About ten years ago, when I was a young assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College and new to academia, I was taken by surprise when one of my students complained about an assigned text—Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Specifically, her concern was about Ovid’s lack of sensitivity on the subject of rape. The Metamorphoses is a poetic compendium of ancient Greek and Roman myths; one of its common motifs is male gods erotically pursuing females. I was particularly surprised by the student’s comment because Ovid’s elegant and witty text is remarkably sympathetic to the female characters. But I knew that Mawrters are famous for the intensity of their beliefs; it makes sense for students at a women’s college to feel so strongly about violence against women.
In the years that followed, I discovered that in fact the Metamorphoses is a common prompt for virtue signaling, not only for students but also for professional scholars across American universities. It is typical for a public lecture on Ovid’s Metamorphoses to begin with a trigger warning for rape and an invitation to audience members to feel free to step out of the room.
I could never quite square how listeners could be traumatized by Ovidian descriptions of sexual violence. Here, for example, is one of the most famous ones: “while [the god Jupiter] spoke, [the nymph Io] fled, [ . . .] but the god called forth a heavy shadow which involved the wide extended earth and stopped her flight and ravished in that cloud her chastity.” But I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
When Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on October 7, they not only murdered hundreds of children, elderly, and women and kidnapped hundreds more, but also systematically perpetrated brutal mass gang-rapes, complete with mutilation and other forms of inhuman violence against women. In one witness account, after terrorists finished raping a woman—and while she was still alive—they chopped off one of her breasts and were kicking it to one another like a soccer ball in the dust. In another, a gang-raped woman pleaded with the terrorists to shoot her dead—which they did, once everyone in the group had a turn with her.
I am deliberately detailing these facts—facts so brutal that it is outrageous even to put them down in writing, and yet whose very brutality demands that they be recorded for posterity. It is especially important to do so, given that much of the world has turned a deaf ear to—or, worse, brazenly denied—these outrages against Israeli women and girls. Academics and students across the U.S. praised the October 7 attack as “heroic” and “an achievement.” Washington State congresswoman Pramila Jayapal stunned a CNN host when she avoided taking a firm stance against the Hamas-perpetrated rapes. UN Women waited two months before it began to respond to detailed forensic reports of Hamas’s atrocities against females. According to State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, Hamas refused to release more female hostages because the terrorists didn’t want the women to detail what they endured in captivity. For the past four months, captive Israeli women have been enduring sexual violence, while many in the academic world have remained silent.
Victory over Hamas should be a priority for anyone who claims to care about the rights of women. I expected that my own institution, Bryn Mawr, would live up to its mission as a women’s college; that, across the nation, the same students and faculty who cannot bear to hear how “Jupiter ravished Io’s chastity” would turn out in droves to condemn publicly Hamas’s rapes and mutilations and to support the group’s elimination; that these same students and faculty would publicly accuse Hamas of continuing to hold hostages, of using innocent civilians as human shields, and of endangering Palestinian civilians by refusing to capitulate. In all these expectations, I was mistaken. Perhaps the culture of trigger warnings, with its self-involvement and emphasis on grievance, has rendered our academic communities incapable of taking a moral stand against authentic, savage violence rendered against other human beings.
In one of Ovid’s darkest myths, after Thracian King Tereus cuts out Athenian princess Philomela’s tongue so that she cannot tell anyone that he has raped her, Philomela finds a way of broadcasting her story by depicting it on a tapestry. Over the past four months, Israeli victims of rape have been ignored by journalists, academics, college students, politicians, and UN representatives, but slowly, against all odds, their stories are coming to light. The question for American academia is: Whose side will it take—Tereus’s or Philomela’s?
Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images