A Brief PSA – Men’s Consent Matters Too

Content warning: discussion and description of consent violation 

Greetings, Beloved. I’ll be posting more sporadically than usual over the next couple of days because I’m getting ready to travel and start a new divinity school semester, but I just want to say this: men’s consent matters just as much as anyone else’s. Asking for consent is not optional, no matter how strong, tough, or manly you perceive someone to be. That goes for sexual encounters and other kinds of touch and intense interaction. Men’s consent gets violated in multiple ways each day, and people have a tendency to make light of it. 

This is what made me think of this topic: a viral video has been circulating around my Facebook feed recently, a (straight) wedding reception video that looks like it belongs in a BDSM dungeon. In the video, the groom, blindfolded, kneels in front of someone that he thinks is the bride to pull the garter off with his teeth (viewers realize that it’s actually another man, a co-conspirator with the bride). The groom, still blindfolded, proceeds to grind sensually against the other man. When he pulls the blindfold off, he realizes the deception. 

Now, in fantasy, that’s kinda hot. In reality, I’m troubled. Here’s what I see happening: the bride engineered a situation in which the groom had sensual and sexual contact with another man without his knowledge…which was then played for laughs; I don’t even know how the other guy felt. There’s a homophobic element to that–I’ve noticed that conservative Christians sometimes like to go “Teehee It’s two men! That makes this funny!” Even if the three participants were somehow all in on the game (if it’s some fantasy they’ve had for a while, perhaps), the viewers don’t know that. As far as we know, it’s a real deception. We see a consent violation played for laughs and circulated as a hot prank. Blah. You can’t give consent if you don’t have basic background knowledge. Like who your partner is. Anyway, in conclusion, men get to have boundaries, their consent is important, and viewer consent is important in play. Thanks for reading my rant!

On “Christian BDSM” in Fundamentalist Culture

Content notice: Toxic, sexist Christianity, rape culture

Gentle readers, few things make my brain overheat faster than “Christian BDSM.” Now, I guess I technically practice Christian BDSM because I’m a kinky Christian…whose play and dynamics are informed by my faith. But when I hear about “Christian BDSM,” what does it mean? Usually, it’s a kinky married man-woman couple that organizes a power exchange based on Bible verses like Ephesians 5:22, which says “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” The couple often comes from an evangelical and biblical literalist standpoint. 

Before I dive into that, I want to note that some Christians believe that BDSM is sinful, disrespectful at best and dangerously abusive at worst. This post doesn’t address that issue in depth. I’m also not specifically talking about “Christian Domestic Discipline,” though there can be some overlap between the rationale and practice of CDD and Christian D/s marriages. As the microcosm of Christian Fetlife discussion groups demonstrates, Christian kinksters are all over the map, from fundamentalists who believe in biblical headship to queer progressives like myself. Right now, I’m talking about a subset of Christians who believe that the Bible mandates male dominance and female submission in the context of marriage and use a combination of BDSM and evangelical/fundamentalist concepts. It’s difficult to research this topic; most of what I can say about it is anecdotal. But over time, I’ve seen enough to get a basic sense of the phenomenon (and for my brain to melt). 

Conservative views have often seemed to float to the top when I’ve looked for information, whether I was googling or searching Fetlife. For example, the first (and most radical) Christian Fet group I found has discussion topics that include…

  • The ‘sinfulness’ that occurs when women and ‘effeminate men’ have governing power in society
  • Scriptural interpretation to support the subordination of women (using Genesis, for example, to say that Eve’s sin was a violation of the natural marriage hierarchy)
  • Biblical polygyny and whether it is acceptable for a Christian man to have more than one wife in the modern day. Somewhat bizarrely, the forum has a sticky thread about “The Evils of Toxic Monogamy Culture” that blames an “egocentric and megalomaniacal version of feminism” for creating a culture in which a woman “threatens to leave because of her husband’s interest in another woman.” 

Concepts like “headship” show up often in these kinds of discussions, along with assertions that women were created to submit and men to dominate. These kinksters see BDSM as a natural extension of the order of creation. 

To be quite honest, I am appalled. Here’s why my brain melts: I respect the right of consenting adults to choose the relationship structures and, to an extent, the sexual ethics that work for them, regardless of whether I share them myself. But as other writers linked in this post have pointed out, consent is not given in a vacuum; it is influenced by all kinds of factors. Thus, my feelings are messy and uncomfortable. 

When married kinky Christians cite scriptures to explain why men deserve to be in charge and to discipline their wives, I worry. Mainly, I worry that the consent in these dynamics, from the choice to engage in them to their ongoing maintenance, may be compromised by heavy social conditioning. What if you were indoctrinated in a fundamentalist Christian community where men were in charge, women were subordinated, female purity was emphasized, and sexual assault was covered up? If you still subscribe to that community’s doctrines as an adult (perhaps even still living in that community), can you engage in a healthy way with a lifestyle whose cornerstone is informed consent? If you start a power exchange, but one partner is thought to be more deserving of power by nature, what is exchanged? 

In a lifestyle whose practitioners sometimes say “The difference between BDSM and abuse is consent” (a statement that I sort of but don’t entirely agree with), how can the partners decide when abuse is occurring? Who even gets to decide? Does the submissive partner have a say, and will she have the unconditional support of her faith community if she needs to leave the situation? Perhaps not, especially if that community doesn’t condone divorce. If the dominant partner is having problems (with shame, with jealousy, with bearing the weight of leadership, etc.), will he be able to lean on his partner, or will assumptions about what he should be able to handle as a Christian husband keep him from getting help? All of these questions trouble me when I consider such marriages on a personal, relational, and political level; they cause my general ethic of acceptance to break down. 

When I ponder these issues, I think I gain some understanding of Christians who think that BDSM is naturally abusive; in their experience, especially if they swim in conservative circles that promote male “spiritual leadership,” it might be. If a marriage is sort of hierarchical to start with, the ‘lower’ partner may feel the need to guard fiercely against the prospect of abuse. Coming from a religious context with a gender hierarchy, perhaps what some people picture is husbands abusing their ‘God-given’ power by beating their wives under the pretext of BDSM. 

Here’s how I would articulate the problem: the coercive, hierarchical fundamentalist framework in which the kink resides limits the options, both real and perceived, of the participants, creating a risky situation in which consent may be compromised. 

I won’t tell individual Christian fundamentalists not to practice power exchange relationships (I can’t know and evaluate every single situation, and my opinion wouldn’t matter anyway). Yet, I can see the theological patterns and social circumstances that give me concern, and those I can challenge to an extent.

I am reminded of how much overlap exists between the patriarchal patterns of fundamentalist Christianity and culture at large in the United States. Even for those of us who didn’t grow up in evangelical purity culture (I just grow up around it), patriarchy and other systems of power and coercion shape our choices and limit our ability to consent. In my home state of North Carolina, for example, you can’t legally withdraw consent if vaginal intercourse is in progress. Guess who that benefits. 

Legislation is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a great deal of work to do to create a better culture (to “unscrew” the sexual culture, as activist Jaclyn Friedman says). We do that work by educating ourselves, holding abusers accountable, supporting survivors, and making consent a baseline in our interpersonal relations (not just sexual ones), among other things.

For me as a Christian, part of my work is acknowledging the ways that Christian scriptural interpretation, theology, and culture have contributed to a coercive sexual culture and finding ways within my faith to shift that culture. I don’t expect to make fundamentalists change their core beliefs, but I do want to understand the sexual consent issues that permeate life in my notch of the Bible Belt. I want to take them seriously, illuminate them where I can, and assist others in our collective healing. That’s my ministry right now. 

Further reading: 

Kinky Christian writer Samantha Field wrote an excellent article (with resources) called “Kink 101 for Purity Culture Survivors” that I found part of the way through writing this post. Read her work for sex-positive post-purity culture recovery.

Queer feminist activist Kitty Stryker is a massive influence on my thinking about consent and consent culture. She was the first thinker I heard say that true ‘consent’ is never fully attainable in our society because so many coercive factors act upon us. 

Feminist theorist Marilyn Frye’s essay “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love” also heavily influences my views on consent and coercion. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline – Learn about the signs of abuse, find resources, and get help here.

“How Should Christians Have Sex?” – A Belated Response to Katelyn Beaty

[Image description: Photo is an Escher-inspired painting of red and white birds.]

I’m late to the party on this. Katelyn Beaty’s New York Times opinion piece “How Should Christians Have Sex?” came out on June 15th, and I’ve just read it over a month later–I’m a miserly curmudgeon who won’t buy a subscription. (I did skim a couple of Twitter threads that I’m now unable to find, so I hope I’m not plagiarizing.) Here are my thoughts as a Christian who fortunately didn’t grow up in purity culture: 

In the piece, Beaty describes her negative experiences with Christian purity culture, acknowledging that purity culture has caused a lot of harm. Yet, according to Beaty, “its collapse has left a void for those of us looking for guidance in our intimate lives.” Beaty finds progressive Christianity’s looser guidelines to the question “How Should Christians Have Sex?” lacking. 

She does cover one progressive answer, citing Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless (which I’ve also read). Beaty writes that Bolz-Weber “proposes a sexual ethic grounded in the goodness of bodies and of sexual expression based in consent, mutuality, and care.” My response when reading that was “There it is; there’s a sexual ethic that I can buy into.” 

Beaty felt differently, writing, “One would think that Pastor Bolz-Weber’s shame-free ethic would be a tall glass of water for a grace-parched soul. Instead, I find myself left with a sense of loss.” A bit later, Beaty says, “I yearn for guidance on how to integrate faith and sexuality in ways that honor more than my own desires in a given moment.” Throughout the article, Beaty searches for something more in a sexual ethic but somehow only skims the surface of the “progressive” ethics that she finds wanting. I wonder whether progressive Christianity’s acceptance of so many things that she was taught to condemn makes it difficult for her to take it seriously as a source of ethical wisdom. 

Please note, I don’t think progressive Christianity is beyond reproach, and Beaty may be responding to a ‘watered down’ quality that is apparent in some progressive settings. 

In that vein, Beaty says a couple of things that I agree with. For example, she states, “I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent – a baseline, but only that – and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.” She has a point; consensual is not a synonym for ‘good’ (I’ve heard that Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent provides a great critique of the treatment of consent as a satisfactory ethic in itself). 

But as Beaty says herself, the ethic that Nadia Bolz-Weber describes is about care and mutuality as well. Beaty says, “I also want to know what Jesus thinks.” For people who see Jesus as an exemplar or even a guide, that’s a good question.

But Jesus has almost nothing to say about sex in the Gospels. In fact, he may not share “the traditional Christian vision for married sex” that Beaty idolizes; in Jesus’ context, marriage was largely a matter of economic survival and control, not love.

Frankly, consent and mutuality were not on the radar of a society (the Roman Empire) in which over a third of the population was enslaved. I suspect that much of what Beaty associates with ‘traditional’ Christian sexuality and marriage come from Paul filtered through the commentary of Origen, Saint Augustine, and more recent evangelical thinkers who took up the ‘defense’ of heterosexual marriage as a political cause. 

Jesus does, however, say and show a lot about care. Beaty describes “married sex” as “a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.” Perhaps, for her and many others, (monogamous, sexually active) marriage is the best way to embody values of care and mutuality. It isn’t the most ethical path for everyone, though, and choosing a different path isn’t a sign of moral decay. 

Having ignored wholesale any part of Bolz-Weber’s ethic other than “consent,” Beaty concludes by declaring, “I find the traditional Christian vision for married sex radical, daunting, and extremely compelling – and one I want to uphold, even if I fumble along the way.” Far be it for me, a Christian connoisseur of the queer and kinky, to critique a person’s attraction to anything “daunting.” If she is compelled by this definition of marriage as “spiritual covenant,” it sounds like she has resolved her own problem; there is no void to fill because she has articulated a sexual ethic based on her experience; I’d also add that she likely finds consent, care, and mutuality in her vision of marriage. 

If that is the case, I wonder why she is concerned about the “lack of guidance” outside of purity culture. When I finished reading her opinion piece, I thought, “So what? Why this article?” I wonder whether it worries her that she might have reached a different understanding without the early guidance (and abuse, I daresay) of purity culture. I wonder whether she is searching for more boundaries because she still feels like she must be doing something shameful if she lets herself come to her own conclusions about ethical sexuality. I hear her saying “It can’t be that simple!” as she ignores the rich sexual ethics that Christians (especially queer ones) create every day outside the confines of purity culture. 

It saddens me that so many people think that rigidity is the mark of a good sexual ethic, that it honors God. Ultimately, we all get to craft our own ethics based on our needs and experiences. We needn’t worry that it’s ‘not difficult enough’ to follow; we get to explore for ourselves and find the ways that we can best promote justice and kindness through our actions. It’s not wishy-washy or empty of moral value; it’s courageous. I hope that someday, Katelyn Beaty will make peace with that and feel confident abandoning the pursuit of rules so that she can feel free to pursue a sexual ethic that reflects the love of God instead.

Postscript for clarity: I think that people can use the Bible to develop a sexual ethic. However, most of the sexual ethics on display in the Bible are either rubbish (ex: not caring about consent) or not applicable to our current sociopolitical circumstances. To find a biblical ethic that isn’t rubbish, we need to use interpretation filtered through the lens of experience in tandem with values like the consent and caring.

Further Reading: “Creating a Sexual Ethic After Coming Out” and “Inside the Scam of the Purity Movement

Listening: “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods