Womxn as Agents of Desire: Phaedra’s Myth and the Corpus of Shame

Content warning: this article includes reference to sexual assault.

George Barbier, Phaedra and Hippolytus
Georges Barbier, Hippolyte et Phèdre, 1922

There is a story I grew up with, the story of Soudabeh and Siavosh. This is one of the most famous tales found in the Persian epic poem “The Book of Kings”. This story rewrites the myth of Phaedra, a woman who has been reimagined throughout time. Phaedra’s story was told by Euripides, Ovid and Virgil. Later it became one of Jean Racine’s most acclaimed plays. Her story also appears in the Bible, as  Photyphar’s wife seeks to seduce Joseph. In the Torah and the Quran, the name of the woman is Zuleikha. Her name does not matter, nor do her face or the reality of her being. Her unwavering identity across these narratives lies in her status as a criminal, criminal for she knows… — and knowing for a woman is tantamount to possessing, to liberation

Womxn experience the world, as a force to be yielded onto their body. A womxn’s material experience of the world stems from the position of the subjected and not the subject. Sentient beings—human or not… for not only humans carry agency or enact gendered violence – objects and quasi-things, in their collision and relations, all material things carry the potentiality of violence on the body, on our collective body. 

The myth of Phaedra has served as a foundation in the demonisation of womxn’s sexuality. The material capacities of our bodies elude us. We spend so much of our life terrified of our bodies. Terrified of the strength they carry, terrified of the pleasures they can bear, terrified of the agency and the curiosity they can yield. We’re told that a strong womxn is not a good womxn, a womxn who feels pleasure is a wrong womxn, and a womxn who is curious is dangerous. For all these anti-womxn there exists a mythical foundation of shame and fear: the stories of the Amazons, Pandora, Medusa.. 

Phaedra 1880 by Alexandre Cabanel Wall Art from Truly Art | Cabanel, Oil  painting gallery, Art painting
Alexandre Cabanel, Phaedra, 1880. Oil on canvas, 194 x 286 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

The myth of Phaedra is capital in this mythical corpus of shame, for it shames womxn’s desire. Not so much their ability to feel sexual desire, rather their legitimacy to pursue something which they desire. Pursuing desire is what makes us philosophical subjects. In all the variations of Phaedra’s myth, the woman desires a younger man whom she cannot pursue because she is married. She finally decides to try and seduce him, but the young man refuses her advances. The woman is then overcome with anger —an anger portrayed as a form of hysteria— and accuses the man of having tried to rape her. Such an accusation leads to the man’s demise in one way or another depending on the retelling. The story undisputedly  places the blame on the woman, and the idea of male culpability is not even momentarily entertained. The myth of Phaedra and her false accusation is weaponised against womxn; causing accounts of sexual assault to be mistrusted rather than believed. But now, to digress from the morality of the story, I want us to consider its symbolics. 

The variations of the myth are instances of womxn weaponising rape. That is, they use society’s perception of them as sexualised and submissive to their advantage.  They yield their bodies. False accusations are unquestionably unacceptable: quite naturally we sympathise with the male victim in these circumstances. The crux of the problem lies in that these instances of a womxn yielding her body —owning her agency to desire— become inextricably linked with the criminal act of false accusations. It implies that womxn cannot control their desires, and generate chaos when trying to pursue them. This criminalises womxn’s agency to desire in essence, or, to exist as subjects.

Rape is an instance in which our bodies are used against us. We become a victim of a material reality which we can never escape — our physical existence. The mythical occurrences of rape change the essence of the violent act in itself, they displace rape from the physical to the moral, never addressing the space in which it begins and ends, womxn’s bodies. This mythical mention of rape in Phaedra’s tale does not address the material and bodily harm it causes womxn, rather it discusses the judicial and moral implications of false claims.

Each time I hear accounts  of womxn falsely accusing men- in the media, in the inevitable list of practiced arguments men bring up to discredit our voices, to belittle our stories –  I can never help but recall this myth, and be reminded that beyond the implications of womxn causing injustice, there is the mythical undertone of the criminalisation of womxn’s agency. While I will always defend those men who are falsely and unjustly accused —for I was born with prejudice built into the social fabric of my interactions with the world and I know, as all womxn do, how difficult they are to overcome— I must and I will always reclaim Phaedra as mine. I must and will always admire her desire, her agency. I will never forget or dismiss her. Refusing subjugation, Phaedra is the subject woman, the one who yielded her sexuality and used it to make the world tremble… She is the one who fought back against the material world with the very weapon it tried to subdue her with : her body. If we too want ownership of the narrative, we must re-appropriate these stories and deconstruct their function in policing our behaviour and shaming us. The mythical corpus of shame is my pantheon of liberated womxn. 

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