English: Erotic scene. Rim of an Attic red-fig...Reading the various reactions of Christian bloggers to the Mark Driscoll book, two in particular stuck with me. The first was by Matt Anderson, who I think described the correct way to think about the event of an evangelical sex book, and also nailed the essentially legalistic character of the Driscolls’ explicitness.

The second was actually a series of posts reformed pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson. When it comes to addressing the specific issues raised by the Driscolls’ much-debated “Can We____?” chapter, he’s no Tim Challies. He’s the sort to see the potential benefit of a frank discussion of sex acts, and to promptly get the ball rolling. At least on the surface, he seems to disdain prudery and to be aware that many evangelical communities approach sex with an air of Victorian shame. His acknowledgement that “silence is dangerous” when it comes to the church and sex is to be commended, even as his pontificating about the “central sin of Manhattan” (guess) should spark outrage.

But despite his ostensible frankness, the moment Wilson takes up one of these issues in particular, he almost immediately reveals himself to be bound by the rigid Victorian dichotomies he elsewhere places himself above. He bases his rules for married sex in dubious arguments from nature, selective quotations from scripture, and a series of dichotomies that falter under even a modicum of scrutiny. There’s a lot to respond to, but since Wilson focuses specifically on anal sex, so will we.

“Anal intercourse within marriage is unnatural, unhealthy, unclean, and unnecessary,” Wilson announces before treating each category with a brief discussion. His justification for these massive categorical judgments is comes mostly from a few verses in the New Testament, to which we will turn presently.

First, let’s take “unclean” as an example. I choose it for several reasons, including that Wilson and I are likely to have unbridgeable disagreements about “unnatural,” which also seems likely to be too similar to already-tedious gay marriage debates; “unhealthy” is at very best unsupportable; and a case, though admittedly an irrelevant one, can be made for “unnecessary.” “Unnatural” probably has the most interesting philosophical implications, but “unclean” has cultural and religious baggage that gives us plenty to work through. As my friend Emily just showed in an excellent post relating tampons to her theological work, labeling something “dirty” is a classic smear tactic particularly suited to the marginalization of categories of people—women in her case—who represent “threats” to established hierarchies.

It goes without saying that there is no universal human agreement about what is clean and unclean. But there is also local disagreement within “homogenous” cultures, to the extent such things can be spoken of, and even disagreement within each individual. That’s true of all discussions of the opposed human conceptions “clean” and “dirty” (just watch Babies), but let’s limit it to the sexual. In an individual mind, it is an overwhelmingly common aspect of sexual fascination for something to seem erotic one moment and filthy the next, or erotic in fantasy and “shameful” in reality. I would call this a “chiasmic unity”—a case of opposites which define one another are held uncomfortably but inseparably together, a phenomenon that baffles the conceptual human mind. The concepts “clean” and “dirty” have no meaning apart from each other. But of course, Wilson sees one side of the chiasmus as normative (within God’s natural limits) and the other as disordered (Outside God’s natural limits: “The yearning gonads of a man who does not know God is at war with limits…”). I would never claim this internal play of sexual selves is part of human nature, but it is something we can identify as part of the irreducible complexity of the human psyche that plays itself out in the complexity of communal understandings of things like “clean” and “dirty,” and especially over long stretches of history.

“Clean” is problematic in this context because it is deployed as a weapon to deny difference, not a definition that can be defended with any type of rigor. There is always someone out there whose sexuality is “dirtier” than your own, and the temptation is always to locate normativity in one’s own experience. (“I may be a little racy, but that, that is messed up.”) Wilson’s biblical, heterosexual married intercourse is “clean,” but this other act that arouses his disgust, an act normalized by the “homosexualized culture,” is dirty; homosexuality and its supposedly pervasive influence are a threat to all natural, clean sex, and therefore must be declared dirty, dangerous, off-limits. Wilson’s blunt, reductive language is intended to underscore the dangerous outsideness of anal intercourse: “Sex is clean, but feces are dirty.”

It’s not difficult to see the weakness of this distinction, and not just in its empirical falsity. If we taking dirty to mean “icky,” as he seems to be doing, then it’s impossible to argue “normal” sex is somehow “clean.” It is a full-body experience that almost always involves the bodily fluids that have the highest concentration of pathogens, and I’m just talking about the sweat and saliva. Wilson’s invocation of shit—sorry, but sometimes the dictionary term is the most squirmy—is a dirty trick to distract us from what we’re actually talking about, which is not in fact shit but a different sex act performed with a different part of the body that has the potential to be a different kind of dirty from the dominant, regular dirty of heterosexual vaginal intercourse, and, as is almost always the case with biblical literalists, different is bad. The only thing we have here is a banal little argument from disgust, the oldest, weakest trick in the anti-gay book.

I could go on about the misleading nature of clean vs. dirty all day, but that wouldn’t be enough for Wilson, because he sees them not as concepts created unequally by different people, but categories undergirded by scriptural authority. If we must play on that turf, and I’m afraid we must if engaging Wilson is to have any point whatsoever, I think we can at least raise significant doubt that eliminating difference is what the New Testament is about. It’s not terribly difficult because Wilson is just doing some lazy proof-texting. So let me do some lazy proof-texting of my own.

If we are going to talk about dirty and clean, and what the Bible, specifically St. Paul, says about dirty and clean, we should look just a few chapters further. Romans 14 seems to affirm the fact that “clean” and “unclean” are shifting concepts shaped by individual conscience and taste, and that this variety of interpretation is good. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (14:5). Paul then directly confronts Wilson’s dichotomy: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (14:14). The last half of the verse concludes that dirty is matter of interpretation, but it’s the violation of conscience that is wrong, not whether the act—eating meat sacrificed to idols, doing it up the butt—is objectively “unclean.” (Because nothing is objectively unclean.)

Of course, what I’ve done here is not real theology, nor is it a very rigorous scriptural reading of clean and unclean. But I’ve done it in hope of illustrating Wilson’s slapdash hackery, that amounts to little more than bolstering his prejudice with faulty categorical weapons. I may be tacking on verses to prove my point, but they are as much there as his scraps about the “natural use of women.” For good measure, Wilson adds a healthy dose of fear by placing his argument in the context of “homosexualized culture” where medical information about the “dangers” of anal sex are systematically repressed. You can’t even call this biblical literalism, since it clearly has little to do with the actual contents of the Bible, and, as usual with evangelicals and butt sex, everything to do with protecting the “clean.” Which also always happens to be the dominant.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to Douglas Wilson and The Nasty

  1. Matthew says:

    You make an excellent point about Paul’s discussion of clean & unclean. In general, though, Wilson’s article on the whole was far more coherent and, I think, his point about dirtiness still stands. Even from the most godless atheist biological determinist evolutionist perspective, there is a significant difference between rectums and vaginas (I deliver babies, so I have some expertise here, but I don’t think you need to be an M.D. to appreciate this.) Sex is messy, but shit does not need to be involved. You think it’s unfair and gay-baiting to invoke shit, I’ll grant you the latter but not the former. There’s a good reason why we’re kind of averse to shit: it’s the stuff our body decided it doesn’t need to keep around. Intriguingly enough, among two partners who have adjusted to one another’s flora, there’s not much difference between cunnilingus and rimming in terms of the medical risk you take on (assuming your partner doesn’t have hepatitis.) But one is still an incredibly common practice and the other is incredibly uncommon.

    I surely agree with you that our perceptions of “clean” and “unclean” are shifting concepts influenced by conscience and taste. I do think, though, that it’s silly to make a big stink (no pun intended) about something that’s clearly dirtier. It’s one thing to say that nothing is unclean, but it’s another to imply that there’s no good reason to have any reservations about something that preceded by an enema.

    • Matthew,

      Thanks for your comment, and your additional medical insight. You make some good points, so allow me to clarify my argument in response.

      My goal wasn’t to deny to there is any difference between vaginal and anal sex, and neither was it to deny there is anything dirty about anal sex. I’ll concede immediately that it’s “dirty,” even “dirtier.” But I’m trying to erase the false distinction between an imagined “clean” and the projection of dirtiness onto what is perceived as its opposite. There’s a difference between “it’s all kind of dirty, and some of it’s dirtier than the rest” and “one is clean, and the other is dirty.” You yourself tell us that the medical risk of cunnilingus and anilingus are about the same in the context (marriage) that we’re discussing. So not only does a bright empirical/medical distinction fail to make sense, so does Wilson’s attempt at a theological/philosophical one.

      Also, I didn’t say Wilson’s invocation of shit was the only thing that makes his argument homophobic. I don’t think you can deny that it takes place in an explicitly alarmist, homophobic context.

      Finally, I must quibble with your characterization of anal sex as “incredibly uncommon.” I’m not sure how you claim to know that against the available statistics. It’s certainly not 100% of the population, maybe not even 50%, but it’s certainly more than “incredibly uncommon.”

      • Matthew says:


        Thanks for responding. I was pretty unintentional in not making a bright distinction medically/physiologically because I certainly don’t believe there is one. Rather, as you say, there’s dirty and dirtier– and I was trying to make the point that we don’t need a medical distinction to know what’s clean and what isn’t. Taste & conscience are what guide us, for sure– but what to do when our consciences are seared? Even porn directors know that anal sex is naughtier.

        In summary, with the homophobia thing aside (which, depending on how permissible one thinks sexual relations between men, is relatively reasonable), I think that Wilson’s line of reasoning was at least more helpful than yours because he was at least trying to probe why it is that anal sex makes a lot of people uncomfortable (and, as far as I have read, the majority of women either haven’t tried it or don’t like it.) In the end, I think you’re both right– Wilson to say that there are kinds of clean sex and kinds of dirty sex, and you to say that clean and dirty are what we make of them. But I think he’s more attuned to just how hard it is to make anal sex clean. I hope that makes sense?

  2. Nick L. says:

    I think he meant rimming was uncommon, not anal sex.

  3. K says:

    My concern (rooted in the entire Mark Driscoll book context) is that if by anal sex someone like Driscoll means only the substitution of the anus for the vagina, then I think there is something inherently misogynistic about that position (pun really not intended).

    If, instead, by anal sex someone (Driscoll or otherwise) includes all kinds of other things he finds wild and wonderful and has no problem having done to his anus the things he does to/in someone else’s anus, I’m more likely to take the position of “whatever floats your boat.”

    But I’ll admit that I suspect certain people who endorse anal sex are endorsing ONLY that form by which a man dominates a woman. Period. That’s problematic.

    • Scott says:

      So, um, K, are you saying that consensual acts of anal sex between a man and a woman are only acceptable if the man is willing to have something put in his anus? Because that seems silly to me. I assume that you don’t want evangelicals telling you how to have sex, so why should the rest of us listen to you tell us how to have sex?

      • K says:

        I’ll condense my argument so hopefully it’s more clear:

        I have a problem with a misogynist set of principles being used to determine what is and is not acceptable sexual practice.

        I’m not sure how my articulation of that problem becomes telling people how to have sex.

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