Yesterday’s Slavery, Today’s Rape Culture


The political arena has continuously debated issues of sexuality, from classic discussions of birth control to homosexuality to abortion. More recently, an issue that has found its way back into popular discourse has been rape. Rape has taken center stage, as certain politicians have exposed their ignorant understanding of a controversial issue that particularly affects women in the US. Infamously known for his expertise on female anatomy and pregnancy, Todd Akin, former US Representative from Missouri, boldly stated that “if its legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Certainly this is true…right?

These types of political fumbles made by politicians are a key indicator for what is known as rape culture. Women’s Studies and other social theorists have identified rape culture as a culture where sexual objectification and the rape of women become normalized and tolerated through ways such as blaming rape victims and trivializing sexual assault. This can be seen within US popular discourse that blames rape victims by attacking their “provocative” clothing and immediately identifying their “slut” behavior. This thin discussion still exists within our public sphere and underestimates the cultural causes and effects of rape. Women and men have been normalized to manage situations of date rape, campus rape, and domestic violence—with most women feeling at fault for rape and some men feeling that rape is an offset of their biological impulsions. Dr. Christine Helliwell’s ‘“It’s Only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference’ describes how “all women know the paralyzing fear of walking down a dark street…It seems to be a fact of life that the fear of rape imposes a curfew on our movements” (790). Rape culture is often not explicit and is not solely focused on the act of rape, but also minds the fear that women inherit as being a part of US society. Helliwell illustrates this female burden when she says that in a study “US women subject to rape attempts were more afraid of being raped by their attackers than they were of being murdered and/or mutilated by them” (792). Clearly, women who have confronted the “supposed” potential of being raped show us that rape culture runs wildly.

Yet, we must understand that rape is a manifestation of a power dichotomy. Helliwell shares that “while it is certainly the case that rape is linked in contemporary Western societies to disparities of power and status between men and women, it is the particular discursive form that those disparities take,– their elaboration in terms of the discourse of sex…the entire female body comes to be symbolized by the vagina, itself conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space…the practice of rape in these settings—both its possibility and its actualization—not only feminizes women but masculinizes men as well” (796).  That is to say, rape is not about sex. Rape is about exerting, in most cases, masculine power over feminine beings. If rape culture is prevalent in American society, as it can be seen in weak female portrayals within the media, than we must understand one of the premature historical occurrences of rape culture. During the era of slavery, black women were subjected to a latent form of rape culture, in which sexual violence was legitimized. Thus, Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” serves as a vantage point to see how the normalization of sexual violence against women manifested in the United States.


Jacobs recalls an aggressive situation in which her slave master expressed words full of subliminal sexual aggression: “When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt so strong” (459). In films and television, we continuously watch scenes in which women are portrayed as distressed and the property of their male counterparts. In explicit instances, media has used diction that articulates the same possessive messages that Jacobs experiences. This language of commodification can be connected to today’s ways in which we speak about rape and the dispensablility of victims.

Jacobs then shares a testimony of her horrible slave experience: “But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things” (470). We can vividly see how the master-slave relationship is used by the offender as the eroticization of violence, as the slave master subjects Jacobs at a young age to sexual violence. Power structures are illustrated within this relationship. These are the same unbalanced forces that are depicted within contemporary cases of rape, in which men attempt to master the being of women through sexual subjugation.

Slavery can be interpreted as a historical occurrence that contributed to today’s understanding of rape culture. Rape culture marginalizes the experiences of rape victims and undermines the cultural implications of a hyper-masculine society. Whether we are blaming raped women for wearing short skirts, walking outside at night, or simply having vaginas, we can utilize the female slave testimony as a lens to understanding the contributing factors for this normalization of sexual objectification.

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10 Responses to Yesterday’s Slavery, Today’s Rape Culture

  1. roblewis92 says:

    If rape is about aggression and not about sex, then should we not be discussing a larger culture of violence and aggression rather than that just of rape?

  2. dlsimps2 says:

    I completely agree with many of your points. I wonder what your view is though of the massively popular 50 shades trilogy, has this pushed the envelope of a masculinized society? Does the popularity of these eroticas reinforce the idea that women like to be dominated and that men need to do what it takes to dominate so provocative clothes and suggestive conversation is only a lead in to something that men need to push the limits of in order to fulfill this perceived fantasy no matter what protests the woman may make ‘in the heat of the moment’?

    • I think the “50 Shades” Trilogy is definitely something worth talking about. Women seem to be women’s worst enemy. I can not even count the amount of female friends I have who have read and enjoyed these novels. I believe these books have both positive and negative effects on society:

      Positively, the novels encourage women to be openly sexual. What I mean by this is that because a massive amount of women read these books, it becomes more normal for women to express their sexuality. It becomes acceptable for women to want, think about, and enjoy sex.

      However, the nature of these books is what could be harmful to what feminists have worked so hard for. The entire novel focuses on male domination with violence–without going into details, the protagonist, Ana, must even sign a contract to become a sex slave to Christian Grey, allowing him to do whatever he wants to her. And women eat this stuff up!!! What?! This is definitely worth discussion. As you mention, “Does the popularity of these eroticas reinforce the idea that women like to be dominated…?”

      Great post, by the way, Yessica. Really well written.

  3. roblewis92 says:

    ” These types of political fumbles made by politicians are a key indicator for what is known as rape culture. ”

    One politician making an insensitive comment about rape is hardly evidence for the existence of a rape culture.

    “Women’s Studies and other social theorists have identified rape culture as a culture where sexual objectification and the rape of women become normalized and tolerated through ways such as blaming rape victims and trivializing sexual assault.”

    I think that sexual objectification of women is the natural byproduct of a woman’s choice to rebel against the traditional order. Women used to hold a traditional outlook on modesty and chastity. During and after the Sexual Revolution, many women felt that the code of modesty and chastity they grew up with was too restrictive of their autonomy, so they abandoned it. By being less modest and more promiscuous, women started becoming in the eyes of men, sexual objects. Women exchanged the protection from being objectified for the freedom to unrestrained (by traditional culture) sexuality. We cannot blame women for getting raped and the blame falls squarely on men but I believe that sexual objectification of women in the minds of men is the natural consequence of a woman’s choices to objectify herself.

    “Clearly, women who have confronted the “supposed” potential of being raped show us that rape culture runs wildly.”

    When a person is in a location where a certain crime occurs more often than other locations, and fears falling victim to that crime, does not live in a culture of that crime. If I go to South Central Los Angeles at night and I fear I may be robbed, I am not justified in saying that this is evidence of a “Theft Culture”.

    “Rape culture marginalizes the experiences of rape victims and undermines the cultural implications of a hyper-masculine society.”

    Using phrases like “hyper-masculine” to embody something that is morally evil like rape seems to be unjustified. It reminds me of when teenage boys tell their friends, “Don’t be a pussy”. It is using a gender-specific phrase to describe something undesirable. Saying “rape is the result of hyper-masculine cultures” or “military defeats are the result of hyper-feminine cultures” is an example of misandry and misogyny respectively.

  4. ryrooney says:

    I am so happy that you brought up the point that rape is not about sex but more so about masculine power. The fact that we have to ask ourselves if rape was a ‘legitimate rape’ or not shows just how little we have progressed with such an issue.

    But I do think that it should be brought up that women are not the only one who get raped. It is very rare but men are the victim of rape as well.

  5. aussielandmn says:

    I found your post very interesting and thought provoking. It certainly raises lots of questions and concerns within modern society. I think one of the biggest problems as you pointed out is not necessarily the act of rape, though traumatizing as is it, it is societies legitimation of rape. This is in part what makes rape different from other violent crimes. That society seems overall accepting of rape. For example, the conviction to sexual assaults ratios are at disturbing levels within the US armed services. The problem is not just limited to America though as in South Africa nearly twenty five percent of men admit to some sort of sexual assault. In my opinion, while the sexualization of the female body is an important factor , the biggest problem is the lack of understanding. While the sexual assault of men does happen, it is not near the same levels as women. Thus most men have difficulty understanding the traumatizing experience of rape, nor the equally traumatizing fact that society accepts it as a norm. Standpoint theory teaches us that the viewpoints of the oppressed should looked at in order to better the dynamics of the relationship between the dominate and subservient classes. Perhaps a similar process should be more widely approach to combat this problem.

  6. We have had this conversation before but for the sake of argument i will pretend otherwise.

    1) Rape is not as common as many other crimes including robbery/assault. As Rob pointed out, this does not make us a “theft culture”. Rape is a crime, not a special evil that men use to repress women into submitting or acting a certain way. Why do people join gangs? To have a sense of control and power. Why do people rape? To have a sense of control and power. It is a basic human drive that manifests itself in many ways.

    2) Telling people I.E. men “Don’t rape” is as about as effective as telling people “Don’t do drugs” or “Don’t steal”. People will always commit crimes, telling them not to will not change much.

    3) As you yourself pointed out there is a fear culture not a rape culture. The fear of being raped is ever present, not the actuality of being raped.

    Also question. What is your goal? Is there a specific law you would like to see changed? Do you want that one senator to go on record and apologize for being an idiot?

    Calling every rape incident a product of the “Hyper masculine” society is not an effective means of getting the people you want to change to listen to what you have to say. I have said this before but it bears repeating; If you want men to listen make it a two way conversation. Listen to legitimate concerns and thoughts that men have on the issue. You might learn something in the process, or better yet engage your audience in a meaningful way that will get the results you seek.

  7. Estafany says:

    First I’d like to say I agree with multiple points you made but there are also a number of rapes that happen to children that haven’t even gone through puberty, and even men, how provoking can they be? I agree that this is more a power and not so much about the sex, then we should perhaps be focusing on violence issues of society rather than that of the rape. I’m outraged at anyone who could ever tell someone that to not be raped they should be dressing or acting in a certain way. But I completely agree with this post, very well written, thanks for sharing!

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