Mon, Aug 19, 2013 - Page 9 News List

New book explores the battle over sexual violence in the US

The view of what constitutes rape is very different from what it was in the 19th century and early 1900s, but political forces are still shaping the debate

By Julie Bindel  /  The Guardian

The black press soon began to point out that white men routinely harassed and sexually assaulted women to challenge the racist depiction of black men as sexual predators.

In the US and UK prior to 1861, the age of consent to sexual activity was 10, but was increased to 13 following a feminist campaign against the prostitution of minors. In 1885, British journalist William Stead bought a 13-year-old virgin from a pimp. Following mass protests, the UK parliament further increased the age of consent to 16 that same year.

Not everyone agreed with the reforms.

“I regard the 12-year-old girl as being as capable of resisting the wiles of the seducer as any older woman,” one Kentucky legislator wrote in 1895.

By the 1920s, attitudes shifted from the patronizing and paternalistic to blame and culpability of the victims. Men in positions of authority expressed concerns about false accusations of rape by children and adult women and judges began to behave punitively to those making complaints. Women and girls were sexualized and deemed responsible for rape.

The American Journal of Urology and Sexology in 1918 and 1919 ran articles warning lawyers to “the great danger that men are often in from false accusations by female children and women.”

The final chapter of the book explores the contemporary anti-rape movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, women in the US and UK held organized consciousness-raising groups and public “speak-outs” where rape and sexual violence were openly discussed with an aim to move the experiences from the private to the public and into the political.

In 1971, Susan Griffin published an essay titled Rape: The All-American Crime in Ramparts magazine saying that the fear of rape was a “daily part of every woman’s consciousness.” This was followed four years later by Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.

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