This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like in “Great” Art by Carol P. Christ

Warning: contains images of rape portrayed through the lens of the objectifying pornographic male gaze

When I reflected on the discovery of a rape fresco from ancient Pompeii that depicted Leda and the swan, I did not mention that the image of the rape of Leda by Zeus along with related images of Zeus raping Europa as a bull and raping Danae as a shower of gold are favorite themes in the history of western art up to the present day. Myths of rape not only give artists permission to paint or sculpt naked women but also to normalize rape as an aspect of culture. In the imagination of western artists, noble or immortal women are portrayed as passively accepting and even enjoying being raped. The fact that these women are understood to be icons of female beauty delivers the message that female beauty invites rape.

I am beginning to understand my university education as brain-washing. I was 17 years old and in my first semester of college when I was shown images of Zeus raping women on a large screen in a darkened auditorium while being told that I should pay attention to perspective, brush-work, and detail. I understood that in learning to appreciate great works of art I would be considered intelligent and sensitive by other intelligent and sensitive people whose ranks I hoped to join. I learned what I was being taught. I was not told was that my “education” was grooming me to accept rape as part of high culture and as beautiful.





Leonardo da Vinci








Attributed to Francoise Boucher




Call me anything you like, but don’t ask me ever again to “appreciate” or “admire” art that celebrates rape.


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Greece. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parilament of World’s Religions.



Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Academics, Art, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, General

Tags: , , , ,

22 replies

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. The casual way origin stories of Greek gods is talked about is very disturbing, and I never see it deconstructed. The default Greek view that women are deformed men, and men entitled to take what they want has become our continued narrative with no real explanation except might is right. It really does need to be gone.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Strong message. People need to understand that a negative message cannot be appreciated in any form.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Everything is defined through the male gaze. Even in stories of erotica, I noticed years ago, the descriptions are always of something hard penetrating something soft and yielding–never of powerful inner muscles grasping, holding, and squeezing an object. Our culture encourages women to wear skirts, which makes it easier for perverts to “upskirt” women by photographing underneath their skirts when the pervert crouches on the floor with a cellphone camera.

    The human breast also is seen through the male gaze. I once worked with a couple of younger women who couldn’t bear the sight of women breastfeeding babies, either in real life or in photographs. They described such sights as “obscene,” but did not flick an eyelash at the sight of random women in bikinis running along a beach. Thus has our patriarchal culture subverted the beauty and purpose of the female human body.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I breastfeed both my children at a time when breastfeeding was seen as something almost obscene. Since breast feeding is natural for all mammalian species I really didn’t get it…but now I think I do. Breastfeeding interrupted the sexual undertones of th pornographic male gaze.

      Liked by 5 people

  4. Very interesting post, thanks Carol.

    Regards great art, when I look at these nude images of women, I remember the enormous delight the art world encountered when it began to make art via all sorts of geometric forms and various abstractions — and so it was called “abstract expressionism,” or “cubism,” etc.

    Women joined that type of art making too, search Google — there is a delightful website online, called “12 Women of Abstract Expressionism to Know”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my god Carol. I am the daughter of a visual artist and I was socialized into the art world from the beginning of my life… brainwashed as a child… and I wondered why I became so passive? As an adolescent being exposed to these images created enormous shame in me. I find all of these images disgusting and named them as pornography but not until my late 60’s. Before that my body would cringe and yet there was this nagging voice telling me that what I saw WASN’T what I was seeing… I have been accused of having a very narrow vision when it comes to art.

    Thank you thank you for posting these horrific images. I presently live in an artists and writers community where art is celebrated as freedom of expression… so naming these images as porn is perhaps even more difficult. These “masters” weren’t creating art they were indulging in pornography and getting away with it.

    Naturally I re – blogged this and will also post this article on my facebook page.

    Again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. As a “woman with wings” I am particularly revolted by the idea behind using s swan as rapist in disguise… bird women follow us back to Gimbutas and the Neolithic… there is really something twisted about using birds as rapists…


    • Bird Goddesses: these images by male artists are defined and titled by the word “rape,” but they are negative revisions of what once was sacred, females and their connection to birds as spirit. These images are not disgusting to me. The titles and intentions are disgusting. The actual images are about bird goddesses being defamed by male interpretations and male mythology destroying the divinity of women. Thank you, Carol, for the opportunity to dialogue.

      Liked by 2 people

      • yes, the bird goddesses were even stripped of their female identity and became disembodied MALE spirit and rapists. I find this quite disgusting. Male mythology “destroying the divinity of women” – YES, but we are still here!


  7. The women in the paintings all look so placid and accepting. I can see where men get the idea that women enjoy being raped, or that “no” means “yes”.

    Oh, that nice long neck. How easy would it be to clutch the head and twist? I looked up swan recipes on Google and imagine that bird on a serving tray. Martha Stewart has a recipe – just to offer a different outcome and image to the story.


  8. I think my education was pretty much like yours. Big emphasis on the men who painted and wrote. Big emphasis on literature written when women were considered not to be smart enough to write. Hooray for Sappho and Hypatia. Hooray for Hildegard. Hooray for Aemelia Bassano and Aphra Behn. They–and others–proved the old “doctors” wrong. And Zeus seems to have been the world’s greatest rapists. No wonder Hera was so angry all the time!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks Carol, short, graphic and to the point. FB’d it – needs to be seen for what it is ..


  10. and of course the male artistes make it look like Leda is LOVING IT! thanks you for opening these male eyes even wider…i took similar courses in university, never taught by a woman. an d so it goes(for now) namaste,brooks lewis


  11. I don’t know exactly how to phrase this and don’t mean to be offensive, but I found it interesting that you would include pictures of so many “great” artists’ depiction of the rape. It seems like that puts it out there, in our faces even, in a way that sort of perpetuates that educational grooming.


  12. Other themes used by art to normalize violences against comen : the collective “rape of the sabines women”, celebrated as useful to found Rome + “suzanna and the elders” (from the bible), on voyeurism.
    I like artist Nancy Spero, who visibilized in one of her artwork, the normalization of rape from religion, that occured already in babylon, where goddess Tiamat was told to be raped by god Marduck.
    Androcentrism in art world is also seen in celebration of “fountain” of Duchamp : it’s a piece which concerns only men, but which is celbrated by art world as carrying a universal message.


    • I was introduced to the rape of the Sabine women in 7th grade Latin class–is this subject matter for pre-teens? If my memory is correct, the words rapare and virgines were translated for us as seize and women. I pointed out the clear meanings of the words and was told I was wrong! Though I was right about the words, I did not have any idea that the story was about the rape of women as an ordinary part of war, and I don’t think I even knew what rape was!!! They start the grooming early and put it everywhere and as I learned in 7th grade they tell you, you are wrong if you say anything that might reveal the violence at the root of Roman or Greek cultures, our western culture!!!


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