Historical Legacy of Sexual Violence

A new book explores changing definitions of rape

By Lois Elfman ’80

“Challenging the definition of rape indeed has a long history in the United States, one that has left significant legacies for the ways that we understand the subject today,” said Estelle Freedman, the Edgar B. Robinson professor in U.S. history at Stanford University, during a recent on-campus lecture. Freedman focused her talk on the late-19th and early-20th centuries, “when both women’s-rights and racial-justice advocates contested the narrow understanding of rape as a brutal attack on a chaste, unmarried white woman by a stranger, typically portrayed as an African American man.”

In her new book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, Freedman examines rape within a historical perspective. In doing so, she reflects on how accusers and accused are often impacted by issues of class, privilege, and race. Biased perspectives of sexual violence continue among individuals and society at large as these perceptions are scrutinized, revised, and reinterpreted.

At the talk, sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Freedman highlighted three key points that run throughout her book: the historical fluidity of the concept of rape; its relationship to citizenship; and, finally, the particular historical contexts in which legal changes occurred.

In the 19th century, she explained, rape was defined as “the carnal knowledge of a woman achieved by force and against her will by a man other than her husband.” Children under the age of 10 were protected; there were no questions about force or consent. Rape laws exempted husbands as well as master/slave relations: Even after emancipation, the presumption that black women could not be raped persisted. “The changing definition of the prosecution of rape in American history has been critical to the construction of citizenship,” Freedman noted. “That was: Who was to be included and who excluded from privileges and obligations such as voting, jury service, and office-holding, as well as access to due process of law?”

White police officers, lawyers, judges, and jurors perpetuated white male privilege. As suffragists fought for the vote, they also contested the understanding of sexual violence.

Although radical free lovers articulated a woman’s right to refuse marital sex in the late-19th century, that redefinition found little support until decades later. Suffragists rallied behind statutory rape reform, and even before women gained the vote, they were successful in getting the age of consent raised to between 16 and 18 in most states. During that period, chastity was essential to middle-class women hoping to marry. Loss of honor had not only emotional consequences, but could have devastating economic costs. Civil statutes provided the possibility of financial compensation if a young woman was seduced and abandoned. “In some cases though, seduction represents what is known as a legal fiction that stood for the act of forcible sex with plaintiffs and lawyers agreeing to file a civil seduction suit rather than criminal rape complaint,” said Freedman.

Anti-seduction laws also arose, although racial bias persisted. White women continued to be defined by their purity and black women by what was considered their promiscuity. White men accused of rape were more likely to be charged either with attempted rape or criminal seduction. If convicted, white men received relatively short sentences, whereas black men faced long periods of incarceration or even execution, often by lynching.

Women’s quest for full citizenship included an insistence that until women sat on juries and were involved in making laws there would be unequal justice. Black women reported assaults from white and black men, but frequently received no consideration, and in many cases feared reprisal. “At a time when the majority of reports of rape in white newspapers concerned black interracial rape, African American newspapers publicized the underreporting of white on black rape,” said Freedman. The African American press also monitored police and court proceedings, “foreshadowing the legal challenges that would become an important plan in the civil-rights movement after the 1930s.”

After women gained the right to vote, inequalities around issues of sexual violence continued, with immigrants also being considered likely perpetrators. Immigrants and homosexual men were also seen as threats to boys and young men. The possibility of being sent to psychiatric institutions for indeterminate periods of time became a constant threat for gay men. “In our time, the term rape has been expanded further to include non-forcible as well as violent acts committed by and upon members of any gender or race regardless of marital status,” noted Freedman. “Men who once enjoyed immunity from prosecution by virtue of their status—such as clergy, teachers, or coaches—are beginning to face closer scrutiny about their abuse of girls and boys or young men and women.

“For all these changes, though, earlier constructs remain deeply embedded in our culture and the benefits of redefinitions are unequally distributed,” she added. “The history I explore in Redefining Rape suggests to me that contestations over the meaning of sexual violence will continue as long as social inequalities—particularly those based on gender and race—continue to characterize American life.”

Latest IssueSpring 2021