The History of Rape

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

When Brownmiller looks back into the dim past history of human law and justice, she finds that they were originally based on the lex talionis , the law of retaliation in kind, “an eye for an eye.” Yet there has always been a kind of bodily invasion that men could...

(The entire section contains 434 words.)

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When Brownmiller looks back into the dim past history of human law and justice, she finds that they were originally based on the lex talionis, the law of retaliation in kind, “an eye for an eye.” Yet there has always been a kind of bodily invasion that men could do to women but women could not do to men—forcible rape. No retaliation in kind was possible, so women sought the aid of chosen men to protect themselves against sexual predation. In Brownmiller’s words,

Perhaps it was thus that the risky bargain was struck. Female fear of an open season of rape, and not a natural inclination toward monogamy, motherhood or love, was probably the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man, the most important key to her historic dependence, her domestication by protective mating.

In this way, women traded their autonomy for the protection of strong men who would “own” exclusive title to their sexual and reproductive organs. Because of this contract, which became known as marriage, early laws against rape conceptualized the crime as an offense against the man, in which the rapist trespassed on a husband’s or father’s lawful property or stole something from him. (In this view, the idea of rape within marriage would be impossible, since the man who owns the title cannot be guilty of trespassing.) Only very gradually and incompletely has the law moved toward viewing a woman’s physical integrity as something owned by the woman herself.

In the context of this worldview in which women were possessed by men, Brownmiller makes sense of the horrific but largely forgotten story of rape in war. If women are chattel, then it is logical that conquering armies would “defile” them in the same way that they might burn the barns, sow the fields with salt, and dump dead bodies down the wells of their enemies. Rape in this sense is an act of aggression against the male “owner” of the property; there is no regard for the woman as having a right to her own body.

Because of the traditional view that virtuous women are protected by marriage from rape, a complementary belief emerged that a woman who is raped must not be a virtuous woman. Rape victims’ accounts have historically been discredited, their morals questioned, and their accusations burdened by the need to prove that they did not bring the attack on themselves in any way. In this fashion, rape, whether a woman ever experiences it directly, imposes pressure on all women to be chaste, modest, fearful, cautious, and dependent.

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