In 1862, US physician Edmund Arnold testified in court that it was “very improbable” that pregnancy could result from rape, because “in truly forcible violations ... the uterine organs cannot well be in a condition favorable to impregnation.”
Before dismissing such comments as a relic of the 19th century, fast forward to last year, when Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association claimed that trauma from a “genuine case of forcible rape” would make it “difficult” for a woman to conceive a child.
That rape has long been contested ground is perfectly illustrated by a new book, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, by feminist historian Estelle Freedman. The book covers key moments in the history of rape and includes more recent controversies such as the speech by US senatorial candidate Todd Akin last year, in which he used the term “legitimate rape” to argue against abortion in cases of rape and incest.
In British law, which provided the basis for many US statutes, the term “rape” originally referred to the nonsexual crime of violent theft (from the Latin raptus or rapere). It was not until the 12th-century Codex of Gratian that a clear distinction was made between abduction and rape, with the latter defined as “forced sexual intercourse.”
In the 15th century, the father or husband of a raped woman pressed criminal charges because the legal definition of rape in England had narrowed to apply to the theft of a woman’s virtue, either a daughter’s virginity or a married woman’s honor.
British judge Lord Matthew Hale said in the late 1600s that rape was “an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent,” words still quoted today in the courtroom and out of it.
By the 1800s, feminist reformers were campaigning to change laws, minds and culture, not only regarding sexual violence, but also race. In US culture, rape was considered a crime committed against a chaste white woman, particularly by a black male stranger. Around that same time, female slaves could not refuse sex with their masters, wives had to acquiesce to their husbands and jurors debated whether a prostitute could be raped.
If a woman was known to have previously consented to sex, it was usually assumed she would consent every subsequent time. This meant that the prosecution of rape was near impossible, unless the woman was white, virginal, unmarried (to her rapist) and middle-class.
The first major victory for the reformists was when non-
consensual sex with acquaintances and husbands was redefined as rape: Feminists campaigned for recognition that white assailants, who were neither strangers nor violent to their victims, should be prosecuted. They argued that stereotyping rapists as black “savages” was harmful to African-American men and victims of sex crimes. In 1886, the National Police Gazette titled one report of a lynched African-American man accused of rape as “Another Coon To Roast.”
These efforts led, almost 100 years later, to the formation by suffragists of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.
The Chicago Defender wrote in 1914: “It is next to impossible for a woman of good appearance to walk in the street unescorted after 7 o’clock without being repeatedly subjected to the insults and indecent assaults of white men.”
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.