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!

13 thoughts on “Sex and Hierarchy”

  1. “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?”

    This makes a lot of sense to me.

  2. The text of 1 Corinthians has multiple citations and responses, being a Q/A style correspondence between Paul and the chaotic and confused church at Corinth. So it is likely that 7:4 “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” is one such instance where Paul tempers and balances a common slogan.

    The first phrase (v4a “the wife does not have authority over her own body”) makes women feel instantly uneasy and defensive. I doubt, therefore, that Paul would lead with this by choice. Rather he is citing it from their letter to him, thereby creating the tension before balancing and resolving it.

    That the wife should have the same sexual ‘authority’ (v.4b) was a shocking suggestion at the time, as it would be in many cultures now, for wives had little power, least of all over their husbands’ own bodies. But by doubling and inverting the proverb, Paul neutralises it and restores mutuality to sex, so that Christian husband could not continue to justify meeting their own sexual needs exclusively or even primarily.

  3. Daniel,
    I think this is crucial. My own work in sexual ethics focuses on reuniting the body and soul — asking how sex (how we have it, how we restrain from it) matters for salvation rather than be merely a “personal matter.” Feminists long ago asserted that the personal is political, but this may be true in ways that most conservative Christians find both refreshing and challenging. My central question is this: What might it mean to have cruciformity shape our sex/uality?

    You also imply that the ways we have sex (or not) reinscribes in our bodies our reading of the world, of the “way things are.” If that is the case, then of course sex/uality matters deeply for salvation, as we are a people who align ourselves with an alternative politic, a truly free reign of God for which we are being shaped or misshaped in our embodied life. But we have instead (like countless Xns before us) chosen the reign of “progressives” or “traditionalists” — both defined by the politics of the world. Naturally, neither takes cruciformity into account.

    Let’s chat about all this sometime. Maybe you could help me organize my book? Hope to see you soon in Pasadena. Always fun to read your provocative posts. (Not sure about your take on Mt and the law, though…another topic for another day in which I can display my ignorance of the NT :-)

  4. Daniel,

    I’ve been thinking about 1 Cor. 7 quite a bit recently. A question hit me. Most commentators see asceticism as the background to the chapter. However, if this is the case, then why doesn’t Paul address the issue more head on (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-4). In 1 Tim, the author just flat-out attacks asceticism. Here Paul’s tone isn’t very polemic.

    So, could it be that the problem is not asceticism? What if the question in the Corinthian letter was just a general preference towards singleness? In our culture today, we see this happening. Less people are getting married than ever before. People see marriage as too restrictive. It limits your sexual freedom (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12-20). Etc.

    What do you think?

  5. (Oops, accidentally posted this as a reply to Daniel Fiester…was meant to be a reply to the thread as a whole)

    Looks like an interesting book that you’re reading ;)

    Addressing your comments at the end of the post and the post-script, as I have told you before, you need to read Plutarch’s Advice to Bride and Groom. It’s short and, I assume, available online somewhere.

    I urge this for many reasons, especially because in it you’ll find another example of 1st century moral-philosophical discourse (i.e., another way to describe 1 Cor 7) about husbands, wives, sex, and the cultivation of virtue and mastery of passions…the latter of which, btw, is Paul’s framing concern for 1 Cor 7.4. On the theological-fun side of things, writings such as Plutarch’s Advice to Bride and Groom should utterly lay to rest common (often evangelical) claims that various NT writings articulate some radical, actually-kinder-to-women, and so on views compared to anyone else in the ancient Mediterranean (not saying, BTW, that you would claim this about NT writings; I know you don’t).

    While I cannot think of anywhere in Advice to Bride and Groom that Plutarch explicitly makes the point about women also having authority over their husbands’ bodies in the bed, the treatise repeatedly discusses how sexuality in the marriage bed is, properly, a mutually-sympathetic activity of partnership and joint-action between husband and wife…sometimes using this point to instruct on broader issues in society, marriage, cultivation of virtue in husband and wife, and so on (e.g., sections 10, 20, 34, 46).

    This correlates with a broader repeated emphasis in the writing: while the proper marriage is one in which the husband has “authority” over and leads his wife, such leading should never be harsh but, instead, primarily leading by example, good character, gentleness, and so on, ultimately for the upbuilding and caring of his wife; furthermore, such a hierarchical relationship is still often described in terms of cooperation, partnership, important wisdom/input/agency by the wife, and other things we tend label theologically as “mutual submission” (on all these kinds of points, see 8, 11, 12, 17, 29, 32, 33, 34, 47, 48).

    There’s really no sense here that such an articulation of the wife’s significance and even authority in the marriage constitutes a “challenge” to the still thoroughly patriarchal sensitivities and ideologies of this writing; far from that, these ideas fit right in with and further such sensitivities.

    So, among other things, not sure why 1 Cor 7.4 should, in its context, be seen as undoing “assumptions of power and structure and authority and hierarchy.” Of course there are different gradations of patriarchy, with some instantiations being much more rankly oppressive to women than others. But in this case Plutarch (and other ancient patriarchalist moralists) is also aligning against husbands who exercise notionally harsh, physically coercive, and insensitive authority/power over their wives – but aligning in ways that still fundamentally uphold ideologies of (what we tend to call) patriarchalism.

  6. Barely anybody is religious at all that I know of. I live deep in the Bible Belt. Around these parts religion is used as a ticket to politicking and group cohesion of a face of morality and values supposedly shared intrinsically by these groups. Any backings to patriarchy will of course be grasped to desperately as power shifts from physicality to mental abilities, which rely, as obvious, less on physical strength and more on i tellectual strength, which by biology women must rely on more than men for safety purpose. Of course, nobody speaks of that. But its great that you are exercising your brain anyway and I applaud your writing abilities.

  7. It’s a peculiar kind of authority that works reciprocally like that. I suppose it could mean that the one’s “mind” has authority over the spouse’s “body”, but that’s pretty ugly; I would rather suppose Paul is pointing to one of those “one another” things. So I’m going to flip back a couple of days:

    The authority is Christ’s, and we shouldn’t attempt to take it for ourselves. Nor should we seek to give it to another person on earth.

    If we’re thinking of authority in this reciprocal sense, rather than an “authoritarian” unilateral sense, then we do want to give it to others, our friends and co-communitarians. We should welcome others “telling us what to do” at least in a non-coercive setting, we should be willing to take personal advice/observations seriously. Whereas it’s an individualistic mind-your-own-business world where our friends are the people who are willing to agree with us. “My country, right or wrong.”

    So my question here is, what kind of Authority do we give to Christ?

    (Maybe this contradicts what I was saying the other day. Oh well, I’ll do that.)

  8. I have a great problem with ethical overlays over sexuality which are not fundamentally consequential. I find they render the sexual act symbolic. The consequence of this is dissonance. To put it bluntly I don’t feel involved if my partner and I are having sex like archetypal men and women in either a feminist or conservative christian or even feminist christian “enactment of the (ideal) structure of society”.


    I love her, not all woman across time. I hope she loves me in my greying, fleshy particularity. Our sex is thus deeply particular. Sexual ethics which try and take it elsewhere by universalizing our gendered positioning seem to me to be perversely liturgical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.