For the first time in three years, I’m teaching my humanities course on “The Dysfunctional Family and the Western Tradition.” (More about that course here.) We use the work of John Bradshaw as a tool with which to interpret four great masterpieces: the book of Genesis; Euripides’ “Medea”, Ibsen’s “Doll’s House”, and Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I’ve been teaching the course periodically for over a decade, and it’s one of my favorite classes to offer.
Yesterday, we talked about Genesis 19; the famous story of the destruction of Sodom — and of Lot and his daughters. Since the last time I taught the course, I’ve read Robert Polhemus’ dazzling (if occasionally exasperating) Lot’s Daughters: Sex, Redemption, and Women’s Quest for Authority. Polhemus’ book covers not only the story of how the incestuous relationship between these young women and their father has been interpreted within the Abrahamic traditions for millenia, but he touches on some of the ways in which non-incestuous older men/younger women relationships in popular lore mirror the Lot story. (The book is already dated, focusing as it does near the end heavily on the Hillary-Bill-Monica triangle that was so fascinating in the late ’90s; the biblical parallels are there, but to my students who were barely into elementary school at the time, the story doesn’t resonate.) In any case, I recommend Lot’s Daughters with enthusiasm.
The outline of the story ought to be familiar: Lot, Abraham’s relative, offers hospitality to two angels who come to his hometown of Sodom. A crowd of locals besieges Lot’s house, demanding the opportunity to rape the (male) angels. Lot tries to calm the crowd by offering his two virgin daughters instead, but the crowd isn’t interested; Lot ends up being pulled back inside the house. The city is soon destroyed by God, with only Lot and his family permitted to escape; Lot’s wife (the women, of course, are unnamed) makes the fatal mistake of looking back at her burning hometown — and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters end up taking refuge in a cave, where the girls decide to get their father drunk and have sex with him so that he can father their children. The eldest daughter conceives a son who will be the first of the Moabites, the people from whom the great figure Ruth comes. Since Ruth is an ancestor of David, and David an ancestor of Jesus, Christ himself is (if we accept Matthew’s lineage) a descendent of a line begun in father-daughter incest.
We all have a question, reading this story: why do the daughters do it? From a feminist standpoint, it’s a perverse twisting of the reality of incestuous abuse; the literature on the subject reveals that parent-child incest is, in reality, always initiated by the former. The victims are turned into the victimizers, and the male authority figure is absolved (through his drunkenness) of responsibility. Read literally, it’s infuriating in its familiarity; heck, it even fits in as an early example of the “myth of male weakness” against which we’ve so often railed on this blog. Lot gets to pass on his line, and he gets to do so with young, nubile women rather than with his barren wife. (Salt, strewn in fields, destroys fertility — you don’t need to be a graduate student in English to figure out that turning a pillar of salt is a metaphor for the undesirability and absent fecundity of ageing women.) Lot gets to start this blessed line –one that will include Ruth, David, and Jesus — through a sexual act for which he was not responsible. In Genesis 9, Noah curses his son Ham for catching his father drunk and naked and exposing the secret; ten chapters later, Lot remains silent when his daughters get him drunk and naked. (Polhemus has a fascinating section in which he details the ways in which centuries of Christian and Jewish theologians devised ways to absolve Lot of what ought to have been a profound sin).
But here’s the angle Polhemus doesn’t touch on, and one we did explore yesterday in class. The first we learn of Lot’s daughters is when their father offers them up to be raped by a mob. Lot wants to use the sexuality of his own children as a bargaining chip in order to protect the men who are his guests. Read in modern terms, Lot is doing what older men (sometimes fathers, often not) continue to do to adolescent girls: reduce their worth down to one thing. Their value lies solely in their desirability, in their imagined purity, in their youthful fuckability. Scripture doesn’t tell us what the girls thought when they heard their father offer them up to the crowd, but it’s not hard to see the impact on their lives. From a feminist and a family systems standpoint, we can’t understand why the girls seduce their father until we understand the impact of his earlier betrayal upon them..
Lot’s daughters got the message that far too many daughters continue to get: in the end, the most valuable thing about you is your desirability to men. A girl’s purity is her father’s to protect (the echoes of Lot in the disgusting “purity balls” of the chastity movement are obvious); a girl’s capacity to inspire longing is her most valuable asset. Sex, in one form or another, is what binds a girl to the men in her life. Her father’s obsession with her virginity (and its usefulness to him) matches the obscene fascination that so many other men have with her body. Many women never forget what it was like to first realize that they were objects of desire, not merely to boys their own age but to male teachers, uncles, store owners and strangers in cars. The damage that that early sexualization and objectification cannot be overestimated; in a sense, most girls have a “Lot’s daughters” moment at some point in puberty — the moment in which they realize that an extraordinary number of men are obsessed with only one thing, and that that obsession makes the world very unsafe for women.
So many young women make the choice that Lot’s daughters make. While in the real world, girls don’t get their dads drunk and sleep with them, they do make the not-unreasonable decision to use the one thing that they have that seems to matter, that gives them a chance to exercise power. When all that men (starting with Dad) value is a girl’s sexuality, then, as Courtney Martin writes, “the rest of her identity seems to fall away.” Sex is the one weapon in the arsenal, the one tool in the tool-chest, the one possibility a young woman has to get attention and to get love. (This is not to say that young women’s sexual adventurousness is always a response to cultural objectification; women have libidos irrespective of their treatment at the hands and eyes and tongues of men.) For Lot’s daughters, sex is a way to restore what John Bradshaw calls the “fantasy bond” with their father, a chance to be loved and cared for by him again. Since he seems to value nothing else about his daughters, they’re making a fairly rational decision to use that one thing to connect with him. They have nothing else.
Our patriarchal culture reduces women down to walking wombs, ambulating orifices good for little more than satisfying one male desire after another. Deprived of access to other avenues for power, it is no small wonder that like Lot’s daughters, many women grow up today with a sense that their desirability is their best asset, the most promising implement at their disposal with which to exercise power and pursue happiness. When men accuse women of “using” sex to manipulate, they fail to see that manipulation is always done from a position of weakness, when no other options exist. Lot robbed his daughters of their dignity and their worth long before they got him drunk and took him to bed; their manipulativeness was a direct consequence of their abandonment and objectification. Lot is a symbol of our patriarchal culture, an archetype for modern men, an exemplar of the way in which fathers and brothers and teachers and pastors and boyfriends betray the women in their lives; when modern men rage against women for “using sex to get what they want” they are refusing to take responsibilty for having stolen every other tool away.
Men do well to ask themselves, “Where am I like Lot?” “Where and how do I send the signal that women’s sexuality, or beauty, or virginity, matters more to me than anything else?” And we do well to empower young women, giving them agency and autonomy not only over their sexuality but over every other aspect of their lives. We need to give them more and better tools for acquiring and exercising power. And when we deprive women of the self-esteem that is their birthright and the agency that ought to be their destiny, we force many to make the terrible, agonizing decision that Lot’s daughters made in that cave so long ago.