By Meg Gemelli, Crosswalk.com
“With its deeply personal nature, there are few crimes that devastate a victim like sexual assault. More than a trespass on the body, sexual abuse violates the mental, emotional, and psychological capacities of a person. As defined, sexual assault is an act in which a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will sexually. It is also defined as a non-consensual touching of a person. Sexual assault is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of sexual acts.” --Jessica Pride, Sexual Assault Attorney
According to the testimonies of many clients, I’ve come to understand that the trauma of sexual abuse never happens just once. Instead, it’s compounded by the effect of the deafening, awkward silences they experience in their safest places—work, home, and within the church.
In the world of people care, we refer to that phenomenon as secondary trauma—and as the body of Christ, it affects every single one of us.
The silence I speak of doesn’t refer to advice pieces published on Christian platforms, or even the opinions of popular social media “influencers,” but within the relationships between real men and women who come together in the name of Christ. It’s an incredibly delicate topic, which most are either ill-equipped, or uncomfortable, to navigate.
Sexual abuse in marriage is confusing at best. And if we hold onto the most literal, non-contextual applications of some of the scriptures regarding marriage and nothing else, it can be downright terrifying.
One example can be found in 1 Corinthians 7:4, where we read, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but yields it to his wife.”
Some go on to ask, “How is it possible then for someone to experience sexual abuse in marriage? If your body doesn’t belong to you, then shouldn’t your spouse always have access to sex when they want it? How is that abuse?”
Couples ask me this question every now and again behind the closed doors of my marriage practice. Indeed, the applications of scriptures like these by lay counselors and pastors have sparked much debate. Do men and women have a say in how their bodies are treated once they’ve entered into holy matrimony?
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1. Manipulation, Guilt, and Put-Downs as a Means to Sexual Activity
“You don’t love me anymore. If you did, you’d be open to (insert name of sexual act here) anytime I wanted.”
Joanna experienced the gravity of this accusation more times than she ever could have imagined in her marriage. When her husband asked her to engage in acts she believed were painful or degrading, she explained how hurt she was that he would suggest it. Many times, it fell on deaf ears, so she’d simply go through the motions to avoid a fight.
Feeling as though she had nowhere to turn, and with a dark sense of self loathing and embarrassment, she began cutting herself just three years into her marriage.
As she recalled, “He just kept questioning my love and obedience over and over again. One time he even accused me of sleeping with another man because I wasn’t feeling close enough to him to be intimate. I wasn’t cheating, it was just that I could barely stand to be around him, let alone let him see me naked.”
- Guilt and coercion
- Personal insults
- Ignoring a spouse’s feelings about sex
- Threatening or making one’s partner feel scared after saying no to sex
These are all examples of sexual abuse in marriage, and they shatter any chance of husbands and wives of experiencing fully reciprocal, wholehearted love and free will.
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Scriptures to Set a Basis for Healthy Sexual Freedom in Marriage
As with any difficult question, it’s wise to first determine how God treats us as His children in the area of liberty and free will. If it is “for freedom that Christ has set us free,” then what does that mean for our ability to make decisions as humans in relationship with God?
Here are some biblical statements referencing our freedom of choice in Christ:
John 7:17 - Anyone who chooses to do the will of God…
Gal. 5:13 - You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh...
Mark 8:34 - Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
These scriptures imply that we must freely surrender to follow God. I suspect that we do this willingly because of who God actually is.
We choose. We apply our freedom with every decision made. We take up our crosses.
We love because He first loved us.
And while God is our protector and glory, sadly, there are husbands and wives around the world whose treatment of others has fallen far short of holy. Instead, control, ego, and selfishness has led to coercion, violence, and manipulation.
God calls us close through a captivating love, and by the gift of His unprecedented sacrifice. He doesn’t demand, He beckons. It’s the sin of man that’s tainted the model of that love, and in doing so, we’ve defiled the very nature of free will.
Maybe you’ve endured mistreatment in your marriage, but you’re confused and don’t know where to turn. Perhaps you have a friend or family member who’s in trouble, but you’re not sure what signs to look for.
Here are some signs of sexual abuse in marriage.
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2. Forced, Nonreciprocal Shows of Sexual Intimacy
Physical violence. These are the types of behaviors we’d expect from a perpetrator on a crime show, but I can attest that it happens behind closed doors with married Christians too. If you, or somebody you know, has been held down or restrained without permission during sex, this is a form of abuse.
Other examples include forcing a spouse to engage in sexual activity when they’re feeling sick, exhausted, or if they’re injured. An involuntary use of objects, toys, or weapons applies as well. There is nothing loving about exhibiting power and dominance over another human being, and then calling it “intimacy.”
Scripture makes it clear that love is about the other person--it is not self-serving. Forcing a partner to do something sexually that they are not comfortable with, for whatever reason, is completely self-serving and is not within God's intentions for sex and intimacy. Just because you are married does not mean that only exist to please your spouse. Force or emotional coercion is never okay.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 1 Cor. 13:4-8
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3. Humiliation or Embarrassment of a Spouse through Inappropriate Expression of Sexuality
“At a holiday party one year, I overheard my husband sharing details with his friend about our private life. The worst thing was the embarrassment. A lot of what he said wasn’t even true. It was more like shame after that. I couldn’t believe the stuff he described, and I was beyond mortified that he would say any of it out loud to somebody else. I couldn’t even defend myself. What do people say about me now when I’m not around? I never would do those things. And even if I wanted to, that’s between me and my husband.” — Jamie
Causing shame and embarrassment to a spouse isn’t just cruel, it’s degrading and manipulative. Asking a partner to dress in a certain way in public for sexual pleasure, forcing a spouse to view pornography, to role play, or to involve others in sexual acts are examples of sexual humiliation as well.
Jamie’s story is one that involves a gross breach of boundaries, just like all the rest.
God designed sex to be free of shame, with nakedness as a symbol of the openness to feel loved as who you are. Bringing shame into the equation through manipulation or making your spouse uncomfortable in any way is from Satan and leaves deep wounds. This was never God's picture of what sex should be.
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4. Withholding Resources for Exchange of Sexual Acts in Marriage: Money, Transportation, Housing, etc.
In the examples I’ve given so far, the wives were the abuse survivors mentioned. However, it may be possible that men suffer in even more silence than do women when experiencing sexual abuse. This is because “manhood” is often associated with power and virility, not vulnerability and fear. This is especially true within church cultures that adhere to strict gender roles and expectations of authoritarian-style headship. Generally speaking, men are also much less likely to report every type of abuse than women are—from preadolescence to adulthood.
Man or woman, have you ever felt as though you “owe” your partner sex because they provide financially for you, or have they demanded as much from you in the past? One of the most common forms of sexual abuse is the use of resources as “bartering” tools for sexual activity.
It can be as simple as reminding a spouse that his or her income is less, and vulnerable to being denied access. It happens when bank accounts are closely monitored or cut off. And in an unexpected way for many, sexual exploitation can even occur when a victim is given drugs or alcohol to lower his or her inhibitions or to feed addiction.
If you (or somebody you care about) are experiencing threats to your basic needs in exchange for sexual activity, this is abuse and it’s not ok.
In conclusion, we all fall short of the glory of God, but sexual abuse in marriage is an act that often goes unnoticed, and unaddressed, within the church. We can no longer say that we’re unaware of the evil we face as believers. Not only do we have the power of Holy Spirit to guide us to healing, but we have better education than ever before by which to stand by our fellow abuse survivors in victory.
“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:7-9
Father, guide us in courage, and let it be so.
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