John Piper on sex and “masculine leadership”

Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault, transphobia.

So I was listening to a podcast (disclaimer: not feminist, LGB or T friendly, or sex-positive in any way, and only referenced as a source of information and not as an endorsement of the content) about John Piper’s teachings on sexuality in marriage, which discussed the passage below from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the complementarian bible edited by Piper and Wayne Grudem, a prominent reformed evangelical and complementarian theologian.

This excerpt on what “mature masculinity” looks like in “romantic sexual relations” (what a quaint term) manages to be rapey, hetero and gender normative, transphobic, misogynist, and damaging to female, male, and non-binary sexuality all in one go. I’m not sure I have the strength or stomach to unpack it in full, so I’ll just make some brief comments on the dangerous falsehoods about gender and sexuality in this passage.

Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.

This is very difficult to put into words. But sexual relations are so basic to human life we would be delinquent not to at least try to say how masculinity expresses itself here.

It is the mingling of tenderness with strength that makes the unique masculine quality of leadership in sexual relations. There is an aura of masculine leadership which rises from the mingling of power and tenderness, forcefulness and affection, potency and sensitivity, virility and delicateness. It finds expression in the firmness of his grasp, the strength of taking her in his arms, the sustaining of verbal adoration, etc. And there are a hundred nuances of masculine pursuit that distinguish it from feminine pursuit.

What exactly does Piper mean by “forcefulness” here? It’s a very dangerous word to leave undefined when talking about sex, especially given Piper’s insistence that forcefulness, power, strength, etc., and “strong and tender pursuit” are absolutely necessary to “mature” masculine sexuality. The idea that a “real man” forcefully pursues a woman for sex, and that his masculinity is expressed in grasping a woman firmly and taking her strongly into his arms undermines the importance of the woman’s consent – of mutual consent – in a sexual relationship.

It is important to say that there is, of course, a feminine pursuit in sexual relations. This is why the word “initiate” is not an exact way of describing masculine leadership in sexual relations. The wife may initiate an interest in romance and may keep on initiating different steps along the way. But there is a difference. A feminine initiation is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense then you could say that in those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.

Again, there’s a lot of dangerous vagueness here. How does a woman “invite” a man to initiate sex with her? With the clothes she wears? The way she walks? A look? Piper doesn’t say, and his later comment that “mature femininity” means being “sensually receptive (vs. prudish)” gives no more clarity on the question. Without any specifics given, the idea that ‘real men’ pick up on subtle cues that women want to have sex with them veers dangerously close to the misogynist trope that women solicit sexual contact – “ask for it” – in ways that don’t involve, you know, actually asking for or explicitly consenting to sex. To put it bluntly, these are the kinds of assumptions that perpetuate rape culture: that all women want men to “pursue” them sexually; that women want sex even when they don’t say so; a woman would rather leave it up to a man to figure out if she wants to have sex than say so herself.

No amount of semantic gymnastics can hide the fact that Piper is saying “real women” don’t ask for or initiate sex. Women are being taught to be ashamed of wanting to initiate sex, or wanting to be explicit about what they want sexually. Men are being taught to be threatened by female expression of sexual desire, and to be threatened by wanting to be desired. You become less than a “real man” if you want your wife to be explicit about finding you sexually desirable. In effect, any sexual desire not expressed by men for women is to be denied and suppressed. Such arbitrary limitations on the expression of human sexuality are very damaging both to men and women in heterosexual relationships, completely deny the possibility of legitimate non-hetero sexual expression, and erase the existence of people of non-binary gender (i.e., neither or not completely male or female).

It will not do to say that, since the woman can rightly initiate, therefore there is no special leadership that the man should fulfil [sic]. When a wife wants sexual relations with her husband she wants him to seek her and take her and bring her into his arms and up to the pleasures that his initiatives give her.

Have I mentioned that it’s extremely disempowering for women (for anyone, really) not to be able to enthusiastically and vocally express a desire for and right to pleasure? And that it’s also disempowering to have to wait around for someone else to figure out how to bring you “up to” pleasure instead of being a full participant in making that happen? Yea, it is.

Consider what is lost when women attempt to assume a more masculine role by appearing physically muscular and aggressive. It is true that there is something sexually stimulating about a muscular, scantily clad young woman pumping iron in a health club. But no woman should be encouraged by this fact. For it probably means the sexual encounter that such an image would lead to is something very hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying. The image of a masculine musculature may beget arousal in a man, but it does not beget several hours of moonlight walking with significant, caring conversation. The more women can arouse men by doing typically masculine things, the less they can count on receiving from men a sensitivity to typically feminine needs. Mature masculinity will not be reduced to raw desire in sexual relations. It remains alert to the deeper personal needs of a woman and mingles strength and tenderness to make her joy complete.

Oh dear god. First off, super creepy. Secondly, there’s so much wrong here it’s difficult to know where to start.
– Women should decide what exercise to engage in based on what it makes men want or expect from them sexually. Right. Not self-absorbed or misogynist at all.
– Being muscular = being masculine. Implicit assumption: whether or not you are a real woman (or a real man) depends on how you look. This is gender essentialist and extremely transphobic. Gender is a personal identity, it’s not dependent on the presence or absence of muscles, or genitalia, or any other physical characteristic.
– (Real?) Men are constitutionally incapable of having romantic relationships with muscular women, apparently.
– No (real?) woman could ever possibly be interested in having sex with someone without any expectation of or desire for romance.
– Romance is a “feminine need.” Women who want sex without romance are not real women. Men who need romance are not real men. Men who don’t need or want sex, well, they don’t even exist.

Pro tip, John Piper: lots of women are quite fond of sex.

8 Comments

  1. I particularly like that when women are working out, we might want to fuck them quickly, but there’s no way we’d want to TALK to them.

    “The image of a masculine musculature may beget arousal in a man, but it does not beget several hours of moonlight walking with significant, caring conversation.”

    In other words, sure, guys are likely to be arounsed by muscular manliness, and maybe want to take a quick trip behind the bushes with a hunky man, but we won’t want to speak about it or have any feelings for the guy, so it isn’t REAL romance.

    I’m learning so much from Piper. I actually thought that I enjoyed tender moments, hearing that I was desirable, and feeling that way based on my wife’s initiation of intimacy, but now I realize that I’m actually just a weak, girly wuss and that she is probably a lesbian.

    I know that this has been discussed before, but this is just so obviously another example of coming up with a set of beliefs just to ensure that you can feel superior to others, and to justify whatever you struggle with as some kind of brave martyrdom/universal struggle with the true way. John, if your wife doesn’t want to hug you, it may be because you’re an asshole. It isn’t because God wants you to force her to hug you.

    • Hilarious comment! You win the internet again. If only it were all a joke.

      You reminded me that I forgot to mention the blatant homoeroticism in the passage. There’s a lot of it in Driscoll’s teachings on masculinity, too. It’s interesting how Piper and other complementarian leaders so often write such things, seeminly without the first clue about how they come across. Makes one wonder how many of these men who are so invested in loudly trumpeting their heterosexuality and dominance have wasted their adult lives suppressing same sex desire.

  2. a woman would rather leave it up to a man to figure out if she wants to [do whatever] than say so herself.

    I’ve removed the phrase “have sex” because I think this dynamic is central to what I’d call the masculinist agenda.

    I do take your very serious point about sex and rape and agree with them.

    But this ideal that a woman should never say what she wants, should never have a goal or objective that she goes after full tilt, is precisely what makes the answer “no” to your question “Are women [fully] human”. It is what keeps us children or 2/3rds adults.

    Not to mention the fact that I don’t know how you avoid your marriage being crazy-making if one person is constantly charged with the task of reading the other person’s mind accurately.

    Mature feminine women, according to Piper, are experts in being passive-aggressive?

    • You’re absolutely right; this is part of a larger ethos of denying and suppressing female desire of any kind. It’s wrong for a woman to ever state what she really wants.

      One of the other weird things during our premarital counseling was that our, um, adviser told us Mr. G should lead by planning date nights so I don’t have to “worry” about what we’d be doing on a date. And he didn’t just mean decided where we would go or what we would do. No, apparently what women want is for men to order food for them (because it’s such a burden to have to decide or say what food I want all by myself), and to bring a list of questions and topics to discuss at dinner (ugh, thinking is so hard!), and to assign reading or schedule state of the union discussions for dinner conversation. Yea.

  3. ARRRRRGH!

    Also: I’ve always had muscles, probably from a lifetime of working out and taking good care of myself. Should I have them surgically removed? Or since my husband finds me attractive, is there something wrong with him, and I need to find a new husband?

    Good gawd.

  4. Pingback: “Masculinity, a delicate flower” « Are Women Human?

  5. At least Driscoll encourages wives to be more forward in both initiating sex and letting their husbands know what pleases them. I never thought I’d ever hear myself say this, but Mark Driscoll gets a point.