A few nights ago, my husband turned me down for sex. He pleaded fatigue and fell asleep at 8:30pm.
I know that’s not the typical narrative of one spouse declining the other spouse’s offer of sex. My husband usually enthusiastically consents to sex with me, but on occasion, he hasn’t been in the mood.
I also turn him down for sex sometimes. I have Crohn’s Disease, and sometimes I’m in too much discomfort or even pain to want sex.
That’s okay too.
Our freedom to say “No” to each other makes our frequent "Yes’s" all the better. I know that for me, my right to decline sex makes me all the more willing and enthusiastic to say “Yes” most of the time.
But what if you can’t turn down sex?
What if saying “No” is a sin?
My husband and I might have both decided to save sex for marriage, but for the most part, neither of us grew up entrenched in purity culture. While I received my fair share of judgmental and slut-shaming comments for having boobs as a teenager, I didn’t learn much about “God’s plan” for sex within marriage. My mom gave my twin brother and me “the talk” when we were about ten or eleven. While she encouraged us to wait until marriage, she also talked to us about contraception and consent.
Outside of public school sex education, that was all I got until college when my RUF pastor did a series on “Dating, Sex, and Marriage.” Even then, it was largely focused on navigating the admittedly weird dating culture at my school.
So, imagine my surprise when I started reading about—and writing about—Christian feminist perspectives on and experiences with sex. In particular, Sarah Moon’s “You Are Not Your Own” series horrified me. In this blog series, Moon analyzes four popular Christian advice books on dating, sex, and marriage.
While her entire blog series is worth the read, one post in particular addresses the problematic attitude I’ve found in too many Christians. In “Only Selfish Wives Say No,” Moon writes,
“The book [Real Marriage] equates not-having-sex-with-your-husband, even while healing from trauma, with disobeying God. To say no to your husband is to be selfish and sinful.”
This theology of sex and consent in marriage still exists. Further, this attitude is even reflected in the US legal system. Marital rape was legal in some US states until 1993. Even today, many state laws treat marital rape differently than other forms of rape. My home state of South Carolina has a stringent definition for marital rape, a limited reporting period, and more lenient punishment for convicted offenders.
And so many people today continue to think it’s not possible to rape your spouse.
But, if it is a sin to say “No” to your spouse’s request for sex, then how genuine is your “Yes”?
How can anyone genuinely consent to sex if their only option is to say “Yes”?
I’ll be honest. I don’t have Scripture to back up my insistence on consent for sex, even within marriage. Christians who think marital rape is impossible do have at least a few verses on their side at the surface level. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (NRSV):
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
But it is essential to note that when Paul wrote that letter, Roman laws treated men and women very differently, particularly in regards to sex. For example, the legal definition of adultery only recognized married women. If a married man had extramarital sex, as long as it wasn’t with another man’s wife, he did not commit adultery, and thus broke no laws.
Furthermore, the concept of rape in ancient Rome differed greatly from how we understand it today. Consent was not really the issue then. Rape could only be a crime against a citizen in good standing, so women who worked as prostitutes or entertainers were not protected. Rape of a slave was a property crime against the slave-owner. Overall, the main violation was never against the woman herself, but against the head of household.
In this context, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 is actually radically egalitarian. Instead of only regulating female sexuality, it grants husbands and wives equal intimacy within marriage.
In light of that, we should not uphold 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 as justification for marital rape or for failing to get authentic consent from a spouse.
Sex within marriage can be a beautiful, intimate, even spiritual occasion—but only if both spouses fully consent to it. Both spouses can only fully consent to sex if they have the option to decline sex, or when saying "No" to their partner isn't a sin.
Besides, sex is so much better when your partner wants you just as much as you want your partner. Why would you reduce yourself to having sex with a reluctant partner?
In the US, many people are able to choose their spouses. Consenting to marriage is a huge part of a Christian wedding ceremony in our culture. We’ve updated our Christian perspective on choosing a spouse. Isn’t it time we update our perspective on sex and consent within marriage?