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.


13 thoughts on “Language, sex, and submission…

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, a couple of friends pointed out the typos in the post, and I think I’ve fixed them now. I’m going to chalk those mistakes up to me writing too fast, and not so much to me being dumb .

  2. Yes, great response however, I would like to see you also explain the use of conquers and colonizes. And then what about the picture they paint together : A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. It may be good to remember that to colonize carries implication for conquering for one’s own use.

    • TL, thanks, I’m glad you and some others found the post helpful. I didn’t bother with a full analysis of conquers and colonizes (and plant for that matter), but honestly I felt like I’d more or less made the point I was shooting for (also, I have a dissertation that isn’t writing itself, so there’s that). But you’re right, of course, that words taken together influence one another, and affect the reader/listener’s understanding of the text as a whole.

  3. Pingback: Pyles Productions » Sex and Controversy

  4. You wrote: “But, it is also important to remember that our words often reveal things about our own innermost thoughts and feelings,…”
    Yes. “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” Luke 6:45

  5. This is all great right up to this point:

    “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.”

    where you jump from an analysis of semiotics to merely assuming what you seek to prove. (Also, the word “domination” has an unhelpfully wide semantic range here; I suspect many readers will read more into it than the simple asymmetry which your prior linguistic analysis clearly demonstrates.) _Why_ is this a poor way to think about sexuality in Christian terms? That requires Biblical analysis.

    Back in the field of linguistics, here are some examples of non-violent conquering: “I conquered Mount Everest.” “I conquered him at chess.” “I conquered that sin.” I agree that if you think of nations warring then violence is involved, but that’s not the entire semantic range of the word. Similarly, bacteria colonize a petri dish. Humans could colonize Mars.

    So if there are non-violent readings of these words within their normal semantic range, then the question arises: “what is the most charitable interpretation of what was written?”


    • Gerv, thanks for your comment. A few responses.

      First, I wasn’t seeking to prove anything about proper sexual relationships for Christians. The sentence you quote is just a little evaluative aside. My apologies if that was unclear. There were a great many people striving to make that point when Wilson’s post first came out, and making it here seemed redundant. I was principally concerned with examining why the particular language of the quotation was problematic for those who don’t accept that sexuality should be a lopsided affair. As for my use of “domination” – perhaps you are right that this carries connotations from BDSM and was a poor choice of wording. Though, I will say that I find this critique ironic given your other comments concerning charitable readings.

      Now, as for your “non-violent” examples of the word “conquer.” First of all, your three uses are all metaphorical, in my opinion. They carry certain components of the semantic range of “conquer”, and their context limits other connotations. This is much the same way that D. Wilson used the word himself. I assume your point is that the violent connotations of the word are not necessarily carried over in every metaphorical instance. I agree, and said so in the main post. The fact remains that an enormous number of people who read that quote saw connotations of violence in it. My point regarding the use of “colonize” and “conquer” is that violence is a natural and instinctive connotation, and that these words are consequently poorly chosen for the context in which they were used.

      Indeed, even your examples seem to reinforce this point, to a degree. For instance, your chess example. Chess is a game specifically designed to imitate a martial environment, and any use of “conquer” with reference to chess actually reinforces the military and violent aspects of the term. The violence in chess is virtual, but it’s still present. Your example using Everest may not have violent connotations, but it is a metaphorical use of the term that does imply the vanquishing of an indomitable obstacle. The climber does not “kill” the mountain, but she does (metaphorically) “attack”, “destroy”, “crush”, and “dominate” it. Not the kind of implications I’d like to see attached to sex, but maybe that’s just me. Your example concerning “sin” is not unlike the chess example. Paul frequently uses violent, and even explicitly military, metaphors to illustrate the destruction of sin by Christ or the individual Christian’s escape from sin. The violence may be metaphorical, but only because it is violence against an abstract concept. Your example “colonize” is indeed an instance in which the term does not imply violent repression, but only because it is a unique case. Every act of colonization that humanity has actually perpetrated has involved some type of violence (again, broadly defined in economic, military, or political terms). Your example is an exceptional case, and serves only to reinforce the more common connotations of the word. It is the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

      Now, regarding my charity. I feel, particularly given the overall tone of the online conversation, that I was extremely charitable. I went to great pains to specify that I do not believe that either Jared Wilson or Doug Wilson meant to suggest that violence is an acceptable element of human sexuality. I noted, in fact, they they explicitly meant to suggest that violence is bad (in the form of BDSM specifically). What I noted was that the semantics of the terms used stand in tension with their desired aims, and that the phrasing is consequently questionable. Even that, however, was a subsidiary point. What I was principally trying to demonstrate is that the phrasing implies a lopsided power relationship with respect to human sexuality that need not reflect reality.

      Finally, your critique regarding the “most charitable reading”, is really a case of special pleading. Why should I, as a listener/reader, go against all of my instincts and against the most natural reading of a phrase? I’m happy to read people charitably, but I feel it is also my responsibility to read people critically and carefully, and to take seriously the specific wording employed. You took me to task for my use of “dominate”, and rightly so. Is Doug Wilson not open to the same kind of reasonable criticism?

      • If the sentence I quote is just a little evaluative aside, then I am confused as to the point of the first half of your post. You start off by saying that you want to explain to Doug Wilson why his words have caused so much fuss, and the conclusion is that they imply that “agency really does lie with the man”. I’m not sure he or anyone else in the debate would find that conclusion a shock, given that this is what he and everyone else accepts he is trying to say 🙂

        I’m not sure that the metaphorical nature of my uses of the word “conquer” disqualifies them as examples in the way you claim. Are metaphors not allowed? I’m fairly sure no-one is arguing that Doug meant “stick something in the earth” when he used the verb “plant”. Also, you then use metaphorical explanations to reintroduce the violence in the conquest of Everest. I’m not sure “attack”, “destroy”, or “crush” would be words mountaineers would use of their scaling of mountains, so I think your reintroduction of the notion of violence is a stretch.

        My point about “most charitable reading” is based on what I read about a legal principle in US law – “if there are two readings of a statute, and one is unconstitutional, and the other is not, judges are bound to adopt the one which is constitutional”. If there are two readings of Wilson, and one means he is encouraging sexual violence (in contradiction to his other writings) and the other is not, it seems appropriate to adopt the generous reading.

        My comment about the semantic range of “dominate” was merely my small attempt to do what you are doing. I am very happy to believe that you did not _mean_ the overtones I pointed out and which you acknowledge, and am happy to read charitably – and did so. My point is just that if it can happen to you, an expert in these matters, it can happen to others.

  6. Hi Colin,

    I was reading Matthew this morning and read the following words of Jesus:

    “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10:34, NIV)

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (Matt 11:12, NIV)

    “Implications of violence and force are … intrinsically connected to the words” ‘forceful’ and ‘sword’. Is Jesus here promoting the idea that the kingdom of God should be brought in by force? Is there a risk that he will upset those who have suffered physical abuse or been on the receiving end of unjust military attack in the past? Should he have chosen more appropriate words?

    I’m sure you would not argue that Jesus needs to apologise for using such imagery. 🙂 But doesn’t this show that it cannot be intrinsically unacceptable to use words with some violent associations when talking about non-violent actions?

    I did have one other question. Your post sets out to explain why these words are poor choices on Doug Wilson’s part. It is not, I hope, an attempted critique of complementarianism in linguistic guise (such a critique would need to be Biblical) so I assume that therefore you think that there _are_ words that complementarians can safely use to describe the act of sex, as they understand it, in a way which would not connote violence. Could you give some examples?


    • Gerv, there’s a lot there, and in some cases I feel that my initial replies make the point perfectly well, so I won’t bother to re-engage those bits. First, I did not say I was trying to explain to Doug Wilson the connotations of the language used, but to Jared Wilson, who both in the original post comments and in his follow up post attempted to defend D. Wilson’s wording by suggesting it did not necessarily imply a lopsided power relationship. The post was designed to explain why a lopsided power relationship is exactly what an enormous number of readers saw in those words. As I explicitly said in the original post, I know perfectly well that this is what Doug Wilson meant.

      As for your mention of metaphors, I’d ask that you go back to the original post and my first response and read more carefully. I never implied that metaphors were ruled out (though in semantic terms metaphors are very often built out of the denotative core of a lexeme, and so one must be cautious in using metaphorical instances in lexical analyses), and addressed your specific examples. You don’t buy my reading of the Everest example…fair enough, you have found one or two exceptions. I’m not convinced that this dismisses my initial point that readers are very likely to read violence into those terms.

      As for your references to Jesus’ words in Matthew, of course those words imply violence. They are metaphors, and so the violence need not be physical bloodshed, but the violence of those metaphors is certainly at play in both texts. The Gospel is, and always has been, a call to particular allegiance and to forsaking all other allegiances. This is a violent call. It requires that one accept one thing, and reject another – even to the point of rejecting loved ones if need be. And as for they way these passages are read today, I do indeed think that careful explanations are required when Christians appropriate them, because we actually do have quite a bloody past as a religion.

      Finally, you keep introducing complementarianism into the conversation. It is very clear, I think, that in the initial post I never attempted to make any point one way or another on that front, so I’m really not sure why you want to bring it up. I don’t actually think that being a complementarian or an egalitarian has anything to do with appropriate sexual relations within a marriage. There are people on both sides of that divide who are excellent examples of Christian sexuality. If you’d like to see a complementarian explanation of sex that doesn’t bother me in the least, see the pingback link above and read what my friends Tony and Rose have to say about it. I will say this. You seem to be conflating D.Wilson’s views with complementarianism, which I know would upset all of the complementarians I know personally.

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