Rape: A Tragic History

Rape: A Tragic History
Heartbreak, Self

The tragic history of rape still shapes women's lives today.

Nowhere is the evidence of women’s lack of separateness and subjectivity more striking than it is in the history of rape as both an individual and a cultural act. The origins of the word rape are found in the ancient Greek—meaning to steal. Until recent history the rape of women has been viewed as a property crime directed against the “owner” of the victim—her husband or father. In the Hammurabi code women were seen as equally liable for the crime and both the victim and perpetrator were punishable by death. During the middle ages Jewish women won the right to pursue legal action against the perpetrators. During the reign of Henry the II women could file suit against their rapists as long as they weren’t married to them.

Beginning with the battles and bodies littered throughout the Old Testament, women, or rather their bodies, i.e. their sexuality, are regarded as the spoils of war, trophies over which the wars are often waged. It is clear early on that it is men who are dishonored when women are defiled. In Genesis 34:27 we read: “The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.” The Old Testament describes the rape of women of conquered tribes as an accepted routine. Lamentations 5:11 (King James Version) states “They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah.” When an army conquers an enemy the women who have known men are slain while virgins are kept alive. In Numbers 31: 17-18 it states: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath know man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” This is Moses speaking and he was one of the good guys.

From earliest civilization the crime of rape has also been considered a crime against the state. At present it is considered a war crime by the Geneva Convention. While this modification represents a significant step forward it still fails to address the experience of the victim and her long-term health and well-being. A victim describes it in the following manner: “It wasn’t an act of sex I went through. I felt like I was being murdered. There was nobody to tell because I was afraid no one would believe me. And then there is the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year old body is the matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot. p.6” (Feminist History of Rape. Suzanne Brown. Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Spring /Summer, 2003)

Nancy Rabinowitz (Greek Tragedy: A Rape Culture? EuGeStA-n1-2011. nrabinow@hamilton.edu) addresses the question of the ambiguity of rape among the ancient Greeks. That is, did the women go with the men because they wanted to or because they were in love? Once they became a conquered people did the women who became sexual slaves fall in love with their captors? Rabinowitz points out the fact that Greek women were given in marriage by their fathers but without their consent. Once married, they were denied both the ability to consent and the ability to withhold consent. If they were in marriage without their consent did marital sex constitute rape?

Ellen Toronto, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI. She co-authored A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy available on Amazon. See additional information about Ellen and her practice on her website; to schedule an appointment email etoronto@umich.edu or call her at 734.761.5501.         

This article was originally published at Psych Central. Reprinted with permission from the author.