Rape Is a Means of Asserting Patriarchal Power

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8 mins read

This is how Trump doubles down on the portion of the electorate he believes will keep him relevant. 

If he controls the white Christian evangelical voters, he controls GOP candidates who can’t win without them. 

The governor of California, who obviously feels frustrated, expresses the irony of appealing to Christians while withholding aid during a pandemic. 

We all know the evangelical Christians are not against abortion because they are “pro life.” They are against abortion (including in cases of rape) because outlawing abortion is one way to maintain the hierarchy. There’s nothing quite like keeping women pregnant to keep them in their places and unable to compete with men in the job market.

Nah. Trump survived the Access Hollywood tape with those voters. E. Jean Carroll’s rape case against Trump won’t faze them. (She’s actually suing him for defamation. The rape allegation is no doubt outside the statute of limitation, so she’s suing him for lying about the fact that he raped her. The truth is a defense to an allegation of defamation, which gets us to a trial over whether a rape occurred.)

The patriarchal view is that sexual assault and rape are natural results of “human nature.” In fact, rape is a means of asserting patriarchal power. (So it won’t bother Trump’s “base.”)

My generation learned that rape is a means of asserting patriarchal power from:

After I tweeted the above, I got some pushback from a few men on Twitter:

The Access Hollywood tape was evidence of sexual assault. In legal terms, it was a confession. Evidence, of course, is different from “proof.” Whether evidence rises to the level of proof depends on the reliability of the evidence. 

Rape is an unusual crime in that there is almost always room to deny. “She consented” is a defense. 

Q: And what evidence do you have that it was “nonconsensual” ? 

A: You have a woman’s word. 

Q: What evidence do you have that it was “forcible”?

A: In most cases, a woman’s word. 

In the 19th century, a woman was not considered competent to testify in court, which you can see created a problem in rape cases. If the only evidence came from a woman’s word, what do you do when you consider women incompetent to testify? (Women were grouped with children and men who lacked mental capacity.)

Here is Ann Coulter offering the modern-day method of discounting a woman’s testimony:

(Ann Coulter also confuses “testimony” and “evidence” with “proof.”) 

If you doubt that members of the GOP are cool with rape, here is Steve King telling us that without rape, humanity might not have survived.

Or how about during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings when Senator Graham said, “I want to listen to her, but I’m being honest with you. . . what do you expect me to do?. . . ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?”

A follower on Twitter offered these other examples (I remember when each made headlines):

A brief history of rape laws demonstrates that, in fact, rape is a means of asserting patriarchal power.

For much of world history, rape was a property crime. An unmarried girl was her father’s property. A married woman was her husband’s property. If a virgin was raped, the property damage was to her father. If she was married, the damage was to her husband.

If she wasn’t a virgin and wasn’t married, there was no crime (because the property was already damaged). A man couldn’t rape his wife (his own property) and rape of enslaved women wasn’t a crime. 

The law was intended to protect (white) men from false accusation, not to protect women from attack. 

Attempted rape wasn’t a crime because there was no property damage—what Graham was getting at when he said there was no crime because Kavanaugh respected her enough not to go through with it.

A woman’s behavior was taken into account: How was she dressed? Was she out alone? Rape was seen as natural result of “human” nature. Men were aggressors, so a woman was responsible for guarding her chastity. That’s what Rep. King was getting to here:

As late as the 1970s, a defendant in a rape trial could present evidence that the woman had, in the past, engaged in sexual behavior. The “sexual history” defense was based on two assumptions: First, if she was unchaste or immoral, her word couldn’t be trusted. Second, if she wasn’t a virgin, there was no crime because the goods were already damaged.

By the 1970s and 1980s—under pressure from women’s rights activists—states enacted what called “Rape Shield Laws.” These laws protected victims and prevented their sexual history from being used as a defense.

Sexual assault (sexual touching without the act completed) is a relatively new crime. Sexual harassment wasn’t taken seriously until the 1980s.

When I said those who favor the patriarchy are cool with rape, I should have qualified it. There are some rapes they are not cool with. Some rapes were always prosecuted. If a white woman accused a Black man of rape, that pretty much settled it. He was convicted.

But the rapes were evaluated within the context of the hierarchy. A powerful white man accused of rape was treated differently from a poor Black man. 

Similarly, who was raped or assaulted mattered. Even after the Civil War, rape of a Black woman wasn’t recognized as a crime.

Tip: If you ever want to enliven a social gathering, try announcing that rape is a means of asserting patriarchal power. If you really want to rile people up, quote Susan Brownmiller, who said “rape is the means by which all men keep all women in fear.”


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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