Sexual Misconduct in the Classics

Hogarth, "Before"

Hogarth, “Before”

Last week, as a Maryland state employee, I took a special on-line course on sexual misconduct. Colleges and universities have not been as sensitive as they should be to complaints about sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and other sexual crimes, which is why faculty, staff, and students at Maryland colleges are required to take the course.

The course offered many hypothetical examples, which got me imagining how various characters in the books I’m teaching this semester would fare. Here’s what I came up with. Let me know if you think I got the answers right:

1. Is Dionysus guilty of administering alcohol and other mind-altering substances to Agave and the other women of Thebes.

Answer: No. As a manifestation of their own repressed desires, he is giving them permission to do what they secretly want to do. As Lucille Clifton puts it in one of her Garden of Eden poems, “it is your own lush self you long for.” On the other hand, putting Agave in a trance so that she murders her son sounds like complicity in a murder if nothing else.

2. Is Lady Bertilak guilty of stalking Sir Gawain in the castle of the Green Knight?

Answer: Possibly. He doesn’t directly tell her to stop trying to seduce him—a knight cannot refuse a lady’s request—but he sends out enough strong hints that she should get the message.

3. Is John Wilmot guilty of harassment when he puts a love note in a lady’s prayer book, telling her to “fling this useless book away” and make love to him?

Answer: Possibly as he has invaded her private space. However, if she tells him to back off and he does so, the case ends there.

4. Is Willmore in Aphra Behn’s The Rover guilty of attempted rape when he accosts Florinda?

Answer: Yes, because she clearly turns him down and he still persists. And the same is true when Blunt and Frederick chase her into a house.

5. Is the Baron guilty of sexual assault in Rape of the Lock when he cuts off a lock of Belinda’s hair?

Answer: No doubt about it. And Clarissa may be guilty of complicity in providing him the encouragement and the means to do it. She should be watching out for women in danger at the party, not aiding their harassers.

6. In “The Lover: A Ballad,” what are we to make of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu anticipating the following interaction when she meets the perfect man:

Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud.
Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive.

Answer: Montagu is guilty of enabling those who contend that “no” means “yes.” Progressive though Montagu was for her day, such thinking creates no end of problems. Don’t pretend something you don’t mean.

7. Is Tom Jones guilty of harassing any of the three women he sleeps with in the course of the novel.

Answer: No, the sex is all consensual. On the other hand, Lord Fellamar, who attempts to rape Sophia, should go to jail. Lady Bellaston, who urges him on, is guilty of complicity.

8. Is Molly Seagrim guilty of taking advantage of Tom’s inebriated state to have sex with him?

Answer: Possibly yes if Tom does not know what he was doing and Molly takes advantage of this. However, given how Fielding describes Tom’s state, I suspect that there is enough consent to let Molly off the hook, even though a sober Tom probably would have remained true to Sophia. Here’s Fielding:

[T]he reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his [Tom’s] favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of these prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued this power in Jones. He was, indeed, in a condition, in which, if reason had interposed, though only to advise, she might have received the answer which one Cleostratus gave many years ago to a silly fellow, who asked him, if he was not ashamed to be drunk? “Are not you,” said Cleostratus, “ashamed to admonish a drunken man.”

9. Is Sir Clement in Fanny Burney’s Evelina guilty of harassment when he carries her off in his carriage and tries to make love to her.

Answer: No doubt about it. And so are the drunken revelers she encounters in Regency Park. She clearly makes her wishes known and is ignored.

10. Is Willoughby guilty of anything for knocking up Colonel Brandon’s ward and misleading Marianne.

Answer: No. He may be a jerk but (assuming Eliza is not underage), he doesn’t do anything unlawful. Marianne acknowledges that he broke no promises.

11. Is Rochester guilty of harassing Jane Eyre, say by dressing up as a gypsy and ferreting out her deep thoughts.

Answer: It’s probably not harassment although, as her employer, he is treading on thin ice. Of course, attempted bigamy is his major crime.

As I say, feel free to dispute my answers, which came to me partially as a result of taking the course. The most important things I learned are (1) intervene when you witness something going on (we learned various ways to do so) and (2) report anything you hear to those people in the administration designated to handle such situations.

This entry was posted in Austen (Jane), Behn (Aphra), Bronte (Charlotte), Burney (Fanny), Euripides, Fielding (Henry), Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley), Sir Gawain Poet, Wilmot (John) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete