On heavy and hairy virgins

White_ribbonIn an amazing confluence of Lenten disciplines, my reading of Elaine Pagels (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) and my participation in Lent Madness (though this is not really a discipline, it is just good fun) have led me to reflect on sexuality. Yay for Lent! A brief summary of what led me here:

A few weeks back, St. Lucy, a virgin martyr, was matched up against John the Baptist (in a stunning upset, in spite of a smidgen of voter fraud and a good deal of umbrage, she tackled the man who prepared the way). The most delightful (yet truly horrific) part of Lucy’s myth (I leave you to learn more about her story) is that as the guards came to take her away to be defiled in a brothel, the Holy Spirit so filled her that she was too heavy to be moved. So heavy, in fact, that even a team of oxen could not make her budge. Somehow she was finally moved but in the meantime her prosecutors decided not to have her raped first but to simply execute her.

Last week, I learned about Agnes of Rome who also was a virgin who was a victim of the Diocletian persecution. Also, like Lucy, prior to her martyrdom, she was to be defiled in a brothel. On the way to the brothel, as she prayed, hair grew all over her body thus clothing her. Upon arriving at the brothel, anyone who tried to rape her was struck blind, thus protecting her virtue. Again, the assailants tire of the effort and finally decide to lead her straightway to her execution.

Both of these stories (with all their brutality) raised important questions to me about gender and sexuality. I outline here some (yet to be fully developed) thoughts. I appreciate any insight that you may have to offer.

  1. What are we communicating by venerating victims of sexual assault and gender based violence? How do we share our story in such a way that it does not valorize subjecting oneself to abuse. This is a vital issue–the host of the Oscars and The Onion reminded us that violent sexism is alive and rampant.  The  vote to renew and update the Violence Against Women Act passed the Senate with moderate resistance and the GOP in the House is working to eliminate provisions that protect certain groups of women (so those women deserve to be abused?). How can we ensure that the church is not part of the problem (which sadly, too often, it is)?
  2. How exactly does it work that a woman loses her virtue when she is victimized? The logic here seems incredibly backward. The myths implicitly accept this framing in their explicit demonstration that God miraculously protected the women’s virtue. The stories in all their strangeness led me to question the logic yet I know that even still today this is commonly how the issue is framed (hello honor killings and massive wartime rape).
  3. Why are female virgins lifted up as examples? How many male saints are notable because of their sexual purity? What is the message we are sending here? Some earlier female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, are both sexually active and have families. Their story is still frightfully horrific. How did other types of Christianity in the 2nd-4th century deal with sexuality?
  4. Finally, the issue of body image in these texts is noteworthy. As I was tweeting I playfully (and perhaps too irreverently?) referred to Lucy as “the heavy” and Agnes as the “hairy preteen virgin martyr.” As I tweeted I realized that these epithets tapped into two current struggles that women may have when it comes to body image (Did that stop me? No. Should it have? Maybe.). Do the stories today reinforce unhealthy conceptions about the ideal woman’s body? Is this an older problem than I had previously realized?

So there you have it, my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours!

9 Comments

Filed under culture, feminist interpretation, justice, politics, religion

9 responses to “On heavy and hairy virgins

  1. Julie Zdenek

    Hmm… I’m going to have to think about this one. If those stories are true, what does that say about a God who protects a woman from rape, but allows her execution.

  2. Dou Morrow

    To me, this is linked to the “madonna / whore” preconception. I don’t think it has any thing to do with veneration of victims of sexual assault. Lucy and Agnes were definitely victims of persecution and violence, but managed to maintain their madonna-like purity with the help of divine intervention.

    To open up a can of worms, note the recent legislation in Indiana, proposing to shame sexually active women who seek early, non-surgical abortions with not one, but two, completely unnecessary, state-mandated, transvaginal ultrasounds.

    It could be theorized then, that a way for a female to redeem herself from lapsed “purity” is to become a mother. Thus, the veneration of Perpetua and Felicitas.

    The message being promoted is the classic double standard, still alive and well in our society.

    • Thanks for this Doug. I think you are right to point to the cult of the virgin as key interpretive piece. I am looking a bit further into it, but it is curious to me that the cult of the virgin emerged in full force in the 4th and 5th centuries, after Christianity received official recognition. These martyr stories come from that same time period (even though they were persecuted under Diocletian, the accounts of their martyrdom come from the 5th century). I want to explore it further, but I wonder what role this improved social standing (from persecuted minority to government sanctioned religion) in their understanding of sexuality. I have a lot of work to do to connect the dots… but I think there may be something there.

      As to the question around violence against women, you are probably right that these texts have a different agenda. The problem I see is that Christianity’s earliest ethic was one of self sacrifice and this has been used throughout history to encourage people to subject themselves to abuse. These stories are part of a larger narrative that glorifies victims. And I think this could be problematic.

  3. Mary Ann McDowell

    I wonder if we truly vererated the victims of sexual assault, would our society view their attackers differently?

    We should venerate those women – and yet, we blame them. There are many modern-day martyrs of sexual assault who will never be venerated.

  4. In another “confluence” (aka “movement of the Holy Spirit), I am following Lent Madness, taking Education for Ministry, recently visited the Duke Divinity book store, and graduated from UNC. How are these connected you may ask? At Duke I bought “The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response, 2nd Ed.” I bought it because I was really struggling in my EfM class through the Hebrew Scripture books of “history” with all the rape, murder, and war. However, it was just lying on a stack of books until I read about the honor court charge brought against Landon Gambill, UNC student and “alleged” sexual assault victim. I spoke with a friend of mine who had been involved in her case. As she recounted the numerous instances of not only insensitivity, but out-and-out corruption, When I was a student in the early 90s, I led a peer education group that spoke about sexual assault and harassment, and often advocated for strong policies to protect and prevent. I was heartbroken and furious over the state of things at the University of North Carolina, so I pulled “Tamar” off the shelf. I would recommend it! In EfM class the next week we actually covered the Tamar story, and so I had something extra to contribute. Then I clicked on “Lent Madness,” saw your post, and decided to check out the blog because I just couldn’t figure out what was so great about Lucy. I had forgotten about the story of her attempted rape, or had it confused with Agnes. So, all that to say that I’ve been thinking about this a while, and have been discerning about what sort of work I might get into, and found Lucy’s competitor, Oscar Romero, very inspiring:
    ” You and I and all of us are worth very much because we are creatures of God…and so the church values human beings and contends for their rights, for their freedom, for their dignity. That is an authentic church endeavor. While human rights are violated,…while there are tortures, the church considers itself persecuted, it feels troubled, because the church…cannot tolerate that an image of God be trampled by persons that become brutalized by trampling on others. The church wants to make that image beautiful.”

  5. What I’m really struggling with here is how a community, like the church or UNC for example, can respond when both victim and perpetrator are a part of it? What I mean is, my instinct is to draw heavy lines of protection around the victim, so that she is and feels…safe. However, in order to do that effectively, I do not know how you can also respect the assailant’s rights, especially if the victim is depending on the university or some structure other than the traditional criminal or civil justice system. UNC is still obligated to make sure the assailant is not vilified and continues to have a good education, unless found guilty. Then he can be expelled, but that’s it.
    And last, but probably first is the question: what about pastoral response? What if there were a beloved couple where one had assaulted the other, or you have a youth and a child or a child abusing a child? Obviously the responses are different, but one thing isn’t, they are all part of the community, even when one hurts the other. They are both children of God and loved, even when one hurts the other. I suppose it would be easy enough to ask one to go to another church, but it may not be so easy. If we are the children of God, or a parish family, how do we handle it? It’s like you have two children that you love but one has horribly brutalized the other. There can be consequences, protections, and hopefully repentance and reconciliation, but you might not be able to cast one child out into the outer darkness. Failure to protect and blame the victims is well-worn territory, but I wonder, how do we reach even deeper to respond faithfully?

  6. (I apologize for leaving another long response, but I forgot a critical comment). While Christians in previous stories may have heard Lucy’s story as protecting her “virtue” (gag), I find it a very inspiring story that demonstrates that care and power of God. I felt Lucy and Agnes were THEMSELVES protected, because rape is a horrible crime, in the true sense of the word “horror”. Yes, back in ancient times women’s only value was their virginity and if that was gone then marriage (just about the only way out of their family’s house) and children (another measure of value) would no longer be in their future (see the Tamar story). I refuse to believe that these stories are in the Bible because they are being condoned. I believe that the horror was unknown to the male writers, but I think they included them because they happened.
    Someone made an interesting comment to the effect of “What does that say about God if they are protected from rape, but not from death.” Interesting question. Maybe that tells us a lot about the nature of rape and death. After reading “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” (written by an Episcopalian who taught at Harvard, by the way), I’d have to say that death is (in the words of Merry in “Return of the KIng”) death is “not so bad.” (BTW Gandalf replies, “No, it’s not so bad at all.”) And was it Dumbledore, Gandalf, or Jacob’s mother on “Lost” who said, “There are some things worse than death?” I don’t know, probably all of them.
    I don’t think these stories encourage abuse, but they do highlight the reality and the strength of evil in our world, and the nature of sacrifice, which is part of the definition of love since Jesus, “lays down his life, no one takes it from him.” (Good Shepherd parable, gospel of John). They tell us that God’s love is stronger than evil and death, so strong that evil and death seem insignificant in comparison. God doesn’t want us to die, I think that’s why we have the promise of the resurrection: new life with God.

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