Joseph: A Male Sexual Abuse Survivor In The Bible
In the Bible we find many stories of abuse and sexual abuse of women, but did you know there are also stories of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of men?
There is the well known story of Sodom and Gomorrah where the Angels, who were perceived to be men, were sexually harassed by the men of the city who wished to violently gang-rape them. Lott took them into his home for safety but tragically offered his daughters to be gang-raped instead. Thankfully the Angels did not allow the young women to be abused in this way. This story is nearly identical to the story of the gang-raped concubine in Judges 19 where the men of the city all gathered with violence on their minds. The only major difference is the concubine was a woman (not a man) and she was raped (not spared like the male Angels).
There were also practices in the Roman empire common in the New Testament times were boys and male slaves could be sexually abused by their owner, master, or benefactor without legal repercussion because they were of a lesser status (this is called pederasty). Some scholars believe that the greek words arsenokoitai and malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 are specifically speaking out against these predatory practices of sexual abuse where a dominant, high status man (viewed as masculine by patriarchal society) would sexually abuse a young boy or slave (seen as “effeminate” because of their lesser power in their patriarchal society). (1)
I have mentioned before that Jesus, who came to earth as a man, experienced a form of sexual abuse on the cross as well. Forced stripping and forced public nakedness falls under the definition of sexual abuse.
Today I would like to talk about the story of Joseph. Not only was Joseph abused when his brothers threw him into the pit and then sold him into slavery, he also experienced sexual harassment and possible forms of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife.
As the story goes, Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar. The Lord blessed Joseph and he gained favor with his master Potiphar, but we must not forget that he was still a slave, viewed as property of the household.
Potiphar’s wife began to notice Joseph and give him unwanted sexual invitations.
It is easy, perhaps, to look at this situation as two equals with one wishing for a relationship and the other declining, but we cannot not forget the power differentiation that was present. It is important to note that even if these sexual advances were welcomed, the relationship could never be truly consensual because of the power differentiation and the threat of repercussion if Joseph resisted. This type of sexual abuse was also committed by Thomas Jefferson, who kept Sally Hemings as a sex slave. Whether she ever felt warm feelings towards him or not this was not a free and consensual relationship, she was still viewed as property.
Not only was Potiphar’s wife making sexual comments to Joseph against his will, a form of sexual harassment, she also had a distinct position of power over him that disallowed him from leaving or properly defending himself.
The story goes on to say that she became even more aggressive and actually grabbed Joseph by the clothes, attempting to force him into having sex with her, which is sexual assault.
Joseph ran away, and in anger she accused him of trying to rape her. She used her position of power over him to get Joseph thrown in jail.
I have heard this story cited as a proof that false rape allegations happen. About 2-8% (2) of the time rape allegations are deemed unfounded (unfounded is not the same as untrue). Compare this story of false allegation to the many, many other true sexual abuse stories in the bible and it puts things in perspective, this is a rare occurrence. People who use this story as a banner to wave attempting to discredit victims of abuse have completely lost sight of what is happening in this story.
Joseph, the real sexual abuse victim, is not believed and is actually punished for experiencing this abuse, also common for modern day victims. Joseph was in a position of low power. He would have had nothing to gain and much to lose by making a false allegation of abuse, because he was literally the property of the household.
Abuse is always motivated by a lust for power and control. Abusers are usually in positions of power and control over their victims in some shape or form.
When we look at the text we see that Potiphar’s wife uses several power plays. First, she targets a victim who has much less power than her, a slave. After Joseph runs away leaving his coat with her, she screams to the other men in the household and repeatedly calls Joseph that “Hebrew”. At that point she is likely using the power structure of racism. Egyptians believed that Hebrews were dirty and below them (3). Bringing up Joseph’s lineage immediately slanted people against him. Thirdly, she appeals to her even more powerful husband, which she likely has great influence on.
It was easy for her to make these false allegations of rape because of her position over Joseph.
For Joseph, false allegations would not have been easy or beneficial. He had so much to lose by speaking up about the real abuse he was experiencing that it would have been ridiculous for him to even consider making up a false allegation.
So, yes. False rape allegations do happen on occasion, but they are often made by people who already have plenty of power. They often have power that will outweigh the ingrained tendencies to doubt and blame victims. People in low power positions are extremely unlikely to make false allegations because even true allegations are not likely to be believed and more likely to be punished, especially if the abuse is from someone with influence, power, position, platform, racial privilege, or other types of status.
Instead of focusing on the high power individual in this story and allowing her power play to somehow discredit modern abuse victims, I think the text is beckoning us to see, hear, and believe victims, like Joseph.
I think God is showing us how those who have low power are more easily abused, but despite this God is the God of abuse victims. Joseph was sent to jail which compounded the abuse, but God was still with him. Eventually Joseph was raised up by God to the most powerful position in the nation second only to Pharaoh. Joseph then used this position of power not to harm but to save many lives from starvation. It is a beautiful story of redemption and a strong statement that God is with the powerless, the weak, the vulnerable, the used, and the abused.
God is with you.
Notes and Sources
The story of Joseph is taken from the Genesis 39 account.
(1) I have chosen not to link to articles on the horrific practices of pederasty in Rome because as I fear they would be too triggering for some readers.
(2) Statistics provided by: Uniform Crime Report, United States Department of Justice and Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance
(3) “So they served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is loathsome to the Egyptians.” -Genesis 43:32 NASB