As everybody can probably guess, I just love love love Dan Savage. I’ve definitely disagreed with him on occasion, but he’s right far more often than he’s wrong. More than anything, I grew up in a culture that was not ashamed of sex, where I was told that sexual pleasure was normal, natural and good, and I love that Dan Savage unapologetically continues advocating for that when so many other people have become mealy-mouthed on the subject.
My mother very much wanted to raise strong, independent minded women who were not ashamed of their bodies or normal sexual desires. Needless to say, she wasn’t anything like Michelle Duggar. We didn’t have “rules”, just advice and suggestions.
No one is going to put my mother on the cover of any magazines soon because her opinions on sex are highly commonplace for women of her generation. As the old saw goes, Dog Bites Man is not news, Man Bites Dog is news, and the Duggars are better than twenty-one men biting twenty-one dogs in tutus and tiaras. Consequently, Michelle Duggar, with her highly unusual opinions about women’s sexual behavior gets her own tv show and magazine covers announcing “Our Rules for Sex and Love.”
Really, you almost have to feel bad for Dan Savage, sitting in a barber shop, having the two eldest Duggar daughters smiling at him over that come hither headline. The man has made a career out of being a bold advice columnist writing primarily about relationships and sex and here are two young women, living in a religious cult version of Plato’s cave, talking about their parents’ rules for sex and love. It’s almost like a provocation.
(Note to Dan Savage’s barber: Get better reading material.)
As Savage notes in his column, the Duggars are not just a few individuals with quirky ideas. They are a politically active family that would like to remake the rest of us in their image.
One of the rules for marriage they are promoting is that a woman can never say no to sex. Via Savage:
And once a Duggar girl is married, says Mom, she is never allowed to say no to sex. “Duggar women don’t get headaches,” Michelle told Us. “You always need to be available when he calls.” And if you’re not always available—if you do get a headache, or you’re just not in the mood one night, or if turns out that your husband prefers Dad’s auditions—then you’re to blame when your husband cheats on you.
Sometimes, I am under the impression that we in the United States are a little bit naive. We have lived in a modern society for so long that it really doesn’t register in our minds what the full impact of these ideas might be. Michelle Duggar is not horrifying to us because we know that she lives in the U.S. and if she wanted to leave Jim Bob Duggar she could. There is little preventing her legally, or in society as a whole.
Shortly after reading Savage’s opinion of the Duggars, I came across a blog post that put Michelle Duggar’s comment about how she must always be sexually available for her husband in context. It was an email from a woman who lives in a culture where wifely submission is the norm. It was written to Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and blogger, Eiynah who writes about sexuality on her website Nice Mangos. In this email, the writer, who lives in Pakistan, says that she’s sharing her story because “so that other women may speak up if this is happening to them.”
The writer, who reports being intimidated by her husband, was in labor with her second child. Her husband went to a friend’s party while she went to the hospital alone. Eventually, however, he showed up.
Immediately after the birth of my child he spoke to the hospital staff, stating that our first born was still a toddler, and that I was needed at home because of that. I was discharged within 6 hours.
I don’t know what is the norm, but it is clear that she was discharged according to his needs, not hers. Afterwards, she was in excruciating pain from the episiotomy.
As soon as I got home, I was expected to care for all my in laws, cook and clean for them as well as look after my two children. An impossible feat when one can barely stand. The first days after child-birth, you need pampering, as any new mother will tell you. You need to be looked after and you need to recover. You need all the help you can get. And to have two children under four, is extremely exhausting. To be expected to cook and clean and wait on people as soon as you enter the house, borders on some sort of abuse. It is abuse actually, now that I look back on it. I don’t know how I managed. But somehow I did, because I had no choice. I was expected to take over the house work, because I was the ‘daughter-in-law’ and that was my role. If I refused the consequences could have been worse. I got through it somehow, but I would never wish it upon anyone.
Then we see the result of a society in which women are not allowed to ever refuse sex to their husbands.
On the third day after my delivery my husband tried to initiate intercourse and I told him (hesitantly) that I had stitches, and that the doctor had told us to refrain for 40 days as well. Then he got mad (as he often did) and I was terrified of him going elsewhere to satisfy his sexual needs so I decided to just let him do what he wanted. He said he ‘needed’ it, and that nothing would happen.
He said that I shouldn’t refuse him sex because then he would have to go elsewhere for it. He could tell that I was in pain and he continued anyway, my body had tensed up, I told him that I was worried my stitches would tear, and he told me it would be ok, because he would be careful.
After that experience I was bleeding excessively and had to continue doing the housework for the whole household including waiting on my in-laws. At my next doctors visit, I told my doctor that we had had sex on the third day and she was very shocked and upset. She told me that we had to refrain. But even after that we continued having sex every four or five days (not my choice). I have never refused my husband sex, ever. Its just not an option. I was raised to keep the peace and please my husband.
Many years later, we obviously don’t have a great relationship. But I continue to do what I need to, to keep my marriage going.
Even in cultures where men are clearly dominant in a relationship, there are kind, caring men who would never dream of behaving in this way. However, if someone has the misfortune to be married to someone who is not, she has no recourse. The ethos the Duggars are promoting can only seem benign the context of the United States where we know that the wider society does not enforce these beliefs, but let’s not kid ourselves about what this would mean for some women if it were widely embraced. We have moved away from these attitudes because over the decades women have agitated to change them.