16 Days of Activism – Day 3: Caroline Blyth

Our third interview to mark the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence is from co-director Caroline Blyth, senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Auckland.

Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

I’m a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Auckland, and also participate in the Gender Studies programme there too. My teaching reflects my research to a great extent, and I focus on religion in popular culture, with a particular interest in issues of religion, gender and sexuality – how do religious communities and traditions impact socio-cultural perceptions of gender and sexuality? I also co-organize a student engagement project in the Faculty of Arts, which is called Hidden Perspectives: Bringing the Arts Out of the Closet. It’s a project inspired by the original Hidden Perspectives project developed by the fabulous folks at Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. With Hidden Perspectives Auckland, we have created an inclusive academic and social community for queer students at the University, where they can get involved in queering the Arts and making their voices heard.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

As Katie and Johanna have explained in their own interviews, the Shiloh Project is something Katie and I had spoken about starting quite a while ago, but we were able to push ideas into practice when we met up with the indomitable Johanna and some other wonderful colleagues (Emma Nagouse, Valerie Hobbs, and Jessica Keady) last year at a meeting in Leeds. So along with Katie and Johanna, I help run the Shiloh Project, and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of such an important project, or to work with such wonderful colleagues.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

A lot of my work to date has focused on gender violence in sacred texts, particularly the ways that biblical depictions of gender violence can echo the still very prevalent myths and misperceptions around gender violence that sustain contemporary rape cultures. When I started my PhD thesis on the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) back in 2005, I fully expected to be discussing the ways that social attitudes towards sexual violence had ‘moved on’ and become far more informed compared to biblical discourses of rape. But alas, I soon discovered this was not the case. And what frustrates me is that so many of the biblical traditions that do present really problematic ideologies around gender and gender violence are either ignored or excused by both religious communities and academic biblical scholars – as though their ‘sacred’ status rendered them beyond our critique. But, given how powerful the Bible remains as a religious and cultural text in global contemporary cultures, its problematic texts and traditions (which appear to endorse rape-supportive ideologies) urgently need to be addressed and discussed in both academic and wider public forums. Because these texts do still play a role in the world today, shaping popular perceptions about gender violence and granting validity to some really damaging discourses around rape and rape culture.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussions about gender activism today? 

I think that a massive strength of the Shiloh Project is that it rescues religious studies and biblical studies from the confines of the academy and offers academics, students, and interested members of the public an accessible (but still academically-rigorous) platform to talk openly and engagingly about a topic that remains so taboo. It’s not doing work that only a handful of like-minded academics can understand, but is really motivated to widening the discussion and fostering a sense of community and activism in which people both inside and outside the academy can participate. I think this is both vital for the future health of religious studies as an academic discipline, but also crucial to every academic’s role as critic and conscience of society and their responsibility is to make a difference – in my case, by tackling gender violence and encouraging activism that will make the world a safer and more inclusive place.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

I have two future projects in mind at the moment. I’m hoping to work with my colleague in Auckland, Emily Colgan (a fellow Project Shiloh member), on the problematic depictions of gender roles and relationships in conservative Christian literature, particularly ‘self-help’ literature and fiction. This is an incredibly popular and prolific genre, and what I’ve come across has fascinated (and appalled) me as to its re-inscription of traditional gender roles, as well as its perpetuation of some very common rape-supportive discourses.

I’m also currently focusing on a slightly different strand of gender violence, and that is the symbolic and structural violence of transphobia sustained by religious rhetoric (particularly conservative Christian rhetoric). There’s been a huge flurry of concern among conservative Christian communities around, what they term, the ‘transgender debate’. To my mind, this ‘debate’ essentially denies the existence of authentic trans identities and works to exclude trans people from the human community. Some of the discourses evoked in these discussions are really toxic, and play a significant role in perpetuating or validating the alarmingly high rates of transphobic violence that trans people have to live with on a daily basis. I’m wanting to interrogate this ‘transgender debate’ and highlight its potential for sustaining violence, not to mention its problematic engagements with sacred texts, theologies, and traditions. I hope too that my work can inspire some timely and urgent dialogues of reconciliation between queer and religious communities. A tall order, but I’m intent on gradually chipping away at the homophobic and transphobic edifices that remain so prevalent in many religious communities today.

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Handmaids and Jezebels: Anaesthetising the Language of Sexual Violence

I recently spoke to a friend about the Hulu adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. As we continued to discuss what we agreed was a remarkable reimagining of Gilead, my friend mentioned how uncomfortable the ‘sex scenes’ made them feel, to which I responded, “… is that because they’re rape scenes?”

My friend was taken aback by this, and provided an empathetic “Yes! Because they are RAPE scenes!” in what sounded like a moment of revelation. This prompted me to consider the impact of the euphemistic nature of language used to describe sexual violence in Gilead. Such use of language contributes to the normalisation of sexual violence, which lies at the heart of rape culture.

It should be noted that my friend is not alone in their description of the sexual violence in The Handmaid’s Tale; Commanders are regularly described as having sex with handmaids during “the ceremony”, as opposed to raping them.

Commentaries on the episode “Jezebels” which describe June’s visit to a “brothel” filled with “prostitutes” are particularly intriguing in this regard. We are made explicitly aware by Moira that the only “choice” these women have is between Jezebels and death. Can such a scenario really be described as prostitution? Unless we are to recognise enforced consent as consent, a “rape den” seems a more appropriate term than a sex club.

What is more, conversations about Handmaids, or the women held captive at Jezebel‘s rarely recognise these experiences as a form of human trafficking. This was brought more sharply into focus in the episode “A Woman’s Place” where it is revealed that the Handmaids  will act as a commodity in a trade deal with Mexico.

In the episode “The Bridge”, where Janine is relocated from one household to another after enforced surrogacy, we are presented with a graphic reminder that “the ceremony” is not just rape; it is gang rape. Daniel rapes Janine whilst his wife forcibly restrains her by holding her arms and squeezing Janine’s shoulders with her thighs.

When Janine subsequently attempts suicide, we are forced to confront the deeply problematic relationship between Janine and the visibly distressed Aunt Lydia. The intended familial bond and incitement of trust between Aunts and Handmaids is made explicit in the attribution of familial status to the Aunts. Janine’s attempted suicide sees the climax of tenderness, which has been built between these characters over preceding episodes. In reality, however, this relationship is more comparable to that between a child and a trusted family member who beats, blinds and grooms them. After all, the role of Aunt requires the rape facilitation of who we can understand to be their symbolic nieces.  As such, The Red Centres, where the Aunts attempt to indoctrinate Handmaids, could appropriately be discussed in terms of grooming.

Euphemisms which normalise rape and misname the experiences of women (“the ceremony”, indoctrination, prostitution) are rife, not only within the narrative world of Gilead, but in contemporary discourse about The Handmaid‘s Tale, and in society more broadly. For example, contextualising the use of Handmaids as an extreme necessity in a time of crisis feeds into the ‘greater good’ narrative where justification for rape in terms of upholding (often patriarchal) societal norms is understandable, if not acceptable. Such reasoning is endemic in discussions of rape.

We see this explicitly (and contemporaneously) in terms of ‘corrective’ rape and with rape as punishment. This is outworked implicitly when, for example, women’s clothing, or perceived wanton behavior is provided as contextual information in the case of rape. In these instances, rape is discussed as an inevitably for those who transgress the expectations of femininity by behaving in a certain way, or indeed, by those who uphold the ideals of femininity by being beautiful. It is a no-win situation.

The practice of using euphemistic language when dealing with instances of rape or sexual violence, which blur the lines between sex and rape, propel the “myth that rape is just a particular shade of sex, rather than a violent crime”. The minimizing impact of euphemistic language when talking about rape can also be found in testimonials from rape survivors.

This conflation of experiences and merging of language can have devastating impact, to the extent where people become unable to identify rape as they struggle to separate these assaults from a “normal” sexual encounter. As a pertinent example, the now acquitted Ched Evans, as part of his defence, said he did not speak to the woman he was accused of raping “before, during or after” the alleged rape. This was not recognised as rape, despite a clear admission that Evans made no attempt to gain consent. This provides chilling and infuriating context to the apparent interchangeability in public consciousness between sex and rape.

Another relevant example is “stealthing”, a form of sexual assault where a man non-consensually takes a condom off when penetrating someone. Notably, this was recently reported as a “sex trend” before a public outcry across various media outlets demanded it be recognised as a form of rape. The term itself, when considered in line with how this form of assault is often spoken about in a shockingly casual way, demonstrates how euphemistic language can contribute to the normalisation of sexual assault.

The manipulation of language to normalise sexual assault is a key tool the leaders of Gilead, who call themselves “Sons of Jacob” after the biblical patriarch, use to make their radical power structures and the rapes they are founded on more palatable. For example, when Fred Waterford renames the rape of Handmaids as “the ceremony” for what he describes as “branding purposes”, his companion remarks that this sounds “nice and godly, the wives will eat that shit up”.

In the words of June, which act as a motif throughout the original novel, ‘context is all’ – and in the context of rape culture, being critical of how we choose to articulate instances of sexual violence and/or rape is essential in attempts to de-normalise rape, and fight back against the ‘cultural numbness’ society has developed in the face of sexual violence.

Anaesthetising the language with which we talk about rape and sexual violence is counterproductive to combatting rape culture and amounts to a gross misnaming of the experiences of rape survivors.

Emma Nagouse is an incoming WRoCAH funded PhD student in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) researching the phenomenon of rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society. Emma’s research focusses around how biblical and contemporary intersectional gender presentation facilitates rape and disbelief culture through reaffirming oppressive stereotypes and informing perceptions of rape gradations. Emma is Assistant Editor of the University of Sheffield History Matters blog and co-organiser of the Sheffield Feminist Archive (SFA).

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Rape Culture in the Christian Church

A blog post entitled ‘She Only Said “Yes” Once’ recently made its way around Christian circles. In the post, Pastor Reggie Osborne laments the state of sex education in the United States and argues instead for an approach which considers consent as an event which happens most meaningfully at the wedding altar. Osborne writes:

On, July 28th, 2001, the answer we gave each other before God and everyone was: “Yes.”  “Yes,” until the day that we die.

Yes, I could kiss her. Yes, I could sleep with her. Yes, I could steal glances of her in the shower because I think she looks great even after 5 kids. She said, “Yes,” to me, forever.

I wasn’t asking for a one night stand or permission to touch her after a party. I was asking for forever, and that’s what she gave me. That’s what I gave her.

She has never had to say it again. She said “yes” only once. She meant it to last. I meant it to last. It has lasted fourteen years. It will remain in effect until death parts us.

In the comments section, several readers challenged Osborne to comment on the danger of this perspective on consent, particularly for victims of spousal rape. Pastor Osborne quickly clarified his position, affirming every person’s right to refuse sex, but seemed surprised such a point might be raised.

While Pastor Osborne’s follow-up comments demonstrate that he does not endorse spousal rape, the fact that it wasn’t on his radar when writing the post is evidence of a wider pattern within the Christian community. That is, ignorance of and scepticism about the prevalence of rape culture. In short, for many Christians, rape culture is an unfamiliar concept. Those that know something about it often deny or undermine its existence.

Rape culture is an environment in which sexual assault and other forms of abuse of women are normalized in the media and in popular culture. It occurs ‘where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent’. These acts of violence can occur not just at the physical act of rape itself but also at the level of other kinds of physical touch as well as at the more subtle level of language, gesture, and imagery.

Whatever you think about the ways in which the Bible represents violence towards women, the Christian church has contributed to the normalization of such violence. Perhaps the most frequently cited recent example of rape culture within Christianity is the purity/modesty movement, which places primary responsibility for sexual purity on women, portraying men as largely helpless against ‘immodest’ females.

Perhaps less frequently discussed but familiar to most Christians are sexually charged Christian youth group games, popularized by such organizations as Young Life. One apparently popular game is ‘Kissing Rugby’, a version of which involves a girl sitting in the centre of a circle, guarded by another girl, while a boy tries to manoeuvre his way past the guard to kiss the girl. In some contexts, youth leaders join in as well. Another game, ‘Balloon Squeeze’, is described like this:

Each pair gets a balloon to put between them. Without using hands, they have to pop balloon first. Can do it “most in a minute” too. Beware of any “risqué” popping techniques ‘cause you know those kids and they’ll do it to get laughs!

In this way, even from an early age, Christian girls are simultaneously taught to bear the burden of warding off sexual violence and placed in vulnerable and confusing situations where boys are encouraged to touch and grope their bodies.

But even in churches which recognize the dangers of these widespread practices and avoid them, Christians nevertheless have inherited and been influenced by a likewise destructive longstanding theological tradition. From the early church through the Reformation and beyond, theologians (almost always male) have interpreted biblical narratives about sexual violence in ways which ‘reinforce patterns of subjugation, silencing, and violence against women’.

In short, although some have begun to explore how rape culture is fostered and perpetuated within the Christian church, there is considerable work to be done, particularly when it comes to its subtler expressions. As a linguist, I’m interested in how language expresses and reflects rape culture in Christianity. For example, in a corpus of popular (primarily American) sermons on divorce, I am currently examining instances where Christian pastors mention domestic violence from the pulpit. My analysis of these will form the basis of a chapter for the first Shiloh Project edited collection on Rape Culture and the Bible.

More specifically, I am looking at how language is used to conceal or expose violence, obscure or clarify perpetrators’ responsibility, conceal or honour victims’ resistance, and blame or else contest the blaming of victims. I’m also interested in the extent to which pastors appeal to the authority of God and the Bible to justify their statements regarding spousal abuse and its relevance for divorce.

So far, language about domestic violence in these sermons points to the following conclusions: First, only a small minority of pastors mention domestic violence directly. And second, among those pastors in the corpus who do mention domestic violence, all but one minimize perpetrator responsibilityconceal violenceblame victims, and conceal the resistance of victims.

Take, for example, the following excerpt from one frequently accessed sermon from the public archive, Sermon Audio.

The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and … leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.

Here, the pastor employs victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. A particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim in the way he introduces his invented dialogue with a victim. Note his use of evaluative ‘oh’ (highlighted above), where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves.

Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual (young) woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.

The pastor also appeals to authority, contrasting God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of violence. He here teaches that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands.

Considering the statistics regarding domestic violence, it is highly likely that a victim or potential victim of violence sat in the pew when each of the sermons in the divorce corpus was originally preached, not to mention the many women who have since downloaded them. Messages about spousal abuse such as these reinforce a culture in which Christians blame women for the violence they suffer and command them to be silent about what they endure.

In short, these pastors are preaching rape culture. As one countercultural pastor, one of the only pastors both to directly mention and condemn violence against women, asked:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God?

Might we also add, what pastor is it who preaches rape culture? In my view, any Christian who wishes to disassociate from rape culture will need to answer these questions more directly and convincingly. And urgently.

Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research has consistently focused on examining the ways in which seemingly inclusive large institutions establish community boundaries via language and, in some cases, marginalize and exclude vulnerable members. She is currently working on compiling several corpora of religious texts.

Image: Wedding rings and the Bible. [Via Pixabay]

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Sexual Violence and Rape Culture in the New Testament

All too often when people think about violence in the Bible, they focus on the Old Testament and ignore the New. People tend to imagine that the Prince of Peace rejects violence, and situate Jesus and the God of the New Testament in opposition to the Old Testament God; this kind of oppositional reading is problematic in many ways, not the least in its historic contribution to anti-Semitism, but also ignores what the text itself says.

In fact, the New Testament is full of violence and suffering, violence which is condoned by Jesus himself. Even in the Gospels, Jesus demands that eyes be plucked out and hands cut off as a result of sin, and threatens the earth with bloody violence. The Book of Revelation, written in the first or second century CE, is widely read as early Christianity’s rejection of the sinful, violent Roman Empire and the hopeful expectation of justice for true believers. This understanding of the Apocalypse overlooks the rampant violence omnipresent in the text, which depicts sexual violence as a punishment ordained by God. As John Marshall says, “Sexualized violence against women is one of John’s primary modes of depicting God’s judgment.”

Revelation’s views on rape are not unique, but rather participate in prevalent attitudes about gender, power, and war in the ancient world. In antiquity, sexual violence and rape were frequently depicted as just punishments for conquered peoples. The defeat of an army represented a power dynamic between enemies, where the victors upheld the masculine role of empowered penetrator and the conquered were made effeminate in their weakness, their penetrability. This dynamic is preserved in art, such as the 5th century BCE Eurymedon Vase.

The vase depicts a nude Greek soldier, victorious and with his erect penis in his hand; the reverse shows a defeated soldier from the Battle of the Eurymedon River bending at the waist, with hands raised in fright or submission. The inscription reads, “I am Eurymedon, I stand bent forward.” The vase represents mainstream ideas that equate defeat with penetration and victory with forced sexual conquest: rape. The Roman period continues this trend; Roman coins minted to commemorate the defeat of various provinces, including Judea, depict Rome as a tall, virile soldier, often holding a phallic sword; the soldier looms over a bent female figure in distress, representing his power in gendered and militaristic terms at the same time. It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that Revelation not only portrays its enemies in feminised terms, but also punishes them with sexual assault.

There are two sections in Revelation where sexual violence is most notable. In Revelation 2:22–23, the Son of God passes judgement on various churches in Asia Minor. He singles out one woman from Thyatira, Jezebel, who is a prophetess:

“Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”

While many translations shy away from the sexual violence implicit in the threat, the text’s repeated references to sexual immorality, in the context of a work that operates on the principle that ‘the punishment fits the crime,’ implies that rape is an appropriate punishment for this ‘false’ prophetess.

Likewise, the Whore of Babylon, the author’s female symbol for Rome, is also threatened with sexual violence; the angel explains that the Great City of Rome will be made desolate and naked, implying again that her promiscuous behaviour should be punished by sexual violation, condoned by God. Despite the fact that the Whore is a symbolic woman (rather than actual woman, like Jezebel), the reinforcing of sexual violence as punishment contributes to a culture in which rape is understood as not only acceptable, but necessary in order for the “right side” to emerge victorious, masculinity intact.

The question of sexual violence as punishment, unfortunately, remains all too relevant. From popular culture to present day wars, rape persists as a means of control. All too recently, American soldiers were found guilty of sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison after photos showed evidence of soldiers raping male and female prisoners; even if not directly influenced by the biblical texts, the notion that victims of sexual assault need to be “innocent,” as one of the guilty soldiers insisted, hearkens back to ancient ideas about warfare, rape, and power.

Even films seeking to make light of contemporary preoccupations with the apocalyptic end up repeating and reinforcing the rape culture that persists from antiquity to the present day. The 2013 film This Is The End, directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, received a lot of attention at its release for its rape jokes, which include a joke whose punchline is that Emma Watson is overly paranoid about being raped; James Franco admitting to having sex with Lindsay Lohan when she was so intoxicated that she thought he was someone else; Channing Tatum naked, bound in chains, as the sex slave of Danny McBride; and perhaps most memorably, the rape of Jonah Hill by a well-endowed black demon. As Nico Lang at Thought Catalogue states, “…rape is explicitly an act of gender and power. It asserts roles and hierarchies of dominance, and when we make a world where it’s easier for Jonah Hill to get raped for ‘acting like a woman,’ we create a world that perpetuates female sexual assault. We continue to demonise femininity and promote the exact toxic masculinity that This Is the End, at its best, wants to satirize.” Just as Revelation, a text that purports to reject the trappings of the Roman Empire, inevitably reinscribes gendered violence as right and appropriate, so too This Is The End props up rape culture with its rape jokes.

Author: Dr Meredith Warren is a member of The Shiloh Project, lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Deputy Director of SIIBS. Meredith’s main research interests lie in the cultural and theological interactions among the religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and especially metaphors of food, eating, and the sense of taste. You can find Meredith on Twitter @DrMJCWarren.

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‘Temptress’ Eve, ‘prostitute’ Mary Magdalene – and the awkward truth about The Bible’s women

The most well-known female biblical characters feel familiar to us because they’re so embedded within our culture. These women are represented in film, music videos, couture collections and featured in everything from plays to strip clubs. And yet, despite our cultural constructions and received understandings of female biblical characters, the Bible often tells us something very, very different about them.

Eve is no temptress

The Bible’s first woman is popular culture’s most enduring muse. Whether she’s flogging fruit juice, perfume or going vegetarian for Peta, the character of Eve is a regular in advertising.

Juicy Eve.

Following centuries of representations as a maleficent femme fatale, we have come to know her as the temptress who lured Adam and humanity to their downfall and introduced sin to the world. The biblical text, however, is far less concrete about the “Mother of All Living” (Gen. 3:20).

In the Bible, Eve undergoes a character transformation from her introduction in Genesis 2 to the transgression episode when she eats the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3.

When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, Eve is a voiceless, choiceless creature, while Adam makes plenty of noise about what he thinks of his new “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and demonstrates his power by naming and claiming her:

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken. (Gen. 2:23)

In contrast, we’re left in the dark about Eve’s thoughts on her new companion. We don’t know if Adam is more Donald Trump than Ryan Gosling; at this point, the text gives us no clue as to whether she’s happy with her imposed match or not.

Only a couple of verses later, however, and our silent biblical lady is suddenly the star of the show, chatting away with the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit. In a textual about turn, Eve has transformed into a biblical badass, making her own decisions, while her husband becomes the mute companion.

The biblical text is sparse but it’s clear that Eve does not need to tempt her docile mate; she merely “gives some to her husband, who was with her” (Gen. 3:6). While “femvertisers” represent Eve as an example of female sexual empowerment, the biblical narrator attempts to lay the blame for the transgression at her feet. She deserves a retrial.

The much-maligned Magdalene

Like Eve, the New Testament character Mary Magdalene has been the subject of centuries of bad press. Magdalene is often believed to be a prostitute although there’s no suggestion of it in the biblical text. Academics have argued that the early Church developed Mary Magdalene’s repentant prostitute persona as a bid to deny women a proper position in the church hierarchy.

Since then, a number of attempts have been made to “rehabiliate” the character from her reputation as a fallen woman. Melvyn Bragg, for example, has certainly put some time into discovering the “real Magdalene”, presenting a controversial Good Friday documentary in 2013 and a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year. But despite the reams of research and hours of media coverage, including the heightened interest in the Gospel of Mary following the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, our fascination with the “penitent sinner” remains.

Fallen woman? Mary Magdalene, Vienna.
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

The discussion around Mary Magdalene, however, says more about cultural attitudes to female sexuality than anything about the biblical character. The persistent idea that sex workers are “fallen” women who should be rehabilitated or repentant has only relatively recently been challenged and the controversy surrounding Mary Magdalene speaks to centuries of the dominant ideology that shapes values around female sexuality and stigmatises sex workers on a moralistic premise.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

On the other hand, Mary, Mother of Jesus, is considered by many Christians as the “ideal woman”. As a virgin mother, Mary has the ultimate appeal to female respectability, combining the most culturally valuable female roles. But discussions surrounding the “ideal femininity” of Mary, Mother of Jesus, are inextricably linked with the control of female sexuality evidenced in attitudes to Mary Magdalene. The construction of “female virtue” is a cultural dividing practice to reinforce the social boundaries between respectable and unrespectable groups and classes.

The myth of Salome

We may be familiar with Salome as the daughter of the Herodias who danced for Herod in the New Testament (Mark 6:21-29; Matt. 14:6-11) but the character who requests John the Baptist’s head on behalf of her mother wasn’t named in the Bible.

Wilde woman: Salome with the head of John the Baptist.
Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock

The dangerous seductress we know derives from a heady mix of the first century historian Josephus, who named her but does not connect her with John the Baptist, and the 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote a scandalous play based on the character that was banned in London in 1892. Salome has now become synonymous with striptease thanks to the “dance of the seven veils”, which has no biblical basis but originated in Wilde’s play.

Cultural representations of Salome tend to be problematic because Salome is frequently exoticised and based around orientalised stereotypes of Middle Eastern femininity that “seem still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat)”.

The ConversationEve, Mary Magalene, Mary (Mother of Jesus), and Salome , then, are far more than biblical characters, they help to reflect and construct ideas and attitudes to and about femininity and female sexuality. In this way, they also tell us an awful lot about ourselves.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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