The claim that women make up rape charges is as old as the hills. You may recall that in Genesis (39:6-20), Joseph of the technicolor dream coat suffered under false accusations. The wife of Potiphar, the Egyptian official to whom Joseph had been sold by his brothers, fell in lust with him and wanted to sleep with him. When Joseph chastely refused, she cried “rape!” and her outraged husband cast Joseph into prison.
In Homer, the hero Glaukos tells a similar tale about his ancestor Bellerophon who was also falsely accused of sexual outrages. He came to the house of Proetus to be cleansed of a ritual murder. But there, Proetus’ wife fell for him. When he refused her, she claimed that he had tried to seduce her. Her husband Proetus, enraged, drove him from the house and sent him to be killed by the King of Lykia. But there Bellerophon overcame all obstacles with his trusty flying horse Pegasus and revealed his heroic nature (Iliad 6.154ff).
Euripides, among others, tells the same old story in his Hippolytus. Theseus’ second wife Phaedra became sexually obsessed with her step-son, Hippolytus. When he wouldn’t sleep with her, she killed herself - but still managed to destroy Hippolytus’ life from beyond the grave. She left a note saying that Hippolytus had raped her. And so Theseus banished his son from Athens and called down fatal curses on his head.
You’ll notice a common theme here - and it’s not just that women’s rape charges are false. What’s so striking is that these stories (written by men, incidentally) claim that women’s charges of rape are not about the uncontrolled lust of men. That’s not the problem, oh no. Rather, these false claims of rape stem from the frustrated, dangerous, uncontrollable passion of women.
You may recall Sen. Howell Heflin, an Alabama Republican, tapping into our common understanding of these mythic themes when he asked Anita Hill whether she was “a scorned woman.” Please.
Of course, mythology does sometimes admit that men do rape women. And these stories are instructive as well.
Take the tale of Philomela as told by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book 6.424f). King Tereus of Thrace lusted for his wife’s sister, Philomela, and raped her. Afterward, he threatened her in order to keep her silent. But Philomela was defiant and planned to tell all. And so Tereus cut out her tongue.
The spectacle of what women are put through when they make allegations against powerful men is the modern-day equivalent - meant to scare and to silence women, to shut them up. In the myth, however, Philomela, tongue-less and silent, nevertheless managed to tell her story to her sister Procne by weaving it into a tapestry. And so the two sisters killed Tereus’ son and served him to his father for dinner.
Note how the myth still manages to turn the audience against the woman, even when she has been raped. The inappropriate and disproportionate response of killing the innocent child underscores again the irrationality and dangerous passion of women. But for me the myth of Philomela also has a heartening prophecy: If you rape us, if you harass us, if you attack us, somehow, we women will find the courage to speak out.
Martha Taylor is chair of the classics department at Loyola University Maryland and a professor of classics, history and gender studies.