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In Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, Estelle B. Freedman states that one solid definition of rape has never been accomplished or accepted. Instead, rape has remained a word in flux, often changing to meet the needs of those in power, which throughout American history have been white men. The book is a timely addition to current debates about rape and women's rights as discussions about "legitimate rape", rape culture and women's sexual history continue to shape thoughts and legislation today. As Freedman demonstrates, such thoughts have existed for centuries, most often at the cost of women. "Contemporary debates over what constitutes sexual violence resemble conflicts that have recurred for almost two centuries. Women and their allies are still trying to expand the legal definition of rape to make it easier to prosecute men, whether or not they were strangers and whether or not the assault was physically violent" (p. 9-10).
Freedman explains how the issue of consent has been central for women's rights and for discussions and legal definitions of rape. Along with consent, the age of victims and offenders has been influential in determining the outcome of cases as well as the punishment. Starting in the 17th century, Freedman explains how rape was frequently condemned, but rarely prosecuted, often due to the fact that it threatened marital reproduction. Underreporting was common, as it is today, as was the belief that women used rape charges to blackmail men. During the suffragist era, women focused on obtaining the right to vote along with rights to bring suit when needed. As women focused on reforming laws concerning rape, white suffragists and feminists often overlooked and ignored the struggles of African American women, who did not have the same protection under the law, and were not given the same moral status as white women. "Long-standing white sexual privileges persisted, facilitated by the reversals in the African American quest for citizenship and the deepening ideological resistance to granting moral status to black women" (p. 80). Both before and after emancipation African American women were viewed as lacking sexual morality and it was therefore common to claim that they could not be raped, as African American women were said to always consent.
Redefining Rape also describes how notions concerning race impacted African American men, who were constantly considered a threat to white women. Lynchings became increasingly common during the 1880's as moral panics spread, and black men were misleadingly indicated as rapists. "By justifying the summary, and brutal, executions of African Americans as a means of protecting white women from rape, lynch mobs gained immunity from prosecution for their crimes" (p. 89). In fact, many critics claimed that lynchings were not about rape at all, especially since they were often applied in cases where interracial sex was common, but that they were used as mechanisms to exert power and control while simultaneously punishing African American men. Anti-lynching statutes were passed decades later, but stereotypes about African American men as rapists persisted long after that, as Freedman discusses in the now notorious Scottsboro case.
After World War II, social upheavals and the civil rights movement helped push further the issues of racial and sexual justice, as well as the issue of rape, resulting in attention being placed on both the rights of accused men and that of women's rights, especially as feminists questioned patriarchal privilege, focused on the right to sexual expression as well as expanded the definitions of rape and sexual assault.
As Redefining Rape is long, the text is nearly 300 pages, this review only touches on a few of the issues brought up by Freedman. She discusses in great detail the turn from protecting girls and women to sexualizing them, the sexual vulnerability of boys, how women became increasingly weary of the insulting "masher", to ending with the enduring politics of rape, including pornography, child sexual abuse, date and acquaintance rape.
Freedman ends with discussing how rape is viewed and subsequently charged today, and how it differs from much of previous history. "For most of American history, rape has been defined either in law or through practice as a crime committed by African American men against chaste white women" (p. 288). Freedman also notes in Redefining Rape that even though much has changed since the days when white and black women and black men were fighting for citizenship, as noted in the beginning, rape still remains a word in flux. "The moral reformers, suffragists, civil rights activists, and feminists who forced Americans to rethink the meaning of sexual violence helped reshape the contours of citizenship. Their goals of questioning white male sexual entitlement, challenging discriminatory criminal justice procedures, and undermining tolerance for sexual assault have been only partially realized" (p. 289). It is also quite clear that it is still common to blame the victim of sexual violence while questioning the intent of the accuser, and the ethnicity of the assailant.
Redefining Rape is a great undertaking, one that Freedman notes took many years to finalize. The result is a detailed and in depth account of rape over the past few centuries. Redefining Rape is an interesting, but at times also a jarring read as Freedman describes in detail, many gruesome events of Americas past and present. The main audience of the book is both scholars and students in field such as Gender studies, Feminism, Race and Ethnicity, Sociology and History. The book is an interesting and important contribution to any of these fields, but is also valuable to those interested in American history as well as the history of rape and sexual violence.
© 2014 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.