During the Jim Crow era, from the 1880s to the 1960s, African Americans waged a dual attack on the beliefs that black women could not be raped and that black men posed a sexual threat to white women. A mere rumor that a black man had sexually insulted a white woman could result in mob violence and brutal lynchings. Although only about a quarter of these murders involved allegations of sexual assault, vigilantes invoked the specter of interracial rape to justify their deeds.
Portraying African Americans as sexually uncontrolled threatened their political status as well as their physical safety. White Southerners claimed that former slaves and their descendants lacked the virtue to exercise the rights of citizens. They also justified segregation as a way to prevent interracial intimacies.
During the great Northern migration, African American activists condemned lynching and white men’s sexual access to black women. Inspired by crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, members of Northern black women’s clubs insisted that “virtue knows no color line” and implored white men to treat them respectfully. The African American press publicized white men’s sexual impunity. “White Gentleman Commits Rape,” the Chicago Defender headlined a 1911 article, with the subhead: “That’s All Right — It Was on a Colored Girl — Permitted by the United States Government and the Confederacy.”
White supremacists resisted these efforts and portrayed black men as the real rapists. In the 1930s, when the NAACP supported federal anti-lynching legislation, a Mississippi congressman referred to it as “a bill to encourage rape.” After World War II, black women increasingly filed charges against white assailants, rallying support for the civil rights movement. But racial stereotypes about rape continue to disadvantage both women and men of color.
Different types of sexual assault
In the late 20th century, second-wave feminism generated an anti-rape movement that identified sexual assault as an abuse of power that has been central to women’s oppression. Feminists rejected the notion that only a violent stranger could rape a woman. In addition to coining the term “date rape” to describe unwanted sex with an acquaintance, they targeted sexual abuse within the family. Because of their efforts, in the 1980s states began to outlaw marital rape. Other reforms included revising rape statutes’ requirements of corroboration and of the use of “utmost force” to prove resistance.
Feminists also exposed the extent of child sexual abuse within the home, schools and religious institutions. Rethinking rape as a form of power contributed to the recognition that boys and men could be victims and that rape is not solely a heterosexual crime. Only in 2011, however, did the FBI revise its definition of rape — for the first time since 1927. In Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI now includes any form of forced sexual penetration of a man or a woman as well as “non-forcible rape.”
In recent years, as at every turn in our history, critics have chafed at the more expansive definitions of rape. As in the past, some may fear a loss of sexual privileges. Some skeptics have cast doubt on the extent and the damage of acquaintance rape. Others have tried to limit the meaning of rape to advance broader political agendas. Congressional Republicans recently tried, for instance, to change the rules for federal funds for abortions, allowing them only in cases of “forcible rape” as opposed to “rape.” (They eventually dropped that language after critics countered that rape is always forcible.) Rep. Akin’s comment, while unique for employing the outdated medical theory that women cannot become pregnant from rape, was just the latest attempt to restrict the meaning of sexual assault.
When Obama responded to Akin by questioning whether male politicians should be the ones “qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape,” he echoed generations of black and white women who have contested that distinction. They understood that their political and human rights were at stake in the way we define rape. They still are.
Estelle B. Freedman
, the Edgar E. Robinson professor in U.S. history at Stanford University, is the author of “No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women” and a co-author of “Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America.”
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