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It’s Not Rape if He’s a God–Or Thinks He Is
Valerie Tarico   Dec 23, 2014   ValerieTarico  

Stories like the Virgin Birth lack freely given female consent. Why don’t they bother us more? Powerful gods and demi-gods impregnating human women—it’s a common theme in the history of religion, and it’s more than a little rapey.

Zeus comes to Danae in the form of a golden shower, cutting “the knot of intact virginity” and leaving her pregnant with the Greek hero, Perseus.

Jupiter forcibly overcomes Europa by transforming himself into a white bull and abducting her. He imprisons her on the Isle of Crete, over time fathering three children.

Hermes copulates with a shepherdess to produce Pan.

The legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus are conceived when the Roman god Mars impregnates Rea Silvia, a vestal virgin.

Helen of Troy, the rare female offspring of a god-human mating, is produced when Zeus takes the form of a swan to get access to Leda.

In some accounts Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus are sowed by gods in the form of serpents, by Phoebus and Jupiter respectively.

Though the earliest Christians had a competing story, in the Gospel of Luke, the Virgin Mary gets pregnant when the spirit of the Lord comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her.

The earliest accounts of Zoroaster’s birth have him born of a human father and mother, much like Jesus; but in later accounts his mother is pierced by a shaft of divine light.

The Hindu god Shiva has sex with the human woman Madhura, who has come to worship him while his wife Parvati is away. Parvati turns Madhura into a frog, but after 12 years in a well she regains human form and gives birth to Indrajit.

The Buddha’s mother Maya finds herself pregnant after being entered from the side by a god in a dream.

The impregnation process may be a “ravishing” or seduction or some kind of titillating but nonsexual procreative penetration. The story may come from an Eastern or Western religious tradition, pagan or Christian. But these encounters between beautiful young women and gods have one thing in common. None of them has freely given female consent as a part of the narrative. (Luke’s Mary assents after being not asked but told by a powerful supernatural being what is going to happen to her, and she responds with language emphasizing the power differential. “Behold the bond slave of the Lord: be it done to me . . .”)

Who needs consent, freely given? If he’s a god, she’s got to want it, right? That is how the stories play out.

Whether or not the delectable young thing puts up a protest, whether or not seduction requires deception, whether or not the woman already has a husband or love, whether or not she is physically forced, the basic assumption is that the union between a god and a woman is overwhelming in an orgasmic way, not a bloody, head-bashed-against-the-ground kind of way. And afterwards? Well, what woman wouldn’t want to be pregnant with the son or daughter of a god?

Underneath this remarkably enduring and widespread trope lie two assumptions that, in their most primitive form, may trace their roots all the way back to evolutionary biology.

The biology hypothesis, much oversimplified, goes something like this: Males and females of each species have instincts that maximize their genes in the next generation. Among humans, females seek the highest quality sperm donors that they can attract. They maximize the quality and survival of their children by mating with high status, powerful males. Males, on the other hand, maximize the quality and quantity of their offspring by seeking young fertile females (with beauty signaling fertility), controlling some females and fending off other males while also spreading their seed around if they can get away with it.

Biology may be the starting point, but over time, human impulses are embellished and institutionalized and made sacred by culture and religion. The mythic trope of gods mating with human females embodies powerful cultural and religious beliefs about sexuality. Familiar stories of this type derive from male dominated societies, which means they legitimize male reproductive desires: Powerful men not only want to control the valuable commodity of female fertility, they should. Gods ordain it and model it. And they prescribe punishments for those—especially females—who violate the proper order of things.

​The miraculous conception stories I listed may have roots in pre-history, in early religions centered on star worship and the agricultural cycle, but they emerged in modern form during the Iron Age. By this time in history, most women were chattel. Like children, livestock and slaves, they were literally possessions of men, and their primary economic and spiritual value lay in their ability to produce purebred offspring of known lineage. The men at the top owned concubines and harams, and virgin females were counted among the spoils of war. (See, for example, the Old Testament story of the virgin Midianites in which Yahweh commands the Israelites to kill the used women but keep the virgin girls for themselves.)

It was also a time when gods picked favorites and meddled in the affairs of tribes and nations, and great men were born great. Small wonder, then, that so many powerful men claimed powerful paternity. In the tradition of the ancient Hebrews, this took the form of an obsession with lineage and pure, favored bloodlines. Writers of the Hebrew Bible trace the genealogy of King David back to Abraham, for example, and the genealogy of Abraham to the first man, Adam. In the Greek and Roman worlds, entitlement claims took the form of assigning supernatural paternity to public figures. The Christian tradition, somewhat awkwardly, tries to lay claim to both of these—tracing the lineage of Jesus through his father Joseph back to King David, while simultaneously denying that he had a human father.

This is the context for the miraculous conception stories, and in this context, the consent of a woman is irrelevant. Within a society that treats female sexuality as a male possession, the only consent that can be violated is the consent of a woman’s owner, the man with the rights to her reproductive capacity—typically her father, fiancé, or husband. Many Christians are surprised when told that nowhere in the Bible, either Old Testament or New, does any writer say that a woman’s consent is necessary or even desirable before sex.

This omission is more than regrettable, it is tragic. Two thousand years after Hebrew and Aramaic texts were assembled into the modern Jewish Bible, 1600 years after a Roman Catholic committee voted books in and out of the Christian Bible, 1400 years after Muhammad wrote the Koran (which draws heavily on the moral framework of the Judeo-Christian tradition), we still struggle with the question of female consent. Our struggle is made immeasurably harder by the presence of ancient texts that have become modern idols—texts that put God’s name on men’s desires.

The most extreme example may be a document published by the Islamic State, outlining rules for the treatment of sexual slaves, rules drawn from the Koran. Closer to home for most Americans is the awkward but widespread existence of Christian leaders who teach that a woman’s glory is in childbearing, and that a woman who fails to service her husband whenever he desires is failing to serve God.

But even closer to home for many is the shocking prevalence on college campuses and in society at large of sexual manipulation and coercion perpetrated by males who otherwise seem morally intact. One can’t help but notice that a large number of high profile cases involve high status males: fraternity members, a famous actor, a radio host, small town football stars and big league professional athletes—men, in other words, who think they are gods. Convinced of their own deific qualities, it just follows that the object of their attentions has gotta want it—and if she doesn’t, well, that fine too, because when a god wants a woman, consent isn’t really part of the story.


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at

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Dr. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist with a passion for personal and social evolution.  In 2005, she co-founded the Progress Alliance of Washington, a collective of future-oriented donors investing in progressive change.


As an evangelical Christian, and male of the species, my reading of your article tends towards a antagonistic bias; but you do conclude with a valid - and important - concern. I would argue that consent SHOULD be a civilized societal no-brainer (despite the abundance of evidence that so many would disagree). A willful subjugation of the biological imperative to, if not our desire to love one another, then at least a variation of the golden rule: Don’t do it to others if you don’t want it done to yourself. I’d also hope that considering consequences helps.

I did want to seek clarification on your definition of rape, however. I have always thought of it in strictly human terms, that of any of a long list of types of forced sexual intercourse. When discussing the idea of Divine impregnation, I would not have considered that rape, since it lacks the physical and sexual components. Does the resulting unplanned pregnancy without consensual sex necessitate rape as the only potential cause?

I would also argue that the omnipotent God of Christianity who knows the heart of man could have used his infinite understanding to ensure the mother of the Messiah was a consenting participate. It seems silly to hold the infinite and omnipotent to ideas and records of verbal communication.

Regardless, thank you for the interesting and thought provoking article.


Well… your piece is sure stretching things. I am not a believer, but the Incarnation is NOT a rape story in any shape or form.

In Luke Mary says:

“And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.”

The version in Matthew focuses on Joseph where it is explained to him why his soon to be wife he hadn’t slept with is pregnant.

“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”

If you read that correctly Joesph had every intention to treat his wife humanely BEFORE he’s told she’s pregnant from God. The early Christians, in the context of the time, were the most progressive movement in history EVER when it came to women. Jesus thought it was fine to hang out with a prostitute and even prevented a mob from stoning her, there were women priests etc, etc. 

I do not believe in the Incarnation but by deliberately mixing it up with pagan rape stories and trying to tie it without any shred of evidence to date rape in colleges, I think you are being as fanatical as the religious zealots you wish to discredit.

What makes the Christian Incarnation story deep and of value to all of us whether we are Xian or not is that it says that when God became man he didn’t do so as a king and wasn’t birthed by a queen, but by a poor woman who was so lowly she had to give birth in a stable. What that says to me is that all of us are worthy of love and respect. It is something Christians, and the rest of us, should remember and take in deeply. Let them celebrate their holiday in peace. 


Here’s a better take on the Xmas story:

@Rick re “Well… your piece is sure stretching things”

“Stretching” is very understated. I would say OVERstretching, to the point of being frankly ridiculous.

Those who have only a hammer, see only nails everywhere.

By the way, Greek Goddesses screwed around too.

Happy holidays to you and yours, Giulio.

Greetings, Rick and Giulo. To be clear, I don’t believe that the Mary story is about a sexual impregnation; nor are several of the others I listed.  My point was about consent and the broad assumption across history and across cultures that a woman would want to be impregnated by a high status man (or god). 

I find it telling that so many readers have pointed to Mary’s assent and subsequent delight as evidence that the story contains consent.  Consider: In the story Mary is told by a powerful supernatural being what will happen to her and after the fact she assents using words that emphasize their power differential.  She is not asked in advance.  And yet, like most stories of this sort involving divine impregnation, she goes on to be thrilled that she is to be the mother of a god. 

If anything, this underscores my thesis.

@Rencheple - That was by far the most thoughtful and measure response to this article that I have receive from anyone explicitly claiming to be a Christian. Several included language that would surely have been disappointing to the writer’s mother and pastor. smile

I don’t see the Virgin Birth story as a story of sexual impregnation; rather I see it as part of a broader cultural pattern in which the incredible gift of a woman’s reproductive potential belongs not to her but to others—to her father (as a family asset in the Mosaic Law, for example); to her country (as when women are traded to cement political alliances); to her King (as in the case of concubines); or to a god who is modeled on the human male.  Another aspect of this cultural tradition is that women are valued for and defined by their ability to produce offspring, primarily male offspring. 

In hindsight I should have chosen a different title for this article; too many people couldn’t get past the word “rape” which (after calling the mythic trope “more than a little rapey”) I never use in the article itself.

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