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Sex and Politics

Wednesday, 7 November 2012  | Barbara Deutschmann

Words like “misogyny” don’t often make it to the front page of newspapers. Sexism in Australian politics is an extraordinary topic for successive days’ news. Yet we have recently seen the Prime Minister Julia Gillard give a spirited denunciation in parliament of Tony Abbott’s sexist language and his wife’s equally spirited defense. While noting the irony of the adoring wife being rallied to counter the affects of a clearly sexist attitude, many of us cheered the arrival to front stage of an impassioned debate about what makes responsible attitudes to women in our elected leaders.

In the background was the simmering horror of the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Brunswick and community questioning about whether we do have a rape culture. While a simple straight line cannot be drawn between sexism in politics and the violent rape of a young woman, each bears witness to distorted gender relationships shaped by cultural norms and expectations. 

More than ten thousand people, men and women, marched to honour Jill Meagher on September 30. The march was peaceful and respectful and supported by police. In 1977, a similar spontaneous march occurred as a response to the murders of Suzanne Armstrong and Susan Bartlett in Easey Street, Collingwood. There were only a few hundred people, mainly women, many angry. The march was not supported by authorities. The context was vastly different. In 1977, rape was still legal in marriage. Past sexual history was admissible evidence in a rape trial for the very few cases which made it to court. There is no doubt that social context influences community reactions. While recognising that we have a long way to go before sexism is nullified, we can be glad of progress made in the relatively short time since 1977.  

While any murder is shocking, there is something horrifying about a murderous rape. It brings together two things that ought to be as far away from each other as night and day: sexual intimacy between two people and physical violence of one to another. What is the nexus between sex and violence? What brings them together into this inexplicable entanglement? What makes violence sexy, and sexuality, violent? The theme is a common one in the porn industry where choking, gagging and spanking are common. In the vast majority of porn films, women are the object of these actions.  

Places of war or civil unrest notoriously become dangerous places for women when one form of permissible violence spills over into another. Women of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia experienced huge rates of sexual violence during their long civil wars. Rape became a weapon of war to destroy morale and erode community. The rapes carried a wider meaning than just attacks on isolated women by sexually deprived men.

The rape stories recounted in the bible are part of bigger narratives of civil disruption. Each of them, the stories of Dinah, the Levite’s concubine and Tamar, are recounted in times of dislocation, when Israel’s character was under trial, times of insecure leadership and geographic liminality. In each of them, the victim fades from the story, silenced and unvindicated. What disturbs many readers, including Christians, is the lack of a clear divine voice thoroughly denouncing the behavior and upholding the women. The women fade from the scene, in one case through death and in others, in shame. Could it be true that our bible contributes in this way to the rape culture that exists in Australia? Where is the eleventh commandment denouncing sexual violence? 

The Bible tells its story in many different ways and to expect it to speak in lists of aphorisms like a kind of levantine Thoughts of Chairman Mao, is to miss the subtlety and beauty of its teaching style. In the Tamar rape story in 2 Samuel 13, for instance, the narrator’s horror is conveyed through the repeated naming of the relationship of one character to another, “my sister Tamar”, “her brother Amnon”. This was a family affair and sexualized families are always abusive and oppressive. Tamar is thoroughly abandoned by the men in her family. Her father, brother and half-brother all collude, wittingly or unwittingly in her rape. The rape is described in crude verbs, expressing her lack of consent. Amnon “laid” her (v14). This is no ordinary family. It is the royal family, offspring of the anointed king David. To Tamar is given the voice of faithful obedience which ought to have been modeled by the king: “Such a thing should not be done in Israel. Don’t do this wicked thing!” Only Tamar named the evil about to take place. Then she is silenced. Three times we are told that they did not listen to her (vv14,16, 20). 

To this whisper of condemnation from the narrator, we can add other scriptural voices. The bible shows Israel with a capacity for self-critique. Prophets emerged from Israel’s ranks to condemn exploitation of the weak, including widows. The book of Psalms shows a sophisticated self-reflection on the part of Israel. Perhaps, as some suggest, Psalm 55 is the reflection of a rape victim whose anguish takes some solace from the fact that the Lord will “bring down the wicked”.

Christians don’t leave their gaze on the Old Testament. They are bound to view it all from the perspective of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. This body was broken not for revenge and destruction but for healing, renewal and restoration. Through this broken body, we are made one body and the hostility between male and female, is broken down. The bible shows a movement toward liberation and restoration only faintly traced in those Old Testament texts. In Ephesians 5, we see the final word on crimes of violence against women:  “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church—“                                    

Care of bodies, care of persons, including men and women, should image the way that God loves, feeds and cares for his own body, the new people of God. Christians must add their voices to the groundswell that condemns violence against women.

Barbara Deutschmann
is the coordinator of Dhumba, the Indigenous Support Program of TEAR Australia.



Peter Bentley
December 19, 2012, 4:15PM
Thank you Barbara for an excellent and succinct account of the issues and history, intertwined with a theological and pastoral framework. Your comments on pornography and violence against women are also confirmed in books like "Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry". This book clearly shows the connection and related problems and issues that are developing.

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