The shift of #MeToo into #TimesUp suggests that we moderns should long since have eradicated sexual abuse and harassment, consigning them to a barbaric past. Their endurance is indeed beyond frustrating. But while some attribute them to an interruption of progress, to the fact that we have not reached a utopian modernity, others argue that modernity itself has prolonged these behaviors. They are seen as products of the sexual revolution, which must be reversed.
Yet both approaches are mistaken. Neither modernity nor tradition have, in and of themselves, offered solutions to sexual harassment and violence. In fact, the biblical Song of Songs, one of the oldest extant love poems, can be read as an extended protest against the sexual oppression of women. Since ancient times, the struggle against it has required the voices of women who can speak without shame about their own desire, their experiences of violation and their rights of refusal as full-fledged humans.
The central figure of Song of Songs is an unnamed young woman, referred to variously including as “the Shulamite,” who asserts her sexual and emotional agency while others attempt to control her. Yet while the violent and humiliating responses she elicits are unsurprising in an ancient Middle Eastern context, the work upsets expectations in maintaining her as its protagonist, despite her rejection of traditional submission and modesty. No editorial voice condemns her for this defiance, and the abuse she suffers at the hands of male civic and familial authorities is never justified. In fact, it is precisely this defiance that made the work available to medieval commentators, who read the Shulamite as a passionate and heroic figure for Israel’s fidelity to God in difficult diaspora conditions.
These dynamics run throughout the work, but two passages in particular demonstrate its profound protest of violence against women. Midway through, either in a dream or an episode of sleepwalking, the Shulamite hears her “lover” knocking at her door, calling for her to admit him from the damp of the night. But she demurs, answering that she has already undressed and washed her feet. When he thrusts his hand through an opening of the door, her response is one of physical, and anatomically graphic desire. Her “insides” are “aroused to him.” But when she goes to open, her fingers, “overflowing with “myrrh”, fumble the lock.
By the time she succeeds in opening the door, her lover has gone. She pursues him into the night, where the “guardians of the walls” patrolling the city find her. The sequence suggests that her lover’s sudden departure may have been prompted by their presence. These “guardians…beat” her, “wound” her and “strip her of her veil/covering.” Whether a dream or an episode that begins in sleepwalking, her pain is real and depicted realistically. In fact, if a dream, it may be triggered by a memory, or simply the plausible dangers faced by young lovers. The guardians’ violence seeks to contain her sexuality by, somewhat paradoxically, violating it. It seeks to preserve a woman’s “honor” by humiliating and degrading her.
One might read this as a cautionary tale intended to discourage immodesty, as the text moves seamlessly to her plea to “the daughters of Jerusalem” that, if they find her “beloved,” they should warn him against prematurely uniting with her. But she is unrepentant and this is situationally—not morally—motivated. Timing here is determined by a social context that seeks to regulate love and sex, not any idea of inherent moral impropriety. The dignity of her desire and her right to assert it is never at issue, and the harm she incurs at the hands of violent male authorities appears unjust and brutal.
Almost at the poem’s close, the Shulamite’s brothers spy her coming out of the wild, “leaning upon her lover” apparently following a lovers’ tryst. Their response is classically patriarchal, positioning her as an object of exchange value:
We have a little sister and she has no breasts.
What shall we do about our sister
on the day on which she will be spoken for?
If she be a wall, we shall build upon her a tower of silver.
If she be a door, we will bar her with a board of cedar.
In a conventional response, brothers see their sister in an intimate pose with her lover and immediately fear that her value on the marriage market may be compromised, which of course affects their own social and economic positions. They infantilize her, effacing her sexual maturity, denying her breasts, and objectify her through architectural figures for female anatomy. Seeking to regulate her sexuality, they decide that if she is a virgin, they will adorn her with a silver bridal crown resembling a tower, but if she has been penetrated, they will nail her shut. We can only shudder to imagine what this would entail.
But the Shulamite’s response, which is the focus of a chapter-long extended reading in Ilana Pardes’ masterful 1993 study, Countertraditions, defies both her brothers’ commitments and our expectations, inverting their repressive metaphors.
I am a wall and my breasts are like towers.
So have I been in [my lover’s] eyes as a place of security/peace.
Unlike a bridal crown celebrating inviolate virginity, her breasts are now the towers of her body’s fortress, in which her lover finds a safe haven and place of repose. Their relationship is not a violation of her body. Rather, she represents her body as a guarantor of her lover’s security, and by extension, of their love.
Fighting the toxic norms of sexual assault and harassment is not about pitting modernity against tradition. If only it were that easy. Sexual harassment and violence is a problem that has been with us for entire epochs and across cultures. We have thus far failed to free ourselves of it. This doesn’t mean that we cannot do so. But this cause depends directly upon us recognizing both the cultural breadth and historical longevity of the problem, as well as the ways in which it has been opposed in the past—from which we can, and should, draw inspiration.
Ori Weisberg is an academic translator, editor and writer living in Jerusalem. He holds a PhD in early modern English literature from the University of Michigan.