What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Accidentally Gets Right About Sex

What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Accidentally Gets Right About Sex

If anything, the harrowing ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ reaffirms the gospel’s teachings about sexuality and the dignity of the human person.
Mariana Barillas
By

Spoilers below.

Using the language of faith to illustrate the apparent dangers of erring from the doctrine of sexual liberation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is celebrated as a progressive parable.

The story describes a future where a theocratic regime has distorted scripture to justify state-sponsored sexual slavery in response to dramatically declining birth rates. Upon the recent release of Hulu’s serialized adaption, a new generation of feminist activists have rediscovered the decades-old dystopian novel. They fear that attempts by religious conservatives to restrict abortion on demand or require people to pay for their own birth control threatens their sexual liberation.

The author, Margaret Atwood, has insisted that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not an attack on Christians, but on how oppressive regimes use religion. The problem is when its crude parody of puritanical sexual ethics suggests that religious conservatives also see women as mere vessels for their use and abuse. But if anything, the harrowing tale reaffirms the gospel’s teachings about sexuality and the dignity of the human person.

Separating Love and Sex Is Unnatural

The story is narrated by the handmaid “Offred,” who has been assigned to the married, high-ranking government official Fred Waterford because his wife, who is compared to the biblical Rachel, is unable to conceive. The very name the protagonist is given (Of-Fred) reinforces that her identity is entirely dependent on his. Coerced into lying on the marital bed between his wife’s legs, Offred serves as a sexual surrogate in an impersonal and unpleasant mating ritual.

The handmaids are told that serving as mere incubators of future generations is for the glory of God. And it’s not like their voice matters anyway. “Blessed are the meek,” the handmaids are told by government officials who physically threaten them into submission. Offred notes they never finish the verse: “for they shall inherit the Earth.”

Christians agree with Offred’s rejection of her subjection. They know that human beings, as children of God created equal in dignity, cannot be reduced to incubators or sperm donors. We are created in love and for love, marriage is designed to reflect and protect that reality. Sex is not simply a procreative act, but an intimate expression of love freely shared between a man and a woman.

In a tragic scene from the television series, one of the few women who has given birth to a healthy child illustrates this profound truth about human sexuality. This handmaid struggles to accept that her child conceived outside of mutual love will be stripped from her. Her sanity slipping, she tells Offred that her enslaver has fallen in love with her and they are going to run away together so that they can be “a real family.” This handmaid recognizes, just like religious conservatives, that separating sex and love is unnatural.

What Puritanism and Libertinism Have In Common

The Christian message is not oppression or repression, but love. God gives us the freedom to open ourselves up to a particular realization of that love through the gift of sexual intercourse. Yet this freedom to love has been reduced to a freedom to follow our sexual impulses in the wake of the women’s liberation movement that celebrates “The Handmaid’s Tale.” When sex becomes primarily a vehicle to fulfill each partner’s libido, there is a risk of objectifying each other in a way that is uncomfortably similar to the puritanicalism portrayed in the story.

Rejecting either fertility or pleasure is wrong because it allows for treating persons as objects of use, even when there is mutual consent. Both the theocratic future portrayed in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the secular present are less about treating each other as the equally dignified image and likeness of God, and more about realizing one’s desires even if at the expense of others.

Rather than objectifying persons, Christianity provides a vision of sexuality that protects human dignity. Using women as mere incubators is wrong, which is why many Christians oppose surrogacy. Just like it is wrong for men to force women to bear life, it is also wrong to destroy that life in the womb. Just like it is wrong to bring a child into the world with three parents including one the child will never know, many Christians understand it is wrong for a doctor to bring a child into being in a laboratory outside of the marital embrace. Just like it is wrong to use a person merely for procreation, it is also wrong to use a person merely for pleasure.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is absolutely right to confront those who view women as objects for their own use, but sexual liberation is not the humane response to its critique. Followers of Christianity’s teachings know that true freedom lies in accepting a sexuality that embraces the entire human person as created by God, including their natural fertility and sensuality, with love.

Mariana Barillas is a program director for the Chiaroscuro Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to reconnecting sex, marriage, and children to promote flourishing communities.

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