What is the Powder Room?

(Not So) Fun with Etymology - Rape

Today I would like to turn our attention to a word we already quite often have our attention on: rape. This will not be a treatise on the definition of rape nor an attempt to define it. Suffice it to say that if it looks like it might be sex of some kind, but one or more parties is not consenting to it, that's rape. But this is not, as I said, a discussion of what is and is not rape. This is a discussion of the etymology of the word, where that etymology is still present in our cultural imagination, and the tragic consequences.

Rape. Immediately the only applicable definition of the word in today's world leaps to your mind. The OED in its second listed definition (more on that shortly) defines rape as:

Originally and chiefly: the act or crime, committed by a man, of forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse with him against her will, esp. by means of threats or violence. In later use more generally: the act of forced, non-consenting, or illegal sexual intercourse with another person; sexual violation or assault.


In other words, nonconsensual sex, something which until relatively recently was considered something that only men could do and only women could have done to them. That women and men each can be rapists and be rape victims is a fairly recent idea. As we delve back toward the origins of this definition, we'll see why it took so long to get to where we are in defining rape today.

Now, this definition says "originally and chiefly" - but this is not referring to this definition as the original and chief definition. Rather, it is, as you can see from the "In later use more generally" part, specifying that what follows is the original and still most common form of this particular definition. This definition, however, is the second listed definition for a reason. It derives from an older definition.

Perhaps you've heard of a poem called "The Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope.


I must admit that when I was much younger I read this title and I laughed, because I misunderstood it. I pictured not a lock of hair, but something more like a MasterLock lock. More importantly, I imagined quite the wrong kind of rape. That is how little power the original sense of the word has in modern English, at least in America. The definition employed by Pope was not of the sexual violation nature, but of what was in his time still a vital and living use of the word: that of violent theft.

The act of taking something by force; esp. the seizure of property by violent means; robbery, plundering. Also as a count noun: an instance of this, a robbery, a raid. Now rare (chiefly arch. and literary).


Pope's use of rape as theft was not only common in the 18th century, but the meaning we use didn't even occur in that century - there is a notable dearth of 18th century sources which employ rape with our meaning, despite 17th century sources which did so. The original definition survives as late as J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion. The definition was also extended to include kidnapping.

Rape ultimately descends from Anglo-Norman rapir, from Latin rapere, to seize, to take. Rapture and ravish also derive from this root. Rape as we understand it ultimately derives from theft. That past informs a great deal of our modern dialogue about rape, even though the original definition is archaic and defunct.


You might often hear people suggest taking "sensible precautions" against rape - don't dress certain ways, don't go down dark alleys, buddy system, and so on. Inevitably when the "sensible precautions" talk begins an analogy is drawn: if you keep your valuables hidden, don't go down dark alleys, don't advertise that you have something worth stealing, etc. and you're less likely to be robbed.

Somehow, despite rape as a word meaning theft no longer being anything but an archaic curiosity, our society still finds ways to keep the two together. Let's take this for the moment as an opportunity, not to ridicule those who make the comparison, but to trace our way back to how we got from rape-as-theft to rape-as-rape.


So let us start from a fairly good starting point - the Bible - since it informs so much of American and Western European cultural values. Let's take a look at a couple passages (translations courtesy of the NRSV):

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17)


Here you have the coveting commandment. The things you shall not covet include other people's wives, slaves, beasts of burden, or other property. There's something of a hierarchy here: the wife is more valuable than the slaves than the beasts than the other property. At the core, though, they have a value. Wives are property. They are owned, and while they may be the first and choicest possession, they are still just that: possessions.

After six years, a male slave was to be set free. However, any wives and children he might have during the time of his enslavement remain bound to their masters. As for women:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. (Exodus 21:7)


So, not only does she remain enslaved for life, but she starts out effectively a slave to her father, a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Finally, Exodus 22 provides fifteen verses on how to settle payment for lost, disputed, or damaged property. Verses sixteen and seventeen continue the theme:

When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16-17)


Women are bought and sold all over the place in the early chapters of the Bible, and this last example provides exactly the nexus at which rape-as-theft and rape-as-rape emerges. To rape (rape) a woman is not to commit a crime against the woman but to rape (steal) from a man - her father or husband. Her feelings about the matter are moot; the woman is not a victim but a crime scene. Her father or husband is the victim, because he suffered a loss in value in the daughter/wife.

Let's fast forward to a literary example - Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.


Brief summary for those unfamiliar: Titus Andronicus is Roman and he has just waged war with the Goths. He passes on taking the imperial throne and Saturninus, the late emperor's son, becomes emperor. He takes Tamora, queen of the Goths and prisoner captured by Titus, to be his queen. Tamora hates Titus for a) winning and b) having her son Alarbus killed as a ritual sacrifice. Blah blah blah, to the part we care about, Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius ambush Titus's daughter Lavinia in the woods. They rape her, then cut out her tongue and cut off her hands and send her home. Later they decide to taunt Titus by showing up at his place in the guise of Murder and Rape (their mother comes as well, in the guise of Revenge) and they get Titus to cut off his hand. At the end of the play pretty much everybody dies - Titus has Chiron and Demetrius killed and served as pies to Tamora and Saturninus, Titus asks the emperor if a father should kill his daughter if she is raped and Saturninus says yes, at which point Titus tells Saturninus about the rape, kills Lavinia, reveals the trick of the pie, kills Tamora, and is killed by Saturninus who is in turn killed by Lucius, Titus's son.

Okay. Now that that's out of the way, let's get into the details. Saturninus's rationale for why a father should kill his raped daughter is simple: "Because the girl should not survive her shame, / and by her presence still renew his sorrows."


Put more plainly, the rape of the daughter hurts the father and that's why it's bad. To put it to a more contemporary example, when we frame rape victims as "somebody's mother/sister/daughter" we redirect the pain away from the person who was actually raped and place it on their family. Thinking of rape victims as your mother, sister, or daughter (an approach largely targeted at helping men understand the gravity of rape) makes it out that you as a son, brother, or father have been wounded by proxy. Knowing that your mother, sister, or daughter has been raped becomes cause to think of them as renewing your sorrows.

Our society doesn't do much to discourage thinking of women as property, of rape as a crime against the men those women "belong to" and therefore less severe, because it's like stealing a wallet (and you're shit out of luck if you're a male victim, because our society either sees it as something you had coming to you because you are in prison or your status as a victim is not even acknowledged).


Continuing to think of rape in terms colored by its etymological roots encourages thinking of women as objects. Particularly as objects for sexual gratification. That kind of thinking leads to the hateful dehumanization of women and ultimately leads to things like the UCSB shooting. Elliot Rodger's manifesto blames women for "giving their love and sex to other boys," deeming him "unworthy," and declares that "wealth was the only way" he would be able to have sex. He felt like women owed him sex, that any sex a beautiful woman had should belong to him and him alone. He was a "gentleman" after all, and would treat them right, and put them on the pedestal they deserved to be on, like any other extremely valuable possession.

Rape originated as a crime of theft which included all forms of theft of women (property) from their owners. Rape wasn't seen as hurting women, but hurting male honor. If you raped a woman what she felt didn't matter. What you did was damage her value as a marriageable asset, which dishonored the father and made him lose standing in the community - he was either negligent of his property, or his property up and went out to be damaged. The latter case allowed for some saving of face on his side and played into the idea that women need to be controlled, so double win for misogyny there.


Look at Steubenville, where the town treats the rapists as victims because they lost their potentially great futures. Rape victims are called sluts as a way of devaluing them as marriageable assets because that's all a woman can be good for. Judges declare it an "insult to victims of rape" to consider a woman a victim of rape if her vagina wasn't extensively damaged in the process. We are told by idiots in our legislature or running for legislative positions that women cannot get pregnant if they are raped - an idea which dates back to the 13th century treatise Fleta: seu Commentarius juris Anglicani in which the current medical theory posited that a woman could only become pregnant through her own consent, meaning that "real" victims of rape fortunately did not have to be considered complete losses on their husbands' investment.

We've fiddled around the edges of the definition, but these concepts of what rape is and women as property (and the two are deeply intertwined) are still thick in the air in Anglophone culture despite the word no longer implying the property relationship. Our culture is so tilted on this point in favor of masculine power that it's hilariously horrifying to contemplate the full implications of what it all implies. But we just saw with UCSB exactly what's implied by these things.


It's called rape culture because it finds ways to excuse rape and shift the blame. In a way it's rape culture because it still sees women as property and inspires men like Elliot Rodger to take an "I should have her, and if I can't, no one should" approach. It's barbaric is what it is, because it sees women as a commodity to be bought and sold, haggled and bartered, and makes rape out to be nothing more than a simple matter of taking what should be yours. It's the worst intersection of capital and misogyny, and it festers right under the surface of the entire discourse about rape.

We've reached the point where this comic, sadly, can be acknowledged as nothing more than a drawing of reality:


UCSB is a wake-up call. The way we as a society address issues of misogyny, issues of rape, it all has to change. What we're doing right now? It's not working. We need to do better. We can do better by exposing the pervasive misogyny which is already staring us in the face for what it is - and the #yesallwomen trend is just the beginning of that. At the same time, as feminists we need to claim ownership of those issues the MRAs think are their trump cards in their war against feminism and gender equality. The sooner we take those few legitimate gripes and show that we are attacking the root of that tree, the sooner we can expose the MRA ideology for what it is: misogyny dressed up in a thin veneer of social acceptability.

We have our work cut out for us.

Image Credit Vintage Books

Image Credit: The New York Times

Image Credit: Sinfest, by Tatsuya Ishida

N.B - remarks in double quotes which relate to Elliot Rodger are taken verbatim from his manifesto.

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