A Phallic Failure

Posted on July 22, 2012


Conservative biblical scholar Mike Bird recently blogged a response to Doug Wilson’s quote on sexuality (written in a book thirteen years ago and cited recently by Jared Wilson):

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.

Now, I’ll let you, Dear Reader, do what you will with that little nugget. For my part, however, I will engage Bird’s reaction, which I find equally offensive, yet far more subtle and insidious. Summing up his argument with a catchy tagline, “Sex is what I do WITH my wife, not TO my wife,” Bird effectively alerts his audience to an impending heteronormative claim. And, indeed, this is what we find, most notably in Bird’s insistance on gender “complementarity.” To that end, his use of 1 Corinthians 7, therefore, falls flat and fails to achieve its presumed objective. It does, however, present a unique opportunity for modern Christian understandings of marriage and gender identity.

The Heteronormative Problem of Complementary Gender

For those unfamiliar with the term “heteronormativity,” it broadly refers to the notion in our society that “heterosexuality” is the normative way for sex, gender, and romance to express themselves. Naturally, this social construction has negative consequences for same-sex couples and the LGBTQ community in general, as it assumes their sexual identities to be “deviant” and “other.” Underlying this assumption of sexuality in Western society is the understanding that binary genders (i.e. male-female) are complementary, a notion to which Bird subscribes: ” I thought the whole deal with complementarianism was that men and women were different but complementary.” As one might expect, such a phenomenon assumes the illegitimacy of same-sex couples. Yet, a deeper problem with complementarianism is that it does little to notion to solve the issue of gender inequality and, instead, reinforces it.

Indeed, to say that we live in a society divided into two opposite and equal sexes both ignores and masks the the inequalities inherent within that society. How, for example, do complementarians account for the gender wage gap? Or what about the vast amount of children sucked into sex-trafficking rings, a majority of whom are girls? Social problems such as these are easily materialized, that is they are solidified within cultural discourse, as natural or biologically-determined problems. In other words, such societal blights contribute to our understanding of acceptable and natural gender norms. It becomes easy for one to accept the notion that women are prostitutes and/or that men make more money.

Here Bird’s argument comes into view as problematic. Take for instance his call for men to rise up against those like Wilson who might advocate such sexist views:

What is being advocated by the Wilsons is not complementarianism, but it is an extreme patriarchy that defines gender roles by power and subjection, not by their God-given distinctions. Could the real complementarians please have the testicular fortitude to stand up and rally against this perspective.

Testicular fortitude?! Can women not rise up and protect themselves? Certainly, we might presume Bird is calling for women to also “have the balls,” so to speak, to also take up arms (or genitals) in their own defense. However, because he is a complementarian, such a notion would also be problematic for him, as gender identity must not be conflated with anatomical (and God-given) sex (heaven forbid).

The Text In Question (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)

Still, Bird’s use of the English language sinks to a more sexist level in his interpretation, albeit a brief one, of 1 Corinthians 7. While he certainly demonstrates an aversion to Wilson’s use of “[the] language of penetrate, conquer, and colonize,” because it “[implies] aggression, control, and disempowerment,” I would direct your attention to his understanding of male uses of power. And, before proceeding, I would also point out that Bird explicitly states,

The biggest problem I have is that some guys just do not understand the link between sex, language, and power. They do not comprehend that there is a cross-section between the way you use language about sex and the way you think about the opposite gender and the way that you treat your sexual partner.

Certainly, this is true. Unfortunately, he ties together maleness and complete autonomy in one’s relationships. That is, for him, being a man requires freedom in one’s actions, freedom to choose, freedom to act, and even freedom to submit. These things, according to Bird, are all freely accessible to the man, because he is a man.

He interprets 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 in much the same way, writing, “What is being advocated is not remotely biblical!” Let’s stop here and present the passage (so we have a better idea of what “biblical” means):

But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 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.

Continuing with Sir Mike Bird: “1 Cor 7 talks…very clearly about mutual submission in matters of sex in marriage, not male domination,  not male conquest, not female subjection, but submission to one another in matters of sex.” Certainly, domination, conquest, and female subjection are not part of the 1 Corinthians text. However, to what extent can we read “submission” into this passage?

At first blush, Bird’s reading seems accurate, egalitarian, and liberating for the female reader. Yet, two problems exist. First of all, because Bird is a self-described “complementarian” and in his view, the male “half” of a marriage is the active and protective party, the only party within that marriage who must “submit” is the male. In other words, because both genders are “opposite” the woman is expected to submit, while the man has the option to submit. That is, because the woman submits as part of her “God-given” nature, the man must submit in order to protect her.

The second problem with his interpretation lays with Bird’s understanding of will in the biblical text. Getting caught up with Paul’s use of the verb “give” in verse three, he loses sight of the reason for that giving in verse four: neither the wife nor the husband have any authority over their own body! Therefore, they never had any choice to submit to one another in the first place; their bodies are already property. In that way, the power dynamics of marriage are already far more “complex” than Bird first insists. Thus, while he sees power only in relations of active-passive inherent within gender identity, Paul writes of a power dynamic wherein ownership of husband and wife is already given to the other.

Redefining of “Sex” withing Marriage and Its Implications for Gender

Bird’s insistence on the naturally active role of the man in a marital relationship narrowly defines the gender identity of both the man and woman. He seems to prescribe a marriage wherein the man is identified only in his ability to define his marriage. He could be the penetrator, as Wilson suggests, or he could refrain from such language. However, Paul provides us with some new possibilities in his 1 Corinthians passage. What if marriage were an embodied reality, wherein the whole person is subsumed into the other and their bodies no longer belong to themselves; wherein the will has not disappeared but is part-and-parcel to the other party?

In general, gender complementarians are uncomfortable with such a construction of marriage, because it depends not on gender identity for “normative” marital identity, but rather a healthy relationship. In addition, gender identity becomes something new. No longer is the man defined by his ability to control and act upon another, but by his relationship. This is not to say that gender plays no part in a couple’s marital identity, far from it, but that gender must not and, indeed, cannot be the lone category of definition. It is instead part of the individual’s identity which he or she brings into a relationship, a part that itself changes through that very relationship.

It follows then that sex and gender are fluctuating aspects of a marriage. They must be. Consider the same-sex couple who has been happily married for decades. Does their sex inhibit the “success” of their marriage? What about the mixed-race couple whose families have rejected them because of their love for one another. Has their struggle for acceptance, in which they both must fight to protect and legitimize one another compromised their gender? Or perhaps we should consider the white, upper-middle class, heterosexual couple whose vital sexual relationship consists of intercourse where the woman plays more “active” and “penetrative” roles. Is this marriage illegitimate?

In other words, what does marriage look like when “testicular fortitude” reaches its limits?