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Can Sexual Consent take Place when there is a Power Differential?

The Abuse Pendulum part 4 (Revised)

Can the Victim also be a Violator?

Jan 27, 2023

Introduction1This is a revision of a blog I wrote in November 2021. I seek to provide greater biblical clarity in response to helpful feedback I received. – Shameful abuses of power

There have been many highly publicized cases of powerful people (usually men) who have pressured subordinates into inappropriate sexual relationships. The heinousness of those who used their position of trust and power to gratify their own lusts has rightly been exposed and deplored. The Lord’s sheep must be protected from such wolves who have permanently disqualified themselves from positions of leadership in the church or parachurch organizations (1 Timothy 3:2).  

Were those who became sexually involved with the person in power responsible to resist?

Some claim that where a power differential exists, consent is impossible. I acknowledge that power differential can be a significant factor, but it is not always determinative. The helpless rape victim is completely innocent (see Deuteronomy 22:25-27), as was the case of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. But an adult who is pressured to engaged in sexual sin, even by someone who is abusing their power, is responsible to resist as Tamar did (see Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

Some, in their quest to expose abusers and comfort victims, have swung the pendulum too far away from the duty we all have to God in the face of temptation. To say that a powerful man can be so skilled at seduction (grooming) that the victim is powerless and incapable of resisting demeans women and denies their agency. When Adam and Eve were confronted with their sin in Genesis 3, each initially tried to deny their responsibility/agency by blaming someone else (“the woman you gave me” or “the serpent”). While we, as fellow sinners, can sympathize with someone who has capitulated to a skilled seducer, every believer can, with God’s help, resist (1 Corinthians 10:13). The woman who has become sexually involved with a powerful man, rather than claiming that she is merely a victim, can confess her sin to God who will forgive her for Christ’s sake.If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).

We counseled a young woman who had been sexually involved during a lengthy relationship with a domineering boyfriend. Another counselor had told her that it was not her fault because he had abused her. But she was still experiencing guilt because deep down she knew that her participation was sinful (John 16:8; Psalm 32:3). While we agreed that her boyfriend was far more culpable because of his mistreatment of her, she needed to acknowledge where she was guilty – not only of sexual sin but also of making her boyfriend an idol (Jeremiah 17:5-8). She confessed her sin and experienced God’s gracious forgiveness.

Joseph the slave resists a powerful woman

The famous story of Joseph being sexually tempted by Potiphar’s wife illustrates both how those with power can abuse their authority and how a godly victim of such abuse can resist. It also challenges some of the contemporary narratives by illustrating that while most sexual abusers are men, women can also be guilty of abuse. We also are reminded that false accusations of abuse do happen with devastating consequences to the innocent (Genesis 39:13-20), illustrating the biblical principle that we should not treat someone as guilty without proof (Deuteronomy 19:15).2Abuse experts claim that false accusations are relatively rare. While we should listen carefully and without skepticism to all possible victims, we cannot assume that the alleged abuser is guilty without proof.

An attempted seduction

While Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife has often been used as an example of how to resist temptation, it also illustrates how sexual abusers operate. When I listened to a woman describe how she was groomed and seduced by a respected Christian leader, I was struck by the similarities between the leader’s vile tactics and those of Mrs. Potiphar. Sadly, she did not respond as well as Joseph did.

  1. A surprise attack – (Genesis 39:6-7). Joseph had already been trafficked as a slave, but because God was with him, he prospered in Potiphar’s house. Along with his success, Joseph was handsome, which apparently attracted the attention of his master’s wife. Suddenly she propositioned him saying, “Lie with me.” This temptation must have been strong because of its sudden and unexpected nature, because it would be flattering for a superior to show such interest in a subordinate, and because Mrs. Potiphar was in a position of power over Joseph. Sexual predators today use similar tactics as they pursue their victims.
  2. Trench warfare – (Genesis 39:10). When Joseph resisted her initial approach, Mrs. Potiphar spoke to him “day after day.” Some today might say that she was grooming him as she tried to overcome his resistance. In some of the heartbreaking stories of sexual abuse, the victim describes being groomed (seduced) and worn down over an extended period.
  3. A final all-out assault – (Genesis 39:11-12). Finally, Mrs. Potiphar catches Joseph alone and makes her final desperate attempt to lure him into sexual sin as she grabs him by his cloak. This also resembles the stories women tell of their abuser manipulating them into a vulnerable isolated situation in which he makes his most aggressive move.3This also was Amnon’s tactic with Tamar (2 Samuel 13).

What responsibility, if any, does the victim of sexual abuse have?

What is the duty of a believer whose purity is under such an assault? Some claim that the victim of sexual abuse cannot also be a violator. They teach that if one was groomed by a person of power, then she is not an adulterer if she gives in. But Joseph’s story teaches otherwise. He acknowledges that if he were to submit to her wicked advances, he would be doing a great evil and sinning against God (Genesis 39:9).4Steve Viars addresses this issue in his helpful book Putting Your Past in Its Place where he warns against responding sinfully when we are sinned against and encourages those who are sinned against to respond in a godly, obedient way. The fact that he was enslaved and pressured over time would not have been an excuse. God holds us responsible to resist temptation, including that which comes from those who misuse their positions of power, trust, and authority. And God helps us when we are tempted when we turn to Him.

Many have observed that often the first impulse of women and children who are being sexually harassed or assaulted is to remain silent, often out of fear. We should sympathize with those who felt that they had no voice when they were mistreated. Yet the tendency for victims not to speak provides even more reason why we need to prepare potential victims to overcome their inclination to remain silent and to actively resist and expose evildoers by crying out.

The responsibility and ability of the victim to resist may vary according to their age and other circumstances. Far more would be expected of a mature Christian woman than someone who is much younger and far more vulnerable.

How can a potential victim resist sexual harassment/temptation? 

We all will be tempted in various ways. Some of us, like Joseph, may be tempted sexually by those who would misuse their power and trust.5In some cases, the temptation might not be from a person with formal authority over us, but someone like the Strange Woman in Proverbs 7 who uses the power of flattery to draw us away from the Lord. Scripture promises us that God will not put us into situations in which falling into sin is inevitable (1 Corinthians 10:13). Joseph shows us what we must do to escape the clutches of temptation.

  1. Love God — Value your relationship with God above all else (Genesis 39:9b). Joseph can resist the advances of Potiphar’s wife because of his strong relationship with God. He values the delights of intimacy with God more highly than the earthly pleasures she offers him (Genesis 39:2,21 also see Psalm 34:8 and Isaiah 55:1-2). Those who are walking in the Spirit will not give in to fleshly desires (Galatians 5:16). Fear of God will enable us to overcome fear of man (Proverbs 29:25).
  2. Love your neighbor — Joseph respected the marital rights of Potiphar as we are also to honor all marriages under God (Genesis 39:8-9a Hebrews 13:4 Matthew 19:6). Sin, especially sexual sin, harms many people including spouses, children, extended family, and the church community. It is a great and destructive evil.
  3. Avoid tempting situations (Genesis 39:10). When Mrs. Potiphar continued to pursue Joseph, he not only refused to lie with her, he also refused to even be in her presence (see Proverbs 5:8). A woman who senses inappropriate interest from a man should refuse to be alone with him. Men in authority also need to be careful. In recent days the “Billy Graham Rule” (refusing to be in private situations with ladies who are not family members) has come under criticism from those who say that men should not assume that their Christian sisters are out to seduce them (like Potiphar’s wife) and that such rules lead to women being denied opportunities and access to men in power. As with many issues, balance is needed. Male leaders are called to shepherd all the sheep, including the females. However, having seen how many godly people have fallen into sin (often believing it could never happen to them (1 Corinthians 10:12), and knowing our own sinful weakness, discretion is appropriate.
  4. Flee youthful lusts (Genesis 39:10,12). When Mrs. Potiphar cornered Joseph in the house he ran for his life. When I hear the stories of victims of sexual misconduct by people in authority, they often will acknowledge that they sensed that something was wrong long before they were pulled into sexual sin. Perhaps they stayed in the relationship because they could not imagine their trusted leader doing evil to them. Or perhaps they were flattered by the attention they were receiving or feared giving up the opportunities which their mentor could offer. It is best to quit your job or to leave the church and to expose the abuse, even if it costs you in the short term (Genesis 39:13-20; Matthew 5:29). Joseph’s experience exemplifies Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:22, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

Conclusion — Christ will help you.

No doubt the pull of temptation or fear can be very strong, especially when the source is someone in a position of trust and power. We have a Savior of whom it is said, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Though Joseph experienced significant temptations, Jesus was tempted far more. C.S. Lewis pointed out that only the person who has resisted temptation fully knows the full power of temptation, not the person who gives in.6“Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. … We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.” From C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Book III Chapter 11. Jesus resisted temptation to its greatest possible degree and now helps us to walk in his steps as we turn to Him. Finally, when we fall into temptation, He offers forgiveness to all who confess their sins and look to Him for grace (1 John 1:8-2:2).

*This is part of a series of four blogs about domestic abuse by Dr. Jim Newheiser. Read the Abuse Pendulum Part OnePart Two, and Part Three.

To read ACBC’s Statement on Abuse and Biblical Counseling visit our Committed to Care website.