Sex, consent and #churchtoo

Last year ABC news investigations by journalist Julia Baird revealed the disturbing extent of domestic violence within the Australian Christian church community and abuse perpetrated by clergy husbands. These confronting reports revealed something that is not often acknowledged in church circles – that abuse within relationships can often involve sexual violations alongside physical and emotional abuse.

“Sally” told the ABC that, “the abuse quickly escalated as Peter drank, gambled and demanded sex every second night, usually after having yelled at her for hours… If I refused, he would become incandescent with rage. It was easier to give in than argue. Those nights I felt that I was almost being raped."

In each of the reported accounts, shocking and degrading episodes of rape and sexual violence were a key element of the violence and control the victims experienced at the hands of their husbands. One woman recounted how her husband forced her to have sex just three weeks after giving birth.

Sadly none of this surprises me. As a sexual assault specialist (I’ve spent many years working with victims of domestic and sexual violence in the women’s refuge sector) and part of the Common Grace domestic and family violence campaign, I have seen time and time again the hidden aftermath of sexual violence and the extensive, negative, and life-long impacts it has on women’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

This is all now coming to light because of the #metoo and #timesup campaigns - stories of women, children (and men) who have been sexually abused, sexually harassed or coerced into sex by someone in power. These abuses are obviously happening in the workplace, in medical settings, in sports arenas, and the arts. What we are now realising is that they are also happening in #churchtoo - in Christian dating, and even in Christian marriages.

If you have been online at all in recent weeks, you will have seen how sex and consent has been a leading issue, the focus of countless headlines (even featuring prominently at the recent Golden Globe and Grammy awards ceremonies). Yet consent and mutual pleasure is not something we hear much about in churches. What then is the role of Christian faith when it comes to consent and sex? And what should churches offer in any public conversation around power and gender norms and how these operate in relationship dynamics?

[Note: Although I am focusing on male/female relationships and particular issues of male to female violence, the points this post makes are relevant to other forms of sexual expression as well.]

How churches teach about sex

If you’ve grown up in the church as I have, you will know that sex is a favourite youth group discussion topic, and the main message given to young Christians by their leaders is often limited to “wait until marriage”. Frank discussions about the broader context of sexuality are often avoided, while most teaching is on the need for (female) modesty and the dangers of premarital sex, encouraging young people to avoid situations where consent might be needed. This prevents a whole conversation about consent being required for the full range of expressions of intimacy that help us learn and grow in relationship to one another, such as hand-holding, tickling, touching someone’s arm. Consent needs to be sought and given for all intimate activities, not just for penetrative sex.

At the age of 15, I remember one sex-segregated discussion where the (male) youth leader had written on the wall: “All boys are creeps until proven otherwise”. Given everything I now know about the realities of sexual abuse and gender inequality, this may have been good advice had it been directed at the boys to teach them about respecting women. But to a room full of girls, many of whom felt that their self-worth was dependent on romantic attention from the opposite sex, his warning fell on (mostly) deaf ears.

When church teaching centres on the usual do’s and dont’s when it comes to sexual intercourse, we are left with little helpful guidance for the gradual and graduated approaches to intimacy. As a result, whole communities are missing out on support to develop frameworks for negotiating sexual experiences in respectful and consensual ways. This is especially true of married couples who sometimes receive faith-based pre-marital counselling that may include some discussion of sex, but rarely have opportunities for honest dialogue about the range of intersecting factors that contribute to layers of possible misunderstanding and miscommunication, or how power can play out in the bedroom and where sex becomes abusive.

But where there is a vacuum of teaching and guidance, it gets filled. Within the church, this can mean men and women taking their cues from mainstream sexual scripts - where women’s resistance to romantic pursuit is seen as an invitation to persist, where women are then worn down or even coerced into relationships or sexual activity, and from pornography(1) where female sexuality is overtly ignored and female consent and pleasure is rarely even considered. Within church communities, gendered norms and stereotypes, as well as flawed and literalistic interpretations of scripture can both tacitly and expressly support the consistent emphasis on men's sexuality, the supposed greater male sexual desire, and the consequent obligation upon wives to accommodate a husband’s (greater) sexual needs.

Obviously, this is outdated, harmful and erroneous advice.

Most Christian thought explicitly affirms that sex is a gift and at its best orients us towards our partner’s pleasure, not our own. In that world, women are always equal co-partners in sexual pleasure. While I would endorse this wonderful and obviously biblical principle, sadly most women report that this is not their experience of sexual activities and intimacy. And without a deeper analysis of a cultural climate that prioritises male pleasure at the expense of women’s (yes, even within the church), and in which women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time and to ignore their discomfort, the biblical sexual ethic won’t make much difference to the reality of sex as many women actually experience it.

So here are a few ideas to help churches address the realities of power, pleasure and consent in Christian relationships. A guide for churches 1. Understand the basics of legal consent. Consent is relevant to all types of intimate and sexual behaviours, not just penetrative sex. When a person gives consent it means that they are clearly and freely agreeing to the sexual activities that are happening or are about to happen. Under Australian law, consent is not given when someone is:

  • drunk or under the influence of drugs

  • asleep

  • unconscious

  • not mentally capable of understanding what is going on

  • feeling pressured, forced or threatened

  • under the legal age of consent.

Understand and talk about the very basics of legal consent, and that it applies to everyone within church communities, including dating and married couples.

2. Dismantle myths about rape.

We all too often believe all sorts of myths about rape: that it’s only something that happens violently between strangers, when the woman is completely drunk, or between a powerful older man and a much younger woman. We rarely get the message that rape and assault is happening to women all around us and being perpetrated by men we perceive to be ‘good guys’. Indeed, many Christian women who have been victims of sexual abuse within their marriages did not recognise what marital rape was. They had been taught that if it wasn’t ‘violent’, or you didn’t cry for help, it was just unpleasant sex.

Start by understanding that marital rape isn’t just forced sex - it’s any sex that is pressured, manipulated, or threatened, and includes sex that a woman engages in to prevent domestic violence or an angry outburst later.

3. Promote affirmative or enthusiastic consent.

Under Australian law, consent is actively withheld by a person’s “no”. But many people argue that the standard shouldn’t just be “no means no”. The law provides the bare minimum to ensure that sexual activity is legal, but there are a million ways to say no, and so a framework of affirmative consent in which “only yes means yes” is the only way to ensure sex is truly voluntary and mutual. Requiring affirmative consent means that partners will not have sex with someone after they gave what you could call a ‘passive no’ such as a freeze response.

Raise the bar even higher. Enthusiastic consent is the most respectful form of consent possible, one that ensures both partners are true equals and actually enjoying and gaining pleasure from sex. There is no sense of entitlement, anyone can stop at anytime, and both partners should be on the lookout for verbal and non-verbal signals if the other is not receiving mutual pleasure. This can be applied to hand-holding as much as sexual intercourse. Churches should explicitly teach that we should always, always, always get affirmative or enthusiastic consent for sex sexual and physically intimate activities, and that consent can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason, and we should always honour that.

4. Consider how women often experience sex differently to men.

As we have seen recently following a pseudonymous woman’s account of an upsetting sexual encounter with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, seeking and receiving consent IRL can be incredibly confusing. In our culture, men are conditioned to see penetrative sex as the goal and foreplay and intimacy as a ‘means to an end’. Women are conditioned to please men and sacrifice their own pleasure and desires, sometimes to the point of discomfort and pain. It is something that is not often discussed in church circles, but commonly experienced to varying degrees.

Keep in mind the real power imbalances in male/female relationships. Teach explicitly that enthusiastic sex never requires anyone to comply with their partner’s sexual advances out of fear of hurting their feelings by saying ‘no’, and never requires anyone to have sex out of fear what might happen if they do say ‘no’. God designed sex for mutual enjoyment and deep connection, but when we treat the person we are intimately involved with as an end to our own pleasure, with little regard for the person we are engaging in sexual activity with, we are compromising their very dignity as a person, one made in the image of God.

5. Challenge men to examine how they approach sex.

Many men think they are one of the ‘good guys’ who would never force a woman in the bedroom. Yet many such men have nevertheless convinced women to have sex with them by pushing, manipulating, or wearing them down until they finally ‘give in’. A lack of empathy to whether their partner is enjoying herself. To these men, and the wider culture around them, this is just ‘men being men’.

Encourage Christian men to reflect on whether they see sex as a conquest, a competition, and a measure of their self-worth or a chance to prove their masculinity. Encourage them to reflect on whether they have ignored verbal and nonverbal signals and objections in their past and present sexual relationships. Encourage men to consider how they have been socially conditioned to believe that women want to have sex with men, if only men can convince them.

[You can read more on the gendered nature of this kind of abuse in the following posts in SAFER - a new resource by Common Grace I was involved in producing: What do we mean by male entitlement and male privilege? and Gender drivers behind violence against women]

6. Consider the cultural context of all sexual relationships.

The focus on abstinence teaching in church cultures ignores the wider, gendered context in which men and women navigate their sexual experiences, both inside and outside of marriage. Yes, we should be teaching that sex is best experienced and expressed in marriage, but we should also acknowledge and address the mainstream culture of male entitlement and privilege where boys are taught that society praises sexually active men, and where there is rarely a punishment for pressuring a woman to have sex.

Direct efforts to building strong foundations of empathy and self reflection where boys and men can see clearly where they are disrespecting women and girls. Help men to let go of penetrative sex as a goal and foreplay and intimacy as a “means to an end.” Intimacy itse