History of Rape
March 8, 2013 10:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning about rape in 19th century America for a fictional piece I'm writing. I'm not really sure where to start in researching this, but I'd be grateful for any resources or information.

My story takes place in the Northeast, sometime between around 1875 and 1910. What were attitudes regarding rape like in this area at this time? What about laws? Are there any historical examples I might refer to? How would the social class of the woman who was raped play into it? And what about if the rape was committed by a famous, or at least well-to-do, person? Did feminist/protofeminist movements of the time deal with this at all? If you were a woman who was raped during this time, what would happen to you after the rape and what actions could you pursue if you wished? Were rapes often hidden or covered up?

I realize this may be difficult to answer, especially given the under-reporting of this crime, but I'd really appreciate any information or guidance. I intend to tread very carefully if I do write about this topic.
posted by Put the kettle on to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would start with Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller. It's been a long time since I've read it, but I remember her addressing this from exactly your perspective pretty comprehensively. I honestly can't remember if she addresses the time period and place to the degree you're looking for, but it is a great book, and could be a good place to start.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:50 AM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just a clarifying question - what are your interests around racial diversity? Are you writing about white women or Native women, etc.? That would be an important variable in the resources/experiences component.
posted by anya32 at 10:52 AM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

From what I've read (memail me for more) the higher the social class, the less likely she was considered at fault. A high-class woman who slept with a lower-class man was almost always "raped," and a lower-class woman who was brutally raped by an upper-class man was consensual. The feminist movement was more concerned with male brutality, prostitution (read some of Susan B. Anthony's earlier stuff), drinking, and voting than rape, because the feminist movement at the time was mostly upper-middle class white women. Early black feminists spoke out against rape, but mostly in line with lynching.

If someone raped a rich white woman, she could prosecute. They may not prosecute the right person, but hey, someone would get in trouble. Poorer/black women had little recourse, though. From what I've read, rapes were rarely "covered up" in the sense that they are today, but you have to remember that people defined rape differently back then. I don't know about the 1880s, but in the 1860s and such only white women could be raped. Black women were always "available." So the rape of a black woman didn't get covered up per say, but it was ignored. So basically, if you were a rich white women and were raped you would go to the police, say you were raped, and they would arrest someone. If you were poor, you had nothing.

I don't know about explicit laws, but they were never like those in, say, India. Women were considered weaker than men, and possibly more sexually promiscuous, but for women who could be raped, they were considered chaste and weak. Laws were probably similar to murder laws. However, marital rape was unheard of. If people did consider it, it fell under wife beating. It didn't become against the law until the 1980s; many argued that making marital rape illegal would "defile" the marital contract.

Many early feminists were also against birth control, because they were worried it would remove a woman's ability to say "no" to her husband, because she wouldn't have the "I don't want to get pregnant a sixth time" to back her up.

And seconding reading "Against Our Will." It's a fantastic book.
posted by obviousresistance at 10:53 AM on March 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the responses so far. I'm going to order Against Our Will - it looks great.

anya32, this character would probably be a middle-class or upper-class white woman. But I'm interested in the experiences of women of any race for background knowledge.
posted by Put the kettle on at 11:18 AM on March 8, 2013

Looking at legislative history might be a good place to start. Until 1976, marital rape was not even recognized as a crime in the US, and in many parts of the world it still isn't.

It's hazardous to assume that the same standards we have today existed in the past, so you can't necessarily answer a question like "what were attitudes about rape at this time" because that social act is defined in relation to historically-specific patterns of intersubjectivity; or to put it more simply, people might not have called sexual assault "rape" if they talked about it at all, and what they might have called "rape" might be something else. So perhaps a more productive way to go about researching this would entail asking a question like: was sexual assault acknowledged at all, and if so, what social situations would have allowed discussion of it to take place, and then, how did people talk about it?
posted by clockzero at 11:48 AM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You'd probably get some good stuff out of just researching the rape statutes from the time period you're looking at, just to get a sense of what even the law itself considered rape, much less what a jury might actually convict someone of.

Lots and lots of people covered up rape because they knew that trying to prosecute it was the start of months or years of being publicly dragged through the mud, followed by basically a lifelong stigma, because everyone would know that she'd had sex. The fact that it was nonconsensual didn't much matter, because she probably did something to deserve it. Yes, she could prosecute, in theory. First, she'd have to go to the police, where they'd put her in a room with a bunch of strange men and force her to talk about every detail of her personal life, including all of her previous activities. They'd also be looking for her to be really upset, but not so upset that it looked like she was faking it by being overly dramatic. They'd want to see injuries on intimate parts of her body, and they likely wouldn't be very gentle about it. And if she were anything other than the perfect (as defined by a bunch of people with a vested interest in painting her as imperfect so that they didn't have to admit that bad sexual things could happen to a good person) victim, they'd like assume that either it didn't happen or that it was her fault. And police could just decline to make a report and send her home if they didn't believe her . And no matter what happened, everyone in town would find out about the accusation.

Then, at trial, if there ever was a trial, she'd have to testify, and she'd have to testify to specific things. One thing to remember is that only "forcible rape" was illegal until very recently. In order to be rape, the rapist had to use force, for example; there was no rape by simple lack of consent, or rape by coercion, or rape by extortion. And force didn't just mean holding her down, it meant basically beating her up or trying to kill her. It also meant that the woman had to fight back with all her might, or else it would be assumed that she wanted it. If she didn't have serious injuries, it was assumed that either she consented or she was lying altogether. Oh, and anything other than penis in vagina might not be rape at all, so if he "only" raped her with an object or with some other parts of his body, that didn't count.

People also had very specific ideas about how a woman should act, and if she stepped outside the bounds If she got drunk, it was her fault and getting drunk with a man was assumed to be consent to whatever he might do to her. If she didn't file a complaint immediately, it was assumed that she was making it up. If she didn't cry hysterically every time she talked about it, it was assumed that she was lying. Heck, some jurisdictions during the time period you mention still required corroboration of the woman's testimony, so she basically needed a witness to her assault in order to prosecute. And they'd delve deeply into her character and past history. God forbid she'd ever had sex outside of wedlock before, because no one would believe her then. But more than that, if she were outspoken, if she regularly spent time in the company of men without a chaperone, if she wore clothes that were too revealing or too brightly colored or too anything, if she were older and unmarried, if she stayed out late at night, if she listened to the wrong music or had the wrong hobbies, if her family history had any skeletons in it, that would all weigh against believing her. I don't have the stats in front of me, but prosecutions were pretty rare, and convictions even moreso. And again, no matter what happened, everyone would know.

The corollary to the idea that upstanding women are delicate flowers who don't want to have sex with lower-class men is that men, all men, are sex-fiends who can't be expected to control their desires if a pretty girl acts wrongly. So if the woman did something that would "tempt" the man, like dressing a certain way or flirting or failing to fight him off with every ounce of her strength, it was her fault. I mean, what did she expect, being alone with a man? Just as now, a lot of people strain to come up with a list of reasons that it could never happen to them because they [don't walk through dark alleys at night/don't wear short skirts/don't drink too much/don't go on dates with strangers/etc.], people back then looked for reasons it was the victim's fault because they didn't want to admit that they lived in a culture where men could get away with raping women who didn't "deserve" it somehow. That's the mindset you're working within to try to get inside the heads of people at that time.
posted by decathecting at 12:47 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

You definitely need to read Linda Gordon's Heroes of their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, which looks at social welfare agencies in Boston and how they dealt with family violence from 1880 to 1960.
posted by besonders at 3:25 PM on March 8, 2013

I would recommend books by Thomas P. Lowry. A few of his books are about sexual behaviors during the Civil War.
posted by PJMoore at 5:44 PM on March 8, 2013

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