Hebrew Bible

16 Days of Activism – Day 5: Katherine Southwood

To mark the fifth day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, we talk to Katherine Southwood, Associate Professor in Old Testament at the University of Oxford.

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

I am Associate Professor in Old Testament, Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford and Fellow and Tutor in Theology and Religion, St John’s College, Oxford.   I am interested in approaches to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament which draw on other fields of research, particularly social anthropology. I have worked specifically on marriage, with my first monograph on Ezra (Ethnicity and the Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9-10: An Anthropological Approach 2012). 
What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?
I am a member of the Project; I will be contributing to the blog page in the future and have also contributed by finding existing material for the blog (search for the piece on ‘Susanna and the Elders’). 
How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?
The Shiloh project takes its name from Judges 21, a difficult narrative which describes advice given to the Benjaminite tribe to obtain wives through the sudden capture of women who dance at Shiloh. My second monograph was on this chapter (Marriage by Capture in the Book of Judges: An Anthropological Approach 2017). The monograph argues that Judges 21 is the only example in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament of marriage by capture and explores the reasons why marriage by capture occurs in some parts of the world today. I also have a co-edited volume with Martien Halvorson-Taylor just out entitled Women and Exilic Identity in the Hebrew Bible which relates to some of the priorities of the Shiloh Project. 
How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today? 
By highlighting the long cultural and social shadow behind present-day gendered violence and rape. Especially relevant to this discussion is the representation of women in parts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.  
What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

I am glad to participate in this very worthy project and am hoping to become more involved in the work of the team!

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The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds, Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon

The following dual-voiced poem by Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is based on the brutal story found in the Bible in Judges 19.

Background: The Biblical Text

Aptly called a ‘text of terror’ by feminist biblical interpreter Phyllis Trible, this chapter tells of an unnamed Levite (that is, someone of the tribe of Levi from which the hereditary priests and other sacred functionaries were descended) and ‘his’ concubine (usually understood to be a wife of secondary status, particularly in polygamous societies).

For some reason – either because she was angry with the Levite (so the Greek version), or because she had ‘prostituted’ herself (so the Hebrew version – though it is unclear if the intended meaning is literal or figurative) – the concubine had earlier left the Levite and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem. After four months, accompanied by a servant and donkeys, the Levite comes to get her back. The father delays the Levite for four days but on the fifth he sets off, taking the concubine. No word is said about her willingness to leave or otherwise.

Unwilling to spend the night among the Jebusites, as the servant proposes, the Levite determines (because the Jebusites are foreigners) to spend the night in Gibeah, a town settled by Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin. Arriving late, they are taken in by an old man who offers them hospitality.

As they are making merry, worthless, or perverse men, surround the house and pound on the door, demanding to ‘know’ the man staying as guest within. (The Hebrew word ‘to know’ can be used as a euphemism for carnal knowledge and the New Revised Standard Version consequently translates, ‘so that we may have intercourse with him’, Judges 19:22). (Quite a number of commentators point to the clear parallels between this part of the story and Genesis 19:5, set in Sodom.)

The old man tries to appease the men by telling them not to do such wickedness to his guest. Instead, horrifyingly, he offers them his own (previously unmentioned) virgin daughter and also the concubine, saying (in the NRSV translation), ‘Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.’ (Similarly, in Genesis 19, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to protect his guests.)

Neither the daughter, nor the concubine has a voice in the biblical text. All characters are nameless but unlike all the male characters (the father, the Levite, the servant, the old man, the men of Gibeah) neither female character (concubine or daughter) has voice.

When the men won’t listen, the Levite pushes his concubine outside the door and she is gang-raped all night until morning. At dawn she falls at the door, her hands on the threshold – one of the most affecting and distressing images of the entire Bible, surely.

When the Levite tells the concubine to get up, she does not, or cannot respond. He puts her on the donkey and returns home. Once there, he dismembers her body and sends its twelve pieces throughout all Israel as a summons to war.

This violent and gruesome story of the threatened rape of the Levite, of the offering up for rape of the daughter and the concubine, and of the gang-rape, killing and dismemberment of the concubine is – once events move away from Bethlehem to Gibeah – sparsely told.

There is every reason to believe that this brutal story elicited horror. Horrified outrage is certainly the response of the Israelites who receive the pieces of the concubine’s corpse. Subsequent events (related in Judges 20–21) are war and more rape and the call for stronger leadership in the form of a king, to put an end to mayhem. What is missing is not horror or outrage but any attempt at insight into the women’s terror and suffering. Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon addresses this lack.

Background: Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon

Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is an award-winning poet and an Associate Professor teaching creative writing at Cornell University. Her magnificent published works include Black Swan, Open Interval and, together with Elizabeth Alexander, Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. She has also published in numerous journals and anthologies and is currently at work on another collection of poems, The Coal Tar Colors.

 Black Swan, in which this poem is published, is winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and includes several pieces inspired by women of the Bible and classical mythology who were pursued or raped by either men or male deities, including, alongside the daughter and concubine of Judges 19, also Tamar, Dinah (you can find the poem here), Daphne (here), Helen and Leda.

These poems are part of a growing creative tradition of giving voice and full characterization to women of antiquity. Other examples are Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, telling Dinah’s story in her own words, Alicia Ostriker’s ‘Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament’ and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea.

Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon hails from Florida and in a fabulous interview containing many language (and other) gems speaks of early memories and of profound influences on her life. These include memories of racism and recollections of hitting the drop zone as a teenager, of the ‘beauty and terror’ of her Pentecostal upbringing and of working in a men’s prison.

Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is public and vocal about being a survivor of child sexual abuse and of rape. In one of her recorded poetry readings from Black Swan she speaks also to her concern about campus rape culture. Her powerful poems break into the silence around rape, giving voice to voiceless women of the Bible and mythology and addressing abusiveness and injustice, particularly against victims of racism and of sexual violence, right up to the present.

The following poem is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. It is published in Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (Pitt Poetry Series, edited by Ed Ochester), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002, pp.31–36.


The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds


Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine;

Them I will bring out now, and humble ye them,

And do with them what seemeth good unto you: But unto this man

Do not so vile a thing.


  1. 1.

Suddenly, I am a stranger                            Last visit, I stayed four months

in my father’s house.                                      in my father’s house.


His doors open to any man                          For that, my man calls me

off the street, he opens his mouth              whore, his mouth full of bread


to make me prostitute.                                 as this old man offers me

Pimp, he has forgotten                                 with his daughter


my name. And how I                                     to the hoodlums in the road.

tended his fevers, wept                                I have been whoring after home


at the foot of his bed, slept                          since the day I left.

prayers while age played                             I miss my daddy’s easy smile.


the fool with his body.                                  This time he tried so hard

What thing exists too vile                             to make us stay, seems like


For this man he’s known                              he saw this coming.

one half day that be                                      My man can talk


not too vile for me?                                       so pretty when he wants to,

I do not need to be humbled.                      pretty enough


And this girl, this wayfaring                         to love, but I know

man’s woman who sticks so                         when he looks


close to the walls seems like                        unsatisfied. I know

she longs to slip into                                     when he looks unsatisfied


her own shadow, she looks                          not to stand staring

humble down to her bones.                         into a man’s mouth.



But the men would not hearken to him:

So the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them;

And they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning:

And when the day began to spring, they let her go.


  1. 2.

They would have gone.                                I never learned but one prayer

They would have heckled the                     that was Daddy

house,                                                              And Daddy was answer

cursed and called until they’d                     quick to answer

grown                                                              And Daddy and me were praise

                                                                          And Daddy was Hallelujah

bored. They might have thrown                 And I was Glory Glory

a stone, broken a window, but                    And Daddy was Great

then                                                                  Day in the Morning

they would have gone                                   And I was Yes Lord Yes

                                                                           And I was a gift once

and left us alone.                                           And I was Daddy’s to give

But he brought her to them                         And Daddy was joy and sorrow

the way one might drop                               And Daddy was Oh

                                                                          my baby gal done got big

an ant into a spider’s web.                            And Daddy was Lord

And my father, silent, watched                    she done grown and gone

curious to see destruction.                           And Daddy said

                                                                           Make that negro treat you right

It could have easily been me.                      And Daddy said Come back if he

It could have easily been me.                                  don’t

It could have easily been me.                      And Daddy said Come anyway

                                                                           I’m making your favorite

Not one creature stirs.                                  And Daddy said Come anyway

It is as though the birds                               Y’all can have your old room but

no longer recognize                                      I am in the eye of something so


morning: a cheap faint glow                       I am in the middle of light

haunting the eastern sky                             I am in the middle of something

and what is there to sing about?                             so

                                                                           bright I can’t see day

If I had but a burrow                                     breaking I am in the middle of

I would call myself blessed.                         something so bright Daddy

If I had a grave, I would climb                    I’m praying for night

into it.


Then came the woman in the dawning of the day,

And fell down at the door of the man’s house

Where her lord was, till it was light.


  1. 3.

The smell of death squats                            Day comes like something

in every corner: this house stinks              snatched from me

of men. I have to spit.                                   I keep

My mouth keeps                                           hearing snatches, songs

Filling with saliva. In the kitchen              Precious Lord,

I hold the back of my hand                         take my hand

to my nose                                                      the same line keeps

and try to remember                                    catching me

some other                                                     I am tired

smell than male                                             I am tired

sweat and musk                                            I am tired

and spilled semen                                         Do not lead me

that hangs heavy                                           to the light

in these rooms. I am afraid                         I am afraid

to open the windows,                                   of what waits for me

afraid the outside air                                   Precious Lord,

will carry the same                                       where is my

smell,                                                               Lord

will add to this mixture                                I am

blood.                                                              tired



And her lord rose up in the morning,

And opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way:

And, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down

At the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.


  1. 4.

Ground glass.                                                 Say one

Nightshade.                                                    sweet word

Pot ash.                                                           to me.


Blood tired, blood                                          I am waiting

tired. Blood tired.                                          to be comforted.


Polk berry.                                                     Something

Jimson weed.                                                 pretty

Snake venom.                                                to the skin,


My father.                                                      the dirt

My God.                                                          beneath my fingernails,


Arsenic.                                                           to my mouth,

Diffenbachia.                                                 twisted and full

Monkshood.                                                   of sand,


Blood tired. Blood                                          pretty words

tired. Blood tired.                                          for bruises,


Ground glass.                                                 for my raw throat

Nightshade.                                                    burning. Bring flowers

Pot ash.                                                           for me like you


My God.                                                          used to.


And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going.

But none answered.

Then the man took her up upon an ass,

And the man rose up, and gat him unto his place.


  1. 5.

Should I


to tell

this story


May I

never again

cross my




And when he was come into his house,

He took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine,

And divided her, together with her bones …

Consider of it, take advice, and speak your minds.

Judges 19: 24–30


  1. 6.

Blood                                                              I am

drips from                                                      not forsaken

block                                                               and no

to Earth                                                          war

spinning witness                                           will silence

mud tinted                                                     my bones.

red/black                                                       This Earth

soaked.                                                           drinks

When                                                              my

a man finds                                                    blood

his soul                                                           in remembrance

wracked                                                         and no

and one                                                          man

finger                                                              will silence it.

points back                                                    I have put

to this blood,                                                 my story

when                                                               into

the moon                                                        my sisters’

goes down                                                      mouths

in this                                                              and we

blood,                                                              will sing

when the sun                                                 and we

refuses this                                                    will wail

blood, my soul                                               and we

will say                                                           will shout.

Yes.                                                                 Amen.



Feature Image: ‘Judges 19’ by Mario Moore, 2009.

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Graphic representations of rape in biblical comics

Zanne Domoney-Lyttle is a tutor in Biblical Studies, including Biblical Hebrew language, at the University of Glasgow, and is currently working towards her PhD on the representation of the Bible in Comic Books (Theology & Religious Studies/Stirling Maxwell Center for Text-Image Narratives). She is passionate about reading the Bible as a contemporary cultural product, both in terms of adaptation and re appropriation of biblical material in our society.


Biblical comics – that is, adaptations of biblical material into comic book formats – have become increasingly popular in recent decades. In the past ten years alone, W.W. Norton has published The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb (2009), Siku wrote and illustrated The Manga Bible (2009), and a group of creators are currently working on producing a digital word-for-word Bible which claims to be historically accurate, unabridged, and “untamed.” Many more adaptations exist, many more are in the process of being created, and the market for text-image Bible shows no sign of slowing down.
It is easy to see why: the Bible is full of graphical, fantastical, easily visualised and emotionally charged stories, all of which provide great fodder for comics’ artists and writers to use either in “straightforward” retellings (and I use that term tongue-in-cheek with regards to biblical material) like Crumb’s Genesis, Illustrated, or for biblically-inspired stories like Goliath by Tom Gauld, which narrates the battle of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) from the giant’s point of view.

Like any form of literary or visual adaptation, creators of biblical comics have to pick and choose which stories to tell, which characters to include, and most importantly, which bits to leave out of their adaptations. For the majority of biblical comics on the market, that tends to mean leaving out scenes of sexual assault and rape. Of the 30 or so biblical comics which sit on my physical and digital shelf, only two include scenes of rape: R. Crumb’s “word-for-word” interpretation of Genesis means he had to include the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, as well as Genesis 16 where Hagar the slave-concubine is given to Abraham for the purpose of producing an heir; an event which many biblical scholars interpret as rape owing to Hagar’s subservient status meaning she has no free will to accept or refuse. The other comic is The Book of Judges, a digital comic by Simon Amadeus et al. Also a “word-for-word” Bible comic, the rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 is graphically depicted across two pages, in full colour.

Most other biblical comics avoid such difficult scenes. For the reader, this is potentially problematic. In a recent article for The Conversation, Dr. Katie Edwards and Dr. Meredith Warren discussed the problems of leaving out the more gruesome, violent, or sexual aspects of the Bible when children are exposed to the text, arguing that encouraging close, critical readings of the text would give young people the tools to address issues of violence, slavery and even genocide in our own time.

This can and should also be applied to visualisations of sexual assault in biblical comics; after all, other graphic narratives concerning genocide (Noah’s flood, Genesis 6:9 – 9:17), slavery (the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, book of Exodus) and violence (for example, Genesis 4, when Cain murders Abel) are frequently re-presented in biblical comics. So why do comic creators stay clear of sexually-orientated scenes of violence?

One answer might lie in the fact that comic books are often still seen as children’s items; there is a wealth of material that argues against this notion (both inside and outside of academia) and thankfully, it is not as prevalent an opinion anymore. However, that comic books stem from a tradition pertaining to children’s literature still potentially influences their content, and so leaving out sexually explicit subjects might seem safer in order to “protect” a younger audience from difficult content.

Still, the question remains as to why certain forms of violence are deemed appropriate over other types of violence. Conversely, it must be noted that comics are, as highlighted above, no longer the domain of children. Markets are moving towards young adult/adult readers which, if it is the case, somewhat negates the argument that creators must be cautious of sensitive material influencing young minds. Leaving out scenes of sexual violence might be less to do with perceived readership, in that case, and more to do with the creators themselves.

To visually and textually represent a scene of violence from the Bible is difficult enough; to visually and textually represent a scene of rape or sexual assault from the Bible requires the creator to not only interpret and imagine the scene, but to recreate the act. It is the creator or the team of creators who must physically draw Dinah being raped (Genesis 34), for example, which makes them complicit in the act of rape. Complicity may be more pronounced in the act of creating text-image narratives of rape and sexual assault than it is in translating or transcribing, because the visual image is often more visceral than word alone. The creator[s] must figuratively and literally picture how the scene looks; their hands physically transmit the violent act on to paper where it is apprehended instantaneously and directly, without the “cover” of words. In a similar way, the reader also becomes complicit in the act by reading the text and image, and by physically handling and turning pages, effectively allowing the story – and the rape – to continue.

The lack of re-presenting biblical rape narratives in comic books, then, is perhaps just as important as their inclusion in biblical comics. By not including them, the creator of the book is choosing not to become complicit in a sexually violent act, and at the same time, preventing the reader from having to experience the rape, themselves becoming complicit in the continuation of the story’s intimate violence. Conversely, choosing to include rape and sexual assault in biblical retellings is giving a voice and a face to the victim, who otherwise, would remain silent and faceless.

Giving a voice to a victim of sexual assault or rape is essential, especially in the current climate. On an almost-daily basis, new revelations and allegations concerning sexual assault and rape appear in our newsfeeds, and the victims of such crimes are often unable to present their case – either because they are silenced or because they lack the ability or opportunity to present the wrong done to them. Visualising biblical rape narratives, if nothing else, may be a way to present cases of sexual assault and rape, forcing readers to confront the wrongs done to victims, be they historical, current, or even fictional.

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Abandonment, Rape, and Second Abandonment: Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why and King David’s Concubines in 2 Samuel 15–20

David Tombs is Professor of Theology and Public Issues, as well as Director for the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand). He is passionate about contextual and liberation theologies and author of Latin American Liberation Theologies (Brill, 2002). Recently, David has been working on intersections of religion, violence and public theology – particularly, on Christian responses to gender-based violence, sexual abuse and torture.

 Abandonment, Rape, and Second Abandonment: Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why and King David’s Concubines in 2 Samuel 15–20[1]

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017) sparked headlines and prompted considerable concern and criticism from viewers. However, the controversy surrounding the series did little to dampen its appeal, and the show proved so popular that a second series was announced for 2018. Based on the young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (2007),[i] it tells the fictional story of high school student Hannah Baker who takes her life after a series of events that she describes on a sequence of cassette tapes. She arranges for the tapes to be circulated among a group of students at her school whom she names on a list. Each student is asked to listen to all the tapes, learn how they (the students) have contributed to her decision to end her life, and then send them on to the next person on the list. The viewer shares the point of view of Hannah’s friend, Clay Jensen, as he listens to the tapes. The timeframe goes back and forth between Clay’s experiences as he listens and Hannah’s experience of each decisive event.

The series’ engaging and suspenseful format has proved a huge hit with teen and young adult audiences. Some viewers, however, including a number of mental health organisations, strongly criticized the way it depicts Hannah’s suicide, including the length of the scene and its graphic detail. There has been particular concern that when young audiences watch they might see it as glorifying suicide, or legitimating suicide as a solution to difficult life events. Moreover, some critics have argued that the series fails to address many of the issues commonly involved in suicide, such as depression and other forms of mental illness. In New Zealand, these concerns led to the Classification Office creating a new PR18 category rating for the show, which prohibits (or at least warns against) young people under the age of eighteen watching the series without parental guidance. The Classification Office cited the portrayal of suicide and its aftermath as a real risk for teen viewers who may be struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.

The questions and concerns raised over the representation of suicide in 13 Reasons Why are important, especially in a country like New Zealand, where suicide rates are the highest in the developed world. In 2016–17 the figure was 606 suicides: the highest rate since figures began to be recorded in 2007–08. Yet these discussions around the series’ depiction of suicide also need to be set in context. 13 Reasons Why is not primarily about Hannah’s suicide; rather, it is her life experiences prior to her death that are central. In contrast to the public attention that has been given to her suicide, there has been relatively little discussion about the thirteen events she speaks about and the impact that these had on her. As the story develops, Hannah explains that even though some of these experiences were relatively incidental, they had a cumulative effect upon her. She states, “I recorded twelve tapes. I started with Justin and Jessica who each broke my heart. Alex, Tyler, Courtney, Marcus who each helped to destroy my reputation. On through Zach and Ryan, who broke my spirit. Through tape number twelve, Bryce Walker, who broke my soul” (Netflix 2017, Episode 13, cassette 7 side A).

The public focus on the portrayal of Hannah’s suicide, rather than on the reasons underlying it, are perhaps due to the fact that these involve her experiences of the often-taboo topic of gendered violence and rape culture, including sexual shaming, objectification, invasion of privacy, groping, harassment, and rape. Hannah dwells on each of these experiences in turn, using one side of a cassette to explain how they have affected her. Here I am focusing on one of these events in particular—namely, Hannah’s rape by fellow student Bryce Walker in a hot tub at a student party—and consider its place in her story. My approach is to “read” Hannah’s story in dialogue with a biblical story, in which I see similar themes around gender-based violence emerging, particularly in relation to the theme of abandonment. This dialogical approach, in which we allow the biblical text and Hannah’s experience to speak to and illuminate each other, can reveal how they each attest to the devastating impact of gender-based violence on victims’ lives and identities.[ii]

While in no way wishing to minimize the harm done by the violence itself, my primary intention is to broaden the focus and explore the harm that is often caused by both the actions of others in precipitating sexual violence and the reactions of others in the aftermath of sexual violence. Both these actions and reactions can be seen as forms of abandonment. Indeed, it is Hannah’s sense of abandonment after the event that is Hannah’s all important ‘thirteenth reason’ (cassette 7 suicide A, episode 13). An attentive reading of what happens to Hannah both before and after her rape suggests that the actions and responses by other people require far more scrutiny than they usually receive.[iii]

The first part of what follows identifies a three-step framework for viewing Hannah’s rape and its effects upon her. First, Hannah’s classmates physically abandon her when they leave her alone in the hot tub after the party. Secondly, Bryce rapes her. Thirdly, she feels a “second abandonment” by both her classmates and the school guidance counsellor, Mr Porter, of whom she hoped that he would offer her some much-needed help. I then use the same three-step framework (abandonment—rape—second abandonment) as a lens to read three biblical passages in 2 Samuel (15:13–16; 16:20−3; 20:3). These passages relate the tradition of the ten concubines in King David’s royal household, who are abandoned by David, raped by Absalom, and then abandoned again by David.[iv] In the second part of the chapter, I explore whether the biblical reading can offer additional insights back into Hannah’s story, particularly in terms of her double abandonment. I suggest that in addition to David failing the concubines after their rape, he may also have been more culpable in leaving them to their fate than first appears. That is, he may have knowingly left the concubines as an offering to Absalom. This interpretation also offers a new perspective on the culpability of Hannah’s classmate Courtney Crimsen in the events that led to Hannah’s rape.

Hannah Baker: Twice Abandoned

Hannah describes her rape by Bryce on Cassette 6, side B: the basis of Episode 12 in the Nextflix series, and of Chapter 12 in the book. She sees the rape as the culmination of other experiences she has already described in previous tapes. These begin with the rumours that circulate about her sexual promiscuity after Justin lies to his friends about what happened on their first date.[v] Shortly afterwards, she experiences sexual objectification when her name is added by another student to a “Who’s Hot/Who’s Not” list as “Best Ass in Freshman Class”. This in turn leads to two separate incidents where fellow students Marcus and Bryce touch her inappropriately. In the tape, Hannah says that each of these experiences builds on the previous one. After her rape, she feels she has eventually become the person that others already believed her to be. This event (or at least the version of it that will be told by Bryce) will finally validate the rumours that have already made her life so miserable.

Hannah’s initial abandonment

Hannah was not planning to attend the student party, but after having a row with her parents, she goes out for a walk and is eventually drawn to it by its sounds. In the series, the party is at Bryce’s house. Hannah sees a group of people she knows relaxing in the garden hot tub—Jessica, Justin, Zach, and Stephanie. They invite her over and encourage her to join them. When she demurs, they reassure her that she does not need a swimsuit, since they are all just wearing underwear. After a while, however, the others in the group gradually get out of the hot tub for various reasons and go back into the house, leaving Hannah in the hot tub by herself.[vi] While they might not intend to abandon her in this potentially vulnerable situation, abandonment is, nonetheless, one of the consequences of their actions. Before Hannah can follow them, Bryce appears and climbs into the hot tub next to her.

In the novel, the party is at Courtney’s house rather than Bryce’s. Courtney and Bryce are in the hot tub when Hannah arrives, and the other classmates have already left. Courtney’s subsequent decision to leave Hannah alone with Bryce (a student known for his sexually predatory behaviour) is more ethically ambiguous and raises questions about her motivations. I will return to this issue later.

Hannah’s rape

When Bryce and Hannah are alone in the hot tub, they talk for a bit, but soon Bryce starts to touch her. Hannah does not want this but Bryce persists, eventually forcing himself upon her. As Hannah recalls on the cassette: “Bryce, you had to see my jaw clench. You had to see my tears. Does that kind of shit turn you on?” In the novel, there is some attention to the complexity of Hannah’s thinking and feelings about her rape, and little reference to Bryce’s use of physical force:

I did not say no or push his hand away. All I did was turn my head, clench my teeth, and fight back tears. And he saw that. He even told me to relax … And that’s all you needed, Bryce. You started kissing my shoulder, my neck, sliding your fingers in and out. And then you kept going. You didn’t stop there (Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why, New York: Razorbill, 2007, p.265).

In the television series, however, Bryce uses obvious force. When he gets into the hot tub, Hannah tells him that she had “better get going” and stands up to leave, but Bryce tugs at her arm to get her to stay. When Hannah sits back down, Bryce starts to fondle her bra and again, Hannah says, “Sorry, I got to go.” She turns to climb out of the hot tub but he grabs her arm again, this time with enough force for her to lose her balance. He traps her against the side of the tub and pulls her hair while he rapes her. When she gets home and undresses, there are red marks on her arms and shoulders.

Hannah’s second abandonment

The rape leaves Hannah distraught and overwhelmed. She understands it as a progression and consequence of other ways she has been objectified, harassed and mistreated during her time at school. It leads her to write down the names of the people involved in the different events that have occurred and to figure out the connections between them. One of the positive outcomes from this is that she recognises her need for support if she is to cope with these traumatic incidents. She decides to approach the school counsellor, Mr Porter, in a final attempt to seek help. Despite her turmoil about all that has happened, she has not yet decided to take her life.

In the series, Hannah describes her meeting with Mr Porter on Cassette 7 Side A (Episode 13). She initially tells him how she is feeling, describing herself as “lost and sort of empty”. She then goes on to recount some details about what happened with Bryce. Hannah does not use the word “rape” here, but she starts to cry and it is clear that she is talking about something serious. Mr Porter is depicted as well intentioned and genuinely concerned, but he fails to ask the right questions. He initially thinks Hannah made a decision about having sex with someone that she now regrets. Hannah flatly rejects this. He then asks, “Did he force himself on you?” Hannah replies, “I think so”. Instead of taking this at face value, Mr Porter undermines what she is saying, by replying, “You think so, but you are not sure”. He then asks if she told the person to stop or said “no” to him, and Hannah says that she did not, without expanding further.[vii] Mr Porter then suggests that perhaps she consented but then changed her mind. Hannah tells him it wasn’t like that, but instead of asking her what it was like, he presses her to tell him the boy’s name. Hannah hesitates, and then asks Mr Porter to promise that the boy will go to jail and she will never have to face him again. Mr Porter acknowledges that he is unable to do this, and can only promise to do everything in his power to protect her. He asks again for the boy’s name but Hannah will not give it. Mr Porter fails here to recognize the signs of Hannah’s desperation, despite her telling him that she is tired of life.

Eventually, since Hannah continues to refuse to say who raped her, and remains adamant that she does not want her parents involved, Mr Porter suggests that “moving on” is her only option if she does not wish to report her assault. Hannah interprets this as the end of the conversation and rises to leave. Mr Porter encourages her to stay, but she says that they have figured it out and she does indeed need to “move on”. Despite his good intentions, Mr Porter leaves Hannah feeling alone and in a state of despair. She exits his office and closes the door behind her, waiting outside to see if he will come after her and offer further help or support. When he does not appear, she feels her isolation and abandonment is complete. As she puts it on Cassette 4 Side A (Episode 7), “The kind of lonely I’m talking about is when you feel you have got nothing left. Nothing and no-one. Like you’re drowning, and no-one will throw you a line.” In the novel, she initially tells Mr. Porter that she wants “everything to stop. People. Life.” When Porter seems alarmed by these words, Hannah responds by telling him “I don’t want my life to end. That’s why I’m here” (Asher 2007: 272−73). Mr Porter is her final resort, and when she feels he abandons her, she decides that there is no alternative but to take her own life. As she puts it: “I think I’ve made myself very clear, but no one’s stepping forward to stop me … A lot of you cared, just not enough” (Asher 2007: 279).

The Twice Abandoned Concubines of 2 Samuel

This threefold narrative pattern of abandonment, rape, and second abandonment recounted in 13/Thirteen Reasons Why is likewise evoked in the biblical tradition about David’s ten concubines. In 2 Samuel 15:13, we are introduced to these women, whom David left to look after his house when he fled from his son Absalom. We subsequently hear about their fate in two very brief passages (16:21-23 and 20:3). The biblical narrative is not terribly interested in the story of these women, nor does it treat them as characters in their own right. Their story—mentioned cursorily in only a few verses over six chapters—affirms that they form a fragment, or aside, in what the narrator sees as the more central story of a competition for power between men: David’s conflict with Absalom and Absalom’s attempt to usurp David from the Israelite throne. Yet if we look closely at these three passages, we can see they follow the same three-phase sequence of abandonment, rape, and second abandonment that unfolds in Hannah’s story.

The abandonment of the concubines

A messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.” Then David said to all his officials who were with him at Jerusalem, “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Hurry, or he will soon overtake us, and bring disaster down upon us, and attack the city with the edge of the sword.” The king’s officials said to the king, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king decides.” So the king left, followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house (2 Samuel 15:13-16).

The story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father David is part of a much longer sequence of family betrayals and broken alliances related by the narrator of 1 and 2 Samuel.[viii] When David hears about Absalom’s growing popularity in Israel, he decides to flee, fearing that Absalom is about to bring disaster upon him, his adherents, and the city (v.14).[ix] He leaves, we are told, with his “household” in tow, except for ten concubines, whom he leaves to “look after the house” (v.16). The total number of concubines David had in Jerusalem is not specified, so it is unclear whether these ten women constitute all of his concubines or whether there were others who accompany him and his primary wives on the household flight.[x] Since Absalom was expected to “attack the city with the edge of a sword,” it is clear that David was leaving these women in a perilous predicament. My use of the word “abandoned” here is therefore appropriate: David’s intention may not have been to leave them defenceless and exposed to danger or sexual violence, but this was nonetheless a clearly predictable consequence of his actions. Yet in this narrative, focus is placed on the urgency of David’s flight (and the question mark hanging over his fate), rather than on the vulnerability of the ten women – hence, this is where the reader’s attention is directed.

The rape of the concubines

Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give us your counsel; what shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle of God; so all the counsel of Ahithophel was esteemed, both by David and by Absalom (2 Sam. 16:20–3).

Rape of the concubines is part of the political strategy advised by Ahithophel, an admired counselor. It is performed by Absalom, the king’s popular son. It is not called rape and is depicted in passing, in terms of Absalom “[going] in to [them]”. There is no further description and no insight into the women’s perspective or experience. It is easy to read on, without dwelling on the matter, or imagining its violence and indignity.

Ahithophel’s words here can be interpreted in different ways. The degree of force and physical violence that “going into” the concubines might involve is not specified. There is insufficient detail given for the reader to discern if the rapes were enacted in full view of the public or if they took place out of sight. Ahithophel speaks of Israel “hearing” about this event, but the narrator then tells us that Absalom “went into” the concubines “in sight of all Israel”. Whether or not this last phrase should be taken literally is unclear. Nevertheless, the passage leaves open the possibility of an orchestrated spectacle of public rape to signal the power and virility of Absalom as a military conqueror.[xi] An alternative reading is that the tent would offer privacy, and what happened inside was closer to a (wedding?) ritual to establish the women as Absalom’s possession. This arguably more benign reading, however, would still involve rape, or perhaps rape marriage. Even if “rape” is not the term that might have been used at the time, to modern sensibilities this remains an act of sexual domination by Absalom and of failure to secure consent from the concubines – hence, rape.

Likewise, there might be different interpretations of how Absalom’s public rape of David’s concubines will “strengthen the hands” of Absalom’s followers. Will these followers be filled with admiration (or fear) at the supposed “manliness” of Absalom’s actions? Is this a public display that seals Absalom’s superior power and authority over his father, demonstrating David’s inability to protect “his” women? Whatever the reason, neither Absalom nor Ahithophel give any thought to the effect Absalom’s actions will have on the ten concubines: their sole concern is that the event will be “odious” to David.[xii]

Absalom would surely have been aware of the devastating impact of rape on women, given that he witnessed the “desolate” state of his sister Tamar after her sexual assault by Amnon (2 Samuel 13:20). It does not seem to cross his mind, however, that he will be inflicting the same desolation on these ten women. Such indifference is also apparent in the narrator’s response to these events, as the text reveals nothing from the women’s perspective. What was going through their minds when David left them behind after he fled from Absalom with the rest of his family? Did they anticipate what would happen to them? Were they afraid? Did they try to protect themselves, or seek help? Did they cry out in fear when Absalom approached them? Did they plead with him or try to fight him off? And how did they feel after he raped them? Were they shocked, angry, and in pain? Did they speak to each other about what happened, or try to console each other? The narrator remains silent about these matters, inviting the reader too, perhaps, to pay little heed to these women’s abandonment and assault.

The concubines’ second abandonment

David came to his house at Jerusalem; and the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to look after the house, and put them in a house under guard, and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood (2 Samuel 20:3).

After Absalom rapes the ten concubines, the action moves swiftly to his ill-fated pursuit of David and his eventual defeat, flight, and death. Absalom’s death causes David renewed grief but allows him to return to Jerusalem and reclaim his throne. On his return, we are told that he shuts the ten women up under some form of house arrest, and never sleeps with them again. Some might read this as relatively benign treatment, given that David provides for the women and offers them protection. Yet the statement that he did not “go in to them” but rather left them to live “as if in widowhood” suggests he sees them as in some sense irreparably damaged or taboo. Under the honour-shame code that permeated this ancient Near Eastern culture, the women would have been viewed as damaged goods or defiled, their sexuality having been “misused” by a man other than their husband. The shame associated with their defilement would have transferred to David—the “owner” of their sexuality.[xiii] This was likely Absalom’s intention. David was the primary target of Absalom’s public display. David seems to accept that the women’s defilement cannot be reversed or the stigma removed, so he endeavours to contain or mitigate its impact, to some extent at least, by isolating the women. The guard whom he sets over their house may have been more their jailer than their protector; this is hinted at in the last sentence, when the narrator tells us that the women were “shut up until the day of their death”. This term conveys little in the way of protection or care, but instead conjures up images of imprisonment, or even entombment.

David’s actions need to be understood against the values of the honour-shame code of the day, and against the contagious stigma associated with sexual defilement. David’s reaction could, of course, have been even harsher: he might have executed the women, for instance. Even so, this does not mean that his response should be either ignored or excused. As concubines in the royal household, the ten women would not have had the power or authority to question or confront David about their treatment. Nevertheless, a contemporary reader is entitled, indeed obliged, to consider the events in this tradition from these women’s perspective, and not just from David’s (as appears to be the narrator’s intention). Being secluded for the rest of their lives seems tantamount to a punishment, and we are left wondering if David blames these women for the violence to which they were subjected.

Moreover, to excuse David’s response as understandable in its historical context—in keeping with the social dynamics of the honour-shame code—is to miss the ethical challenge posed by 2 Samuel 20:3. Rather, David’s behaviour needs to be recognised as a misguided and damaging reaction to sexual violence, prompted by assumptions that are still prevalent within contemporary rape cultures, and which still need to be challenged. Shame should attach to the perpetrators of sexual violence not to the victims. David’s reaction, driven by his wish to protect his own honour, has disastrous consequence for the women. Just as Tamar, following the rape, becomes “a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house” (2 Samuel 13:20), so the concubines become sequestered and hidden away “shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood” (2 Samuel 20:3). It should be unacceptable that shame and stigma attaches to the victims of rape – not to the rapists and not to David, who let both rape victims down. Far from challenging the dynamics of gender and power linking the rape of Tamar to the rape of the royal concubines, David’s decision to seclude the concubines only reinforces these dynamics further.

Moreover, David’s attitude to the concubines in 2 Samuel 20:3 is often passed over as an irrelevant aside in the succession narrative. The narrator keeps our focus firmly on David and on his sons, thereby eclipsing the female characters. A more attentive reading, however, shows that there is more at stake. It is David’s abandonment of his concubines in the aftermath of their rape, not just Absalom’s initial act of rape, which requires ethical scrutiny.[xiv]

In a similar way, contemporary survivors of sexual violence who turn to their community for help or compassion are often subjected to blame, stigma, and social rejection rather than supportive inclusion.[xv] The initial trauma caused by sexual violence is thereby reinforced afterwards through the secondary victimization at the hands of people who might instead offer comfort and support. Perpetrators, typically, can rely on negative reactions of others to heighten the impact of their actions on individuals and communities. This should be of particular concern to Christian churches and other religious communities, whose own responses to sexual violence often reinforce stigmatization and discrimination felt by survivors of sexual violence. As Elisabet Le Roux writes:

Many, if not most, churches are promoting sexual violence through their teachings, practices and response to sexual violence survivors, for example by admonishing those who disclose violations and ordering them to keep it secret. Unfortunately, those churches that choose non-involvement actually also contribute to the continuation of sexual violence. By not condemning it they are implicitly condoning the beliefs, perceptions and activities that facilitate sexual violence.

Hence, addressing such secondary victimization is one of the most appropriate and effective contributions that churches and faith-based organisations can make to support survivors of sexual violence and to challenge the rape-supportive discourses that sustain such violence.

As a means of examining the destructive impact of rape and the ways that rape trauma can be reinforced by subsequent responses of others, a hot tub scene in a popular Netflix series seems very remote from a dynastic battle in an ancient biblical narrative. Yet despite their markedly different geographical and historical locations, we can still discern shared tropes of sexual violence and re-traumatizing social responses to it within these two texts, suggesting that they have much more in common than might first appear. As I outlined above, there are three steps to Hannah’s experience of gender violence: first, she was physically abandoned by her friends and rendered vulnerable to being raped; secondly, she experienced rape; and thirdly, she felt socially abandoned and isolated after her rape. In particular, she was failed by the school counsellor Mr Porter when she turned to him in a last-ditch attempt to seek help. Like David, though, Mr Porter (if metaphorically) closed the door on her.

Considering 13/Thirteen Reasons Why intertextually alongside the story of David’s concubines allows us to read this biblical tradition with fresh insights, and we begin to see that these women’s story parallels each of the stages in Hannah’s story. Of course, important differences as well as similarities exist between the two texts. For example, while viewers and readers of 13/Thirteen Reasons Why are granted intimate insight into Hannah’s experience of sexual violence (though some have argued that Hannah’s experience is actually filtered through Clay’s interpretation) Samuel 20:3 does not report the inner world of David’s concubines at all: their point of view is completely absent from the narrative. We are given no details about how their experiences of sexual violence and their double abandonment affected them—physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Instead, the narrator chooses to focus on male perspectives: Ahithophel’s counsel, Absalom’s execution and David’s reaction to their rape.

Re-reading Thirteen Reasons Why in the Light of 2 Samuel

Having explored how Hannah’s story might offer a lens for reading the biblical passages in a similar framework of double abandonment and secondary victimization, the following section offers an interpretive reading in the opposite direction: what light might this biblical story shed on our understanding of gender violence in 13/Thirteen Reasons Why? Here the focus will turn from the “second abandonment” and the harm done by those who fail to respond appropriately to survivors (David and Mr Porter), to the possibility that some characters may have an even more direct culpability for the violence itself. This involves a further examination of David’s role in his first abandonment of the concubines, and Courtney Crimsen’s abandonment of Hannah in the novel.

An intentional offering by David?

As mentioned above, David’s first abandonment of his ten concubines occurs when he leaves them behind to look after the palace while he flees from the city with the rest of the household. What are his motivations for doing so? Since the narrator does not offer an explanation, David’s decision begs further questions. Why does his house need to be looked after? Is he concerned about protecting his property from looters, or from Absalom and his forces, or someone else altogether? Furthermore, how exactly would the ten women protect the household? Did David assume that they had sufficient authority and influence, given their status as members of the royal court, to deter potential intruders, even Absalom himself? It seems unlikely.

It is possible that David left other household staff (soldiers or servants) with the women to provide for their physical security. But if this is so, it receives no mention in the narrative. The narrator may simply have left it out, focusing solely on the fate of the women because this has the most direct bearing on David’s honour. But the sense of their vulnerability—their aloneness—is accentuated in 2 Samuel 15:16, where David is said to leave his house, “followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind”.

Another possibility for understanding David’s abandonment of the ten women is to consider it in the light of the ideologies underpinning rape during warfare. Particularly in recent decades, the rape of civilians and military personnel by enemy combatants has rightly received increasing scrutiny and condemnation in both the media and in academic and political discussions around human rights during armed conflict.[xvi] Other forms of sexual violence associated with conflict have also come to the fore, including sexual slavery, trafficking, and forced prostitution. War is not required for women’s bodies to be commodified and traded by men in these ways, but it often contributes towards making such gendered violence more prevalent. For example, during times of conflict, military leaders can use women as payment to reward their followers or bribe those whom they need to influence.[xvii] Might David have intended to leave the ten concubines for Absalom—an intentional gift, bribe, or offering from one warlord to another? Was David willing to explore some form of pact or power-share with his son, and therefore attempted to “sweeten the deal” by gifting him “his” women? Perhaps he saw these women as an acceptable price to buy Absalom off, or to soften his anger, or even to distract him temporarily from pursuing his father.

Viewing David’s decision to leave his ten concubines behind as an intentional offering for Absalom presents his action in an even more negative light than if he had left them behind with unintentional unconcern for their safety and wellbeing. Admittedly, this reading has to be tentative and there is a degree of speculation at stake. Nonetheless, it would offer an answer to David’s otherwise ambiguous decision, and if correct, it may also be suggestive for a re-reading of Hannah’s own abandonment prior to her rape in the Thirteen Reasons Why novel.

 What was Courtney thinking?!

As noted above, the Thirteen Reasons Why novel and the series locate the party Hannah attends at different people’s houses. In the series, it takes place at Bryce’s house, while in the novel, it is held at the home of fellow student Courtney Crimsen. Courtney has already featured in the story, especially on Cassette 2 Side B and Cassette 3 Side A (Episodes 5–6). On Cassette 2 Side B, Hannah and Courtney had collaborated to expose the school year book photographer, Tyler, who was stalking Hannah and taking photos of her. Hannah therefore hoped that she and Courtney could become friends. Instead, Courtney spreads false sexual rumours about Hannah, which further reinforces the damage to Hannah’s reputation.

In the novel, Courtney and Bryce are already in the hot tub when Hannah arrives. Bryce invites Hannah to join them, and Courtney encourages her and offers to give Hannah a ride home afterwards. Courtney’s subsequent decision to leave Hannah alone with Bryce raises questions about her complicity in Bryce’s sexual assault, which follows shortly after. Of course, Courtney may not have realized that leaving Hannah with Bryce places Hannah at risk of Bryce’s unwanted attentions.[xviii] Nevertheless, there are a number of other clues in the novel that imply Courtney may have been more complicit than Hannah’s own comments suggest. For example, when Hannah initially joins Bryce and Courtney, she makes clear that she distrusts both of them:[xix]

With the calming water also came terror, I should not be here. I didn’t trust Courtney. I didn’t trust Bryce. No matter what their original intentions, I knew them each well enough not to trust them for long. And I was right not to trust them (Asher 2007: 261–62).

Hannah also observes that Courtney’s “perfect” exterior masks something less pleasant. Hannah has noticed “the little smiles on [their] faces” when she first encounters Bryce and Courtney in the hot tub (Asher 2007: 261), hinting at a certain complicity between the two. Courtney’s intentions are further suggested as the scene develops. When Bryce slowly slides over next to Hannah and rests his shoulder against hers, Hannah recalls that “Courtney opened her eyes, looked at us, then shut them again” (Asher 2007: 262). Bryce says Hannah’s name in a soft voice, which Hannah interprets as “an obvious attempt at romance” (ibid.). His fingers touch her thigh, she clenches her jaw and his fingers move away. Then, when he tries again, Hannah opens her eyes and sees that “Courtney was walking away” (Asher 2007: 263). When Clay hears this on the cassette, he comments: “Do you need more reasons for everyone to hate you, Courtney?” (Asher 2007: 264).

Courtney does not leave Hannah alone with Bryce until he has begun sexually harassing Hannah.[xx] At best, Courtney might mistakenly believe that Hannah’s silence in the hot tub indicates consent. Shutting her eyes when she sees Bryce move next to Hannah and then leaving the hot tub may therefore be her way of giving them some privacy.[xxi] It is possible that Courtney is not expecting Bryce to assault Hannah sexually, but it is equally possible that Courtney is actively complicit in offering him this opportunity. Hannah describes how much Courtney wants to be popular, and Bryce is one of the most influential boys at the school. Perhaps, then, Courtney’s departure is, like David’s gift to Absalom, a tacit sexual “offering” motivated by her own self-interest. In David’s case, it is an attempt to save his own skin, whereas Courtney’s motivation is harder to guess at. It is possible that she is paying Hannah back after Hannah’s earlier rebuke when Courtney spread rumours about her. Or perhaps Courtney is simply ingratiating herself with Bryce, by giving him the opportunity to carry out an act (raping Hannah) that, deep down, she knows he wants to commit.

Courtney’s abandonment of Hannah raises the same disturbing questions as David’s (first) abandonment of the concubines. In each case, the abandonment might be more calculated and callous than first appears. To be sure, the fate of the concubines, and of Hannah, is the same –rape – whether the abandonment is intentional or not. Nevertheless, the question marks hanging over David’s and Courtney’s intentions make it even more urgent to look beyond the immediate perpetrators of the violence, Absalom and Bryce, and recognise the roles and responsibilities of others.


Throughout this post, I have argued that the 13 Reasons Why television series and the novel upon which it is based treat a number of themes that are important for understanding rape culture, including how the responses of others may both precipitate rape and also increase its impact and legacy for survivors. My reading of 13/Thirteen Reasons Why has illustrated the three-step sequence in Hannah’s rape story. First, Hannah is physically abandoned in the hot tub and left vulnerable to Bryce’s unwanted attentions. Secondly, Hannah is raped by Bryce. Thirdly, after the rape, Hannah has an overwhelming sense of isolation and despair. She experiences a “second abandonment” in which she feels isolated from her classmates and let down by the school counsellor, Mr Porter. It is this sense of second abandonment and not just the rape itself, which prompts her to take her life. This sequence is echoed in the three passages of 2 Samuel that relate the story of David’s ten concubines. First, they are physically abandoned when David and his household leave Jerusalem. Secondly, they are then raped by Absalom. Thirdly, when David returns to Jerusalem, he confines and abandons them again, leaving them to a life of social isolation, sequestered until death.

Reading these 2 Samuel passages in the light of Hannah’s story draws attention to the failure in David’s decision to leave his ten concubines in such a vulnerable situation, and, particularly, his inadequate and harmful response to the sexual assaults on these women. This does not in any way detract from Absalom’s guilt as perpetrator of multiple rapes, but it does suggest a wider context in which to understand the impact of sexual violence on these women. It is not only rapists who contribute to survivors’ trauma. Other people often compound and reinforce the damage by the responses that they make in the aftermath of rape. These responses frequently leave survivors feeling rejected, isolated, and abandoned, rather than supported along a path towards recovery and healing. Recognising this failing in both David and Mr Porter helps to focus attention on the different ways that survivors can experience social harm from the negative or insensitive reactions of others, even when this might not be their intention. The social response to rape can make its impact even worse for those affected. While Bryce and Absalom are fully responsible for the act of sexual violence, the negative or thoughtless reactions and failures of support by others also need to be highlighted and challenged.

Furthermore, when we read back in the other direction, from biblical text to television series and novel, we might notice that the biblical text leaves an unanswered question about what David really intended when he left the concubines behind. A similar question can be asked of the hot tub scene in the book. Viewers of the series who are unfamiliar with the novel are likely to be surprised that this question even arises. Nevertheless, the fact that the series alters how the scene plays out in the novel may be a telling indicator that the series producers sought to remove this disturbing aspect of the book. When Courtney walks away from the hot tub, leaving Hannah with Bryce (Asher 2007: 263), the possibility is raised that she is complicit (to some extent at least) in Hannah’s subsequent rape.

Thus, reading 2 Samuel through the lens of the television series 13 Reasons Why has highlighted the responses and reactions of others in the aftermath of rape, and the damage done to survivors by a “second abandonment”. Reading in the other direction, from 2 Samuel to the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, has raised a question mark over both David’s and Courtney’s intentions during their “first abandonment”. Again, while Absalom and Bryce must take full responsibility for their perpetration of rape, David and Courtney may likewise be held culpable for their (perhaps deliberate) complicity in its execution. These two seemingly very different stories can therefore be read alongside each other as part of a wider conversation on rape cultures, both past and present.


[i] In this chapter, I will refer to the 13 Reasons Why (2017) Netflix series as “the series” and to Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) as “the novel”. When I am referring to both simultaneously, I will use 13/Thirteen Reasons Why.

[ii] For a similar approach, where I consider sexual violence, Latin American torture reports, the death of Saul (1 Samuel 31) and the violation of Muammar Gaddafi, see David Tombs, “Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse”, Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53 (Autumn 1999): 89−108 and “Silent No More: Sexual Violence in Conflict as a Challenge to the Worldwide Church”, Acta Theologica 34/2 (2014): 142−60.While both these works read the biblical text from a contemporary context, neither gives sustained attention to reading back from the text to the present, as I attempt here.

[iii] In recent years, faith-based organisations have become far more active in preventing and responding to sexual and other gender-based violence. Organisations like “We Will Speak Out”, a global coalition of Christian-based Non-Governmental Organisations and church groups committed to ending sexual violence across communities around the world, are at the forefront of this work. Prevention of sexual violence is of utmost importance, but churches and faith communities can also make a crucial contribution beyond this, as they are especially well placed to address also secondary victimisation and to challenge negative attitudes and responses towards survivors. At present, however, this potential goes largely unfulfilled (see Tearfund, Silent No More: The Untapped Potential of the Worldwide Church in Addressing Sexual Violence, Teddington, Middlesex: Tearfund, 2011).

[iv] The language of 2 Samuel 16 does not explicitly state that Absalom rapes the women by force, or that they do not consent. This is hardly surprising: in the Hebrew Bible sexual violence is routinely depicted in sparse and casual terms and any indications of a woman’s right and ability to give or withhold consent are rare. Many interpreters fail to refer to the sexual act in this tradition as rape. A common circumlocution is that Absalom’s intercourse with the women of the royal harem constitutes his claim to the throne (see for instance P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. The Anchor Yale Bible: II Samuel. A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974) and/or an assertion of his male prowess (see Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Women’s Bible Commentary. Revised ed. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988, p.162). I agree that political symbolism is central to the tradition, but it remains important also to name Absalom’s actions here as rape. Even if he did not use excessive physical violence, there is nothing to suggest that the ten concubines granted consent, and there is considerable disparity of power between concubines (i.e. secondary wives) and Absalom, the king’s son. The passage presents sexual decision-making and agency entirely as male concerns (Ahithophel plans, Absalom executes and David responds to the rape). Furthermore, reading these passages in the light of the rape of Absalom’s half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and of Nathan’s prophecy (2 Samuel 12), offers a clear context for reading 2 Samuel 16 as a narrative of rape as well (on this, see Ken Stone, Sex, Honor and Power in the Deuteronomistic History. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

[v] These rumours are compounded by Bryce sharing a photo of Hannah coming down a slide in the playground, taken by Justin on their date. Although the picture is entirely innocent, Justin misrepresents to his friends what is happening in the photo. Given Hannah’s pose (she is lying supine on the slide, her clothes dishevelled), they are quick to believe his version of events.

[vi] Justin and Jessica go back to the house to find a room where they can make out. A little later Stephanie leaves the hot tub to find a bathroom in the house, and Zach offers to show her the way because “it’s like a maze in there”.

[vii] Hannah’s slightly hesitant reply and Mr Porter’s interpretation of it as expressing doubt are strange given the way the rape is depicted in the series. The discrepancy is best understood as a plot device, which allows the meeting with Mr Porter in the series to remain reasonably close to the version in the novel, despite the two different depictions of the rape. In the novel, the rape is depicted as involving less explicit use of force, and at the meeting, Hannah tells Mr Porter: “You mean rape? No I don’t think so” (Asher 2007: 276), which makes his response easier to understand.

[viii] The story forms part of what is often referred to as “The Succession Narrative” (2 Samuel 9−1 Kings 2). This narrative focuses on David’s reign (including the events unfolding in his household and court), and ends by describing how his son Solomon came to succeed him as king. Absalom has already featured in 2 Samuel 13, where his sister Tamar is raped by their half-brother Amnon (all three are children of David). David’s role in this event is critical for understanding the unravelling of his relationship with Absalom. Amnon draws his father into an enabling role in the rape by asking David to instruct Tamar to go to Amnon’s house and cook for her “ailing” brother (v.7). It is when she is there that Amnon rapes her. When David learns what has happened, he becomes angry with Amnon but does not punish him (v.21). From this moment, Absalom hates Amnon (v.22). David’s inaction instigates Absalom to exact revenge and restore (his) honour. Two years later, Absalom entices Amnon to a feast where he has his servants kill him (vv.23-29). There are interesting similarities and echoes between the two violent incidents (namely, incestuous rape and fratricide). Absalom requests that David send “my brother,” which echoes Amnon’s earlier request that David send “my sister”. Both times David plays a crucial but unwitting role. After Amnon’s murder, Absalom flees Jerusalem for three years, until David eventually allows him to return. A further two years pass, however, before David agrees to a reunion with his recalcitrant son (14:28-33).

[ix] 2 Samuel 15 opens with Absalom endearing himself to the people of Israel, thereby building up his power base in Jerusalem (vv.1-6). After four years, he travels to Hebron in order to extend his support further. When he summons David’s respected counsellor Ahithophel to join him in Hebron, it signals that a tipping point has been reached, and a revolt against David is imminent (v.12). The opportunity to take the crown may have been Absalom’s primary concern, yet the story also suggests that he nurtures a keen hatred, caused by both Amnon’s violent actions against Tamar and his (passive and enabling) father’s inaction. Revenge to redress perceived dishonour is likely to be another major concern for Absalom.

[x] David first marries Michal, daughter of Saul; he then marries six further named wives during his time in Hebron (Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital and Eglah). 2 Samuel 5:13 says that in Jerusalem “David took more wives and concubines”. This includes his marriage to Bathsheba, after arranging the death of her husband Uriah.

[xi] The literature on the public rapes that took place during the war in Bosnia make for a terrible reminder that such was not just an archaic practice (e.g. Inger Skjelsbæk, The Political Psychology of War Rape: Studies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, War, Politics and Experience, Oxford: Routledge, 2012). On rape in war and the Bible, see Pamela Gordon and Harold Washington, “Rape as a Military Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible”, in A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, edited by Athalya Brenner, 308−25, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995. The fullest study on rape and the Hebrew Bible to date remains Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.

[xii] There are probable allusions here to the Bathsheba story, including to David seeing Bathsheba from his roof (2 Samuel 11:2). The prophet Nathan denounces David for taking Bathsheba and killing Uriah, and warns of God’s punishment (2 Samuel 12:11–12). This passage offers the particularly troubling suggestion that rapes are part of a divine plan to punish David. In addition, Ahithophel appears to be Bathsheba’s grandfather, and may therefore have been motivated by avenging his own family honour (2 Samuel 11:3 and 23:34).

[xiii] On adultery as a source of male dishonour, see Carolyn Pressler, The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1993.

[xiv] Commentators regularly glide over any criticism of David’s action, and some ignore 20:3 entirely. Arnold Anderson (2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word Books, 1989, p.240) does not offer any comment on v.3: his discussion jumps from v.2 straight to v.4. McCarter merely acknowledges but does not question or challenge the action: “Now that these women have been illegally claimed by Abshalom (16:21–22), they must be put away” (1974: 423). Graeme Auld presents David’s action as benign, and discusses mostly whether or not there is any allusion between the ten women and the ten tribes (I and II Samuel: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, pp.561–62).

[xv] For examinations of this situation from very different contexts, see Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble’s work on responses to rape in the United States, The Second Rape: Society’s Continued Betrayal of the Victim, New York: Lexington Books, 1989. On rape in conflict, and the stigma associated with survivors, see Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, A Patient Heart: Stigma Acceptance and Rejection around Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Working Paper. Washington DC: World Bank, 2011; and Tearfund’s To Make our Voices Heard: Listening to survivors of sexual violence in Central African Republic, Teddington, Middlesex: Tearfund, 2015.

[xvi] For a theological perspective see also Anna T. Höglund, “Justice for Women in War? Feminist Ethics and Human Rights for Women.” Feminist Theology 11 (2003): 346–61.

[xvii] Examples include the use of “comfort women” by Japanese troops during the Second World War (see the post by Samantha Joo on this blog!), the trafficking of women in Bosnia in the 1990s, and recent stories of sexual slavery by Boko Haram and Islamic State.

[xviii] There is some support for this from Hannah herself, who says at the start of the cassette: “No, this tape is not about Courtney … though she does play a part. But Courtney has no idea what I’m about to say because she left just as things got going” (Asher 2007: 259).

[xix] Even before the previous week’s party at Jessica’s house, Hannah had seen Bryce’s true character. On Cassette 3 Side B, Bryce and a girlfriend come to the cinema where Hannah and Clay work. About halfway through the film, they see the girl run out, clearly distressed (Asher 2007: 146). After the film, Bryce stays to talk to Hannah. Clay warns Hannah against Bryce, and Hannah replies, “I know who he is Clay. I know what he is like. Believe me” (Asher 2007: 147). Even more importantly, at Jessica’s party the previous week, Hannah witnesses Bryce rape Jessica, but does not intervene. (This is another rape story that requires fuller investigation and discussion elsewhere.) In the novel, Hannah describes this on Cassette 5 Side B (Asher 2007: 220-31), which is included in Episode 9 of the series (Cassette 5 Side A). Hannah’s previous experience with Courtney also gives her good reason to be distrustful. On Cassette 3 Side A, Hannah warns that Courtney’s sweet persona is misleading: “And you … are … just … so sweet. Right? Wrong” (Asher 2007: 94). She goes on to explain how Courtney used her to get a lift to a party, only for Hannah to discover that Courtney was spreading rumours about her (Asher 2007: 113).

[xx] Courtney’s awareness of the threat of male predatory behaviour has already been confirmed earlier, when, at another party, she warns Hannah against spending time with a guy who gives Hannah a drink and then invites her to stay and talk to him (Asher 2007: 103). Moreover, Hannah is likewise familiar with Bryce’s predatory reputation among fellow students when she notes on the cassette, “Everyone knows who you are, Bryce. Everyone knows what you do” (Asher 2007: 263). Clay, too, seems familiar with Bryce’s reputation: when he hears Hannah say on the cassette that Bryce calls her name in the hot tub, he exclaims “God no. This can only end one way” (Asher 2007: 260).

[xxi] In some ways, such a charitable reading of Courtney’s character would fit with Hannah’s perspective in the book: that her (Hannah’s) problems often stem from people genuinely not understanding how their behaviour impacts her. There is, however, enough evidence in the book to suggest that Courtney’s decision to abandon Hannah with Bryce in the hot tub may have been more menacing than Hannah realises.

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The Bible is Full of Horrors – That’s Why it Should be Required Reading for Today’s Children

Melvyn Bragg branded the decline of the King James Bible in the UK “a disgrace”. The writer and broadcaster suggested that it should be reintroduced into schools and read on a monthly basis.

Speaking at the Henley Literary Festival, Bragg was clearly exercised by the “great deprivation” young people experience through their lack of exposure to the Bible. He derided those who say the biblical text is “too complicated”, calling them “wimps” and “terrible people”.

In a response to Bragg’s comments, the journalist Andrew Brown asked in the Guardian whether the King James Bible was too graphic for children to read, wondering “how could you possibly teach it in school?”

But perhaps close, critical reading of biblical texts in the classroom might begin to address the arguably more pressing deprivation of Britain’s young people. This is less about the “depth of language” of particular biblical translations and more about the absence of recognition and respect for young people’s own experiences of violence.

Ignoring that the Bible records horrible, terrifying human events makes it easier to gloss over the fact that these same things occur regularly today. Sexual assault, genocide and slavery, all described in the Bible, are still rife. If we want to confront today’s horrors, it helps to also confront biblical accounts that terrify us.

Students should be given the tools to address these issues to truly prepare them for the real world (and not just the workplace).

Facing Terror

Texts, including the Bible, do not have meaning on their own. Readers must interpret the words on the page, and give the Bible meaning, whether that meaning reflects the ancient context in which it was written, or some meaning for contemporary life. We as readers decide what we do with what we read, and whether we gloss over violence and oppression – or confront it.

Brown suggests that “teachers might struggle with the visceral violence” of the King James Bible but critiques contemporary biblical translations for casting “a veil of ordinariness over the stark horror of many of the stories”. But then violence is horrifyingly ordinary. The scale of sexual abuse scandals in the UK and the prevalence of bullying in schools should tell us that many children are all too familiar with the mundanity of violence. Children are more likely to be victims of, and witnesses to, violence than adults. Sanitising horrific biblical stories, or focusing on the beauty of the language in the King James Bible translation rather than asking hard, critical questions of the biblical text, won’t make real-life violence disappear.

After all, it’s not as if we don’t already teach -— and celebrate —- horrific biblical episodes. Babies and infants are given books and toys based on Noah’s Ark – a biblical story of genocide. And schools and churches don’t flinch at showcasing images of extreme torture through the crucifixion of Christ. The horrific crucifixion of Jesus is often glossed over but torture, the death penalty, and false imprisonment are still present in society.

Perhaps Bragg might be underestimating young people in his assertion that they find the Bible “complicated” and Brown might be patronising students by questioning whether horrific biblical texts should be taught in schools.

Everyday Violence

The key is not to downplay the horror of God being compared to a slave-owner who beats his slaves into shreds, or that scripture seems fine with threatening sexual assault as punishment for disobedience, or that the annihilation of huge groups of people can be justified with religion.

Instead, the key is to use these texts as tools to confront violence in society. This starts in the classroom, reading through difficult texts with students and allowing them to grapple with issues of injustice. As Brian Blount, among others, has pointed out, avoiding violent texts as frightening or irrelevant to today’s “peaceful” society ignores the many communities for whom society is not at all peaceful. By the time students get to university many of them have already had personal experiences with violence; shying away from those topics only marginalises them further.

There are tools for teaching troubling texts in the classroom, as teachers well know when exploring difficult social issues, modern history, and contemporary literature, none of which shy away from addressing violence. And there are many, many, many scholars teaching Bible at university who are already helping students to read these difficult texts carefully and critically.

The ConversationEspecially when biblical texts have been used (unjustly or not) to justify some horrific practices and policies, from slavery to colonialism to genocide, we cannot afford to ignore the Bible. The solution is not to avoid difficult subject matter, but to give students of all ages the tools to work through them. Students will then have the ability to confront injustice when they see it now.

K B Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and M J C Warren, Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies, University of Sheffield

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

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Rape Culture Discourse and Female Impurity: Genesis 34 as a Case Study

Jessica M. Keady graduated from the University of Manchester and is Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. Jessica has worked extensively on ancient texts with special focus on sexuality and gender. Her monograph Vulnerability and Valour: A Gendered Analysis of Everyday Life in the Dead Sea Scrolls Communities has recently been published (Library of Second Temple Studies 91, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017). While teaching at the University of Chester (before jetting off to Helsinki to take up a prestigious postgraduate research fellowship – and then promptly getting her current post!) Jessica was also actively involved in the Sexualities and Anglican Identities Project. You can follow Jessica on @JessicaMKeady.


Biblical rape texts like Genesis 34, the story of the rape of Dinah, can serve as a lens through which we can examine and critique ancient ideations of gender violence and purity. They also allow us to trace the ways these ideations continue to shape and inform contemporary understandings of rape. This can encourage readers and interpreters to perform an act of “political resistance” to biblical ideologies that sustain contemporary rape and purity cultures (particularly those pertaining to female sexuality and purity), and to assess the possible significance that such ideologies have for readers of the Bible today. As Sandie Gravett explains, recognizing rape in biblical texts “opens up the text beyond the bounds set thousands of years ago and invites translators to be more than passive recipients of ancient words and to do more than simply reinscribe the cultural norms of these past societies onto the modern stage” (2004: 298−9).


Defining Rape Culture and Purity Culture

Rape culture is a term used to describe the sociocultural normalization of sexual violence and its links to broader patterns of misogyny and sexism. Such normalization is woven through our global, civil, social, and cultural discourses: hence, rape-supportive hashtags trend on Twitter, rape “jokes” are a regular feature on TV shows and radio programmes, judges hand out lenient sentences to convicted rapists due to the perpetrators’ age, sporting or academic ability, or lack of criminal history, and rape complainants are commonly blamed for their own assaults because of their dress, alcohol intake, and sexual history. It is within this rape culture framework that religious texts, such as Genesis 34 are read, preached, and interpreted.

Moreover, rape cultures also give expression to various discourses around issues of purity, which again shape the contexts in which religious traditions are read. Purity (or modesty) culture is an intrinsic part of rape culture, which blames rape survivors, particularly female survivors, for their own violation. The dominant discourse of purity culture demands that women should remain sexually (and thus spiritually) “pure”, and that sexual activity outside of marriage renders a woman sexually and morally “defiled”—“used goods” with compromised economic and social value.

Additionally, purity culture discourses insist that it is the woman’s responsibility to “preserve” and “guard” her purity, by protecting her bodily boundaries from encroachments. Consequently, it is not uncommon for an applicant seeking political asylum to omit mention of experiences of sexual violence, especially if his or her religious tradition considers extra-marital sex a sin. Whether sex was entered into with consent or not, it is perceived as defiling. Therefore, to acknowledge rape is to acknowledge sinfulness and impurity, bringing shame upon rape survivors and, not infrequently, their families also (Einhorn and Berthold 2011: 41). Another way that rape culture and purity culture may exert impact on people’s experiences of sexual violence is in relation to survivors’ willingness to seek justice through the legal system. In the United Kingdom, an estimated nine out of ten rapes go unreported and only 6% of reported rapes end in a conviction. The reasons for under-reporting and low conviction rates are multiple and complex but the pernicious influences of rape culture play a part (Lees-Massey, Morris, and Tanner 2016).

This raises the question of how purity and rape cultures, particularly the issues of victim blaming and shaming, play a part here. Focusing particularly on female rape survivors, E. J. Graff argues that understanding rape as primarily a sexual violation places the burden on women to protect their bodies’ purity. Subsequently, public perceptions of sexual assault typically focus on the woman and her actions (was she drunk? What was she wearing? Did she flirt with her “attacker”? Was she “asking for it”?). Diversion is also evident in the case of Brock Turner, who, in his statement to Judge Aaron Persky placed the blame for his act of sexual assault on a student “party culture” of excessive drinking. That in turn allowed Turner’s defence lawyers to argue that the complainant was so intoxicated by alcohol that she could not know whether Turner had assaulted her without her consent (Fantz 2016; Grecian 2016). By implication, it was her failure adequately to guard her own sexual boundaries (and thus to preserve her “purity”) that rendered her culpable for her own violation. Gender violence, and the rape culture discourses that sustain it, are thus built upon unequal gendered power relations, which are themselves supported by patriarchy (Kilmartin 2007: 5). These relations create and sustain the rhetoric of rape cultures so ingrained within our world—a world where gender violence is normalized and survivors are routinely blamed for their own assaults, deterring them, frequently, from seeking support and justice.


Rape and Silence: The Portrayal of Dinah in Genesis 34

My reading of biblical rape narratives in the light of contemporary rape culture, intentionally juxtaposes ancient and contemporary understandings of sexual violence in order to better understand and respond to such violence. Although there are no biblical Hebrew words for “rape” or “rape culture”—as we understand these terms today—this does not mean that sexual violence is absent from the biblical text. On the contrary, many of the features contemporary commentators identify as central to rape culture—including discourses around female sexuality, male dominance, defilement, and purity—do appear in the Hebrew Bible.

In Genesis 34, Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, is raped by Shechem. After the violent sexual encounter (v. 2), Shechem is so overcome with “love” for Dinah (v. 3) that he asks his father, Hamor the Hivite, to assist him in his plan to marry her (v. 4). When Jacob hears of his daughter’s defilement (tm’) he remains passive (v. 5), while his sons react strongly (they are “indignant and very angry”, v. 7). When Shechem and Hamor negotiate the marriage with Jacob (vv. 8-12), Dinah’s brothers demand that, before there can be any intermarriage between the Jacobite and Shechemite peoples, all Shechemite males must be circumcised (vv. 14-17). And, while the male Shechemites lie in pain after their mass circumcision, Dinah’s brothers attack the city and kill them all, including Shechem and Hamor. They then take back Dinah (who has presumably been kept captive by Shechem following her rape) and abduct the Shechemite women and children (vv. 25-9). When Jacob hears about these actions he condemns his sons (v. 30). In response, they ask if their sister should be treated “like a whore” and it is with this question that the narrative ends (v. 31). Dinah herself, meanwhile, remains silent throughout the entire narrative. We receive no insight into her perspective.

There has been, and continues to be, disagreement as to whether Dinah is raped in this biblical narrative, which is how I interpret and have summarized it above. Scholars have suggested a range of possibilities with regard to relations between Dinah and Shechem, from rape (e.g. Blyth 2010; Klopper 2010; Scholz 2000; Shemesh 2007), statutory rape (Frymer-Kensky 1998), and abduction marriage (Hankore 2013), to seduction (Bechtel 1994; Douglas 1993) and even romantic love (Fox 1983). Others conclude that the text is inconclusive (van Wolde 2002). I am persuaded that the text depicts Dinah’s rape. The strongest evidence in favour of this reading is, in my mind, the biblical Hebrew usage and ordering of the three verbs (lq, škb, and ‘nh) used to describe Shechem’s actions towards Dinah (v. 2). These verbs unequivocally denote gendered violence in other biblical narratives, most significantly in the accounts of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:14) and the gang rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:25; cf. 20:5).


Dinah’s Defilement in Biblical Scholarship

In Genesis 34:5 we witness Jacob’s (lack of) reaction to his daughter’s sexual violation: “Now Jacob heard that Shechem had defiled (timmē’) his daughter Dinah; but his sons were with his cattle in the field, so Jacob held his peace until they came.” There are only three references to someone being “defiled” in Genesis and each appears in this chapter to describe the impact of Shechem’s sexual violation of Dinah (vv. 5, 13, 27). The Hebrew verb timmē’ is key to understanding the remainder of the narrative and, after its first appearance in v. 5, is used twice more by Dinah’s brothers with reference to vindication of her “defilement” (vv. 13, 27). On each of the three occasions it is used, timmē’ appears in the piel (that is, a Hebrew verb form that often expresses intensity), which translates as “to make impure, make unclean, defile, or desecrate” (Clines 2009: 141). Significantly, in Genesis 34, it is Dinah (and not Shechem) who is labelled as ritually unacceptable after her sexual assault.

For some scholars, however, Dinah’s defilement is less the result of her rape than a consequence of Shechem “taking” her virginity before she is properly given to him in marriage (e.g. Feinstein 2014: 67). Although Dinah’s sexual status is not discussed in Genesis 34, we might presume that she is unmarried, and, therefore, likely to be a virgin. This is also hinted at in the Septuagint translation of this narrative, which describes Dinah as a parthenos (a term that can be translated “virgin”). (For Graff, it is characteristic of rape cultures that women are expected to remain virgins until marriage, because women’s bodies are depicted primarily as vessels for procreation or male pleasure—and women must therefore strive to maintain their sexual purity.) Certainly, in the biblical traditions, a woman’s social “value” is typically measured according to her sexual chastity and purity; an unmarried non-virgin could not expect to garner her father a generous bride price, as her socio-sexual currency would be diminished.

Read within this framework of sexual violence and (dis)honour, Dinah’s rape is transformed from a violent assault on her personal integrity (as rape tends to be understood in modern western contexts) into a means of dishonouring and humiliating her male kin. This is due to the wider honour-shame context and because Shechem is understood to have exposed the Jacobite men’s incapacity to protect “their” women. Shechem’s misappropriation of Dinah’s sexuality (particularly his “theft” of her virginity) can thus be understood as an act that brings shame on her father Jacob, and on her brothers. The emphasis then, is on men and male honour, not on Dinah or the personal, devastating effect on her integrity or dignity.

Male violence continues to be in focus in Genesis 34:25-30. As they had planned, Simeon and Levi kill all the Shechemite males in the city and take the women and children as war spoil. After killing Hamor and Shechem with the sword, the brothers “took Dinah” (v. 26) out of Shechem’s house and went away. The use and echo of the verb lq (“to take”) in verses 2 and 26 is significant, as the reader can trace the aggression inherent within the narrative from these two pivotal moments: Dinah is first “taken” (that is “raped”) by Shechem and later “taken back” by her brothers, as part of their violent revenge. Her silence in this narrative is absolute. What she herself thinks and feels about the events surrounding her “takings” is left unspoken. Had she been given the opportunity to address or to write a letter to Shechem, what would she have said? How would she have described the impact of rape and abduction? But like with so many survivors of sexual violence, Dinah’s voice—her narrative—is silenced. (NB: Some feminist artists have sought to redress this silencing. Hence, Anita Diamant has written a popular novel, which retells some of the stories of Genesis from Dinah’s first-person perspective. Notably, Diamant’s story as told in The Red Tent, does not depict Dinah’s relations with Shechem as violent.)



Recognizing rape in biblical narratives opens up the text and its literary figures and allows contemporary readers, teachers, and educators to question and query the social and gendered roles of these ancient societies in relation to our own. In a modern context, the narrative of Dinah in Genesis 34 touches on larger issues surrounding rape, female sexuality, purity, and the status of women. These issues need to be exposed, written about, taught, and understood within a framework that seeks actively to resist victim blaming and shaming, and to take into consideration the rape and purity cultures which pervade so many of our own cultural contexts. Reading Genesis 34 with this in mind demonstrates that biblical texts echo and perpetuate the damaging discourses prevalent within contemporary rape and purity cultures. This biblical narrative testifies to the silencing of a rape survivor, to the exoneration of violence, the dismissal of rape as “just sex”, and to the insistence that survivors are somehow “damaged” or “defiled” by rape.

As readers living in rape and purity cultures, we surely have a responsibility to contest these discourses, both in the biblical text and in our own cultural locations. If scholars, clergy, and educators simply refer to biblical rape narratives, such as Genesis 34, as love stories, filled with passion, romance and seduction, or accept unquestioningly the text’s own insistence that Dinah is “defiled” by her rape, then they risk perpetuating the harmful rhetoric that underpins many rape and purity cultures throughout the world today.


Works Cited

Bechtel, Lyn. 1994. “What if Dinah is Not Raped? (Genesis 34).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19 (62): 19–36.

Blyth, Caroline. 2008. “Redeemed by His Love? The Characterization of Shechem in Genesis 34.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 (1): 3–18.

Blyth, Caroline. 2010. The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clines, David. 2009. Concise Dictionary of Classical Biblical Hebrew. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1993. In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Einhorn, Bruce, and S. Megan Berthold. 2011. “Reconstructing Babel: Bridging Cultural Dissonance between Asylum Seekers and Adjudicators.” In Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony, edited by Benjamin N. Lawrence and Galya Ruffer, 27–53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Feinstein, Eve Levavi. 2014. Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fox, Everett. In the Beginning: A New English Rendition of the Book of Genesis. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. 1998. “Virginity in the Bible.” In Gender and Laws in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, edited by Victor Matthews, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Bernard M. Levinson, 86–91. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Gravett, Sandie. 2004. “Reading “Rape” in the Hebrew Bible: A Consideration of Language.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28: 279–99.

Hankore, Daniel. 2013. The Abduction of Dinah. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Kilmartin, Christopher. 2007. Men’s Violence Against Women: Theory, Research and Activism. London: Routledge.

Klopper, Francis. 2010. “Rape and the Case of Dinah: Ethical Responsibilities for Reading Genesis 34.” Old Testament Essay 23 (3): 652–65.

Lees-Massey, Caitlin, Jessica Morris, and Dean Tanner. 2016. “A Complaint of Rape.” 24 Hours in Police Custody. Television Programme. London: Channel 4.

Scholz, Susanne. 2000. Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34. Studies in Biblical Literature 13. New York: Peter Lang.

Shemesh, Yael. 2007. “Rape is Rape is Rape: The Story of Dinah and Shechem.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 119 (1): 2–21.

Wolde, Ellen van. (2002). ‘The Dinah Story: Rape or Worse?’ Old Testament Essays, 15/1: 225-39.


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The Lamentation of Jamie Fraser: Outlander, Male Rape and an Intertextual Reading of Lamentations 3

The following post is a shortened and abbreviated version of a forthcoming chapter in the Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion  series (Palgrave Macmillan)

With the end of a two-year wait for the third season of Outlander (known to its dedicated audience as The Droughtlander), there is a lot for fans to celebrate. The series has, so far, been met with widespread acclaim, and has been renewed for a fourth season. Adapted from a popular series of novels written by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall, an English nurse during World War Two, who, on a visit to Scotland, is transported back in time to 1753, where she meets her soon-to-be lover and husband, Jamie Fraser, a Jacobite rebel.

So, what is special about Outlander, and why is it relevant to discussions around rape culture in contemporary society? Described as “unapologetically feminist since its inception,” the Outlander television series challenges mainstream representations of sex, from addressing sexual violence to providing a “rare acknowledgment of the female gaze” through its cinematographic focus on both men’s and women’s bodies.

What has captured particular media interest, however, is Outlander’s treatment of male rape. At the end of the first Outlander novel, and depicted in the final two episodes of Season One (“Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”), Jamie (the male protagonist) is tortured and raped by army officer Captain Jack Randall.

These episodes received much media attention, with many of the show’s viewers praising the sensitivity and integrity with which the oft taboo issue of male rape was portrayed. The violence of the scene was hard to watch, but equally hard was witnessing the way that Jamie’s entire persona – his psychological, emotional, and spiritual self – was splintered in the aftermath of his assault.

I found the episode deeply thought-provoking, not least because it brought to mind another “text of terror” which likewise grants painful witness to a man’s suffering as the result of trauma: the “Man of Sorrows” poem in Lamentations 3. Considering these two texts intertextually alongside each other, I want to suggest that, like Jamie, the Man’s suffering evoked in Lamentations 3 can be read as an expression of the trauma of rape.

The vivid depictions of torture perpetrated against both Jamie and the Man are strikingly similar in both intertexts. Like Jamie, the Man is bound in chains (3:7). His bones are broken, and his skin is wasting away (3:4), just as Jamie suffers broken ribs and “smashed bones” after being beaten by Randall (Outlander, p.748).

The Man feels torn to pieces (3:11); he is made to “cower in ashes” (3:16) and is penetrated with arrows (3:12). Jamie, meanwhile, is burned with a brand that leaves his skin “puckered, reddened and blistered … charred, rimmed with white ash” (p.742); moreover, his hand is pierced with a nail when Randall pins it to the table (p.721), and his body too is penetrated through the brutal act of rape. These shared experiences of violence and suffering connect our two male characters together, allowing us to see them both as victims and survivors of the most dreadful abuses.

An intertextual reading of Lamentations 3 alongside Outlander (a full treatment of which can be found in my upcoming book chapter) highlights the various tropes of male rape that can be discerned within this biblical lament. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The trauma of intimacy as the Man struggles to reconcile his suffering with God’s love, and Jamie who, after his rape, cannot be touched by Claire (p.790).
  • Humiliation, shame and a perceived loss of masculinity with the Man describing himself as hunted prey (3:10-11) and Jamie telling Claire “I didna use to think myself a coward, but I am. I had no reason to live, but I was not brave enough to die” (p.733).
  • Victim-blaming is ubiquitous in contemporary rape culture and features heavily in both men’s experiences. The Man laments that “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (v.42) thus making a direct link between his own actions and subsequent suffering. Jamie’s abuser asks him “How could [Claire] ever forgive you?”; suggesting that Jamie’s rape was something he had done, rather than something done to him, and should therefore be accountable for.

These themes, which are often overlooked in the biblical text, are brought into sharp relief as we view the experiences of the suffering Man alongside those of Jamie Fraser. Although I cannot claim that the author(s) of Lamentations 3 intended to portray the suffering Man’s experience as that of male rape, an analysis of this lament, read intertextually alongside Jamie Fraser’s own narrative, affirms that such a reading is possible. For these two texts share a number of allusions to gendered violence that invites us to at least consider the suffering Man’s experiences in light of male rape.

 The possibility that Lamentations 3 gives voice to the experiences of a male rape victim is rarely entertained by interpreters of this text. This may be due, in part at least, to the veil of silence that so often shrouds this particular form of gender violence in both public discourses and popular culture.

In contrast, it is as though female rape has become “enduring and inevitable” within dominant discourses of gender and sexuality, contributing to what Roxanne Gay describes as a “cultural numbness” around female sexual violence (just think of the many instances of female rape in television shows such as Game of Thrones – and even Outlander!) On the contrary, people are less able to cope with (as in Outlander) or even recognize (as with Lamentations 3) any narrative of rape that fails to comply with these dominant discourses, including male rape.

The result is an overwhelming elision of gender violence from our cultural consciousness, either because it is simply “expected” (in the case of female rape) or, conversely, it is deemed too unexpected, or shocking (as with male rape).

This, then, is why the depiction of male rape in Outlander is so important – it refuses to elide or deny the perpetuation of such violence within contemporary rape cultures; moreover, this too is why we need to consider the possibility of male rape in Lamentations 3. For both texts remind us of the violent and brutal reality of sexual violence perpetrated against men; these texts also bear powerful witness to the trauma felt by male victims in the aftermath of their assault, as they face the ongoing battle of re-traumatization.

Finally, these two intertexts also offer a sense of hope that survival after rape is possible – it may be lengthy and difficult, but it is possible nonetheless. After “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” were aired, over two hundred viewers (not just men) posted messages on Gabaldon’s Facebook page, grateful for the overarching message of the episodes: that, despite the uncompromising brutality and torture Jamie had endured, they were left with “hope, catharsis and a sense that healing was possible” for survivors of rape.

If Claire stands as the one bringing healing to Jamie, through listening to him, believing him, and refusing to let him blame himself for his rape, perhaps we can perform this same role for the Man of Lamentations, and for all survivors of sexual violence.


Emma Nagouse is a 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 focuses 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).


Image: Outlander [via Flickr]

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Counter-Narratives: Rizpah and the “Comfort Women” Statue

Samantha Joo is an independent scholar who has previously taught at Seoul Women’s University (Korea), as well as Coe College and Washington University (USA). [Edit: Joo’s monograph, Translating Cain: Emotions of Invisibility Through the Gaze of Raskolnikov and Bigger was published by Lexington Books/Fortress Academic in 2020.]

The post draws on the biblical story of Rizpah, which can be found in 2 Samuel (chs 3 and 21). Rizpah was a concubine of King Saul. After his death she is ‘taken’ by Abner, probably in a bid by Abner to challenge Saul’s son and likely successor, Ishbosheth. This would account for the quarrel that erupts between Abner and Ishbosheth. Abner defects to David who becomes king of Israel after Saul. In order to appease the Gibeonites, David then agrees to execute seven of Saul’s sons. Five of these are the sons of Saul’s daughter Merab; the two remaining sons are Rizpah’s. When the corpses are left exposed, Rizpah spends five months protecting them from scavengers until David relents and they are properly buried.

In this post Rizpah’s story – of sexual exploitation and perseverance in extreme adversity – is read as a counter-narrative that serves to illuminate the contemporary political situation arising from the Japanese government’s objection to commemorative bronze statues of the ‘comfort women’ in Korea.

‘Comfort woman’ is a translation of Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for ‘prostitute’. The designation refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Most of these enslaved women and girls came from the territories occupied by Japan before and during World War II, including Korea, China and the Philippines. The post explores the insidious efforts of governments who, with their master narratives, seek to suppress stories of and by the women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.

Joo has just completed her second book, Translating Emotions of Invisibility: Cain Through the Gaze of Raskolnikov and Bigger, which is under review for publication with Routledge. Alongside raising two mischievous dogs, a Pom and a ratty-looking mutt, she is currently developing a nonprofit organization, called ‘Platform’ – check it out! – which mentors women who intend to work for the socially marginalized in Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.

You can find out more about Joo and her publications here:


As the new government under President Moon Jae-in comes into power in Korea, the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, has pressured him to remove the bronze statues of “comfort women” in Korea. He has called upon him to honor the December 2015 agreement whereby the Korean government promised to remove the bronze statue (presently in Seoul and now in Busan) in return for an apology and monetary compensation. Since Prime Minister Abe personally gave an “apology” and Japan had paid a mere 1 billion yen ($8.9 million USD) to the survivors through a foundation, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, Korea now has to keep its end of the agreement. With the rising threat of North Korea under Kim Jong-un, President Moon is feeling the intimidation. The question is, should he yield for political expediency?

Surprisingly, the answer lies in the ancient, biblical story of Rizpah (2 Sam 21:1-14) in which the concubine of Saul challenges King David’s dictates, forcing him to restore justice. When King David slaughtered seven Saulide descendants with the collusion of the Gibeonites, Rizpah dared to expose his wrongdoing. She persisted in her protest which embodied a counter-narrative that questioned and ultimately subverted the king’s royal court story. Similarly, the Korean people must resist until Prime Minister Abe publicly acknowledges Imperial Japan’s systematic sexual enslavement of girls and women during WWII. They need to continue to challenge the master narrative that intends to obliterate the story of the “comfort women.” (1)

“Comfort Women”
Imperial Japan systematically setup “comfort women” stations for their soldiers during WWII. Since men have sexual needs, some including the former mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, have argued that the government had the right and authority to force 200,000 women to “service” them, i.e. to violently terrorize and rape girls and women of all ages in Asia, many of whom were Koreans. He maintained that these “comfort women” stations were “necessary at the time [of WWII] to maintain discipline in the army.” While the former Mayor Hasimoto provides a horrific justification for sexual slavery (2), he nevertheless acknowledged the government’s institutionalization of the stations. Even with the mounting evidence of Imperial Japan’s systematic effort, Prime Minister Abe however does not believe that it had any part in the sexual slavery. He has repeatedly rejected all attempts in acknowledging Japan’s direct involvement in setting up the “comfort women” stations. Only recently, on account of the political need to unify against the rising North Korean threat, he had decided to personally apologize for the involvement of some of the “Japanese military authorities at that time.”(3) It was essentially diplomatic talk to absolve the government by blaming a few bad seeds in the Japanese military.

A Chinese girl from one of the Japanese Army’s ‘comfort battalions’ sits on a stretcher, awaiting interrogation at a camp in Rangoon.

To exacerbate the situation, the US has tried to encourage the former and present Korean governments to move past the issue and think about its future political and economic relationship with Japan. The “comfort women” bronze statue was considered a “thorny issue” which has “proven diplomatic headache for the United States.”(4) But it is not just a “thorny issue”; the pressure to remove the statue is an insidious effort to silence the embodied stories of the oppressed. Aside from the attempt to coerce the Korean government, Prime Minister Abe and other like-minded constituents have campaigned to monopolize all of history with their master narrative. Not only have they whitewashed Japan’s textbooks, they have tried to influence and sometimes intimidate people into changing the textbooks in Korea and the US! In addition, they tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US. This is an all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the “comfort women.”

Biblical Story of Rizpah
A similar event is embedded in the ancient, biblical story of Rizpah; King David tried to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites to annihilate the Saulide descendants. According to the royal court historian, the land of Israel was struck with a three-year famine. On account of the famine, the faithful king prays to God to ascertain the reason for the famine. Since he had the responsibility to ensure its fertility as the ruler of the land, he needed to remedy the national crisis (though it did take him three years). Based on the narrative, God attributed the reason for the famine to Saul’s zealous attempt to decimate the Gibeonites, the resident aliens whom Joshua protected with a covenant (Josh 9:15). Therefore he asks the Gibeonites for their price; and they are the ones who demand the death of seven Saulides as bloodguilt. The pious King David had to concede to their demand for blood. Though he promised Saul he would never kill his descendants (1 Sam 24:21-22), David needed to think of the welfare of the land. Consequently, he delivers them over to the Gibeonites who impales and leaves their corpses in plain view. This was the historian’s masternarrative. David’s hands were tied; he had to sacrifice them to restore fertility in the land. Yet underlying the master narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. The Gibeonites impaled the bodies in Gibeon which is a central cultic location. Against the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 21:22) in which the hanging corpse should not be kept overnight but buried on the same time, the Gibeonites keep the bodies in full view of the pilgrims who came to sacrifice at Gibeon. The message was clear. This will happen to anyone who dared to kill a Gibeonite. But more importantly, this will happen to anyone who posed a threat to King David. If David only wanted to appease God for Saul’s annihilation of the Gibeonites, he would and should have demanded that bodies be buried. But instead, he left the bodies to instill fear in anyone who would dare to challenge or oppose him. The northern tribes have been warned.

‘Rizpah’, George Becker

While it was the duty of the men of Gibeah, Saul’s clan, to protect these men from death and their desecration, they were too terrified to do anything. After all, the king had previously squelched Sheba’s rebellion (2 Sam 20:1-22) and wantonly killed seven innocent men. Despite the message of terror, the concubine widow of Saul confronted the king; Rizpah dared to transgress against David. With her silent but powerful presence like the bronze statue of the “comfort women,” she defied the king and shielded the bodies from the natural elements. In a confusing passage, Rizpah takes a sackcloth and either appears to wear or spread out the sackcloth (2 Sam 21:10). The specific wording of the passage is critical. If she wears the sackcloth, she would be mourning the death of her sons and nephews. If she spreads out the sackcloth over the rock, she was essentially protesting the injustice in the prophetic tradition. I argue for the latter translation. She visibly lays the sackcloth over “the rock” (ha-tzur), a large rocky platform from where she weathered the blistering sun and strong winds during the day and cold desert temperature during the night. On top of the boulder where everyone can see her, she shields the bodies from the birds and wild animals for up to six months.

As people went on a pilgrimage to the cultic center, they would have started to ask questions. They would have wondered as to why and who. Why were there dead bodies? Who were they? Why were they not buried during a time of peace? Why and who is the woman guarding the bodies? Whereas before, the pilgrims would have walked away in fear, now they would have been ashamed. Had Rizpah not protested the deaths of her sons and nephews, pilgrims would have just slinked away in fear. They would have wanted to avoid the wrath of King David so that they would not end up like these corpses. However, with Rizpah’s presence, they would have been ashamed for failing to help her, a widow, against the unjust ruler who allowed or perhaps even colluded with the Gibeonites to kill and desecrate her sons and nephews. Their murmuring started to spread so that her deed was reported to David in Jerusalem. Her silent presence in Gibeon with the bodies was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship. He rushed to bury not only the seven innocent men but also the bones of Saul and Jonathan in the tomb of their father/grandfather Kish. He wanted to squelch the murmurs. Precisely at that moment, the autumn rain came, ending the famine. It is as if God responded with divine approval when justice was restored in the land with the proper burial of the Saulide family. Therefore David did not restore fertility with their blood; rather Rizpah, the concubine-widow, with her persistent daring presence, forced him to restore justice to the land, whereupon the land enjoyed the much-needed rainfall.

Rizpah Among the “Comfort Women”
The bronze statue of a young girl represents the “comfort women” who were systematically forced into prostitution by a sovereign nation during a time of war. Therefore, the young girl embodies the story of the embattled women who were forcibly raped and sacrificed for Imperial Japan. Likewise, Rizpah is the silent presence that embodied the story of the senseless death of innocent men who were slaughtered for King David’s ambition. The bronze statue and Rizpah therefore are the countermonuments that embody stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders. At a critical juncture in negotiations over the bronze statues in Korea, what should be done? Well, the story of the daring and persistent Rizpah has the answer.

Koreans and therefore the Korean government should resist the tyranny of the master narrative; they need to persist until Prime Minister Abe acknowledges the counter-narratives of the “comfort women.” Why? Just as Rizpah was able to force King David to restore justice and therefore fertility in the land, Japan would be able to transform its standing in the international community.

Instead of its oppressive history, people would remember the country for its efforts to mend for the injustice committed against the women in Korea and all over Asia. It is not just about the Saulide descendants or the “comfort women.” In forcing King David to acknowledge if not direct collusion with the Gibeonites to eradicate the Saulides, Rizpah makes him and perhaps all his royal descendants accountable to the people. No leader should kill at will. And the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, could become the exemplary voice in Japan and the international community. By including stories of the “comfort women” about the Imperial Japan’s systematic enslavement of women during WWII in its history textbooks, they will be sending a clear message. No government and its military should ever violate a child or a woman.

Comfort Women, rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, August 2011

This is not be a political but a moral dilemma. The present president of Korea, Moon Jae-in, should not demurely respond:

The comfort-women agreement that we made with Japan during the last administration is not accepted by the people of Korea, particularly by the victims.
They are against this agreement. The core to resolving the issue is for Japan to take legal responsibility for its actions and to make an official [government]
apology (5).

It is not just an issue about these victims, or about the people of Korea who may or may not support him politically, but about confronting the injustice perpetuated by a government. Even as I write this short essay, the militant Islamic State, ISIS, is systematically raping girls and women from the Yazidi religious minority. It is outright flagrant violation of human rights that has been masqueraded as some “theology of rape.” (6) If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.

(1) The label, “military comfort women,” was been euphemistically coined by post-war Japanese government. I have decided to use the label because of its common usage and more importantly, its demonstration of the Japanese government’s continuous need to deceive the public.

(2) This is the description that Osaka Mayor, Toru Hashimoto, explained for the establishment of “comfort women” stations. See Hiroko Tabuchi, “Women Forced into WWII Brothels Served Necessary Role,” The New York Times, May 13, 2013 (

(3)  Sam Kim and Maiko Takahashi, “Abe Offers Apology, Compensation to South Korean ‘Comfort Women,’” Bloomberg, Dec 28, 2015 (“

(4) “‘Comfort Women’: Thorny Issue That Has Long Divided Japan, South Korea,” The Straits Times, December 28, 2015 (

(5) Lally Weymouth, “South Korea’s New President: ‘Trump and I Have a Common Goal,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2017 (

(6) Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” The New York Times, August 13, 2015 (

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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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Susanna and the Elders, Restored by Artist Kathleen Gilje

Kathleen Gilje  is a US art restorer and artist best known for her technique of appropriating famous paintings in ways that juxtapose historical provenance with contemporary ideas, concepts or perspectives.

In this short clip she discusses a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, called Susanna and the Elders, which is inspired by the story told in the book of Susanna. This book is in the Apocrypha (also called ‘the deuterocanonical books’, because it is part of the book of Daniel and in the canon of both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches). The book of Susanna tells of a virtuous woman who is threatened with sexual assault by two elders. The story proved a popular inspiration for Baroque and Renaissance artists. Accomplished Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656) was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Her paintings often depict strong or suffering women, frequently drawing on mythology and the Bible. It is also known that Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher, that she attempted to fight him off with a knife, and that she participated in the prosecution of her rapist.

Gilje places Gentileschi’s painting of 1610 alongside her own painting, which is inspired by an underpainting on the canvas, which has been made visible through X-ray technology. The X-ray, supplemented by Gilje’s lead paint, shows Susanna screaming and wielding a knife. Gilje brings together the painting, the underpainting and Gentileschi’s biography with stunning effect.


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