Sex and Hierarchy

I led a seminar on sexuality for a church a couple weeks ago. I’ve also been reading a bit about sexual ethics and polemics in the ancient world. So, yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately, but strictly for professional purposes.

Here’s something I’m seeing that probably makes sense to folks: the ways we think and talk about sex are tied up with larger ways of thinking and talking about the world.

(Way to go, Mr. Profundity! I can tell this blog post is going to change my life…)

In evangelical circles we have created an elaborate system of morality that only concerns our souls, so when we think about sex we create paradigms in which sexual purity means keeping your heart pure by only having sex with the person of the opposite gender to whom you’re married.

When this gnostic-like separation of body and soul gets carried a bit further, we hear folks saying things like, “God doesn’t care what you do behind the closed door of your bedroom.”

But for most of history, the connection between whom one had sex with and how one had sex with them was much more integrated.

Sex was understood to be a focused expression of what was true in the broader world. Acting in accordance with society’s sexual mores was an expression of wisdom, manliness, and self-control. Acting out of step with them was an expression of folly, womanliness, and enslavement to the passions.

Uh oh. Did I say “manly” versus “womanly”? Well… yes…

You see, part of the story is that hierarchies were developed that were alleged to reflect the order of nature, the order of the cosmos.

Strength, virtue, wisdom, and manliness all coalesce in the elite male. He is naturally more gifted to lead, and thus occupies a higher place on the social ladder, than his wife or the peasants or his slaves.

What does this have to do with sex?

Well, there are manly ways of having sex and not-so-manly ways. Sex is an expression of power and social hierarchy. To play the man’s role in a sex act was to express that power, strength, and dominion that is naturally the man’s. To play the woman’s part in the sex act was to express that weakness, “softness,” etc. was appropriate to a woman.

There are lots of implications for this. But the bottom line point is this: sex was seen as an expression of the inherent hierarchy in the world.

This is not just an ancient idea.

It is alleged that there are (or have been) laws on the books of some states restricting sex to the so-called “missionary position.” Why would such a law exist? Because of the idea that copulation is supposed to be an enactment of the structure of society in which men rule over women, generally, and husbands rule over their wives.

The notion that sexual is an expression of authority and strength, or lack thereof, is ancient as well as recent. It is pervasive and, in the ancient world, assumed.

So what’s my point?

Today my point is this: that when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does,” he was saying something that fit perfectly into his first century context. Men rule women. A husband has sexual authority over his body and over the bodies of those under him.

But when Paul says, “The husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does,” he has said something fraught with revolutionary potential.

What kind of world is it where a woman has authority over her husband’s body in the bedroom? Not a world, surely, where God simply doesn’t care and where sex doesn’t matter?

Perhaps, instead, it is the dawning of a new world. A world where authority is not aligned with gender. A world where “inherent” and “obvious” systems of strength and power are upended by the cross of Christ?

I do not think that Paul fully works out an egalitarian vision of men’s relationships with women. But assumptions of power and structure and authority and hierarchy are being undone. And you should be able to see it in the bedroom.

Post script: If anyone who knows the ancient literature better than I do knows of parallels about women exercising authority over husbands’ bodies, I’d be interested to hear of it. I know that there are instances of Jewish women exercising sexual authority and control–but it’s usually to keep some dirty Gentile from laying his hands on her!

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