Does Doug Wilson endorse marital rape?

Is Doug Wilson an apologist for rape, specifically marital rape? A particular quote from him has been doing the rounds for some time:

“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” [1]

To understand what Wilson is saying here, we need to get something of the context.  The quote comes from a book called “Fidelity: What it means to be a one woman man.”  His aim in the book is to write specifically to men and boys and his aim is to encourage them to be faithful. It’s a worthy aim and so int the nook he tackles issues such as pornography arguing thar a man should not be seduced by lust.  One of his starting points is that the greatest defence against such lusts is the Gospel.

“Our first duty is to learn the gospel. The grace of God is manifested in the world through the gospel:”[2]

So, Wilson insists that the problem with lust is that we put our hopes and desires into something finite instead of the infinite and eternal.

“Here is the problem: Lust demands from a finite thing (sexual pleasure) what only the Infinite can provide—“Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20). When men are in the grip of prolonged lust they are soon dissatisfied with normal sexual pleasure and begin looking around for other things which will expand their sexual horizons.” [3]

So, the Gospel fixes our eyes on the eternal hope and joy that we have, it also encourages us to discover contentment in our lives now, contentment with singleness, contentmet with our own wives including physical contentment. [4]

However, part of Wilson’s argument is that the issue is also about the nature and character of men. For him, it is about a man being strong and not weak of exercising authority and leading.  This means that in his view, men are to seduce but not to be seduced because being seduced involves being led.[5]

Now at this point we might make three observations. First of all, we cannot and must not ignore what Scripture says when it points to the headship of husbands and the pointers we see to men as providers and protectors. There should be something about men that can be described as “strength.” It is telling that in Eden we see Adam abdicating responsibility and failing to stand up against the serpent. He may have been physically present but seems to be emotionally, intellectually and spiritually absent from the fray so that Eve is left to resist the serpent alone.  Furthermore, we see that strength here is not presented in terms of being macho and muscular but in the courage of inner strength and character. However, at the same time this argument is taking us towards the quote which will cause people problems.

The quote comes within a chapter dealing with the sin of rape. Here Wilson starts by identifying the problem of condemning the seriousness of such a vile sin in the context of moral relativism.

“One of the first things we must do in seeking to understand this is to take a stand against the sexual relativism of those who are most shrill about the evil of rape. If we do not have the standards of the Bible, then the only way we can make judgments about the sexual behavior of anyone is on the basis of personal preference. In other words, if God will not judge the rapist on the Last Day, then all the feminist screeds in the world should not make a rapist feel bad about what he is doing. A great desire is evident in our culture to “absolutize” the evil of rape, but since the process is an arbitrary one, suspended in midair, there is no reason to take it seriously. In a world without absolutes grounded in the character of God, a man can take what he wants. And if what he wants is an otherwise unattainable woman, then rape is a live option. So the only way to condemn any rape is to turn to the standards of God’s law.”[6]

Wilson goes on to describe what the Old Testament Law says about rape, in his opinion, the death penalty should still stand today, particularly for child rapists.  He sees the law acting to protect women and girls and also notes that battlefield rape was forbidden to Israel. An Israelite could marry a woman taken captive in battle but then she had the full rights and privileges of a wife.

It is after this that we come to the quote in question and here he turns again to the issue of authority and submission. He is arguing that martial sex in the physical act itself images the nature of authority and submission. As far as I can tell, he is not arguing that the wife must always acquiesce to her husbands demands, rather he is making a comment on the physical dynamics of sex. However, for him it is crucial that sex reflects the authority/submission pattern.

“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.”[7]

We also need at this stage to pick up on a further bit of commentary on this. Wilson says that:

“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.”[8]

Now, it is important to hear what Wilson is trying to say and not to impose in on his argument things that he would adamantly argue that he is not saying.  Wilson has already insisted throughout the book that men, and men alone, are responsible for their sexual sins.  So, I think he would want to insist here that the point is not that if a wife denies her husband this kind of dominance then his sexual lusts will spill out into rape. Rather, he is arguing that the problem lies not with women but with the concepts and arguments of feminism and egalitarianism which has created a society and culture that attempts to deny the natural order of things.

However, I don’t believe that this gets Wilson off of the hook. You see, what he is insisting is that sex is about conquest, dominion and authority.  First of all, I don’t think there is any way of avoiding this, but the wording here does seem to give a level of cover and excuse by implying that the desire to rape is at least in some way based on something natural and that it is the conquest and dominating element that is at the heart of it. In effect Wilson is saying that “Yes, rape is primarily about power not sensual satisfaction but also, all sex is at heart about that power.”

And here is the problem I believe.  Wilson has betrayed here a faulty and distorted understanding of what Ephesians 5:21-32 is about.  You see, as I have argued frequently elsewhere as a complementarian, there is headship and order in marriage so that thew wife submits to her husband because he is the head but there is also mutual submission so that the husband is to sacrificially love his wife.

I do not believe that this entitles the husband in anyway to see sexual intercourse as an act of conquest and dominion because that would do three things. First of all, it would take away from the sense that sexual intercourse is a joint responsibility in order to fulfil the creation mandate to fill and subdue the earth. Secondly, it would evacuate the husbands role of any sense of seeking to love and to serve his wife at this point and thirdly it would be contrary to the explicit teaching of Scripture.  You see it is with regards to sexual intercourse that Scripture most explicitly teaches mutual submission.

Here is Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1-5.

“ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Did you get that? Yes sexual intercourse does involve authority over the other person’s body but not just the man over the woman.  A wife also has authority over her husband’s body.  There is mutual authority and mutual submission here. Neither are to deny and deprive the other.  What this means is that there needs to be alertness and sensitivity in a marriage between both husband and wife towards the needs of the other both the need for sexual fulfilment and the need for sexual abstinence.

The test of a pastor’s teaching should be the extent to which it falls in line and follows the grain of Scripture and Wilson’s teaching on sex and marriage here is horrifically out of kilter with what God’s Word says.

I want to suggest here that this reflects a broader problem with Wilson’s understanding of marriage, authority and submission.  You see, Wilson would insist that submission in marriage should protect a wife from tyranny and abuse outside of it. Yet, if the marriage itself is a form of tyranny and slavery then the suggestion of protection is a mirage. 

Whilst Wilson does not hold to the position that women are lesser than and required to submit to all men everywhere, this does not take away from the problem that his position suggests that women are lesser in the specific concrete contexts where they do relate to men, to their fathers, husbands, pastors. 

Once again, I think that we need to see how this links to Wilson’s overall view of authority.  As I explained in a previous article, there is a view that the family, the church and the state are distinct spheres of authority and tyranny happens when those who hold authority attempt to exercise it beyond their sphere. In that respect, Wilson’s concern in terms of families is that the husband/father is able to exercise unfettered authority.  Yet we need to recognise that tyranny can happen within the sphere of authority exercised.  A pastor for example can be a tyrant in his own church and a father can be a tyrant at home.

Once again, whilst Wilson would want to defend himself against what he would see as knee-jerk accusations and misunderstandings of his position, he would wan tto insist that he does not advocate for or seek in any way to encourage martial rape, it is clear that even a little digging beneath the surface identifies real concerns about the danger of his teaching position.  In another article we will see how this was worked out in a particularly disturbing manner as we see how his theology and philosophy influenced his approach to a serious safe guarding matter.


[1] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity . Canon Press. Kindle Edition., (l976).

[2] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity  Canon Press. Kindle Edition., (l311).

[3] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity (Canon Press. Kindle Edition., (l280).

[4] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity  (Canon Press. Kindle Edition., (l255-261).

[5] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity  (Canon Press. Kindle Edition., (160-173)

[6] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity (p. 56). Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (l907).

[7] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity (p. 61). Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (l982).

[8] Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity (pp. 60-61). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.(l976-982).