One of the comments that Doug Wilson has made regarding Jamin Wight and the abuse Wight inflicted on Natalie Greenfield is that Jamin and Natalie were in a “secret courtship.” The existence of this “secret courtship” is supposed to be a mitigating factor in the abuse. For the record, Natalie, and her father Gary Greenfield, both deny the existence of a courtship, secret or otherwise. Having read a good bit of literature on courtship, I wondered how what Natalie experienced could be called a “courtship.”
I discovered that Wilson has written a book on courtship, Her Hand in Marriage: Biblical Courtship in the Modern World. I decided to read the book and consider the following questions. First, how does Wilson define courtship? What is it, and why is it preferable traditional dating? Second, would what happened to Natalie fit under that definition of courtship? And, lastly, if there had been a “secret courtship,” so what? What difference would it make?
So first, what is courtship? According to the various advocates of courtship, such as Gothard’s ATI and Phillips’ Vision Forum, courtship is a way for a young couple to determine if they are suited for marriage. Unlike traditional dating, the couple does not get to know each other through going out on unsupervised dates. Typically, the process is for a young man to approach the father of the young woman he’s interested in and ask for permission to start courting her. The end goal is marriage.
This means that a man who is initiating in a relationship must take quite a risk in talking to her father. But God has designed it so that the man is the one who is to take such a risk. He initiates, and, if she has received her father’s blessing, she responds. This is biblical courtship. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 99-101)
Throughout the courtship, the couple will be expected to follow some strict guidelines regarding physical interaction. In general, no kissing, hugging, or hand holding.
The logic of unbelieving dating resembles a “test run” more than the courtship of a Christian virgin. Because of this test run mentality, it is not surprising that immorality is so prevalent. If a man needs to know a woman before he makes a commitment, then why should he be denied the privilege of getting to know what she is like in bed?
In God’s pattern, wisdom is exercised as public information about a suitor, or about a young woman, is carefully gathered. All intimacy follows the commitment; in the biblical pattern no intimacy precedes the commitment. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 1001-1004, emphasis added)
This process is designed to protect young couples from becoming emotionally and intimately attached to each other before marriage. The idea is that if their emotions are kept in check, they will be able to make a more rational decision about marriage. And they will be protected from the dangers of sexual activity outside of marriage.
We must reject the pattern of abdication, disobedience, and sexual immorality which we see all around us; hence, our rejection of recreational dating, or the modern dating system. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 124-125)
Fathers are key in this process. They act as gatekeepers and guardians. No one can court their daughters without their permission and all of the courting activities take place under their supervision.
In biblical courtship, the practical, involved authority of the father over the process is fully recognized and appreciated. With recreational dating, the authority of the father is treated as a vestige of another era, or as a joke. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage Kindle (Locations 315-317)
Doug Wilson explains the protection of courtship:
Apart from biblical dating or courting, there are many destructive consequences-emotional, sexual, and spiritual. But if a young man seeks to initiate a relationship, and takes full responsibility for the relationship under the woman’s father, there is scriptural accountability and protection. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 40-41)
The beauty of biblical courtship is that it never leaves women unprotected. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Location 93)
In courtship, a woman’s fundamental protection is provided by her father. But this does not mean that her suitor has no responsibility to act like a gentleman. Suppose the father has given his permission for a young man to court his daughter. As a godly man approaches a woman, he should assume all the risk. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 437-439)
Wilson also explains the way courtship should work. By its nature, courtship is very public:
With biblical courtship, the courting activity is publicly connected to the life of the family, most likely the family of the young daughter. With recreational dating, the privacy of the couple is paramount. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Locations 322-323, emphasis added)
When a young man is given permission to court a young woman, he is limited in his access to her. He has permission to get to know her while spending time with her family:
If the daughter is interested in the suitor, then the father should come back to him, and say, “No, you cannot take my daughter out, but you may take us out.” Because there is interest, the young man is given permission to spend time with the family. If that goes well, he may begin to spend time alone with the daughter under the watchful oversight of the father. The young man is being invited to spend time with the family. (Kindle Locations 856-859, emphasis added)
If at any point the father (or the daughter) decide that the courtship shouldn’t continue, the father can revoke the permission:
If it becomes obvious during the courtship that the young man is not suitable, then it is the father’s duty to explain to him that he is not free to continue to come around in the same way. He no longer has the father’s permission to single his daughter out in the way he has been doing. (Kindle Locations 867-868)
To summarize, courtship is an alternative to traditional dating that allows young couples to determine if they should get married while seeking and honoring a father’s role as protector of his daughters. It is designed to provide emotional and physical protection for young men and women. It is openly acknowledged, public, and has strict boundaries. There is no physical intimacy.
Given that understanding of what courtship is, let’s consider what happened to Natalie. I will warn you that the details are graphic and disturbing. Natalie explains how things began:
Jamin expressed an interest in me to my parents when I was 14 years old, months after he’d begun grooming me and had already instigated a physical relationship with me. To say I had a crush on him would be an understatement – I was completely infatuated with him, as is very common for abuse victims, and had been since shortly after I met him at a church event when I was 13 years old. (No one knew the depth of my affection for him, of course, I think told my parents I thought he was pretty cool.) My parents told Jamin he could wait for me if he wanted to and they’d reassess the situation when I was 18 years old. It was made exceedingly clear that in the meantime there was to be no ‘relationship’ whatsoever. As far as my parents knew there was no relationship … . My parents were naive and foolish, yes. They trusted him to respect the house rules regarding their daughter, partly because he’d been vetted by their own pastor as a seminary student. He didn’t follow the rules.
As a side note, it is common practice in Moscow for students at New Saint Andrews and Greyfriars to board with families. Students and families are encouraged to participate in this housing arrangement.
So, Jamin approached Natalie’s father and expressed interest in courtship. At that time, Natalie was 14, and Jamin was 24. Jamin was told that he could wait until Natalie was 18, and if he was still interested, then a courtship might be considered. Based on Wilson’s guidelines for courtship, that should have been the end of Jamin seeking out Natalie. But it wasn’t. You can read the timeline of events that Natalie put together here.
Here are some excerpts from Natalie describing what did happen over the next few years.
Jamin moved into our mansion on B Street and lived there along with 4-5 other boarders. At some point during this process Jamin expressed an interest in getting to know me. My parents discussed what they should do and ultimately my father told him he could wait around for me until I was older, if he wanted, and strictly forbade any development of a physical or romantic relationship. We were allowed to be friends. Two weeks later Jamin kissed me for the first time.
Let me describe a scene to you, one scene of many, many more just like it. It’s late afternoon in an old house on B Street in Moscow. A 14 year old girl goes bounces down the stairs of her family’s 8-bedroom mansion to get her favorite pair of jeans from the laundry hamper. A 24 year old man follows her down the stairs and enters the laundry room behind her. He sneaks up behind her and grabs her by the shoulders, she shrieks, then giggles. “Shhhhh! C’mere!” He says. He pulls her by the hand into the dungeon-like bathroom adjacent to the laundry room. “Jamin, stop! My mom will hear us!” the girl protests. “Then be quiet” he says, pushing down firmly on the top of her head until she buckles to her knees. She knows what he wants, it’s what he always wants and she hates it. She begins giving it to him and a minute later they hear footsteps coming down the long basement stairs. The man shoves the girl away from him, she falls backward into the laundry room and he closes the bathroom door to finish the job himself. The girl jumps to her feet, wipes her mouth and runs up the basement stairs, shaking nervously as she passes her mother on way. A close call.
Jamin began more serious abuse, this included sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse. He was wildly jealous of me, he spied on me, he gave me a strict set of rules to follow regarding my behavior, dress, and social life, he forced me to perform oral sex on him on a regular basis, he oiled the hinges of the doors in our home and frequently snuck into my room in the middle of the night, he limited when I was allowed to leave the house and where I was allowed to go (he did this by privately bullying me, as far as anyone else knew the decisions were my own), he demeaned me constantly and convinced me never to tell anyone about what was happening because he said they’d all know I was a slut and no one else would ever love me, he told me I should not go to college or develop any career or interests because I was to be his wife and the mother of his children someday and would have no need for continued education or a career path, he lectured me constantly on my flirtatious, sinful, tempting ways and convinced me I was an abhorrent girl with few redeemable qualities.
Jamin no longer lived with us but still occasionally stopped by to grab belongings he’d left, and during these brief visits would rendezvous with me in the basement or in a car for sex favors. One time, I stopped him on the front porch and quietly asked him if I was still a virgin because I didn’t know if fisting constituted penetration. He laughed at me, then walked inside. This was one of the last times we ever spoke.
What Natalie describes is troubling and clearly abusive behavior on the part of Jamin. He groomed her, he abused her, and he did it all secretly and privately, hiding his actions from her family. There is nothing about what Jamin did to Natalie that remotely fits Wilson’s description of courtship.
The last question that I want to consider is: even if Natalie’s parents had agreed to a courtship between Jamin and Natalie, would that change anything? No, and here’s why. If Jamin had been allowed to court Natalie, he would have been given permission to get to know Natalie and her family in an open, public, and respectable fashion. He would not have had permission to have any physical intimacy or private dates with her.
So even if there had been a courtship, that would not have given Jamin the right to treat Natalie the ways in which he did. It would not explain or excuse any of his behavior. And it should not have been used to minimize the sentence Jamin received.
Jamin’s abuse of Natalie was not in any way a courtship. I’ve written before about the abusive tendencies of patriarchal systems, but I sincerely hope that emotional, physical, and sexual violation are not common behavior in Wilsonian courtships.
When a man initiates and a woman responds with her father’s approval, everything is wonderful. Doug Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage (Kindle Location 1008)