Isabella Thomas: Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present by Joanna Bourke

Rape, says Joanna Bourke, used to be understood as the act of sex with a woman who does not “belong” to the perpetrator. In the 19th century it was widely thought that an unwilling woman could not be raped because “merely by vibrating”, a vagina “could ward off attack”. A victim of rape was, therefore, a contradiction in terms. Some thought that if the woman had experienced orgasm in the act, or had finally succumbed, then she could not claim to have been raped. The belief that women were prone to lie about rape to gain attention was, of course, widespread, and rape trials were notorious for their prurient investigations into a woman’s past. In the past 50 years or so, western feminists have argued – with some success – that rape is more about power than sex. In British courts these days, rape does not have to involve violence to justify the name. Lack of consent (which is itself potentially ambiguous) suffices.

As Bourke shows in her scholarly historical survey of rape and rapists, part of the problem with this subject is that “imprecision permeates much of the clinical and psychiatric literature”. Her examination of the many preposterous ways that rape has been explained over time by all manner of experts – doctors, academics, lawyers, psychologists et al – is an attempt to lift the obfuscation.

Her book was, she claims, conceived in fear. But as she began to write, “she became angry”, on learning that only 5% of rapes reported to the police in the UK end in a conviction. Anger has certainly given her prose dynamism and momentum. She applies a crusading passion to her scrutiny of the appalling miscarriages of justice relating to her subject over the centuries. Bourke is a campaigning feminist with an urge to bring rape onto the agenda and that is indeed noble and important....

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