Thanks so much for your support this week. Prayers are also much appreciated. We are in a battle, not only against evil and dark places where abusive individuals lurk, but also in a battle to help those who are blind but well-intentioned to see the evil of abuse in “Christian” homes.
Abuse is going to happen – we live in a sinful world. But it is not God’s plan for marriages nor does he want us to turn a blind eye to it. It is sin. Click To Tweet
When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, he’s telling us to not retaliate against a stranger or acquaintance who is abusive towards us. But when we are in a close relationship with someone who repeatedly abuses us, we still are not to retaliate. However we are to do something about it, starting with Matthew 18:15 by speaking up about it, and if nothing changes, the last resort would be “having nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them”(Ephesians 4:15). Today’s question exposes a little talked about but the hidden form of marital abuse.
Question: How do I know if I am being sexually abused in my marriage, and what can I do about it?
Answer: I’m so glad you were brave enough to ask this question. Sexual abuse in marriage is not uncommon, even in homes where both people go to church and profess to be Christian. I remember speaking at Westminster Seminary to a group of students who were taking a class in Marriage and Family Counseling. When I talked about sexual abuse being a category of domestic violence, a student who was in the M.Div. program (training to be a pastor), questioned the validity of sexual abuse in marriage.
He cited the passage in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul is speaking about sexual relationships and says, (vs 4) “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does,” as Biblical proof that a wife does not have the right to say no to sex, ever. Thus, as his reasoning went, there was not a biblical category for sexual abuse in marriage because God said that a husband has a right to his wife’s body whenever he wants.
I think it’s this kind of thinking and false theology that contributes to a lot of abuse, sexual and otherwise. Abusers who are Biblically literate often use brief verses or passages to justify what they do while ignoring other passages that would totally contradict their behavior or attitude. I often see this in the misuse of Biblical headship passages as well as in the misuse of the “God hates divorce” passage.
But this whole section in 1 Corinthians 7 is in in response to something that the Corinthian church had written Paul about. The first sentence says, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” What were those matters? We always have to look at the context in which words are spoken to understand what Paul meant.
From what I see in these passages, apparently, there were two issues. The first was rampant immorality in the culture including not being sexually exclusive in marriage. And the second was an idea that was gaining in popularity in the church that celibacy was the higher good for a Christian to practice, even within marriage, as a remedy to the rampant immorality present.
Paul is refuting both of these ideas in the opening this passage by saying “It is good for a man to have sexual relations with a woman”(vs 1). As I studied this passage, the consensus is that Paul did not mean in these passages that a wife or a husband never can say no to his or her spouse. But rather he was affirming that a good sex life was entirely appropriate and healthy in a marriage and that the sexual relationship in marriage was to be exclusive.
This idea supports Paul’s and other Biblical teachings where the Bible says, “let not the marriage bed be defiled” (Hebrews 13:4), as well as “love does not dishonor others nor is self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5). And “Do not merely look out for your own interests but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
In addition, Paul did something quite radical in this 1 Corinthian 7 passage. The culture in which he was writing was a strongly patriarchal culture. Women had few rights. Men were in power and that power was extended to their own homes including the sexual relationship. The interesting word Paul uses to express a completely new view of the marriage relationship is “likewise.” In other words, what pertains to a wife likewise pertains to her husband. There is no power over, but rather a mutuality in marriage, especially as it relates to the most intimate places in marriage: the sexual relationship.
But your first question “Am I being sexually abused” needs an answer. Let me tell you about Christy (Christy is a composite of the women with whom I’ve talked to about this).
Christy was startled awake when she felt her husband yank her nightgown up and pull her legs apart. She tried to push him off her but he was too strong as he pinned her down to their bed with his body weight. This wasn’t the first time he forced himself on her but this time was the worst. This night Greg was rougher than usual and Christy felt it would never end. She bit her lips together so she wouldn’t scream. Her toddler was asleep next to her in their bed and all she could think of was “Please God, don’t let him wake up and see this.”
The next day Christy had a fat lip, her back ached and her insides felt raw and bruised. Later that evening she tried to talk to Greg about what happened but he blamed her. He told her if she wasn’t such a prude, then maybe they would have a spicier sex life. Christy didn’t see herself as a sexual prude, but she did think she ought to have a choice. She didn’t think she should feel afraid of her husband or of sleeping in her own bed with him. She didn’t think she should have bruises or injuries after sexual intercourse. Christy was right.
Sexual abuse in marriage is not something that women talk about or disclose to one another so thank you for your question. I know it feels shameful to admit even to yourself that your own husband treats you as if your sole purpose is to provide him your body whenever and however he wants sex. But I want you to know that is not God’s intent for you as a woman or as a wife.
God designed the sexual relationship in marriage to reflect a sacred oneness of unselfishness, safety, and mutual love. Sadly, some marriages never get close to reflecting this picture even when both profess to be Christians. Instead, there is selfish demandingness, a total disregard for your feelings, abuse, pain, shame, and fear.
The Bible teaches us that a healthy sex life is an important part of any marriage. And, sometimes a wife or husband may choose to engage sexually with his or her partner because you love him or her knowing he or she has a need, even if you don’t personally feel “in the mood” for sex. This is good and appropriate (and not infrequent) in a long-term marriage. However, I do think there are times when a woman is not given a choice or a voice on whether or not to have sex or how sex is going to be experienced.
Below are three indicators that you are being sexually abused in your marriage.
- You are forced to do sexual things you do not want to do. Like Christy, you might be woken up and forced into sexual intercourse but you might also be forced to do anal sex, oral sex, watch pornography, participate in degrading practices such as sadistic bondage rituals, or have sex with other partners (male or female) while your husband watches or photographs you.
- You comply with his sexual demands but not because you desire to meet your spouse's sexual need but because you are threatened or are afraid of dire consequences if you refuse. Even if you aren’t physically forced to do these things, you may be threatened with divorce, told he will find someone else or visit prostitutes. You’re threatened with harm or harm to your children or pressured spiritually by telling you that the Bible says God says your body is not your own and you have no right to say no.
- Your feelings don’t matter. For example, you’ve clearly told him that you don’t like him grabbing your butt or breasts out in public, but he does it anyway. You feel uncomfortable wearing low cut tops, short skirts, and/or push up bras, but he insists that you wear them or pouts when you won’t.He wants a quickie in the laundry room but the kids are playing in the next room. You say no but he always wins. Or, he insists he needs to have sex three times a day, seven days a week and you are worn out but there is no consideration of what you need or how you feel.
Each of these indicators reveals that your husband believes he’s entitled to get what he wants with little or no regard for your personal feelings, values, or desires. If it feels good for him, it doesn’t matter if it hurts or humiliates you. It’s all about him and his needs. Your role is to serve and service him. Your feelings and needs are secondary or irrelevant. To him, a wife is a body to use, a possession to own, not a person to love.
This is not God’s desire for you or for your marriage or even for your husband. God doesn’t care more about men than women or your husband’s needs than yours.
Your second question is “if it’s true that you are being sexually abused in your marriage, what should you do?”
This is not something that you will be able to handle all alone. I hope you know that marital rape is illegal in all 50 states although the application of this law varies from state to state.
The first step is for you to pray that God will give you the courage and the strength to speak up tell your husband it’s not okay that he sexually uses and abuses you. He is crushing your spirit and as a result of his behaviors, he is damaging you and your marriage. That’s not good for you, for him or for your marriage.
If that goes nowhere, then it’s time to tell someone what’s going on (Ephesians 4:11). I’d like to recommend telling your pastor but I’ve heard horror stories of women disclosing marital sexual abuse to their pastor and getting the same advice that seminary student believed. “You have no right to say no.” Or, even more humiliating, he says, “yes it's horrible” but then does absolutely nothing to protect you from further harm.
If you know your Pastor will be an advocate for you and able to speak with your husband, then that might be a good next step. If not, please call a domestic violence shelter and get some support and counsel on how you can develop a safety plan for yourself.
In order to grow into a God-centered woman of strength and dignity, you will need to be brave. Do not allow yourself to be treated as a sexual object any longer. Paul tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Overcome is a fighting word, not a passive stance. What would that active good look like in your situation?
For starters, I think you need to learn to overcome your fear with courage. You need to speak the truth in love. And you need to fight for the well being of your marriage and husband in a way that invites mutual caring, healthy reciprocity, and your freedom to have choices about when you want to have sex, how you want to have sex and whether or not you are willing to have sex. If he refuses to hear you or change, then you may have to consider other options.
But please don’t ignore what’s happening to you. You are so much more than a body. You are a person of dignity and value. You matter to God.
Friend, if you have been in this woman’s shoes, what did you do recognize it and to stop it?