In a modern and enlightened view of marriage, do husbands and wives feel entitled to demand respect and patience from each other? We hear laments about the weakening of marriage as people give up too soon over trifling grievances. But how often does a woman leave a husband who refuses to give her the consideration and respect as a human being that she feels is her due – her need? Does she have the right to demand open and honest communication as the hallmark of a unified celestial marriage? Why should she settle for less? Or is it better for her to stay bound to a man who treats her as a subordinate, as a pet, a panoply of projections, any number of substitutes for the “equal partner” that is such a recent teaching in the Church that it is still invoked more often than understood or realized? If all of the married women in the Church whose husbands don't fully respect them were to suddenly leave them, I sincerely wonder how many marriages would remain intact. I think we would have to set up something like monasteries and convents in every single stake.
We all know married couples who stay together even though the “need” for respect is unsatisfied in one or both partners. I think we all have met couples who don't even acknowledge anything as liberal as a need for respect, and whose communication remains less than honest or open, even for the sake of keeping an affectionate appearance or even basic civility. They manage their lives and houses the old-fashioned way, and maybe they'd say they get along just fine. They might say any number of things, even that they really love each other, and you could just take their word for it and leave it at that. Just don't walk into their house without knocking first.
Do wives need affection, understanding or patience from their husbands? Do husbands need patience, forgiveness and support from their wives? Then do they have a right to demand those things of them? What does it do to my marriage if I demand that my wife forgive me? By now we all should know what a recipe for disaster that can be. I can pine, yearn and burn for another's forgiveness, but I don't recognize a right to demand it: that's a terrible coercion! So does that mean I don't need forgiveness? The tough part of me that wants to be Howard Roark (the hero of The Fountainhead) replies that I certainly don't, not from anyone. But another part of me feels wounded if I know that someone I love still holds something against me.
Eternally, we all need God's forgiveness to return to live with God. But we certainly have no right to demand that. Or didn't I get the memo?
If someone feels an obligation to forgive me, that can discourage her from being open and honest. She might decide to placate me by giving me false forgiveness. Or she might not. You see, there still is a potential for open and honest communication: “I know we're commanded to forgive and I have an obligation to forgive you, but I don't feel like I can yet.” Such honesty and openness can be encouraged if she feels free to express herself truly, instead of feeling obligated to defer and serve selflessly. So here is the flaw in Stearmer's third point: the choking of potential for open and honest communication goes deeper than someone saying they have sexual needs. A sense of obligation certainly discourages open and honest communication, but it takes a very powerful indoctrination, or relentless show of force, to remove even the potential for them. But long before that is accomplished, the other partner can demand anything from sex to a sandwich.
This isn't hair-splitting, it's making distinctions and insisting that words be taken for their meaning. We need that in order to think.
So I thought I'd share music videos that I thought had something to do with what I'm writing about. This song is an old favorite of mine (and it's about as old as I am):
Here are the lyrics:
Hey, I'm feeling so dirty, you're looking so clean
All you can give is a spin in your washing machine
I fly off to Rome to my prima bella
She leaves me in the rain with telescopic umbrella
Ooh the pain -- Modern love can be a strain
I trusted my Venus was untouched in her shell
But the pearls in her oyster were as tacky as hell
For Lady Godiva I came incognito
But her driver had stolen her red hot magneto
Ooh the pain, modern love can be a strain
I don't know why they leave me in the lurch
To carry on the search
It's driving me up the wall
Pity when I have so much passion
Romance is out of fashion
Can't handle modern love at all
So I worship Diana by the light of the moon
When I pull out my pipe she screams out of tune
In Paris my heart sinks when I see the Mona Lisa
She gives me the wink, then she shows me the freezer
Ooh the pain
Modern love can be a strain
-It's from a great album, which I have on vinyl. I just found out Amazon has it in a two disc vinyl remaster, and now I want it.
If we as human beings have legitimate sexual needs and not just drives or desires, then it's understandable that within a lawful marriage, people feel entitled to sexual favors or services and even demand them: in fact, that is inescapable within a religion that restricts sexual relations to marriage. The comments in response to the Matthew Stearmer essay I'm looking at show interesting examples of this, and I take them as corroborating witnesses that religious cultures construct sexual needs as well as secular cultures.
Jewish law considers sexual relations a wife's basic right, which the husband is obligated to provide. There are even rules for how often he must provide it, and if he doesn't it can be grounds for divorce. Following Stearmer's argument, Jewish marriage law thus “removes the potential for open and honest communication which is the hallmark of a unified celestial marriage,” not to mention the traditional Christian marriage according to the traditional interpretations of Ephesians 5: 22-33: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands" etc.
We can object that Paul's instruction to wives to be subject to their husbands is "as unto the Lord" - in the same way that the Church is subject to Christ, and that therefore in this ideal, a husband will invite his wife to come unto him and find rest, and make sure that he gives her an easy yoke and a light burden. But it has been most easy for husbands to stick with a paraphrase of John 15:14: “thou art my wife if thou dost whatsoever I command thee,” without considering the bit about “Henceforth I call you not servants.” Cherry-picking scriptures is a venerable practice, and Mormons continue to be champions at it.
Our radical new ideas of marriage as an equal partnership founded on respect and open, honest communication between a man and a woman would have horrified the learned men of the Enlightenment. Horace Walpole called Mary Wollstonecraft "a hyena in petticoats" after she published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, most of whose ideas seem so mainstream now. If you haven't read it, you should. It's good. I used to have a nice Penguin Classics edition but I think I lost it. Maybe I should get it in Dover Thrift.
Traditional marriage practices are corrosive to the goal of unity as our new perspective understands it. I feel that this cannot be emphasized enough: traditional marriage practices are against Celestial ideals as we have come to understand them.
Traditional marriage practices, of course, do make sexual relations a duty: to fulfill the other's (generally the husband's) needs. Stearmer's right in saying that it's disrespectful to women to teach them that they're responsible for fulfilling their husbands' sexual needs, but he seems to part company with other voices from the Big Bad World who say the same thing.
After all, if I have sexual needs and can demand their fulfillment from a lawfully-wedded spouse, then I can also demand the right to serve my needs with other people, of the opposite or the same sex. I can assert that today's more permissive culture allows me to meet my legitimate needs in mutually respectful ways with other consenting parties, whether within a marriage of more modern definition or without.
So Stearmer goes beyond the common church argument of "sex is a need but only for marriage" to seemingly try to remove all excuses for any kind of behavior that goes outside of the Law of Chastity. And how neat it seems: none of us have any excuse, especially not gay people.
My missionary buddies and I accepted the strictures of the Law of Chastity. We agreed that masturbation was wrong. But we still looked forward to the day when our sexual needs could be met within marriage.
In the Spring 2013 issue of SquareTwo, S. Matthew Stearmer wrote “A Reflection on the Cultural Construction of Sexual 'Needs.'” He made three important points: 1. “Sex is not intimacy.” 2. “Even in marriage, sex does not necessarily lead to unity . . . it can even become a distraction from our true goal, if we conflate the two.” 3. “No spouse should feel obligated to meet the other’s sexual 'needs.' Such a mistaken sense of obligation removes the potential for open and honest communication, which is the hallmark of a unified celestial marriage.”
These points are well and good, or at least the first two are quite solid, and the first is truer than we might want to admit. They can and should be defended on their own merits. But his essay suffered from the regrettable insistence on defining a need as something that a human organism can't live without, like food or water. A human body can survive indefinitely without sexual intercourse, ergo, there really is no such thing as sexual needs. QED.
It’s easier to condemn men's boorish and selfish behavior towards women when you feel you've taken away any justification for it, but a narrow definition of needs as what you can't live without is simplistic thinking and sets bad precedent. Nor is it quite clear to me exactly how a sense of obligation must remove even the potential for open and honest communication. In those who feel a sense of duty and selflessness (which are much more pervasive messages in church than sexual needs), obligation is of course a formidable obstacle to open and honest expression of their thoughts and feelings, and maybe duty and selflessness are just other faces of obligation. They certainly do walk hand in hand.
It is true that too many people use the word “need” in thoughtless ways, like when a teacher tells a child “you need to sit still in your seat” when what he really means is: “I have the right to tell you what to do and I am going to force you to sit still in that seat that I chose for you in the first place. You have no say in the matter, because I don't trust you or accept your wishes as worthy of respect.” That goes beyond any social construction of needs: that's downright Orwellian.
A teacher might say “I need all your eyes on me!” when what she really means is “I demand that you all watch me because I am in charge!” Of course she may also believe that the children really need to hear whatever she has to say, if they are to learn. She may believe that children are naturally so feckless that they can't think or learn without constant adult supervision, measurement and intervention. Here is where a socially constructed need works the other way: instead of men justifying betrayal or coercion on the basis of their own needs, adults justify coercion on the basis of needs they project onto children. They silence children so that they can speak for those projected needs and feel good about themselves as virtuous, dedicated saviors of children.
Meanwhile, what the children really need is more play. Or do they? After all, they can survive just fine being kept in chairs six hours a day. They should be grateful if you give them recess.
Do children need affection or respect:? Well, the human body can survive indefinitely without smiles, hugs, play, understanding and all those softie sorts of things. We can say that children's so-called “need” for love is just a social construct, a product of the swelling tide of permissiveness that saps our national vigor. Let's have stricter laws, more rigorous school rules and longer hours, and harsher punishments! You could even point to the prowess of military states like Sparta or Prussia as proof that what children really need to make a great nation is a tough and harsh upbringing, unspoiled by soft doting. That is exactly why we have schools where teachers tell children that they “need” to stay in their seats and be quiet, even if they think they're being soft and nurturing by rescuing the children from their natural deficiencies.
Such are the questions we raise when we look past a facile definition of needs, which was clearly not on the agenda in Stearmer's article. My objections along these lines in an earlier draft of this essay elicited this comment from the editorial staff of SquareTwo:
No matter how beautiful, intimate, or bonding sex could be, if it is defined as a need then it inherently comes with the right to demand. As we have counseled with other couples it has been our experience that the definition of sex as a need - when combined with all the complexities of an intimate relationship - this shaky foundation will almost inevitably lead to insecurities, breakdowns, and conflict. . . . If we continue to insist on sex as a need it leads to some rather disturbing conclusions . . . We feel this foundation and its offspring must be rejected. Sex can be something that we desire, it can be important, it can be natural - but if we define it as a need then it moves beyond the negotiated space and begins to place inappropriate demands on the other partner. Always. (Private email)
That got me thinking about another lyrical re-write, this time of that Meat Loaf song:
I want you,
I love you,
there ain't no way I'm ever gonna need you.
Now let's be glad, 'cause 'needing' sex is bad.
I'm a married Mormon man and a BYU grad. I'm a writer by vocation and have paid for some of my needs by that craft. I'm well enough educated to know that I still have much to learn.