The harmful myth of the ‘marriage debt’

Some Catholics are using an outdated and problematic theory to justify sexual coercion in marriage.
Our Faith

I had recently given birth to my second child when I first encountered the idea of the “marriage debt.” My ex and I were Catholic converts, and we had become part of a circle of young Catholic intellectuals—mostly guys. Someone had stumbled on a passage in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae that discussed the sexual obligations of spouses, and they thought it very funny that wives were required to “render the debt” even to leprous husbands. The debt being, in this case, sex.

The idea of a “marriage debt” is rooted in the old notion that sex within marriage served a second purpose, apart from procreation. Not the “unitive” purpose that many people may be familiar with from the writings of Pope St. John Paul II, but the practical purpose of managing concupiscence. Having a spouse was supposed to provide a legitimate outlet for sexual desire, but this required one’s spouse to be available in case the urge proved overwhelming. The “marriage debt” stipulated that each spouse was entitled to the use of the other’s body as needed to avoid the danger of falling into sexual sin.

My friends were unmarried, and several of them were amused by the overt misogyny in older Catholic texts. They got a kick out of St. Jerome’s belief that unmarried woman should avoid baths, which might theoretically stir up lust, as well as the stories of female saints who went to disturbing lengths to avoid inciting male desire. Most of them grew out of this by the time they married, and I don’t think it occurred to them that their edgy “jokes” might have real consequences.

But my ex saw an opportunity. As I had a toddler and an infant to care for, my libido was practically nonexistent. Like many couples, we struggled to find time to be intimate. Unlike most couples, my ex was willing to use theological coercion to demand that I put out. Using quotations from St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas, he argued that it was my obligation to be attentive to his sexual desires, to make sure that he wasn’t “tempted” into sin, and to make myself available even if I was tired and uninterested. He told me that sex was like my Sunday obligation. Just because it was obligatory didn’t mean it wasn’t an act of love.


To most modern Catholics, this notion of sexuality is bizarre, exploitative, and horrific. However, similar ideas continue to be promulgated in some evangelical churches and more “traditional” Catholic circles. Advocates of Christian patriarchy are eager to promote the idea that when you get married, you lose the right to say “no.”

Defenders of this idea often rely on a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:4-5: “A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband, and similarly a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather his wife. Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control.”

The context of this passage is a discussion about whether Christians should marry. In the early church, there were serious debates about whether marriage was justified at all, since most believers expected that Jesus would return soon. Paul, addressing this, establishes that celibacy is not a universal calling. As to whether Christians who are already married ought to adopt a celibate lifestyle, which some suggested at the time, Paul’s answer is “no.”

Over time, however, this morphed into a notion that a spouse was obliged to be available for sex whenever it was asked of them. Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae that “marriage is directed to the avoiding of fornication. But this could not be the effect of marriage, if the one were not bound to pay the debt to the other when the latter is troubled with concupiscence. Therefore, the payment of the debt is an obligation of precept.” Clearly, the discussion is informed by several misconceptions about sexual biology, psychology, and practice. As a result, Aquinas and others regard marital intimacy less as an expression of an interpersonal relationship and more as a logistical exercise in concupiscence management. Such ideas are dehumanizing to both women and men: They deprive both partners of the mutual enjoyment of married life, encourage a purely instrumental view of bodies, and see married people as untrustworthy and incapable of taking responsibility for their own sexuality.


Contemporary Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality tends to recognize this. We now realize that relationship between spouses requires a more nuanced approach to chastity that focuses on learning to treat the other person with respect, love, and reciprocity—as another self, rather than as an object of appropriation.

Yet marriage debt theology remains enticing to immature and narcissistic men. In “trad” Catholic circles, women are often still portrayed as “helpmates,” beautiful creatures whose entire happiness consists in loving service to their husbands. The professional misogynists of the Catholic manosphere take this to a cartoonish extreme, but they are a caricature of a more widespread attachment to the idea of patriarchal power in Catholic marriage.

Yet none other than St. Pope John Paul II identified such attitudes as one of the first fruits of concupiscence. In Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), he shows that the tendency of men to “lord it over” women constitutes a break in the original equality which is intended, in marriage and human relationships generally, between men and women. The “violation of this equality … involves an element to the disadvantage of the woman, at the same time it also diminishes the true dignity of the man.” John Paul makes it clear that the male desire to dominate women is not indicative of the proper relationship between the sexes, but of sin: treating a person as an object, rather than as another self.

In Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family), Pope Francis applies this teaching to the question of sexual coercion, noting that “sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation” in marriage, just as it can in extramarital relations. Francis refers to Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth), where Pope St. Paul VI observes, “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order.”


This is common sense: It is not a sin to honestly communicate with your partner about when you do and do not wish to be intimate, and it is a sin to demand that they have sex with you against their will.

Sadly, the internet has created an environment where it’s easy for Catholic traditionalists to spread the idea that anti-feminism is integral to real Catholic practice. Like many young, impressionable men, my ex consumed a lot of Catholic media that combined romanticized Roman and medieval aesthetics with a pseudo-theological elevation of “masculine virtue” and contempt for “softness” and “effeminacy.” Outside of Catholicism, popular writers like Jordan Peterson offer similar arguments to justify male dominance. Sex, as he sees it, is a dangerous force, and men’s natural aggression can only be tempered by regular access to monogamous sexual partners.

Women can get sucked into these subcultures in many ways. Sometimes, predatory or coercive men pressure women by exploiting their fears. I was drawn in after a socially progressive man who I had been dating threatened to kill me. It was a vulnerable moment where I found it easy to believe that real sexual equality was a dangerous pipe dream. The traditionalist Catholic subculture promised a “natural order” in which a man would protect and gently rule over his household without becoming controlling and abusive. By cheerfully submitting to my ex’s authority—including his sexual demands—I would naturally awaken his sympathies and elevate his moral character.

Of course, in reality, the kind of men who exercised “gentle rule” a hundred years ago are the kind of men who now embrace and endorse full equality between the sexes. The idea of “natural dominance” only appeals to men who have a disordered attachment to power and control. They believe that women owe them our lives, our service, our bodies, and our sexuality. It’s a debt that we incur simply by existing, and that can never be paid off.


Image: Unsplash/Zoriana Stakhniv