Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Constructing 'rape'

I went to a public lecture tonight by Joanna Bourke a historian from Britain. Her talk was called "Sexual Violence, a historical perspective: writing the rapist".

It's not the really the subject of this post, but she kicked ass when it came to dissing evolutionary psychology (she called in pernicious, which is a great word that I should use more often), and how it is fundamentally ahistorical. The strength of historical analysis is that it does allow us to examine the particular time and place in which things happen to seek an explanation. This shows us that the world can change.

She also talked quite a bit of the female perpertrator of sexual violence. I'm not going to respond to that at all, because I felt the time she had was really limited, and I'd need to see her arguments in full before I could respond.

Her talk examined the way 'the rapist' had been constructed and explained over time. I'm actually going off almost completely on a tangent in this post. In her paper she was concentrating on how rape had been explained. In particular how and why a medical explanation of rape gave way to a psychological explanation of rape (although she covered a lot of other ground as well). In doing this she talked a little bit about how rape is defined: what is called rape, and what is not. That's what I want to write about in this post.

'Rape' and unconsensual sex
In her lecture Joanna Burke was mostly discussing not the history of rape, but the history of how rape had been constructed. I think examining the history of how 'rape' has been constructed as separate from the history of nonconsesual sex, is a really important way of examining the history of power, sexuality and gender. She obviously knows a lot more about the history of non-consenual sex, which she didn't go into in this lecture, but that's also a fascinating important topic, possibly hindered by the almost impossibility of finding sources.

It seems to me that, without resistence, the definition of 'rape' will be constructed by those in power, in a way that will reinforce that power. Joanna Burke gave some really stark examples of this. Obviously the most well-known is black men 'raping' white women, a definition of rape that had very little to do with consent. Another example she gave was a phrase that was used in a lot in legal cases at the end of the 19th century "you can't sheathe your sword in a vibrating scabbard." This was really explicitly tied to class as legal texts argued that while delicately bred women might freeze when a man tried to have sex with them, lower-class women, were used to rough and tumble, and could stop rape by cross their knees. This effort to limit the defintion of rape helped define the rapist, and the rape victim (too often the rapist is defined by his victim).

What the feminist movement has done is challenged and expanded the definition of 'rape', so that it doesn't just serve the interests of those with power. But this is an unstable situation, and so we have to keep fighting to push those boundaries, and be aware that our efforts can and will be co-opted.

I see a lot of the writing feminist bloggers do on rape as being part of this project. We're saying rich boys from the OC rape, rich boys from Duke rape, and police officers rape. We're saying that rape is defined by those who have sex forced on them, not by those who force others to have sex.

All Men Are Rapists
In her lecture Joanna Burke treated this phrase uncritically. She frequently set her historical study of the construction of rape as an alternative to a claim that all men were rapists. I found this disappointing, partly because the phrase 'all men are rapists' was first used by a fictional character in Marilyn French's The Woman's Room. As far as I know it has rarely, if ever, been seriously put forward as a theoretical explanation for rape. But also because she failed to examine the idea 'all men are rapists' in its historical context (as a disclaimer it was an hour lecture, she almost certainly does this in her book, but that won't be out to next year, so her lecture is all I have to go on).

If I was studying rape historically I would examine the idea that 'all men are rapists' as part of a struggle to define what rape is.

Rape as a weapon of war
One of Joanna Burke's most pertinent points is how easily we have accepted that rape was used as a weapon of war in some contexts. The Red Army in Berlin, Bosnia, and Rwanada, were all examples that she gave of times and places where the use of rape as a weapon of war became part of the accepted discourse about that war. But, as she pointed out, despite the large amount of evidence that we have that rape is used as a weapon of war in Iraq, Iraq is not seen as a war where rape is used as a weapon. We have photos, so many photos, but evidence is not enough, because the discourse is controlled.

This is what I mean by the danger that an analysis of rape that defines all non-consensual sex as rape might be co-opted. It was feminists who put forward the analysis that rape is used as a weapon in war. But this idea will only be accepted if it's the enemy (however that is constructed) who are using that weapon. This isn't to mean we should step back from our analysis, but that we must put our efforts into places where our analysis will not be accepted, rather than focusing on areas where it would.

A story
I want to end with the story that she opened and closed her lecture with. The woman's name was not recorded, she was Vietnamese and surrounded by American soldeirs. One by one they raped her. She asked them, in English, "Why are you doing this to me?"

The point Joanna Burke was making is that we have to keep asking that question, and finding specific answers, because if we give up on answers we give up on the idea that we can stop them.


  1. Thank you for providing this information on how rape has been defined.

  2. Thanks for this. She sounds incredibly interesting. I was trying to write something other day about how feminists have expanded and changed the definition of rape (as defined by those in power) and that's one reason why we're encountering so much resistance.

  3. Anonymous2:56 pm

    Of course, while women form the majority, they are not the only vicitims of rape - men rape men as well. Sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for power - I've been the victim of both.

  4. Anonymous1:49 pm a weapon of war,all males will be culled,all females will be impregnated,with a biological connection to the invaders/victors/conquerers/rapists future opposition is nipped in the bud.Next,conversion for all to the new religion.Not unlike that bastard new boy tom that kills any young that he's not sired,physiological,perhaps?

  5. Anonymous3:25 am

    Did Ms. Bourke refer to any of the excellent research by Peggy Reeves Sanday on rape-free vs. rape-prone cultures? Sanday is a well-known feminist anthropologist, whose research has shown that there are many cultures in which rape is rare or unknown - cultures in which men and women are equal, and respect for women is such that only a monster would commit rape.