Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Complementa-whatsit-ism. Just patriarchy or not?

A recent brouhaha lit up a conservative yet still mainstream American Christian web site, The Gospel Coalition. A post titled “The Polluted Waters of 50 shades of Grey” made a connection between the increasing popularity of bondage games in the bedroom and the sublimation of a hardwired inequality between men and women. Basically the post by Jared Wilson claimed that if we deny the natural hierarchy of man over woman in sexual relationships and fail to contain that in an appropriate biblical way (often called complementarianism) then we will turn to other ways of meeting our real needs – i.e. role playing a master and slave dynamic. Before you all rush into your Princess Leah on Tattooine costumes, this is supposed to be a bad thing too.

I can’t link you to the original article because although “The Polluted Waters of 50 shades of Grey” is at the top of their recently popular list (at time of writing) a click on the link says “Not Found”. This post gives some explanation from the author.

It’s a shame the original article was taken down because I would love to refer to some of the one hundred and twenty five comments which can no longer be read. Fortunately the internet has many faces. This site has a pretty good general critique of the original article and its author’s attempt to defend it. This site I think really nails what the original post didn’t say and which the author still hasn’t addressed. What exactly is complementarian sex anyway? 

Firstly complementarianism is a bit of buzz word in conservative Christian circles. Essentially it means the value of different roles in relationships. Sounds nice right? One person complements the other - what could be better?

Except complementarianism is not just one person complementing the other. It’s in fact a word for something less palatable. It’s a bit like when someone looks at a room of white male faces and says “We could do with some diversity in here.”

No, actually its not diversity you want in a room full of white men. Diversity could mean anything. It could mean another white male with a moustache. It’s actually non-white and female representation that’s lacking. When a black women enters the room she doesn’t think to herself “I’m diversity”, she thinks “Wow, I’m the only non-white woman.” (She doesn’t expect to meet up with moustache man later at the diversity table.)

So why, when the organizing committee reviews the event do they talk in terms of “diversity” of attendants? Because it’s softer, it obscures the real gender and race issues and it actually slows down any change by preventing targeted action. It certainly is less offensive to all the white men on the organizing committee too.

Complementarianism as a word achieves a similar thing. It blunts any critique of what is being discussed, it softens it, and it does this by hiding crucial details about what is and isn’t complementarianism. I can’t think of any relationship where there aren’t different roles actually. A lot of relationships have one person who’s a bit more the social ambassador than the other for example. However these situations are not what is meant by complementarianism. The real definition in conservative Christian circles is more specific.

What complimentarianism really means is a prescribed role for men (shared by all men) and a prescribed role for women (shared by all women) and that these roles complement each other. The primary way in which these roles compliment each other is hierarchically. To be absolutely specific men lead and women submit. Remember those old fashioned marriage vows where he loves and cherishes and she honours and obeys? That’s complimentarianism.

Secondly complimentarianists believe that theirs is the right way to have relationships for everyone. Sons in complimentarian families are deliberately raised to lead their future wives, daughters are deliberately raised to submit to their husbands. Complementarian parents are not just parents where Dad is more assertive than Mum but who don’t value that difference particularly and raise kids who may have acceptably different styles of relationships. This is crucial – complimentarianism is not a statement of personal preference but a prescriptive opinion for all sexuality.

Remember it is not merely that people are raised to develop complementary roles with their future partners i.e. In complementarianism, daughters who are inclined to lead shouldn’t look forward to a partner who is inclined to support their leadership but should curb their inclinations and learn to submit. Likewise “submissive” is not a quality that can be as positive in boys as it is in girls in complimentarianism. Yes, at this point complementarianism is really looking just like another word might say it better – Holy Patriarchy Batman, the women are obliged to submit to the men.

There are however two distinctions between complementarianism and patriarchy.  The first is in what relationships women are required to submit to men. I’ve never read or heard a self-identifying complimentarian suggest that sisters should submit to their brothers or that a female boss in the workplace shouldn’t be respected by male employees or that a woman shouldn’t be prime minister. Supporters of what gets called Biblical Patriarchy (as can be seen here) have no such definite limits. It’s impossible to make absolute statements about changing social movements but as far as I can tell complimentarianism consistently only applies patriarchy to sexual relationships (which are only allowed in heterosexual marriages) and church matters (i.e. ministers and celebrants).

Secondly and very importantly complimentarianism prescribes emotional roles for men in a way that patriarchy doesn’t require. Men must be loving and kind leaders. In fact most complementarian descriptions of male leadership emphasize personal sacrifice, self-lessness and attentiveness to their wives. If a man is a self-serving leader then their marriage is not complementarian but just patriarchal. I’ve had conversations with complementarian men who offer as examples of male leadership doing the lion’s share of the housework or attending to their wives’ sexual needs before their own. All of this is consistent with a biblical picture of Christ-like leadership (well maybe not the sex bit). He washes his disciple’s feet for example. In fact the only person who ever beat Jesus in an argument was a woman (Mark 7:24-30) which gives us a biblical model for complementarian men (who are only trying to be Christ) to heed their wives’ opinions.

This raises a difficult question however. If Tasha is married to Bob, a selfish bloke, is she expected to still submit to him so that at least she is being complementarian even if he is not? Or is it impossible for her to be complementarian if he isn’t living up to his part? If so is she freed from any responsibility to submit to him except when he is self-sacrificing? I think people who use complementarianism as a self-description would go with the latter conclusion in cases of abuse but be less sure in cases of less serious failures on Bob’s part; Tasha just can’t be a complementarian (and submissive for her) with Bob if he is hitting her but she can be if he is just a poor listener.

The opposite of complementarianism is supposed to be egalitarianism. Egalitarianism means that the opinion of women and men in relationships should be treated equally with no person having “the last word” or ultimate decision making power. Nobody leads and nobody follows in egalitarianism. In effect this means that people compromise, strive for consensus or take turns getting their way. However to the extent that complementarianism says that women only need to submit to men who are practicing a high standard of self-sacrifice then it’s hard to see how in practice this opposes mutual submission and egalitarianism. It seems like they both get to the same place with complementarianism just softening the rhetorical blow for men who want to feel like they are in charge.

This is why I get a little suspicious when complementarians make a huge deal out of how awesomely benevolent the proposed rule of the husband is in marriage while also claiming its hugely important to distinguish themselves from egalitarians. In the Gospel Coalition post that I referred to in my first paragraph there is only criticism leveled at egalitarianism. This seems ridiculous if their model of male leadership essentially produces egalitarianism anyway. Perhaps it really doesn’t? Or have they misunderstood egalitarianism?

We also shouldn’t commit the same error in reverse. Supporters of egalitarianism shouldn’t devote their energy to critiquing complementarianism if it’s the same outcome wrapped in a different rhetoric. I know I don’t want to. It just doesn’t seem important. There is still scope for objecting to complementarianism on the basis of its gendered universalism; it treats male and female as meaningful categories in a way I’d dispute. But then even that problem dissipates if the ultimate content of those categories aren’t meaningfully different. If real men sacrifice and real women serve who really is different in a big enough way to care.

One way to clear up the confusion in my mind is to talk about performed inequality versus fundamental inequality. If you want to say you’re the man of the house, whether you are physically the man or the woman (or with a man or a woman) I really don’t care. If you would rather present all decisions as mutual and shared I don’t care either. Underneath these performances of roles is a fundamental reality of two humans traveling alongside each other or of one human ruling the other. If one partner is being consistently ripped off or if both are happy and getting fulfilled is the crucial question regardless of what rhetoric is achieving that end.

This is where criticism of “The Polluted Waters of 50 shades of Grey” gets it wrong in my opinion. Jared Wilson would have us believe that we have created a need for sadomasochistic role plays and fantasies by failing to honour a commitment to real and substantial hierarchical power relationships between men and women. This includes what the post describes as a fundamental reality of the bedroom: “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” It seems like most critiques object to this description of the world. Meh, I’m not that bothered. Maybe Jared Wilson is right up to this point though it feels like a gross generalization. Maybe his sex-life is really that one-sided. It’s still just descriptive not prescriptive however.

What really makes Jared Wilson’s opinion disturbing is when he treats honouring a commitment to these unequal roles in a deep way as preferable to just playing them out or fantasizing about them superficially. Jared seems to want our revulsion at performed inequality (like where one partner ties up another with silk scarves and gets called master) to push us towards adopting fundamental inequality. In fundamental inequality there will probably be no silk scarves allowed but real spiritual bondage of women instead.

Personally I don’t get repulsed by the silk scarves scenario so Jared’s trick doesn’t work on me. Really who cares how your relationship and especially your bedroom antics look to other people? Why care what other people’s relationships merely look like? I say perform the roles that help you and your partner reach your greatest potential, the most intimacy and the loudest orgasms. Feel free to put that Princess Leiah costume on, even if you’re a bloke. So long as in the real world you’ve talked about it with your partner on the basis that your opinions matter equally.


Disclaimer: I haven't actually read 50 Shades of Grey. This was a fun review to read about it though. 

I would think Secretary  the 2002 film would be a much more enjoyable way to learn about performed inequality in BDSM.

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