Rape Myths and their Pervasiveness in the 19th and 20th Centuries: Rape myths and the Law

“It is impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard.”[1]

“Women lie… false accusations are endemic.”[2]

“No does not always mean no.”[3]

“She was asking for it.”[4]

The examples above are some of the more pervasive rape myths around during the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century.  The implication of these myths being that a woman cannot be raped if she does not want it to happen, thus, making it extremely difficult to prove it had happened.  A few years ago, I wrote an essay on this topic and it is one that has certainly impacted the areas of research that I later went into and I wanted to share my findings here.

This series of articles will be examining myths surrounding rape from the 19th Century to the mid-20th Century and how pervasive they were with society’s perceptions at the time in Britain and the United States.  Myths impacted society in different ways; the way that the law was written and interpreted, the way that society viewed the victims and even the way that victims viewed themselves all were impacted by myths surrounding rape.  It is important, of course, to bear in mind how little we know about 19th Century sexual violence and how often it occurred; it is therefore very difficult to make an accurate determination on how much of a problem rape was in this period.[5]  It is possible, however, through the sources that have been left behind, to see that where rape did occur or, at least, brought to the attention of the authorities and press, myths played an essential and fundamental part towards the way that attitudes and decisions were made in response to those occasions.  Their pervasiveness continued well into the 20th Century, only really changing during the campaigns of second wave and new feminism of the 1960s and 1970s when the impact of myths began to diminish.[6]

This series is going to be separated into 3 parts: Firstly, I will be examining how myths impacted the law and how it was interpreted by the authorities.  Secondly, I will look at how the myths were portrayed within the media; newspapers were a major source of spreading information to the public.  In the third part, I will concentrate on the ways myths affected the victims; many women were too afraid to report the attack due not only to the way that they would be treated but they often believed the myths themselves as well.

Part 1: Rape myths and the law

Rape myths could be found throughout the 19th Century, even finding a place within law and medical textbooks.  With so much emphasis on the idea that the respectable and chaste woman would choose death rather than allow her innocence to be taken away from her,[7] official arguments in the law and medical forensics believed that it was nearly impossible to rape a woman.  In one textbook for medical students entitled Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine, and Toxology from the 1890s, the writers claimed that “a fully matured woman in full possession of her faculties, cannot be raped, contrary to her desire, by a single man.”[8]  In fact the writers argued that if there was only evidence of slight bruising then they should assume that the woman did not use all her strength to prevent the rape from happening and, thus, should not to be considered rape.[9] This argument could be found throughout the period and into the 20th Century; in 1913, International Clinics published a paper entitled “Personal Investigation of Several Hundred Cases of Rape and of Over Fourteen Thousand Vaginal Examinations,” in which the writer declared that “the mere crossing of the knees absolutely prevents penetration.”[10]  These ideas spread from the textbooks into not only legislation and courtrooms but also the interpretation of medical forensic evidence.

In court cases the word “will” became an important component of proving rape, particularly in the US.  Although generally in criminal cases the term referred to “power of the mind” in directing actions, or, in other words, to consciously and knowingly choose to act.  Yet, when it came to rape cases, judges interpreted the term differently; “will” came to refer to the woman’s sexual desire, her body responding to the “seduction”, physically saying “yes” even if the mind said “no.”[11]  This argument was particularly present when it was proven that the woman already had sexual relations before the act; it was generally believed that if she had already had sex before she was raped then she was likely to give consent again.  A good example of these issues is through a case in 1836, People vs Abbot in New York, in the original trial the victim’s previous sexual history was made inadmissible if it did not involve the defendant.  When it reached the appellate courts, however, the judge presiding allowed for her history to be included, declaring that “women’s prior sexual history could be a fact that spoke to the issue of reluctance.”[12]  This particular trial was influential in how rape cases were dealt with and was frequently cited in later cases.

Such attitudes continued well into the 20th Century, although as the image of the chaste woman began to lose its significance from the 1920s onwards, the myths began to adjust and adapt the way that it appeared within society.[13]  During the 1930s and 1940s, with a few highly publicised cases of attacks on children, there was more attention placed on dangers for children, leading to calls for granting the police more power and threats of public lynching these “perverts”.[14]  The 1950s, however, saw a resurgence of attention on how women were also to blame.  The return of attention onto the women’s role in the rape was largely due to increased fears of prostitution and, with the Cold War going on, efforts to return to traditional roles while applying increasing pressure to conform to those specified roles.[15]  Throughout this period judges continued to doubt that a woman was raped and even with those who were fighting for the relaxing of laws surrounding sexuality argued that they doubted a woman was able to be raped “without some predisposition” on the part of the woman.  Women continued to be viewed as “willing participants” within the legal system until the campaigns of the new waves of feminism in both Britain and the States in the 1960s and 1970s.[16]

The points covered in this post are not exhaustive, yet it does show how myths were influential in the way that the law was interpreted and used during the 19th and 20th Centuries.  In part 2 I will be focusing on the ways that the media portrayed and propagated rape myths.

[1] Bourke, J., Rape: A history from 1860 to the present, (London: Virago Press, 2007) 24.

[2] Bourke, 28.

[3] Bourke, 49.

[4] Brownmiller, Ch 10.

[5] Porter, R., “Rape: Does it have a historical meaning?” in Rape. An historical and critical enquiry, ed. R. Porter and S. Tomaselli, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 220.

[6] Bourke, 47.

[7] Sanday, P. R., A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial, (New York: Doubleday Publishing Group, 1996), 100.

[8] Bourke, 25.

[9] Bourke, 25.

[10] Bourke, 26.

[11] Sanday, 101.

[12] Sanday 110.

[13] Freedman, E. B., “’Uncontrolled Desires:’ The response to the sexual psychopath, 1920-1960,” The Journal of American History, 1 (June 1987), 86.

[14] Freedman, 92.

[15] Freedman, 97.

[16] Freedman, 102.

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History Gal

A history lover whose main areas of interest are with gender, sexuality and sex in the Victorian times. I am a PhD student from the UK who focuses on fallen women and masculinity within the Victorian period.

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