Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation

Estelle B. Freedman

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, 387pp.

Reviewed by Gabriela Torres

 

Freedman’s Redefining Rape makes clear that our understandings of sexual violence are inexorably tied to culturally sanctioned notions of citizenship rights in the past and today. Tracing the fragmented and piecemeal struggle to define rape in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Freedman demonstrates that efforts to establish the meaning of rape and other forms of sexual violence are in essence efforts to clarify the bounds of individual sovereignty and to redress the unequal hierarchies of citizenship in which women all too often find themselves.

Using legal documents, the writings of nineteenth century social reformers, and documents from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the volume pulls the reader into a meticulously constructed account of the ways that rape shaped the very definition of citizen rights in the US. In this process, individuals, activists, politicians, and the press define citizenship as they come to understand, define, redefine, and sometimes question acts of rape and the social supports for sexual violence.

Tracing the history of rape as a concept in flux, Freedman illustrates that class and gender regularly intertwine in the constitution of socially stratified citizenship. For example, one of the fundamental moral and cultural objections to rape raised in seventeenth century and eighteenth century US history was based on the conception that rape was a violation or appropriation of a man’s sexual rights over his wife and, for some men, their state-sanction rights over their female slaves. Rape at this point in history was not conceptualized as a violation of a woman’s consent, as it is sometimes understood today. In many respects, rape then was a violation of a man’s rights as only men, and white men more precisely, fully enjoyed the privileges of citizenship.

Freedman’s analysis is an exemplar of good feminist practice by interrogating developing notions of citizenship through the cultural construction of the meaning of rape. Locating changing notions of which persons could be raped and which persons could be accused of rape, she evidences, for instance, the historically entrenched vulnerability for sexual assault that is suffered by African American women who were not recognized as persons with some degree of sovereignty over their sexuality until emancipation.

Freedman’s work deconstructs not only legal categories of rape but also the legacy of the ideologies used to advocate for more women-friendly rape laws in US history. For Freedman, the ideologies used to sustain sexual violence, as well as the ideologies used to advocate against sexual violence, leave palpable remains on today’s landscape. The marital rape exemption, for instance, still vestigial in the legal codes of some US states in the present, was historically ignored by both arguments based on the protection of women’s purity in the nineteenth century and twentieth century arguments based on the idea that women should have equal access to citizenship. Further, Freedman suggests that ideologies used to advocate against sexual violence often have undesired consequences. The discourses of civil rights advocates and women’s rights advocates were, for example, at odds when it came to addressing the oft repeated connection between the lynching of African American men and the sometimes dubious claims of sexual violence against white women that underpinned this loathsome expression of vigilantism. Discussion of the claims of sexual violence in such cases worked not only to define the bounds of rape and the rapist but also to complicate and muddle in significant ways even contemporary US debates on race and citizenship rights.

As a volume, Redefining Rape is accessible not only because of its easy prose but also because it consists of short topic focused chapters that explore the history of rape in specific historical periods. Individual chapters track, for instance, the link between notions of female purity, consent, and the development of the category of statutory rape. This organizational structure makes the chapters easily extractible for teaching.

While the details of the historical recounting are undoubtedly fundamental for feminist scholarship today, Redefining Rape’s legacy might actually lay in how it reframes the problem of sexual assault as a the kind of problem it always has been: a social, cultural and political problem of national import and not just a woman’s issue. As we debate the best practices to address and redress sexual assault on college campuses today, Freedman’s claim that rape and its definition will continue to “trouble Americans, spark debate, and shape social movements” (271) rings particularly true.

 

Gabriela Torres, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, MA, is a Guatemalan-born anthropologist specializing in the study of the violence and state formation. Her work has been published in numerous journals and edited collections includingAnthropologica, the Anthropology of Work ReviewStudies in Social Justice, the Journal of Poverty and the Latin American Research Review. Her forthcoming co-edited book is entitled Marital Rape: Consent, Marriage and Social Change in Global Context. M. Gabriela Torres, an AAA Leadership Fellow, has been funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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