Redefining rape: A timeline

Redefining rape: A timeline

By: Carrie Eckles

Rape has made headlines recently due to the inane remarks made by Rep. Todd Akin regarding rape and pregnancy. According to Akin, “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

Numerous doctors have spoken out about the fallacious nature of this statement. And while a lot of people are horrified that he said it, there’s a deeper issue that needs to be looked at.

There are many Republicans, such as Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president, who believe that that the very definition rape should be redefined.

Rape is rape. It’s the forcible act of sexual penetration that is unwanted by the victim and often violent. If the victim—male or female, regardless of age, religion, or relation to the rapist—says no, then it’s rape. It’s that simple.

So, the fact that anyone would want to place addendums on such a simple, yet violating act means they must have some kind of gross, hidden agenda, the surface of which has barely been scratched. They hide behind the issue of abortion. But the definition of rape should not be influenced by pregnancy or abortion. Rape is rape.

So, I think it’s high time we take a trip through history to see how other times and cultures thought of rape, and compare and contrast them to the views of those who wish to redefine it.

Raptus seductionis vs. raptus violientiae

Definitions of rape cropped up in antiquity.

In Biblical times, rape was a grievous crime because a woman was meant to go to the wedding bed a virgin. Taking her virginity without permission meant that her prospective husband may not want her. The dowry her family paid could be wasted, and the marriage might never take place. Simply put, in Biblical times, raping someone’s daughter was like irreparably damaging their property. Very little thought was given the damage of her psyche and body—at least not in a legal sense. Under these laws, it was rape whether or not the girl herself consented to sex—the damage was done to her family.

It was the Romans who started differentiating sex with a willing participant who might not have the permission of her parents and the violent act of rape as we know it today. Violent rape (ravishment) began to be prosecuted more harshly in places like Rome and Greece, often resulting in death of the offender. This was a first step in actually protecting the woman as a person, and not just her family’s honor.

Rape during the Middle Ages

Like today, the prosecution of rape during the Middle Ages was full of pitfalls and contradictions. On the one hand, rape was a capital offense; on the other hand, women were scared to come forward for fear of their reputation being tarnished. Just as in Biblical times, they were worried about being viewed as “damaged goods”. And in most places, a wife was legally bound to submit to her husband in bed. So, even if she was forced into sex, no one would prosecute it.

Common women had almost no hope in winning a case against their rapist. Usually the only women who had a chance at justice were high born women who actually came forward. (Again, coming forward was rare then, just as it is today.)

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Nicolas Poussin

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Nicolas Poussin

One thing the Middle Ages did give us were more concrete “age of consent” laws. Before then, a girl could be married at any age. (Though, if young marriages did take place, they were rarely consummated until after the girl began menstruation.) However, the age of consent was often absurdly low. In some places, children were married at seven. Under English law, the female age of consent was twelve.

Age of consent laws gave greater protection to children underage. In medieval Europe, it was assumed that people didn’t have sex outside of marriage; if you were too young to be married, you were too young to have sex.

Obviously, this didn’t stop rape entirely. What it did do was stop girls literally too young to give their consent from being given to husbands who could legally force themselves on them, if the girls didn’t willingly yield. (And, once married, a wife was compelled to yield.)

The Council of Trent

In 1563, the Council of Trent decreed that both the man and the woman had to consent to marriage, regardless of parental consent. Prior to this, parental consent was really all that mattered. Thus, by that time, a woman could refuse to marry a man. If she wasn’t married to him, she didn’t have to submit to sexual intercourse—that was another way to protect women against rape. Laws like this became more frequent as the centuries wore on.

Modern rape laws and statistics

In the United States, “no means no”. If you tell someone “no”, and they continue to pursue sex with you, then you have been raped. You don’t have to put up a physical fight. All you have to do is say no. And the fact that someone would want to change that, even a little, is just absurd and amoral.

In the United States, 91% of reported rape victims are female. 99% of reported rapists are male. Statistics concerning rape in the US are currently under debate as the Uniform Crime Program (UCR) redefined rape in 2011.

Those who wish to change the definition of rape wish to hide behind the topic of abortion. Rape and abortion do not go hand-in-hand. They must be seen as stand-alone topics, because they are. You can be raped without having an abortion; you can have an abortion without being raped. Those who want to change the law hide behind abortion, because it gets people on both sides fired up. They want to confuse you and hope you don’t get the facts.

Get the facts. Know what rape is. Learn your rights. Then, see if you think rape should be redefined.

This very short history of rape shows one thing: the definition of rape has changed very little over time, and when it has changed, it’s only been for the better. If we take a step backward, it will be a huge fall off of a terrible, jagged cliff.

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  1. Anni Bricca says:

    Thank you for this article. It’s disturbing that little has changed over time. Pieces like this help bring awareness and change. All (ALL) women need to vote. We all need our voices heard, otherwise we’re doomed by the those who through the ages still have no understanding.

  2. Tracy says:

    Agreed with Anni up above…

  3. Heather Jabusch says:

    Yes, great article and perfect timing for it! Thank you for sharing :)

  4. Bellesouth says:

    Don’t forget how the entire slave population increased in the United States. “Breeding,” they called it. Sigh

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