Stop Using This Biblical Story to Discredit Survivors of Sexual Assault

I’m not going to lie. Being on social media during the shameful circus of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process was awful. As a survivor and as someone who talks about sexual assault all day in my career, I was exhausted by the victim-blaming tweets and posts that flooded my timelines.

Some of these messages were the standard drivel that I’m used to hearing: comments about Dr. Ford’s mental stability, political motivations, promiscuity, alcohol use, etc. But some people got creative and reached all the way back to the Torah — specifically, the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife — to find a reason to discredit Dr. Ford and other survivors.

If you’re not familiar with this Torah story (or you haven’t seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in a while), allow me to explain. When Joseph was a servant in the household of a powerful Egyptian official, Potiphar, he was approached by Potiphar’s wife, who repeatedly tried to coerce Joseph into having sex with her. Day after day, Joseph refused her. One day, she grabbed him by his clothes and tried to force him to have sex with her. He had to flee the house to escape. Later, Potiphar’s wife told her husband that Joseph had tried to rape her. And of course, Joseph was locked away in prison, falsely accused of sexual assault.

Many people use this story as righteous, divine evidence against the #MeToo movement, claiming that women lie about rape and shouldn’t automatically be believed. But the fact is that survivors — women and people of all gender identities — do not frequently lie about rape, with the rate of false reports being as low as 2%.

The story of Potiphar’s wife fills victim-blamers with glee because they think they’ve found irrefutable proof that their problematic rapist faves are innocent. Not only is this asinine, but there are some scholars who think that the story of Potiphar’s wife actually reveals more about the mindset of the male-dominated society of the time than it does about the tendency of women to make false rape claims.

Alan Dundes, a controversial folklorist who died in 2005, described the “Potiphar’s Wife motif” in the Journal of American Folklore as “projective inversion,” meaning the justification of sexual violence by the false claim that the victim was the one who committed the crime against the perpetrator. Interestingly, Dundes has also applied the theory of projective inversion to anti-Semitic tropes in folklore.

According to Dundes, stories that follow the Potiphar’s Wife motif often feature women who are both unfaithful and sexually aggressive. When we read these tales, Dundes challenges us to seek out the latent meaning behind what we’re told.

A quick glance at Chabad’s articles on Potiphar’s wife shows how our culture — and particularly, conservative religious cultures — have a limited understanding of what sexual assault really is. With headlines like “Desperate Egyptian Housewives” and “How Joseph Avoided Sin,” we are taught to remember Potiphar’s wife as a hyper-sexualized seductress, not as a creepy perpetrator.

But it’s important for us to remember that Potiphar’s wife didn’t just lie about being raped — she was a rapist. She wasn’t lustful, and Joseph was not being “tempted.” Joseph is remembered not as a survivor of sexual violence, but as a man who honored God by refusing to allow himself to be sexually assaulted. That’s seriously effed up.

In Colorado, the state where I live, Potiphar’s wife wouldn’t be arrested because she lied about being raped. But her actions — trying to coerce someone into sex, using physical force to get someone to have sex with her, and threatening to ruin someone’s life with a false report if they didn’t have sex with her — all fall under the legal definition of sexual assault.

Why aren’t we taught about Potiphar’s wife from this perspective? Why do we find it easier to praise Joseph for “resisting temptation” when he would have been a victim of sexual assault whether he had escaped or not? It’s because our culture has a hard time believing victims.

After seeing her Twitter thread about the subject, I reached out to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who encouraged readers of this tale to not focus on the false rape claim, but to ask themselves, “Where is the locus of power?” Rabbi Ruttenberg believes that by examining the unequal power dynamics at play here — Joseph was an enslaved foreigner in the employ of a powerful woman — we can learn a lot about sexual assault.

Potiphar’s wife didn’t try to assault Joseph because she wanted to have sex with a handsome hunk. Sexual assault is not about sexual attraction (most men who assault other men identify as heterosexual), but it’s about having power over someone, and expressing anger towards them.

Imagine if someone was a sexual assault survivor and their rabbi said Joseph’s virtue lay in his ability to fight off a sexual assault. They might blame themselves or feel a deep sense of shame for not being able to fight off their own attacker. But imagine if this rabbi validated Joseph as a survivor and said that it was not his fault for being abused by someone who possessed infinitely more power than he did. That might be critical to that person’s healing.

Whether you believe it’s true or not, the story of Potiphar’s wife offers us a way into understanding sexual assault and power dynamics, but only if we center the story around survivors and their pain.

Header image via Wikipedia 

Nylah Burton

Nylah Burton is a writer of good journalism and mediocre poetry. She has been described by racists and anti-Semites as “emotional, disrespectful, and volatile.” She thinks this is the best review of her writing she’s ever received. Her grandma has it on the Fridgidaire.

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