Contexts quicklit: 8 Agenda-setting articles on the sociology of rape

Photo by Richard Potts from Flickr CC /
Photo by Richard Potts from Flickr CC /

Historically, rape hasn’t been the focus of much sociological attention. With a few notable exceptions, we’ve let other disciplines like psychology, criminology, and public health handle the study of sexual violence as a social problem. But as rape becomes more obviously linked with larger cultural phenomena and institutions, more sociologists are beginning to weigh in on sexual violence. With essays by some of the leading researchers on the topic, the latest issue of Gender & Society sets the agenda for the sociological scholarship on rape. Below, I cover some of the contributions of this special issue that emphasize the importance of using a sociological lens to understand rape.

  1. The study of sexual violence must be intersectional.

An Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk” criticizes the White feminist flavor of one especially renowned sexual assault protest to make larger points about the exclusion of women of color’s experiences around sexual violence. Specifically, they argue that SlutWalk — an event intended to combat victim blaming by reclaiming the word “slut” — ignores the racial dynamics of victim blaming and slut shaming. The authors remind the readers of the historical abuse of Black women on the premise of hypersexuality and ask for a more inclusive approach to ending violence against women that extends far beyond SlutWalk.

  1.  Rape should be understood as an attack on the feminine.

While most of the attention paid toward sexual assault focuses on men as perpetrators and women as victims, Valerie Jenness and Sarah Fenstermaker call for additional attention on rape of transgender women. In “Forty Years After Brownmiller: Prisons for Men, Transgender Inmates, and the Rape of the Feminine,” Jenness argues that sexual violence extends beyond the oppression of women and instead punishes any who engage with femininity.

  1. The perpetration of sexual assault is institutional.

Since sociologists have abandoned the study of sexual assault, the scholarly work on rapists has focused on them as individuals. According to this line of thought, the high rate of sexual violence perpetration by athletes, fraternity men, and military members, for example, should result from widespread sexist attitudes held by these men. However, as Patricia Yancey Martin points out in her article, “The Rape Prone Culture of Academic Contexts: Fraternities and Athletics,” there has been little evidence that shared belief systems are to fault and instead something about the institutions themselves is probably to blame. Using the example of fraternities and athletic teams, Martin highlights institutional characteristics and organizational norms that likely contribute to sexual assault on college campuses.

  1. Rape is both structural and individual.

Using wartime rape as an example, Nicola Henry’s article, “Theorizing Wartime Rape: Deconstructing, Gender, Sexuality, and Violence,” discusses the difficult conceptual duty of understanding rape as both an action committed by an individual rapist and also part of a larger structure. In the case of wartime rape, rape is both an weapon of war and an individual act. Henry makes the case for continued consideration of rape beyond the individuals directly involved.

  1. “Good” men can be rapists.

In “Bad Men, Good Men, Bystanders: Who Is the Rapist?”, Michael Messner reflects on the treatment of men in anti-violence movements. While early feminist movements directly challenged patriarchal systems that endorse sexual violence, the current approach instead treats rapists as a few bad men who perpetrate all violence against women. Messner cautions against this approach, instead recommending renewed attention to how the structures that condone sexual violence transform men—good or bad—into violent predators.

  1. The relationship between masculinity and rape requires exploration.

C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn A. Hollander point out that while rape is a deeply stigmatized crime, aggressive sexual actions toward women are still entirely consistent with contemporary expressions of masculinity. For example, persistently pursuing a woman for sex is both masculine and an acceptable movie trope, even though it’s often a form of sexual coercion. In “Good Guys Don’t Rape: Gender, Domination, and Mobilizing Rape,” the authors encourage readers to think of rape supportive attitudes as a way of “doing gender” that reinforces rape culture and blurs the lines between rape and consensual sex.

  1. Rape is political—and that should be concerning.

In “Over the Law: Rape and the Seduction of Popular Politics,” Poulami Roychowdhury uses a few internationally infamous rape cases as evidence of the legal institutions’ weak control over sexual violence as an issue. Instead, she argues that popular opinion and activist organizations hold greater sway on issues of sexual violence worldwide. After public outcry from a sensational case, political pressure may result in justice for the victim, but without challenging the systems that have and will continue to fail victims who received less coverage in the press. This use of political pressure to respond to high profile rape cases — even when successful in individual cases — maintains an unreliable justice system for victims and leaves patriarchal institutions that oppress victims unchanged.

  1. Rape researchers can’t forget about children.

While feminists have historically led the charge on issues of child abuse, Nancy Whittier points out that recent feminist scholarship has largely ignored child sexual abuse. In “Where Are the Children? Theorizing the Missing Piece in Gendered Sexual Violence,” Whittier argues that without recognition of the widespread sexual abuse of children, no feminist theory of gendered violence can be complete.

The special issue of Gender & Society is available free to the public until the end of February.

Comments 5

Letta Page

February 24, 2016

To accompany #4, has a TROT! (There's Research on That!) research roundup on wartime rape - glad to see Nicola Henry's new piece.

Thirteen Sociological Things about 13 Reasons Why | ARLT Foundation

September 15, 2018

[…] to note that this gets its own number because rape is about power and not sexuality. Here are eight articles on the issue of rape from a sociological […]

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