Joseph, Potiphar’s Wife, and the Truth about False Allegations

Joseph, Potiphar’s Wife, and the Truth about False Allegations September 26, 2018

Guido Reni, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” (Wikimedia Commons)


In response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh, Christian politicians have largely responded by either implying the alleged victims are lying or dismissing the alleged incident as “boys will be boys.” Personally, I don’t even know how to respond to the second point, because it should go without saying that pinning a girl to a bed and covering her mouth so she can’t scream while attempting to grope and strip her, or exposing one’s genitals to a woman without her consent, are both inexcusable. It’s downright insulting to men to suggest that they’re incapable of treating women with basic respect.

To single women everywhere who are interested in dating men, might I suggest the following litmus test? Just ask him if he agrees with the “boys will be boys” response to these allegations. While you’re at it, maybe ask if Trump’s “grab her by the *****” comments are “just locker room talk.” Think how many misogynists you’ll weed out!

But I don’t want to focus on the “boys will be boys” response because, like I said, it should go without saying that it’s wrong. What I want to focus on is the knee-jerk reaction where Kavanaugh’s supporters assume all three alleged victims are lying. The national conversation about Kavanaugh reminds me of an experience I had in college: I was in a creative writing course, and another student workshopped a piece about a protagonist who had been sexually assaulted. It was a heart-breaking piece in large part because it began as comedy before revealing the dark twist. The protagonist was the maid of honor in her little sister’s wedding, and it was only revealed through a third person narrator that the groom had sexually assaulted her the day before.

To my shock, a male student loudly insisted that the protagonist was lying to herself and that she had consented to sex with the groom, only to later regret it and pretend it had been assault. As he described his interpretation, he added, “It happens ALL the time.” Now, let me be clear. There was nothing in the story to support his reading. Nothing to suggest the narrator was unreliable. It was a third person narrator, not first person POV, so the narrator wasn’t a character in the piece – it was just a window into the protagonist’s perspective. And there was absolutely nothing in the story to suggest that the protagonist was mistaken. The student suggesting this reading didn’t point to any evidence in the piece itself, just kept insisting that women lie about sexual assault “all the time.” In the story, the groom had physically restrained the victim by tying her hands together – the author left no room for reasonable doubt. My classmate was reading his own assumptions and stereotypes into the story.

But the myth that women regularly lie about sexual assault is prevalent, despite the fact that the rate of false reports is extremely low, possibly as low as 2%. One Christian woman recently* made a viral video where she presents an Old Testament story as proof that women regularly lie about sexual assault. She points to the account of Joseph’s time enslaved in Egypt, where the wife of the man who owned him (only known as Potiphar’s wife) failed to seduce Joseph and retaliated by telling her husband that Joseph had sexually assaulted her.

Now, I’m going to put aside for a moment the question of whether this account in the Old Testament is literal and historical. Assuming these events transpired, here’s the key detail that matters: Joseph was a slave. Potiphar’s wife was not. She was married to a rich man and had class and wealth on her side. She attempted to sexually assault Joseph who, as a slave, could never have truly consented. If he had given in, it likely would have been because he feared for his life. And he was right to fear for his life. What good was the word of a slave against the word of a rich woman?

Imagine the same scenario playing out in the US in 1800. Who do you think a wealthy plantation owner would believe? His white wife, or the man who was legally considered his property? And even if the plantation owner knew his wife was lying, what do you think would happen if she told their friends?

But here’s the flip side of the coin: if a woman enslaved on that plantation had accused the plantation owner of assaulting her, how do you think the plantation owner’s wife and friends would respond? What do you think they would do, even if they did believe her?

And there was a power imbalance in 1955 when a white woman in Mississippi lied under oath about Emmett Till in order to protect the men who had tortured and murdered him.

In the case of Kavanaugh, the power imbalance is squarely in his favor. He has been nominated by a president whose party controls both houses of congress, at a time when his appointment to the supreme court would essentially secure all three branches of the federal government for their ideology. He’s been nominated close enough to the midterm election that the GOP is desperate to “plough through this” rather than take the allegations seriously. And she’s made an allegation that some public figures have taken so lightly as to dismiss it with the saying, “boys will be boys.” If she were lying, don’t you think a professor would be smart enough to make up an even more damning incident?

I’m not assuming that Dr. Ford’s account is accurate or saying that Kavanaugh should automatically be disqualified. What I am saying that is that her account is credible enough to merit a real investigation. And it’s high time we set aside the myth that women regularly lie about sexual assault.





*I was unable to track down the video, so if anyone else has the link, please let me know. I did find this post from August, where someone else responded to the Joseph/Potiphar argument.

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