Reflections on Ethics 112
Not from anyone's holy scripture
by: John Tyrrell
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I just finished reading the first three volumes of the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. Overall, the saga looks at several generations of the Forsyte family over half a century starting in the 1880s and how they dealt with changes in society.
A key event in the first volume The Man of Property is when Soames Forsyte enforces his conjugal rights on his wife Irene who has been rejecting him. It's not rape - at that time, a man could not rape his wife - the marriage vows themselves were considered consent which could not be withdrawn except by death or divorce.
Soames was troubled by the fact he'd had to force his wife, but did not feel he had done anything wrong - he was just exercising his rights. And Irene was his property.
But society was changing. The idea that a wife was property was on its way out. But the idea that a man could not rape his wife stayed with us - supported both by law and religion. It may be hard to believe by many who read this, but that has only changed in most countries within my lifetime - indeed within the second half of my lifetime.
Only recently did laws start to change, at least in what we consider the civilized world, to make enforced sexual intercourse with a wife illegal, to make it an act of rape. (Embarrassingly I'd suggest, communist countries led the way.)
Marital rape only became illegal in Canada in 1983 - which means the whole time I was married, I had the right to force myself on my wife, not that I ever did. Australia - state by state, made it illegal in the period 1981-1992. In the USA, it only became illegal in all 50 states in 1993 - taking 20 years for the idea to spread nationwide.
It's been a long and slow process over nearly 200 years - largely driven by the women's rights movement.
One thing it was not driven by was religion. Religion did not take willingly take to the idea that women are not property. Religion did not take willingly to the idea that a wife could deny sexual intercourse to her husband. Religion opposed it every step of the way - based on holy scripture. (Similarly to slavery, there were exceptions - but most religious institutions. as they always do, opposed change.)
The overwhelming majority of us today (I sincerely hope) regard it as morally wrong for a wife to be regarded as property. The overwhelming majority of us today (I sincerely hope) regard it as morally wrong to physically force unwanted sexual attentions on a wife. And none of us got that from our bibles. None of us got that from the ten commandments. We got it from society's changing views on the role of women.
And as for religion's role - religion opposed it every step of the way. It still opposes it in Islamic countries where a woman is property, and can't be raped because by marriage she has given unlimited consent.
And even elements of fundamentalist Christianity still regard it as the woman's duty to submit, regardless of her own desires. They don't see it as marital rape - women are just "penis homes." (See Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill mega church.)*
Don't tell me we get our morality from the bible, from the koran, from God. We don't. And the changing views on marital rape demonstrate it.
* It's just an opinion and I have no studies to back me up, but I suspect that in a high proportion of churches, if a woman were to approach her priest/pastor for advice saying "My husband forces himself on me even when I really don't want to have sex" the advice she would receive would be along the order of "Submit gracefully." Other clerics may not be as crude as Driscoll, but they still "know" the proper place for a wife.
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