Christian Sexual Ethics and Just Love for a Mormon Marriage by Caroline Kline

Several months ago, my husband and I had a fascinating dinnertime discussion on whether or not we have a ‘just love’. I had been reading one of the foremost ethicists on the subject of Christian sexual ethics — a Catholic nun by the name of Margaret Farley who taught at the Yale Divinity School for over 30 years.  Her book is called Just Love.

The framework for sexual ethics that Farley comes up with highlights her commitment to the importance of justice in sexual relationships. For Farley, love is not enough. Love alone can be based on fantasy, it can be manipulative, it can look at the other only as a means to an end. Therefore, in her sexual ethical framework, love must coincide with justice.  Just love must contain these seven norms:

1. Do no unjust harm (don’t be physically, emotionally, spiritually destructive to the other)

2. Free consent.

3. Mutuality (both partners giving and receiving)

4. Equality (of power)

5. Commitment

6. Fruitfulness (not necessarily referring to kids, but rather a love that expands beyond the two, out into the larger world and brings good things to it.)

7. Social Justice (This is complex – on one level, she’s talking about making sure that one’s sexual relationship doesn’t harm third parties like future children, future lovers, or others that are in relationship to one of the parties. On another level, she’s talking much more broadly, about affirming the rights of all members of society as sexual beings. Homosexuals, transexuals, intersexuals, heterosexuals – all have the right to claim respect from the Christian community and to claim freedom from unjust harm and equal protection under the law. )

As I was analyzing my own marriage to see if it qualified as a ‘just love,’ one big question stuck in my mind. Do my husband and I have a commitment to equality in our marriage? Sure, we conduct our marriage as equal partners. No one has the final say just by merit of being male or female, no one’s opinions weigh more than the other’s. But listen to how Farley describes equality (or rather inequality):

“Major inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities — and hence, unequal vulnerability, dependence, and limitation of options.”

Ahhh! This cuts to the bone, this makes me catch my breath. I am so much more vulnerable than my spouse.  I can never make as much money as he does. Right now our economic contributions to the marriage couldn’t be more different, since I am a child-rearer/grad student and he’s a professor. Thus my dependency on him is much starker this his on me. So can our love be just?

I don’t know, but I am comforted by Farley’s later paragraph, in which she says perfect equality isn’t necessary, but that it has to be “close enough, balanced enough, for each to appreciate the uniqueness and differences of the other, for each to respect one another as ends in themselves.”

My husband and I may not score so high on the vulnerability/dependency part, but I think we do pretty well on the respect and appreciation one.

I’d love to hear your perspectives on this, since this is something I’ve had feminist angst over for the past few years: can a relationship be considered just and equal if only one partner is contributing financially, given the fact that that arrangement leads to a discrepancy in vulnerability and dependence?




Categories: Mormonism

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25 replies

  1. You always ask good questions. Perhaps what would make the relationship just is if when there are financial inequalities there would be a pre or post nup that made it clear that shoudl the relationship end the spouse with the lesser earning power would not be reduced to a far lower standard of living than the other partner. Some state’s divorce laws try to insure this, but as we all know women and children often end up in or near poverty after a divorce even when child support and alimony are paid, and often they are not. This is why early feminists like myself felt that it was so important for women to be able to support ourselves and to have equal pay for equal work. Yet with workplace inequality and adding children to that, women almost always seem to fall behind their male counterparts in earning power, which means they risk poverty if the marriage fails.


  2. Hi Caroline

    I’m new around here but thought I’d jump in. I think I have similar questions.

    I wonder about the relationship of mutuality (3) to equality (4). Mutuality assumes we have different things to offer, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that mean that there’s a degree of healthy dependence?

    Would it depend on how you defined power? e.g. Obviously at the moment your spouse has more financial power but couldn’t it be argued that you as the primary care-giver have more relational power, particularly over your child? (I’m not suggesting that you use or abuse that power, of course, nor that your husband’s not involved in the life of your child!)


  3. Caroline,
    Margaret Farley’s Just Love is a staple and go to text for me, even as a single woman. Since I have traveled this road in a 20 year marriage I find the equality component to be of greater importance than we want to imagine. While I am positive your spouse compared to my ex scored higher in all 7 of Farley’s norms, at the end of the day, people change and what once was a solid relationship can unravel in a moment. This is why the financial vulnerability component is such a difficult one to interpret and navigate through in a marriage.

    In a perfect world I should have had a means of supporting myself (I did live on my own and was self-sufficient, but not through education). My middle daughter just this month broke up with her boyfriend because he is unwilling to relocate as she begins nursing school. For him and his financial security, it was a deal breaker, even though he had initially promised to relocate. My daughter recognized the importance of self-sufficiency before marriage, using her mother as an example of what not to do.

    On the one hand I’m so proud she is strong and emotionally capable of putting her future and needs first, but I’m saddened her clarity was due to my own mistakes.


  4. No, this is not equality, not even close. This is a pretty typical heterosexual marriage, where the woman is dependent on the man, and does most of the childcare. How is this true love? It’s a sophisticated framework that’s been in place for a long time.

    And who says you will never make as much money as your husband? Wow, that shocked the hell out of me. It means you have already internalized the belief that you are economically less valuable than your husband. This is the system of patriarchy, this is what it looks like close up. Maybe a kinder view of it, but male supremacy just the same. It’s why women’s revolution is so far away, because male supremacy sugers it up, and then makes women believe they will make less money than the husband. Of course, it a complete and utter set up, and it’s not feminism at all, it is heteropatriarchy.

    To not be fully honest about this means…. well in 2011… it’s scary.

    “Consent”– do you have the absolute right not to engage in procreative sex, and will your husband consent to that? Will he respect your right to have no harm come to you during sex… accidental pregnancy, sexually transmitted illnesses? And if not, it’s not really consent on your part, it is simply acquiesence.


  5. Caroline – I appreciate the feminist angst as also find it courageous that you are willing to put up your marriage for public discussion! My thoughts are similarly to Tamie’s above: finances totally matter, but there are other kinds of power. In many (though certainly not all) immigrant Chinese or Taiwanese families (of my parents’ generation, the folks who emigrated as white collar professionals post-1965), the husband was the sole breadwinner, but the wife “controlled” the purse. For real – so making the money had nothing to do with who got to make decisions on how to spend it. (I don’t mean to suggest that those marriages would have met Farley’s criteria for “just love,” but only to make the smaller point that making money doesn’t necessary equal having financial power.

    Secondly, I understand your state as a temporary one – you won’t be a grad student forever and it is very likely that you, too, will be a wage-earner someday. Ideally, as a family you’d be willing to negotiate (and even relocate) to make sure everyone’s needs (his, yours, the kids) are met!


  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Carol, i think the pre and post-nup ideas are great. I’ve never been turned off by those kinds of contracts, unlike a lot of other people who seem to associate them with betting against the marriage. And i know certainly know of many women, who devoted their lives to having kids and raising them, only to be left in a very precarious financial position as the husband moves on to another woman. Pre and post nups would offer some very important security.

    Tamie and Grace, your points about power are good ones. For us, I think it’s accurate to say that I actually do control the purse strings in the marriage. Almost entirely — we only discuss really big purchases together. The rest is left to my (or his, if ever spent any money) discretion. Where I see the power problem in relating to finances come in is that issue of vulnerability. If I die or leave, he can hire someone pretty easily to do all I do. If he dies or leaves, I’m in a dangerous situation — because I am not currently a wage earner in the market, and it’s hard for moms (well, anyone these days) to re-enter markets after taking years off for whatever reasons. I am very open to the idea that it’s ethically acceptable for different partners to contribute different things to the marriage, if that arrangement is what both partners want. Just not quite sure how to make that work in a way that doesn’t leave one partner vulnerable. And yes, Grace, it’s a very good point that this is a temporary situation. In no way do I intend for my total lack of financial contribution to continue indefinitely. My spouse is actually very sweet about that — says he’d be willing to relocate if I had an opportunity somewhere. Which i particularly appreciate given that he’s an academic, and it’s not easy to relocate.

    Cynthie, thank you for sharing your experience. You’re right, things can change unexpectedly. One reason I have angst about this issue of vulnerability is because things did change at the drop of a hat for my mom, when my dad died suddenly and left her with a 5 year old and a 2 year old to raise alone. And I’m proud of your daughter too. Too many women sacrifice their own security and needs to further their partners’.

    TurtleWoman, my reference to never making as much $ as my husband is really just due to the fact that he’s in the sciences and i’m in the humanities. Society doesn’t value what I do as much as what he does, so he would always be in a stronger financial position. Of course, I could go to law school and maybe earn something equivalent someday, but that’s not what I want. As for your questions about consent, my answer to them would be yes, he would consent to all that. Of course, given the fact that we both went into the marriage wanting kids, it hasn’t ever been a point of contention.


  7. I’d have to say Caroline that this is all a set up, and you have fallen right into the trap. If this man left you, and there is a 50% chance or so of that happening, the risk to you is huge. Why is it that women take the biggest risks? And was this truly a choice? I actually think any time you are doing the socially ordinary thing, you have to question this.

    Why would a woman get an advanced degree in a low paying field? Why is this? Is it choice or is it fear of the higher paying fields that men make very uncomfortable for women to be in. Say male dominated places? The hard sciences, finance?

    So naturally, your post scares the living hell out of me. What would happen if women really woke up worldwide, if they didn’t settle, and didn’t compromise on anything? And no, as a radical lesbian, I don’t want anything to do with “marriage’ the very word is loaded with slavery, conformity and well it’s about male property ownership. And no, I have never curried favor from the het world. I can watch it crash and burn regularly, watch the 50% divorce cases out there… see the same old same old again and again and again. That’s not feminism, it’s just conformity. Freedom takes a struggle, and it makes women VERY uncomfortable. The point is its freedom, not capitulation.

    So your life isn’t feminist, it’s an ordinary middle class life, but there is nothing feminist about it. But you’ll think it is, just as women the world over try to make the best they can out of second class citizenship, because it is built into the system. And if you refused ever to have procreative sex with your husband again, he would probably leave you. You don’t have the choice you think you do. This is how I see the world of heterosexual women, and it ain’t a revolution, it’s a life, a privileged middle class existence. Keep this post, read it in 20 some years. See what you think then.

    I do warn women, but the indoctrination has been going on for centuries. What can I do really? Not agree with this stuff is the least I can do.


    • Turtle Woman: I have been following your comments on this blogsite and in particular, on the postings of my students. I appreciate the fact that you hold the views that you do, but here and there your comments take on a very mean, bullying tenor. Like consider this most recent one: “So your life isn’t feminist, it’s an ordinary middle class life, but there is nothing feminist about it.” Ouch! You extend no olive branch of empathy or solidarity. Caroline is not you – she is not a lesbian, she has chosen marriage, she is Mormon, etc. But you refuse to validate her way of being in the world and for that, you refuse to consider her a fellow traveler on the feminist continuum. Caroline has admitted vulnerability and uncertainty here (re: current arrangements in her marriage) and you trample on her exposure. When you say things like that, it doesn’t seem like you are interested in a real dialogue – in a real exchange of ideas. And that leads me to wonder why you spend so much time commenting on this blog (i.e., if your comments often show hostility to the writers).


    • Dear Turtle Woman,

      Please let me direct you to the comment policy. While I appreciate the perspective that you bring to this project, at times your comments cross the line, and this is certainly one of those times. The purpose of this project is to create dialogue, expand borders, and create new frontiers in feminism. Hurtful and mean-spirited comments do not help to achieve this. You truly have an opportunity to make an impact; however the hostility in your comments are shutting down rather than continuing communication.

      While it is my sincere hope that you will continue to share your perspective and participate in working towards the mission of this project; if you continue to violate the comment policy, you will no longer be able to participate on this site.


  8. Turtle Woman,

    I recommend you look up the word TROLLING. I have followed you comments now for weeks on this blog and attempted to view you as a voice that contributes a different yet important view to the discussion here but I think that at some point someone has to call you on what you are doing. Some of us are hetero. Some of us are not. Some of us are academics. Some of us are not. All of us believe in the power of discussion and community. We believe in the plurality of voices and experiences. I respect your right to voice your opinion on the blog, but you have been consistently trolling on the website. I get it. We get it. You have repeated your views in every single post for weeks. We are not all lesbians. Some of us enjoy our academic endeavors–and not because we are afraid of other jobs. we feel we are doing something of worth. Some of us love our boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Some of us love our girlfriends, wives, mothers and daughters. Some love both. It is not a trap. It is love. Some of us here on the website are men that identify as feminist. I feel and apologize to them for having to sit through and read through what they have had to read through.

    Also, for the record– I am a feminist. So is Caroline. So is Gina. So is Hannah. So are you. How i define that word, whether it be liberal, radical, loving, mother, daughter, girlfriend or wife– or at this moment fed up–is not to be defined by a blogger who has made it her mission to remind me daily what her issue is with my definition of living out the word.


  9. Caroline,
    I like your introspection, your willingness to investigate, even if means the outcome may be painful.

    Having been in the breadwinner position for most of my life and all my relationships (except my current and healthiest relationship) finances are a variable to consider, true enough. However, another variable is the no pay career you have as mother, and kid and church organizer…all vital to you, your husband and your children. Gay or straight we all face the same evaluation of our partnerships, or should. You say “Thus my dependency on him is much starker than his on me” – I disagree, you assume that if you split he will be better off, yet without you rearing you and your husbands children in the manner that you and your husband have agreed on he will not be able to continue in his career, put the hours in, travel…I admire couples that put their own careers, travel, vacations…on temporary hold to raise children in a loving, safe environment. You mention no measuring stick for being in love, providing a loving and stable home life, actually raising and educating the children you have. Just or unjust I vote for loving, balanced, respectful and lifelong partnerships are JUST. As a gay woman I think your honest evaluation is laudable, but perhaps you are looking for something that does not exist, an imbalance that can’s be quantified — sometimes a rose is a rose, enjoy it. — Sharon


    • Caroline,
      You’re beautiful post as well as the eloquent commentary of the women in response to the drama on this blog signifies the important work that is being done here.

      I related to your post more than others. I find myself living two separate lives. I find myself relying more on my partner and wonder, just like you, if “my dependency on him is much starker than his on me?!”

      What would happen if he were to leave me? What resources would I have since he “makes” more in our relationship? Does sexuality complex the “breadwinner” argument? What does it mean when he and I both know that I want to teach and write about women and gender studies as well as work within the non-profit sector and he wants to become a big businessman like his family did before him?

      We both know what I will be able to contribute compared to what he will be able to contribute to our overall relationship on a monetary level will be different but it is the PARTNERSHIP that we have created that quantifies the equal and loving relationship we have.

      How we support and love each other is often seen as unquantifiable. We see many arguments where women discuss their unpaid work as caregivers and what it would really mean for their relationships with their husbands/partners if they were suddenly paid for the services that have been typically defined as “natural!”

      How “much” does love really have to do with our ethic of care and justice within our families?

      You shed light on many important issues about the roles we play within marriage, the family, and society and how important it is to look at the need to develop a ethic of care that is both justifiable as well as relevant for families and individuals in a 21st century context.

      Because of your post, I have developed my own norms for my relationship and I wanted to thank you for that and your beautiful post.

      There was also a great post just written by Mignon R. Moore from UCLA about this issue from a NON-WHITE perspective. A issue that is often ignored within our discussion of ethics, the family, and how makes us all unique and different:


  10. Caroline,

    Thank you for asking these questions. My partner and I have openly engaged in similar conversations in recent weeks. We both strive to make our relationship as equitable as possible. We consult each other when it comes to big and small decisions. We plan meals together, cook together, and clean together. She might do more of the laundry than I do, but I am the one who scrubs the shower and does the dishes. (We have actually tried to quantify our respective chore-like contributions to the relationship, but this is pretty hard to do.) Point is, we really want to be as equal as possible.

    But there’s a problem. Like you, being a grad student, I financially contribute much less to the relationship. Also, as someone who wants to eventually teach, I will likely have little choice in where my first job(s) will be. I have explained to her that I would be lucky to take a job in Virginia, or Arizona, or Oklahoma (places where we know nobody and would never otherwise think to move to). This, I tell her, is the nature of the discipline.

    But it is no way fair. What right do I have to put my career in front of her’s? What right do I have to assume that she is the one who must follow me if I am lucky enough to get offered a job? And I still don’t know what we will do. But I do know that we have always worked through every decision – big and small – with the other in mind. And I have to trust that we’ll continue to do so.


  11. Hi Sharon,
    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this. My husband actually says similar things when I bring up this issue — that he depends on me as much as I depend on him. Though I can’t help but feel that if I died or left, he would have the means to hire someone to do a lot of what I can do, while if he died or left, I wouldn’t. I would have to entirely change every aspect of my life, sell my house, etc. But it’s a good point, and one that I should remember, that what I contribute does enhance his life and our kids’ lives, even if it’s not easily quantifiable financially. Thank you again!

    John, I’m glad to hear that these questions resonate with you as well. I love your focus on partnership and stepping away from trying to quantify and tally financial contributions in such a partnership. I think one key to making a relationship work when one partner contributes financially far more than the other is that the bigger wage earner never, never try to pull a power play and suggest that because he/she makes more, he/she should have more right to determine where the money goes in a relationship. Thank goodness, my husband has never once made such a suggestion. I look forward to checking out that link!

    Jeffreymur, I love the way you and your partner are structuring your relationship when it comes to household tasks! That’s another question I have. Since I am the primary stay at home parent, on one level it makes sense that I should do more housework since I spend more time in the home. But on another, I would like our household tasks to be equitable. One way I’ve thought about it is this: My job (most days) is to take care of the kids from 9 to 5 (and if I can get some laundry done, great. If not, oh well.) His job is to go to the university 9 to 5 and do his thing. But on weekends and on evenings, we’re both on duty for kids and chores. This has for the most part honored my sense of fair play about the household tasks issue.

    As for the academic job issue and your partner having to follow you around, i know all about that Ten years ago, I altered my career plans to accommodate my husband’s academic job offer. I was in the beginning of my PhD program in Classics, he was at the end of his in economics. Seemed like there was really no other way than for me to shift to high school teaching. But I was actually ok with that, since I was not convinced I was in the right PhD program for me anyway. And now, as I mentioned above, with my husband being an established academic with a bit more flexibility, he is willing to follow me if I ever have an opportunity I want to take up. It sounds to me like you and your partner will do your best to be similarly flexible about each others’ opportunities as your lives develop together.


  12. Caroline, thank you for sharing your experiences on these complex relationship issues. As I stated above, I am newly married though my now-husband and I have been together for six years, living together for 5 and change. So we have been experiencing one another on a day-to-day basis for some time, and while we’ve figured some stuff out over the years (if one of us cooks, the other does the dishes/cleans up… he makes a mean chicken and dumplings soup and my lasagna ain’t bad!) our relationship is, of course, still evolving as we take on new responsibilities and continue to grow (up?) :) as individuals and as a couple. So my question is this, as it is one I worry over given my parents’ (and all my friends’ parents’) divorce: how do we best grow together such that we maintain the amazingness of “us” and encourage it to only get better together? Can we (people in relationships) use Farley’s framework for “just love” as a guideline to a mutually flourishing relationship – as you seemed to attempt when addressing the issues of vulnerability and dependence with your husband – or perhaps a touchstone if not a guideline? Or does/might Farley’s attempt at a sort of equation for “just love” invite disappointment, resentment, failure in a relationship (that might be wonderfully fulfilling and happy) because the standards she sets are impossible in our world? In other words, does flourishing in mutuality with one another require more than a world without patriarchy, like also a world without capitalism (which is right now patriarchal, but capitalism could just as easily be matriarchal if gender roles were to suddenly flip-flop tomorrow)? Would a whole lot more than patriarchy need to change concerning our American human system in order for Farley’s framework, her standards, to possibly be achieved? Is this the point?? (These are enormous questions, and I’m certainly playing devil’s advocate a bit here, because I really admire and largely agree with Farley’s notion of the necessity of “just love” in a relationship. All you need is just love.)


  13. “Homosexuals, transexuals, intersexuals, heterosexuals – all have the right to claim respect from the Christian community and to claim freedom from unjust harm and equal protection under the law.”

    When I read these words regarding the goals of a Christian sexual ethic I was pleasantly surprised. So glad to have inclusive and tolerant perspectives expressed from what I would consider a conservative religion.

    Are there more examples of movements or blogs on this website that support the sexually diverse community?



  1. Consumption Rather than Production: The Modern Housewife? « Feminism and Religion
  2. The Five-Year Engagement: Just Love and Compromise | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist
  3. Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops) | Gestating A Church

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