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Domestic Abuse

Writing the History of Sexual Harassment: The Avisa Project

In recent days there has been a flurry of reports on the depressing ubiquity of sexual harassment and sexual and gender-based violence. In France there is a project, the Avisa Project, taking a look at the long and horrible history of sexual harassment.

Today’s post about this project, which is likely to be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project, is by Armel Dubois-Nayt of the Université de Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines.

We would especially like to congratulate Louise Piguet (whose presentation is mentioned below) for successfully defending her doctoral thesis. Wonderful news, Dr. Piguet!

The Avisa Project

Avisa is the eponymous female character of a sixteenth century narrative poem, Willobie his Avisa (1594), who successfully rebuffs a series of persistent and aggressive wooers. The Avisa Project is named after her and was launched in September 2020 by two French universities: the University of Evry and the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin. One aim of the project is to identify, collect, and examine behaviours in times past that can be classified today as sexual harassment. What can we discern about how harassment was experienced, exposed and resisted by the women and men who endured it? How did they challenge sexual harassment, be that in in court, or through creative modes of expression?

The project is currently funded by the MSH-Paris Saclay and offers webinars, held every two months, giving scholars and PhD students from different disciplines (literature, history, the history of ideas and the sociology of film) the opportunity to present their findings and work in progress.

The first term has been dedicated to designing the bilingual French and English platform, which will continue to present collective research. It will contain a searchable glossary of the French and English terms and phrases used to identify, document and report this type of sexual violence. Alongside this, the platform will assemble information about all of historical, literary and filmic victims and survivors of such crimes. In time, the platform will develop into a corpus database of all works analysed, with up-to-date bibliographies, and other research information on the topic. The site will also advertise forthcoming events and summarise findings of prior project activities.

So far, the webinars since December, have focused on words (i.e. the vocabulary of sexual harassment) and images (i.e. the visual depiction of sexual harassment). Recurring in both focus areas are markers of masculine domination and female victims.

In the first webinar, Guillaume Peureux discussed Idylles (1605), poems by Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye (1536-1607), in which the terms harceler and harasser appear (both translate into English as “harass”). Peureux revisits Idylles in the light of a recent controversy in France (2018), which was initiated by the candidates for the agrégation (i.e. the high level competitive exams for teachers), and centred on how texts depicting sexual violence should be taught in class and whether focus on sexual harassment constitutes anachronistic reading of early modern literature.

Next, Chloe Tardivel presented  on two explicit cases of sexual harassment from 14th-century court records from Bologna: those of Margarita (in 1351) and Maria (in 1373). Neither case, however, was tried for the sexual violence involved but for the physical violence and injuries that followed the women’s resistance. This paper illustrated how historians can recover cases of sexual harassment even in the absence of a law that recognises the offence.



Archivio di Stato di Bologna, Comune, Curia del Podestà, Giudici ad maleficia, Libri inquisitionum et testium, boîte n° 219, registre 1, fol. 30.

Rejane Vallee discussed the corpus of films identified as dealing with sexual harassment on the IMDb.com website, the content of which is supplied by anonymous contributors. On this website, 750 films appear under the category “sexual harassment,” a figure far below the 5400 entries under the word “rape,” and the 1151 entries under the word “stalking.” It is, however, higher than the 661 films listed under the category “sexual assault.” The corpus covers films between the years 1899 and 2021, 40 different nationalities, and 16 different genres. It also raises a series of questions, starting with the criteria applied by contributors to categorise films as containing sexual harassment, which appears to have changed considerably over time.

Brigitte Gauthier looked at social fracture and harassment in South African cinema. Hence, sexual harassment in South African university contexts might be seen to be debunked in Steve Jacobs’s film Disgrace, adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s complex novel of the same name. The film portrays but does not resolve themes of sex and sexual violence cast against a background of racialised violence and territorial fights. Gauthier mentioned that South Africa has implemented new laws regarding sexual harassment in the film industry to fight the “embedded” harassment processes in an industry that capitalises and thrives on female beauty. Local filmmaker and member of Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), Tiny Mungwe, has encouraged people to take the pledge against sexual harassment by using the #Don’tLookAway Mzansi Facebook profile frame (Mzansi is another name for South Africa).

In the second webinar, Susan Baddeley looked at words used in 16th-century French and English to describe acts that we would today classify as sexual harassment. She showed that the words we use in the present – namely, (English) harass and (French) harceler – were not then generally used in the same way. They did, however, in the past, too, describe repeated and hostile attacks, which explains how these terms acquired the meaning they hold today. An intuitive search, from synonym to synonym, through various lexical databases (FRANTEXT, EEBO-TCP, LEME) yielded a few terms (such as attempt in English, attoucher in French) which could be construed as having this meaning, among other meanings. One term however, stood out, and referred to “sniffing around (a potential sexual conquest)”: this is the French verb mugueter. Although several dictionaries attempt to play down this meaning, the fact that others coyly include the word (but not the definition), and that translators tend to under-translate or even omit it, speaks volumes about the true meaning of the word at the time.


The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177

Louise Piguet investigated the extent to which we can apply the present-day notion of sexual harassment to 17th-century French society. She took the case of Madame Guyon (1648-1717), and considered how the practice of “controlled anachronism” (Paul Veyne) can help us use her spiritual autobiography to shed some light on domestic abuse in late 17th-century high society. In her autobiography, Guyon recalls a violent past of constant surveillance, attacks, pressure and unwanted sexual intercourse with her husband. This would be labelled today as marital rape but, at the time, it was depicted by the victim as part of her conjugal duties. Piguet concluded that if self-sacrifice on the altar of wifely obedience was in this specific literary genre a major trope to demonstrate a woman’s forbearance and holiness, it can still prove useful material for present-day social history on sexual harassment.

Armel Dubois-Nayt analysed the historical case of sexual harassment of Elizabeth Tudor by Thomas Seymour between 1547 and 1548, which was placed in the limelight by a recent documentary on Channel 5 (2017). Dubois-Nayt examined the confessions of Elizabeth Tudor’s governess and treasurer, as well as a hand-written note on the back of a letter dated 9 June 1548, by the princess herself, on which the case is built. She then turned to and confronted the gender-prejudiced treatment of these texts by generations of historians, going on to propose an alternative philogynist version of events, underpinned by texts such as Willobie his Avisa (1594).

The next seminar will be held on 2 April 2021, and will welcome three speakers. Anne Rochebouet will survey courtesy in medieval fiction, with a view to determine how behaviours associated with courtly manners and courtliness fit with our assumed conceptions of medieval misogyny.

Line Cottegnies will discuss harassment and the battle of the sexes in Mary Astell’s philosophy.

Fanny Beure will talk about the ambiguities of the acts of loving conquest pictured in Hollywood musicals.

For more information about the project see: https://avisa.huma-num.fr/s/avisa/page/accueil

We look forward to Avisa and Shiloh collaborations.

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Opening Conversations about GBV with Visual Media

Images can be very powerful and can communicate an abundance in an instant.  

Visual media can be effective tools for teaching.  

Because gender-based and sexual violence are distressing, images depicting or implying gender-based or sexual violence are highly likely to be distressing, too. It can be difficult to negotiate communicating a truth, being sensitive to and respectful of victims of violence, and avoiding voyeurism, all at the same time. 

Using images to open conversations and for teaching can be very effective in moving closer towards the elimination of gendered violence. 

Here are three quick examples.  

In an earlier post we presented the artwork of graphic designer Pia Alize. Her work depicts accounts of gender-based violence from the Bible. These images have now formed the focus of two well attended interactive workshops with ministerial candidates, both led by Dr Mark Aidoo of the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra (Ghana). Church leaders are highly likely to be confronted with situations of gender-based violence in their parishes. Consequently, training in first response to disclosures of gender-based violence, and knowledge about how to facilitate support and protection for victims is crucial. Mark reports that the images generated lively engagement and that participants reported feeling transformed and reading the Bible with new sensitivities.  

Workshop with Dr Mark Aidoo of the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra (Ghana) [2]
Workshop with Dr Mark Aidoo of the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra (Ghana) [3]

Episcopal Relief & Development has produced a wide array of images to stimulate conversations about a range of difficult and complex topics – including about economic abuse and also gender-based violence. Each of these images tells a story. Episcopal Relief & Development leads group work on reflecting on the images, encouraging participants to associate the themes portrayed with events in their own lives, and exploring the repercussions of abusive actions. This then leads on to devising active strategies of resistance. 

Resource from Episcopal Relief & Development

Lastly, here are ‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson. Charlotte is a Church of England ordinand and reads the Bible together with groups of women in the Women’s Theology Network. Their aim is to explore the continuing relevance of the Bible’s stories. This has included also discussion of stories of violence against women of the Bible, like Bilhah, Dinah, and Hagar, depicted here. 

‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson [1]
‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson [2]
‘Lent doodles’ by Charlotte Gibson [3]

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The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Book Review

Helen Paynter has written an important book, with the title The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why You Don’t Have to Submit to Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020). Given the depressingly constant stream of findings of abuse in church-run settings (such as those published by IICSA, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse) and the alarming reports of sharp increases in incidents of domestic violence during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as addressed in urgent appeals by Women’s Aid and Jewish Women’s Aid (#AMaskWontProtectHer), this book is especially timely. 

Helen is a biblical scholar, as well as director of the Bristol-based Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She is also a Baptist minister and a medical doctor. (The latter, while assigned to a past life, crops up in the book, including in some vivid analogies). She is, in short, very impressive and The Shiloh Project has been grateful for Helen’s support and participation over the past years.

This book is written with accessibility in mind. It is a slim volume, with fewer notes than Helen’s (also succinct – given its place in a Routledge Focus series) academic book on another violent theme: Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2020, see here). Evoking a dialogue, Helen uses the direct address (‘you’) widely in this book and brings in her own experiences and encounters, too. After a succinct and thorough discussion on why, to her, the Bible is a tool and solace for the abused, not for abusers, Helen segues into practical advice: she recommends further readings and blogs, helplines and support organisations, resources for churches and for perpetrators, and she details a safety plan.

The book is both inspired by and for Christian women who have suffered, or who are suffering, domestic violence and coercive control, particularly at the hands of Christian abusers, such as their husbands, who use the Bible to justify or legitimate their actions (p.18). As Helen points out, ‘rates of abuse perpetration within church are about the same as rates in the general population’ (p.15). 

Space is given up to (sometimes lengthy) quotations from the Bible; these quotations make the case against abusers. Again and again, Helen illustrates that the Bible depicts God and Jesus as abhorring injustice and standing with the oppressed and the vulnerable. This is taken to mean that God and Jesus side with victims and survivors of abuse and abhor domestic violence and coercive control. Presumably, therefore, the primary audience is not just Christian women1 who have suffered domestic abuse but who also wish to remain in the church, or wish to reclaim the Bible that has been used against them. This book is for survivors who stay – if not in an abusive domestic sphere, or marriage – then in their faith. It is not so much for those survivors who reject and and leave their faith. When leaving their faith, they may well reject along with it the Bible, which they have come to associate with violence, coercion, humiliation and denigration. 

Helen acknowledges the church’s and some church leaders’ part both in active systemic abuse and in inaction in addressing abuse effectively (pp.88-96). She, too, remains committed to her faith, the Bible and the church, giving clear directives on how the church must change (pp.152-59). Like Ruth Everhart (whose book I have reviewed and extolled in an earlier post) Helen is determined to work with the Bible and from within the church to bring about justice.

I admire what both Ruth Everhart and Helen are doing. It is – no doubt about it – much harder to remain inside the church and make it better than to walk away. Both, moreover, don’t countenance the option of easy forgiveness. Helen makes it very clear that forgiveness, while it may be freely given, has its price (p.77-87). Also like Everhart, Helen refers to the impact of MeToo (p.142) and to church complicity in abuse and covering up abuse (pp.88-96); she, too, weaves in the words and experiences of those who have confided in her with considerable respectfulness, and she also addresses several audiences: women subjected to abuse and coercive control, people supporting them, church leaders, and perpetrators (pp.18-21, 150-162).

At various points, reading this book, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with and admiring Helen. Foremost: her intention is, of course, entirely laudable. I can believe that this book will bring healing and comfort to many Christian women who have suffered spiritual abuse on top of other kinds of coercion, harm and violence at the hands of husbands or church leaders, weaponizing the Bible. That already makes the book worthwhile. Also, Helen’s point that atrocities described in the Bible are not ipso facto prescribed is an important one. Helen’s other book published this year, Telling Terror in Judges 19, makes this point very compellingly. With Telling Terror Helen has chosen to focus on one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Hebrew Bible. Her argument is that both the viciousness of events recounted and the outraged response to these events indicate that this brutal story is not condoning, let alone recommending, the abusiveness it depicts. In this book, too, Helen has no qualms about saying that even revered figures in the Bible sometimes do wrong – like Abraham, when he pimps out his wife (p.48). She also raises the probability that the violence done to Jesus included sexual assault (p.118). Given her audience, that’s gutsy. 

Other things piqued my admiration, too. I very much like the comparison of Hagar and Ishmael with Abraham and Isaac (pp.109-112): I had never picked up on the evident parallels. And Helen also convinced me on the point of why Jesus is persisting on writing on the ground in John 4, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before him: he is averting his gaze, so as not to shame the woman further (p.122)! Helen’s careful reading and imaginative engagement with the story world can transpire in illuminating and persuasive interpretations.

But I wasn’t persuaded by all of the book. Admittedly, this will be due in part to the book not being ‘my cup of tea’: because I’m not in the church and because I do not feel a need to redeem the Bible. I am not someone who feels that ‘Jesus understands’ (hurt, betrayal, suffering, etc pp.113-118). Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather have the Bible be used in Helen’s vein, to defend the vulnerable, than to procure abusers. But I do actually see the Bible as part of the problem. I am not certain at all, as Helen is, that ‘The Bible does not belong to abusers. And though you may hear echoes of their voices there occasionally, they are only found there to be contradicted, subverted and humbled’ (p.11). When I read John 8:31-47, I hear echoes of antisemitism, not righteous anger. To me, these words of Jesus are not ‘refreshing’ (p.98). When I read the metaphors of the early chapters in Hosea or of Ezekiel 16 and 23 (which Helen knows well, of course, but which do not feature in this book), I find God to appear very much like an abuser – as has been discussed fully by other biblical scholars.And when I read Numbers 5, where a woman suspected of adultery without any evidence, is subjected to a gruelling ritual at the Temple and where a jealous husband is explicitly exonerated of all guilt (5:31), I see an abuser who is legitimated by both God and Moses. I don’t see here that ‘women matter to God’ (p.109).

For Helen ‘The Bible can be made to say just about anything, if it is taken out of context’ (p.17). She attributes harmful readings to misinterpretation and misapplication of the Bible (p.26) and goes on to describe and detoxify widely applied texts from Paul in the light of their original setting (p.34). I consider the original context irretrievable and worry about the Bible’s impact in the present. I find the sheer range of the Bible’s contents and its possibilities for both healing and harm particularly disturbing and at the heart and centre of its enduring power and influence. I am wary of deeming this or that interpretation either ‘valid’ or ‘misapplied’: who is to say?

Helen does admit to the interpretation of the Bible being difficult. When she discusses passages of the New Testament, I have to confess to being out of my depth. Helen, too, however, who has studied these texts carefully, says, of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, for instance, that there are ‘many opinions’ on this passage (p.44) and of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that she ‘can’t give you a definite answer… there is enough ambiguity about the interpretation of these verses that it is frankly dangerous to pin a whole theology of gender roles on to them’ (p.64). Ambiguity is also admitted elsewhere (p.66), including of the passage on divorce in Malachi (p.72). I think it is great that Helen admits to the difficulty and ambiguity of the Bible and I, again, much prefer this to the interpretations of those who make strong claims and then apply these to exerting dominance and control. But an ambiguous passage does leave a door open for multiple interpretations, including harmful ones. That, I think, is why the Bible can be so harmful.

Helen argues of Ephesians 5:22 (‘wives, submit to your own husbands…’) that this applies only to husbands who are like the Lord – who is elsewhere characterised as gentle, kind to women, ‘non-toxic’ (p.113) – and of Malachi, that ‘God does appear to hate divorce, because he cares about the protection of vulnerable women and their children’ (p.70). Sometimes that just sounds too casuistic to me, while the biblical text sounds far less benign.

I suppose, what I’d like to have seen more in this book is a cry of ‘So What If the Bible Tells Me So?!’ – a cry of outrage and protest. Instead of just admitting to ambiguity, I’d like to have seen more of ‘if people use the text in this way, they are wrong – because abuse and exploitation are wrong.’ Helen says, ‘I take the responsibility of the interpretation of the Bible very seriously. I do not believe that we can twist it and bend it to suit our purpose. Nor can we throw out the bits we don’t like’ (p.23). I disagree. First, I think we probably all – consciously or not – twist and bend the Bible. And secondly, I would say some bits of the Bible ought to be thrown out. Passages where rapists are compelled to marry the women they have raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), or the ‘clobber texts’ (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) used against any man who in any circumstance has sexual relations with another male and – by extension – against all homosexuals and anyone genderqueer are passages I have no hesitation in calling wrong. I am not chopping them out of the Bible but if and when I teach about them, I do point to their harmful ideologies and the consequences on real lives. I guess I prefer the Jesus Helen describes who also rejects Scripture when it is harmful (pp.120-21), the Jesus depicted as sympathetic to the woman who breaks the law of Leviticus and touches him while suffering a discharge.

I like this book and I will readily recommend it and recommend it widely. I accept that it is not really aimed at me. It is aimed particularly at women in urgent situations. And in such urgent situations, women don’t need biblical scholarship and textual quibbling: they need support and help. Helen’s book provides spiritual support and gives practical advice for finding help. It also offers clear-cut suggestions for making church communities safer, better informed and more hospitable places.  

This book is part of a growing body of resources targeting reform of churches from within. I hope it is widely read and widely used. Much good will come of it if it is. 

You can order your copy here.

  1. Helen is well aware that women can be abusers and that victims can be of multiple genders. She herself draws attention to her use of gendered language and follows this up with a justification: ‘In the UK, cis and trans men and women are subjected to domestic abuse. Abuse is perpetrated in heterosexual and gay and lesbian relationships. I understand this. Nonetheless, the vast majority of abusers are male, and the vast majority of people who report abuse are female’ (p.21). 
  2. There has been a full debate about the ‘pornoprophetics’ of these passages. Their violent potential, including for actual women, has been explored by, among others, T. D. Setel, ‘Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea’ (in L. M. Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 86-95) and Renita Weems, in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995).
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