16 Days of Activism – Day 9: Valerie Hobbs

We interview Valerie Hobbs, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, on the ninth day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign.

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

My name is Valerie Hobbs, and I am a linguist at the University of Sheffield. I am one of those scholars who likes to do all sorts of things, but most of my research and teaching orbits around the areas of English for Specific Purposes, with a focus on religious language. In other words, I’m interested in how different groups of people use language in ways that suit their particular needs and goals.

How did you get involved in The Shiloh Project?

Katie Edwards, a friend and colleague at Sheffield, invited me along to a workshop on religion and rape culture in Leeds, where I met Johanna Stiebert, Caroline Blyth, Nechama Hadari, Emma Nagouse, and Jessica Keady. What impressed me about this group was the balance they strive for and achieve between diversity of perspectives and singular focus on examining and confronting the ways in which religion is used to incite and validate violence towards women. This is a group of scholars who unite around a shared interest and purpose but who invite discussion. In my experience, this is rare.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

A few years ago, I decided to take a break from work I was doing on language in philosophy and write a paper on a topic I’ve long been mulling over: how the conservative Christian church talks about feminism. This work prompted an invitation to attend the ecclesiastical trial of a pastor in the USA who refused to require his disabled wife to attend church. As a professing Christian, I was motivated by this experience to focus my work on issues that powerfully shape and affect religious women.

Since then, I have worked on, for example, Christian sermons on divorce, as a way to investigate the ways in which pastors (don’t) preach about domestic violence. Over the summer, I contributed a chapter based on this project to the series of volumes on Rape Culture and Religion, edited by Shiloh Project leaders Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards along with Emily Colgan. I have plans for further projects on gender in sermons (since sermons are highly significant within the Christian context), but I’m also interested in hymns.

Then there is the activism that necessarily accompanies my scholarly work. I am grateful to have had opportunities to support Christian women who have endured various forms of violence by men in the church, including not only their spouses but also Christian leaders who too often use the Bible to minimize, excuse, and even justify physical and emotional abuse. Recent public-facing work stemming from these interactions has included, for example, a series on the ways in which church governments handle abuse cases. But I also spend time writing e-mails and letters and talking on the phone in an effort to support women whom men have abused.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?

Faith and religion are an important source of identity and ideology for billions of people around the world. As a result, religious ideas are not confined to religious contexts but have made their way into all sorts of cultural contexts. Advertising, news media, and politics are just some of the places where we find traces of religion, and powerful players in society often deliberately draw on religion to attract followers.

In my view, one of The Shiloh Project’s most significant contributions to the discussion about gender activism are the ways in which it makes explicit these links between religion and cultural attitudes to gender roles. This involves examining the religious doctrine itself as well as how and where doctrine manifests itself in society. For example, the Shiloh Project’s Katie Edwards has done some ground-breaking work on the ways in which advertisers draw from the Creation account in Genesis and capitalize on common representations of Eve as seductress.

However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I think we must be modest in our ambitions to bring about change in society around us. While much work has been done on the issue of gender-based violence and discrimination, yet the problem persists and seems even more entrenched. We can easily grow discouraged. I’ve concluded that I must act on my convictions but resist being so arrogant as to think my work will even begin to fix what is wrong with the world. That runs counter to the message we get from academia these days, where we are encouraged to plan for and measure the impact of our research and rate our value accordingly. But I don’t believe impact is up to us. Instead, as I see it, at the heart of The Shiloh Project is simply this: love your neighbour. If society becomes any better as a result of anything we do, if we positively influence even one person who encounters our work, that is a great mercy.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

I recently wrapped up my work on divorce sermons and hope to have another recently submitted paper on this project accepted for publication in the spring. I am now working on two other projects: language of discrimination in religious institutions and discourse of consent among popular Christian organizations. I’m also working on a proposal for a book which will draw on my work in these various areas. There is so much work to do and so little time! My Shiloh Project colleagues are doing all manner of funded projects, and it is inspiring to be surrounded by such driven academics.

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16 Days of Activism – Day 6: Emma Nagouse

On Day 6 of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign, we speak to Emma Nagouse, PhD student in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS).

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

I’m Emma Nagouse and I am a PhD candidate in SIIBS (supervised by Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert) where I research the Bible and rape culture. I’m involved in local feminist activism, particularly as co-organiser of the Sheffield Feminist Archive and a Branch Officer for Sheffield UCU. Before joining SIIBS I worked in HE and studied Archaeology where I specialised in the archaeology of religious violence.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I have been a member of The Shiloh Project since its inception at a research day in Leeds and I am a contributor to The Shiloh Project blog.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

My research focuses on how biblical and contemporary intersectional gender presentation (with a focus on class identity) facilitates rape and disbelief culture through reaffirming oppressive stereotypes and informing perceptions of rape gradations. I am focusing on the rapes of Dinah, Bathsheba and Tamar.

I have also authored a chapter for an upcoming volume on religion and rape culture edited by Katie Edwards, Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan. In this piece of work I read Lamentations 3 alongside the best-selling novel and widely acclaimed TV series Outlander to suggest that the Man’s suffering in Lamentations 3 can be read as an expression of the trauma of rape. A (very) abbreviated version of this chapter can be found here.

I returned to University as a PGR student after working in various professional roles in HE. I was particularly influenced by my time working for Sheffield’s Widening Participation Research and Evaluation team – a task that really impacted me was working on a literature review about the experiences of care leavers in HE. I was deeply moved and troubled by what I read and, coupled with roles working for Sheffield Students’ Union, trade unions and the Sheffield Feminist Archive, I knew that if I was to return to HE as a student researcher, it would also be as an activist.

I feel very privileged to be able to focus my working life on interrogating rape culture, which I believe to be one of the most urgent and insidious social justice and public health issues facing contemporary society.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?

The work of the Shiloh Project has much to add to wider scholarship around rape culture, particularly in terms of interrogating underpinning values which provide a scaffold to normalised misogyny. After all, biblical motifs are still regularly appealed to in public discussions around sex, gender and, inevitably, sexual violence. Whether we’re talking about Mary’s virgin birth, the temptation of Eve, Jezebels…

What is particularly exciting about this project, as mentioned by Katie in a previous post, is the breadth of expertise involved from both faith, non-faith, and international perspectives.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

As the news cycle is constantly exploding with reports on sexual violence I’m pretty sure that this will be a very busy year for The Shiloh Project. I am currently very interested in the phenomenon of revenge porn (particularly after the experiences of Blac Chyna made waves online) and how this relates to wider rape culture – I’m working on a piece of research exploring revenge porn alongside enforced bodily exposure in the prophetic texts.

I’m also applying for funding for a project with the feminist poetry collective Verse Matters and an artist from the University of Brighton for a collaborative project creating poems and a piece of sculpture relating to abused biblical women. I took great inspiration from Caroline Blyth’s research on the silencing of raped women and a talk by Cheryl Exum on the potential of art to grant access to the perspectives of biblical women.

Of course, immersing yourself in this kind of research can be quite challenging – beginning to come to terms with the sheer scope of the problem and being given an insight into the experiences of those who have suffered dreadful abuses can be (at least for me) dizzyingly infuriating, painful and emotionally draining. It can also cause you to reevaluate experiences in your own life. For this reason, I’ve collaborated with wonderful colleagues in Research Services (Dr Kay Guccione and Sarah Bell) to set up a network for researchers who engage in traumatic or sensitive topics.

Having said that, I’ve previously spent a lot of my time as a student not feeling like I had much (or any) capacity to work towards change in areas which were important to me. Undertaking this work alongside such inspiring scholars and activists is truly galvanising.

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16 Days of Activism – Day 2: Katie Edwards

On Day 2 of 16 Days of Activism we interview project co-director, Katie Edwards.

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

I’m Katie Edwards and I’m a Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Institute of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS).

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I co-direct the project with my friends and colleagues Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland) and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). Caroline and I had talked for a while about developing a project or network around the Bible and sexual violence but our ideas didn’t take shape until we raised them with Johanna and other fabulous academics at a research day at Leeds and there The Shiloh Project was born.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

I’m grateful every day for my job. It pays the bills. It gives me a voice and a platform – both extremely precious things – and there are few jobs that support you to develop and disseminate your ideas. For example, Johanna and I are funded to work with really brilliant colleagues and collaborators in Botswana and Lesotho next year, after receiving funding to visit the Universities of Botswana and KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year. I’m keenly aware of the opportunities, status and privilege I have because of my job. Nevertheless, academia can, in pockets, be a competitive and unkind world and it’s not immune from the structural issues that affect the rest of society. Universities continue to struggle with serious problems of institutional racism, sexism, ableism and classism, despite public-facing diversity narratives. Before I started work in Higher Education I imagined that universities were a different, nobler space, less affected by inequalities and therefore harassment, sexual assault and bullying than other places of work. I was, of course, naive. Universities and academia remain highly protective of hierarchies, and we’re slow, and sometimes unwilling, to respond to clear inequalities in gender, race, class and disabilities in our institutions. This is a context, then, that helps to maintain a culture prone to harassment and bullying of junior colleagues, in particular. The Shiloh Project is in part, as well as being a shared area of research, a response to the culture of tolerance around harassment and bullying in HE that helps to support and perpetuate it. The vast majority of women have experienced sexual harassment at work and I’m no different. From my first full-time job working at a brewery at the age of 18 when the middle-aged ‘Business Development Managers’ took bets to see which one could get me to have sex and return with evidence, to my first permanent job in a university when a senior male colleague took photos of me with his mobile phone from across the table while I was trying to tell him about my research priorities for the next year. After a few further similar episodes with the senior male colleague, and with little support or guidance from colleagues who knew what was happening, I approached a very senior female colleague in the same institution to ask her advice. As a new member of staff on a probationary contract, in a precarious personal financial situation, I was scared for my and my family’s livelihood. The senior prof told me to never report sexual harassment because it would follow me for life but it was highly unlikely to impact the perpetrator. Her advice was that I should be ‘more charming’ to my then line-manager. Like everywhere else, academia can be isolating, especially when you’re facing harassment and bullying from people in positions of power. In light of our various experiences, the directors and members of The Shiloh Project wanted to create a supportive and inclusive research community and be visible, vocal and united in our stance against sexual violence, assault, harassment and bullying.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?

Johanna’s absolutely right that religion is often absent from discussions around gender activism and we aim to address that gap. The Shiloh Project has a range of expertise from Meredith Warren’s work on sexual violence in the Classics and the New Testament to Valerie Hobbs’ research into rape culture in church communities and I think we can make an important contribution to existing and future discussions around activism against gender-based violence.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

Next year is a busy one! Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and I have a series of three edited volumes on religion and rape culture coming out with Palgrave Macmillan. Johanna and I will be developing our research project in Botswana and Lesotho and there’ll be a Radio 4 programme connected to our work on The Shiloh Project. I’m also working on a book looking at constructions of whiteness, purity and female sexuality and how these contribute to rape culture. I’m just really delighted to be part of this project and to work with such a fantastic group of people. My work, and friendship, with Johanna and Caroline gives me energy and motivates me to be bolder, more confident and more honest in my research. Something that took me a long time to come to – I spent much of the first few years of my time in academia feeling quite scared and wary of the culture I saw around me and my voice within it. I’m grateful to this project and to colleagues such as J. Cheryl Exum (University of Sheffield), Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds), Deryn Guest (University of Birmingham), Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Dawn Llewelyn (University of Chester), Rachel van Duyvenbode (University of Sheffield), Emma Tomalin (University of Leeds), Richard Newton (Elizabethtown College) and Musa Dube (University of Botswana) whose work and activism inspires me every day.

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16 Days of Activism – Day 1: Johanna Stiebert

Today marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign. To commemorate, we’ll publish a profile of each of our project directors and members for every day of the campaign.

Our first interview is with project co-director Johanna Stiebert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Leeds.

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

My name is Johanna Stiebert and I research and teach on the Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. I became an academic because I failed to make a career in human rights journalism and activism, which was my first quest.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

The Shiloh Project grew out of a conversation with two friends who are also colleagues, Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth. Katie teaches biblical studies at the University of Sheffield and Caroline at the University of Auckland, in my native New Zealand. Katie is also Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, which, thanks in large part to her leadership, has a strong track-record in organising innovative and activist events focused around things biblical, and Caroline’s publications and teaching have a strong focus on feminist approaches, as well as on LGBTQI rights. Working with them is not only fun, it makes work meaningful.

Katie and Caroline, together with Emily Colgan, were already working on editing a multi-volume collection (forthcoming with Palgrave MacMillan) of papers on religion and rape culture. We decided to hold a workshop in Leeds, which was attended by several more inspiring scholars – Nechama Hadari, Emma Nagouse, Valerie Hobbs and Jessica Keady – and it was there that we decided to launch The Shiloh Project and its blog, to create a forum and resource on religion, the Bible and rape culture. Since the launch, corresponding with contributors and readers and preparing posts for the blog has been one of my favourite work activities.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

It relates to my work in a number of ways. First, I have a long-standing interest in the topic of gender-based violence and the Bible. In my PhD dissertation already, I focused quite a lot of attention on the woman metaphor in Ezekiel 16 and 23. In these chapters the relationship between Israel’s God and Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem, is depicted in terms of sexually promiscuous females (i.e. disobedient, abhorrent Israel) and violent men who ‘sort them out’ (i.e. God and the men who do his bidding). It’s appalling stuff.

Since then I have worked also on the image of the abused woman and man in Lamentations, on father-daughter relationships and, most recently, on the topic of incest and the Hebrew Bible. All of these have revolved around gender and power relations. I have also contributed a chapter to the rape-culture volumes, edited by Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie Edwards, on the motif of the eroticized sister and rape in both the Hebrew Bible and contemporary popular culture.

But it’s also more personal than just about my research, which has been primarily focused on antiquity. I am well conscious that sexualized violence is multi-dimensional and ever-present. Not only are there constant revelations of sexual violence against boys, girls, women and men – be it in the context of on-street grooming in Rotherham or Rochdale, or in football coaching, be it sex-trafficking of women from Eastern Europe, or scandals erupting in Hollywood or Westminster, or revelations from public schools, children’s homes, universities or the church. I also have children aged eleven and nine and am frequently startled at the disturbing sexualized language and images they encounter (and then ask difficult questions about) – in instagram posts or mainstreamed music videos.

All of this motivates me to make my work relevant to present-day injustices concerning sexism, gender-based injustice and violence. The Shiloh Project has been one way to focus this endeavour and to find other like-minded persons working on related topics.

It has been very satisfying to make activism part of my work and, luckily, my subject unit at Leeds is supportive of this, too. Several of my Leeds colleagues (Adriaan van Klinken, Emma Tomalin, Stefan Skrimshire, Rachel Muers…) integrate social justice activism into their research and teaching. In my view this is an important responsibility for universities – including for subject units teaching about religion.

Through the energy harnessed by this project I have also become involved with applying for a number of research grants to focus on discrete topics. Recently, Katie Edwards and I received funding to take forward a collaboration with scholars, NGOs and women’s rights groups in Yorkshire, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho. We are also seeking collaborations with the University of Ghana and with the White Rose consortium (working across the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and York) to create networks and conduct research and grassroots projects to facilitate more critical understanding of and resistance to gender-based violence and inequality.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?

There is clearly a considerable need for gender activism. So much needs to be done. The dimension of religion, however, is often neglected. And yet, religious beliefs and imagery play quite a significant role in terms of shaping gender stereotypes and values. My colleague Emma Tomalin (at Leeds) is leading projects on how matters of religion interface with public health, with gender (e.g. in discussions of sex trafficking, dowries and on-street grooming) and development (particularly the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals) and I am persuaded that much more needs to be done to identify, understand and evaluate the influence of religion in all kinds of gender dynamics. Again, working with Katie and Caroline has made me think about this topic along new lines. Katie has done a lot of work on how popular culture distils and reflects cultural manifestations of gender values, while Caroline has recently demonstrated the impact of religious values (particularly of a very socially conservative brand) on gender public politics.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

My next project is to look at contemporary rape myths and to examine how they relate to depictions in the Bible. I am starting with the myth that women often make false allegations – either because they are resentful at having sexual advances rejected, or because they want to abnegate blame for consensually entered into sexual misconduct they later regret. Yes, false rape allegations do happen – but they are far less common than claims about them. I am looking at the story of Potiphar’s wife right now (Genesis 39) in which she demands Joseph have sex with her, he rejects her, and she then claims he attempted to rape her. I’ll be giving the Humboldt Lecture at the University of Bamberg in the new year based on this topic. If you’re in Bamberg on 18 April at 6pm, come along.

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The Lamentation of Jamie Fraser: Outlander, Male Rape and an Intertextual Reading of Lamentations 3

The following post is a shortened and abbreviated version of a forthcoming chapter in the Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion  series (Palgrave Macmillan)

With the end of a two-year wait for the third season of Outlander (known to its dedicated audience as The Droughtlander), there is a lot for fans to celebrate. The series has, so far, been met with widespread acclaim, and has been renewed for a fourth season. Adapted from a popular series of novels written by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall, an English nurse during World War Two, who, on a visit to Scotland, is transported back in time to 1753, where she meets her soon-to-be lover and husband, Jamie Fraser, a Jacobite rebel.

So, what is special about Outlander, and why is it relevant to discussions around rape culture in contemporary society? Described as “unapologetically feminist since its inception,” the Outlander television series challenges mainstream representations of sex, from addressing sexual violence to providing a “rare acknowledgment of the female gaze” through its cinematographic focus on both men’s and women’s bodies.

What has captured particular media interest, however, is Outlander’s treatment of male rape. At the end of the first Outlander novel, and depicted in the final two episodes of Season One (“Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”), Jamie (the male protagonist) is tortured and raped by army officer Captain Jack Randall.

These episodes received much media attention, with many of the show’s viewers praising the sensitivity and integrity with which the oft taboo issue of male rape was portrayed. The violence of the scene was hard to watch, but equally hard was witnessing the way that Jamie’s entire persona – his psychological, emotional, and spiritual self – was splintered in the aftermath of his assault.

I found the episode deeply thought-provoking, not least because it brought to mind another “text of terror” which likewise grants painful witness to a man’s suffering as the result of trauma: the “Man of Sorrows” poem in Lamentations 3. Considering these two texts intertextually alongside each other, I want to suggest that, like Jamie, the Man’s suffering evoked in Lamentations 3 can be read as an expression of the trauma of rape.

The vivid depictions of torture perpetrated against both Jamie and the Man are strikingly similar in both intertexts. Like Jamie, the Man is bound in chains (3:7). His bones are broken, and his skin is wasting away (3:4), just as Jamie suffers broken ribs and “smashed bones” after being beaten by Randall (Outlander, p.748).

The Man feels torn to pieces (3:11); he is made to “cower in ashes” (3:16) and is penetrated with arrows (3:12). Jamie, meanwhile, is burned with a brand that leaves his skin “puckered, reddened and blistered … charred, rimmed with white ash” (p.742); moreover, his hand is pierced with a nail when Randall pins it to the table (p.721), and his body too is penetrated through the brutal act of rape. These shared experiences of violence and suffering connect our two male characters together, allowing us to see them both as victims and survivors of the most dreadful abuses.

An intertextual reading of Lamentations 3 alongside Outlander (a full treatment of which can be found in my upcoming book chapter) highlights the various tropes of male rape that can be discerned within this biblical lament. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The trauma of intimacy as the Man struggles to reconcile his suffering with God’s love, and Jamie who, after his rape, cannot be touched by Claire (p.790).
  • Humiliation, shame and a perceived loss of masculinity with the Man describing himself as hunted prey (3:10-11) and Jamie telling Claire “I didna use to think myself a coward, but I am. I had no reason to live, but I was not brave enough to die” (p.733).
  • Victim-blaming is ubiquitous in contemporary rape culture and features heavily in both men’s experiences. The Man laments that “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (v.42) thus making a direct link between his own actions and subsequent suffering. Jamie’s abuser asks him “How could [Claire] ever forgive you?”; suggesting that Jamie’s rape was something he had done, rather than something done to him, and should therefore be accountable for.

These themes, which are often overlooked in the biblical text, are brought into sharp relief as we view the experiences of the suffering Man alongside those of Jamie Fraser. Although I cannot claim that the author(s) of Lamentations 3 intended to portray the suffering Man’s experience as that of male rape, an analysis of this lament, read intertextually alongside Jamie Fraser’s own narrative, affirms that such a reading is possible. For these two texts share a number of allusions to gendered violence that invites us to at least consider the suffering Man’s experiences in light of male rape.

 The possibility that Lamentations 3 gives voice to the experiences of a male rape victim is rarely entertained by interpreters of this text. This may be due, in part at least, to the veil of silence that so often shrouds this particular form of gender violence in both public discourses and popular culture.

In contrast, it is as though female rape has become “enduring and inevitable” within dominant discourses of gender and sexuality, contributing to what Roxanne Gay describes as a “cultural numbness” around female sexual violence (just think of the many instances of female rape in television shows such as Game of Thrones – and even Outlander!) On the contrary, people are less able to cope with (as in Outlander) or even recognize (as with Lamentations 3) any narrative of rape that fails to comply with these dominant discourses, including male rape.

The result is an overwhelming elision of gender violence from our cultural consciousness, either because it is simply “expected” (in the case of female rape) or, conversely, it is deemed too unexpected, or shocking (as with male rape).

This, then, is why the depiction of male rape in Outlander is so important – it refuses to elide or deny the perpetuation of such violence within contemporary rape cultures; moreover, this too is why we need to consider the possibility of male rape in Lamentations 3. For both texts remind us of the violent and brutal reality of sexual violence perpetrated against men; these texts also bear powerful witness to the trauma felt by male victims in the aftermath of their assault, as they face the ongoing battle of re-traumatization.

Finally, these two intertexts also offer a sense of hope that survival after rape is possible – it may be lengthy and difficult, but it is possible nonetheless. After “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” were aired, over two hundred viewers (not just men) posted messages on Gabaldon’s Facebook page, grateful for the overarching message of the episodes: that, despite the uncompromising brutality and torture Jamie had endured, they were left with “hope, catharsis and a sense that healing was possible” for survivors of rape.

If Claire stands as the one bringing healing to Jamie, through listening to him, believing him, and refusing to let him blame himself for his rape, perhaps we can perform this same role for the Man of Lamentations, and for all survivors of sexual violence.


Emma Nagouse is a 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 focuses 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).


Image: Outlander [via Flickr]

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Handmaids and Jezebels: Anaesthetising the Language of Sexual Violence

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).

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Shiloh Project Research Visit to the Universities of Botswana and KwaZulu-Natal

In March 2017 Katie Edwards and I travelled to Botswana and South Africa for one week to make a presentation at the University of Botswana and attend a workshop at the Ujamaa Centre in Pietermaritzburg. We received support for this visit from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) Newton Fund and the University of Leeds research fund. Our purpose was to explore possibilities for collaboration towards a larger-scale project on intersections of religion and rape culture. (We have since submitted an application for a grant.)

Our time was busy and productive. On Monday 20 March we gave one presentation each: I went first and discussed what rape culture is and how it relates to texts of the Hebrew Bible. Following this, Katie presented on biblical imagery in popular culture, with particular focus on how it promotes sexist and racist stereotyping, as well as gender-based violence.

Dr Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Dr Maude Dikobe (University of Botswana)

This went on to open an extended discussion on religion and rape culture in Botswana. Representatives from the Kagisano Women’s Shelter, women’s rights NGO Emang Basadi (‘Women Rise Up!) and LGBTQ rights group Legabibo (‘Lesbians, Gays & Bisexuals of Botswana’), a sub-group of Botswana human rights organization Ditshwanelo were present, as were a number of staff specializing in gender studies, among them Dr. Mmapula Kebaneilwe (womanist scholar of the Hebrew Bible), Professor Musa Dube (postcolonial-feminist scholar of the New Testament and authority in HIV and Aids theology) and Dr. Maude Dikobe (former Chair of the University of Botswana’s Gender Policy and Programme Committee and Senior Lecturer in Literature and the Expressive Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora).

On the following day we met with the Honourable Justice Unity Dow, Minister for Basic Education, to discuss what is happening currently and what more can still be done to teach awareness of gender-based violence. In the evening we met artistic director Moratiwa Molema, and Drs Mary Lederer and Leloba Molema, two of the editors of a forthcoming anthology of women’s writing in and about Botswana, with a view to organizing a live performance of excerpts depicting gender-based violence, to be followed by a panel discussion with audience involvement. This will need to wait until we obtain funding.

The next day we departed for Pietermaritzburg to meet Professor Gerald West and other members of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Ujamaa Centre. The Ujamaa Centre has been a hub of socially engaged Bible study for well over twenty years. It is here that both contextual Bible criticism and the ‘reading with’ strategy were pioneered. One major focus of the centre has been on reading with women vulnerable to and affected by gender-based violence. This has grown into the Tamar Project, which now provides many resources and strategies online. There is much to learn from the staff and participants of the Ujamaa Centre – more than such a brief visit would permit. We also determined that our own approaches would be rather different – not least, because our own position and context are so different from that of Ujamaa’s workshop leaders and participants. We really hope that we can take some of our ideas forward – so, here’s hoping for that grant

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