In this article for Aeon, author Sandra Newman makes a strong argument for the need to treat rape the way we treat other crimes. But first she digs into the history of the many other ways in which rape has been conceptualized over the years:
There is a simple and surprisingly durable myth about what causes men to rape women. It goes like this: if a man is too horny, from sexual deprivation or from being constitutionally oversexed, he will lose control in the presence of an unguarded woman. Through the early days of psychology as a science, this basic assumption remained the same. When Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), he assumed that rapists suffered from either ‘priapism and conditions approaching satyriasis’ or a ‘mental weakness’ that allowed lustful urges to escape their control. It was a simple matter of hydraulics. If the pressure was too great, or the vessel too weak, a horrifying crime would burst forth.
In the early decades of the 20th century, as human sexuality became the focus of intense scientific interest, this naive model of sexual assault went unquestioned by researchers. Havelock Ellis believed that all male sexuality was violent and predatory, and therefore saw no reason to doubt that rape was a normal manifestation of masculine desire. Alfred Kinsey preferred to ignore the issue altogether, dismissing most rapes as false accusations, and doubting they did real harm anyway. Thus the hydraulic model of rape persisted until the latter half of the 20th century, when it was abruptly shattered by a deadly combination of feminist theory and empirical research. That research has brought us much closer to an understanding of why men rape. But it’s also taught us something far more useful, and almost universally overlooked: how rape can be prevented.
Let’s return to the hydraulic theory, which might have persisted even longer were it not for one particularly treacherous feature: it opened the door to victim-blaming. If sexual desire triggered rape, then a really provocative woman might inspire so much lust that even a good man would be overwhelmed. The victim became the real perpetrator: the man was effectively helpless as he punched her, wrestled her to the ground, and forced his penis into her.
After breaking down the problems with these conceptions of rape, Newman eventually goes on to argue:
The history of research into rape’s causes is a history of trying to redefine rape as something that needs a medical solution, or a political solution, or as the inevitable result of male sexuality, which cannot have any real solution: as anything but a crime that must be punished. This bias almost certainly springs from an unwillingness to acknowledge that the suffering of female victims is important enough to merit the punishment of male perpetrators. Victims’ advocates have also often failed to emphasise penal solutions, fearing that the criminal justice system is incorrigibly hostile to their concerns. Even when punishment does enter the discussion, it is usually framed as a means of obtaining justice for individual victims, rather than as a means of preventing future crimes. All the research done to date shows that this is a mistake. Even if the criminal justice system is resistant to change, that is where our efforts must be directed if we want to eradicate rape.
The full piece is well-worth a read and it’s available over on Aeon.
[Photo: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0]