by Darby Strickland
This is the first in a series of three blogs on the sexual abuse of women in marriage. My goal is to help counselors and pastors to recognize when a wife is being sexually abused by her husband and then offer appropriate help. In this first blog, we will define what marital sexual abuse is. In the second, we will talk about why women might not realize what is happening to them. And in the third installment, I will offer some thoughts on how to help women in this situation.
God created marriage to be something beautiful and sacrificial in which the hearts and bodies of a man and woman are united as one. Sex is supposed to be a culmination of this emotional and spiritual relationship expressing unity, peace, and love (Gen. 2:24; Prov. 5:18-19; Song. 7:6-12). Given this foundation, the possibility that marriage could be a place where sexual abuse or violence occurs is almost unthinkable. But sadly, it does happen—and with surprising frequency.
Though the recent #metoo movement has revealed the prevalence with which people are violated sexually, my heart remains heavy for wives who are victims of marital sexual abuse. Their stories remain untold, and I am concerned that many pastors and counselors are unaware of its occurrence. I hear many stories (too many stories) of women being abused, violated or even raped by their husbands. It is a frightening reality for these women—one that they usually endure in isolation. The Lord is not silent on such horrors, nor should we be. My goal, therefore, is to identify what sexual abuse in marriage looks like so it can be recognized more readily and these women can get the help they need.
Sexual abuse in marriage occurs when husbands make demands on their wives that are not based on love .¹ These demands for sex are not sanctioned by 1 Corinthians 7:3-5,² though the passage is often used as a goad to require a wife’s compliance. To be clear, the men who do this are troubled themselves. They usually have deep-seated problems including a weak or non-existent relationship with God and an inflated sense of entitlement. They believe that other people (including their wives) exist for them—for their comfort and to meet their needs, including sexual ones. When their wives fail to respond as desired, it often results in a pattern of coercive and punishing behaviors designed to force their compliance.³
Sexual desire perverted by entitlement damages a couple’s sexual relationship in many ways. Here are a few examples of what it looks like:
- Unrelenting pressure. Most couples need to work out differences in sexual desire or appetite, but what I am talking about here is a husband pleading for or demanding more sex in such a way that the pressure never lets up. Women tell me stories of being lectured (some for hours), being degraded, told there will be no affection unless it culminates in sex, or made to feel responsible for their husband’s use of pornography. Sex-on-demand has become an expectation or a “right” within the marriage.
I have found this pattern to be the most destructive in relationships where the husband is also disengaged from other foundational areas in the marriage such as parenting, household management, and connecting relationally.
- Callous disregard. There are many occasions where sex is neither desired nor conceivable: an illness, a new baby, a particularly difficult day, a house full of guests, or after an abusive rant. But instead of yielding and caring for the whole being of his wife, a common characteristic of an entitled husband is to disregard his wife’s circumstances and expect or demand that sex proceed as usual.
- Unwanted acts. When a wife has made it clear that she is uncomfortable with a particular sex act or implement, an entitled husband insists, disregarding her comfort. Other examples include: when a wife says something hurts and the husband does not stop, undesired sexting, or being filmed while engaging in sexual activity without consent. In some marriages, the abuse is so severe that a wife is too frightened to even give voice to her preferences.
- Coercion. Manipulation in the form of threats may also be used, forcing the victim to submit to unwanted sexual acts out of fear or guilt. The husband may imply or state that he will get violent, leave, find “another” woman, expose her in some way, or punish her or her children. The threats do not have to be spoken; oftentimes wives experience punishments without explanation.
Coercive sex abuse can be very confusing because after being “persuaded” (a.k.a. bullied), consent was technically granted. The victimized wife is left wondering, “Was I sexually assaulted or did I agree to it?” Whatever form of coercion is used, be it physical, financial, or emotional, any sexual act which is not based on mutual consent constitutes sexual violation. It leaves a wife feeling confused, dirty, betrayed, and assaulted.
- Violation. The worst sexual violation is rape, but there are many types of violation. Among them are sexual acts performed while someone is sleeping or intoxicated, unwanted sexual touch, being forced to engage in an unwanted act to avoid another abuse, or a husband ignoring tears or other expressions of discomfort. Sadly, I have heard many stories of Christian women who were raped on their honeymoon. They were conditioned early on in their marriage to be compliant or be terrorized.
These patterns are disturbing and have no place in a godly marriage.
Marriage does not equal consent. It does not obligate spouses to participate in any sexual act at any time. But devastatingly, many Christian women have come to believe that sex-on-demand is their “wifely duty.” Thus, they have a hard time separating being violated from what they have come to believe is their responsibility. Confusion, shame, and guilt are compounded.
Those suffering from these distorted, abusive demands should not be left questioning what God says about such evils. The Apostle Paul speaks clearly here. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). Paul is calling on us to eradicate all sexual sin that stands against our identity in Christ—any sexual impurity. He is not setting a low bar here and saying “just don’t cheat on your spouses.” He is saying: Wipe out all sexual covetousness—all your greedy taking—for all sexual impurities deserve the wrath of God.
We, too, must identify these behaviors for what they are—evil. Like Paul, we need to call for the cessation of such terrors and clearly give voice to God’s hatred of such abuses. We need to speak up on behalf of victims—and speak with the full weight of Scripture behind us.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust.” (1 Thess. 4:3-5)
¹ Women can sexually abuse their husbands, but it happens at a substantially lower rate.
² This passage is often incorrectly applied. It does not give husbands permission to demand sex from their wives and does not sanction pressuring women into thinking that it is their “wifely duty” to give in to such demands. These distortions fail to account for the fact that sex is a gift from God designed for his purposes, not our own. Space does not permit a full discussion of the passage, but for a better way to look at 1 Cor. 7:4-5 see Tim Challies’ blog “Two Different Ways to Think about Sex in Marriage”
³ I have written two mini-books on this subject. See them here.