Discussing Sexuality and Sexual Violence

Our source material is littered with images of sex and sexual violence.  Zeus has sex with countless women and men.  The legendary origins of Rome involve the rape of the Sabine Women and the rape of Lucretia.  These stories are hard to ignore in many of our classes, so how do we talk about them and remain sensitive to students’ potential lack of comfort talking about these ideas?

In most of my classes, whether they be language classes or literature in translation classes or history classes, I like to discuss sexual norms in the ancient world.  I discuss how ancient sexual norms are not about male/female, but about active/passive.  I make sure to say that I am discussing ancient norms and not modern norms–admittedly, often as a recusatio to hopefully make students consider modern norms regarding sexuality.  I also make sure to mention that men could have sex with other men, and that act would have been largely socially acceptable, given a few caveats for whether this was Greece or Rome.

These are the ideas that I also have always tried to discuss, but I felt like this was insufficient today when I had my Latin class begin reading an adapted version of Livy’s narrative on the “rape of Lucretia.”  So what did I do differently?

Before class, I read an article about talking about rape in the Classics classroom (Hong, Yurie 2013, “Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature,” Classical World 106, pp. 669-675), and I read an article about the ideas about women expressed by Livy in this narrative (Joshel, Sandra R. 1992, “The Body Female and the Body Politic: Livy’s Lucretia and Verginia,” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. by Amy Richlin).  There are many articles about these topics out there, and I encourage you to read many too.  They definitely effected how I taught today–I would definitely have read more if I had more time before class.

In class, I introduced the passage carefully.  I introduced Livy as a historian who writes about the past to share exempla to teach Romans how to live a better, more disciplined life (free of lust, luxury, and other vices).  I also mentioned why we are talking about the “Rape of Lucretia”–because it is part of the legendary narrative about a pivotal point in Roman history.  I also reviewed ancient sexual norms–because we had discussed them in relationship to Catullus–and I discussed the legal position of Roman women–as under their husband’s power–and why Lucretia’s rape was an affront to Collatinus that could have provoked the removal of the kings.

But aside from this content, and arguably more importantly, I also asked students to be respectful of their peers’ opinions–voiced or unvoiced–because they were going to start the passage in group work and then finish it for homework.  We will discuss it more tomorrow.  As the teacher, I must model this respect and remain calm throughout the discussion.

I also asked my students to acknowledge why this rape scene may be a sensitive issue, so that they would be more respectful.  They mentioned a few reasons that I had already considered: uncertainty or confusion about the definition of rape, different sexual norms in different times, and how women’s social position has changed since ancient times.  They also did not mention some reasons that I had considered: someone in the class may have been a victim of sexual violence or knows someone who has been a victim,  someone in the class may have committed an act of sexual violence, someone in the class may be uncertain about their own sexuality, and/or Americans are generally uncomfortable talking about sex in public or with relative strangers.

When I discuss the text tomorrow, I will revisit many of these same points–especially an explicit statement about the modern legal definition of rape, and another request to discuss things respectfully–but I will also draw attention to a few points which I will have primed students to consider through a worksheet accompanying the passage.  I will ask how Livy portrays the rape and what this means about the portrayal of Lucretia.  Is she an historical actor? In the narrative, is she just there to be raped and then brushed aside? Why does she kill herself? What about Lucretia is highlighted in the story: chastity? beauty? independence?  And ultimately, what does this tell us about women’s roles in antiquity? or even ancient perceptions of raped women?  Depending on how the discussion goes, I may then ask students to see how many of these ideas map onto our modern thoughts about sexual violence and women.

I’d be happy to hear your comments or thoughts about this lesson plan and its accompanying caution as it develops and plays out.

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4 thoughts on “Discussing Sexuality and Sexual Violence

  1. A little addendum: I wanted to share that today’s follow up discussion went very well, I thought. I think the students were pretty good at remaining respectful and discussing what they could extract from the text. When I did open the discussion to comparisons with the modern world, it was more difficult for me to hold back my opinions and let the students have a chance to discuss things openly and respectfully. I felt like it was better for me to act as moderator than as a partisan unless I was sharing what I knew to be facts. When we discussed the ancient world, though, I did not hesitate to clarify things more explicitly.

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