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).
While you make several good points in your article, you seem to have misread Alison Joseph’s article (http://shiloh-project.group.shef.ac.uk/?p=1571). When she refers to “nation-building” in her article, she is talking about the Biblical Genesis, not the TV show/book Handmaiden’s Tale. Additionally, I would not characterize her interpretation of either the Bible or the show as “forgiving”. Rather, she is explicitly pointing out that the excuses of “nation building” given in the Bible have often made its readers forget that women were raped to make it possible. In many ways, her point was quite similar to yours, and I find it somewhat unjust and inaccurate that you claim her interpretation was euphemistic and forgiving.
Hello, many thanks for taking the time to comment. This section of the post was written in response to the section which reads:
“The interpretation in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is textually supported and forces us to look at the world of the patriarchs in a new light… The civility and seeming acceptance of this way of life makes us forget that the handmaids are raped for the sake of nation-building.”
Given the framing of this paragraph in line with the interpretation of Gensis in The Handmaid’s Tale, it was not clear to me which Handmaids were being referred to. However, you’re right this may not be the intended meaning of the author. As such, this post has been edited to reflect your comment. Thanks again.
Although I would still challenge some of the language in the post as euphemistic, particularly the description of “the ceremony” which is described as a process where “the handmaid lies between the legs of the commander’s wife and the commander has intercourse with her”. There is no such thing as non-consensual intercourse, only rape.
Emma, I completely agree with your point. In an early version of the paragraph you refer to, describing the ceremony, I think it had another sentence that because of the civility of the ceremony we almost forget that it is rape, yet rape it is. But yes, as you say, the Handmaid’s Tale, as well as Genesis, anesthetize the language of rape so that we hardly notice it, but it is necessary to name it.
i am watching the tv series now and was struck by how no one uses the word rape. when june (offred) was blasting mrs waterford and calling her everything but a rapist i had a major wtf moment.
gilead is a total rape society with every level of its hierarchy complicit in committing rape, defending rape, perpetuating rape, legalizing rape. even its economy depends on rape.
why wouldnt june or any of the other women name it rape? is there a law against using the word rape the way that they dont use the word gay anymore?
and about consent i dont know about the uk but in the us and canada any person who is cognitively impaired for any reason (incuding medical coma, impaired w substances, unconscious, intellectual disability etc) and cannot consciously give consent is legally understood to have been raped if someone rapes them.