Sex Trafficking and Complementarianism

On Friday night a group from my Home Church went on a tour of the sex trafficking industry in Hamilton. It was definitely very informative and we prayed over different parts of the city that are big parts of the trade: a strip club, a jail where many offenders are held with a Beer Store right across the road for when they get out, the police station as we talked about both the good and the bad done by them, City Hall as we talked about how laws hurt more than help, and more. I don’t really know the specific denominational background of our guide but she definitely seemed to be pretty evangelical in her word choices. As Emily and I bussed home, we talked a little about how it is great to see evangelicals making sex trafficking a bit of a pet cause in the last decade or so.

But here’s the problem: many Christians are encouraging this gender oppression even at the same time they are fighting against it. They do this in the name of good ol’ biblical complementarianism. And by biblical complementarianism, they usually mean more like Leave It to Beaver 1950’s middle-class white America. Women are to submit to their husbands. Men always have the veto power. Some extend this to set roles like woman as homemaker while the man makes money. Some are happy to return to Ancient Near Eastern norms where women are property, of their father until they get married when they change hands to their husbands. I was very confused a couple of years ago when I met someone online, from the U.S. I think, who argued that men still need to buy their wives from the father.

The more rules that are added, the more it can encourage huge issues of gender oppression, but let’s stick to the basic concept: men rule, women submit. Let’s follow that to the logical extremes. If a daughter must submit to her father until she is married and her father wants to sell her into slavery, is she allowed to resist? The complementarian answer clearly states no, even though many complementarians want to end sex trafficking. If a man wants  sex of any type and any time regardless of consent, complementarians often say that a woman must obey. In case you didn’t know, non-consensual sex is the same thing as rape. If a man can’t get a job so he traffics his wife and then uses the income for his own enjoyment, a common scenario in the lower class even here in Hamilton, she has to submit. If a man feels like abusing his wife in a drunken rage, she has to submit to it and just live through it. None of these scenarios are unusual and they are all encouraged by complementarianism.

I would love to conclude simply that this is proof that complementarianism is wrong and stupid and harmful. It’s true I am generally inclined to think so. But I’m sure many comps reading this have already thought of something: hey, when we say that women must submit, we don’t mean submit to being a sex slave! Ok, yes, some complementarians do think that it does include those scenarios too, but that’s definitely a minority.

So to you, here’s the challenge: if that’s not what you mean, don’t say it in a way that leaves that possibility open. Unfortunately as complementarianism demands, it is always men giving these messages. Many of these men are not informed on those scenarios mentioned above precisely because they cannot learn from women since that would make them weak. So they often simply don’t know that what they might say with completely good intentions is hurting a lot of people.

They can scream SUBMIT SUBMIT SUBMIT and be assuming that everyone in the audience are in happy marriages where the man’s veto power decisions are always for his wife’s own good. But in reality 1 out of every 17 Canadian women are raped at some point in their lives. If you expand that to sexual abuse in general, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys are sexually abused by the time they are 18. So if you have a church of 5,000 plus another 20,000 listening to the teachings online (as often the case for contemporary megachurches), you’re talking approx 4200 people you just accidentally told to shut up and take it. You’ve just encouraged systemic abuse and trafficking, whether or not you meant to be talking about it or not.

This serves as a good example of an important principle: when you speak only from your context and universalize it to be all contexts, you probably are going to hurt somebody. Maybe complementarianism does work reasonably well in your happy white suburban family. You like Leave It To Beaver. That’s great for you. It just isn’t everyone, and if you’re going to preach in the real world, you need to be aware of realities like sex trafficking, abuse, and a whole slew of other ways that sexism is manifest in the world.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.