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Teaching about sexual violence in digital learning environments

Today’s post is by Dr Samantha Keene and Professor Jan Jordan, who both teach criminology at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Given New Zealand’s sudden shift to a hard lockdown this week, their post couldn’t be more timely. And with the continued use of online and blended learning in higher education institutions globally, we are sure many of our readers will find their reflections valuable.

Teaching about sexual violence in digital learning environments

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the higher education landscape. Widespread lockdowns have seen academic staff forced to rapidly pivot their face-to-face teaching to online modes, often with little preparation and/or training in digital pedagogy. The perceived ‘success’ of academics’ tireless transition to online delivery modes may see these ways of delivery becoming a permanent fixture on university course offerings. Thinking ahead, then, this commentary provides reflexive insights into our experiences delivering a final-year undergraduate criminology paper, titled ‘Sexual Violence’, in an online learning environment during COVID-19. Shifting from face-to-face to online teaching brings unique challenges, and it is important for academic staff to identify and share the diversity of resources, tools and best practices we employ in our teaching to overcome these hurdles (Danis, 2016). It is our hope that sharing the concerns we had about delivering this paper digitally, as well as the strategies we employed to do it, will be of benefit to others teaching sensitive material in online learning environments.  

As COVID-19 cases exploded internationally, Aotearoa/New Zealand adopted a ‘go hard, go early’ strategy to halt the spread of the virus (Baker et al, 2020, p. 198). On 25 March 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a State of National Emergency and imposed a strict nationwide lockdown that placed all non-essential workers in self-isolation. The lockdown announcement was unprecedented, and in response, our institution required all courses to be shifted to online delivery.

Designing courses for online delivery is not something that occurs overnight; rather, it requires substantial consideration and preparation, making the task more ‘frontloaded’ than face-to-face teaching (Danis, 2016, p. 1477). Online teaching requires a minimum level of technological ability and skill, and educators must also learn and und­­­erstand the social dynamics of digital learning and teaching in their new online classrooms. Haggerty acknowledges that the onus on academics to establish and maintain their presence in their online classrooms ‘is often the one aspect of online learning that academics are most concerned about in regard to the time it takes to provide a quality, facilitated learning environment’ (2015, p. 197). The requirement for faculty staff to immediately shift our teaching online, then, was a daunting prospect.

As criminologists, we were particularly apprehensive about the prospect of teaching online due to the sensitive nature of much of our course content. Students in criminology classes are regularly exposed to material that can be challenging, sensitive and/or distressing (Whitehead & Parker, 2017). Teachers of criminology courses, therefore, have a moral duty to adopt an ethics of care in teaching that minimises possible student distress following exposure to course content (Dalton, 2010). This ethics of care for students in our courses predates the pandemic. 

In one of our courses (CRIM324: Sexual Violence), we situate critical examinations of sexual violence within a broader sociocultural landscape of patriarchy, gender inequality and rape culture. The topics include justice system revictimization of victim/survivors, women’s objectification through pornography, and technologically facilitated sexual violence. In reflecting a feminist commitment to hearing the voices of women who are often silenced, we also include case studies and qualitative material as complements to academic research. We attend to issues of both victimisation and resistance in our teaching for the course, thereby allowing us to view women ‘not just as vulnerable victims but as strong and agentic – even when they suffer violence’ (Hollander, 2016, p. 87). We also recognise and include material on masculinity and male sexual victimisation, as well as on ways to involve those of all gender identities in rape prevention.

In this course, we endeavour to foster a learning environment that is safe, empathetic, supportive and validating of victim/survivors of sexual violence. In recognition of the chronically high rates of sexual violence in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the subsequent number of students in the course who will have lived experience of trauma, it is important that we are proactive about centring the needs of victim/survivors in our teaching from the beginning (Bedera, 2021). As instructors, we do this in several ways. In our first lecture, we directly acknowledge the presence of victim/survivors in the classroom and we explicitly validate their experiences. In preparing students for the course, we are honest about the nature of the course materials. We acknowledge that some content will likely be confronting, triggering and/or distressing, and that this may be amplified for some students more than others. In recognising the various ways that student distress may manifest, we provide suggestions for addressing their emotional needs. All students are given information about free, or low-cost, specialist health and support services available at the university and in the wider community. We make this list as current, comprehensive and accessible as possible to encourage students to make use of these services. Lastly, we provide space throughout the course for students to visit us during private student consultation hours. We signal to students that these hours are confidential and safe spaces for them to meet with us and discuss any issues that the course may raise for them. We take care to clarify that, while we are happy to provide a listening ear, we are not trained therapists. We offer to assist students in contacting specialist support if that is their wish.

As teachers of sensitive subjects, then, it is especially important that we recognise, and appropriately respond to, teachable moments when they surface as they can provide important scaffolding in our construction of safe and trusted learning environments.

Student disclosures of trauma have been common in our experience, as others teaching similar content have also observed (see Branch et al., 2011). Students feeling able to make disclosures of trauma to their teachers requires a high level of rapport and trust to have been built between the student and teaching staff. Disclosures of this nature are unlikely if students do not feel such safeguards exist (Bedera, 2021). Most of the rapport and trust we have with students is built through our in-person interactions with students. Alongside the supportive environment fostered within our classroom, our usual requirement for students to attend lectures, rather than accessing recorded lessons, enables us to read the room during lecture delivery. Teaching in a face-to-face context provides opportunities for assessing student reactions to challenging content via non-verbal cues, such as through their body language and facial expressions. When we teach sensitive or challenging content, we are highly attuned and responsive to students’ reactions to the content they are hearing. This helps identify when, and if, a shift in teaching approach may be required in the interests of student safety. Face-to-face delivery also helps us identify ‘teachable moments’ as they arise through in-class discussions. As educators, our ability to swiftly respond to teachable moments relating to sensitive issues can help build trust and rapport with students, thereby influencing the classroom environment as a whole. As teachers of sensitive subjects, then, it is especially important that we recognise, and appropriately respond to, teachable moments when they surface as they can provide important scaffolding in our construction of safe and trusted learning environments.

Given our ethics of care and our duty to minimise student distress, we had several reservations about delivering this paper in an online environment. As feminist criminologists, we are acutely aware of the emotionally involved and challenging nature of doing sexual violence research (Jordan, 2008; Keene, 2021), so we were concerned about our students engaging with heavy content in complete isolation. We were also concerned about student privacy whilst engaging with sensitive lecture material in their homes. We were conscious that students may not have private spaces to view course materials, and we wondered how students would participate in conversations when others in their household, such as flatmates or family members, may overhear them.

From an equity perspective, we were also concerned about students’ access to digital technologies and internet capabilities in their homes. While several financial assistance packages were made available by the government during the pandemic, these were rarely extended to university students specifically, except for some temporary measures (Ministry of Education, 2021). Universities across Aotearoa/New Zealand stepped up to provide financial assistance for students, such as hardship grants and loaned laptop schemes. However, we were aware of students in our course who struggled to access hardship supports in a timely manner during the lockdown. We questioned how we could redesign the course content to best meet the needs of students with limited access to digital capabilities and to ensure they were able to complete the course successfully. Beyond concerns about students managing the course content, we knew, as feminist criminologists, that lockdown environments would result in increased levels of family and sexual violence across Aotearoa/New Zealand. We also expected that victims’ access to support services may be limited or, in some instances, unavailable due to lockdown restrictions. In sum, we expected students would require more support than ever while completing this course.

Our expectations soon proved to be correct and we were confronted with high levels of student stress and distress, much of it stemming from the shock and anxiety triggered by the sudden lockdown. Nicole Bedera (2021) contends that instructors teaching the topic of sexual violence need specialist subject expertise, and they should be reflexive and responsive to students’ needs in their teaching. We were fortunate to be assisted in the delivery of this paper by two highly experienced tutors who had extensive knowledge of sexual violence-related issues, as well as professional experience as sexual violence prevention educators. Having the assistance of such skilled and competent assistants on our course gave us the confidence and assurance we needed to ensure that the paper could be successfully redesigned and delivered safely in a solely digital and COVID-anxious environment.

We knew how important it was to create an environment where students trusted us and felt able to communicate with us about the challenges they were experiencing during the course.

So how did we proceed with delivering a paper on sexual violence in this fully digital environment? Drawing on the first author’s prior experience with online teaching, we replaced the traditional lecture format with weekly, pre-recorded video modules for students to engage with in their own time. Each module consisted of between five and eight pre-recorded video lecture segments that, as well as the usual PowerPoints, were accompanied also by links to supplementary materials, such as YouTube videos, news media items and TED talks so that students could further develop their learning at their own pace. To reduce the intensity of the course content and address attention span issues, we made the modules shorter than traditional lectures. This reduced the intensity of the course content, gave students the option to skip content they may find distressing, and reduced the amount of streaming broadband required for engagement.

Although creating these pre-recorded video modules and sourcing appropriate YouTube videos greatly increased our workload, course evaluations indicated that students particularly appreciated the adaptations we made to the course structure for delivery in a fully digital environment. For example, student evaluations noted that ‘the delivery of content with a mixture of lecture material and supplementary external video clips kept me engaged’, and ‘I valued being able to choose when I could sit down and watch lectures based on when I felt I was in a good head space to receive such sensitive information’.

In recognition of the significant disruption that the lockdown was having on our students, we also scaled back assessment requirements by reducing essay word limits, reweighting assessment percentages and removing mandatory tutorial attendance requirements. We knew how important it was to create an environment where students trusted us and felt able to communicate with us about the challenges they were experiencing during the course. We worked hard to be as ‘human’ as possible, despite the distance between us and our student cohort. We regularly provided video updates in place of written announcements to enhance our digital presence. We communicated with students via Blackboard more regularly than we would during face-to-face delivery. This proved effective, with student evaluations identifying the ‘constant communication and support offered throughout the course’ as a specific aspect that stimulated or helped them to learn.  

Alongside our constant communication through video and written announcements in the digital environment, all staff involved held regular ‘drop-in’ sessions which, when students attended, dually functioned as both learning support and pastoral care check-ins. In the absence of building in-person rapport, we introduced students to our pets and provided them with a glimpse into our home lives, letting them get a ‘feel’ for who we were as their teachers. Further, we ensured that we remained up to date with what support services were available for them at the university, and we kept informed about how support services were operating in the community during lockdown. We communicated this information regularly to students through multiple online channels in a further attempt to build the trust and rapport we were used to developing through our face-to-face interactions with students.

Faculty staff involved in administering academic workloads should recognise and take into account the increased workloads arising from pastoral care work done by academic staff teaching courses on gender-based violence.

Teaching courses about gender-based violence can be emotionally challenging for students, but they can be just as emotionally challenging for academic staff involved in their delivery (Bedera, 2021; Nikischer, 2019; Sheffield, 2012). In the online environment, the emotionally laborious nature of teaching sexual violence content was exacerbated by our need to be constantly visible and present, and we certainly do not wish to understate the added workloads we experienced teaching this course online. However, the duty of care to our students in this paper took precedence for all of us involved in teaching it. This ethics of care needs to be evident throughout tertiary institutions so that staff teaching sensitive material are listened to and supported regarding both students’ needs and their own. Faculty staff involved in administering academic workloads should recognise and take into account the increased workloads arising from pastoral care work done by academic staff teaching courses on gender-based violence.

As we reflect on our experience delivering a paper on sexual violence in a digital environment, we acknowledge that, to be delivered safely, the course required teachers with a unique set of skills and expertise. Both our own and our tutors’ knowledge and expertise in the topic of sexual violence meant we were able to foresee the possible needs of our cohort and plan rapidly for the delivery of this paper in a fully online learning environment. With student safety and wellbeing at the forefront of our thinking, we managed to deliver a fully remodelled online version of our course that received resoundingly successful student evaluations. We encourage others who are planning the delivery of online courses about sensitive topics to make use of the expertise of scholars and practitioners working in these fields – from course conceptualisation and design through to facilitation and delivery. By drawing on the expertise and insights of those working in the field, future courses can be developed in ways that safeguard and protect student safety and wellbeing in online environments to the best of staff abilities, ultimately enabling students to flourish through their academic studies.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank our postgraduate student tutors, Sophie Beaumont and Jahla Tran-Lawrence of Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, for their teaching support. Their commitment to trauma-informed teaching and their expertise in issues of sexual violence helped ensure CRIM324: Sexual Violence was taught safely to over 100 students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SAMANTHA KEENE is a Lecturer/Pūkenga in Criminology at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Samantha’s research interests include issues of gendered harm, violence against women and girls, and the criminal justice system’s responses to women as victims and survivors. She is currently publishing on issues relating to the influence of contemporary pornography on gender-based violence, consensual/non-consensual rough sex, and the rough sex defence.

JAN JORDAN is an Emeritus Professor in Criminology at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. She has been actively involved in numerous studies over the years aimed at understanding how victim/survivors experience police reporting processes, as well as exploring narratives of victimisation and survival.  Currently she is completing two books focused on how our patriarchal legacy is evident in the tenacity of rape culture.

References

Baker, M. G., Kvalsvig, A., & Verrall, A. J. (2020). New Zealand’s COVID-19 elimination strategy. Medical Journal of Australia, 213(5), 198-200 e191. https://doi.org/10.5694/mja2.50735

Bedera, N. (2021). Beyond trigger warnings: A survivor-centered approach to teaching on sexual violence and avoiding institutional betrayal. Teaching Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X211022471

Branch, K. A., Hayes-Smith, R., & Richards, T. N. (2011). Professors’ experiences with student disclosures of sexual assault and intimate partner violence: How “helping” students can inform teaching practices. Feminist Criminology, 6(1), 54-75. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085110397040

Dalton, D. (2010). ‘Crime, law and trauma’: a personal reflection on the challenges and rewards of teaching sensitive topics to criminology students. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, 2(3), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.11120/elss.2010.02030008

Danis, F. S. (2016). Teaching domestic violence online: A step forward or a step backward? Violence Against Women, 22(12), 1476-1483. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801215626810

Haggerty, C. E. (2015). Supporting academic workloads in online learning. Distance Education, 36(2), 196-209. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2015.1055057   

Hollander, J. A. (2016). Teaching about gendered violence without disempowering women. In K. Haltinner & R. Pilgeram (Eds.), Teaching gender and sex in contemporary America (pp. 85-92). Springer International Publishing.

Jordan, J. (2008). Serial survivors: Women’s narratives of surviving rape. Sydney: The Federation Press.

Keene, S. (2021). Becoming a sexademic: Reflections on a ‘dirty’ research project. Sexualities. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460720986915

Ministry of Education. (2021). Advice for tertiary students. https://www.education.govt.nz/covid-19/advice-for-tertiary-students/

Nikischer, A. (2019). Vicarious trauma inside the academe: understanding the impact of teaching, researching and writing violence. Higher Education, 77(5), 905-916. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-018-0308-4

Sheffield, C. (2012). ‘Always ready for summer’: Reflections on the emotional cost of teaching about violence against women. Transformations, 22(2), 21-35,153-154.

Whitehead, S. N., & Parker, M. M. (2017). Criminal justice: Calming, critical thinking, and case studies: The politics, pitfalls, and practical solutions for teaching criminal justice in an online environment. In R. C. Alexander (Ed.), Best practices in online teaching and learning across academic disciplines (pp. 75-91). Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University.

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Marriage in the Hebrew Bible

We have posted before on this blog about rape culture in Christian settings (see here) and about domestic abuse and the Bible (see here).

Marriage does not offer protection from abuse or rape, and this applies also to marriages joined in communities that use and cherish the Bible as a sacred and authoritative text.

Saima Afzal and Johanna Stiebert are currently writing a book about some of the difficult dynamics between ‘the Bible’ on the one hand, and ‘violence in marriage’ on the other. The topic of violence, marriage and the Bible has multiple dimensions. To give a few indicative examples: many are excluded from certain definitions of ‘biblical marriage’ – notably, same-sex loving people – which does violence. Sometimes the Bible is used to suppress or downplay physical violence within marriage. In some biblical texts, violence – such as rape and abduction – transpires in marriage, or marriage obscures violence.

Important work has already been done on marriage and the Bible, including (where the Hebrew Bible is concerned) by Alastair G. Hunter. Alastair was lecturer in Hebrew and Biblical Studies at the University of Glasgow and has written and published widely, notably on Hebrew wisdom literature and Psalms. In 2019 Johanna heard Alastair present his work on marriage and the Bible at a fabulous conference, ‘Women and Gender in the Bible and the Ancient Near East’ (see more here).

Alastair has not published his research but has kindly permitted us to share it here. We hope you will find it as valuable as we do. Please note that there is a long, comprehensive version (of +20K words) and a much shorter, more accessible version (of ca.6K words).

[The featured image is called ‘Equal Marriage Timeline Infographic’ and is by Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. CC BY 2.0]

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Opening Conversations about GBV with Visual Media

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

Visual media can be effective tools for teaching.  

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

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

Here are three quick examples.  

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

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

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

Resource from Episcopal Relief & Development

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

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

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Graphic Artwork on Sexual Violence in the Bible by Pia Alize

Sexual Violence in the Bible

Here’s hoping 2021 brings positive action and results after what has been a difficult and challenging 2020, not least for groups already very vulnerable to and suffering from gender-based violence. 

Here’s a resource we hope many of you will find useful. This artwork is by Pia Alize, a graphic artist who has produced stunning images responding to gender-based violence and MeToo in India. You can see some of her other magnificent art, or contact Pia at: www.pigstudio.in

We hope these images, capturing references to gender-based and sexual violence in the Bible, will open up conversations that lead to social justice action in faith-based communities and beyond. We will be using them in workshops and teaching sessions. Our hope is they will appeal to a wide and inclusive audience.

If you require jpg files, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

Funding for the production of these images was provided by the generous support of a grant from the AHRC UKRI, ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’. 

Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual Violence in the Bible
preliminary cartoon
an early sketch, by Pia Alize
Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual violence in the Bible
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Introducing…The Shiloh Podcast!

The Shiloh Podcast logo.

The Shiloh Podcast has arrived!

Rosie Dawson, award-winning journalist, theologian, and host of The Shiloh Podcast shines a light on the stories and practices of religion that either contribute to or resist rape culture. Through conversations with scholars and practitioners, the podcast invites us all to think about ways that we can challenge and dismantle rape culture in our own communities.

Feast your ears on our new trailer and introductory episode, where Rosie discusses the origins of The Shiloh Project with Katie Edwards, until July 2020 one of the project’s co-directors.

Don’t forget to review, rate and subscribe to be notified of new episodes.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/0ZPIZec92xIr5hGJvlBiAm

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 9 – Chris Greenough

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

My name is Chris Greenough and I’m Senior Lecturer in Religion at Edge Hill University. I research and teach on gender, sexuality and religion. My research to date has mostly focussed on LGBTQ+ religious and spiritual identities, queer theologies and queer biblical studies.

 How does your research or your work connect to activism?

As an academic, I engage and contribute to activism in various ways. When we think of activism we think of protest and the public assembly of like-minded individuals, collaborating to fight against injustices and for change. But, aside from this, we are all activists in our communities: in our classrooms, on social media and in our one-to-one interactions. I am a former secondary school teacher and part of my current role is initial teacher education and I work hard to ensure our future teachers are confident to work with LGBTQ+ issues.

Reflecting on how I am activist in the classroom, I have an article in the special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, edited by Johanna Stiebert. In the article, I explore the notions of risk, experimentation and failure, as well as of tackling specific issues relating to resistance of queer biblical criticism based on religious faith.

There are regular TV and media discussion panels debating questions about how LGBTQ+ lives and Christianity are seemingly incompatible. In conservative religious settings, we see how verses selected from the Bible are used to condemn same sex relationships/marriage, transgender recognition, gay and lesbian parenting or adoption and these form the positional statements of major Christian denominations. In this sense, my work is activism that speaks back to what is, in fact, really toxic theology. My first monograph, Undoing Theology, highlighted the harmful effects of traditionally dominant theology in Christianity on the lives of non-normative individuals. In his review of my book, Adrian Thatcher says, “We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book”.

Yet, being bold is not always easy. Activism comes with challenges and obstacles. Sara Ahmed puts this perfectly, “when we speak about what we come up against, we come up against what we speak about” (Living a Feminist Life, 2017: 148). As a queer scholar, I am undisciplined. That means I do not hold much allegiance to any of the traditional disciplines I work across: they each require a critical undoing of the powers and privilege which has produced and shaped them. As someone who writes on queer theologies and biblical studies, I am occasionally confronted with furrowed frowns as a reception to my work. If queer research makes people feel uncomfortable, it highlights the hegemony, gatekeepers and ‘methodsplainers’ at work in our disciplines. It highlights prejudice and discrimination to queer individuals. For me, resisting academic normativity in the pursuit of social justice is activism. I am entirely grateful to my academic scholars and friends at SIIBS and the Shiloh project for their support.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

The next twelve months are going to be busy! I’m delighted and incredibly proud to be working with Katie Edwards on a book for the Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’. Our title aims to explore contemporary reactions and readings to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse: #JesusToo: Silence, Stigma and Male Sexual Violence. In contemporary culture there is undeniably a culture of stigma associated with male sexual abuse. Despite this stigma, at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted: https://1in6.org/ . There are also numerous myths around male sexual abuse that need further discussion.

I’m also going to be Guest Editor for a special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies on Queer Theory and the Bible. The term ‘queer theory’ was first coined in 1990, so this seems a fitting edition to celebrate 30 years of queer!

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Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Book Review by Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede

The recently published book Rape Culture and Religious Studies:Critical and Pedagogical Engagements is edited by (Shiloh contributor) Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence. This review is by Barbara Thiede, Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte.

Rape Culture and Religious Studies is an important book for all Shiloh Project supporters. Please order copies for your courses and libraries! More details can be found here.

Rape Culture and Religious Studies

Edited by Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence

Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2019 (vii + 207 pages, ISBN 978-1-4985-6284-3, $95.00)

Once the #MeToo movement was taken up by celebrity (and white) victims of sexual harassment and assault, it sparked a public conversation that spread across the globe. A wide range of media outlets offered venues for personal disclosures, painful discussions, and, it was hoped, increased awareness of the rape cultures women are forced to navigate every day.

Religious studies teachers, in the meantime, continued to address sexual violence in the texts and traditions they studied. And yet: conversations in Religious Studies classes, that so often focus on class and race, gender and sexuality, sexual violence and abuse, seemed detached from the rape cultures that (literally) surround students and teachers alike.

In their co-edited volume, Rape Culture and Religious Studies, editors Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence put the question: how do religious texts and traditions that justify, support, and maintain sexual violence intersect with contemporary rape culture?

The volume contains an introduction and nine essays. It includes studies that treat Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions. Topics are wide-ranging. T. Nicole Goulet, for example, assesses the place and power of recently emerging “sacred literature” in the discussion of sexual violence and rape culture. Her discussion of Priya’s Shakti, a comic book that emerged after the gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, describes how the comic revived Hindu practices while urging women to “speak without shame.” Goulet notes that while the comic does not critique existing power structures, the women it invites to speak have done so. Goulet’s essay demonstrates: there are significant intersections between religious tradition and contemporary rape culture.

Other essays provide similar insight, sometimes with surprising effect. Minenhle Nomalungelo Khumalo asks what happens when we read the biblical gang rape and death of the Levite’s Concubine in Judges 19 as a rape fantasy, one which can be profitably compared with non-consensual pornography. Kirsten Boles explores the way #MosqueMeToo can be situated when #MeToo adherents engage in racializing sexual violence; such as when Islam is accused of inherent misogyny and Muslim women are depicted as needing to be saved from violent brown men by Western (white) feminists. Meredith Minister offers a trenchant critique of the fetishizing of consent to counter rape culture. In her essay, she makes clear why consent, too, is an instrument of power. Rhiannon Graybill explains why analyzing rape culture demands more nuanced approaches to issues of harm, describing the relationship between race, sexual violence and colonialist visions of women as victims. She also points out that the Religious Studies classroom which addresses rape culture must deal with the ambiguities sex and sexual pleasure introduce to the discussion.

Some essays disappoint. Susanne Scholz’s essay on what she calls “cop-out hermeneutics” not only fails to offer new or innovative insights, it also deploys language about students that seems potentially flippant (“students may shed tears” when asked to relinquish “privatized, personalized and sentimentalized” biblical meaning). Teachers in Religious Studies classrooms can aim to ensure that their students feel safe when they are introduced to academic analysis of their religious traditions. No one benefits from internal eye-rolling or dismissive responses to this challenge.

But other essays in this volume provide models for Religious Studies teachers, like the essay by Gwynn Kessler, which demonstrates deep pedagogical self-reflection. Kessler also offers a model lesson plan that layers Deuteronomist texts on genocide, slavery, and rape and consciously brings those texts into conversation with contemporary manifestations of violence and sexual abuse. She walks the reader through her lesson plan, providing a fine example of thoughtful pedagogy for teaching texts of terror.

When I teach texts of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible, I know that one – or more – students in my classroom will likely self-disclose in some way; rape victims are among my students. Rape Culture and Religious Studies acknowledges that survivors sit in our classrooms and that many come from religious traditions that promote or, at least, make a home for sexual violence.

Religious Studies teachers and their students live and work on campuses where rape culture is normalized. Today, teachers of religious traditions and sacred texts cannot afford a pedagogy that examines sexual violence of the past and simultaneously shuts out the rape culture of the present. Religious Studies teachers should read Rape Culture and Religious Studies. It will help us begin the work of exploring, analyzing, and exposing the intersections of religion and rape culture. That, too, is our work.

Barbara Thiede, Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte

 

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Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

Today’s post is by two Shiloh Project members, Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan, who talk about some of the challenges they have faced and the pedagogies they have adopted when teaching biblical texts of terror in the  classroom, focusing in particular on their own cultural location in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan

The Bible is a violent book, its pages crammed with “texts of terror” that attest to the ubiquity of gendered violence in biblical Israel. Its narratives confirm the commonality of wartime rape (e.g., Judges 21), forced marriage (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10–14), and sex slavery (e.g., Genesis 16). We read stories of stranger rape (e.g., Genesis 34), acquaintance rape (e.g., 2 Samuel 13), and gang rape (both threatened and actualized; e.g., Genesis 19; Judges 19). Turn to the prophetic texts and we are offered numerous metaphorical renditions of spousal abuse and intimate partner violence, perpetrated (or at least sanctioned) by Israel’s jealous deity (e.g. Hosea 1–3; Ezekiel 16, 23). Meanwhile, biblical laws uphold the structural violence of patriarchal power, which grants divine mandate to the rigidly prescriptive and proscriptive control of women’s (and sometimes vulnerable men’s) bodies, while normalizing their social, sexual, and religious subjugation (e.g. Leviticus 20:13, 18; 21:9; Numbers 5:11–31; Deuteronomy 22:23-29). Other laws and teachings have been and continue to be (mis)used by theologians, biblical interpreters, and other interested readers to validate homophobic and transphobic intolerance, as well as the delegitimation of queer and transgender identities (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Matthew 19:4; Romans 1:24-28).

As biblical scholars who wrestle with these texts of terror, we are all too familiar with the emotional toll that this work can take. But are also aware that our engagement typically takes place in the relatively safe confines of academic publications and our own research environments. It is quite another matter, however, to take this conversation into more public spaces, particularly those that lie at the heart of our roles as educators: the classroom. Within such spaces, we need to watch where we tread, for we enter a minefield scattered with contesting perspectives, resistant voices, and the potential to engage with others in ways that can be either healing or harmful. In this blog post, we offer a personal reflection about our attempts to navigate these spaces, specifically in our own context of Aotearoa New Zealand.[1]

First, though, a few details about us. We are both practitioners employed in the New Zealand tertiary education system. Caroline works in a religious studies department at a secular university, while Emily teaches in a theological college. Both of these institutions are located in Auckland, the largest and most multicultural city in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is reflected in our student cohorts, who identify as Māori, Pākehā (understood here as inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand of European descent), Pasifika, and Asian; we also host a significant number of international exchange students (predominantly from the United States and Europe). In terms of religious affiliation, Caroline’s university students typically come from a range of faith backgrounds or none, while Emily’s students are Christian.

Regardless of our different teaching locations, we both share a common pedagogical goal: to encourage our students to engage critically with the biblical texts, whatever their faith background. Neither of us approach biblical studies from a faith perspective; rather, we come to the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion, keenly aware of the role the Bible plays in shaping contemporary discourses, both locally and globally. While we both respect the fact that this ancient book holds sacred authority for many of our students, we are committed to teaching biblical interpretation that is rooted in a framework of critical thinking. Nevertheless, as we will discuss below, this teaching pedagogy comes with its own challenges.

In a number of our courses, we introduce students to biblical texts that depict various forms of gender violence. We don’t include these texts to shock or antagonize our students, or to provide them with the classroom equivalent of clickbait. We do it because, like it or not, these “texts of terror” are in the Bible. For some Christian students, this may come as a surprise, as the biblical texts we talk about are rarely the focus of church sermons or Bible study groups. For non-Christian students, there is often a sense of disbelief that a book which carries huge religious and cultural weight contains such problematic portrayals of gendered violence. But to exclude these texts from our course syllabi and lecture schedules would be doing our students a huge disservice; for, to properly understand the Bible, we must have the integrity to confront it in its entirety, regardless of how tough the ensuing conversations might prove.

With this in mind, how do we teach our students about biblical texts of terror? Particularly, how does our location of Aotearoa New Zealand—a country with one of the highest rates of gender violence among developed countries in the OECD—inform the ways we approach these troubling texts? As biblical scholars and educators, we are not claiming that the Bible (or Christianity more broadly) is the sole source of the incredibly high rates of gender violence in Aotearoa New Zealand (or elsewhere in the world); we do contend, however, that it must be interrogated as a text that both supports and perpetuates such violence, particularly given the Bible’s colonial legacy within this country. We cannot afford to ignore the potential for biblical traditions to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims of gender violence who live with us upon this land. This conviction has informed our scholarly engagement with biblical texts of terror in three ways.

First, when talking to people about biblical texts of terror, we must always be sensitive to the very real possibility that some of our audience may be affected personally by gender violence. With this in mind, we always ensure some basic steps are taken to minimize our own potential to further the harm they may already have experienced. We take time at the beginning of lectures to remind our students that we will be talking about gender violence, acknowledging that we are aware some people might find this topic especially confronting. We also invite anyone who does feel distressed by the content of our discussion to talk to us directly, or to contact appropriate support services (the details of which we provide at the start of our presentation). Equally important, we remind everyone how important it is that the space we are in remains a safe space for everyone; discussions must therefore be carried out with a sensitivity to others’ diverse perspectives and experiences, and a commitment to hold each other’s words and testimonies in confidence. What we share in the lecture room stays in the lecture room.

Second, we acknowledge that among our audiences, there may also be those who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence. This can be incredibly challenging, particularly when class members voice rape-supportive, homophobic, or transphobic opinions, or try to downplay the seriousness of gender violence in both the biblical texts and their own contemporary cultures. We have had students tell us that the Bible “clearly” condemns homosexuality, or that biblical rape victims must have “deserved” their assault, or that the perpetrator of gender violence was somehow “justified” in their actions. This is particularly common when the perpetrator is a biblical “hero” (like David) or even the biblical God themselves.

Of course, this kind of response doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We have both sat in a biblical studies conference here in Aotearoa New Zealand when the mere mention of “same-sex marriage” in the context of biblical theology provoked an outburst of disdainful laughter. At a similar conference, we listened as a colleague began his presentation with a joke about physically assaulting his wife, much to the amusement of many attendees. Trying to retain a level of professionalism while maintaining the safety of our discussion spaces is a fine line to walk. We are committed to calling out cisheteropatriarchal[2] discourses expressed by members of our audience, be they students or colleagues. This is surely our responsibility as academic role models and, let’s face it, as decent human beings. These conversations can be difficult, but they are also a learning opportunity, where we remind ourselves and others that the gendered violence evoked in the biblical texts can still have consequences in our own contemporary contexts and communities.

Third, the practices we outlined in our last two points reflect our commitment to our role as critic and conscience in wider society. We need to stress to our students (and to some of our colleagues) that the issue of biblical gender violence matters, particularly because ancient sacred texts continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain discourses of violence and intolerance. Some of our students will take what they learn from our discussions back to others—Bible study groups, youth groups, or simply family and friends. We remind them that their own engagement with biblical texts of terror have the potential to impact other people’s views of gender and gender violence. As Linda Day notes, the students in our classrooms “will be responsible to a wider public, and hence must learn to be aware of how they are either serving or harming others through their methods and results when interpreting the Bible”.[3]

Yet, within our classrooms, conversations about the Bible and gender violence are not always easy to negotiate. We engage with biblical scholarship in a bicultural country, and, situated in Auckland, we are located in one of the most ethnically diverse cities within that country. Our classrooms reflect this diversity. Some of our students belong to cultures that embrace traditional gender roles and hierarchies, which normalize and sustain various forms of gender violence. How do we critique such violence when, for some of these students, it is so closely woven together with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy, misogyny, and all forms of intolerance to LGBT communities, while still being sensitive to others’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite our students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures? These are incredibly thorny questions, which highlight that issues of colonization and marginalization constantly intersect with discourses of gender violence. We are conscious of the fact that, as educators who self-identify as Pākehā, we always run the risk of “colonizing” our students’ own cultural contexts, of prioritizing our western value systems and ideologies over their own diverse worldviews. At the same time, however, we must always invite them to join us in our quest to each scrutinize our own cultural traditions with integrity, and to acknowledge that all of our cultures and communities are, to some extent at least, complicit in sustaining the discourses that enable gender violence to flourish.

Another thorny issue we are often confronted with is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand, but is encountered by biblical scholars teaching biblical texts of terror throughout the world. For many of our students, the Bible is not only their course “textbook”; it is also their sacred scripture. When we invite them to interrogate its texts and identify the problematic ideologies around gender violence voiced therein, we often encounter resistance, or even a refusal to do so. Some find it too threatening to engage with any reading of a text that (in their eyes) challenges its authority, or appears to undermine its message of “Good News.” They may refuse to discuss, or even consider, the potential for biblical texts of terror to convey “Bad News” to people who have themselves been impacted by gender violence. Instead, they suspend their critical faculties, unwilling to recognize the violence within the text, even though they’d likely acknowledge and condemn the same violence were it to appear in other non-biblical writings.[4]

Moreover, Christian readers of the Bible (be they students, academics, or otherwise) often resort to performing an impressive display of interpretive gymnastics to sanitize the text and preserve its sacred reputation in which they are so heavily invested. Prophetic re-enactments of spousal abuse are dismissed as “harmless metaphors”; biblical laws that sanction wartime rape are justified as “relatively humanitarian” compared to other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; and biblical heroes such as Abraham and David, who perpetrate unequivocal acts of gendered violence, are excused because they are “doing God’s work,” playing a vital role in Israel’s (and ultimately Christianity’s) wider redemptive narrative. Meanwhile, biblical texts that offer a potentially subversive alternative to cisheteronormative discourses—such as the David and Jonathan narratives (1 Sam 19–20; 2 Sam 1), the book of Ruth, the Samson and Delilah saga (Judg 16), the Judas kiss (Mark 14:43–45), and the eunuch traditions (Isa 56:3–5; Acts 8:27–39)—are typically given very “straight” readings, with their queer potentialities either ignored, ridiculed, or denied.

Yet such exegetical contortions only serve to sustain a vicious cycle of interpretation and affirmation that protects the destructive power of biblical texts of terror. As critic and conscience both in and beyond the biblical studies academy, we therefore have to equip our students to consider the capacity of the text to perpetuate gender violence in all its forms. While affirming our respect for everyone’s faith traditions, we nevertheless reiterate to them the responsibility we all have to ask searching questions about biblical texts.  We remind them of the power that language—particularly sacred language—has to impact the lives of real people and their experiences of violence. And, most importantly, we offer them a safe and non-judgmental space within which they can interrogate and explore their sacred scriptures.

In all honesty, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some of our students have told us that they truly appreciate the opportunity to discuss gender violence, which remains such a taboo topic in their own cultures and communities. When they encounter such violence in the biblical narrative, they feel empowered to talk openly about these issues in church and family contexts. As sacred scripture, the Bible can mitigate strict cultural taboos, offering a point of entry for discussions around contemporary instances of gender violence. The Bible ceases to be an “otherworldly” text that has little relevance to everyday life, and becomes instead a means by which social praxis is fostered and enacted.

Yet at other times, our attempts to talk to students about biblical gender violence are far less well received. We still encounter those who disengage, or become frustrated with the subject matter. Some even project their frustrations against us—the bearers of “Bad News”—articulating their hostility in discussions, emails, and their written work (not to mention on social media). We have been accused of “misreading” the biblical texts, of having a “feminist agenda,” or being “biased towards LGBT concerns” in our research and teaching, and of being “anti-Christian” in our approach to scriptural traditions. Such encounters can be demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting—both for ourselves and for those students who feel as passionately as we do about our responsibilities as critic and conscience. At the end of the day, though, these criticisms only serve to reinforce for us the importance of persisting—and persisting and persisting—with these tough conversations in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.

Notes

[1]Aotearoa is the most widely-used Māori name for New Zealand, and often precedes its English counterpart when the country is written or spoken about. The precise origins and meaning of Aotearoa are uncertain, but it is often translated as “land of the long white cloud.”

[2]This rather wordy word sums up quite neatly the dominant discourses within western cultures that normalize cisgendered, heterosexual, and hegemonic masculine identities while simultaneously othering or delegitimizing anyone who does not fit into these categories, be they transgender or gender diverse, other-than-heterosexual, female, and/or non-compliant with traditional masculine ideals.

[3]Linda Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” Teaching Theology and Religion2, no. 3 (1999): 173–9 (citation p.174).

[4]Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” p.176.

 

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Interview with Professor Mercy Oduyoye

While on our WUN-funded research trip to Ghana, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert interviewed veteran academic and activist Prof Mercy Oduyoye and gender educationalist Joyce Boham. Mercy is the founder of the Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians and of the Talitha Qumi Centre Institute of Women in Religion and Culture in Legon, Ghana, where this interview was conducted. The short version of this interview links to a much longer conversation with both women. Enjoy!

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