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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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 [email protected]

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A Centurion and His “Lover”: A Text of Queer Terror

In the past few decades, there has been a slow rise of queer biblical scholarship and queer theological exegesis. Though little of this scholarship has gotten much attention in mainstream biblical scholarship, queer interpretations of one particular narrative defy this tendency: Matthew 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10, Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s slave.

While little about the passage would initially suggest a queer or homoerotic subtext, commentators build their argument upon three primary features of the story.

1) The centurion uses two words for “slave” in the passage: when referring to a slave in a general sense, he uses the standard Greek word doulos, but when referring to the slave who is ill, he uses the word pais. Though pais often meant “slave” in antiquity, it was also used to designate the younger partner in a pederastic same-sex relationship.

2) The centurion in one passage refers to the slave in question as entimos (Luke 7:2), a word meaning “dear” or “honoured.” Though it might refer to usefulness as a slave for labour, it could also designate something or someone emotionally significant.

3) Finally, there is ample evidence of same-sex eroticism in the Roman military.

Though none of these points necessitates a queer or homoerotic subtext to the story, many argue that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, thereby indicating a sexual relationship between the centurion and his slave. The centurion is thus proclaimed an exemplar of queer discipleship by various theologians, as Jesus seems to interact with him and his slave without either judgment or condemnation.

On this basis, for instance, Tom Hanks contends that “by blessing the Capernaum centurion’s relationship with his beloved slave, Jesus flaunted the common prejudices of his countrymen and furthered his reputation as a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’”; Theodore Jennings likewise suggests that “the episode may be termed the ‘centurion’s boyfriend’.”

The purpose of this post is not to argue one way or the other over the plausibility and politics of this reading, something I have done elsewhere. Rather, I would like to observe how this reading, in its praise of a relationship between the centurion and his slave, “forgets” the rape culture of antiquity.

First, this reading overlooks the obvious fact that consent – sexual or otherwise – was not part of a slave’s vocabulary. Ancient sources are almost unanimous on the matter. Seneca writes that “unchastity is a crime in the freeborn, [but] a necessity for a slave” (Controversies 4 praef. 10); and the fictional Jewish man named Trimalchio, a former slave, claims that “for fourteen years I pleasured him; it is no disgrace to do what a master commands. I also gave my mistress satisfaction” (Petronius, Satyricon 75.11). Numerous other examples could be cited. It is clear that every aspect of a slave’s body was at his master’s disposal.

Second, this reading forgets that instances of male-male intercourse between soldiers and civilians are inseparable from the asymmetrical relationship between the Roman army and the regions that army conquered. Particularly vivid is an example from Tacitus: “Whenever a young woman or a handsome youth fell into their hands, they were torn to pieces by the violent struggles of those who tried to secure them….” (Histories 3.33) The Roman army was a force of conquest and imperial domination, not only in combat, but also in the social relations between soldiers and civilians in frontier regions during peacetime situations.

In short, there is little or nothing to suggest a mutually caring romantic-sexual relationship (let alone same-sex marriage!) between the centurion and his slave – a slave presumably born in that very frontier region of Palestine. If anything, recalling Tacitus’ brutal description, the story possibly bears a greater resemblance to the Mahmudiyah rape and killings – a tragedy where American soldiers occupying Iraq raped a 14-year-old girl, then murdered her and her family – than to same-sex marriage of the 21st century.

Christopher B. Zeichmann is a sessional instructor at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. He is at the present under contract to publish A Guide to the Military and the New Testament with Fortress Academic/Lexington Press.


Twitter: @zeichman

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