May 5, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

Wife Beating

Although connubial intercourse with one's wife is always permitted, this relation too should be invested by the scholar with sanctity. He should not be always with his spouse, like a rooster, but should fulfill his marital obligation on Friday nights.....The wife should not be asleep at the time.

Maimonides 1135-1204

If I had another life to lead, I would spend at least part of it as a cultural anthropologist. The question that I would attempt to answer is: What is the relationship of religion and culture to marital compatibility. I know that many people have investigated that problem, but the definitive answers have not yet been found. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that the investigator himself was reared in one culture or another, and trying to study such a thing is like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Freud studied the problem extensively, but the people he studied were all of the same or a similar culture. The same thing is true of the other psychiatrists and psychologists who studied the problem.

Anthropologists often get bogged down in studying a single culture and comparing it with the one in which they were reared . Margaret Mead thought that the Samoans did a better job of child rearing than the Americans did. Her work was seriously flawed because the Samoans apparently told her what they thought that she wanted to hear.

I think that I would start my anthropologic studies with the simpler problem of why men beat their wives. Nowadays the assumption is that a man who beats his wife is a mean SOB. That may be true, but there are lots of mean SOBs who don't beat their wives. I would start with couples where wife beating happens often. These would not be hard to find in any cultures where sex is considered sinful. I would look there, because the concept of sin is usually tied to the idea of punishment.

The desire for sex is universal; women and men both want it in much the same way as all people want to eat. In religions where sex is considered evil, that desire may be repressed. Often, in such "sin" cultures, the sex act may be followed by guilt and a need for either confession or punishment. When a woman refuses sex to her husband, both are punished. He is punished by not getting it, and she is punished by his anger and sometimes by being beaten. She feels virtuous and he feel frustrated and like the SOB that he is. He is punished by his guilt for having beaten his wife, and she is similarly punished. Eventually that routine can becomes a substitute for sex, or a necessary adjunct to it.

I would guess that, in the times before birth control became readily available, a woman who had her fill of childbearing and child rearing had one option; to refuse her husband. In some cultures, that problem can be solved more amicably by encouraging her husband to take a second wife or concubine. He gets his sex and his wife often gets a friend and helper. Not since the time of the Hebrew kings was polygamy sanctioned by the Jews, and then only for the rich and powerful.

Part of the problem is that a lot of people are raised with the "All ya gotta do" ethic. They are told, usually by their parents, that all ya gotta do is bring home a paycheck; all ya gotta do is keep a clean house and get meals on time; all ya gotta do is keep your man happy in bed; all ya gotta do is get rich etc. In other words , many people become specialists; and marriage calls for a jack of all trades. Rich men don't often beat their wives because they have other options. If the wife can't cook, so what? You hire a cook or go to a fine restaurant. If the wife turns cold, you get either a divorce or a mistress, or both, and she gets a lucrative settlement.

In other words, if a man is raised to believe that all that he has to do is to bring home the paycheck, and the wife is raised to believe that all that she has to do is keep the house clean and cook, they can be in deep trouble. The other part of the bargain is sex. When that stops, a poor man feels free to drink up his paycheck and his wife feels free to deny him sex. If it wasn't for cirrhosis of the liver, it wouldn't be a bad solution because the man gets to enjoy his booze and the wife doesn't get pregnant again in a religion where birth control is prohibited. However, no sex tends to make both partners irritable, and when some people are irritable, any minor argument can end violently.

This is getting too heavy. Let me digress to something a bit lighter: A middle aged man goes to confession and tells the priest "I had sex four times last night." The priest asks, "Who with," to which the man replies, "My wife." The priest says, "That's not a sin; you don't have to confess that." "I know," says the man, "but I just had to tell somebody."

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