Sexual Coercion as Redemptive: Nancy Wilson on a Wife’s Sexual Duties
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
Content warning: discussion of child sexual abuse and marital abuse and rape.
Nancy Wilson is an advocate of Christian Patriarchy, an ideology popular within the Christian Homeschool Movement as well as the broader Reformed Fundamentalist culture out of which that movement sprang. Nancy is married to Doug Wilson, one of the founders of New Saint Andrews College, Greyfriars Hall (a ministerial training program), and the Association of Classical and Christian Schools and pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. (Note: for the sake of clarity, future references to Doug Wilson will simply be Doug and future references to Nancy will be either Nancy or Wilson.) Doug’s 1991 book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning is considered one of the seminal texts of the Classical Christian Education movement. Some would argue his book launched that movement, though that claim is historically myopic and ignores other seminal texts like Dorothy Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning. Both Doug and Nancy Wilson do, however, hold significant influence within the Classical Christian Education movement. Furthermore, even though the Wilsons prefer private Classical Christian schools to homeschooling, their teachings about both Classical Christian Education as well as Christian Patriarchy (and its subsequent traditional gender roles) have been popular and significant within the Christian Homeschool Movement.
Over the last few days, Doug and Christ Church have received mounting attention and criticism over the cases of Steven Sitler and Jamin C. Wight. Sitler is a homeschool alumnus who attended New Saint Andrews College as a student and Christ Church as a parishioner. Wight is also a homeschool alumnus who attended Greyfriars Hall. Both are convicted child molesters who molested children in Doug’s various academic and religious communities. (You can read a comprehensive timeline of events and evidential documentation of Sitler’s case here, though be warned that the court documents contain detailed descriptions of child sexual abuse.) And during both of their trials, Doug chose to sit on their sides of the courtroom rather than on the sides of their victims and the victims’ families. Furthermore, despite Sitler’s crimes, Doug — who served as Sitler’s counselor and petitioned Sitler’s judge for “measured and limited” civil penalties — continued to welcome Sitler in his church after his sentencing. And in spite of Doug becoming aware of Sitler’s history of sexual predation in March 2005 and Wight’s history of sexual predation in August 2005, it was not until December that Doug informed the families of Christ Church in general.
In response to the mounting attention and criticism, Doug wrote an open letter on behalf of himself and his fellow elders at Christ Church. His letter, which contained 1,853 words, was focused entirely on defending and justifying his and his church’s actions as well as dismissing detractors as promoting “false allegations” that “are simply slander.” Wilson positions himself and his church as martyrs in line with Jesus because they are being criticized for extending “grace” to Sitler, saying, “To be vilified for standing for grace is itself a grace.” Not a single sentence in the open letter was dedicated to expressing concern for, anguish or compassion over, empathy towards, or protection of the victims and their families. This is telling, “for the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34).
In light of Doug’s open letter, it seems important and helpful to place that letter within the larger context of the Wilsons’ belief system concerning sexuality and sexual responsibilities within a Christian marriage. To that end we shall turn to Nancy Wilson’s 1997 book The Fruit of Her Hands: Respect and the Christian Woman. In this book Wilson articulates her and her husband’s philosophy of marriage and sexuality as it pertains to Christian women. Though the book is written entirely by Wilson herself, Doug wrote the book’s Foreword and in that he makes clear he fully endorses his wife’s ideas, saying, “As Christian women consider how they might stand as godly helpers to their husbands in this high calling, I can do nothing better than commend this book to them.” Furthermore, Doug admires that Nancy “has been writing on marriage and family for a number of years, and in reading her I have never had to wonder at hypocrisy. There has been none” (p. 11) Nancy Wilson practices what she preaches to others, and what she preaches to others is laid out in The Fruit of Her Hands.
Wilson begins her book with a dire proclamation. Quoting 2 Timothy 3:1, that “in the last days perilous times will come,” Wilson declares that American women have been “captivated by the lies promulgated by the modern world and have succumbed in many ways to the humanistic mindset” (13). “What are some of the lies she [American women] has been told?” Wilson asks. She then provides a list stereotypical for Christian Patriarchy adherents: couples do not want giant families, women act too much like men, and of course the belief system Christian Patriarchy most seethes against: feminism. But the two most relevant “lies” on Wilson’s list are: 1. “Marriage is partnership.” And 2. “The most important thing is to have a healthy self-image and to have your deepest needs met” (14). In other words, Wilson believes women are under captivity when they believe their marriage is a partnership rather than a dictatorship and when they believe a healthy and fulfilled sense of self is most important to having a successful marriage.
How do women become ensnared in these lies? Wilson argues that “this sort of thinking creep[s] into our households” for a number of reasons. The most notable are first, because “the media indoctrinate us daily”; and second, “by way of the latest feel-good psycho-babble,” and by this Wilson means counseling, psychology, and therapy. Wilson says that these resources are detrimental to a Christian wife for the following reasons: “Here she can talk about all of her needs and frustrations. Here she can learn how to cope with lack of fulfillment. Here she can learn how to get back on speaking terms with her husband and children” (15). In other words, when Christian wives have a separate, safe place apart from their husbands to privately process their needs and frustrations, to learn how to protect their inner selves, and to learn communication skills to heal relationships with their husbands and children — then women fall under captivity. This is because, to Wilson, having a separate, safe place apart from one’s husband to privately process matters ensnares women into thinking lies — namely, that their marriage is a partnership rather than a dictatorship and that a healthy and fulfilled sense of self is most important to having a successful marriage.
In contrast to the “humanistic mindset” that teaches women that marriage is a partnership and that a healthy and fulfilled sense of self is important, Wilson sets forth what she believes is the biblical mindset. This mindset is, of course, Christian Patriarchy, in which women are to submit to their husbands, show deference to their husbands’ decisions, and work hard to please their husbands emotionally and sexually. While the entire book is worth analyzing, this post will focus specifically on Wilson’s messages to women concerning their sexual relationship with their husbands. These messages are found in Chapter 7 of the book, “Lovemaking.”
Wilson commences with the declaration that sexuality within marriage is “a protection against sexual immorality” (87). Taking literally the Song of Solomon’s metaphor of the bride as a garden (Song of Solomon 4:12: “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride”), Wilson then compares a wife, her body, and her sexuality to a garden (and the wife’s husband to a “gardener”). Using a metaphor of a garden, Wilson’s language and images range from abstract to explicit to troubling. “The garden is a private place for only the husband and wife,” she writes. “It has a high wall around it called the marriage covenant” (89). A wife’s husband “is the garden tender, and the wife becomes a source of great joy and delight to the husband as he spends time in the garden he faithfully tends.”
While encouraging women to think of themselves as gardens, Wilson begins to guilt them. Women need to “take a more eager interest in making it a lovely garden that her husband delights to spend time in.” She warns women that untended gardens tend to not be enjoyed by visitors, whereas lovely gardens make visitors feel welcome. Wilson says wives must be like the latter: “You want your husband to feel that way when he visits you.” Thus a wife should not “resent her husband’s sexual advances as intrusive.”
Wilson then takes a turn towards the troubling. Using the garden metaphor for a woman and her body, Wilson strips away the agency of that woman and dismisses enthusiastic consent as important to relationships. Women who find their husband’s sexual advances as intrusive are “hanging a sign out on the garden wall that reads in large letters, ‘No trespassing.'” But, and this is the troubling part, “But of course a husband is never trespassing in his garden, though he can be made to feel as though he is an intruder” (89, emphasis added). With this one sentence Wilson completely disregards as possible the concept of marital rape. A husband can never be intruding on his wife’s body, because his wife’s body is his. Wilson then shifts blame on a wife who is being coerced into sex with her husband: while the husband’s sexual coercion is not sinful, the woman’s reluctance — which makes her husband “feel as though he is an intruder” — is sinful.
Wilson next considers legitimate reasons for a wife saying “No” to sex and dismisses them as illegitimate. For example, if a wife has no sexual desire: Wilson does not suggest that the woman learn about her body and her sexuality and find out how to communicate to her husband how he can better please her or help her feel sexually open with him. Rather, Wilson dismisses women as incapable of understanding their own bodies: “Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made. Who can understand them? Certainly we cannot understand ourselves very well” (93-4). So women just need to buck up and not “consult your feelings” as to do so is selfish. “Does your husband always ‘feel’ in the mood for a heart-to-heart chat?” she manipulatively reminds women.
Another legitimate reason for a wife saying “No” to sex that Wilson dismisses as illegitimate is a past history of sexual abuse. Women who “have had bad sexual experiences” and “have suffered at the hands of others sexually” need to simply (a) realize their own sinful role in their own abuse and (b) get over the abuse already and forgive their abusers:
“We are not to drag our past around like a ball and chain. We have been delivered from our past sins… If you have suffered at the hands of others sexually, you must extend forgiveness… Forgive those people in your past who wronged you sexually and do not allow their sin to ruin your life… How many times did Jesus say we should forgive those who sin against us? Countless times” (94).
Wilson rubs the final dash of salt into the wound by saying the following to these women who suffered abuse: “Don’t make your husband suffer for wrongs others committed” (95).
One might wonder why Wilson places such a high value on a wife being always ready to satisfy her husband sexually. This is because, as Wilson first established regarding sexuality within marriage, it is “a protection against sexual immorality” (87). Wives and their sexuality are a “potent instrument in God’s hand” (97). When a woman’s husband is “an unbeliever or a disobedient believer” — for example, if one finds one’s self married to, say, child molester Steven Sitler — Wilson encourages women that their being constantly submissive to their husband’s sexual demands, their being constantly submissive to their husbands’ sexual coercion, is something God uses to bring that unbeliever to conversion or that disobedient believer to repentance. Wilson writes,
“If you are married to an unbeliever or a disobedient believer, you must determine before God that you are going to attempt as best you can to fulfill all your obligations as a wife in a godly fashion. This means you must apply all the Word’s teachings on sex whether your husband does or not. Esther won over the king and was greatly used as a result… God can use the sexual relationship as one of the means of winning him back to obedience or winning him to Christ” (97).
In his open letter concerning Steven Sitler, Doug objects to certain detractors, saying, “We do not believe that marriage is an automatic ‘fix’ for the temptations to molest children” (emphasis in the original). This is true, but only in a limited sense. The Wilsons have never claimed that “godly” sexuality is a cure for a sexual disorder like nepiophilia or pedophilia or a protection against criminal activity like child molestation. However, they have claimed — as we just saw — that “godly” sexuality can be a productive tool in bringing a disobedient believer back to obedience to God. Doug reiterated this in a new blog post today:
“Do I think that marriage is an ‘automatic’ cure for the temptations of pedophilia? Of course not. Marriage is not an automatic cure for anything. But the apostle Paul does teach that marriage, approached rightly, is given by God as one of His assigned helps against immorality (1 Cor. 7:2)” (emphasis added).
Thus insofar as the Wilsons believe nepiophilia, pedophilia, and child molestation to be manifestations of disobedience to God, they do believe that Sitler’s wife’s sexuality can be “one of the means of winning him back to obedience or winning him to Christ” — which, in Sitler’s case, would take the specific form of forsaking nepophilia, pedophilia, and child molestation. Doug’s objection, therefore, is so deflective and hairsplitting it is insipid.
These messages that Nancy Wilson has taught and continues to teach — messages that her husband Doug endorses and also teaches — shed an important light on the developments arising out of Christ Church, New Saint Andrews College, and Greyfriars Hall. Though we may find the messages troubling, they help us better understand why Doug, Nancy, and the other members of their academic and religious communities in Moscow, Idaho seemed to have little to no problem with marrying a young, vulnerable woman off to a serial child molester after only their second date. In the Wilsons’ minds, giving Steven Sitler an outlet for his sexuality — giving him a woman who is taught that she cannot say no to her “gardener” who has full rights to her bodily “garden” — could begin a spiritually redemptive process that could bring the serial child molester into repentance and obedience to God. Even if that involved sexual coercion (what we would all consider marital abuse and rape), to the Wilsons that is not a problem. To the Wilsons there is no such thing as sexual coercion; there is only the sexual submission of a wife to her husband. This is the broader context in which to understand Doug’s infamous statement that, “The sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.”
To the Wilsons, marriage is not a partnership but a dictatorship. The husband, or patriarch, is the sexual dictator. That sexual dictatorship is divinely ordained and a woman’s body is ordained by God to serve as an instrument of redemption, her bodily rights sacrificed for a greater spiritual good.
And you know what’s even more troubling than the theology itself?
The fact that so many young women are being raised and taught in their homeschools around the U.S. to think that this is what God actually wants for them.