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When the Laws of God and Man Converge : One man tried to use his faith as a defense against a charge of attempted spousal rape. The court didn't buy it. But what do religious leaders say?

February 05, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ramiro Espinosa used a butter knife to unlock the door to his wife's attic bedroom two years ago and then demanded sex from her, he figured he had the Catholic Church on his side.

But when he tried to use that as a defense last week against charges of attempted rape and spousal abuse, it didn't quite work. Catholic officials said he was wrong and a judge sentenced him to a year in County Jail.

Would the Los Feliz man have fared better with another religion?

And what exactly are the obligations of a spouse--whether Baptist or Buddhist--when a partner seeks sex?

Although arguing the matter in court might be novel, it's not a new issue. People have been dragging religion into the bedroom for eons, say sexual therapists Clifford and Joyce Penner, who are sometimes known as "the Christian Masters and Johnson."

In the New Testament, the debate usually centers around a passage in the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:

"The husband and wife should fulfill their conjugal obligations toward each other. A wife's body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband, and the husband's body to his wife. Do not deprive one another."

This might be the Scripture Espinosa had in mind when he testified in court that a Christian marriage gives each spouse "a right over the body" of the other.

"If that were the only verse [on the subject] in the Bible, he'd have a case," says Baptist Pastor Rick Mandl of Eagle Rock. "But we have other instructions."

In Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, for example, husbands are told to "love their wives as Christ loves the church. He gave himself up for her." The Bible, Mandl says, commands sacrifice, care and respect.

That view is echoed by leaders of several other Christian denominations--Catholic, Presbyterian and Pentecostal--as well as by representatives of non-Christian faiths.

Buddhism, for example, teaches that "all people are to be respected and all relationships are to be consensual," says the Rev. Sarika Dharma of the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles. "We emphasize not taking what is not given to you."

In Islam, "If a husband wants sex and the wife doesn't, it is charitable on her part to respond to his desire [anyway]," says Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California. "But if she doesn't want to, she has the right not to. Islam would not condone forcing sex because it would be coercion."

According to Jewish tradition, "refusal to have sex on an ongoing basis is grounds for divorce," says Daniel Gordis, dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "But there is no right to use force . . . to rape. Jewish tradition would look horribly askance at that."

Mormons regard marriage as "a partnership in which [husband and wife] owe each other duties of loyalty, self-control and courtesy," says Bishop Lynn O. Poulson of Los Angeles. "There is nothing that would require one spouse to submit to another unwillingly."

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Espinosa, a 54-year-old upholsterer from Los Feliz, clearly crossed a line by slapping his wife and tearing her clothes when she resisted his advances.

But what about more subtle struggles over sexual relations?

Catholic doctrine, for example, teaches that each spouse should accede to a "reasonable request" by the other for sex, says Father Gregory Coiro, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

But defining "reasonable" is a murky undertaking. "It would be very difficult for a third party to spell out the circumstances under which a request is reasonable," Coiro says. "That's up to the couple . . . [and] that's where the mutuality comes in."

Gordis agrees: "I'm not aware of any formulaic arbitration system in rabbinical tradition" to decide when a request for sex is reasonable. "Couples have to work that out the same way they work anything else out."

Court papers filed by Espinosa's attorney spell out the quandary: "[The defendant] contends that consent is presumed, between husband and wife, to at least fondle each other. . . . At what point does fondling or foreplay become [attempted spousal rape]?"

Therapist Clifford Penner says some Christians--typically the husband--"put a guilt trip on the woman" using Scripture verses and church teachings.

They'll say it's her "duty" or that "the Bible teaches that the man is the head of the marriage and the wife's body is his," Penner explains. But what they've done is take Bible passages or sermons about the husband heading the relationship and "misapplied it to their sexual life," he says. "Christ's headship was one of serving and washing feet, not domination and power."

Penner notes, however, that such arguments seem rare in his experience. "Clearly a few people have misused Bible teachings on marriage. But my view is that these are troubled people who have misused lots of stuff."

The Rev. R. Stephen Jenks, interim executive of the Presbyterian synod for California and Hawaii, says disagreements over sex usually signify deeper problems in the relationship.

And perhaps with one's religious journey, as well.

"Buddhists teach that lust in and of itself is a kind of craving that takes away from [the divine]," Dharma says. "Thinking you own someone seems contrary to any spiritual path."

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