intimate parts of our lives – because it’s also the part of us which is most vulnerable, and when we cause damage or are damaged, the weight of the offense has the power to crush us with lasting consequences for years to come. But it’s also one of the parts of us with the deepest capacity for experiencing goodness and beauty and truth within ourselves and in others, a way of dwelling in the wonder of being human. Philip Sherrard says that good sex can be “a birth in beauty.” I love that.
I want the church to say more.
I have wanted the church to say more for a long time now, for someone to say sexual ethics are not as nice and neatly packaged as the proof-texts suggest, and to press into the work of constructing what it could mean to live sexual lives (read: human embodied lives) which are marked by flourishing, belovedness, and glimpses of heaven. And so I as a pastorly person write, damn the consequences and the self-doubt, knowing others too will speak and write, and maybe between us all, we can take the unique pieces of the puzzle we each hold and bring together a fuller picture of the blessedness we’re aiming for.