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Philosophy

Tasia Scrutton’s research and publication on Christianity and Depression

Christianity and Depression book cover by Tasia Scrutton.

Tasia Scrutton’s earlier post on the Shiloh Project blog (‘On Sex and Other Possibilities’) is one of our most widely read. Earlier this year Tasia’s new book Christianity and Depression was published by SCM. This book, on an important topic and written in an accessible style, is likely to be of interest to Shiloh Project audiences. Find out more!

Congratulations on your new book! (It has a very beautiful cover, too.) 

Thank you!

Tell us about yourself, Tasia. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

Photo of Tasia Scrutton and her dog.

I’ll start with how this book came about….

One of the first times I remember thinking about doing research on Christianity and mental illness was when a friend of mine, who had contended with serious health problems from an early age and who suffered from depression, was told by her church that her depression was the result of her having been sinful. Initially I thought that view must be extremely rare, but as I researched further, it became more apparent that it is quite common in some Christian traditions. At the same time, it also became apparent that something like this view is common outside of Christianity or any religious tradition as well: it’s quite frequent that people (religious or otherwise) try to provide moral reasons or quasi-moral reasons (such as not doing enough exercise) for why one person suffers from a mental illness while another does not.  

It was around then that I started thinking consciously about the ways in which theology and philosophy could engage with these kinds of claims. Having said that, in retrospect, I can now see other things that also led up to it. For example, when I experienced depression myself, I wondered how the idea that salvation is not only an otherworldly affair could be squared with my inability to feel happy – or, more generally, how faith could so spectacularly fail to make one feel better. I didn’t experience ‘sin’ accounts like my friend, but I remember some clergy expressing the view that medications for depression were inadvisable because they would ‘block’ something that could lead to spiritual growth. So, all of those things had been fermenting for a long time.

The academic work I had done previously had also paved the way for me to write something on the topic. For example, I had already written on the problem of evil – one of the points I make in my book is that we might think that good things can come out of evil (for example, that depression has helped some people to become more insightful or compassionate) – but that doesn’t stop depression from being undesirable and so an evil. That sounds like a simple point but it becomes very important in practical contexts, for example in avoiding either the tendency to idealise suffering (just because good can come out of it), or else to write off a period of suffering as necessarily meaningless because suffering is an evil. (Unlike some philosophers of religion, I do think suffering is an evil.) 

What are the key discussion points of your book?

The book is about different interpretations of depression (and, often, mental illness more generally), and how those interpretations affect people’s experience of mental illness. My aim is to help people navigate the different interpretations of depression that are often presented to them, and to help them separate the wheat from the chaff – or good interpretations from bad. I look at interpretations such as that depression is caused by individual sin, by demonic possession or oppression, by God (in order to bring about spiritual growth), by purely biological factors, or by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. As well as explanatory interpretations, I also look at the idea that depression is potentially transformative – that is, that it can give rise to increased compassion, insight, and a heightened appreciation of beauty. And as well as evaluating existing accounts, I point to some promising emphases for a Christian understanding of depression: the importance of recognising our animality; a social (rather than individual) view of sin and the demonic; hope and the resurrection; and affirming God’s solidarity with those who suffer.  

For a more detailed precis of the book, see here: – but don’t forget to come back and read more on the Shiloh blog 😊

What do you hope your readers will take from this book?

A therapist friend said people may well get out of the book whatever they want to get out of it at the time – whether or not I think I put it there. So, I’m aware that what I see the important points as being may not be the important points for others.

That said, a recurring theme when I’ve given talks on the book topic is that people tell me they’ve experienced sin interpretations of mental illness themselves (often coupled with other forms of spiritual abuse, such as homophobia), and thank me for taking these interpretations down. (I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler!) I hope this book will come as a relief to those people who have experienced or are experiencing those interpretations, and closely associated interpretations (such as some demonic accounts). I also hope it will make religious leaders and peers think twice before putting forward damaging interpretations to vulnerable people.

As a corrective to sin interpretations, some people now emphasise the idea that mental illness is purely biological. While I think this is an improvement, another hope is that people will take the biopsychosocial model more seriously as a result of reading my book. That’s important because it’s truer to the evidence we have about the causes of mental illness and how to treat it, and because if we deflect attention from the social causes of mental illness – poverty, economic instability, forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, and homophobia – then we have less reason to do something about them. The Christian tradition has a distinctive voice when it comes to talking and doing something about social injustice, and (I argue) there are other (theological) reasons for why Christians should prefer a biopsychosocial model.

I can think of lots of other things I’d like people to take away with them from my book. I’ll mention just one further one though. I hope the book helps people bring together faith, understanding of mental illness, and conversations about the way we understand and treat non-human animals a bit more closely. Some of the causes of mental illness, and/or the collective failure to treat it appropriately, come from a denial of our own animality, and relate to our abuse of other animals. So, for example, we are often encouraged to deny our social needs, and our interdependence with others, in favour of an emphasis on individual competition that is ultimately extremely damaging to us. Christianity has been seen as part of the problem here, as it has been interpreted as a fundamentally dualistic worldview, with humans on the ‘spiritual’ (and only accidentally ‘physical’) side of the spiritual/physical divide. But I think this is a misunderstanding of the Christian tradition – and one that attention to doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead can help us with. 

Can you clarify what is meant by both ‘mental illness’ and ‘depression’?

When I talk about ‘mental illness’ and ‘depression’, I mean anything that might reasonably be diagnosed as a mental illness or depression by a doctor (whether or not these have been diagnosed as such). In the case of depression, these include symptoms such as anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), decreased motivation and concentration, or changes in sleep, guilt and hopelessness. Other common characteristics of depression not discussed in medical manuals can include, for example, a sense of one’s body being heavy and tired, and/or a decreased sense of free will or of possibility (see Ratcliffe, 2015). 

‘Mental illness’ is a contested term because there is so much that is mental about (what we call) physical illness, and so much that is physical in (what we call) mental illness. In depression, for instance, people often experience tiredness, and report that their body feels heavy or leaden. Conversely, we usually feel pretty miserable when we have ‘flu. In addition to this, critics claim, ‘mental illness’ buys into mind/body dualism – something that’s increasingly recognised as a mistake, and a damaging one. I’m sympathetic to those concerns, but I don’t think changing the terms is the answer – it’s better to check our understanding of them instead. For the most part, we know how to use terms like ‘mental illness’ well – for example, to ask about a friend’s emotions if she says she is worried about her mental health. And while the boundaries are vague, there seem to be some things that make many ‘mental illnesses’ differ from many ‘physical illnesses’: mental illness is usually diagnosed on the basis of symptoms, for example, and the symptoms are often identical with the illness itself.[1]

How does your book engage with the Bible?

As you might expect, there’s a lot of ‘proof-texting’ in sin interpretations of mental illness. Here’s one example, from a bestselling Christian self-help book written by two psychiatrists, about anxiety disorders:

Worrying is a choice, since the apostle Paul commands us to ‘be anxious for nothing’ (Minirth and Meier, p. 174). 

Likewise, demonic interpretations of mental illness often take as their starting-point the perception that the exorcisms performed by Jesus that are reported in the Synoptic Gospels are about (what we would now call) mental illness.

In order to respond to these, I try to attend more closely to the detail of the texts (it turns out only one exorcism account really seems to relate to mental illness, for example), and consider texts taking into account their original context. Among other things, I think this leads to a less individualistic and more political and social understanding of language of sin and the demonic. It also helps to drive a wedge between being demonically afflicted (possessed or oppressed), on the one hand, and having sinned on the other. There’s pretty much nothing in the Bible to suggest that being demonically afflicted is the result of having oneself sinned as some proponents of demonic interpretations suggest – if anything, the opposite is the case.

In addition to this, I’m also interested in what texts are used or not used in worship. For example, many people with depression report finding the Psalms, and especially the Psalms of Lament, particularly helpful. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since we know from everyday experience that people sometimes find sad music more comforting than happy music when they themselves are feeling sad – so perhaps there is something consoling about it being ok to have certain feelings, and not being alone when having them. 

Some Christian traditions regard happiness as normative, and there’s little space within some forms of worship for feeling anything but joy. People with depression often report that kind of worship making them feel worse, because they can’t participate in the feelings of joy that others have (see e.g. Hilfiker, 2002). I think there’s something important about having biblical texts such as the Psalms of Lament within the context of worship or liturgy, and so making space for a range of different feelings within communal and sacred contexts.     

What do you see as the points of connection between gender-based and sexual violence, Christianity, and mental health?

I talk about this quite a bit in chapter 7 of my book. Many Christian traditions are generally good about talking about suffering – but not so good at talking about certain kinds of suffering. In particular, some kinds of suffering seem to be stigmatized. For example, in the Catholic tradition, all the patron saints of rape victims are figures who managed to avoid rape (perhaps by choosing to die instead). That doesn’t send out a very hopeful message to people who didn’t manage to avoid rape. Relatedly, Christians are very happy with the fact that Christ suffered at the crucifixion, but the suggestion that Christ’s suffering involved sexual humiliation has been rejected by some as ‘feminizing’ Christ (see Tombs, 2018). In other words, there are still some kinds of suffering it’s seen as shameful to experience, and where those who experience them are left out in the cold.

That’s important because of course depression and other forms of mental illness are frequently triggered by trauma, including the trauma of rape and sexual abuse. The Christian tradition can be good at offering support and especially a sense of God’s solidarity with those who suffer, whether through belief that God suffers in Godself, or through an emphasis on the suffering of Christ and the saints. However, in excluding certain stigmatized forms of suffering from the life of Christ and the saints, there is a failure to provide solidarity to people who have had certain experiences – and of course that is also a failure to support people who might suffer from mental illness. In other words, churches can be good at providing solidarity with people in the face of some kinds of suffering but not others, and that is relevant to mental illness.

Whether churches have parallel issues about mental illness as they do to sexual violence isn’t clear. There are fewer patron saints of people with mental illness than victims of rape, and so it is harder to say. Some of the saints and holy figures who are patrons – for example, Matt Talbot – had stigmatized problems such as alcoholism. However, perhaps the most famous patron saint of mental illness, St Dymphna, did not herself have a mental illness – her father did. So perhaps there are similar issues: it is harder for people to identify with a figure within the Christian tradition who is a ‘fellow sufferer who understands’ (in A. N. Whitehead’s words), if the kind of suffering you are experiencing is of a stigmatized kind, because there are fewer people held up as ideals who went through that kind of stuff. That means people experiencing depression and people who have experienced sexual violence might not get forms of support from the Christian tradition that would be available to them if they had experienced poverty or a physical illness instead.

Tasia Scrutton and her dog Lola.

References

Hilfiker, David, 2002, ‘When Mental Illness Blocks The Spirit’, available at http://www.davidhilfiker.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=33:when-mental-illness-blocks-the-spirit&catid=14:spirituality-essays&Itemid=24

Minirth, Frank, and Meier, Paul, 1994, Happiness is a Choice: The Symptoms, Causes and Cures of Depression (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker)

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

Tombs, David, 2018, ‘#HimToo – Why Jesus Should Be Recognised As A Victim Of Sexual Violence’ is available on the Shiloh Project.


[1] I’m indebted to Simon Hewitt for this thought. 

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The Religion and Rape Culture Conference: A Summary

The first Religion and Rape Culture conference was a huge success. We welcomed over 50 delegates from 6 countries and were treated to 14 fantastic research papers from a range of academics, research students, practitioners, artists, activists, and members of religious groups. The aim of the day was to explore the many intersections between religion and rape culture, and how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

Click here to see videos of our research talks

The conference opened with a powerful keynote address entitled “Rape by any other name: Cross-examining biblical evidence“ from Professor Cheryl Exum (Emeritus Professor, University of Sheffield). Professor Exum presented delegates with a survey of rapes in the bible, and demonstrated in her talk the ways in which commentators often work overtime to elide this violence. Professor Exum ended her address with a challenge to biblical scholars to make rape a visible issue in the discipline. Professor Exum continues to be an inspiration to staff and students in Biblical Studies, and is responsible for carving out a space for Sheffield as a leading place for feminist biblical interpretation.

After a short break, our first panel convened who explored “Biblical Perspectives” of rape culture discourses. This panel, chaired by Dr Johanna Stiebert, was well received, with thought-provoking papers from a variety of disciplines:

Lily Clifford (Inclusive Arts MA, University of Brighton) & Emma Nagouse (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): How to make a ghost: A collaborative approach to finding Dinah

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar (PhD Candidate, Drew University):  For such a time as this? #UsToo: Representations of sexual trafficking, collective trauma, and horror in the book of Esther

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris (Principal, Leo Baeck College): This may not be a love story: Ruth, rape, and the limits of readings strategies

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar discussing her research with a delegate.

As well as presenting on this panel, we were thrilled to welcome Lily Clifford from the University of Brighton as an artist in residence for the conference, who crafted creative responses to each of the presentations as they unfolded. We were delighted that this was received so warmly by delegates and our presenters – who were each able to keep their artwork.

Lily working during the conference

Our next panel,  “Theology and Thought” was chaired by Dr Valerie Hobbs and included papers which explored some of the ways in which Christian discourses and ideologies have engaged with rape culture, both historically and in contemporary contexts. These were fantastic papers, and while some of this content was challenging to listen to, they served to bring focus to how important and timely this research is.

Natalie Collins (Gender Justice Specialist, SPARK):  The Evil Sirens: Evangelical Christian culture, pornography and the perpetuation of rape culture

Claire Cunnington (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): “My prayers weren’t being answered”: The intersection of religion and recovery from childhood sexual abuse

Rhian Elinor Keyse (PhD Candidate, University of Exeter): “A man cannot in law be convicted of rape upon his own wife”: Custom, Christianity, colonialism, and sexual consent in forced marriage cases, British colonial Africa, 1932–1945

Rhian Elinor Keyse and Lily (conference artist) discussing Lily’s artistic response to Rhian’s research paper

After (a delicious) lunch, we picked things up again with our “Method, Critique and Discourse” panel chaired by Dr Meredith Warren. This was an interdisciplinary panel which explored the various ways rape culture is expressed politically by both oppressors, and those who seek to resist it. This was a fascinating session that inspired a lively panel discussion.

Kathryn Barber (PhD Candidate, University of Cardiff): “Rape is a liberal disease”: An analysis of alternative rape culture perpetuated by far-right extremists online

Dr Rachel Starr (Director of Studies: UG programmes, The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Research): Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence

Professor Daphne Hampson (Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford): Religion as gender politics

Questions being taken by the Method, Critique and Discourse panel

A rapt audience listening to Dr Rachel Starr’s presentation on “Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence”

Our final panel, “Media and Culture” was chaired by Dr Naomi Hetherington and included papers which explored how rape and rape culture discourses are presented in literature and artistic contexts. We couldn’t have hoped for more engaging talks to round off the day’s panel discussions.

Mary Going (PhD Candiate, University of Sheffield): Mother Zion, Daughter Zion, Witch Zion: An exploration of Scott’s Rebecca

Dr Miryam Sivan (Lecturer, University of Haifa): Negotiating the silence: Sexual violence in Israeli Holocaust fiction

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Glasgow): The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics

Header: Professor J. Cheryl Exum, who gave the opening paper.

The Religion and Rape Culture Conference was closed by a fantastic keynote address from Associate Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College) entitled “Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture”. Graybill’s research brought feminist literature problematising the notion of consent to bear on biblical stories of sexual violence and rape, as well as the ways in which we as feminists read and respond to those stories. Graybill asked what a serious critique of consent means to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence, and in response,  explored how feminists might engage with these texts beyond the position of mourning or recovering. We were thrilled to host Professor Graybill, and her insightful research has continued to be a point of discussion since the conference. We’re so excited to continue to work with Professor Graybill through The Shiloh Project.

After a break, there was a drinks reception where everyone was invited to view our research posters. Authors who were in attendance were invited to speak for one minute about their poster. Topics included: Consenting Adults? Faith formation’s less-than-immaculate conception of consent (Catherine Kennedy, University of Sheffield); Preaching Texts of Horror: How Christian Pastors teach about Dinah, the Levite’s Concubine, Tamar, and Potiphar’s Wife (Dr Valerie Hobbs, University of Sheffield); A Climate of Taboo: Trauma and the graphic novel Blankets (Hugo Ljungbäck, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee); Veils and ventriloquists: How do creative interpretations depict narratives of trauma for those who remain voiceless? (Lily Clifford, University of Brighton); “Life made no sense without a beating”: Religion and rape culture in US Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited (Liam Ball, University of Sheffield), and The girl needs some monster in her man: Rape Culture, cis-male allyship and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Ashley Darrow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Emma Nagouse, University of Sheffield).

What kept coming up in discussion was pedagogical questions on how these challenging topics should be taught in educational settings such as universities and colleges, but also in religious settings. It became clear that academics, teachers, practitioners, and activists alike all craved more tools when it comes to how to teach, research, and facilitate discussions around these urgent and important issues. Perhaps a topic for a future conference…? You can see some of the online interaction from the conference by searching for #ShilohConf18 on Twitter.

It was a powerful, energising and galvanising day – and, on a personal note, I was thrilled with the huge amount of interest we received from a cross-section of people from a wide variety of sectors and community groups, and the level of extremely positive and encouraging feedback we received from participants.

We would like to take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks to WRoCAH for funding this much-needed conference. We look forward to continuing this important work and making the most of the inspiration, networks, and new friends which were made at our first conference.

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DEADLINE EXTENSION- call for papers

Many of our members (including our conference organising team) have been on strike over the last month as part of the UCU (University and College Union) industrial action over USS pensions. Over 60 universities in the UK are involved. Members of UCU continue to be on action short of a strike.

We are extending the call for papers deadline for our Religion and Rape Culture conference to 5pm March 29th.

See updated call for papers:

We are thrilled to announce our keynote speakers will be Professor Cheryl Exum and
Professor Rhiannon Graybill.

The Shiloh Project is a joint initiative set up by staff from the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland (NZ) researching religion and rape culture. We are proud to announce a one day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. In particular, we aim to investigate the complex and at times contentious relationships that exist between rape culture and religion, considering the various ways religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

We are also interested in the multiple social identities that invariably intersect with rape culture, including gender, disabilities, sexuality, race and class. The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but we also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference is open to researchers at any level of study, and from any discipline. We invite submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short bio no later than 5pm March 29th. Please indicate whether your submission is for a poster or a presentation. We particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

Gender violence and the Bible
Gender, class and rape culture
Visual representations of biblical gender violence
Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
Teaching traumatic texts
Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
Spiritualities and transphobia
Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

@ProjShiloh

This event is supported by AHRC and WRoCAH.

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Booking and CFP for Religion and Rape Culture Conference, 6th July 2018

Booking is now open for our Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Places are limited so book your ticket fast!

Please note that we have small travel bursaries to contribute to travel costs for UK students who wish to attend the conference. These bursaries will be awarded on a needs basis, and speakers/those with poster submissions will also be prioritised.

The deadline for submission of proposals for our Religion and Rape Culture Conference is fast approaching! Get your proposals in by 19th March 2018. See the CFP below for more details.

Email shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk for more information.

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Call for papers! Religion and Rape Culture Conference, 6th July 2018

Religion and Rape Culture Conference

  • The University of Sheffield, 6th July 2018
  • We are thrilled to confirm that one of our key-note speakers will be Professor Cheryl Exum.

We are delighted to announce a one day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. In particular, we aim to investigate the complex and at times contentious relationships that exist between rape culture and religion, considering the various ways religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

We are also interested in the multiple social identities that invariably intersect with rape culture, including gender, disabilities, sexuality, race and class. The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but we also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference is open to researchers at any level of study, and from any discipline. We invite submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short bio no later than 19th March. Please indicate whether your submission is for a poster or a presentation. We particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

  • Gender violence and the Bible
  • Gender, class and rape culture
  • Visual representations of biblical gender violence
  • Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
  • Teaching traumatic texts
  • Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
  • Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
  • Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
  • Spiritualities and transphobia
  • Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

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16 Days of Activism – Day 16: Meredith Minister

Meredith Minister, Assistant Professor of Religion at Shenandoah University, talks to us on the final day of UN Women’s 16 Days of Activism campaign about her work on religion and sexual violence. Meredith works closely with fellow academic activists Rhiannon Graybill and Beatrice Lawrence. They have a forthcoming edited volume Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements (Lexington Books), which will be profiled on this blog in January.

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

I’m Meredith Minister, Assistant Professor of Religion at Shenandoah University. I also teach courses in the Gender and Women’s Studies program at Shenandoah.

What’s your involvement with gender activism? Does your work intersect with gender activism? How?

I am involved with gender activism in my scholarship, on campus, and in the community.

My recent scholarship has been focused on addressing sexual violence on college campuses by providing a better theoretical framework for prevention and response. This project has been ongoing for several years and has included presentations on trigger warnings and a critique of existing approaches to sexual violence including consent and bystander intervention. I also attended a NEH seminar this summer on diverse philosophical approaches to sexual violence led by Ann Cahill at Elon University. In my forthcoming book, I explore how rape culture is learned through cultural, religious, institutional, and legal processes and argue for deep and ongoing pedagogical interventions that offer possibilities for unlearning rape culture. This book is titled Rape Culture on Campus and is forthcoming from Lexington next year.

Beatrice and Rhiannon have been faithful conversation partners for this work and Rhiannon’s interview describes the ways we’ve collaborated so far and where you can find our work!

On campus, I have worked with students to promote better structures for preventing sexual violence and for responding to specific instances of sexual violence. I have also worked with faculty by developing and offering a workshop on teaching about sexual violence in partnership with our Title IX office here at Shenandoah.

Finally, off campus, I work with the Valley Equality Project, a community organization that serves the Winchester community by working to make our community safer for and more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons.

How does or could The Shiloh Project relate to your work and activism?

 I think The Shiloh Project is doing really important work and I’ve enjoyed reading about the other scholars featured in this series. Scholarship is so often presented as an isolated endeavor but I think the kinds of academic work we’re doing, including challenging engrained cultural assumptions, really requires collective work and imagination. Not only can we learn from one another, but we also find validation and commiseration when things get messy (as they sometimes do when you come out against sexual violence).

How are you going to get active to resist gender-based violence and inequality?

 In my forthcoming book, I argue that the classroom can be a space where we can begin to unlearn engrained patterns of rape culture. This unlearning goes beyond simplistic interventions such as consent education and bystander intervention. These interventions depend on an understanding of human beings as autonomous individuals and fail to connect rape culture to other cultural assumptions such as white supremacy and institutions such as the prison industrial complex. Rather than creating responses to sexual violence that perpetuate these individualistic assumptions, I hope to draw on understandings of human beings as fragile and relational in order to rethink existing responses to sexual violence. I do this theoretical work in my scholarship in part because it energizes my resistance to gender-based violence on campus and in the community.

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On Sex and Other Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Acknowledgements

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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