Sexual Violence in History: A Bibliography

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First published: October 1, 2023 - Last updated: October 1, 2023


Speaker: Katie Kleinkopf

Title: Hagiography and Sexual Slavery

Subtitle: Men in Lives of Holy Harlots

Conference: Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (November 18-21, 2023) - Online Program

Session: S18-105: Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Theme: Enslavement in Ancient Fiction

Place: San Antonio, Texas, United States

Date: November 18, 2023

Language: English

Keywords: Ancient History: Roman History | Representations: Religious Texts


Link: -


Speaker: Sally Hirsh-Dickinson, Department of Comparative Humanities, University of Louisville -

Abstract: »In her seminal article, "Is There a Harlot in This Text?", Patricia Cox Miller questions the status of meretrices within the supposed "Holy Harlot" literature. No pimp controls their movements, they do not take money for their work, and their bodies do not appear to be subject to any sort of legal restrictions. So why the charade of prostitution? While Cox Miller argues that this creation allows for men to explore the contradiction of "holy women," in light of recent scholarship on ancient slavery, my paper invites us to revisit this question to move between the binaries of historical reality and ephemeral metaphor. In her vita, Pelagia, as well as her status as a meretrix, is more than a tool to think through issues of sanctity; for this hagiography is not, in fact, about Pelagia herself, but the Christian men who must learn from her. I argue that just as these men "play" at behaving like women, weeping, lamenting that they have not beautified themselves sufficiently for God, so too are they equally “playing” the prostitute and, by extension, the slave. Even though both the female and enslaved aspects of Pelagia are hyper- idealized, I contend that this characterization should not be ignored because it does not fit the expectations of “reality.” Indeed, within this tale, the language surrounding Pelagia moves seamlessly from metetrix, when she serves the Devil, to ancilla, when God becomes her new master. While her title changes, her actions do not, as she now works to sexually seduce God. Nonnos reminds the readers of the centrality of this role, as the last moniker applied to Pelagia is meretrix, despite her conversion. The elision and reminder of sexual slavery urges us to reconsider the role of Nonnos and James, both of whom are also referred to as slaves (servi) of God. What their encounter with Pelagia compels them to recognize, however, is that they have been performing the role of slave incorrectly – they have been focused on laboring for God, carrying out his will on earth, and not on their only sexual appeal and availability to their master. Is it this missing aspect which they repeatedly mourn and which Nonnos exhorts them to act upon. They must learn from Pelagia as her proteges, become not just servi, but metericies for God. Only once they have sufficiently beautified themselves and attracted God’s gaze, and these men-turned-female-slaves will finally achieve union with God. While this slavery fantasy is clearly divorced from reality, as it does not recognize the violence nor forced coercion of the enslaved, nevertheless, in the safety of their chambers this elite group of men gets to drop their restrictive masculine personas for their ultimate religious fantasy: sexual feminized slave-play with God.« (Source: Online Program)

Wikipedia: Ancient history: Ancient Rome | Christianity: Hagiography / Pelagia | Prostitution: Prostitution in ancient Rome