Rape Myths and their Pervasiveness in the 19th and 20th Centuries: Rape Myths and their Impact on the Victims

Rape Myths and their Pervasiveness in the 19th and 20th Centuries: Rape Myths and their Impact on the Victims

Rape myths permeated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  Suggestions that, on some level, the victim “wanted it” and that “it is impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard”, had consequences.  Not only did these myths affect the attitudes and perceptions of the authorities involved in the prosecution and conviction of these crimes, it also impacted the victims’ experiences as well.  This post will be focusing on this point and on the difficulties they faced when they attempted to report the assaults.

Part 3: Rape myths and their impact on the victims

The extensiveness of rape myths during the period under discussion was reflected in the victims.  Such signs could be found not only by the way they were treated by those in positions of authority but also in the fact that victims themselves often believed those myths as well, thus demonstrating the pervasiveness of the myths within society.  The validity of a reported rape was perceived based on the “moral status of the victim.”[1]  The treatment, expectations and perceptions of victims by those in authority can be noted throughout the process from the point of reporting the crime to the police to the moment of judgment at the end of a court trial.  Scholar, Antony Simpson, points out that both officials and the public responded to a rape complaint with distrust and suspicion, so much so that it has been referred to as “the second assault.”[2]

In 1838 in New York a case appeared before Judge Cowen, People v Abbot.  This case was to become one of the most referenced cases in US law with regards to the process during rape trials.[3]  It, furthermore, reflects the approach to rape cases in both the UK and the US and demonstrates much about attitudes at the time.  Judge Cowen was quoted stating that “any fact tending to the inference that there was not the utmost reluctance and the utmost resistance, is always received.”[4]  He demanded, and other judges as well in most trials that appeared afterwards, that it was necessary to prove that force was used in a way that the victim had not given her consent in both body and mind.  It was furthermore, essential to demonstrate that the victim had reported the rape immediately afterwards in order to present all evidence that there had been excessive force used for the crime to be committed.  This case was also notable for the decision to introduce the questioning of the accuser’s character into the trial in order to gauge the reliability of her statement.[5]

Pervasive myths impacted the impressions that police, juries and judges had of the victims as reliable witnesses.  It was generally thought that there was a distinction between the woman mentally not giving consent to the man or men who assaulted her and her body not giving consent.[6]  During the 19th century, it was thought by many physicians working with the police at the time that as “it is impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard,” it was almost impossible to rape a woman who was healthy unless she had become “insensible” from the attack.[7]  It was thus argued that if the assault had occurred then it was possible that her physical sexual desire impeded the woman from fully stopping the assailant, and therefore making her complicit in the act as well.[8]  As such, if the reported act was truly rape there should be evidence that the woman had been brutally attacked in order for the assault to occur.  These were just some of the assumptions facing the victim who reported her rape to the police and the attitudes facing her when questioned about the attack.  Even on those occasions that rape was believed women were perceived as enticing such attention, particularly when the rape occurred in the masculine and dangerous environment of the public sphere.[9]

Due to the prominence of the myth that “women lie,” women experienced extensive difficulties when they reported their attack.  Victims were often treated with disbelief as there was often the assumption that they either had an ulterior motive such as financial compensation or confused due to an overactive imagination.[10]  Such attitudes meant that it was extremely difficult for a victim to be taken seriously and to be believed.  When Eliza Carter successfully reported her rape and was able to get a guilty conviction for her rapist, James Castleman, in 1840, it required her to meet all the standards within these myths: that she screamed for help and witnesses were able to back up that fact and that she was overpowered as Castleman had the help of four friends to rape her (for more details on this case check out part 2 of this series).[11]  Others, however, found that just by matching certain presumptions they were automatically discredited.  When Harriet Stump reported her employer, Henry Francis Burholt, of raping her, her character was questioned and she lost credibility when her performance, about a week after the assault, at her master’s home was presented as evidence against her.  At a Christmas gathering at her employer’s home she had dressed up and sang a bawdy song in front of all of her employer’s guests.[12]  This behaviour was used to prove that her testimony could not be trusted and her case was destroyed; Mr Burholt, was found not guilty.[13]

These myths affected the victims’ own interpretations on the sexual violence done against them; many experienced shame and even fear of how they would be treated if they reported the attack.  The women whose attacks were taken to trial were put through such vigorous examination on all details of not only the rape itself but also on their character as a whole and their sexual history.  Such examination could be damaging not only to their reputation and respectability but also it could add to the emotional ordeal of the rape.[14]  Furthermore, during trials witnesses could be bought off to ensure that they did not appear in court to support the victim’s claim and others could be brought forward to either speak to the Defendant’s good character or to damage hers. Due to the importance placed on the idea of consent and the body saying “yes” even if the mind said “no,” the sexual history of the woman was important to the outcome of the trial; if she was not a chaste virgin, gaining a conviction was even more arduous.[15]  The pervasiveness of such myths often meant that victims would believe them just as much as those in authority, causing them distress as they questioned themselves how they had caused it.[16]

Rape myths have constantly evolved which has enabled them to last throughout the time period under discussion and beyond; creating doubts and suspicions in people’s minds whenever a rape case was discussed.[17]  The cases that successfully reached a guilty verdict at court required certain points to be covered: that the victim was chaste; that it could be proven that she had fought with all her strength to try to prevent it from happening; that there were certain factors to explain how she was overpowered; that she was able to recall all the facts later when questioned about it without deviation despite the vigorous nature of the questions.[18]  These myths have become a subliminal and extensive influence throughout society during the time period under discussion and beyond which only really began to be challenged in the 1970s.[19]  Myths played a part in the way the victim was treated, in the public’s perception of rape and in the execution of the law and its interpretation as well.

The topic of rape myths and the victims is considerable and so this post has aimed to highlight to you some of the important points regarding this particular topic.  This is the final part of the Rape Myths series in which, part 1 focused on the law and part 2 focused on the media, click the links to read more and if you missed the first instalments.

[1] Bourke, Rape, 48.

[2] A. E. Simpson, “The ‘Blackmail Myth’ and the Prosectuion of Rape and its Attempt in 18th Century London: The Creation of a Legal Tradition.” The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 77, 1 (1986): 101.

[3] P. R. Sanday, A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial, (New York: Doubleday Publishing Group, 1996) 110.

[4] Sanday, A Woman Scorned, 110.

[5] Sanday, A Woman Scorned, 110.

[6] Sanday, A Woman Scorned, 109.

[7] J. Bourke, “Sexual Violation and Trauma in Historical Perspective,” Arbor Ciencia, Pensamineto y Cultura (May-June 2010): 409.

[8] Sanday, A Woman Scorned, 101.

[9] J. Jones, “’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, edited by S. D’Cruze (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd, 2000), 112.

[10] J. Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present, (London: Virago Press, 2007), 36.

[11] “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).

[12] Bouke, Rape, 21.

[13] Bourke, Rape, 23.

[14] Bourke, Rape, 112.

[15] M. J. Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England [Kindle Ebook], (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Ch 3 Sexual Violence.

[16] S. Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape [Kindle Ebook], (New York: Open Road, 1975), Ch 10, The Victims: The Setting.

[17] Simpson, “The ‘Blackmail Myth,’” 101.

[18] Sanday, A Woman Scorned, 110.

[19] Bourke, “Sexual Violence,” 407.

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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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