I recently spoke to a friend about the Hulu adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. As we continued to discuss what we agreed was a remarkable reimagining of Gilead, my friend mentioned how uncomfortable the ‘sex scenes’ made them feel, to which I responded, “… is that because they’re rape scenes?”
My friend was taken aback by this, and provided an empathetic “Yes! Because they are RAPE scenes!” in what sounded like a moment of revelation. This prompted me to consider the impact of the euphemistic nature of language used to describe sexual violence in Gilead. Such use of language contributes to the normalisation of sexual violence, which lies at the heart of rape culture.
It should be noted that my friend is not alone in their description of the sexual violence in The Handmaid’s Tale; Commanders are regularly described as having sex with handmaids during “the ceremony”, as opposed to raping them.
Commentaries on the episode “Jezebels” which describe June’s visit to a “brothel” filled with “prostitutes” are particularly intriguing in this regard. We are made explicitly aware by Moira that the only “choice” these women have is between Jezebels and death. Can such a scenario really be described as prostitution? Unless we are to recognise enforced consent as consent, a “rape den” seems a more appropriate term than a sex club.
What is more, conversations about Handmaids, or the women held captive at Jezebel‘s rarely recognise these experiences as a form of human trafficking. This was brought more sharply into focus in the episode “A Woman’s Place” where it is revealed that the Handmaids will act as a commodity in a trade deal with Mexico.
In the episode “The Bridge”, where Janine is relocated from one household to another after enforced surrogacy, we are presented with a graphic reminder that “the ceremony” is not just rape; it is gang rape. Daniel rapes Janine whilst his wife forcibly restrains her by holding her arms and squeezing Janine’s shoulders with her thighs.
When Janine subsequently attempts suicide, we are forced to confront the deeply problematic relationship between Janine and the visibly distressed Aunt Lydia. The intended familial bond and incitement of trust between Aunts and Handmaids is made explicit in the attribution of familial status to the Aunts. Janine’s attempted suicide sees the climax of tenderness, which has been built between these characters over preceding episodes. In reality, however, this relationship is more comparable to that between a child and a trusted family member who beats, blinds and grooms them. After all, the role of Aunt requires the rape facilitation of who we can understand to be their symbolic nieces. As such, The Red Centres, where the Aunts attempt to indoctrinate Handmaids, could appropriately be discussed in terms of grooming.
Euphemisms which normalise rape and misname the experiences of women (“the ceremony”, indoctrination, prostitution) are rife, not only within the narrative world of Gilead, but in contemporary discourse about The Handmaid‘s Tale, and in society more broadly. For example, contextualising the use of Handmaids as an extreme necessity in a time of crisis feeds into the ‘greater good’ narrative where justification for rape in terms of upholding (often patriarchal) societal norms is understandable, if not acceptable. Such reasoning is endemic in discussions of rape.
We see this explicitly (and contemporaneously) in terms of ‘corrective’ rape and with rape as punishment. This is outworked implicitly when, for example, women’s clothing, or perceived wanton behavior is provided as contextual information in the case of rape. In these instances, rape is discussed as an inevitably for those who transgress the expectations of femininity by behaving in a certain way, or indeed, by those who uphold the ideals of femininity by being beautiful. It is a no-win situation.
The practice of using euphemistic language when dealing with instances of rape or sexual violence, which blur the lines between sex and rape, propel the “myth that rape is just a particular shade of sex, rather than a violent crime”. The minimizing impact of euphemistic language when talking about rape can also be found in testimonials from rape survivors.
This conflation of experiences and merging of language can have devastating impact, to the extent where people become unable to identify rape as they struggle to separate these assaults from a “normal” sexual encounter. As a pertinent example, the now acquitted Ched Evans, as part of his defence, said he did not speak to the woman he was accused of raping “before, during or after” the alleged rape. This was not recognised as rape, despite a clear admission that Evans made no attempt to gain consent. This provides chilling and infuriating context to the apparent interchangeability in public consciousness between sex and rape.
Another relevant example is “stealthing”, a form of sexual assault where a man non-consensually takes a condom off when penetrating someone. Notably, this was recently reported as a “sex trend” before a public outcry across various media outlets demanded it be recognised as a form of rape. The term itself, when considered in line with how this form of assault is often spoken about in a shockingly casual way, demonstrates how euphemistic language can contribute to the normalisation of sexual assault.
The manipulation of language to normalise sexual assault is a key tool the leaders of Gilead, who call themselves “Sons of Jacob” after the biblical patriarch, use to make their radical power structures and the rapes they are founded on more palatable. For example, when Fred Waterford renames the rape of Handmaids as “the ceremony” for what he describes as “branding purposes”, his companion remarks that this sounds “nice and godly, the wives will eat that shit up”.
In the words of June, which act as a motif throughout the original novel, ‘context is all’ – and in the context of rape culture, being critical of how we choose to articulate instances of sexual violence and/or rape is essential in attempts to de-normalise rape, and fight back against the ‘cultural numbness’ society has developed in the face of sexual violence.
Anaesthetising the language with which we talk about rape and sexual violence is counterproductive to combatting rape culture and amounts to a gross misnaming of the experiences of rape survivors.
Emma Nagouse is an incoming WRoCAH funded PhD student in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) researching the phenomenon of rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society. Emma’s research focusses around how biblical and contemporary intersectional gender presentation facilitates rape and disbelief culture through reaffirming oppressive stereotypes and informing perceptions of rape gradations. Emma is Assistant Editor of the University of Sheffield History Matters blog and co-organiser of the Sheffield Feminist Archive (SFA).