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

Rape myths such as “it is impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard”[1] permeated throughout 19th and 20th century societies.  The implications of this idea for victims of rape during this period were extensive; they not only made it difficult to gain a conviction but also brought a sense of shame and even reluctance to speak about it for the victims.  This series is focusing on the various aspects of this issue and this post will be focusing, in particular, on the way that rape myths were spread through society by the media.

Part 2: Rape myths in the media 

On Sunday 8th March 1840, The Examiner had an article that demonstrates how the press were able to use and be influenced by rape myths.[2]  The article covers the rape of 23-year-old Eliza Carter by James Castleman, Henry Batt, Isaac Barter, Charles Shrimpton and one other man named Ireland.  This article points toward and uses many of the myths mentioned in this series.  Importantly, the article dealt with the myth mentioned above that implied the impossibility of raping someone who resisted; one of the few occasions that rape was thought to be possible was if there was more than one person committing the assault.[3]  Eliza was over-powered by the five men involved in the assault and, more importantly, the article highlighted the fact that she “resisted as long as she had breath, and begged for her life.” Her statement was then backed up by several witnesses “who proved that they had heard the screams of the prosecutrix at a very considerable distance.”  Thus, her claim was supported not only by herself but by others as well who could prove that she had indeed fought as much as possible; the fact that she was out numbered also counted towards the rape conviction.  There was a focus on the brutality of the act itself and the use of force by the offenders; the article describes how she was “thrown violently on the ground, and a smock-frock thrown across her face.”  The article then stated that the rape “had been committed… under circumstances of the greatest barbarity.”  The article concludes by informing the reader that the jury came back with a guilty verdict and the judge sentenced them to death.

Society’s understanding of crimes, particularly sex crimes, has been influenced massively by the media.  Through the various newspapers, journalists spread ideas of rape myths to the reading public, not only to educate their audience on respectable behaviour and appropriate gender roles, but also to titillate them.[4]  Through the decisions made by the press as to what cases were brought to the attention of the reading public and what was not, readers’ beliefs and attitudes towards the subject were shaped and, therefore, the press played a major role in the pervasiveness of these myths.[5]

Myths, such as the example in the introduction of this post and the examples at the beginning of part 1, presented and reinforced the impression to readers that without a large amount of brutal force, the act that had taken place was not rape.  What was inferred by this – and subsequently resulted in the concept of consent becoming increasingly ambiguous – was the idea that even if the mind had refused, it was possible for the body to give consent, especially if the victim was not a virgin when she was assaulted.[6]  The consequence of the press presenting such an image to the public meant that the idea became further embedded into society and created the impression that these women were “asking for it,” or at some level, wanted it to happen, especially if they already had a sexual history.[7]  In the case involving Eliza Carter, mentioned above, the defence unsuccessfully attempted “to show that the prosecutrix was not a person of good character,” which demonstrates how it was considered a viable defence against getting a guilty conviction.[8]

Throughout the period in question the press used rape cases to reinforce masculine and feminine roles and, furthermore, used it as a warning to women from the middle classes to not trespass into the public sphere, outside of their protected space and, for women from the working classes who had to work in the public sphere to be more vigilant about guarding their chastity and respectability.[9]  This tactic could be seen in Eliza’s case; early on in the article The Examiner establishes the fact that Eliza was heading home at ten o’clock at night when the five offenders approached her, thus demonstrating that the assault was made possible by her being away from the protection of her home, particularly as it happened at night.[10]  Another example of the press using sexual violence as a way of demonstrating the dangers of the public sphere for women and the dangers of leading a promiscuous life, was the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888.[11]  Although they did not involve rape, the fact that the victims were prostitutes and had their sexual organs removed meant that the murders were viewed as a form of sexual violence and treated in a similar way by the press.  The incidents were used to promote ideals around morality and respectability to the reading public (for more information about this check out my Jack the Ripper series).

Rape myths impacted and directed the way in which the press would not only understand the cases that appeared in court but also how they presented and narrated the details of the case to their readers.[12]  Furthermore, they decided which cases would receive the most amount of attention and, thus, directed what impression readers had regarding rape occurrences in society.  Much of the focus was often on the victim’s actions; one of the first points that they would concentrate on would be on what she had done that led to her being raped.[13]  They would emphasise, for example, if the woman had been out at night time, away from the protection of her home and exposed to the public, male dominated sphere, such as what happened to Eliza; or perhaps she was alone in the company with a man that was not her husband, father or brother.  As far as most of society was concerned these factors and other similar situations was a clear sign that, no matter her protestations, “she was asking for it,” at the very least partly to blame.  The press, rather than considering the rapist and his actions, would consider the respectability of the woman and her past behaviour to dictate the way that the rape case would be represented in the newspapers.  Journalists, furthermore, perceived and presented the actions of rapists in their articles, not by their actions against their victims but, rather, as a response to the behaviour of the victims.[14]

These points on the media’s involvement in rape myths covered in this post are not exhaustive, yet it should help provide an idea of the ways that the media was involved in the propagation of rape myths throughout society.  In the next part I will be considering the impact these myths had on the victims themselves.

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

[2] “Assizes: Western Circuit, March 4,” The Examiner, London: Issue 1675, Sunday, 8 March 1840, British Library Newspapers, http://0-find.galegroup.com.catalogue.wellcomelibrary.org/bncn/start.do?prodId=BNCN&userGroupName=wellcome, (accessed 25 March 2018).

[3] Bourke, 25.

[4] Jones, J., “’She resisted with all her might.’: Sexual violence against women in late nineteenth century Manchester and the local press,” in Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950: Class and Gender, ed. S. D’Cruze, (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd, 2000) 104.

[5] Edwards, K. M. et al, “Rape Myths: History, individual and institutional-level presence, and implications for change,” Sex Roles 65 (2011): 764.

[6] Sanday, P. R., A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance rape on trial, (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 109.

[7] Brownmiller, S., Against Our Will: Men, women and rape, Kindle E-book, (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013), Ch 10: Victims: The Setting.

[8] “Assizes: Western Circuit, March 4.”

[9] Jones, 116.

[10] “Assizes: Western Circuit, March 4.”

[11] Jones, 105.

[12] Jones, 108.

[13] Edwards, 767.

[14] Jones, 108.

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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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