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.