The following post is a version of the closing keynote paper by Rhiannon Graybill  ([email protected]), presented at the Shiloh Conference (July 2018). Rhiannon is an academic at Rhodes College and has a long and strong record of publication in the areas of Hebrew Bible, gender and sexuality, including rape culture.

Fuzzy, Messy, Icky: The Edges of Consent in Biblical Rape Narratives and Rape Culture

Rhiannon Graybill

Today I want to explore the problem of consent as it figures in and around rape culture.[1] Consent has become a rallying point in feminist activism against sexual violence. Colleges and universities teach — and, increasingly, require — ‘affirmative consent’ as a precursor to sexual activity. ‘Enthusiastic consent’, ‘consent at every stage’, even consent (and thus sex?) is like tea. Sex without consent is now officially rape in Sweden, as on many US college campuses. But even as what I will call ‘consent discourses’ have gone mainstream, significant feminist critiques of consent, and of the ways it is mobilized, have emerged.

I have several goals here. The first is to bring biblical stories of rape, and feminist biblical studies’ responses to those stories, in contact with the critique of consent discourses. I will argue that insofar as our analyses of sexual violence are predicated on an idea of consent, and of rape as sex without consent, they are both insufficient and insufficiently feminist. A feminist analysis of rape stories in the Bible must respond to feminist critiques of consent discourses.

My second goal is to begin a process of thinking about sexual violence in the biblical texts that, instead of relying on appeals to consent, centers the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky. I have chosen these terms intentionally, as each speaks to a specific area of difficulty:

*Fuzzy names the ambivalence that surrounds many situations of sexual violence, an ambivalence that extends to the complex feelings of survivors.[2] Fuzzy also alludes to memories under the influence of alcohol, which is at once common in sexual assault and often off-limits to discuss.

*Messy identifies the aftermath of sexual violence, and the ways that it defies a tidy resolution, or the ways that survivors’ stories cannot fit into a neat pre-ordained narrative of suffering and recovery. Often “things get messy” — a grammatical construction without an actor that neatly reveals how the situation grows beyond a single person, or even a single story (Jennifer Doyle provides a beautiful description of this in Campus Sex, Campus Security, which chronicles the ‘psychic life’ of the institution in relation to sexual violence and sexual harassment complaints.).[3] Messy is a consequence of fuzzy.

*Finally, all of this fuzziness and messiness creates something icky.[4] Thinking about sexual violence beyond a narrow framework of consent is ‘icky’, because it questions the clear lines between sex and rape. Icky invokes ‘creeps’, ‘gross guys’, ‘sketchiness’, and ‘weird things’ that happen at parties – and, of course, at academic conferences and in work places and environments of all kinds – which may or may not be rape. That last phrase ‘weird things’, came up repeatedly in Vanessa Grigoriadis’ interviews with college students about sexual violence, as recounted in her recent book Blurred Lines. Grigoriadis further reports, ‘About half of the women who click a box for behavior that meets the definition of rape or sexual assault will say no when they’re asked point blank if they’ve experienced rape or sexual assault.”[5] This is fuzzy/messy/icky in action.

I also use the term icky because it suggests affect. Like affects, it is sticky.[6] Sexual violence is sticky, both in the sense of a ‘sticky problem’ and in the way that it clings to and spreads between certain bodies, communities, and identities. It has become common to describe consent as an idea as simple as a stoplight: green (‘yes!’) means ‘go’, red (‘no!’) means ‘stop’, yellow means ‘proceed with caution’.[7] But sex is not a traffic pattern, and neither is rape. And so, instead of relying on a theory of traffic signals, this paper takes on the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky, to complexify our readings of biblical rape and rape culture.

Part I: The Trouble with ‘Consent’

My first goal is to sketch the landscape of debates over consent in which biblical discussions about rape and rape culture are placed (whether or not this landscape is perceptible from within biblical consent discourses).[8] With this in mind, here are six difficulties with the way we talk about and deploy the idea of consent.

  1. Consent discourses assume a liberal Enlightenment subject; this assumption prevents a complex analysis of rape culture

A fundamental issue with consent concerns the sort of subject that discourses of consent assume: a self-contained, self-controlled, and self-evident subject. The consenting subject is the liberal Enlightenment subject, the subject we encounter in Kant and Locke and so on. As we know from a lengthy tradition of feminist critique, this subject, while putatively universal, is often coded: as male, as white, as owning property, as cis-abled, and so forth. Therefore, there is at the very least an irony in predicating a feminist theory of how to end sexual violence on the very figure feminist theory has so vigorously critiqued.[9]

An understanding of rape defined against consent and predicated upon the idea of a subject who is self-contained, self-known, and able to choose whether to give or withhold consent has unintended consequences. One such potential consequence is the erasure of rape as a category when we are talking about non-modern and/or non-western contexts. There is a frequent line of argument around rape stories in the Bible that goes something like this: because women were not empowered as subjects to consent, it is meaningless to talk about consent, and without the language of consent, it is meaningless to speak about rape. While this argument can be critiqued on many grounds, I want to suggest that by relying on a model of rape that itself assumes a liberal understanding of the subject, we undercut our own efforts to name and understand both sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible and the phenomenon of rape culture more broadly.

It may in fact be true that biblical women were unable to consent: both because ancient legal norms do not have the same ideas of the individual and of personal autonomy that are foundational to modern definitions of rape, and because biblical women are characters and not actual people, a point that the legal reconstructionists nearly always miss. However, the nitpicky arguments that it wasn’t ‘really’ rape in ancient Israel (because women were not able to consent, because it was ‘really’ an abduction marriage, because the ‘real’ victim was the woman’s father, etc.)[10] focus on a narrow, legally grounded definition of rape (itself based on problematic ideas of consent) while missing the broader nuances of the term ‘rape culture’ — a term coined, in fact, to speak to the fuzziness and messiness of sexual violence, without differentiating out what Whoopi Goldberg infamously called ‘rape-rape’.[11]

  1. Consent discourses ignore more subtle techniques of power, such as discomfort

The model of all subjects as equally empowered to give consent ignores the weight of our personal histories, as well as the contingencies that attend any given sexual interaction. The assumption that subjects can simply give or withhold consent also neglects the influence of more subtle forms of pressure, as well as discomfort.

This is a point that feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed has analysed incisively in her study Willful Subjects. Taking up the fuzzy/messy/icky problem of ‘how women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised’ and ‘the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force’, Ahmed draws out the power of discomfort.

Discomfort constitutes ‘a polite strategy or technique of power (the capacity to carry out will without resistance, or with the will of others).’[12]  The significance of discomfort, and its role in leading victims/survivors to compromise their own wishes or will, is a point made again and again in contemporary analyses of rape culture, both first-person accounts (such as those in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad) and in reportage (such as Griogordias’s Blurred Lines).[13]

This is clear in the story of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). More than any other biblical rape story, the narrative of Tamar offers a clear lack of consent. Tamar is entrapped and raped by her half-brother Amnon, whom she visits when he is pretending to be ill. When he solicits sex, she verbally refuses him: ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame?” (13:11-12).[14] Nevertheless, Amnon rapes her. Tamar is distraught but asks Amnon to marry her — an act that her full brother, Absalom, discourages, telling her ‘Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.’ The text adds, ‘So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house” (13:20).

This story presents at least two modes of coercion: one explicit, one more subtle.  Allow me to quote again from Ahmed:

There is a history whereby men give themselves permission to hear no as yes, to assume women are willing, whatever women say … as if by dressing this way, or by doing something that way, she is enacting a yes, even when she herself says no. We certainly need to hear the violence that converts no into yes. My additional suggestion is modest: we also need to hear the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force, when for instance a women says yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much. … If being willing does not mean the absence of force, then we need to account for the social and political situations in which yes and no are given.[15]

If the first episode of the Tamar story is ‘the violence that converts no into yes’, then what follows — when Tamar expresses her desire to marry Amnon, even as she mourns the rape — offers an instance of ‘say[ing] yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much’. Thus the Tamar story is one case study in why ‘women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised’ — a situation that consent discourses, in their rigid and positivistic formulations, are unable to accommodate. Perhaps this is why so much feminist reflection on Tamar focuses on the rape itself, or on mourning with/for Tamar, and not on the question of why Tamar might marry her rapist.[16] The fuzzy/messy/icky possibility that Tamar might be acting willingly, or in her own best interest — or that her own best interest is not accommodated in a rigid form of will — is rarely taken up here, a silencing that consent discourses, in their rigidity, can inadvertently encourage.

  1. Consent discourses neglect intersectional analysis (especially concerning race, sexuality, and disability)

The right to say ‘no’ has been historically denied to many categories of people. This persists today; research on bystander intervention shows, for example, that bystanders are more likely to intervene to help a white woman than a woman of color, and a straight-presenting, heteronormative woman rather than a queer person.[17] In this situation, ‘intervention’ is a public recognition of ‘hearing’ the ‘no’ (whether or not this ‘no’ has been uttered).  In addition to race and sexuality, this raises serious questions around the issue of ability and disability.[18]

Consent discourses are also informed by troubling racialized assumptions surrounding sexual violence. In the contemporary USA, as well as Canada and Europe, the victim of sexual assault is imagined as a white woman; rape is figured as a threat not just to women, but to whiteness. In this way, representations of rape offer another iteration of cultural narratives protecting (and policing) white womanhood, such as panic over ‘white slavery’ and sex trafficking of white women.[19] Furthermore, the imagined whiteness of the ideal rape victim is bound up with the implied blackness or brownness of the imagined rapist. Protecting (white) women from rape means protecting them from (black) men.[20]

In particular, the appeal to consent often ignores the ways in which consent runs up against race, sexuality, and other vectors of identity. In the context of the biblical stories, ethnicity is a key concern. Thus, while the Dinah story is frequently read as a narrative of interethnic encounter, the specific colonial context of the encounter is often downplayed or glossed over. This is taken up by Musa Dube in her recent study ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, where she foregrounds the imperializing move that the promise of the promised land makes.[21]

As Dube analyses, Shechem occupies the place of the colonized man who targets the body of the female colonizer. That Shechem represents the colonized subject does not mean that he is not a rapist. But it does mean that we need to accommodate a more complex analysis that also accounts for ethnicity and coloniality. This is a point made, variously, by Dube, Franz Fanon, and Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather. One of Dube’s key insights is that the construction of colonizer/colonized relationships, even with the gender script flipped, as it is here, ‘serve[s] the interest of the colonizer’.  In this case, this happens after the rape, when Shechem is represented as ‘good native’. As Dube writes, ‘The Other who occupies the coveted land in Dinah’s story is often constructed negatively, but not exclusively so. The Other also appears as the good natives, who love/cling to/adore their potential colonizer (23:1–20; 34:8–10). Both constructions serve the interests of the colonizing power.’[22]

The ethnic dynamics of the Dinah story are particularly interesting because they push back against the normative biblical move of constructing a binary between good and bad women, where ‘good’ is also ‘Israelite’ and ‘sexually pure’, while ‘bad’ is collocated with both ‘foreign’ and ‘sexually loose’. (J. Cheryl Exum has of course analysed these binaries in her classic Fragmented Women.)[23]

Across the Hebrew Bible, there is a tendency to associate promiscuous sexuality with foreignness, and foreign women in particular, as in representations of Moabite and Midianite women. The flipped script, as in the Dinah story (Dinah is ‘a woman from the colonizer’s camp’ who goes out to visit ‘the native women of the land’[24]), seems to promise an alternative narrative. However, it instead resolves in favor of the colonizers/Israelites. The colonizer always wins;[25] sometimes consent discourses are used to cover over or distract from this truth.

Additional Difficulties with Consent[26]

I want to list, briefly, some additional difficulties with consent.

  1. Consent is a legitimized form of subordination. This is a point Wendy Brown makes clearly in States of Injury. As Brown writes, ‘If, in rape law, men are seen to do sex while women consent to it, if the measure of rape is not whether a woman sought or desired sex but whether she acceded to it or refused it when it was pressed upon her, then consent operates both as a site of subordination and a means of its legitimation. Consent is thus a response to power—it adds or withdraws legitimacy—but is not a mode of enacting or sharing in power.’[27]
  2. Consent risks becoming colonialist, as consent discourses are often used as part of a hermeneutic practice of ‘saving women’ or ‘recovering women’.[28] This is especially clear in the literature on Dinah and on Tamar, which is almost obsessive in its desire to remember, recover, and re-voice. This desire to recover women, while grounded in feminist commitments, is uncomfortably close to the desire to ‘save’ women that postcolonial feminist theory has so soundly critiqued. If colonialism is ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’,[29] as Gayatri Spivak has quipped, then this saving certainly involves saving from rape.[30]
  3. Consent is a low bar. Finally, consent discourses risk evacuating the question of sexual pleasure from sex. As I have argued elsewhere, ‘consent is a low bar’.[31] Or as Kelly Oliver writes,

Affirmative consent should not be conflated with desire. Just because a woman submits to sex, does not mean that she wants it, especially in a culture where women feel pressured to please men.[32]

Or even more clearly, as a college student activist told feminist writer Rebecca Traister,

Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.[33]

To this, I will only add that we might say the same about sex in the Bible.

In Sum: Consent discourses fail to accommodate complexity

I am suggesting that the framework of consent, while useful, though not unproblematically so, in describing and diagnosing sexual violence in contemporary culture, is insufficient and indeed inadequate in addressing sexual violence, in all its fuzziness, messiness, and ickiness. It also suggests a limited horizon of creativity and critical engagement — which, I would insist, is a key feature of feminist and queer critique. What else might we do with these texts, if we move beyond a posture of documenting and mourning?[34]

Part II: Fuzzy, Messy, Icky

I want now to offer some preliminary thoughts on what a fuzzy, messy, icky theorization of rape in the Hebrew Bible might look like. I have drawn on the work of four feminist thinkers: Donna Haraway, Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, and Meredith Minister.

Haraway: Refusing innocence

First, it is absolutely essential that a feminist response to sexual violence abandons the claim to an innocent critical position. As I have already suggested, one of the great weaknesses of consent discourses, and ways in which they break with feminist thought, is their assumption of a self-contained, self-controlled subject. Feminist critique has long decried this idea as at once naive and exclusionary, insisting, instead on what Haraway calls ‘situated knowledges.’[35] Crucial to the idea of situated knowledges is the insight that there is no master vantage point or innocent subject position from which the world can be judged. The critique of innocence also emerges in Haraway’s famous cyborg manifesto; the cyborg is a manifestly non-innocent being.[36]  In Haraway’s more recent work, this critique of innocence continues: ‘Acquiring knowledge is never innocent’, she writes in When Species Meet.[37] Elsewhere, I have argued that a hermeneutic of flourishing vis-a-vis the biblical text requires us to abandon claims to the position of innocence.[38]  Now I want to suggest that this is especially essential in the case of interpreting texts about sexual violence.

But what does this look like? Refusing the pose of innocence takes multiple forms (here, in imitation of Haraway, I offer a list):

  • Rejecting reductive historicizing oversimplifications, such as the suggestion that if women are not legal subjects with the ability to consent, then ‘unwanted sex’ is not rape
  • Resisting the temptation to claim the moral high ground in interpretation
  • Being wary of sloganeering applied to the past
  • Refusing stridency and seeking complexity
  • Allowing for the possibility of multiple, contradictory truths
  • Adopting a position of ‘Modest Witness’ (another expression borrowed from Haraway, this one from her study Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium:FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™)[39]
  • Keeping in mind that, as Haraway writes, ‘The familiar is always where the uncanny lurks.’[40]

Refusing innocence means embracing fuzziness, messiness, even ickiness.

Sedgwick: Avoiding paranoid reading positions

Related to the refusal of innocence is the effort to avoid paranoid reading positions. The notion of ‘paranoid reading’ comes from Sedgwick, in an essay entitled ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You’ (found in Touching Feeling).[41] Drawing on a thick diagnostic description of paranoia, Sedgwick argues that the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ – that cornerstone of so much feminist and queer work – has the same intrinsic structure as the paranoid subject position. Paranoid reading, like paranoia, is ‘anticipatory’, ‘reflexive and mimetic’, and a ‘strong theory’. It is centered on ‘negative affects’ and ‘places its face in exposure’. Sedgwick challenges the seeming monopoly that paranoid reading holds, and calls for it to be joined by ‘reparative reading’ open to contingency, pleasure, and play.

A hermeneutic of rape that takes as its starting point consent discourses and the binary theorization of consent/rape is a ‘strong theory’ that is also ‘strongly paranoid’. Sedgwick’s reading, which is grounded in queer but also feminist commitments, invites us to open up texts, even texts of sexual violence, to other ways of thinking. As Sedgwick writes, ‘for someone to have an unmystified view of systematic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences. To be other than paranoid … to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity or enmity or oppression.’[42]

This means, in the case of sexual violence and the Hebrew Bible, we can do more than simply compile lists of rapes, or lists of scholars who do not sufficiently acknowledge, or properly respond to, these rapes. (Here I’m thinking of certain tendencies in ‘call out’ and ‘clapback’ culture, which extend to certain scholarly forums, and which I think are in fact often unproductive, if sometimes viscerally satisfying.) A non-paranoid reading of sexual violence is a reading that’s open to fuzziness (paranoid readings, like paranoia, demand strong theories and eschew ambiguities of all sorts). It’s a reading practice that allows space for messiness. And it even gives us space to consider ickiness.[43]

Ahmed: Considering affect and contagion

In thinking about non-innocent, non-paranoid responses to sexual violence in and beyond biblical texts, I also think it’s vital to consider affect and affective contagion. In The Promise of Happiness, Ahmed describes how objects become affectively charged as good or bad objects; she further suggests that the ‘stickiness’ of affect means that this goodness or badness can be transmitted between objects.[44] Elsewhere, I have written about how institutional responses to sexual violence often inadvertently treat survivors as unhappy objects: ‘From the perspective of the prevention campaign, the survivor is an unhappy object because she reminds us that the campaign has failed’ to prevent a rape.[45] Survivors also become unhappy objects when their stories fail to conform to certain preordained narrative trajectories. Just as the woman who ‘overreacted’ to sexual violence was once scorned, in the present moment there is a criticism of survivors who fail to narrate their experiences properly (even as this demand is itself grounded in the imperative to ‘tell your story’). Here, I would note as well that the invitation to share stories can also become an imperative, and/or a compulsion.[46]

Centering affect, with a particular attention to its stickiness, ickiness, and messiness, helps open up the story of the rape of Tamar. Tamar is an unhappy object in multiple ways. This is immediately clear in Amnon’s reaction to her; after the rape, he is filled with loathing toward her. Tamar is also an unhappy object, though differently, to her brother Absalom; he rejects her desire to marry Amnon and by extension her narrative of the events, urging her instead to be silent and calm.[47]  Affective contagion also offers another model for thinking about the way that Tamar’s rape spreads bad feelings and trauma throughout David’s family, without reducing the story to a simplified ‘argument between men over a woman’. This is a move that both non-feminist and some feminist critics make, but that has the effect of hedging in the text and foreclosing other feminist and queer ways of thinking, while constraining Tamar to the exclusive position of victim. Of course, it’s messy, and a bit icky, to think about Tamar beyond the contours of what Trible calls ‘The Royal Rape of Wisdom’,[48] and yet it’s also necessary, I would suggest, if we are to find other feminist ways of being with these texts.

Minister: Allowing for compromised pleasures

A feminist and queer theorization of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible also needs to leave space for compromised pleasures. This is an idea I adapt from Meredith Minister and her work on ‘sex and alien encounter’. Drawing on the work of feminist science fiction pioneer Octavia Butler, Minister closely reads Butler’s descriptions of sexual encounters between aliens and non-alien beings. These include Butler’s novelette Bloodchild, in which benevolent aliens can reproduce only by gestating their eggs in humans (either women or men) and the Xenogenesis trilogy, in which another species of aliens engages in sex – not always fully consensually – with humans and eventually create a new hybrid species with them. Minister uses these stories to put pressure on received ideas of consent, autonomy, and ‘the bounds of the self’, offering a theory of ‘compromised pleasure’ that challenges us to ‘engage questions around language and communication, the bounds of the self and individual autonomy, and the nature of pleasure.’[49] This touches on both communication and consent.

First, while consent discourses typically emphasize the verbal,[50] Minister notes the challenges that Butler’s fictions pose to this norm. The aliens in Xenogenesis communicate primarily through touch; in another of Butler’s works, ‘Amnesty’, communication occurs through light. Minister uses this to explore a response to sexual violence that doesn’t depend upon ability.

Second, consent. Minister writes,

I hesitate to use the word consensual … to describe the human-alien encounters in the Xenogenesis series, ‘Bloodchild,’ or ‘Amnesty.’ Butler, however, does consistently describe these encounters as pleasurable. And the pleasure of these encounters between humans and aliens often exceeds the pleasures of sexual encounters between humans. While the compromised nature of communication and the lack of clearly definable individual boundaries do not excuse the overt forms of violence sometimes exerted by the aliens against the humans, it can help explain why the encounters between the humans and aliens can be described as both coercive and pleasurable.

Minister further suggests using Butler’s work to open up conversations about sexual violence and sexual pleasure that move beyond the liberal model of the subject and the binary formulation of consent/rape.

Applied to the biblical rape texts, Minister’s work directs our attention to alterity. We find this in the Dinah story — as postcolonial analysis shows, Dinah and her family are literally aliens in the land. As many feminist critics have pointed out, we do not know how Dinah responds to the rape; at least one midrash speculates that Dinah enjoys Shechem so much that she has to be forcibly removed from his home. While most modern readers, including nearly all my students, find this suggestion repulsive,[51] Minister’s theorization of sex and alien encounter opens a space to consider it, and the question of pleasure more broadly, without the sort of romanticizing rape erasure that The Red Tent undertakes. We might think similarly, if carefully, about Tamar, or about the various ‘non-rape’ arranged marriages in Genesis and the Deuteronomistic History.

Alien encounter and compromised pleasure might even offer a way to think about sexual violence in the Prophets. Scholars have long struggled with the sexual violence levied against metaphorical, gynomorphic bodies in the Prophets, such as the feminized Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16 and the sisters Oholah and Oholibah in Ezekiel 23. While these are stories of rape, there is also a current of eroticism and erotic play — not in the text, but in its reception by and among at least some readers, as queer scholarship has pointed out. Minister’s Butler-inflected theory of compromised pleasure offers a way to describe and understand complex hermeneutical responses to a text such as Ezekiel 23 without reducing its sexual violence to a joke (as, for example, in Stuart Macwilliam’s illuminating but occasionally discomfiting camp reading, or Roland Boer’s jokey, insistently masculinist readings.[52]) This is a messy reading, even perhaps an icky one (Minister herself writes ‘I hesitate to use the word consensual…’), but it also opens new possibilities.

Conclusion: Don’t stop imagining a world without rape

Rape and rape culture remain challenging and sometimes heartbreaking matters, in the biblical texts and even more so, in the world. In pushing back against consent discourses, my aim has been not to reject consent itself, which plays an important role in contemporary understandings of sexual encounter and sexual violence, but to summon us as feminists to think beyond the limitations of consent. Consent discourses flatten and erase the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky. They impose anachronistic and, more importantly, anti-feminist notions of the liberal subject on to ancient texts. They ignore discomfort and subtle forms of coercion. They neglect race, ethnicity, and other questions of intersectionality, and risk slipping into a colonialist project of saving women. They legitimize subordination. And they set too low a bar, foreclosing questions of pleasure.

And yet we also have alternatives. Haraway, Sedgwick, Ahmed, Minister and Butler all provide resources for thinking differently about sexual violence, in the text and in the world. I have begun to sketch what this might look like in a few select biblical texts, but there is still much more to be explored. Phyllis Trible often employs the image of wrestling with the text, using Jacob and the angel as a metaphor for the work of feminist criticism. I want to end with a quote from another wrestling angel, this one from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: ‘The great work begins.’[53]

[1] I have also written about these topics in Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Critiquing the Discourse of Consent’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33/1 (April 12, 2017): 175–76; Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, Teaching Theology & Religion 20/1 (2017): 70–88; Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Good Intentions Are Not Enough: A Feminist Critique of Responses to Rape Culture’, in Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements, ed. Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[2] As Schulman writes, ‘we do not always know what we feel’. See, Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). The complexity of response is also analysed by Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017).

[3] Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e), 2015).

[4] Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines; Rebecca Traister, ‘The Game Is Rigged: Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It.’, The Cut, October 20, 2015,

[5] Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines;  Kindle Locations 2338-2340.

[6] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010).

[7] This image of consent as ‘like a traffic signal’ is increasingly common. See, for example,  Red-Light, Green-Light consent games have been organized at universities such as George Washington University, the University of Calgary, and Washington State University. Grigoriadis provides a description and analysis in Blurred Lines (the scene below takes place at Columbia University): ‘[Suzanne] Goldberg began a monologue about Columbia’s new sexual-assault policies, then added, “It’s hard for most people to navigate sexual relationships, and particularly challenging for young adults.” She clicked on her computer screen to show me a poster hanging in undergraduate dorms with red, yellow, and green lights. Red means stop—someone is drunk, asleep, or passed out, or one person doesn’t want to have sex. Yellow is pause—mixed signals. Green—a mutual decision has been made about how far to go and “all partners are excited and enthusiastic!”…In the moment, on a mattress, students may not interpret signs and signals as easily as Columbia’s Suzanne Goldberg, promoter of the traffic light, imagines. Kimberly Ferzan from the University of Virginia put it this way: “Reformers say, ‘What’s the big deal, you stay at the red light until you’re sure you have the green,’” she explained in a lecture. “But that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is that you have to think of our population reaching the level of red-green colorblindness where we can no longer rely on red and green lights, and so we decide we’re going to change the rules and have orange and purple. All of a sudden it’s orange and purple, and you think, I don’t know what that means, does it mean stay or should I go?’ (Blurred Lines, Kindle Locations 2413-2417; 2779-2784).  In 1993, the US Navy used a similar strategy (based on traffic signals) in an attempt to address sexual harassment.

[8] I will draw on work by a number of feminist theorists, as well as some of my own writing in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Teaching Theology and Religion, and the forthcoming volume Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements. I also recommend Meredith Minister’s forthcoming monograph Rape Culture on Campus, which covers some of this ground, in greater and more sensitive detail.

[9] As Donna Haraway wrote already in the 1980s, ‘Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges’. See her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 2001), 188.

[10] Robert Kawashima, for example, argues that because women who were raped in ancient Israel cannot ‘constitute victims of a legally prosecutable crime’, what happens to them is not actually rape. For Kawashima, interpreting ancient laws requires ‘reconstruct[ing] this episteme, that is, the legal concepts and principles operating in ancient Israel.’ This reconstruction leads to the conclusion that ‘If I [Kawashima] am correct, this verb should never be translated as “rape,” as it often is. Inasmuch as biblical legal thought recognized the basic personhood of all people, neither women nor girls could ever be reduced to pure objects. But neither did it recognize them as full subjects, and so they could never constitute victims of a legally prosecutable crime.’ Robert S. Kawashima, ‘Could a Woman Say “No” in Biblical Israel? On the Genealogy of Legal Status in Biblical Law and Literature’, AJS Review 35/1 (2011): 1–22, 2; pp. 2-3, note 4. Kawashima is hardly alone in this finding; Susanne Scholz has tracked a similar tendency in a wide range of scholarship on biblical and ancient Near Eastern laws — what I, and she, would call ‘rape laws’. See Scholz, “‘Back then it was legal”: The epistemological imbalance in readings of biblical and ancient Near Eastern rape legislation,’ The Bible and Critical Theory, Vol. 1/4, 2005. pp.36.1–36.22.

[11] Goldberg’s comments were widely covered in the media; for example Maev Kennedy, ‘Polanski Was Not Guilty of “Rape-Rape”, Says Whoopi Goldberg,’ The Guardian, September 29, 2009, sec. Film,; Lindsay Robertson, ‘Whoopi On Roman Polanski: It Wasn’t “Rape-Rape,’” accessed June 15, 2018,

[12] Ahmed also specifically describes this situation as ‘messy’: ‘Tangles are messy, and accounts of the social will thus need to be messy in turn’ (Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 56).

[13] Roxane Gay, ed., Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (Harper, 2018); Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines.

[14] There are a number of other troubling details in the story that suggest the presence of not just rape, but rape culture. Amnon is known to Tamar, making this a clear account not just of rape, but of acquaintance rape, as Susanne Scholz draws out. Amnon entraps Tamar, through a plan (pretending to be ill) that he has devised with his friend Jonadab — a clear example of the toxic masculinity described by contemporary accounts of rape culture. (See also Gerald O. West, ‘The contribution of Tamar’s story to the construction of alternative African masculinities’, Bodies, embodiment, and theology of the Hebrew Bible (2010): 184-200. The rape also causes a crisis in the family; David refuses to act because he loves Amnon; Amnon is eventually killed by Absalom, Tamar’s full brother (and his own half brother). Cynthia Chapman analyses this detail as indicating the significance of the uterine family and ‘house of the mother’ in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel. See her The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Yale University Press, 2016).

[15] Ahmed, Willful Subjects, p.55.

[16] For example, Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Fortress Press, 1984), Charlene van der Walt, ‘Hearing Tamar’s Voice—How the Margin Hears Differently: Contextual Readings of 2 Samuel 13.1-22’, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles I: Texts@ Contexts 1 (2016): 3, Denise Ackermann, Tamar’s Cry: Re-Reading an Ancient Text in the Midst of an HIV/AIDS Pandemic (CIIR, 2002), Diane Jacobson, ‘Remembering Tamar’, Word and World 24 (2004): 353–357. Note also the use of ‘Tamar’ as signifier in e.g., Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Fortress Press, 2012),  S. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, ‘Daughters of Tamar: Pastoral Care for Survivors of Rape’, Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care, 1996, 222, and the South African Tamar campaign (Gerald O. West and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, ‘The Bible Story That Became a Campaign: The Tamar Campaign in South Africa (and Beyond)’, Ministerial Formation, 2004, 5.

[17] Samuel L. Gaertner, John F. Dovidio, and Gary Johnson, ‘Race of Victim, Nonresponsive Bystanders, and Helping Behavior’, The Journal of Social Psychology 117/1 (June 1, 1982): 69–77; Christine A. Gidycz, Lindsay M. Orchowski, and Alan D. Berkowitz, ‘Preventing Sexual Aggression among College Men: An Evaluation of a Social Norms and Bystander Intervention Program’, Violence against Women, 2011; Sidney Bennett, Victoria L. Banyard, and Lydia Garnhart, ‘To Act or Not to Act, That Is the Question? Barriers and Facilitators of Bystander Intervention’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2013.

[18] Meredith Minister, ‘Sex and Alien Encounter: Rethinking Consent as a Rape Prevention Strategy’, in Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements, ed. Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[19] See e.g. Maria Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000); Lisa Lindquist Dorr, White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Crystal Nicole Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[20] Already in the nineteenth century, Ida B. Wells described the ways in which the fear of rape of white women was used to justify the lynching of black men. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2014); originally published as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (New York: New York Age Print, 1892); A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892-1893-1894 (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1895); Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death (Chicago: Ida B. Wells, 1900).

[21] Musa W. Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone: Shall Our Sister Be Treated like a Whore?’, in Feminist Frameworks and the Bible: Power, Ambiguity, and Intersectionality, ed. L. Juliana Claassens and Carolyn J. Sharp (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 39–58, 51.

[22] Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, 50.

[23] J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives, JSOT Supp 163 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993).

[24] Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, 51.

[25] The reference is to Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel The City always Wins (New York: Macmillan, 2017), about the failed Cairo revolution.

[26] It has been argued that consent is a conservative notion that promotes ‘dominance feminism’. As Janet Halley argues, ‘affirmative consent’ is fundamentally conservative, in a way that opposes radical feminist ideals while insisting on a model in which ‘male domination and female subordination become the structure underlying all of social life’. Halley argues that affirmative consent policies create ‘repressive and sex-negative’ norms around sex while ‘install[ing] traditional social norms of male responsibility and female helplessness. See Janet Halley, ‘The Move to Affirmative Consent’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42/1 (2016): 258 n4.

2 Halley, 259. Halley concludes, ‘Affirmative consent requirements don’t deserve their progressive reputation, and the many progressives and leftists (including those scholars and activists who have no indebtedness to the dominance framework) who support it should, I think, give their support a second thought’ (278).

[27] Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[28] See further Graybill, ‘Good Intentions are Not Enough’.

[29] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press), 93; reprinted from C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1988, 271-313.

[30] I have explore the risks of ‘saving’ biblical women in Rhiannon Graybill, ‘No Child Left Behind: Reading Jephthah’s Daughter with The Babylon Complex’, The Bible & Critical Theory 11/2 (2015): 36–50.

[31] Graybill, ‘Critiquing the Discourse of Consent’.

[32] Kelly Oliver, ‘Party Rape, “Nonconsensual Sex,” and Affirmative Consent Policies’, Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2015, Volume 14/2, p. 7. The quote continues: ‘As Lise Gotell argues, “even when framed through an ‘only yes means yes’ standard, consent is not a measure of whether a woman desires sex but, instead, whether she accedes. Consent thus functions as a sign of subordination (that is, subordination to another’s power) and a means of its legitimation” (372). In this regard, affirmative consent reinforces the stereotypical notion of active masculine agency and reactive feminine agency wherein the woman’s power to choose is circumscribed within the very limited confines of consenting to let someone do something to her.’

[33] Rebecca Trainer, ‘Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It’, The Cut, October 20, 2015,; accessed Dec. 2, 12017.

[34] This is a question I have explored elsewhere in my work, with other difficult texts or ‘texts of terror’ — using horror film to read the marriage metaphor in Hosea and Lee Edelman’s work on reproductive futurism to read Jephthah’s daughter. Now I want to explore with you how else we might read these stories.

[35] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 188.

[36] Haraway writes, ‘Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of a community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust….’ Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 151.

[37] Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 70.

[38] Rhiannon Graybill, ‘When Bodies Meet: Fraught Companionship and Entangled Embodiment in Jeremiah’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, forthcoming.

[39] Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[40] Haraway, When Species Meet, 46.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, ed. Adam Frank, Series Q (Duke University Press, 2003), 123–52.

[42] Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’, 128.

[43] The ickiness of non-paranoid reading, particularly with reference to racism, has been explored by Jennifer Knust in her affect-centered response to the curse of Ham: ‘Who’s Afraid of Canaan’s Curse? Genesis 9:18-29 and the Challenge of Reparative Reading’, Biblical Interpretation 22/4–5 (2014): 388–413.

[44] Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness.

[45] Graybill in Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, 74.

[46] I explore this point in greater detail in my contribution to Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, 72-73.

[47] Here Ahmed’s work on queer trajectories, set forth in Queer Phenomenology, is useful as well. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, First Edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2006).

[48] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror.

[49] Minister, ‘Sex and Alien Encounter’, in Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[50] For example, defines consent as ‘Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games’,

[51] Another possibility is reading this story as s/m, as Lena Salaymeh suggests (personal communication). To my knowledge, this reading has not been explored in biblical studies.

[52] Stuart Macwilliam, Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, BibleWorld (Sheffield, UK; Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2011); e.g., Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible: Fleshly Readings of Sex, Masculinity, and Carnality, BibleWorld (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[53] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Revised and Complete Edition, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013). ‘The great work begins’ is uttered by the Angel to Prior, the ‘prophet’, at multiple points in the work; it is the last line of the first play, Millennium Approaches.

Tags : colonialismConsentDinahDonna HarawayEve SedgwickMeredith MinisterMusa DubeRape CultureReligion and Rape Culture conferenceSara AhmedTamar

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