The history of sexuality? A view from the history of rape

On 7 January 2014, I was fortunate to participate in the launch of History of Sexuality seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London. I thought that my talk would make a good first blog post. So here it is!

What is the relationship between the history of sexuality and the history of rape, I wondered. We might even question whether rape belongs with the history of sexuality at all. For rape’s relationship with the category of neither ‘history’ nor ‘sexuality’ is straightforward. Historical analyses of sexuality and of rape don’t necessarily produce the same histories, even though they intertwine.

There’s no consensus on how we should historicise rape. Modern scholarship consists of a number of competing narratives which tend either to insist upon the transhistorical and unchanging nature of rape or to produce (often incompatible) accounts of change in which rape figures as a marker of modernity. In both cases, we find rape entangled with assumptions about sexuality.

For some, rape is transhistorical. After all, there’s evidence aplenty of coerced, violent, violatory, and/or unwanted sexual acts in any historical period in which we’ve looked for it. If rape is ever-present, so, we might assume, is male sexual aggression, which in turn has been identified as integral to masculinity. We needn’t agree that all men are rapists or potential rapists to observe that rape and ‘rape culture’ (in which the onus is on women to avoid rape rather than on men not to do it) may be used as a means to control and oppress women. If rape is about violence, power and oppression, the question arises of whether we should categorise it as a form of sexual expression let alone identity at all, even by those who see it as a constitutive element of masculinity.

However, there’s a tension between the apparent timelessness of rape and the historiographical emphasis since the cultural turn on the constructed and contingent nature of the past. We therefore find contradictions in scholarship that claims the meaning of rape is historically and culturally specific yet which also asserts that the ideology of rape is similar across centuries and continents.[i]  These tensions are compounded by historians’ apparent reluctance to relativise rape, perhaps because presenting rape as a constructed category might seem uncomfortably close to anti-feminist assumptions that women construct consensual sex as rape. Here, the historiography of rape and that of sexuality look rather different. Numerous books and articles refer to ‘the invention’ (and ‘self-invention’) of homosexuality, lesbianism, heterosexuality, sex addiction, and so on, as a search of google scholar will demonstrate – but no one is publishing under the title of ‘the invention of rape’. The nearest we come to this is the ‘invention’ of ‘rape myths’.

Accounts of change in which rape does feature are frequently predicated on notions of modernisation. Here, we find more compatibility with certain strands within the history of sexuality. Arguments range from pre-modern men being more likely to rape than modern men because they had not yet developed self-control of their ‘natural’ sexual urges,[ii] to pre-modern rape being viewed as a property crime against rape victims’ husbands or fathers, or as a sexual offence, or as a sin, until modernity transformed it into an act of secular interpersonal violence against women.[iii] Some historians have found women to be held culpable for sexual violence against them only when they entered the public sphere around the turn of the nineteenth century,[iv] while a certain reading of Foucault sees eighteenth-century women enmeshed in an ever-tightening web of power, which constructed them as the passive victims of men who were told that they lacked control of their sexual urges.[v] I have written in more detail about the historiography of rape in a survey of sexual violence and rape 1500-1750.

Not all of these accounts of change are equally convincing, of course. But they do beg the question: does rape have one history, or many – as indeed the history of sexuality does? My own view is that there is more than one history of rape, in the sense that rape’s history involves a number of changes not all of which go in the same direction.

Because so much of rape’s history has been written as part of that of recovering subaltern voices –  those of women and girls who were abused by men – it has produced a particular type of history whether we argue for continuity or change. This is an entirely valid endeavour, and one to which I have contributed myself. Moreover, it retains an urgency given that those voices are not easily articulated even today and that the conviction rate is still dismally low. But this approach has nonetheless resulted in a number of assumptions about popular and institutional misogyny in the past being taken at face value: especially that judges and juries usually chose to believe male defendants over female accusers.

In a recent article, I show that early modern people did not necessarily equate acquittals with the innocence of accused men. Rather, they believed many guilty men were acquitted because the legal criteria for rape couldn’t be met. Misogyny preventing most rape cases from getting anywhere near a court, of course. But in the courtroom up to the mid eighteenth-century, at least, women’s sexual reputations, the likelihood that they were lying or had brought the rape upon themselves, were not common tropes. So what changed? My hypothesis is that this relates to something usually seen in terms of progress: the introduction of defence lawyers into the courtroom. Whereas previously, judges judges who were concerned with material points of law examined and cross-examined witnesses, prosecutors and defendants. Once lawyers, employed by defendants to get them off, enter the courtroom, that’s when rape victims begin to be routinely destroyed for the benefit of juries. Remember, that these were women whose cases had seemed plausible enough to persuade binding magistrates and grand juries (who heard only the prosecution’s case) that there was a case to answer. Here, then, we can see the relationship between rape and female sexuality shifting, as the latter became more pertinent to the former in the courtroom.

The relationship between rape and male sexuality also changed between 1500 and 1800. In the sixteenth century, human nature was commonly understood to be bestial, carnal and weak. This meant that potentially any man might rape, but there also existed a conception of the sort of man whose behaviour went beyond the acceptable desires of the ordinary man. By the turn of the nineteenth century, rape appears to have been associated primarily with the unacceptable perverted desires of a monstrous brute and not so much with the fervent desire of a lover or sex pest. I have discussed some of these issues in another recent article.  The fuller implications I have yet to tease out in future research. But the publicity around the Jimmy Savile and Ian Watkins’ cases shows that the spectre of the monster is much more palatable as a source of public discourse in the media than far more numerous types of rapes that attract little media attention.  In a widely reported comment, the judge Mr Justice Royce remarked when sentencing Watkins that this case ‘plunged into new depths of depravity’. As historians, we should be asking, ‘how new’?

Broadening our focus explicitly to include men who were accused of or prosecuted for rape thus allows us to see that the history of rape follows unexpected trajectories. The same may well apply to children, as recent work in the field suggests by properly contextualising and historicising child sex abuse.[vi] This isn’t to essentialise the categories of men, women, and children but rather to allow connected but discrete histories to emerge; histories that don’t simply plot rape onto familiar existing narratives of premodern and modern sexualities. This is my aim in the history of rape that I am now writing.

I shall end with a point about how we define rape as an object of study. Historians have often applied the legal definition of rape only to argue that the law was not strictly applied, or they’ve used our categories rather than those of contemporaries. It’s true that in the past many instances of what we would class as rape were considered a natural part of male sexuality and therefore, from that perspective, perhaps not really a crime. Even women who were manifestly raped (in the literal sense of forced coitus) might have thought it an unavoidable evil, an intrinsic part of male sexuality they had to endure. Marital rape (not a crime in the UK till 1992), for instance, falls into this category. At the same time, where the line fell between persuasion and force was contested in individual cases in the early modern period just as it is now. I think that it is helpful to get away from talking about generic ‘seventeenth-century attitudes’, say, or ‘early modern views’. Instead, we should analyse particular instances more specifically. We could try to chart where and how certain distinctions were made at different historical moments as well as within contemporaneous contexts. Of course, we can use our categories in our research, but we must be clear about which are our categories and which are those of historical actors. This has implications too for sexuality. We’ll never agree an exact definition of sexuality or its history. An essential part of both the history of rape and the history of sexuality is to ask what counts as rape and what counts as sexuality in particular times and places. If we simply impose our own definitions we’ll lose the purpose of history, which to some extent is all about struggles over meaning. We can ask how the past looks if we compare our own categories of sexuality with those in the past. But if we just attribute our categories to past actors, as Jean Boydston says, we simply become propagandists for a particular point of view.[vii]


[i]  E.g., Barbara J. Baines, Representing Rape in the English Early Modern Period (Lewiston NY, 2003).

[ii]  E.g., Gregory Durston, Victims and Viragos: Metropolitan Women, Crime and the Eighteenth-Century Justice System (Bury St Edmunds, 2007), following Edward Shorter, ‘On writing the history of rape’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture &  Society, 3:2 (1977).

[iii]  E.g., Miranda Chaytor, ‘Narratives of rape in the seventeenth century’, Gender & History, 7:3 (1995); Martin Wiener, The Victorian criminalization of men’, in P. Spierenburg (ed.), Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Columbus OH, 1998); Cornelia H. Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639–1789 (Chapel Hill NC, 1995).

[iv]  E.g., Anna Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England, 1770-1845 (London, 1987)

[v]  E.g., Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London, 1997).

[vi]  E.g., Sarah Toulalan, ‘“Unripe” bodies: children and sex in early modern England’, in S. Toulalan and K. Fisher eds), Bodies, sex and desire from the Renaissance to the Present (Basingstoke, 2011); Sarah Toulalan, ‘Child sexual abuse in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London: rape, sexual assault and the denial of agency’, in N. Goose, K. Honeyman (eds), Children and Childhood in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1650-1900 (Aldershot, 2011).

[vii]  Jean Boydston, ‘Gender as a question of historical analysis’, Gender & History 20:3 (2008).