Continuing this line of thought, raising questions and not answering them.
The sexual strictures of the Church (and in conservative Christianity in general) currently create a very definite climate/ideology of sexual duty within marriage, mostly of the wife toward the husband. My intuition is that countless women have internalized this ideology, so that, although they may know when to insist “no, not tonight” and expect their husbands to honor that, still in many cases don’t insist even when they might have – because they make a choice to serve him by allowing him access? And if, afterward, they’re glad they did, because they kind of, or very much, enjoyed it?
Service: as a teenager how many of us dreaded service projects, only to find out afterwards that we had enjoyed the experience and felt better for having done it? I often take part in helping people move, and once someone remarked that I seemed to enjoy it. I responded that I do not enjoy helping people move, but that I do enjoy the feeling I have afterward. Therefore I consent to put myself through the disagreeable process of moving, partly for the sake of the satisfaction I get afterward, and more importantly for the sake of sparing someone else trouble that I can empathetically intuit. I do it out of compassion.
“Pity sex” isn’t sexy, isn’t exciting. But in long-term relationships is it unavoidable? Dealing with the evolution of your two souls and their relationship to each other brings out things you might never have expected or comprehended the meaning of when you were first starting out. The insistence on commitment is in honor of this: a declaration of faith that there is a very real alchemical result to all this fermentation and uncertainty, and that after all the trials the transformation can come, but only then. So divorce has to be discouraged as a cowardly action by default, unless proven in specific cases to be motivated by really grave abuse (following the hyper-idealistic mindset I pointed to above, all human relationships are by default abusive, but where the hell does that leave anybody? Sooner or later we all have to accept a certain threshold of abuse below which we are willing to stay and cope, otherwise we might as well just kill ourselves, because there’s only limited space in the wilderness to build cabins).
Let’s try to think this through. Imagine a young couple, getting married for the first time, having abstained from sexual relations in accordance with the Law of Chastity, and having learned the essentials about the mechanics thereof in preparation for the marriage, is told the following quite clearly:
“The sexual relations for which your body yearns so strongly are not something you have any right to expect. They are not anything you really need. Your spouse’s body belongs to your spouse, and so you have no legitimate right to touch your spouse in any way that your spouse does not show clear consent for, prior to your engaging in it. You have no right to expect that your spouse will ever agree to fuck, lick, stroke or fondle you, in fact, you really have no right to expect that your spouse will hug or kiss you either. This is all dependent on your spouse’s consent as a sovereign soul, and no desire of yours, however intense, excuses any invasion of your spouse’s prerogative.
“If you ever do invade your spouse’s sovereign prerogative, if you ever do violate consent in any way, even by touching between the legs when your spouse hasn’t given you clear consent before, then you are guilty of sexual assault, and should be subject to prosecution by the law as well as Church discipline.”
What would that do? What would change if the consent required was explicitly described as “enthusiastic?”
How about “sincere?”
Or “free?” After all, our marriage ceremonies ask if we’re doing this of our own free will and choice.
I remember a professor at BYU talking about Paradise Lost. In Milton’s telling of the story, he said, Adam and Eve did have sex before the Fall, but it was rational sex, and the effect of the Fall was to make sex irrational, driven by passions rather than reason. The picture I just painted in the previous post could work just fine between two very rational people, who have become experts in subsuming their passions to the dictates of reason in every instance. This, arguably, would finally create the only acceptable conditions for family life, but does there exist anywhere on earth an authority sufficient to enforce this?
Meanwhile, we’re all stuck not only with faulty bundles of stunted growth that don’t allow us to act so rationally, but we’re also, the majority of us, motivated by the sexual urge, which – surprise! – is anything but rational. These “God-given affections” turn out to push us toward all kinds of stupid behavior, enticing and inciting us to invade the space of our committed partners on a regular basis.
I’m not talking about rape. I’m not talking about clear violations when one clearly says “no” and the other overrides that. Look: being married and having anything like a normal sex drive, it’s also normal to end up stepping on toes: the straying hand, the lingering kiss, the plaintive moans – any kind of sexual advance that goes beyond a respectful “yes or no” question – can we call that an invasion? In any long-term intimate relationship you’re going to step on your partner’s toes in some ways, and they are going to step on yours. When it comes to sex, do I feel justified in calling every invasion a violation of consent? I don’t know. I want to think through this some more.
Your hand strays to that place and your spouse sighs and says “not tonight, can we just go to sleep please?” and you sigh and say “fine” and take away your hand and try not to sulk as you respectfully compose yourself for sleep. Did you violate consent? You did something that required a refusal. If you’ve been married for 20 years and you’ve done variations on this theme countless times, can I feel safe in guessing that your spouse will take this overture differently than the same person would have when you were just getting acquainted with each other?
One very obvious point I’m setting up here (and probably doing badly) is the need for a semiotic imagination when laying down the law about consent: not only do we pass much of our signals to each other non-verbally, but sexual arousal and desire often tend to be dumb and wish for dumb responses. Overtures, invitations, pleas, insistence can all be done with or without words. When your hand drifts to that place and your partner grabs it and pulls it closer, that’s consent. When your partner grabs your hand and slides it back to a neutral place, that’s refusal. In the former scenario, if your partner continues to give these non-verbal signals of “keep going” by touch and maybe wordless moans, you can either trust that your partner is doing this out of full and sincere consent, or you can start to second-guess: maybe this isn’t what my spouse really wants to do, maybe it’s just out of compassion or pity: maybe this is an act of service. And if that’s so, do I receive it with gratitude, or do I back off? Do I start asking for clarification out loud? Is that a turn-off for my partner? Do I know my partner well enough to guess that, to guess any of this?
People who are into kink have thought all this out, because they act out so many scenarios that would be violations of consent if they were “real”: the bondage, the dungeons, the dominance and submission, etc. They have systems of signals and safe words agreed on beforehand, and it’s imperative to know when to step out of the game or the role, because it can literally make the difference between life and death.
Maybe getting into BDSM would be really beneficial for married Mormons, since it would force us to be really serious about consent, and gain some serious expertise in it.