“Domestic Democracy”, Ephesians 5:21, and BDSM in the Christian marriage

So, one more post on BDSM. I can’t promise this will be the last, but I will try to move on to another subject eventually.

In the two previous posts, I made the case that the incorporation of bondage and domination/submission strategies into a couple’s sexual life was not inherently anti-feminist. The debate continues in the comment threads below each.

But what about the Christian perspective on BDSM? Let’s imagine a heterosexual, married Christian couple (I’ll call them Edgar and Edna). Edgar and Edna are faithful to each other and devoted members of their local church, actively involved in the work of the Great Commission. And on Thursday nights after they get home from the building committee meeting, they take turns dominating each other. They incorporate restraints, quirts, and hot wax. It’s not uncommon for one of them to be sore and bruised the next day. Their marriage is a model of Christian egalitarianism. Not only do they fulfill the scriptural commandment to mutually submit to each other as spouses, they choose to take a very literal interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 with them into the bedroom (which they playfully call the “dungeon”.)

I’m making Edgar and Edna up, of course. But I’ve known at least one devoutly Christian married couple who did incorporate some elements of dominant/submissive play into their sexual life. They talked about it openly within a trusted small group at a church to which I no longer belong (no, it’s not All Saints or Pasadena Mennonite). My friends’ admission was a bit too much for even their small group family, and their revelation (which was really an invitation for some discussion about the ethics of married sex) did not result in further dialogue.

Too often, discussions of Christian sexual ethics focus on pre-marital, extra-marital, and homosexual sex. That doesn’t mean those aren’t important topics. Faithful Christians can, with integrity and in good conscience, vigorously disagree about whether all genital sexual activity ought to be restricted to heterosexual married couples. But we talk less about sex within marriage than sex outside of it.

The great debate about marriage in contemporary Christian circles is between “complementarians” and “egalitarians.” The former group argues that God intended men to “lead” their wives as “heads” of the family. Men and women have different roles, each complementing the other. The latter group (to which I belong) argues that God intended spouses for mutual submission, each in radical equality with the other. An army, after all, needs a general — but the military model doesn’t apply to marriage, or so we egalitarians argue.

For those of us who are egalitarians, then, isn’t BDSM — even within monogamous marriage — problematic? Regardless of who is assuming the dominant role, BDSM celebrates the erotics of asymmetrical power. Even if that asymmetry only applies in the bedroom (and not, say, in the divvying up of household chores), isn’t it at odds with the egalitarian worldview? If God intended spouses to practice “radical domestic democracy” (which is how I like to describe the egalitarian outlook), shouldn’t how we make love be congruent with how we live out every other aspect of our marriage? If we are committed to equality in decision-making and chore-sharing, shouldn’t our physical delight in each other also be egalitarian rather than hierarchical? If an egalitarian Christian couple delights in domination and submission (particularly, say, if one partner always assumes the same role), isn’t there some disconnect between their theological principles and their sexuality?

These are all excellent questions, the sort that I think my old friends in the small group were trying to work through. It’s also what Ann’s comment below my previous post on BDSM is getting at, I think.

Christians have to be concerned not only with issues of consent and enthusiasm but also with justice. We live in a world where men and women are taught to delight in the abuse of power. We live in a world where rape and abuse are so common that they have affected how many of us think about sexuality. We know that what “turns people on” is a consequence of both biological and cultural influence; too often, the culture sends out a message that tells both men and women to eroticize domination, degradation, abuse. So even if a couple practicing BDSM is doing so with great care, even if each partner in the relationship feels valued and loved, if they delight in radical inequality in their sexual life they may be bringing the brokenness of the outside world into their intimate private sphere. For married Christian egalitarians in particular, that’s a troubling thought.

I wrote in the previous posts of the potential for BDSM to offer healing and liberation. Those weren’t empty phrases; though I’ve never had any interest in delving into that world myself, I’ve known too many good people who did find growth and freedom within that “lifestyle” to condemn BDSM as inherently incompatible with Christian sexual ethics. At the same time, I cannot help but feel that for most, the delight that is taken in BDSM is rooted less in biological impulse and more in a sexist and exploitative culture. And so I’m torn.

I honor the fact that so many of those who did practice BDSM have such evident care for each other and for each other’s boundaries. I am struck by how many people in that “scene” speak of how they have found recovery and fulfillment through ritualized acts of domination and submission. Their positive experiences are genuine and real. But if they had not already been so wounded by a corrupted, violently misogynistic culture, would they need to find healing in this way? Is BDSM only appealing because it is a response to darkness, or, in a perfectly egalitarian world where we all were raised with healthy sexual messages, would some people still be drawn to it? As a Christian feminist, I have to ask these questions and ask both my fellow feminists and fellow Christians to ask the same.

I’ve gone on and on here, and I’m still ambivalent. Because neither my wife nor I have any real interest in any aspect of BDSM, this is a moot point in our marriage. Still, I’m interested in the discussion because I think it’s important for us (feminists, Christians, honest, thinking people) to reflect on what we think really good sex is. I do believe we are called to match our language and our life (a phrase I use too often, perhaps); we’re called to match what we do in private with what we do in public. That doesn’t mean we ought to have public sex, but it does mean that if we are egalitarians in the outside world we ought to be wary of finding particular pleasure in dominating another human being behind closed doors.

At the same time, we ought also to be wary of insisting that all good sex “looks” egalitarian. Taken to its logical extreme, that would mean that the missionary position would be seen as evidence of too much comfort with male domination. Egalitarians would always have to have sex while spooning, so neither was on top! Proscribing certain positions because of their anti-feminist, complementarian implications would be manifestly silly. But if it’s okay, say, for both partners to prefer sex with the woman on top, isn’t it just a very small leap to saying it ought also be okay to incorporate handcuffs and a ball gag?

I don’t know the answer to all these questions. But I think that Christians need to be fearless and forthright in wrestling with them.

16 thoughts on ““Domestic Democracy”, Ephesians 5:21, and BDSM in the Christian marriage

  1. Another good post. I like the way you raise important questions and refuse to oversimplify the answers. Is the problem with the unequal roles or the eroticizing of pain? I would hesitate to condemn role-playing dominance because an egalitarian marriage isn’t only 50-50 everything all the time. It can also be switching off of roles in a mutually fair way. What troubles me more is the possibility that BDSM could train a person to become aroused by hurting someone else, which would carry over into areas of life other than the consensual sexual relationship. Are there “flavors” of BDSM that are more about play-acting unequal roles than about pain?

  2. Jendi,

    There are many type of BDSM and fetish roles people take on. I’ve met people who like to be tied up or like tying people up and only use soft silk scarves. Or, people who like the restriction of being tied up in certain ways so that the look is aesthetically appealing. From what I’ve seen of the scene, the person in the dominant role is usually very in tune to how their submissive counterpart is doing at any specific point in time and try to vary what they’re doing accordingly. I have a very limited experience with actual participation in the scene, but I can say out of my few experiences, I felt no real pain at all. There is a lot of trust involved on both sides of this kind of relationship if it is working correctly. I think in some ways, it can actually teach people to look out for their partner more than they would in other situations.

    I think what does the most good in the scene is each individual’s ability to act out their own fantasies. There are some disturbing things going on in some aspects of the scene, just as there are in all other areas of human life. At the same time, there are some very quirky and beautiful things going on, too. I’ve seen corsets, silk rope ties, and even floggers that could be considered works of art, made out of beautiful materials meant to be enjoyed, not feared. Really, when it comes down to it, the individuals involved in any relationship are the ones who really know what’s going on, and different things hurt for different people. The point isn’t to hurt or degrade the person in the submissive role, it’s to take care of them and give them pleasure.

  3. The point isn’t to hurt or degrade the person in the submissive role, it’s to take care of them and give them pleasure.

    I know what you mean but I find this really misleading, though probably unintentionally so. Let me say first that I think BDSM is often fine from a feminist perspective, though just as often not fine, so I say the following to explicate, not to condemn. But for a great many participants, both tops and bottoms, but especially bottoms, hurt and degradation are the point, the sine qua non of arousal. The degradation can be largely imaginary and exist as a shared fantasy, with no “real” nastiness attached, but for an awful lot of people, saying The point isn’t to hurt or degrade the person in the submissive role, it’s to take care of them and give them pleasure is like saying the point isn’t to arouse or pleasure the person you’re having sex with, it’s to show them a good time. Because if you’re into that, the one is a necessary component of the other.

    Likewise, you say: different things hurt for different people.

    True enough, but lots of people do still want to hurt and be hurt. Sure, you will find plenty of people to say that when they’re being whipped, the endorphins and adrenaline make it exciting and virtually painless in the moment, for example. But lots of people do it because they like pain to some degree. The way to defend BDSM is not to define it out of existence. Nice people doing nice thoughtful things with silk scarves don’t generally come in for feminist or Christian criticism. If I read your comment and knew nothing about BDSM, I would be deeply confused about what the big deal is and why people defend it so passionately, if taking care of your partner and giving them pleasure is the only point.

    Jendi: Are there “flavors” of BDSM that are more about play-acting unequal roles than about pain?

    There are, and they are sometimes, though not always, gendered in a really unpleasant way, and thus are way more potentially-disturbing than sex-play that come down to pure sensation.

  4. What do you think of Christian Domestic Discipline? I think it’s the most messed-up thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

  5. Hugo,

    We learn things on a non-conscious level. We call it intuition. The problem is, our intuition isn’t always learning what we think it is. What our conscious mind thinks it is learning isn’t necessarily what our unconscious mind is really learning.

    What are people learning as a part of BDSM? They think it is harmless, but is it really? Are they learning attitudes toward men and women that consciously they deny, but actually influence their decisions?

    I refuse to play violent video games as a result. I do not know what my brain is learning if I point a virtual gun at a virtual someone and kill them.

    We are far less self-aware than we think. We have far less free will than we think. I am beginning to wonder just how hard we should be fighting for our personal mental territory.

    There’s a test. You get a list of items that you have to sort into two categories. In the first test, you put either “good” or “white” items in the left column or “bad” or “black” in the right column. Then the next time, you put either “good” or “black” items in the left column or “bad” or “white” in the right column. The tests are timed; even intervals on a particular question are timed. What you’re actually measuring is how your brain deals with race on an unconscious intuitive level. For the most part, you can’t fake the results.

    There is one way to game the system, though. If you sit there and, before you take the test, deliberately think about good African-Americans — Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, etc. — you will have less trouble putting “black” and “good” concepts in the same column.

    What would happen if you gave such a test to BDSM people to measure their attitudes toward men and women? Would they score the same as non-BDSM people, or differently — and if differently, how?

    My guess is, depending on the form BDSM takes, it might be teaching the non-conscious mind things that the person does not intend for it to learn — or wish it to learn. For some, the paraphilia may be benign. I suspect that for others, it’s not.

    Of course, then the question is, are they into BDSM because of previous attitudes or is the BDSM creating the attitudes.

    I wonder if the research has already been done. Getting accurate results might be difficult, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be done.

  6. From my little corner of the world I can offer this…………..

    I guess it’s like a Friars Club Roast………….some actual abuse takes place but it’s all in fun, right?

    ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!

    (That’s the sound of me boring myself)

  7. The way to defend BDSM is not to define it out of existence.

    Sophonisba, thanks for making those points. For some of us, pain and/or degradation really is what we do. (There is a difference between degradation and shaming – I’m cool with the first but detest the second – but people practice both.)

    Some people go into a headspace when given bdsm pain, but others don’t, and the headspace is different for everyone. When I hurt my boyfriend, it’s consensual, and sensual, and done for (ultimately) mutual enjoyment, but it does hurt. It’s challenging.

    I do find that, as the officially dominant partner, I have to sometimes remind myself that my boyfriend is not “lesser” and we are not doing this because of any natural power imbalance between us. We’re just doing it because we have corresponding kinks. But the dynamic can take on a life of its own.

    However, in my previous relationships, which were all “vanilla” (an offensive term, so I apologize for any offense), I naturally viewed myself as lesser and my desires as unimportant relative to those of my partner. Even my ways of fighting and trying to get my way were those of a low-status person (e.g., passive aggression, nagging, hinting). And I’m a relatively self-aware, smart feminist – not exactly Edith Bunker. So for me, this has been liberating, and very much worth the struggles.

    Plus, we are just having an awesome time together.

  8. Dev,

    “I do find that, as the officially dominant partner, I have to sometimes remind myself that my boyfriend is not “lesser” and we are not doing this because of any natural power imbalance between us.”

    This is exactly the sort of precaution that I think would be needed. All my friends say I spent too long as a paramedic, but I think my belief that intelligent people able to do as you do are few and far between.

    I still wonder what the long-term effects are, even with such precautions. Then again, with all the other crap we’re exposed to in the media, there are probably bigger things to worry about.

  9. I still wonder what the long-term effects are, even with such precautions.

    Me too, Rob. I’ve chosen to simply keep an eye on it and be constantly vigilant. The older folks I know in the scene don’t seem more messed up than anyone else, though.

  10. BDSMers who insist what they’re really doing is “Christian Domestic Discipline” is like those guys who claim to be straight because they only receive blowjobs.

  11. Again, it seems not to be the problem that the people are enjoying themselves in consentual relationships but that somehow (on an instinctually level?), some are upset because they “shouldn’t” be enjoying it or considering it “all in clean fun.”

    But this is about a christian couple. Let’s look at Martha and Mary, a good lesbian Christian couple who believe in equality and thus call it “a partnership” because each brings what they are able to the relationship and they discuss that aspect. They also like to truss each other up and have some fun with the hitachi magic wand.

    As Christians, in Eph, spouses are called to submit themselves on to another – certainly an aspect of sexual play within this Christian context would be to be mindful of what gives pleasure to your partner while they understand your limits in doing so and vice versa. Yes, I can see that some aspects the idea of dominance or being better could creep in; the same way though the new testament tells us that in Christ there is no seperation between male and female, rich and poor, race and background they managed to creep in and usually are present in some aspects of every congregation. Yet, if both partners (much as a congregation) is aware of this problem, and discuss it; where is the difficulty?

    Is this something that is an exclusive hetero issue? If over the years I found that my partner liked being spanked during an extended sexual session – I would spank her. Why wouldn’t I? I love her and would want her to be happy in our sexual play together. I don’t understand why me giving her a foot massage=okay; me licking her entire body=okay while me spanking her=bad.

  12. Are there “flavors” of BDSM that are more about play-acting unequal roles than about pain?

    FWIW, after reading various people’s explanations of their various varieties of BDSM kinks, I’ve come to realize that the aspect of BDSM that is the main squick for me isn’t so much the pain, still less the bondage, as the degradation. So some of the play-acting I’ve heard described actually squicks me more than, say, spanking.

    There is a difference between degradation and shaming – I’m cool with the first but detest the second – but people practice both.

    What’s the difference? Because, the way I tend to use the words, degradation is shaming to the nth degree – so obviously I must be thinking of the words differently from you.

    BDSMers who insist what they’re really doing is “Christian Domestic Discipline” is like those guys who claim to be straight because they only receive blowjobs.

    Frankly, “Christian Domestic Discipline” would be less icky if it were promoted as a way of combining Christianity and kink – at least, from that point of view, the wife gets to set the boundaries of how much “domestic discipline” she actually wants (or reject it altogether, if she doesn’t want any of it).

  13. hi. have been wresting with this issue and thank ggodness for google!
    You said:
    “I am struck by how many people in that “scene” speak of how they have found recovery and fulfillment through ritualized acts of domination and submission. Their positive experiences are genuine and real. But if they had not already been so wounded by a corrupted, violently misogynistic culture, would they need to find healing in this way?”
    While I can’t comment on anyone else but my personal take on this, I think it is the difference between surviving and overcoming. We are called to be whole and free and to not use that liberty wrongly. As I re-examine my past, by engaging in role-play (i.e.) I do so from a point of power and understanding. I am in charge of my own experience. That in itself is healing. To come at the ‘abuse’ or power dynamics from a POV of acceptance rather than perpetual victim allows me to be an overcomer and to take what i can fromt he experience to be whole. Not live my life in reaction to what was taken from me..
    And in doing so, I discover that the terror of submission of so many good Christian gals, is actually scars from males who literally dominate without grace or kindness. They SHOULD be whipped, lol.

  14. Pingback: Gender, Homosex, BDSM, Christianity & Updates | SmallNothings.com

  15. Pingback: Soulation | What-s Wrong with S&M?

Comments are closed.