Cultural Studies

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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Lost in the “Post”: Rape Culture and Postfeminism in Admen and Eve

A slightly longer version of this post originally appeared as an article in a special issue of the Bible and Critical Theory journal (2014). The issue invited six biblical scholars to write a response to Katie B. Edwards’s 2012 book, Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising, reflecting on a particular theme or issue raised in the book. I chose to focus on Edwards’s engagement with postfeminism, considering the ways that popular postfeminist discourses evoked in contemporary advertising reinforce and sustain myths and misperceptions about sexual violence which lie at the heart of rape cultures. I also discuss how these same myths and misperceptions may be given implicit voice within the narrative of Genesis 2–3—the creation and “fall” of Adam and Eve.


In her book, Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising, Katie Edwards explores the biblical tradition of Genesis 2–3, a text she suggests is “arguably the most influential cultural document for gender relations in Western society” (2012: 9). In particular, she focuses on the ways that the character of Eve is portrayed, both in the narrative of Genesis 2–3 and in contemporary postfeminist advertising, as a dangerously alluring seductress—a femme fatale—whose sexuality is a source of both her power and her danger. Edwards argues that such studies of biblical themes in advertising can offer “surprising sites” for the exposure and critique of dominant ideations of sexuality and gender that are given voice both in contemporary culture and in the biblical text itself (viii).

In this blog post, I respond to one of these “sites,” where we encounter the unsettling relationship between certain postfeminist advertising images, rape myths, and rape culture. Using Martha Burt’s definition, rape myths are “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists” (1980: 217). Common rape myths include the equation of rape with normative sexual behaviour, holding victims culpable for their assaults (“s/he was asking for it”), regarding rape victims as “damaged goods,” and exonerating aggressive male sexual behaviour on the premise that they “just can’t help themselves.” Taking my lead from Edwards’ exploration of this issue, I first review some of the commonly-noted problematics of popular postfeminism, before considering how postfeminist advertising images of women (including Eve images) relate to the pervasive myths and misperceptions about gender violence that sustain contemporary rape cultures. I also suggest that some elements of these myths and misperceptions can be discerned, at least implicitly, within the text of Genesis 2–3, particularly through its articulation of female sexuality and gender power dynamics.

The term “postfeminism” is notoriously difficult to define. Like “feminism,” it is often used as an umbrella term for many diverse ideologies that convey a marked paradigm shift from the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s (Walters 2014: 108). Adopted within the arenas of consumer culture, popular media, academic discourse, and neo-liberal political rhetoric, “postfeminism” has come to encode a huge range of meanings, from an incorporation, revision, or depoliticization of feminism to a complete reaction against or withdrawal from it (Gill and Scharff 2011; Modleski 1991). Even within popular culture and the media, it can represent different responses to feminism, many of which are ambivalent at best, condemnatory at worst. And, very often, the “post” prefix conveys the sense that feminism as we once knew it is now a thing of the past, erased or even terminated from contemporary cultural consciousness as an outmoded and redundant movement, either because it did not work or, conversely, because it has already achieved its liberating goals (Jones 1991: 298).

Within her discussions of Eve imagery in contemporary advertising, Edwards draws particularly on one category of postfeminism offered by Sarah Projansky (2001)—(hetero)sex positive postfeminism. This is a “to-be-looked-at” postfeminism, where there is a celebration of women’s return to being objects that offer pleasure to the heterosexual male gaze (80–81). Accusing former second wave feminisms of being anti-sex, (Hetero)sex positive postfeminism sells a new, rebranded “do-me feminism” that is not sexually puritanical or dogmatic, but rather advocates women’s agency in a way that is man-friendly, sophisticated, and “attractive.” Women can now embrace their sexuality as part of being feminist, rather than shunning it, choosing to play with the heterosexual male gaze rather than feeling objectified by it. Popular culture’s iconographic image of the angry, uptight feminist is thus presented as the unattractive antithesis to the cool, edgy, and media-savvy postfeminist miss, who tweets about the politics of blowjobs and proudly declares her ironic predilections for pole dancing and vintage porn.

Moreover, within (Hetero)sex positive postfeminism, women can stop feeling guilty about wanting to look attractive to men and enjoy, instead, the postfeminist freedom to participate in the commercially-based “beauty culture” that is promoted in advertising and popular culture. As femininity and sexuality become marketed as essential ingredients for women’s social, sexual and financial success, women are encouraged to engage in a form of guilt-free “commodity feminism,” where they can purchase certain commercial products and lifestyles that are advertised to them as means of maximizing their feminine and sexual potential (Projansky 2001: 80). As Edwards demonstrates throughout Admen and Eve, postfeminist images of women in advertising (including images of Eve) often portray women who have bought these products and embraced these lifestyles and who now enjoy sexual and social autonomy, financial success, and the ability to dominate and subdue those men who once attempted to subdue them.

Within this postfeminist framework of gender dynamics, women’s sex appeal really is “the new sexy” in both cultural and capitalist terms, no longer a sexist construct imposed on women by men but a self-identifying choice women can make to assert their social and sexual power. In other words, feminism gets a radical makeover within popular culture, its past “look” disparaged and its cool new postfeminist incarnation praised as a vastly improved source of power for women. Or, as Projansky puts it, “feminism becomes a style, easily acquired and unproblematically worn” (2001: 80).

And yet, such a reimaging of feminism in its new postfeminist form is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of all its dubious rhetoric about women’s newly-gained access to social power and its rebranding of women’s sexual objectification as a source of their empowerment. Within these postfeminist discourses that claim equality, choice, and (hetero)sex-positive realities for women, there is, as Angela McRobbie notes, a “double entanglement” of feminism and anti-feminism, one that both celebrates and commodifies certain tropes of second wave feminist discourse (choice, equality, sexual and social emancipation) while repudiating the anti-sex elements of this discourse (2009: 13). The result, according to McRobbie, is a “faux-feminism,” which claims to be a fresh, cooler, and edgier form of feminism, rebranded within new discourses dominated by the language of consumer culture, personal choice, and “aggressive individualism” (5).

The drawback to this new postfeminist vision of female empowerment is that women are thus encouraged, with a wink to postfeminist irony, to represent themselves in exactly the same ways that men had previously chosen to represent them: as sexualized, objectified bodies that appeal to the (hetero)sexual male gaze. Only now, this is not a cause for feminist concern or protest, but is rather something to be celebrated; feminism’s self-imposed sexual sanctions can at last be discarded and women can freely express, enjoy, and exploit their own sexuality. In essence, then, women become complicit in their own sexual objectification and exploitation, which is marketed to them as a source of liberation by postfeminist advertising and the media, based on the rationale that “because women objectify themselves where previously they were objectified, then women are freed from centuries of male control” (Edwards 2012: 10).

And thus, as Edwards notes, no matter how sexually alluring and powerfully autonomous Eve is presented to us within postfeminist advertising images, at the end of the day she too is ultimately diminished to a sexual object, rendered a commodity to be used, abused, consumed, swapped, broken and discarded. She may hold our gaze from the pages of a glossy magazine or television ad, but she remains the pinned-down object of that gaze, powerless to withdraw from it. Advertising images of women, like the Eve ads discussed by Edwards, thus perpetuate the insidious control of women by dominant socio-cultural power structures, which carve out for women a particular social and sexual role, all the while reinforcing the ideology that women have no alternative access to power except through their sexuality. In other words, women’s capacity to negotiate and succeed in a number of social contexts (professional, sexual, relational, financial) is marketed as dependent on their adeptness at making themselves as attractive and irresistible (usually to men) as they possibly can; ergo, in popular postfeminism, it is still male-dominated media and popular culture that can prescribe so many areas of women’s lives—their appearance, their behaviour, and ultimately, their social “worth” (Edwards 2012: 67).

Moreover, I would suggest that this consumer-driven propensity to determine and define women’s sexuality can also foster certain ideologies that serve to sustain rape myths and rape cultures. In the first place, as noted by Edwards, postfeminist marketing of women’s sexuality as a source of their sexual emancipation undermines the hard reality faced by many women that their sexuality is more likely to be a locus of vulnerability and abuse than their greatest weapon (Edwards 2012: 39, 43). Yet, feminist attempts to expose the ubiquity and pervasiveness of gender violence within contemporary culture are often dismissed as the overly sensitive ramblings of feminism’s self-victimization mentality. The post-victimization rhetoric of postfeminists such as Katie Roiphe, Camille Paglia, and Christina Hoff Sommers rebut the notion of women’s powerlessness in the face of potential male violence, advocating instead for women’s individual agency and their ability to “control” their own objectification.

Nevertheless, the reality of women’s experiences of gender violence tells quite a different story. While many women may indeed feel adequately empowered to offer themselves up to the male gaze—and hold that gaze unflinchingly—there are many more women who simply do not have access to that sense of empowerment. Women may be granted the dubious postfeminist privilege of being cultural objects of desire; this, however, does not guarantee them adequate recourse to autonomy or justice within the sexual arena, especially when they are confronted with the threat or actuality of sexual aggression or coercion. Post-victimization tropes may sound terribly compelling and empowering when one is already located within a position of empowerment, be it social, sexual, political or economic; they have a less convincing ring, however, when such empowerment is simply beyond one’s reach.

Moreover, another jarring note within popular postfeminist discourse about the empowering potential of women’s sexuality is that this discourse stands in uneasy tension with the still-prevalent sexual double standards that remain ubiquitous within many contemporary cultures. Postfeminist media and popular culture outlets may insist to women that their (male-defined) sexuality is a potent and trouble-free source of power, but it does not stop these same outlets “slut shaming” women for attempting to access or utilize this power (Edwards 2012: 45). Or, put another way, women may be encouraged to attract the male gaze through maximizing their sexual appeal, but they should still expect to be treated negatively for doing so, branded as sluts and whores according to the paradoxical sexual standards that expect women to retain a passive and submissive role within the sexual ambit. It is one thing for a beautiful woman to look sexy and enticing on an advertising billboard or in the pages of a glossy glamour mag; it’s quite another for her to attempt enacting this look within her everyday engagements with others, particularly men. Consequently, this culturally abundant act of slut shaming plays a considerable role in perpetuating the myth of victim blaming that is so common within rape cultures. For, according to the logic of this victim blaming ideology, if women commodify themselves as sexual objects, they should not be surprised if men treat them as objects.

This premise of victim blaming also taps into another concomitant rape myth—that men “can’t help themselves” when their sexual ardour is ignited. Forcible sexual behaviour is thus understood as the inevitable effect of a man’s “natural” inability to control his lust once it has been aroused by a sexually provocative woman. If women display their sexual allure, thereby inciting male ardour, then refuse to grant men access to their sexuality, we cannot blame these men for resorting to violence and coercion, but we can certainly hold the women responsible for behaving like “sluts” or “prick-teases” in the first place. Men’s agency and accountability for perpetuating acts of sexual violence are thus diminished, the culpability instead laid squarely at the feet of those women imprudent enough to whip up the passions of the hapless and hopelessly smitten male.

These elements of victim blaming are also granted expression (implicitly and explicitly) within postfeminist advertising. Edwards offers examples from two Eve-related ads for a Lolita Lempicka perfume, The First Fragrance, both of which, she suggests, convey nuanced images of women who may have been the recipient of sexual and/or physical violence (2012: 73–76). With their torn clothing and somewhat despairing posture (as well as the suggestion of a bruise on the face of one of the models), there are hints that these women may have been involved in some form of coercive sexual encounter. As Edwards notes, these ads implicitly convey the disturbing message that a certain product (in this case perfume) can make a woman so desirable that she will be the likely recipient of aggressive sexual attention (74). This, bizarrely, becomes the “selling point” of the product—the source of its desirability for the female consumer. Women, it is assumed, want to unleash their inner femme fatale, driving men wild with desire; they want to be so desirable that no man could resist ripping their clothes off and forcibly penetrating them. We cannot therefore help but blame the woman for her ensuing rape, just as we surely cannot hold the man accountable for his actions, given the insurmountable temptation that this woman has laid before him.

Moreover, I would suggest that this myth of victim blaming may likewise be glimpsed within the sexual undercurrents and gender assumptions that flow through the Genesis 2–3 narrative. Eve’s fruity temptation of Adam is, as Edwards notes, replete with sexual nuances that indisputably draw the reader’s attention to the dangers of irresistible female sexuality (2012: 28–34). The first woman’s strong textual identification with the forbidden fruit (food, particularly fruit, being a common trope for sexuality within other biblical traditions), as well as her nakedness, suggest to the reader that her sexual allure may have played a major part in Adam’s reckless decision to transgress the divine prohibition of Gen. 2:16–17. Eve thus becomes an icon for the perils of sexual temptation that all women can pose to men; most importantly, the text implies that women’s sexual allure can make men behave in the most irresponsible ways—they are therefore as culpable as the men (if not more so) for whatever happens as a result.

This is victim blaming in its purest form. While Adam is also punished by God for eating the forbidden fruit, the reader is left with a sense that the fault lies more squarely with Eve, given her more active role in the transgressive drama (Edwards 2012: 24–27). And so, within the narrative of Gen. 3:1-6, there are discernible whispers of the rape myth concerning women’s sexual power to entice “innocent” men to behave irresponsibly. Also discernible is the concomitant myth of men’s lesser culpability for their sexually-driven transgressions and their seemingly inherent inability to resist a sexually alluring woman.

Thus, abiding by the rhetoric already given voice within Genesis 3, the advertising strategies for Lolita Lempicka’s The First Fragrance tap into the discourses of victim blaming (she wore the perfume, so she can’t complain if it made her so desirable she was raped) and male exoneration (he was driven to distraction by her perfume—she’s more to blame than he is). Additionally, these ads exploit another rape myth, also mandated by Genesis 3, which downplays the seriousness of sexual violence, equating rape with normative and socially acceptable heterosexual behaviour.

Intrinsic to this myth is the belief that female vulnerability to male sexual aggression is an innate part of heterosexual relationships, rather than being symbolic of an imbalance of gender power (Lees 2002: 210–13; Herman 1984: 20–38). Within the First Fragrance ads, the iconography of sexual violence is located within a context of beauty, opulence, and luxury products, lending it a certain glamorous appeal, if not respectability. Meanwhile, the ads’ commodification of women’s bodies, along with the concomitant claims about the natural aggressiveness of masculine sexuality, promotes the branding of sexual violence as a socially mandated form of behaviour. As a result, the inherent physical and psychic brutality of rape is eclipsed, re-imagined as little more than consensual, socially acceptable sex. As Rebecca Campbell and Camille Johnson note, when the boundaries demarcating sexual coercion and consent are indistinct, “violence becomes sexy, and sexiness is not criminal” (1997: 257).

While this propensity to equate sexualized violence with normative sexuality is not expressed explicitly within Genesis 3, the basis for this rape myth can nonetheless be glimpsed therein, connected with the text’s assertion that the man’s willingness to “listen to” (or “obey”) the voice of the woman is somehow worthy of divine censure (Gen. 3:17). As the result of her act of disobedience, Eve is to be “ruled over” by her husband; her sexualized potential to make men do as she desires will be contained through her divinely-ordained subjugation (Gen. 3:16).

To the woman [God] said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. (Gen. 3:16-17)

This text may therefore offer the reader a divine mandate both to curtail women’s agency—including their sexual agency—and to affirm men’s prerogative (if not imperative) to ignore women’s expression of their will, including their sexual will. In other words, the biblical text offers men free reign to impose their sexual determination upon women, regardless of the women’s own sexual needs or desires. Adam’s central failing (according to God) was that he “listened to” Eve; how much better men would fare, it implies, if they stopped listening to women’s voices altogether. And thus, sexual violence can likewise be re-imagined as a divinely ordained part of the natural, or ontological, order of gender relations—a necessity even—that ensures masculine sexual aggression and feminine sexual resistance remain normative elements of traditional sexual conduct, encoded within both sexes since the time of creation. A woman can say “no” all she wants, but men are under no obligation to “listen to her voice” —after all, doesn’t Genesis 3 suggest that’s how men got into trouble in the first place?

Thus, postfeminist advertising strategies that use Eve iconography may claim to champion the liberating and powerful potential of women’s sexuality. In reality, however, and as Edwards notes throughout Admen and Eve, such iconography may only serve to reinscribe the misogynistic myths and misperceptions about gender roles and gender violence that are already established within both contemporary patriarchal cultures and the ancient traditions of Genesis 2–3.

Moreover, these misperceptions about gender and gender violence are not merely restricted to the imagery found in contemporary Eve advertising; as sociologist Anthony Cortese notes, imagery of sexual violence has become alarmingly commonplace in other high-end postfeminist advertising, offering up rape as the new iconography of “chic” (1999: 73). Dolce and Gabbanna, Calvin Klein, Pirelli, Lanvin, Belvedere Vodka, Sisley, Jimmy Choo, American Apparel, Vogue Hommes International, and Italian Vogue (to name but a few) have all utilized imagery of gendered violence to sell luxury items or brands.

Recently, the controversial work of Indian fashion photographer Raj Shetye has come under media scrutiny for following this trend in high fashion photography; his latest work, “The Wrong Turn,” consists of a series of images depicting a female model, wearing high-end fashion, being sexually abused on a bus by a group of men who are likewise stylishly dressed. These images caused a furore in the Indian media, given their seeming “glamourizing” of the fatal gang rape in 2012 of a student on a bus in New Delhi. While Shetye denied that the shoot was intended to re-enact that particular rape and insisted that he was not trying to glamourize sexual violence, his use of attractive models, highly stylized photographic techniques, and designer fashions to depict scenes of unequivocal sexual abuse do, in my mind, obscure the horrific violence of rape within a glossy and alluring context, making it appear in some sense sexy or even desirable.[1] As journalist J.R. Thorpe insists, “That’s the horrific part of this shoot: it trivializes rape, homogenizes it, even fetishizes it. Taking a series of brutal sexual assaults and making them a display of a model’s assets—transforming a situation where a group of men raped and murdered a woman into a performance for the male gaze—is grotesque.”

Media and advertising strategies such as Shetye’s therefore do nothing less than nonchalantly promote the rape myths of blaming the victim for being too sexually alluring and equating gender violence with cool and consensual sex. They connect sexual coercion and assault to sexualized images of women, blurring boundaries between violation and desire, thus inviting viewers to embrace the idea that “women secretly want to be raped, and that women invite rape by their behaviour and attire” (Cortese 1999: 74). Their images of attractive, fashionable men perpetrating acts of sexual violation only serve to mute or nullify the violence and misogyny inherent in their actions, asking the viewer to gaze at these men with appreciation (or even lust) rather than disapproval or censure (Thorpe 2014).

Moreover, by using rape imagery to advertise luxury items (such as perfume and high designer fashions) in often glamorous locations, these ads equate gender violence with beauty, opulence, and pleasure, thereby erasing its realities of pain, violation, and shame. As Cortese notes, “Advertising not only makes this sexual genre of violent abuse tolerable but also unmistakably glorifies it. Sexual violence has become romantic and chic instead of being seen as grievously contemptible” (1999: 85). The result, he warns, is that “the eradication of domestic and sexual violence is not made any easier” (1999: 85).

And therein lies the rub—the real and undeniable impact that postfeminist advertising and media can have on the everyday social and sexual reality for so many women. As Edwards demonstrates in Admen and Eve, woven through numerous advertising images is a constant entanglement of male entitlement and female disempowerment. both of which nourish the underlying ideologies of rape culture. Within these images, men still dictate the ideals of women’s sexuality; under the rubric of postfeminist rhetoric, women are told that they “own” these ideals, yet when they claim them they are rendered vulnerable to blame, shame, and recrimination. The sexual power and autonomy promised to women in postfeminist advertising and popular culture is thus exposed as little more than smoke and mirrors, merely a reinscription of age-old patriarchal codes of conduct, which eschew women’s sexual agency and blame women for their own sexual victimization.

Indeed, as I suggested above, the discourses on sexuality and sexual violence discernible within postfeminist advertising hearken back to the ancient text of Genesis 2–3, where Eve’s sexuality is objectified, stigmatized, and, ultimately, regulated via divine fiat. In Admen and Eve, Edwards reminds us of the enduring power of this biblical text to shape cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality. I have argued that it also encodes certain myths about gendered sexuality that are themselves intrinsic to contemporary rape cultures. Postfeminist advertising does nothing to challenge these myths—rather, at times, it appears to reiterate and reaffirm them. Eve may be presented to us as the postfeminist darling of female empowerment, but look a little closer and you might just see the bruises beneath her makeup, the scratches on her thighs, the fear and shame in her eyes.


Reference list

Burt, Martha R. 1980. “Cultural Myths and Support for Rape.” Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 38: 217–30.

Campbell, Rebecca and Camille R. Johnson. 1997. “Police Officers’ Perceptions of Rape: Is there a Consistency between State Law and Individual Beliefs?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 12: 255–74.

Edwards, Katie B. 2012. Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. The Bible in the Modern World, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Gill, Rosalind and Christina Scharff. 2011. “Introduction.” In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity, edited by Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, 1–17. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jones, Amelia. 1991. “‘She Was Bad News’: Male Paranoia and the Contemporary New Woman.” Camera Obscura 25-26: 297–320.

Lees, Sue 2002. Carnal Knowledge: Rape on Trial. London: Women’s Press.

McRobbie, Angela. 2004. “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4: 255–64.

­­­ McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage Publications.

Modleski, Tania. 1991. Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. New York: Routledge.

Projansky, Sarah. 2001. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. 2014. “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: A Case Study of the Backlash.” In Film and Gender: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies. Vol. 4, Re-visioning Feminism(s), edited by Sue Thornham and Niall Richardson, 107–35. Abingdon: Routledge.

[1] For further discussion of Shetye’s photoshoot and the media response to it, see Wickramasinghe 2014; Thorpe 2014.

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The Handmaid’s Tale as a Legitimate Reading of Genesis?

The new Hulu show “A Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same title, depicts a dystopian society in which women are taken from their families and enslaved as handmaids to address an infertility problem in the United States. While some may see the new society as premised on a “deliberate manipulation, not open-minded interpretation” of Genesis, as a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, I consider it a surprisingly accurate interpretation of the patriarchal narratives in the book of Genesis. In these stories, barrenness is a common motif (see, Gen 16-20; 25; 29-30), and handmaids (Hebrew, also translated as “slave-girl”) are used as birth surrogates.

The world depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is, to put it mildly, disturbing. Women are captured, indoctrinated, tortured, and enslaved to perform the job of surrogates. They are chosen as handmaids because they have previously given birth to live children, which has become very rare in the past years. They are also degraded for having participated in what is deemed immoral sexual behavior in their past lives–adultery, having children out of wedlock, lesbianism, and being rape victims.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” focuses primarily on the character of Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. We are privy to her inner thoughts and attitude towards her new reality. She makes clear that she regards herself as a prisoner and does not perform the role of handmaid voluntarily. She articulates this explicitly to a Mexican delegation of diplomats in episode 6.

The press around this new production of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has focused on the problematic social and sexual values presented in the society of Gilead, especially in Trump’s America. The handmaids have become symbols of the suppression of female reproductive autonomy; recent protests have included women dressed as the handmaids described in the story. Many wonder if our contemporary world is headed in the direction of Atwood’s. Perhaps this, in part, accounts for the popularity of the show.

‘Handmaid’s Tale’, Daniel X. O’Neil

Audiences have been rightly troubled by this, still fictional, dystopian vision. Even the wives of the elite are denied legal rights; all women are forbidden from reading and writing, are forced to take on exclusively domestic roles, and are clearly subordinate. Women are controlled sexually; sex is a means of procreation, not pleasure. Elite wives must accept the handmaids into their households and participate in the monthly insemination ritual (see below). The handmaid is not to have any sexual partners of her own choosing and is even separated from any existing sexual partners. Also, in a particularly gruesome scene, Offred’s friend, Ofglen played by Alexis Bledel, a known lesbian, wakes up in a hospital room, where both she and the audience realize that she has undergone female genital mutilation, in order to remove the possibility of her attaining and seeking out sexual pleasure. Even the handmaids’ names are signs of their subordination. Each woman is renamed Of-the head of the household. Therefore, Offred, is “of Fred Waterford.”

Here’s the thing – this dystopian vision is not that far off from the world of Genesis! In fact, aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are deliberately based on Genesis — Genesis gives legitimacy to the rituals and rule in Gilead. In Genesis, the handmaids are property of the mistress, sometimes given as wedding gifts by their fathers (e.g. Gen 29:24, 29); the mistress has the power to turn them over to her husband as a “cure” for her barrenness. The biblical text establishes a situation in which the sexual exploitation of the handmaids’ fertility is permitted, even encouraged and celebrated, as a strategy for nation building.


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Shiloh Project Research Visit to the Universities of Botswana and KwaZulu-Natal

In March 2017 Katie Edwards and I travelled to Botswana and South Africa for one week to make a presentation at the University of Botswana and attend a workshop at the Ujamaa Centre in Pietermaritzburg. We received support for this visit from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) Newton Fund and the University of Leeds research fund. Our purpose was to explore possibilities for collaboration towards a larger-scale project on intersections of religion and rape culture. (We have since submitted an application for a grant.)

Our time was busy and productive. On Monday 20 March we gave one presentation each: I went first and discussed what rape culture is and how it relates to texts of the Hebrew Bible. Following this, Katie presented on biblical imagery in popular culture, with particular focus on how it promotes sexist and racist stereotyping, as well as gender-based violence.

Dr Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Dr Maude Dikobe (University of Botswana)

This went on to open an extended discussion on religion and rape culture in Botswana. Representatives from the Kagisano Women’s Shelter, women’s rights NGO Emang Basadi (‘Women Rise Up!) and LGBTQ rights group Legabibo (‘Lesbians, Gays & Bisexuals of Botswana’), a sub-group of Botswana human rights organization Ditshwanelo were present, as were a number of staff specializing in gender studies, among them Dr. Mmapula Kebaneilwe (womanist scholar of the Hebrew Bible), Professor Musa Dube (postcolonial-feminist scholar of the New Testament and authority in HIV and Aids theology) and Dr. Maude Dikobe (former Chair of the University of Botswana’s Gender Policy and Programme Committee and Senior Lecturer in Literature and the Expressive Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora).

On the following day we met with the Honourable Justice Unity Dow, Minister for Basic Education, to discuss what is happening currently and what more can still be done to teach awareness of gender-based violence. In the evening we met artistic director Moratiwa Molema, and Drs Mary Lederer and Leloba Molema, two of the editors of a forthcoming anthology of women’s writing in and about Botswana, with a view to organizing a live performance of excerpts depicting gender-based violence, to be followed by a panel discussion with audience involvement. This will need to wait until we obtain funding.

The next day we departed for Pietermaritzburg to meet Professor Gerald West and other members of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Ujamaa Centre. The Ujamaa Centre has been a hub of socially engaged Bible study for well over twenty years. It is here that both contextual Bible criticism and the ‘reading with’ strategy were pioneered. One major focus of the centre has been on reading with women vulnerable to and affected by gender-based violence. This has grown into the Tamar Project, which now provides many resources and strategies online. There is much to learn from the staff and participants of the Ujamaa Centre – more than such a brief visit would permit. We also determined that our own approaches would be rather different – not least, because our own position and context are so different from that of Ujamaa’s workshop leaders and participants. We really hope that we can take some of our ideas forward – so, here’s hoping for that grant

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On Sex and Other Possibilities

In a seminal 1980 philosophy paper, ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, Iris Marion Young cites Erwin Straus’ description of differences in styles of throwing between five year old girls and boys. While a girl makes no use of lateral space and remains relatively immobile apart from her arms, a boy will stretch his body sideways and backwards, twist, turn and bend his trunk, move his foot backwards, and throw the ball with force. The result, of course, is that the girl’s ball is released without force, speed, or accurate aim; the boy’s ‘leaves the hand with considerable acceleration; it moves toward its goal in a long, flat curve’ (Straus, 1966, 160).

This difference, argues Straus, has a biological rather than a social or acquired explanation, though he is at some loss to explain what the biological explanation is. Since the difference is found in very young children, it can’t be explained by the existence of female breasts – and anyway, it ‘seems certain’ that the Amazons, who cut off their breasts, ‘threw a ball just like our Mary’s, Betty’s and Susan’s’ (Straus, 1966, 158). Nor can it be explained by weaker muscle power, since a girl could compensate for this precisely by reaching forward and back. Instead, Straus argues, it is probably explicable by appeal to a ‘feminine attitude’ to the world and space. The difference for Straus, then, is biological, and yet this is in a rather vague way, since it is not in any way anatomical: it is simply part of a natural and eternal feminine essence.

Young is not in favour of Straus’ explanation, but she does agree with him about differences in throwing styles. In fact, Young extends the ways in which males and females differ with respect to whether or not they make full use of the body’s spatial and lateral possibilities. Women tend to be less open in their gait and stride; we are more likely to sit with our legs together and to fold our arms. Men are more likely to stand with their feet apart and to swing their arms. Women are also less likely to see ourselves as capable of lifting or carrying heavy things, and when we engage in sport: ‘a space surrounds us in imagination that we are not able to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a conflicted space […] We frequently respond to the motion of a ball coming toward us as though it were coming at us, and our immediate bodily impulse is to flee, duck, or otherwise protect ourselves from its flight’ (Young, 1980, 33- 34).Women often engage with sports timidly, hesitantly, perhaps apologetically. We lack confidence in our capacity to do certain things, and we fear getting hurt; rather than being a medium for the enactment of our aims, we often see our bodies instead as a fragile encumbrance (Young, 1980, 34). And our lack of confidence is, of course, often self-fulfilling.

The reason for this difference, Young posits, lies in the fact that bodily attitudes – everyone’s bodily attitudes – reflect their sense of the possibilities afforded us by the world. Understanding this claim takes us back to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s claim that subjective experience starts from the perspective of our bodies. So, a door is perceived instantly as a door, and not as a compilation of wood and metal, because I perceive it in an embodied fashion: I see it as something it’s possible to walk through, close, reopen, slam. Or, again, the reason I perceive a cup as a cup, despite only being able to see one side of it at any time, lies in the fact that in seeing it I have already interpreted and experienced it as an object it is possible to pick up, hold, drink from (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Our perception and experience of the cup is unitary; we do not sense the cup and the possibilities it gives us as separate things, but as a whole, because our bodies are the lens through which we see it (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 150; Husserl, 2001, 42). So, our bodies are the starting point for our perception of the world, and, conversely, the possibilities opened up by the world depend on the mode and limits of the body’s possibilities (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 137, 148). A sense that we cannot swing our arms or move beyond a confined space is not just about how we view our bodies, but about how we perceive the world and how we are able to live in it and relate to it.

Possibilities are pretty important to humans. The sense that we have possibilities is necessary for our ability to pursue them, and to our engagement, immersion in, and sense of belonging to the world. Possibilities give rise to more possibilities, and so when we inhabit a world of possibilities there is a dynamic interplay of habitual expectation and fulfilment, of confident anticipation (Ratcliffe, 2015, 47). A common source – and indeed form – of suffering is a loss of agency and sense of the possibilities we have available to us. Thus the experience of depression, for instance, is very frequently described in terms of a loss of a sense of possibilities, and so, by extension, a loss of agency or ability to act (Ratcliffe, 2013). For example, as one person says of their experience of depression: ‘It became impossible to reach anything. Like, how do I get up and walk to that chair if the essential thing we mean by chair, something that lets us sit down and rest or upholds us as we read a book […] has lost the quality of being able to do that?’ (Anon, quoted Hornstein, 2009, 213; see Ratcliffe, 2013).

All human experience of possibility is malleable, being shaped by the social and cultural contexts in which we are embedded, and reflected in our bodily behaviour. While not about depression, Young’s paper draws attention to the fact that women’s bodies often behave differently to men’s, precisely because of the diminishment of our possibilities – because women are ‘physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified’ by patriarchal culture. Girls are less likely to be encouraged to develop particular bodily skills, and more likely to be told not to get dirty, or hurt, or ruin their clothes. Girls are taught, even today, the subtle habits of feminine comportment: to walk, sit, and stand in a feminine way – whatever that may be in Young’s and our respective cultures. Young’s reflections are valuable precisely because they draw attention not to the horrific and extreme things we already know about (for example, one-off instances of rape or other sexual violence), but to micro, systemic, everyday things that start early in our lives, and to the way these relate specifically to the loss of possibilities open to us and so the narrowing of our worlds. As Young herself invites us to do, this way of understanding these experiences can be extended to other aspects of women’s embodied subjectivity, not only in relation to sports and everyday comportment, but also in relation to other aspects of women’s experience, including sex and sexuality.

How are women’s experiences of sex and sexuality today shaped by the diminished sense of possibility Young highlights? Or, what light does Young’s account of women’s experience, which foregrounds possibility and its loss, shed on women’s experiences of sex and sexuality now? Here are a few thoughts, drawn from my own experience. Many of these are, I think, experiences common to the vast majority of women like me, who are in many ways the lucky ones: women who live in a modern, outwardly egalitarian society who are surrounded by liberal, feminist friends and colleagues. In writing of these experiences, I seek to disrupt the hegemonic narrative that we already live in an egalitarian society, or that sexual violence does not, in fact, affect the experience of most women day-to-day, or that it does not do so at a significant level.

A major enjoyment in my life is walking. I enjoy walking with friends, but also, and in some ways particularly, on my own. If I’m stressed it often takes me out of myself and helps me to see that things matter less than I think; if I’m thinking about my research it often helps me to be creative and reorder my ideas. Yet my experience of walking has at times been marred, not only by assaults during walks (though this has happened, and in unlikely times and places), but also by advice from well-meaning people from an early age to be careful: to watch out because it’s likely that if I walk alone then I will be raped. Most recently, this happened about six months ago as I walked in some woods near my home in Yorkshire. Meeting a family from a nearby city who had come for a picnic for the day, we spent five minutes passing the time of day by talking about the beautiful weather and countryside. But the walk as a whole was tarnished for me by the man’s concern that I was walking alone, and question about whether I wasn’t worried about being attacked.



The effect of this kind of well-intentioned question was to alter my mood, my background sense of how I found myself in the world and the particular quality of experience of being immersed in it. Unlike an emotion, a mood like this is not an intentional state that is directed towards a particular object (for example, a sense of fear about the possibility of being raped). Rather, it is an immersion in the world as a threatening and fearful place, a place in which we do not belong and that is not of our own making (see Ratcliffe, 2015). The world of the person whose mood is one of fear is simply not the same world as the world of the person whose mood is characterised by a sense of one’s possibilities. Threat is not only a contingent prospect about a particular event but, rather, the shape that all experience of the world has, one that makes the beautiful weather seem discordant, and the woods not peaceful and joyful but strange and threatening. And this is a sense that is, to different extents, instilled in girls from an early age, and of which (even if we consciously choose to reject it, as I had done) we are forcibly reminded at various points throughout our lives.

Over the last six months I’ve done quite a lot of (mostly heterosexual) dating: a relatively new experience to me since, prior to that, I have mostly been in monogamous relationships. For the most part, the experience of dating has been an exciting one, carrying with it a sense of possibility and confident anticipation: meeting new and interesting people, being less sexually constrained, becoming more confident. Being single and not celibate has not only been fun, but has also allowed me to consider whether and in what ways monogamous relationships are (inherently or contingently) patriarchal or heteronormative, to re-assess earlier relationships, and to consider a wider range of possible futures than I’d previously allowed myself. Yet, on the contemporary dating scene, too – at least as far as it relates to people between their late-twenties and late-forties – there are curiosities that point to a diminished sense of possibilities of the world for women in particular. So, for example, as it turns out, it’s still overwhelmingly the norm for men to make the first move on a date. This is in spite of the fact that both the man and the woman may be ardent feminists: it seems there is still an invisible barrier that prevents women from taking this step. I, for one, am guilty of this. And there is evidence to suggest this is not unwarranted: when one attractive female friend did make the first move on a date, she was spurned (by a well-educated, liberal, feminist etc. man) on account of being too forward.

That women’s bodily sexual behaviour is still normalised as demure in this context may seem remarkable but relatively benign: it is, after all (one might think), merely an aesthetic preference; there is nothing intrinsically violent or genuinely misogynistic about it. But on reflection this is naïve: the way in which cultural norms shape women’s (and men’s) behaviours reflects a more general (if often invisible) policing of women’s bodies, by both men and women, of which rape and sexual violence are one part. And these things, too, are salient in a dating context. Women are encouraged always to tell a friend where and with whom they are going on a date, and whether they take the date home (taking the date home, rather than going back to the date’s house, is recommended in most dating advice guides as the safer option).

In the UK, ‘rape’ is defined as something that can only be done by a man; the way the term is defined (or, in other countries, primarily understood) suggests that men are potential perpetrators, and women potential victims. The ‘consent’ that the woman gives to the man is the primary legitimator of sex, and yet, against a backdrop of patriarchal norms (for example, how we define ‘rape’, whom we expect to make the first move), this is a concept that already puts a woman on the back foot and undermines her subjectivity and agency: it suggests that her role in sex is to ‘allow’ it; indicates feminine passivity, and implicitly undermines and de-normalises women’s enthusiasm for sex and sexual pleasure. Conversely, men’s sexual desire is constructed as proactive, potentially predatory, perpetually up for it: ‘being sexual like a girl’ differs from ‘throwing like a girl’, in that not only women but also men suffer from our embodied performances of gendered sexuality.

I’ve been raped twice in my life. Writing this now, I find myself wondering what the reader’s response to this will be and, once again, whether this number is higher than the average; if so, whether this is because of something about me, either intrinsically, or else because of my behaviour. ‘Being someone who has been raped’ has taken me a very long time to accept. Perhaps this is because it jars with my strong sense of agency, and, however much I thought I felt solidarity rather than pity with people who had been raped, ultimately I had a sense that this extreme and violent loss of agency is not something that would ever happen to me. The effects of the first time I was raped – over a decade ago – were significant in terms of my relationships and career: I was frequently too preoccupied by the memory of the experience to work; I was unable to tell the people closest to me, and could no longer relate as fully to them. When I did try to explain, I was no good at it, not least because I could not bring myself to use the word ‘rape’ – and they would not understand my inarticulate attempt to characterise my experience. In addition to this, over a significant period of time, I would generally feel fine, but then a particular sentence of a song, or conversation I overheard between people, would make me unable to breath, and would make being in a particular place suddenly unbearable. I would sleep badly, have nightmares, and wake panicked.

I experienced tremendous anger, oddly at the seriousness with which our culture takes rape and sees it as traumatic, as I felt this could be normalising and self-fulfilling. I felt that, were it not for the seriousness with which rape is spoken of, I might be able to shake off some of the negative after-effects more quickly. Retrospectively, I think this was part of a wider attempt to re-establish the agency I’d lost by establishing a more optimistic, albeit naïve, evaluation of my experience and set of choices about how to respond to it. Collectively, men and women interpret experiences through a patriarchal lens, which includes normalising or trivialising sexual violence. There is an additional incentive to do this if one wishes to deny, as I did for psychological reasons, that something really bad has happened to one. Of course, the problem with wishful thinking, as here, is that while it may be helpful for a while, it is often untrue, and unhelpful in the longer term (see Bortolotti, 2014 for a discussion of related kinds of helpfulness in the context of psychiatric delusions).

Rape is something that happens, that happens to a large number of women, and that happens to women whom perhaps we don’t expect it to happen to. Furthermore, the overarching threat of rape often affects the experience of women, and of women’s sex lives, at least some of the time and to some extent, whether they have been raped or not. The ways in which cautionary advice altered the experience of walking pre-existed my experience of rape, though the sense of threat was significantly heightened for a period following them. Merely the threat of rape diminishes possibilities, since the ‘I can’ is set to the limits of the ‘I cannot’ (or must not, or ought not, or else…). It’s also sometimes observed that the overarching threat of rape that exists between male and female relationships can result in gratitude to non-predatory male friends, and non-rapey male lovers. It can therefore result in an unequal playing field for romantic and sexual relationships, and for friendships with men.

The sense of gratitude is of course inappropriate: non-rape should be presupposed. Women are more likely than men to err on the side of caution, both with respect to the number of sexual partners they have, and to how well they know and trust someone before they will sleep with them. Explanations for this are sometimes posited in terms of women’s lower sexual appetite (we have less testosterone), or life preferences (apparently, we seek a life-long mate and children – whether or not we think we do), or adventurousness (we are intrinsically more sensible people). Yet it is surely not ridiculous to think that here, too, women’s experience is characterised by a sense of diminished possibility, and shaped by an overarching threat of rape. Our decisions are more cautious, because we have fewer possibilities open to us, because in this most intimate part of our lives there is also a pervasive sense of threat.

Negotiating the realities of rape and rape culture is complex. It’s sometimes well-meaning people (protective relatives or perfectly nice people one meet on walks) who instil the sense of threat that mars women’s experience of the world in general and of sexual possibilities in particular. And, given the occurrence and severe effects of rape, they may even be correct to make us cautious or feel threatened – and yet diminishing a person’s sense of possibility or increasing their sense of fear is, in and of itself, a harm to that person’s good. Or again, regarding trauma as the appropriate response to rape, and recognising the seriousness of rape, can seem to normalise such a traumatic response, and arguably diminish the wellbeing of a woman who has been raped further.

It may, at times, be at odds with a woman’s claim, post-rape, that the situation is not as bad as feminist discourse prescribes, or that making a big deal of it is itself unhelpful – and to overrule or ignore her claim can even seem paternalistic or authoritarian. The solution to this complexity is not to deny that we live in a rape culture, or to assert a simplistic, libertarian form of women’s agency post-rape, as some writers have recently done (e.g. Gittos, 2015). Instead, we need to understand and critique rape culture. This means understanding and critiquing the ways in which rape culture affects our relations and interactions systemically, including at the level of the more everyday, less visible diminishment of women’s possibilities, and the ways in which women, and men, internalise, embody and perform problematic dynamics in our everyday lives.

Anastasia (Tasia) Scrutton is an Associate Professor in Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds, UK. Her current research is on religious and spiritual interpretations of depression, particularly in relation to how different interpretations shape the meaning and interpretation of the experience, and the experience itself. Prior to this, she looked at the idea of divine passibility – the idea that the God of classical theism could have emotions – through the lens of some recent work on the relationship between emotions, intelligence, the will and the body. Other interests include social philosophy, philosophy of mind, and indigenous and new religions. Recent publications include ‘Why not believe in an evil God? Pragmatic encroachment and some implications for philosophy of religion’ (Religious Studies); ‘Two Christian Theologies of Depression’ (Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology); ‘”Is depression a sin or a disease?” A critique of moralizing and medicalizing models of mental illness’ (Journal of Religion and Disability) andMental Illness’ (Routledge Handbook for Epistemic Injustice).

Author Acknowledgements

Being able to share these experiences would be impossible without the support of a number of good friends, and my writing of it also benefited from their expertise in philosophy, theology and other disciplines. Thanks go particularly to Adriaan van Klinken, Gerald Lang, Rachel Muers, Jack Woods, Heather Logue, Stefan Skrimshire, Paolo Santorio and Matthew Ratcliffe.



Bortolotti, Lisa. 2015. The epistemic innocence of motivated delusions. Consciousness and Cognition 33, 490 – 499

Gittos, Luke. 2015. Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. Exeter: Societas

Hornstein, G. A. 2009. Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness. New York: Rodale.

Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Analyses Concerning Active and Passive Synthesis: Lectures on Transcendental Logic. Trans. Steinbock, A.J. Dordrecht: Kluwer

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press

Ratcliffe, Matthew. 2015. Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Ratcliffe, M, 2013. Depression and the Phenomenology of Free Will. In Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry. Ed. Fulford, K. W. M., Davies, M., Graham, G., Sadler, J., Stanghellini, G. & Thornton, T. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 574-591

Straus, Erwin W. 1966. The Upright Posture. Phenomenological Psychology. New York: Basic Books

Young, Iris Marion. 1980. Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment motility and spatiality. Human Studies 3, 137 – 156

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Sex, Rape and Social History – The Case of the Bible

One does not have to look far to find indications of the normalization of sexual violence (a phenomenon known as rape culture) in news articles, pop culture or, indeed, the Bible.

Recent press coverage of Adam Johnson, the ‘Rape Clause’, and responses to rape storylines in Broadchurch and Emmerdale are but a handful of instances demonstrating the complex attitudes bound up in public understandings of rape. Can the Bible – given its considerable influence on Western culture – contribute to the discussion? And if so, how? The new Shiloh Project, which I co-direct with Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth, seeks to answer that very question.

The Bible is of limited value for reconstructing specific events of the past. For the social historian, however, the Bible holds more promise. When it comes to social values, attitudes and laws concerning sex, the Bible has undeniably had tremendous influence.

For example, one biblical commentator claims that the biblical incest laws ‘have had greater effect on Western law than any comparable body of biblical laws’. 1 The kinship and marriage laws (known as consanguinity and affinity laws), which were used in Christian Europe over centuries, were directly derived from biblical incest laws. 2 They were also used rather fluidly. In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled (following the birth of two daughters and no sons) on the grounds of a blood relationship in the fourth degree. Next, however, Eleanor married Henry (who would become Henry II of England): her cousin in the third degree!

The rape laws and narratives of the Bible also hold out promise for explorations of attitudes to rape throughout history. Male-male rape is threatened twice (Genesis 19 and Judges 19) and in both cases the rapists are invited to violate women instead – with the implication that rape of a woman is less abhorrent and less ‘wrong’ than the rape of a man.

In Judges 19, one of the most horrendous narratives of the entire Bible, a nameless woman, the wife of a Levite, is cast out to a group of thugs and gang-raped all night. Her body is dismembered and its parts sent to the tribes of Israel. This leads to a war, which leads to the exclusion of a tribe, which leads to more rape: because seizing a group of women for wives is deemed preferable to the extinction of a tribe.

The Bible is not for the squeamish. There are many more examples of biblical rape texts. King David ‘takes’ Bathsheba, the woman he sees bathing – and (in spite of the romanticised retellings in film versions) the likeliest scenario is that she was not asked for her consent and raped. 3 King David’s son Amnon rapes Tamar, who is his half-sister. Jacob’s daughter Dinah (whose tale is another often portrayed in pop culture as one of romance) is raped by a local prince.

Often the rape of women in the Bible is depicted in cavalier ways. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to the king of Egypt and to Abimelech of Gerar . Sarah hands Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate child-bearer and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel do the same with their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. No words identify such actions as trafficking or rape.

The Biblical legal texts prescribe that if an engaged woman is raped in an urban area, she and the rapist shall both be killed – because she should have screamed for help and (tellingly) because the rights of another man (i.e. the man to whom she was engaged) have been violated.

If the rape occurred in the countryside, however, only the man is executed – because the woman may have screamed and not been heard. By implication raped women are ‘damaged goods’ and potentially co-responsible for their violation. A phenomenon known as ‘victim-blaming’ is something we regularly see played out in contemporary media accounts of rape.

In cases where a raped woman was not engaged, a fine must be paid to her father and the rapist must marry the raped woman, with no possibility of divorce. It is clear that notions of female autonomy and consent are barely present in the Bible and that rape is often a matter of male ownership and competition. This is something we have recently seen in news coverage regarding Article 308 in Jordan which would have allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.

Religions play a significant part in both confronting and perpetuating the myths and misperceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures. As such, it is essential that we begin to consider how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

The Shiloh Project, a joint initiative between the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland, is a new research centre which seeks to explore rape in the Bible and also its reception, resonance and afterlives in contemporary settings. The Shiloh Project is named after the women of Shiloh who are seized for rape marriage as a ‘solution’ to prevent the extermination of the tribe of Benjamin. This is a particularly poignant story in the light of the abduction of the girls of Chibok by Boko Haram.

This article was originally published on History Matters. Read the original article.

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. Her main research interests in the Hebrew Bible focus on self-conscious emotion terminology, ideological-critical readings of prophetic literature, African-centred interpretation, sexuality, and family dynamics. Johanna is co-director of The Shiloh Project. Her latest book is First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: London, 2016).

Header image: The Levite of Ephraim and His Dead Wife. Jean-Jacques Henner circa 1898 [via Wikicommons].


  1. Calum M. Carmichael, Law, Legend and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18–20 (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p.1.
  2. For a full treatment of incest in the Bible, see Johanna Stiebert, First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 596 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2016).
  3. Biblical scholar David J. A. Clines puts it well when he states, ‘the sex is essentially an expression of royal power, and it is much more like rape than love’ (in his Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible, JSOTSup 205; Gender, Culture, Theory 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p.226.
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The Greatest Taboo? The Surprising Truth of What the Bible Says About Incest

Incest sparks strong emotions – and today, in many cultures at least, they are largely negative. But has it always been thus? Or is the taboo peculiar to certain times and places?

Incest taboos are often said to be universal – and sex with a close relative (one’s parent, child, or sibling) is widely considered particularly depraved, as well as detrimental and stigmatising for any offspring who might result from such a union.

Such figures as Josef Fritzl and Frederick West have scaled the heights of notoriety in part because of violent, exploitative incest committed against their own children.

And yet incest also seems to be everywhere: in high and low-brow literature – from Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – as well as in film and especially popular television – think Game of Thrones, Brookside, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. It is also a trope in gothic horror.

Curiously, too, in popular culture, incest is not infrequently depicted as consensual and – especially when it is between a good-looking brother and sister – even as romantic.

Nevertheless, judging from the press over the last few weeks, anyone would think that familial sexual relationships were a completely new phenomenon and that until recently, incest was kept at bay by strong social taboos. However, whether familial sexual relationships are indeed considered to be incestuous (that is, illegal, even criminal) or not depends on the social and cultural context. Moreover, attitudes to incest tend to be gendered and heteronormative.

With relatives who were once separated increasingly able to trace each other (through DNA testing, social media, and reunion services), stories of siblings, or of a parent and childreunited are more common. And not infrequently, such reunions transpire in mutual attraction and love – which has been hitting the headlines recently.

A taboo too far?

This phenomenon is known as GSA – Genetic Sexual Attraction Syndrome – and not infrequently affects relatives who did not spend the formative years together and who meet as adults. When people do spend early life together, a different psycho-social mechanism, called the Westermarck effect, functions to suppress erotic bonding. It is almost never the case that romantic, consensual erotic bonding happens between family members who do spend early life together.

Some of the public conversations now turn to whether incestuous unions – where they are consensual and between adults – should be tolerated and decriminalised. Indeed, in Sweden half-sibling marriage is already legal and the jurisdictions of some other countries, too, do not penalise such acts.

Love: but is it legal?

Media stories only portray heterosexual familial partnerships, however, so there’s precious little coverage on brothers or male close family relations who’ve experienced GSA after a period of separation. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, of course, but the coverage says a great deal about such being a cultural “taboo too far” for us. By contrast, popular cultural representations of heterosexual sibling incest is often eroticised, with the woman frequently portrayed as a feminine ideal: beautiful and sexy. In such story lines, incestuous relationships function to add an extra thrill of the illicit. The most recent public examples of GSA, however, reveal the mundanity of many of the cases, despite the scandalous tenor of the journalists.

The media coverage provoked by biological mother and son Kim West and Ben Ford, the latest couple to go public with their experience of GSA, has been queasy, voyeuristic and sensationalist, with assertions that familial sexual relationships “are on the rise”. Suggestions that familial sexual relationships are increasingly common suggests that they’ve been very rare in the past; however, even a text as ancient as the Bible outlines prohibitions for incest, suggesting that familial sexual relationships occurred frequently enough to warrant the introduction of behavioural guidelines.

The Bible’s verdict

Despite the seemingly clear rules around incestuous relationships – just as popular culture toys with the titillation and taboo of the topic – biblical depiction is ambiguous. Yes, there are the Levitical laws that prohibit sex with a string of family members (one’s sibling, parent, certain in-laws … but not one’s son or daughter!), but then there is also the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19, seducing their father and bearing sons, which offers no (certainly no explicit) reproof. The daughters even draw attention to incest by calling their sons “Moab” (Hebrew for “from the father”) and “Ben-Ammi” (“son of my people”)!

The revered patriarch Abraham mentions rather casually that his wife, Sarah, is also his half-sister. David’s son Amnon becomes obsessed with and rapes his sister Tamar. This event is certainly depicted as villainous and cruel on Amnon’s part but Tamar’s words, as she tries to prevent the rape, suggest sibling marriage is an option.

Close-kin marriages – between fathers and daughters and between siblings – were certainly known in Egypt, right up to and including Cleopatra, who married two of her brothers consecutively.

The Bible, as usual, however, offers no clear advice going forward.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS , University of Sheffield and Johanna Stiebert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Leeds

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

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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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How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault

A retiring judge recently faced accusations of victim blaming when she used her final courtroom case as a plea to women to “protect themselves” from rapists by staying sober. Judge Lindsey Kushner restated these views in a television interview on Good Morning Britain, asking, “why shouldn’t you say – be aware ladies?”

Kushner’s comments were met with a mixed response. Some praised her for using her final speech before stepping down from the bench as a gesture of concern and warning to women who, she believes, make themselves more vulnerable to rape after consuming alcohol. Others, including representatives from Rape Crisis and some feminist activists, see these comments as acutely dangerous – comments that encourage and affirm attitudes of victim-blaming which, in turn, perpetuate the stereotypes that underpin rape culture.

Unfortunately, Kushner is far from the only judge in a sexual assault case to comment on the “irresponsible” or “provocative” behaviour of women and girls.

Biblical attitudes to rape

As a deeply influential cultural document, the Bible has a lot to say when it comes to attitudes around sex, shame and gender identity. Rape is endemic in the Bible (both literally and metaphorically) and, more often than not, functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.

Bathsheba at her Bath, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari (1680).

For example, David’s rape of Bathsheba is echoed in his son Amnon’s rape of half-sister Tamar, and his son Absalom’s rape of David’s ten concubines. And in Judges 21, the Benjaminites are “saved from extinction” through the mass rape of women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh.

A common thread in the biblical text is that women are responsible for maintaining their sexual “purity”. This is not in the interests of their own well-being, but to ensure that as male property, women remain “undamaged”. This seems to be a no-win situation. The consequence for Dinah, who transgresses social boundaries by going “out to meet the women of the land”, is rape. Women who do fulfil feminine ideals, such as Bathsheba, who is described as “very beautiful”, tend to attract negative, often violent, male sexual attention.

In other words, one way or another, women are constantly implicitly blamed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, for their rape.

To blame for one’s beauty

A case in point is another “very beautiful” biblical woman, Susanna. Susanna is the subject of an attempted rape by two elders, who spy on her while she’s bathing before conspiring to coerce her into sex:

Look the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.

In the biblical text, Susanna’s beauty is to blame for attracting the attentions of the elders. In a plotline that’s echoed in today’s court rooms, Susanna’s testimony isn’t believed and her sexual conduct is brought into question. It takes a man, Daniel, to advocate for her and to rescue her from execution after she refuses the elders’ offer.

In his successful defence of her and condemnation of the elders, Daniel says: “Beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart.” Here, as so often in contemporary society, rape and sexual assault are linked to the attractiveness of women rather than a violent crime of power and control. Even in art, Susanna is implicitly blamed for being targeted. As the critic John Berger has observed, Susanna, like Bathsheba, is often depicted looking at herself in a mirror while she’s bathing:

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralising, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto (1555).

Kushner’s words continue this not-so-grand tradition of victim blaming. Kushner suggests that women who do not exhibit “disinhibited behaviour” by abstaining from alcohol are better able to fight off men with “evil intentions”. What is key here is that moderating women’s behaviour does not do anything to address the issue of rape or dismantle rape culture. It just shifts the collective social responsibility to prevent rape and sexual assault to that of individual women.

Women who do not agree to self-police are blamed for others’ actions. What Kushner is giving isn’t “just advice” or “common sense”; it reduces rape to a choice: choose for someone else to be targeted for attack rather than yourself.

The ConversationRather than continuing to judge women for their behaviour, perhaps it’s time we started to judge a society that blames women for rape.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and Emma Nagouse, PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield

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

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