In the second installment of this series on Stephanie Gordon’s book, Ask Your Husband: A Catholic Guide to Femininity, published in February by TAN Books, I discussed how Gordon’s guidance is potentially harmful to her readers’ wellbeing. Today I’d like to explore exactly how this harm might play out by looking more closely at the practical guidance for marital intimacy described in the book, as it is here that we find teaching that is most clearly at odds with the mutual loving submission integral to a healthy Catholic marriage.
The Gordons’ patriarchally structured marital life is not one without an apparently vibrant friendship. Their videos together reveal a genuine affinity for one another, as well as regard for one another’s opinions. Playful and kind, they joke and do not talk over one another. Stepanie herself has “moxie,” as she describes in the book, and is no shrinking violet next to a domineering husband. All in all, they seem to have discovered what makes their marriage work. This apparent success has led others to seek out their guidance: “This book is the culmination of lots of advice over the last three years…we have given to people,” said Tim during the book release. “Strengthening the Christian family has really been a focal point for us,” Stephanie Gordon added in the same video. Because the advice offered in Ask Your Husband is presented as a means of “strengthening the Christian family,” it is important to examine the way Gordon portrays marital intimacy—including her own—in order to discern the kind of relationship it reveals.
Gordon’s ideas and guidance around marital sexuality are underpinned by what she calls “complementarity.” A familiar concept, including in Catholic theology around sex and identity, “complementarity between a man and woman” has been described by Pope Francis, as well as appeared in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2333) and the theology of the body of John Paul II. Among several, the Catholic view has been described as “integral complementarity,” signifying that men and women in offering a “sincere gift of themselves” (Gaudium et Spes 24) synergistically unite their unique, whole selves to one another such that in marriage a new reality comes into being. In contrast to this, Gordon’s view of complementarity refers back to a more fractional version, ironically bolstered not only by references to Aristotle but also to pop culture (such as the films Rocky and My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
In the suggestive chapter titled “An Obedient Wife Is Actually Man’s Best Friend”–we find a definition of complementarity that arises from an Aristotelian “friendship of unequals.” Gordon ascribes sexual attraction to “functional differences of ability, temperament, and anatomy that correspond to well-ordered males and well-ordered females,” a “mysterious, unequal, sexually charged best friendship between husband and wife,” and glibly baptizes Aristotelian ideas of unequal relations between the sexes, calling them Christian complementarity (pg. 63). “This mutual dependence—a much stronger, sacramental species of solidarity — creates not only a feeling of need but also a feeling of attraction. In the “ionic” bond of matrimony, this special kind of solidarity is called complementarity” (pg. 61). This is an “opposites attract” version of marital complementarity, in which, quoting Rocky and Adrian, Gordon says “we fill gaps in each other” (pg. 64).
The uncritical hearkening to Aristotle ignores the baptismal reality which elevates marriage beyond its natural origins to the level of a sacrament in which mutual self-giving of whole persons is truly possible. In the personalist view of John Paul II, complementarity must involve reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife to one another, out of shared reverence for Jesus Christ. This act—which he considers a form of piety—is blessed with fruitfulness: an irrevocable bond, the communio personarum, which has the potential to pour forth into the new life of children. Indeed, “only the equality resulting from their dignity as persons can give to their mutual relationship the character of an authentic ‘communio personarum,’” John Paul writes in Mulieris Dignitatem 10. It is the mutual subjection of spouses to one another that protects not only women, but men and marriage itself from the “insatiability” of the union of man and woman and the lustful concupiscence to which all human beings—including Aristotle, Rocky, and Adrian—are subject.
Instead, Gordon holds to a view of complementarity in which a wife orients herself around her husband’s desires and offers that self to him rather than her own complete subjectivity. Reciprocity in this complementarian vision is absent, and Gordon admits she cannot even make sense of it: in the release video for the book, she says of mutual submission: “that’s just stupid, I’m sick of people saying mutual submission, how does that even work, by the way? How do you mutually submit?” John Paul II rightly identified this idolatrous and un-Christian vision of marriage as an inheritance of original sin, which led woman to “become the ‘object’ of ‘domination’ and ‘male possession.'” It is only “in Christ [that] the mutual opposition between man and woman–which is the inheritance of original sin–is essentially overcome” (Mulieris Dignitatem 10). What her guide teaches as Christian marriage is, in reality, a pagan substitute. The specific guidance with regard to how marital intimacy is lived out makes this clear.
A Happy Marriage Is Her Responsibility
In her book release video, Stephanie particularly pointed to chapter 6, titled “Wear What He Likes, Do What He Likes,” as capturing the heart of her advice for “keeping marriage fresh.” Not only will giving your husband what he really wants–a submissive and beautiful wife–divorce-proof your marriage, it will make it happier, too!: “Anecdotally, those wives I’ve met who accept their place as helper within the confines of the Christian household patriarchy enjoy far happier marriages than those who do not” (pg. 135). The bottom line? “Wifeliness entails the expenditure of no small effort to keep her husband’s attention by magnificence in her cooking, homemaking, affection, and appearance” (pg. 181). Focusing on a husband’s desires, seeking to keep his attention (much like one might try to distract a toddler), is not only marriage-saving, but virtuous: “The willingness to adapt yourself to impress your spouse is a good and holy thing…Doing so will ensure a lasting marriage” (pg. 179). Gordon favorably appeals to a passage from St. Josemaria Escriva to this point, and praises older women who continued to understand that their task even late in life was to “win him every day” (pg. 215). Any woman who does not engage in the daily struggle to impress risks losing his attention as well as her “status as his best friend”: “If the home is not made into a place of enjoyment, the husband will often seek his entertainment out with the guys. Be both responsible and fun for him. Nothing is sexier to a man” (pg. 71).
A truly bizarrely long section of the book is dedicated to weight loss and clothing choices, complete with unnecessary swipes against body positivity. “Literally no one ever became less attractive by shedding excessive weight,” she insists, rather unironically for someone who is otherwise appealing to the marital preferences of 16th-century Europeans–not ones typically known for favoring slim female beauty standards (pg. 185). Part guilt-trip, part pep-talk, these pages were apparently drafted in response to those poor, frustrated men who have written letters to the Gordons asking for help confronting their wives about an “unaddressed weight or gluttony issue,” and to whom Stephanie promised she would include this section in the book (pg. 183). (One thinks the openness with which men approach Tim Gordon so often for this unhappy situation might not be unrelated to the infamous anecdote he shared on Matt Fradd’s show in 2019 about “unhappy chubby tyrants running around yelling at their husbands” at Disney World. In this book, Stephanie favorably recounts the story, and how she told Tim “I should have turned to her and said, “Excuse me, madam. You’re not nearly attractive enough to pull off this sort of misbehavior” [pg. 87].)
Gordon confidently insists that she knows what all men really want. Rather than encouraging the reader to “ask your husband” about whether he prefers a wife who adapts her identity and appearance to suit his ego, Gordon plants the seed of spousal mistrust, insisting that all women should take her word for it that he’s just not that into them: “The odds are, if you are currently overweight, his physical attraction to you is severely waning. After all, men, as we all know, are visually motivated creatures” (pg. 185). The only reasons a man might not say this? He’s weak or nervous about “prompt[ing] an unpleasant wifely tantrum” (pg. 182). In fact, Gordon insists that if a husband has not made requests regarding his wife’s appearance, there is something gravely wrong in their marriage.
The entire section on weight loss lasts some 13 pages, including answering 11 separate objections. In it, the author reveals that she has dieted and exercised specifically to “tend to the preferences of [her] husband,” because, “understandably, he prefers a healthy feminine frame” (pg. 184). A guide to healthy spousal communication this is not. Nowhere in the book are women guided on how they might communicate their own wishes or needs to their husbands; instead, they are coached only on how to adapt for him and to encourage him to more vocally express what he “likes.”
For example, one objection in the weight loss section asks about what a woman should do if her husband “is uncharitably pressuring me into slimming down”. Gordon’s reply focuses on the husband’s “struggle”: “If your husband is struggling to articulate his sexual frustration in a respectful and kind manner, you should tell him so. He probably needs to be reminded that you, like anyone who is attempting to make positive changes, require encouragement and patience. Derision and impatience are totally inappropriate” (pg. 190). It is revealing indeed that a husband’s unmet desire for a slimmer wife is characterized as “sexual frustration,” unmasking the objectifying version of sexual complementarity that underlies this chapter for the undisciplined concupiscence that it is. The wife’s response should, per Gordon, also focus on how his bad behavior makes it harder for her to do what he wants: “Try articulating to him how his insensitivity hinders rather than encourages your progress and how he needs to reevaluate how he addresses you on the matter” (pg. 191). While this does offer some space in which a woman can request kinder treatment, it does not begin to address the underlying spousal demand. The book fails to identify this or any other situation as potentially coercive while reiterating that “honoring preferences makes marriage great again” (pg. 177).
One part of this chapter that garnered outsize attention on social media pertained to sex in marriage and what is traditionally called the “marital debt.” Ironically, the sexuality discussion is quite brief–a scant two pages–compared to the earlier discussion of weight loss. It also does not include any discussion of family planning (natural or otherwise), a rather surprising oversight for a book focused on a version of Catholic womanhood in which women are constantly preparing for or bearing children. (Though Gordon does warn spouses not to go “blundering blithely through one’s domestic routine, acting like a giant contraceptive” [pg. 197].) Also absent: any reference to a husband’s responsibility for cultivating the sexual relationship through care and concern for his wife’s experience. Radio silence on pornography as well, even though this almost-ubiquitous reality has undoubtedly shaped many husbands’ preferences. (One wonders: What ought a wife do if she realizes her husband’s desire for her to slim down is motivated not by a charitable desire for her health but derives from the pornified images of the female body with which he’s been surrounded his entire life?)
Just as with wifely submission generally, sex in marriage–and more of it–is understood by the Gordons to be the key to improving marriage. The emotional bond in which husband and wife “lack and crave one another in all ways” (pg. 61) is the sexually-charged glue that the Gordons believe holds marriages together. Tim asserts the rationale in the book release video:
If there’s more intimacy in the marital bedroom, all of America’s big problems go away. Oh, I’m serious, all of the Church’s big problems go away. If there’s more sexual intimacy in the marital bedroom there’s no looking around, there’s no porn–porn epidemic among married people is solved overnight. Uh, the, you know, divorce issues solved overnight. Uh, fighting too much but not getting divorced is solved overnight.
Stephanie agrees, writing: “It is an undeniable objective truth that if the fundamentals of your marriage are not up to par in the marital bedroom, your relationship fails to be up to par everywhere else too” (pg. 197).
Such a good thing must be obligatory, which is how we arrive at a discussion of the “marital debt”. A tremendously sensitive topic is treated briefly and clumsily. First, Gordon says, “the Church uses the term the marital act to designate the essential action–sexual union–which denotes the existence of the marital bond,” erroneously conflating the marital bond with the consummation that renders it indissoluble (pg. 197). This mistake–one which Gordon is not alone in making–elevates the act of marital sex itself above the sacramental union that exists prior to it, and offers shoddy theological justification for identifying sexual discordance in marriage as a cause of marital problems, rather than a symptom of them.
These few paragraphs are clunky, disjointed, and unclear, and effectively transform what the Church teaches should be a “source of joy and pleasure” (CCC 2362) into a transactional exchange of mutual obligations. “Those who are married made promises before God to dedicate their bodies to their spouses for the marital debt,” Gordon says, explaining in a footnote that “marital debt, also known as conjugal debt, is the sexual obligation one spouse owes to the other” (pg. 215). She then continues with the Angelic Doctor’s sexual commandment: “spouses are not allowed to, without a just reason, deny the other the satisfaction of the martial [sic] debt. This applies to both the husband and the wife equally” (pg. 197).
Gordon appeals to duty without real regard for the reasons why a woman (or man) might not wish to “render the debt.” While “there are instances when one spouse can deny the other, like in time of severe illness or if a spouse is requesting sexual acts that are not licit,” she is preoccupied in these few pages with identifying which are not “legitimate reasons”. “Common excuses like being too tired or not in the mood doesn’t [sic] meet the standard for denying your spouse this fundamental right,” says Gordon, leaving some question as to what would in her mind constitute a “legitimate reason” that isn’t severe illness! This section is clearly tailored to make women believe that it is only in a very rare or extreme case that she might be morally justified in telling her husband “no.” Ultimately “the point is that, according to St. Thomas, the wife assumes a mortal sin upon her soul for denying what is rightly owed to her husband by God unless she has a legitimate reason” (pg. 199). While she does admit that both “men and women must take particular care to look after the sexual needs of their spouses,” the section focuses on the ways in which most of the responsibility for keeping the sex life “up to par” falls squarely on women, and why their objections to such a framing of marital sexuality are inadequate (pg. 197).
Perhaps most darkly, this chapter concludes with Stephanie’s admission that she, too has “been guilty on a few occasions of claiming exhaustion and thereby putting my spousal relationship temporarily on the side. After all, caring for young children and housework is not only physically exhausting but also emotionally exhausting” (pg. 201). Rather than suggest how a couple might work together to find ways to alleviate a tired wife’s exhaustion, Gordon describes how she overcame by re-evaluating her own schedule. Mixed in with decent advice on making time for one another is a message that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep her husband interested in her while juggling her many chores: “Dressing up how he likes, taking an interest in his day, complimenting him, showing him how much you need him (for small and large things), and flirting with him are to-do list items that should be done far more frequently than just on special occasions. These things should be happening literally every day. As a wife, it’s actually your job” (pg. 207). In a later chapter, she adds that “a truly feminine Catholic wife”–which we can presume a reader of this book aspires to be–“enthusiastically becomes both her husband’s lover and friend” (pg. 230). Sexually fulfilling a husband is thus added to the ever-growing list of wifely duties.
The Catholic “Obligation Sex Message”
By instructing her readers that in most cases their lack of desire, “closing off sexually,” or a simple request for a raincheck in favor of more sleep is in fact mortally sinful, Gordon is in essence putting women in fear of hell in the bedroom. She is also shaping the expectations of her female readers as to how marital sexuality ought to work, to potentially devastating consequences. The debt-focused view of marital intimacy is what Sheila Gregoire calls the “Obligation Sex Message,” and in her recent book The Great Sex Rescue, which was based on surveys of evangelical Christian women about marriage, she found that accepting it greatly damaged women’s sexual satisfaction and increased their likelihood of experiencing sexual pain. Furthermore, Gregoire found the obligation message can enable marital rape by telling women that, in essence, their consent to a sexual encounter at any particular time is not needed or important.
Gordon does treat the possibility of marital rape–dismissively. Rather than simply saying that marital rape is unequivocally wrong, she seizes an opportunity to “own” those who “scaremonger” about the abuse of the marital debt: “Unfortunately, some Catholics greatly misinterpret the marital debt as a license for an angry husband to force his unwilling wife to have intercourse with Church sanction. This is far from the truth. Common sense dictates that this scaremongering is, of course, nonsensical” (pg. 199). She does not offer any guidance on how a woman might discern if her husband is angry, forceful, or controlling enough to cross into abusive territory, and no reference is made here to seeking outside help if he is. This dismissal of the reality–historical and current–of marital rape as simply “nonsensical” is one of the darker and more dangerous pages of the book. Besides, the passages that follow are designed to shift wives from “unwillingness” to, well, submission.
Also troubling is Gordon’s treatment of sexual trauma as it relates to marriage. While Gordon does go out of her way to address the reality that many women have experienced sexual trauma, her treatment of the matter is both uninformed and potentially damaging, as she maintains that trauma is the responsibility of the woman to heal herself–ideally, before she is even married: “I encourage such women to seek professional help now so that they don’t cause further suffering to their spouse by being unable to perform their wifely duties” (pg. 200). This is, plainly, cruelly insensitive to readers who have suffered rape or assault and are now burdened with concern about causing their spouse suffering because of some inhibition in their sexual relationship. “Marriage presents enough challenges on its own. For your sake and your husband’s, don’t enter into it with a handicap that might have been remedied earlier” (pg. 200).
This view of women’s suffering as a liability they must overcome on their own undermines spousal intimacy. Rather than encouraging women to communicate openly about experiences that certainly can continue to impact the marital sexual relationship with a spouse who cares for them, she suggests that it is a woman’s own problem to handle. Perhaps even more cruelly, this section assumes to speak for many good men, who undoubtedly desire to support their beloved in recovery from sexual trauma, and who do not prioritize their own sexual preferences over her good by making demands. Women who follow this guidance are robbed even of the opportunity to allow their spouse to be a participant in their journey of healing.
Gordon knows her potential audience well. Who will read a book like this? Perhaps an impressionable newlywed or engaged couple seeking marital success, to whom the Gordons have marketed the two books. It’s certainly not guaranteed that it will be those women who find themselves in healthy marriages to “parties of good will” (pg. 12). As Gregoire has pointed out in her critical deconstruction of evangelical marriage resources, those who seek out books about marriage are typically women who are in struggling marriages, wanting a “fix.” The Gordons admit as much about their target audience and offer their advice as just such a solution.
It is no stretch to understand that the advice offered in this chapter—exceedingly personal and specific, yet offered as a prescription for countless other women and marriages—is gleaned from the author’s own experience. And that is precisely the problem, both for the reader burdened with these demands, and for the author. Those in need of guidance from trusted sources on marriage and feminine vocation deserve the whole truth about marriage lived in mutuality, not a substitute.
Image: Woman Lacing Her Bodice beside a Cradle, Pieter de Hooch, 1660. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Rachel Amiri serves as Production Editor for Where Peter Is and has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.