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How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault

David seducing Bathsheba, Anonymous.

How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault

David seducing Bathsheba, Anonymous.

A retiring judge recently faced accusations of victim blaming when she used her final courtroom case as a plea to women to “protect themselves” from rapists by staying sober. Judge Lindsey Kushner restated these views in a television interview on Good Morning Britain, asking, “why shouldn’t you say – be aware ladies?”

Kushner’s comments were met with a mixed response. Some praised her for using her final speech before stepping down from the bench as a gesture of concern and warning to women who, she believes, make themselves more vulnerable to rape after consuming alcohol. Others, including representatives from Rape Crisis and some feminist activists, see these comments as acutely dangerous – comments that encourage and affirm attitudes of victim-blaming which, in turn, perpetuate the stereotypes that underpin rape culture.

Unfortunately, Kushner is far from the only judge in a sexual assault case to comment on the “irresponsible” or “provocative” behaviour of women and girls.

Biblical attitudes to rape

As a deeply influential cultural document, the Bible has a lot to say when it comes to attitudes around sex, shame and gender identity. Rape is endemic in the Bible (both literally and metaphorically) and, more often than not, functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.

Bathsheba at her Bath, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari (1680).

For example, David’s rape of Bathsheba is echoed in his son Amnon’s rape of half-sister Tamar, and his son Absalom’s rape of David’s ten concubines. And in Judges 21, the Benjaminites are “saved from extinction” through the mass rape of women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh.

A common thread in the biblical text is that women are responsible for maintaining their sexual “purity”. This is not in the interests of their own well-being, but to ensure that as male property, women remain “undamaged”. This seems to be a no-win situation. The consequence for Dinah, who transgresses social boundaries by going “out to meet the women of the land”, is rape. Women who do fulfil feminine ideals, such as Bathsheba, who is described as “very beautiful”, tend to attract negative, often violent, male sexual attention.

In other words, one way or another, women are constantly implicitly blamed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, for their rape.

To blame for one’s beauty

A case in point is another “very beautiful” biblical woman, Susanna. Susanna is the subject of an attempted rape by two elders, who spy on her while she’s bathing before conspiring to coerce her into sex:

Look the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.

In the biblical text, Susanna’s beauty is to blame for attracting the attentions of the elders. In a plotline that’s echoed in today’s court rooms, Susanna’s testimony isn’t believed and her sexual conduct is brought into question. It takes a man, Daniel, to advocate for her and to rescue her from execution after she refuses the elders’ offer.

In his successful defence of her and condemnation of the elders, Daniel says: “Beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart.” Here, as so often in contemporary society, rape and sexual assault are linked to the attractiveness of women rather than a violent crime of power and control. Even in art, Susanna is implicitly blamed for being targeted. As the critic John Berger has observed, Susanna, like Bathsheba, is often depicted looking at herself in a mirror while she’s bathing:

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralising, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto (1555).

Kushner’s words continue this not-so-grand tradition of victim blaming. Kushner suggests that women who do not exhibit “disinhibited behaviour” by abstaining from alcohol are better able to fight off men with “evil intentions”. What is key here is that moderating women’s behaviour does not do anything to address the issue of rape or dismantle rape culture. It just shifts the collective social responsibility to prevent rape and sexual assault to that of individual women.

Women who do not agree to self-police are blamed for others’ actions. What Kushner is giving isn’t “just advice” or “common sense”; it reduces rape to a choice: choose for someone else to be targeted for attack rather than yourself.

Rather than continuing to judge women for their behaviour, perhaps it’s time we started to judge a society that blames women for rape.