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11.6A: Rape

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    The definition of rape and its effects on victims have evolved historically alongside ideas about gender and sexuality.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the influence of the feminist movement on public attitudes toward rape and the notion of consent

    Key Points

    • Rape has serious psychological and physical consequences for the victim.
    • The definitions of rape and consent are culturally and historically contingent upon the particular sexual mores of a time. Recently, the definition or rape has been expanded to include any gender, and now contains stricter definitions of consent.
    • Victim blaming and self-blame are rooted in public beliefs that a victim is at least partially responsible for rape. Rape shield laws prohibit legal testimony regarding a victim’s sexual behavior, in order to prevent victims from being placed on trial along with defendants.
    • International law defines rape as a crime against humanity and a potentially genocidal act.
    • Rape shield laws prohibit legal testimony regarding a victim’s sexual behavior in order to prevent the victim from being placed on trial along with the defendant.

    Key Terms

    • victim blaming: when the victim of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment is held entirely or partially responsible for the transgressions committed against him or her (regardless of whether the victim actually had any responsibility for the incident)
    • date rape: non-consensual sexual activity between a victim and perpetrator that know one another
    • self-blame: when one holds oneself responsible for a negative experience

    Rape is a type of sexual assault in which one or more individuals forces sexual contact on another individual without consent. Rape can cause devastating physical and psychological trauma. In the aftermath of an attack, many victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a severe anxiety disorder. Rape victims may also confront a number of emotions related to shame. Often, victims blame themselves for rape. Some victims come to believe they somehow deserved the assault, while others become preoccupied thinking about how the rape could have been avoided.

    Although self-blame might seem like an unusual, intensely individual response to rape, it is rooted in social conceptions of rape and victimhood. In the case of rape, victim blaming generally refers to the belief that certain behaviors on the part of the victim, like flirting or wearing provocative clothing, encourage assault. Legal systems may perpetuate victim blaming. For example, in the United States, defendants are guaranteed an opportunity to explain their actions and motivations, which may allow them to instigate conversations about their victims’ sexual past or physical presentation. Lawyers and activists are aware of the negative consequences of this type of conversation in courtrooms, and many have encouraged state legislators to enact rape shield laws, which would prohibit testimony about a victim’s sexual behavior. Nevertheless, victims are often reluctant to report rape because of these social pressures.


    The definition of rape rests on the notion of consent, which has changed over the course of history as sexual mores and understandings of gender have changed. For example, in medieval Europe, a woman could be legally married by her parents to a stranger without her consent and, once married, she could no longer refuse to consent to sex. The medieval concept of rape did not allow for the possibility of being raped by one’s husband. It was only in middle of the 16th century that European courts began to recognize a minimum age of consent, though this figure was typically set around six or seven years. In modern legal understanding, consent may be explicit or implied by context, but the absence of objection never itself constitutes consent, and consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consent cannot be forced and it cannot be given by certain categories of people considered incapable of consent (e.g., minors and the cognitively disabled).

    Rape and Gender

    Rape is often thought of as a crime committed by a man against a woman, but increasingly, social and legal definitions of rape recognize that this does not have to be the case. In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation updated its definition of rape, which had originally been instituted in 1972, and which previously limited rape to a crime against women. This definition, considered outdated and overly narrow, was replaced by a new definition, which recognizes that rape can be perpetrated by a person of any gender against a victim of any gender. The new definition also broadens the instances in which a victim is unable to give consent. These instances now include temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity, and incapacity caused by the use of drugs or alcohol.

    The FBI’s new definition continues a trend that gained traction with the feminist movement of the 1970s, when rape was publicly characterized as a crime of power and control rather than a sexual act. Leaders of the feminist movement started some of the first rape crisis centers, which not only provided basic services to victims, but also advanced the idea of rape as a criminal act with a victim who was not to be blamed. Feminist leaders also encouraged the codification of marital rape, or forced sexual contact between spouses. Currently, the struggle continues with efforts to bring attention to date rape, which is embedded in the gendered expectation that women engage in sexual activity following a date with a man. Conversations about date rape work to undo this social expectation and to reinforce the idea that consensual sex requires the explicit permission of both partners.

    International Law

    International law is changing to recognize rape as a weapon of war. The Rome Statute included rape in its definition of a crime against humanity, a definition first put into practice in the mid-1990s by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This judicial body recognized that Serbian soldiers and policemen had systematically raped Muslim women during the Balkan War. In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found that systematic rape was a crime against humanity. It also ruled that rape was an aspect of genocide, because of the use of rape to impregnate women in order to weaken or eliminate a particular gene pool.

    “Rape is a Real Crime, give Simmons Jail Time! “: Women at NOW-NYC’s Take Rape Seriously Rally protest against the inadequate sentence of Tony Simmons, a confessed rapist of three teenage girls.

    11.6A: Rape is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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