"Real Marriage" Review: 177-206, "Can We _____?"

I knew before I sat down to read today’s chapter that it had been the one that people found controversial, but I wasn’t familiar with why it had upset some—and I have to admit that even after reading it I still wasn’t sure why it had apparently caused a hubbub. To me, it seemed as though Mark was toeing the conservative evangelical line pretty well. I mean, he was clearly “being Mark,” but he didn’t say anything that I wouldn’t have expected from a lot of other evangelical leaders.

So, after reading it, I went and read a few reviews that focused on chapter ten—Denny Burk, Tim Challies, and Rachel Held Evans, who are all writers I’m familiar with, and represent different positions on the theological spectrum. And, honestly, I was surprised by what upset people like Burk. Primarily, they seemed to have a problem with Mark endorsing anal sex, which everyone I read referred to exclusively as “sodomy” (which … problems).

No one had a good argument for why they thought that Mark should have condemned heterosexual married couples doing that sort of thing, but it was all rooted in homophobia—“but but but what if his wife stimulates his prostate and gasp he turns into a gay?!” seems to be the only thing these people have against it. Those reviews would have made me laugh if they weren’t so pathetic—seriously, I swear, that is not how sexual orientation works.

Those sorts of reviews had some secondary problems, like being against “cybersex” and the purchase of sex toys (it seemed they didn’t usually have a problem using sex toys, but how could you buy them without looking at teh pornz? To those people I say: you should go look up Adam & Eve).

Anyway, I came out on the other side of this chapter frustrated. Me and Mark have completely different guides for figuring out the answer to “can we _____?” but that should shock absolutely no one. His rule-of-thumb is “does the Bible explicitly forbid this? No? You’re good!”—and that did surprise me, because it doesn’t seem like the sort of argument an evangelical typically makes. There’s a lot of things the Bible doesn’t ever mention, but plenty of evangelicals extrapolate rules based on what they identify as “biblical principles.”

On a big-picture level, there are two glaring problems: the condemnation of all pain, and no real mention of consent.

I’ve already talked about the difference between pain and abuse, and why consent plays such an important role in that. But, one of the things that Mark does when he mentions pain is to conflate it with harm. In a way, I can see why people mix these two up, but it doesn’t actually make much sense. A really simple example is surgery: it hurts, recovering sucks, and the whole thing is pretty miserable. But, the doctor performing the surgery isn’t harming you. They’re actually helping. Pain with sex isn’t the same thing (there’s nothing like “if I don’t do this you could die” going on), but there isn’t a 1-to-1 correlation between pain and harm like a lot of people think.

He does get closer to talking about consent than he has in any other chapter, though—but it’s odd to me the way he decided to talk about it. This chapter is structured around a few supposedly “taboo” sex acts, like mutual masturbation and oral, and the one thing he repeatedly says is talk to each other about whether or not it might violate your conscience. That’s a very wrong-headed way of talking about it because of what it does.

The question shouldn’t be “does this violate your conscience?” but “are you into this?”

Arranging the conversation around the “does this violate your conscience” question implies that it would be the only acceptable reason to say no to a particular sex act, that if you don’t have a moral problem with something than, well, you should be willing to do it if your partner wants it, and that’s just ridiculous.

For example, there are very few things that involve sex with my partner that would violate my conscience, but there are many things that I have zero interest in whatsoever, and that is enough for him. He doesn’t need any reason beside “yup, not really into that, sorry”—and neither do I. Because sex for us is about having fun, and about making each other happy. If my partner doesn’t want me to do something to him, well, everything changes because if he doesn’t want it, than neither do I. The second I know he’s not interested, it’s not like I’m sitting there going “oh, I wish he liked this thing, because I really want to do the thing,” because sex is about us. There is no “him” and “me” during sex.

If he doesn’t like something, it means that I also don’t want it anymore, because what I really want is to bring him pleasure—and this is one of the biggest reasons why sexual compatibility is so important. There will always be these sorts of compromises during sex, but if you are going to be consistently disappointed because you want or need something that your partner doesn’t like … that’s inevitably going to be a problem. Not necessarily an insurmountable one, but I think it’s helpful to understand these things about yourself before you commit to one person for the rest of forever.

It’s a little ironic that Mark seems to have missed that train, since a big part of what he talks about is “becoming one.” I don’t know how it would be possible to have the mindset he presents all the way through this book and still “cleave together and become one flesh.”

Another thing that bothers me is how Mark seems completely and utterly blind to misogyny. I shouldn’t be surprised by how often that comes up, but it was obvious in this chapter when he talked about anal sex. I don’t have any problems with anal sex per se, but when you spend a couple paragraphs talking about how anal sex is probably becoming more popular because of porn without even glancing over how sexism might play a part in that, you’re missing something huge.

But, Mark can un-ironically talk about “the sexualization of our culture” without bothering to even challenge it, and I think it’s because Mark likes it. At the very least, he needs it to be that way, since he became an incredibly popular speaker after preaching through Song of Solomon in the most lewd and crass ways imaginable. Without the objectification and sexualization of women, Mark would still be a nobody.

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  • I think you hit the nail on the head that Mark “likes the sexualization of our culture.” He is not so different from non-christians as he thinks he is. He idolizes sex just as much as them, probably more.

    Also, do you think you can explain how the popularity of anal sex has risen because of sexism? I don’t quite see how the two are related.

    • Yeah, I was having a hard time trying to explain that succinctly.

      It’s not that anal sex itself is sexist– it’s not. It’s just a possible sexy-times-activity. However, the sort of porn that features anal sex heavily, and the sort of men who walk around thinking they’re entitled to it (and I’ve met a bunch), are.

      • I think it’s entirely possible that my “real life” has been disproportionately full of misogynistic assholes. I was the “Cool Girl” through a significant chunk of graduate school, and you hear things like “yeah, if she’s won’t let you do backdoor stuff, she’s a bitch” not exactly often but it happened enough that it stopped shocking me.

        There’s also the sorts of things you run into on the internet when you’re a feminist and you talk about rape a lot.

  • Wouldn’t the question of conscience presuppose consent? Am I assuming too much if I assume that the only reason a couple would talk about whether or not something violates someone’s conscience would be if both people are either into something or at least open to trying it?

    • Bri

      In the fundagelical world, whether something violates your conscience or not has everything to do with whether it goes against God’s commands, and almost nothing to do with whether it harms another person.

      • Also, the burden of responsibility changes. In an environment of consent, all one partner needs to say is “I’m not into that” and have it be acceptable. With the standard of “violate one’s conscience” it changes to a moral question. If one didn’t enjoy an activity, but found nothing morally wrong with it, then the conversation isn’t over. The partner that WAS into it can continue to press, and the responsibility isn’t on them to stop pressing their partner to do something they’re not into, but on the other partner to continually reject their partner. And, assuming a relationship, it’s HARD to continually say no to one’s partner for no other reason than a simple lack of interest.
        In other words, I’d argue it changes the atmosphere of consent. With Mark’s standards, one is trying to get consent for each event. As long as consent is reached before the activity starts, then it’s all good, allowing for an atmosphere of constant asking, nagging, pleading, and guilting to exist within a “healthy” framework (“Tonight’s my special night, why won’t you do X for me just this once?” “It’s been so long since you did Y for me!”). Instead, perhaps consent should involve respecting people’s boundaries and interests.

    • I haven’t read the book myself. But from what Samantha’s cited from the other chapters…unfortunately I’d say yes, you’re assuming far too much if you think Mark could rest anything on the premise that he must mean “if both partners want to do something, discuss whether it violates your conscience in some way,” rather than, “if a man wants to do something, his wife* needs to figure out whether she has a legitimate excuse not to, and if her answer is no then she has to do it.”

      *Always wife.

  • Ginger

    Your description of no longer desiring a sexual act when your partner doesn’t want it is the best thing ever. That seems like true unselfishness and one-fleshness to me. (I get so frustrated when Christians act like consent is selfish.)

  • Anonymous

    I have some experience with the “wanting or needing something that [my] partner doesn’t like” bit. I’m a little on the kinky side, and my husband is decidedly vanilla and has a fairly low sex drive. We got married back when we were still good evangelicals (though our virginities were decidedly “technical” at that point!), and I was confident that, with the advent of a normal sex life, my fantasies would fade away. We’ve been married for 11 years now, and they haven’t. Our solution is that I sometimes use text-only kinky porn to take care of my solo desires, and vanilla sex, when he’s in the mood, is still fun and awesome and good. I am still totally in love with my husband, and we have a happy sex life. I have no regrets, but I am glad we finally were able to talk about this issue without the shame and baggage with which we both grew up.

  • The reason serious Christians were disappointed (if that’s the right word) with Driscoll’s section about sex — or at least the reason they should be disappointed — is that the Christian understanding of sex is based on the telos of the human body and therefore sexual acts that deviate from procreation are inherently sinful or in philosophical terms disordered.
    Just found your blog poking around the internet — we obviously have profound philosophical differences about the world but I hope I can present my ideas in a respectful manner and get you to understand the error of your ways.
    God bless.