A nation of Potiphar’s wives

In recent years, a reactionary discourse on rape has infected our political discourse. While American attitudes and practices on this issue have always been alarmingly inclined to naturalize men’s violent impulses and blame the victim whenever possible, the new wave of rape discourse inaugurated by Tea Party political candidates has in many ways taken things to the next level. What strikes me about these rape apologists is the fact that they’re clearly haunted by the possibility that a woman will falsely accuse them of rape — at which point their lives will surely be ruined as they’re hounded into prison and out of polite society.

In reality, any woman charging a man with rape faces an uphill battle, in which the trial is sure to devolve into a ritual public shaming of the victim for any sexual indiscretion — indeed any sexual desire — the defense can dig up in her past. As such, many victims choose not to press charges. Given these realities, the notion that anyone would make up a spurious rape charge as a way to persecute a man strains credulity. Of course, we’re dealing with people who create their own imaginary reality based on their insecurities and resentments, so the actual statistics have limited relevance for them in any case.

I was initially willing to entertain the possibility that the kind of false rape accusation they’re envisioning had literally never happened even once, but then my mind wandered to a famous biblical example: Potiphar’s wife. In this story, Joseph has become something like the chief butler of an important Egyptian official, Potiphar. His master’s wife takes a liking to him and tries to seduce him. When the righteous Joseph refuses and runs off, she takes the opportunity to accuse him of attempted rape — at which point he winds up in jail.

This kind of situation has surely played itself out countless times. Indeed, in the post-Reconstruction South, such spurious accusations frequently led to mob violence against innocent black men, culminating in brutal murder. The key, though, is that the woman has to have a markedly higher social standing than the accused man. And that’s the secret presupposition behind this new rape apologism: they imagine that all women are of a higher social standing than men, just as they imagine that racial minorities have a huge advantage over whites. Again, in reality this is clearly not the case — but women and minorities have increased their share of power, and for these entitled white men, losing even a small part of their comparative advantage is tantamount to being enslaved or sent to a concentration camp.

What’s interesting to me is that their pathetic rhetoric reveals that, deep down, they understand what the historical nature of white patriarchy has been. When they imagine that other groups are seizing power from them, they immediately conclude that they’re going to take advantage of their power to cover up sexual misconduct and smear the victim, or corruptly gain positions of power through favoritism, or subject their inferiors to arbitrary persecution and violence. You get the feeling that they almost want it — that they want to be assured that the others are just as bad, that this is how power always and only works. For them, the notion that women and minorities mostly just want to live their lives is a rebuke in itself, a testimony to the fact that dignity does not always imply degradation, that power doesn’t have to be zero-sum.

If we really can “all just get along,” then the crimes of white patriarchy seem all the more gratuitous — meaning that the cries of the white patriarchs for their just punishment will continue to grow all the more urgent and desperate, even as they come out in twisted ways.

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6 Responses to “A nation of Potiphar’s wives”

  1. Adam Roberts Says:

    Also: Hippolytus. Euripides play of that title is all about this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolytus_(son_of_Theseus)

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes — it was probably Ovid’s account of Hippolytus that reminded me of the Potiphar’s wife story.

  3. Matt Says:

    I have to wonder how much longstanding ideas of magic and witchcraft, and their association with the feminine, also play a role here. Patriarchy has a way of constructing for women a kind of power that is otherworldly, incomprehensible, and ultimately sinister. The current Specter of Rape seems like a post-enlightenment manifestation of this same phenomenon.

  4. gerrycanavan Says:

    I’ve been struck lately by just how many advocates of “merit,” “individual responsibility,” and “the market” were the direct beneficiaries of laws that *explicitly* excluded women and minorities from equal participation in markets. A 65-year-old retiree this year was born in 1948; they graduated from high school in 1966. How dare they, basically? It’s obscene.

  5. gerrycanavan Says:

    The lower intensity version of what Matt mentions is those men who insist that their wives really run the household, and that he’s so lucky to have her despite his obvious worthlessness, etc.

  6. Stephen Keating Says:

    There are other Biblical texts that implement this trope of the predatory woman, especially Proverbs 7. Conservative Christian discourse around sexual purity makes great use of these narratives to warn young men to guard themselves against women.


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