Do complementarian men make the best husbands?
Last June and July I was really burned out. I had been engaging in a Twitter back and forth with Nancy Pearcey, the author of the new book The Toxic War on Masculinity. Her thesis is a simple one:
“The happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives … who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husbands.”
While her book was an ambitious project and has many things to admire, I felt this statement was both inaccurate and dangerous.
While discussing it with her on Twitter, I just couldn’t get her to seem to understand my central critique:
The fact that complementarians in name only who act out egalitarianism do better is hardly a ringing endorsement of complementarianism, especially when, if complementarianism is acted out, people do so badly.
I was accused of being mean to her by many by pointing these things out (and had several ridiculous articles written about me in hyperconservative circles), and I decided to let it go for a while until I had the bandwidth to address it properly.
Yesterday, our podcast went into both the problems with her arguments and the problems with her scholarship.
A Baptist News Opinion piece took a deep dive into the data about complementarianism’s results.
We also wrote this opinion piece so that our argument was laid out well, and people could refer back to it.
The opinion piece covers most of what we argued in the podcast (minus the scholarship bit). It’s an important one, and Joanna and I worked on it for ages. She even ran some new stats for it! (That’s one of the great things about having such a large dataset; occasionally you think of new questions to ask!).
In a nutshell, though, here is our argument:
- You can’t judge complementarianism by looking at those who say they believe it, because most who believe it don’t act it out
- When judging its effects, you have to look at those who act out authority and hierarchy in marriage, because that is the defining feature of complementarianism that distinguishes it from other forms of marriage.
- When you look at those who act out hierarchy, you see that disaster ensues.
- Even if people don’t act out hierarchy, another explanation for why people who believe in hierarchy do well is the rose colored glasses effect: they’re more likely to rate their marriages well because they put such an emphasis on successful marriages being a part of their identity, while simultaneously believing they don’t deserve much.
- The rose-colored glasses effect is huge when measured, and gets stronger the more you believe in complementarianism.
Some of my favourite bits from the Baptist News piece responding to Nancy Pearcey:
“Nancy Pearcey pulls findings from the same chapter in Gottman’s work, citing his conclusion that in both egalitarian and hierarchical marriages “emotionally intelligent husbands have figured out the one big thing: how to convey honor and respect.” Thus, she claims, labels don’t matter…However, she omits to mention the big finding Gottman uses to frame this entire chapter: Complementarian men only do well when they don’t act out hierarchy and put aside their beliefs. You can’t claim beliefs in complementarianism are irrelevant by quoting someone who found acting out those beliefs is disastrous.”
Turning to sexual satisfaction, we see similar disturbing trends when people act out hierarchy. Overall, our research for The Great Sex Rescue uncovered a 47-point orgasm gap between evangelical men and women (where 95% of men almost always/always orgasm in a sexual encounter, while only about 48% of women do). When we look at how acting out hierarchy affects orgasm rates, though, the gap increases.
- 51.7% of women who act out egalitarianism almost always/always orgasm (giving a 43-point gap).
- 40.2% of women who act out complementarianism almost always/always orgasm (giving a 55-point gap).
What about women who never reach orgasm?
- 10% of women who practice egalitarianism have anorgasmia.
- 16.7% of women who live out male authority have anorgasmia.
Zeroing in on the lived-out effects of complementarianism’s distinctives shows a disturbing picture of a belief system that works only if one doesn’t practice it.
The more one believes in hierarchy, the larger the “rose-colored glasses” effect — which is fine if you want couples to have a cheery outlook regardless, but rather problematic if you want to claim women who put themselves under a husband’s authority have objectively better marriages and sex lives.
It shouldn’t be considered a success that women who believe in hierarchy don’t think they deserve to orgasm or don’t mind as much if their marriages are objectively worse.
And then there’s our big conclusion:
Committed churchgoers who believe in Jesus definitively do better on the vast majority of measures than both the general population and casual churchgoers. That is good news.
However, we must not claim this means complementarians do better, because the data not only don’t support that conclusion. They actually warrant the opposite conclusion.
Regular, committed churchgoers who act out complementarianism do worse than those who act out egalitarianism, whether they claim to be complementarian or not.
We agree with Nancy Pearcey that it’s a relief that most who believe in hierarchy actually model the “close, relational model” promoted by egalitarians. But claiming complementarians in name only who act out egalitarianism do well is hardly a ringing endorsement for complementarian men.
We can’t declare the complementarian/egalitarian debate “worn out” by measuring what happens when people don’t act out their theology. We have to grapple with what happens when they do.
It’s time for complementarianism’s practitioners to stop claiming success they didn’t earn. Instead of riding on the coattails of those who follow Jesus’ words about living a life of service rather than focusing on power and authority, research shows complementarians really ought to join them.
Again, please read the whole thing, bookmark it, and share it! Next time someone tells you that complementarians do better, just pull it out and send it along.
Joanna likes to call what we do a public health initiative.
Joanna, our wonderful stats expert for both The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better likes to call what we do public health. She has a Master’s in Public Health, and thinks about things in those terms.
So here’s why we think this debate matters, and why we’re so passionate about it.
1. We know that complementarianism, when acted out, causes harm.
It makes abuse and divorce far more likely; it lowers marital and sexual satisfaction. It isn’t good.
2. Therefore, we should be encouraging people not to act out complementarianism.
Makes sense, right? Public health is about harm reduction: when you know something makes harm more likely, then you want to reduce the likelihood of that thing.
3. When we tell people that labels don’t matter, and complementarians do as well as egalitarians, we work against public health.
Just because complementarians-in-name-only-who-act-egalitarian do well does not mean that we can give complementariansim a pass, because when it is acted out, bad things happen.
By making excuses for complementarianism, we fail to warn against the problems. And we make it more likely that people will continue to act it out.
You may also find these helpful:
- The Great Sex Rescue, where chapter 2 addresses many of these issues.
- For those arguing, “but I’m complementarian and it hasn’t hurt me”, the discussion at the beginning of this podcast around the statistics about spanking would be relevant.
- For those wondering whether it’s right to call people out like this, here’s why we need to call out false teaching publicly.
- Listen in to our podcast this week that goes over the whole op ed in detail (with some extra material!)
- A similar op ed from last year, with slightly different points, addressing Josh Howerton’s claim that complementarians do best.
We need to teach what works.
Mutuality works. Considering both of you as equals works. Functioning as a team, rather than a hierarchy, and acting as partners works.
I’m glad that most people do that, regardless of labels. But that doesn’t mean labels don’t matter. We should care about the people who will be hurt if we continue to preach that complementarianism is okay. God warns us that when we know disaster is coming, and we fail to warn, that will be on our heads.
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked person, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved.
When you know disaster is coming, you warn. When you don’t, it means you’re not showing love to people, and God takes that seriously.
Pretending everything is okay when it isn’t props up the power structures and lets people feel righteous and safe, while also increasing the likelihood that more people will be hurt in the future.
It’s easy to understand why people do it: the church is heavily invested in men being in power. But it’s not okay. God is watching. It’s time to tell the truth.
Why do you think Pearcey was so unwilling to hear our argument? Why can’t people recognize that acting out hierarchy does harm? Let’s talk in the comments!