Wednesday 18 July 2012

The patriarchal imagination of Doug Wilson

Trigger warning: this post discusses rape, slavery and genocide apologia.

Last night over at The Gospel Coalition, Jared Wilson posted an excerpt from Doug Wilson's Fidelity: What It Means To Be A One-Woman Man. 'Outrage' is often used to describe the sort of reaction the post provoked, but 'hurt' is just as apt. The Wilsons wounded their brothers and sisters, and when people expressed their hurt they belittled them and told them to 'retake their ESL class'. It's worth quoting that Doug Wilson excerpt in full:
A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. 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. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.
True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours.
– Douglas Wilson, Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999), 86-87.
Rachel Held Evans has done a beautiful job of unpacking why this is vile, overt misogyny that does not even bother to hide behind standard complementarian weasel words. J.R. Daniel Kirk, too, gets straight to the point:
[W]hen you sexually conquer someone, this is rape. The connection Wilson draws is too much on target: he has, in fact, described all sex as an act of rape. It is therefore not surprising that he sees such a connection between rape outside of marriage and not finding the sort of satisfaction that he suggests is coming to men in their exploits of power.
Wilson's argument is this: sex ought to consist of men penetrating, planting, conquering and colonising (i.e. rape) and women receiving, surrendering and accepting. When it does not - when it becomes an 'egalitarian pleasuring party' - then men will act out their God-given manhood in unacceptable forms of rape, and women will partake of perverted varieties of sexual submission. This is somewhat at odds with reality, of course. One of the major victories of the women's movement, after all, was the outlawing of marital rape.

The Wilsons' response to their critics is generally not worth the blog space it's written on. They insist that they've been misunderstood, but fail to explain what they mean. They accuse their critics, in the passive-aggressive 'Why do they hate us?' fashion of the faux martyr, of trying to twist their words. Jared, in fact, withdraws to affirming 'marital sex that is mutually submissive' while pretending not to have retreated.* Doug's 'explanation' of his choice of words takes the cake, though:
“Penetrates.” Is anyone maintaining that this is not a feature of intercourse? “Plants.” Is the biblical concept of seed misogynistic? “Conquer.” Her neck is like the tower of David, and her necklace is like a thousand bucklers. “Colonize.” A garden locked is my sister, my bride. C’mon, people, work with me here.
Here we have a response that ignores the existence of non-penetrative sex because it would throw Wilson's argument that sex is necessarily about domination into disarray; that attempts to shame critics by wielding the Bible as a sledgehammer; that makes two references to the Song of Songs which significantly distort the actual trajectory of mutual pursuit found in that wonderful erotic poem. And by feigning incomprehension, Wilson continues men's long and ignoble history of insisting that women who criticise them are irrational or 'emotional'.

It's not just women, however, that Wilson thinks are uppity. In the video at the top of this post, Wilson identifies with the values of the Confederacy, such as states' rights - as if those were more than an expedient to prevent the federal government from interfering with slavery; and he holds that slavery should have been abolished by parliamentary processes rather than war - as it might well have been had the Southern states not seceded and attacked the North precisely to preclude that possibility. Wilson reveals a blindness to really existing institutions of power and privilege, be they patriarchy or slavery, that is born of being a white Christian man and not listening to people who aren't.

What connects Wilson's neo-Confederate tendencies to his rabid pro-patriarchalism isn't just his evident desire to return to the good ol' days of c. 1850. As Grace at Are Women Human? points out, Wilson's apologia for both rape and slavery is linked by his vision of a society in which white men benevolently rule over everyone else. White male domination is thus at the heart of Wilson's belief system. This is not, I hardly need to stress, an orthodox view of Christianity - although some people who think like Wilson use the cross too, usually by setting it on fire.

Wilson's choice of words - penetration, planting, conquest, colonisation - is the naked language of imperialism. He projects the seizure of physical space from indigenous people onto female bodies. Here as there, violence is glorified as the expression of true manliness and justified by 'planting', which has excused occupation and genocide from the Americas to the West Bank. By casting women as a dark continent that must be subdued and made to flourish by white Christian men, Wilson doesn't just other women: he reveals his fear of them. If left unconquered, uncolonised and unpenetrated, they might run amok and threaten his privilege.

It works the other way round, too, for 'penetration' is a metaphor drawn from patriarchal sex that imperialism projects onto the places it wishes to consume and the people who live there. That actual, physical rape occurs in this context is hardly surprising. The language of 'penetration' that robs women of agency and humanity does the job just as well when dusted off and applied to indigenous people and their lands. In gendering to-be-conquered people feminine, imperialist discourse reveals its roots in patriarchal society.

This has, I fear, been something of a long, rambling post. It has not been temperate. It's hugely encouraging to see how many Christians have stood up to Wilson's rape fantasies. We can be confident, I think, that increasingly those who grant the views of Wilson and his ilk shelter - those like The Gospel Coalition - aren't just wrong. They're also in the minority.

*Jared Wilson mostly quoted Doug Wilson approvingly without adding much, and now he is out of this saga.

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