The Problem with Patriarchy: 50 Shades of Grey, Authority and Submission

[TRIGGER WARNING]: The content of this post contains language and imagery that may be sensitive or harmful to victims of sexual abuse or rape.

One of the problems that I see with the patriarchy movement is that it views all relationships in terms of authority and submission. When your entire worldview is seen through the lens of authority and submission, it’s bound to cause some unfortunate and ill-advised comments on any number of subjects. Yesterday I came across a particularly bad example of this.

Over at The Gospel Coaltion, blogger Jared Wilson started a firestorm when he wrote about the current fascination with the 50 Shades of Grey novel. In case you aren’t aware (and I wish I could say I’d never heard of it) here is Wiki’s short definition:

Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 erotic novel by British author E. L. James. Set largely in Seattle, it is the first instalment in a trilogy that traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM).

There really aren’t enough words to explain what’s wrong with these books. Suffice it to say they should be avoided.

Jared Wilson’s original post, which has since been deleted, attempted to explain the appeal that 50 Shades has on so many women. He wrote that women are fascinated by books like this because it is a perversion of “good, God-honoring, and body-protecting authority and submission between husbands and wives.” Thanks to the magic of cached documents on Google, you can still see what he wrote. The part that started the uproar was a quote from Douglas Wilson that he used to support his theory:

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. (emphasis mine)

What is truly amazing is that Jared Wilson didn’t seem to understand why so many women were upset with Doug Wilson’s language and word choice. Doug Wilson acknowledges that egalitarian women would be offended by his words, but really, shouldn’t all women (and men too, for that matter) be offended by such violent imagery. Both Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson have attempted to explain how there is nothing wrong with what they wrote, and that the problem is with the comprehension of the readers.

While I appreciate that both Wilsons have stated that they do not approve of violence against women, my concern is that they are the ones who have a comprehension problem. The sum total of the intimate relationship between husband and wife cannot be condensed into authority and submission, especially as defined by Doug Wilson above. The language of the Bible is much more balanced when it comes to descriptions of the right relationship between husband and wife. 1 Corinthians 7 states that a husband has authority over his wife’s body, but also that a wife has authority over her husband’s body. This authority and submission is not a one-way street.

The problem I have with Jared Wilson’s post and Doug Wilson’s quote is that the preoccupation with authority and submission leads to social and familial structures that encourage abusive relationships. Not everyone who agrees with the Wilsons will be abusive, but many will see these words as supportive of abuse. When one views all of the world in terms of authority and submission, there are bound to be comprehension issues. Maybe the whole world didn’t misunderstand. Maybe you’re wrong.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Patriarchy: 50 Shades of Grey, Authority and Submission

  1. lazyhippiemama says:

    I think you say this very well! The Bible not only tells women to be submissive… it tells men to love, cherish and care for their wives, as Christ does for the church. Christ does not “conquer and invade” the church.” Those are harsh words and it wouldn’t be hard at all to turn them into permission to abuse.


  2. Wendy says:

    Great point, Rachel. There was a time when my husband and I really enjoyed Doug Wilson’s teaching, a good bit earlier in his career when he first “caught on” in Reformed circles, so to speak. If I recall correctly he was a speaker at a Ligonier conference one year. For a while he had some really good, very practical teaching.

    It seems that some of our Reformed thinkers can get too far afield and get somewhat puffed up with pride (“Everyone who disagrees with me doesn’t understand.”) They become unwilling to accept any rebuke or correction.

    I think your point in referencing 1 Corinthians 7 is an excellent one regarding the more complex issue of submission and authority. As a Reformed woman I make no argument with husbands’ authority when properly understood or authority in the church to lead and teach being given to men (and the right kind of men as defined in the Bible). However, as you note it is not a simple, one-way street as defined by the Wilsons above.

    I would also venture to counter Wilson that authority/submission issues aside, the human heart is sufficiently evil to entertain sexually perverse rape/bondage/ “S &M” fantasies on its own.


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