Language, sex, and submission…

[Trigger Warning: rape, sexual abuse]

[Update: Please note that Jared Wilson has publicly apologized for the initial post and, to a degree, his response. I applaud him for doing so, as public apologies can be very difficult to swallow. I still disagree with his views on human sexuality, and think that there are significant and meaningful dangers involved in the ethos of his initial views (which he does not seem to disavow), but I am happy to see that he understands how his words may have been deeply hurtful to some. I said in the original post below that acknowledging our errors is the mark of an honourable person, and I stand by that statement.]

So there’s a big stink going on out there in the blogosphere, and apparently I care enough about it to revive my poor old blog, at least for a little bit. Recently a Christian minister named Jared Wilson posted on the Gospel Coalition website a blog post related to the recent publishing phenomenon 50 Shades of Grey. Wilson, in his criticism of the novel (which is apparently kind of trashy erotic fiction that explores the world of BDSM), points out that the type of sex that the novel describes is a perversion of a biblical and Christian way of thinking about sex. He then quotes at length from author Douglas Wilson’s Fidelity, which appears to suggest that the natural way for human sexual relationships to be is best described in terms of a man’s authority and a woman’s submission to that authority. The quote proposes, what is more, that the existence of rape in human society is a perversion of this godly norm, and at a societal level is brought on by rebellion against it. Within the extended quote we find this set of phrases, which have (not surprisingly I think) drawn the ire of, well, lots and lots and lots of people (the conversation is huge, and I have read only a small portion of it…starts to get a bit repetitive after awhile). Here’s that portion:

“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.” – Douglas Wilson, Fidelity, as quoted by Jared Wilson.

As Mr. Wilson, both in the comments section of the original post and in another response post, seems mystified by the reaction to this language, perhaps we should explore for a moment why it is so upsetting to some of his readers. Because linguistics is one of my schtics, that’s the route I’m going to use here.

Let’s try to get at the problem by examining the use of the word “penetrate” in the quote. The issue here, at the risk of being a little too linguistically heady, is one of connotation and transitivity. Let me explain what I mean. The term “penetrate” here is being used, I can only assume, to describe the process by which (if you’ll pardon the odd phrasing and slight crassness) a man’s penis ends up, as it were, inside a woman’s vagina. Now, there are two basic components to how meaning works in language. These are denotation and connotation. I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but denotation is basically that element of meaning that refers to what is happening. It is the bare bones description, I guess you could say. And, speaking denotatively, the term “penetrate” is an acceptable option in English to describe how a penis ends up in a vagina. At a search for “penetrate” gives me results like “to pierce or pass into or through” and “to enter the interior of”, which both work well for our purposes here. In terms of strict denotative meaning, you can’t argue with Wilson (or the Wilson he quotes) that “penetrate” can accurately describe sexual intercourse. Now, here’s the problem.

While “penetrate” is an available, and denotatively accurate way of describing sexual intercourse, it must be said that it is not the only denotatively accurate way of describing, in English, how a penis ends up inside a vagina. There are lots of other ways you could describe this state of affairs, and so it is reasonable to ask whether or not this is a good way of describing it. It seems to me that it is an acceptable way to describe an aspect of sexuality, but it is by no means the only, or necessarily the best, way. Here’s why…and I’m sorry but we’re going to get linguistics-ish again. The verb “penetrate” is a transitive verb. That means that the action being described is transferred from one party (the Actor) to another (usually called the Goal or Recipient). Now, in some cases transitive verbs are flexible in terms of these role assignments. In the clause “Jim threw the ball to Bill”, we are describing an action that Jim took, which affected Bill. But, it’s just as reasonable to say that “Bill threw the ball to Jim.” Either of the parties named can be Actor, and either can be Goal/Recipient. But, and this is the important bit, that interchangeability is not always available. In the clause (and again, pardon my crassness) “Bill penetrated Gloria” it is impossible (barring certain sexual practices that Wilson is speaking in specific opposition to) for the roles to be reversed. Given our constraints “Gloria penetrated Bill” is not grammatical, it doesn’t make sense.

So what? Well, that’s the transitivity bit…here’s the connotation bit. In an instance like this in which only one participant is able to perform the verbal action, it is implied that primary agency lies with that participant. In other words, if “penetrate” is used to describe the sexual act it implies that the man has primary agency in the sexual act. That doesn’t mean the woman has no agency. She has limited agency in that she may refuse or request the act, which certainly gives a degree of agency. But, that agency is limited in that the man may force or refuse the act, respectively. Primary agency, no matter how you cut it, lies with the man if we use the word “penetrate.” In other words, if we think about the sexual act in terms of a power relationship, defining the sexual act as “penetration” implies that the man is in a position of greater power.

Here’s the thing…I think that’s actually what Doug Wilson was trying to say. I think that he thinks that, yes, the man is (and should be) in a position of greater power. The man should have greater agency to which the woman submits. This need not imply rape, as many of his detractors suggest, but it does imply an imbalanced sexual relationship. Also, it’s very important to emphasize that “penetrate” is not the only accurate way to describe what we’re talking about (the penis into the vagina thing…you know, sex and whatnot). What if, for the sake of the argument, we used the term “enclose” instead? Let’s try our sample sentences: “Bill enclosed Gloria into himself” (hmmmm, nope that doesn’t work); “Goria enclosed Bill into herself” (ah! That does work!). Here we’ve shifted primary agency from the man to the woman, and thus shifted the power relationships, all while maintaining the same basic denotative description of the event.

The question at hand, in my opinion, is whether or not this alternative description is preferable or not to “penetrate.” Now, I’m not convinced that one is intrinsically better than the other. Both are a little lopsided in terms of agency I guess. What I think is problematic is suggesting that one description is somehow truer than the other, that agency really does lie with the man (or woman!). To suggest such a thing automatically implies a relationship of domination and submission, which I think is a pretty poor way to think about human sexuality, particularly in Christian terms.

I don’t want to go through this entire exercise with the entirety of the objectionable quotation, but let me just point out a couple of things. First, not only is “penetrate” one sided in terms of transitivity, but so are all of the words Wilson used to describe sex. The conquered cannot conquer, the colonized cannot colonize, and the ground cannot plant. So, this reinforces the imbalanced power relationship implied by “penetrate.” Second, both “conquer” and “colonize” imply the use of force as part of their basic meaning (their semantic field). I’m not saying you can’t use these words without connotations of violence or force, but it is counter-intuitive and even if such a use were made explicit (and Wilson does try to say he doesn’t mean to imply force or violence) it’s difficult to exclude those implications. I mean, name for me please a moment in history in which one nation “conquered” another without the use of force (whether economic, political, or military). Certainly if you didn’t want to imply force or violence you could find much better words, and save yourself a lot of misunderstanding.

If Jared Wilson or Douglas Wilson do, indeed, want to imply that the sexual relationship in a Christian marriage is, and should be, imbalanced, with the man holding more power and the woman less, then the words used in the original quote are relatively consistent with that goal. If they mean to imply otherwise, then I am mystified. I can see no other way of reading the sub-quote I have analyzed, nor the larger quote of which it is a part.

If they do not mean to imply that force and violence are acceptable within a sexual relationship (and I really believe this is the intention of neither man), then it seems to me that an apology is appropriate, as implications of violence and force are so intrinsically connected to the words “colonize” and “conquer”. We must all apologize from time to time for poor phrasing, and it is the mark of an honest and forthright person to do so. But, it is also important to remember that our words often reveal things about our own innermost thoughts and feelings, and a careful and humble examination of those thoughts and feelings is, I think, warranted when language of violence is ever, in any way, connected to human sexuality.

Finally, a tangent. The basic implication of Douglas Wilson’s quote in its extended version, is that at a societal level rape (or at least rape fantasies) exists because properly submissive sexual relationships do not. I am flabbergasted by this claim. Rape (and for that matter, rape fantasies) has existed since the dawn of history, in every place and society, including many societies in which the submission of a woman, in every aspect of life, including the sexual relationship, was the norm. It seems to me that rape, like all kinds of violence, is an intrinsic evil in the human race, and not traceable to some specific moral or social failure on the part of a person or group. To imply otherwise is, I think, both untenable and uncharitable.