Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Those Good Old Days Before Feminists Ruined Rape Trials

From Gender Across Borders:

The story of seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileshchi has generated several books and one truly awful movie. Her art alone would be enough for her to be remembered, but her life has also drawn considerable interest. In particular, the story of her mistreatment at the hands of an older male artist and by the court that did eventually convict him sheds light on the way rape victims are regarded today. [...]

Technically, she was not on trial. Agostino Tassi, an artist her father had hired to teach her perspective, stood accused of raping her. Artemisia, however, was the one who was tortured to see if her story would remain consistent. The authorities used thumbscrews, tied cords around her hands and pulled them tight, which would be agonizing for anyone to go through but for a painter held a special horror. Tassi was not tortured, though his testimony was so contradictory that the judge told him repeatedly to stop lying. Artemisia was also subjected to a public examination to determine whether she had in fact been a virgin before the rape.
This was likely the best case scenario for a rape allegation in that time and place (Florence) since Gentileshchi had strong family connections, was from a respected family and her family patriarch clearly believed her.

Since one of the elements of this case involved experts trying to prove whether or not she was a virgin when she was raped, the legal view of rape at that time was for the law to view proven rapists as law abiding citizens as long as they selected female victims who were no longer virgins or who would have a tough time proving this status to a court's satisfaction.

Like in current times, the official system of justice caused the majority of rape victims to decide that reporting their rape was an unsafe option.

Many of those who currently decry the work of feminists related to sexual violence make references to the good old days before feminists watered down the rape laws. Because most people who hear these types of statements don't know the history of rape laws or the history of rape law enforcement this nostalgia may seem harmless, but it is not.

Those who want to roll back the rape laws and enforcement often talk about real rape, but this historic case highlights how easily a real rape from those good old days could be dismissed as not qualifying under their rape laws.

Real rape is usually defined by which rapes the person or system is willing to recognize and punish.

Unfortunately, the element of needing to prove virginity which has been eliminated from most criminal statutes persists in how many people continue to talk about rape and/or rape prevention. Whenever someone says, "It's not like she was a virgin," or, "What did she expect when she went out dressed like a slut?" that person is expressing a historic mindset where the only crime in rape was taking someone's virginity.

In the second statement there is an acceptance of forcible rape when the rapist believes he has raped a non-virgin. Those girls and women who go out looking or acting like non-virgins are viewed as ignoring the consequences of their own actions. But again this goes back to the idea that to be considered a real rape victim that rape victim must pass a purity test.

This perspective provides practical and emotional support for most rapists -- as long as they select the appropriate victim and commit rape under appropriate circumstances. The selection of victim and the circumstances of the rape can determine whether a particular rapist is championed as falsely accused due to consent, dismissed as a jerk who shouldn't be treated like a real rapist or if that particular rapist will be viewed as a monster.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 10:05 AM   6 comments links to this post


At July 21, 2009 12:30 PM, Blogger Sirriamnis said...


Towards the end I talk about how my reputation as the school slut, in spite of my continued virginity, contributed to my rape. The guy who raped me couldn't dump me fast enough once he found out he'd forced himself on a virgin. So, yes, perceptions of sexual experience totally feed into what rapists think they can get away with.

At July 21, 2009 3:03 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Thanks for including the link to your post where you reveal important truths. Your experience being labeled and hounded highlights how often those who have the label of good feel entitled to harm girls who have been labeled as a slut. In too many rape cases, "He's a nice boy," is an expression of acceptance of a particular rape rather than an expression of shock.

At July 22, 2009 7:58 AM, OpenID tanglethis said...

The film Artemisia does not do much better than this. It does show the rape as a rape, sort of... Artemisia says no, slaps Agostino, and he is immediately contrite because (in this film) she was indeed a virgin. But then they fall in love. So it's okay. And she loves him so much that submits to this terrible tortute without speaking so that he will not be convicted.
It's pretty sickening. Modern films are pretty happy to distance modern "us" from ancient "them" and their crazy thumbscrews; the film depicts the rape trial as backward and cruel. But the film also buys into the idea that rape is more meaningful if it deflowers, suggests that it wasn't really rape if the fickle woman changes her mind later (being raped made her realize that she likes Agostino, and sex!), and on top of all that depicts Artemisa herself as a sort of idiot savant (possibly because women can't be determined and talented artists unless they're crazy?).

Sorry to ramble, but I wanted to underline the connection you're making - this shit happened long ago, but it's still happening.

At July 22, 2009 2:19 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

Feminists have been challenging male-defined and male-centered rape laws for over a century now. First wave feminists raised the issue of male violence against women and how it was always viewed as either a private issue between the husband and his sexual property (nee wife) and hence no crime could be committed since a wife was seen as the husband's sexual and personal property.

Within the public sphere it was always the woman's character and reputation which was on trial - never the man/men accused of rape.

Feminist historians have provided empirical evidence of how women survivors of men's violence were commonly treated as unreliable witnesses and 'not respectable.'

It is because of continuous refusal to accept male-defined and male-centered laws that has resulted in a miniscule change within rape laws and this applies equally to the UK as well as the US.

At issue is feminists' challenge to the patriarchal dogma which claims that only men have sexual autonomy and ownership of their bodies whereas women, their sexuality and bodies belong to a man. First it is the girl's father then later after she has been married she then belongs to the husband and even if she happens to be later widowed her body is still not hers but is still subject to male scrutiny and policing.

Ah the mythical 'wonderful days' when women knew their place and men knew theirs - only problem with this claim is it is an illusion because some women have always refused to submit to men's domination and control.

Finally, any challenge to the so-called 'natural hierarchal order of our patriarchal society always results in a backlash and claims 'life was far better when feminists did not exist.' But feminists have always existed but they were not termed that instead they were seeking women's rights and demanding men as a group finally accept women too are human.

At July 22, 2009 3:37 PM, Anonymous EKSwitaj said...

tanglethis, that movie is really awful. It also exaggerates Agostino's artistic abilities (in reality, perspective was just about the only thing he could have taught her).

At July 26, 2009 12:54 PM, Blogger Georgia Girl said...

When it happened to me in 1962, I suspected I was the only victim. There were no resources for victims and certainly no "safe" options. The rapist was a member of a fraternity at a major southern college. I felt very much alone, never confiding in anyone. Eventually the memories would diminish into flashbacks. Not until a few years ago was my mind able to translate these flashbacks. I vividly remember the conscious moments of a very brutal drug-rape. At the time it occurred, date rape drugs were unheard of.
Thanks for your continued fight against rape and violence.



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