From New World Encyclopedia

Rape of Philomela by Tereus. Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book VI, 519-562. Fol. 80 r, image 6.

Rape is a form of assault involving the non-consensual use of the sexual organs of another person's body. The assailant can be of either sex, as can their target.

Rape is generally considered one of the most serious sex crimes, however it can be very difficult to prosecute. Consent may be absent due to duress arising from the use, or threat, of overwhelming force or violence, or because the subject is incapacitated in some way such as intoxication and/or underage innocence. In some cases coercion might also be used to negate consent. In many of these situations the absence of consent is difficult to prove. Additionally, the victim may feel responsible for what happened, even though it was against their will.

Sex is related to the very purpose of human existence: love, procreation, and family. Sexuality has social ramifications; therefore most societies set limits, through social norms and taboos, moral and religious guidelines, and legal constraints on what is permissible sexual behavior. Rape violates the very essence of a person's being, violating their very purpose in the deepest way. Until all human beings learn to respect each other, and to realize the true value of sexual intimacy in its proper context, the terrible crime of rape remains a wound that leaves a scar that never heals, not just on the individual but on humankind as a whole.

Definitions of rape

The Rape of the Sabine Women, a 1582 sculpture by Giambologna.

There is no universally accepted distinction between rape and other forms of assault involving one or both participant's sexual organs. Some criminal codes explicitly consider all kinds of forced sexual activity to be rape, whereas in others only acts involving a coupled penis and vagina are included. Some restrict rape only to instances where a woman is forced by a man. Other assaults involving sexual organs in some way may then be grouped under the term sexual assault. In some jurisdictions rape may also be committed by assailants using objects, rather than their own body parts, against the sexual organs of their target.

In most jurisdictions the crime of rape is defined to occur when sexual intercourse takes place (or is attempted) without valid consent of one of the parties involved. It is frequently defined as penetration of the anus or the vagina by a penis. In some jurisdictions the penetration need not be by penis but can be by other body parts or by objects, or may involve the forcing of a vagina or anus onto a penis by a female assailant. Other jurisdictions expand the definition of rape to include other acts committed using the sexual organs of one or both of the parties, such as oral copulation and masturbation, for example, again enacted without valid consent.

The lack of valid consent does not necessarily mean that the victim explicitly refused to give consent. Generally, consent is considered invalid if it is obtained from someone who is:

  • Under any kind of duress (force, violence, blackmail)
  • Judgmentally impaired or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs (legal or otherwise)
  • Mentally impaired whether by illness or developmental disability
  • Below the age of consent defined in that jurisdiction

The Brazilian Penal Code defines rape as unconsensual vaginal sex. Therefore, unlike most of Europe and the Americas, male rape, anal rape, and oral rape are not considered to be rape crimes. Instead, such an act is a "violent attempt against someone's modesty" ("Atentado violento ao pudor"). The penalty, however, is the same.

In Pakistan, under the Hudood Ordinance in force from 1979 to 2006, the definition of rape required a woman to have supporting evidence from four male eye-witnesses. The sexual act was otherwise considered adultery.

The definition used by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in its landmark 1998 judgment was "a physical invasion of a sexual nature committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive."[1]

History of rape

"Rape of Europa" by Guido Reni

The word "rape" originates from the Latin verb rapere: to seize or take by force. The Latin term for the act of rape itself is raptus. The word originally had no sexual connotation and is still used generically in English. The history of rape, and the alterations of its meaning, is quite complex.

The concept of rape, both as an abduction and in the sexual sense (not always distinguishable), makes its first appearance in early religious texts. In Greek mythology, for example, the rape of women, as exemplified by the rape of Europa, and male rape, found in the myth of Laius and Chrysippus, were mentioned. Different values were ascribed to the two actions. The rape of Europa by Zeus is represented as an abduction followed by consensual lovemaking, similar perhaps to the rape of Ganymede by Zeus, and went unpunished. The rape of Chrysippus by Laius, however, is represented in darker terms, and was known in antiquity as "the crime of Laius," a term which came to be applied to all male rape. It was seen as an example of hubris in the original sense of the word, namely violent outrage, and its punishment was so severe that it destroyed not only Laius himself, but also his son, Oedipus.

In most cultures, rape was seen less as a crime against a particular girl or woman than against the head of the household or against chastity. As a consequence, the rape of a virgin was often a more serious crime than of a non-virgin, even a wife or widow, and the rape of a prostitute or other unchaste woman was, in some laws, not a crime because her chastity could not be harmed. Furthermore, the woman's consent was under many legal systems not a defense. In seventeenth century France, even marriage without parental consent was classified as rapt.[2]

In some laws the woman might marry the rapist instead of his receiving the legal penalty. This was especially prevalent in laws where the crime of rape did not include, as a necessary part, that it be against the woman's will, thus providing a means for a couple to force their families to permit marriage.

Ancient World

Tarquinius Sextus and Lucretia by Titian

In pagan Rome, it was expected that an honorable woman, being raped, would like Lucretia remove the stain on her honor by committing suicide. The failure of Christian women, having been raped in the Sack of Rome (410), to kill themselves was commented on by pagans with shock and horror; St. Augustine dedicated an entire book of The City of God to defending these women's honor and chastity. Early Christianity also maintained, as paganism did not, that slave women were entitled to chastity, and that therefore a slave woman could be raped, and honored as martyrs slave women who resisted their masters.

In Roman law, the crime of rape was not defined by the lack of consent of the woman, but by her removal from her family; the change was described by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England:

The civil law [of Rome] punishes the crime of ravishment with death and confiscation of goods: under which it includes both the offence of forcible abduction, or taking away a woman from her friends, of which we last spoke; and also the present offence of forcibly dishonoring them; either of which, without the other, is in that law, sufficient to constitute a capital crime. Also the stealing away a woman from her parents or guardians, and debauching her, is equally penal by the emperor's edict, whether she consent or is forced: “five volentibus, five nolentibus mulieribus, tale facinus fuerit perpetratum.” And this, in order to take away from women every opportunity of offending in this way; whom the Roman laws suppose never to go astray, without the seduction and arts of the other sex: and therefore, by restraining and making so highly penal the solicitations of the men, they meant to secure effectually the honor of the women...

But our English law does not entertain quite such sublime ideas of the honor of either sex, as to lay the blame of a mutual fault upon one of the transgressors only: and therefore makes it a necessary ingredient in the crime of rape, that it must be against the woman's will.

Rape, in the course of warfare, also dates back to antiquity, ancient enough to have been mentioned in the Bible. The Greek, Persian, and Roman troops would routinely rape women and boys in the conquered towns. Rape, as an adjunct to warfare, was prohibited by the military codices of Richard II and Henry V (1385 and 1419 respectively). These laws formed the basis for convicting and executing rapists during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). William Shakespeare included a rape in his Titus Andronicus, which gives evidence of a general awareness of the crime's presence throughout history.

Modern World

Many developments in law took place during the twentieth century. Since the 1970s many changes occurred in the perception of sexual assault due in large part to the feminist movement and its public characterization of rape as a crime of power and control rather than purely of sex. Rape as an issue of power is illustrated in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird in which a black man is accused of rape. This was a common occurrence in the ante-bellum American south where white society reacted to the developing empowerment of African-Americans with lynching and accusations of rape. In some countries the women's liberation movement of the 1970s created the first rape crisis centers, such as that established by the National Organization for Women (NOW).[3] One of the first two rape crisis centers, the DC Rape Crisis Center, opened in 1972, created to promote sensitivity and understanding of rape and its effects on the victim.[4]

On September 2, 1998 the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda delivered a precedent-setting verdict that made sexual violence a war crime. This defined rape as an institutionalized weapon of war and a crime of genocide. The first female judge of the tribunal Navanethem Pillay played a key part in those decisions.[5] This was followed in November 1998 by the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that acts of rape may constitute torture under international humanitarian law.[6]

Types of rape

There are several types of rape, generally categorized by reference to the situation in which it occurs, the sex or characteristics of the victim, and/or the sex or characteristic of the perpetrator. It is important to note that almost all rape research and reporting to date has been limited to male-female forms of rape. Women can also be charged with rape, however this is usually in situations involving underage males.

Marital Rape

Historically, most cultures have had a concept of spouses' conjugal rights to sexual intercourse with each other. However, in the twentieth century this view began to change. In December 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, establishing marital rape as a human rights violation.[7]

Many United States rape statutes formerly precluded the prosecution of spouses, including estranged or even legally separated couples. Marital rape first became a crime in the United States in the state of South Dakota in 1975.[8] In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the spousal exemption.[9]

The marital rape exemption was abolished in England and Wales in 1991 when the House of Lords decision in R v R [1991] 1 All ER 759 confirmed that a husband could be guilty of raping his wife under common law rules. In the 1980s, date or acquaintance rape first gained acknowledgment.

Statutory Rape

Statutory rape refers to a sexual act that is considered rape by the law regardless of whether it was coercive or consensual. Such laws are common and exist in order to prevent adults from having sex with minors who are deemed legally unable to give effective informed consent. Some jurisdictions prefer terms such as "unlawful sexual intercourse" for cases involving a person below the age of consent, to avoid the forcible connotation of the word.

College campus rape

College campuses provide a situation in which rape occurs. The presence of many young men and women, often experiencing their first years away from home together, in an environment where prior controls, supervision, and discipline are to a great extent removed may lead to problems. Youths are in a position to engage in adult behavior with some anticipating new activities and freedoms, whilst others are left more vulnerable.

In the United States, students are allegedly most vulnerable to rape during the first few weeks of the freshman and sophomore years. According to the United States Justice Department, 3.8 percent of college women and 1.7 percent of men were victims of completed rape within a six month period, and in 90 percent of the cases the attacker was known to the victim. In a typical college career, one-fifth to one-fourth were victims of attempted or completed rape. According to one 1992 study, one out of 12 college aged men and one in every 20 college aged women committed rape, making each responsible for an average of three rapes.[10]

The Department of Justice study also found that in "about half of the incidents categorized as completed rapes, the women or man did not consider the incident to be a rape." According to the Journal of Counseling and Development, women aged 16–24 are at the highest risk of sexual assault. One study concluded that as many as one in four college aged females has been a victim of either rape or attempted rape.[11]


Many explanations have been developed for why people commit rape. There are theories ranging from the developmental to the ideological; sociobiological theories also have been proposed.


Developmental theories include the idea that someone who grows up in a family and social environment in which other people are regarded as of no value may fail to develop empathy, and view the abuse of others' bodies as normal. Exposure to pornography has also been suggested to have this effect. An unresolved childhood incident may fester into a profound hatred of one sex and this hatred may manifest itself in violent assault in adulthood. Others suggest overactive sex drives compel people to commit rape. Still others blame male propensity for violence, although this view is refuted by the existence of rape by females.


The belief that some people (usually women) do not have the right to occupy certain positions may prompt some men to commit assaults intended to punish the perceived trespass: the target will have "asked" for the assault they get. Sex with junior colleagues may be seen as a prerogative of office. The junior may feel unable to respond for fear of being fired.

In mens' prisons assaulting others may seem the only way to prevent oneself being so-treated, or as a way to acquire status in a limited environment.

The opportunity to rape may co-exist alongside the near certainty of getting away with it. This may apply within a family where even if a child complains they are likely to be disbelieved, particularly if their abuser is an adult of good standing within their community.


Some argue that rape, as a reproductive strategy, is encountered in many instances in the animal kingdom (such as ducks, geese, and certain dolphin species).[12] It is difficult to determine what constitutes rape among animals, as the lack of informed consent defines rape amongst humans.

Some sociobiologists argue that our ability to understand rape, and thereby prevent it, is severely compromised because its basis in human evolution has been ignored.[13] Some studies indicate that it is an evolutionary strategy for certain males who lack the ability to persuade the female by non-violent means to pass on their genes.[14]

Camille Paglia has argued that the victim-blaming intuition may have a non-psychological component in some cases, because a few sociobiological models suggest that it may be genetically-ingrained for certain men and women to allow themselves to be more vulnerable to rape, and that this may be a biological feature of members of the species.[15]

Effects of rape

After being raped it is common for the victim to experience intense, and sometimes unpredictable, emotions, and they may find it hard to deal with their memories of the event. Victims can be severely traumatized by the assault and may have difficulty functioning as well as they had been used to prior to the assault, with disruption of concentration, sleeping patterns, and eating habits, for example. They may feel jumpy or be on edge. In the month(s) immediately following the assault these problems may be severe and very upsetting and may prevent the victim from revealing their ordeal to friends or family, or seeking police or medical assistance. This may result in Acute Stress Disorder. Symptoms of this are:

  • feeling numb and detached, like being in a daze or a dream, or feeling that the world is strange and unreal
  • difficulty remembering important parts of the assault
  • reliving the assault through repeated thoughts, memories, or nightmares
  • avoidance of things—places, thoughts, feelings—that remind the victim of the assault
  • anxiety or increased arousal (difficulty sleeping or concentrating)
  • avoidance of social life or place of rape

Another problem, referred to as "second victimization," has to do with the caustic and interrogatory way the police and medical staff sometimes treat people who allege rape or sexual assault. Being treated in a harsh way by those in authority to whom the victim turned to for help after the trauma of rape can be experienced in a highly threatening and devaluing manner, exacerbating their emotional distress.

Acute and Reorganization Phases

In 1972, Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holstrom embarked on a study of the psychological effects of rape. They interviewed and counseled rape victims at the emergency room of Boston City Hospital and observed a pattern of reactions which they named Rape Trauma Syndrome.[16] They defined this as having two components which they called the "Acute" and "Reorganization" phases.

During the Acute Phase the survivor may experience shock and disbelief, or feel frozen, and may attempt to disconnect themselves from "the person who was raped." They may feel humiliated, confused, dirty, ashamed, or at fault for the assault, particularly if the assailant was an acquaintance. Extreme nightmares, heightened anxiety, frequent flashbacks, and a strong attempt to disconnect from one's emotions are common, as is denial—trying to convince oneself that the assault did not actually occur. If raped by an acquaintance the victim may try to protect the perpetrator.

Victims may respond to the rape in either an expressive or a controlled way. The expressive way involves obvious outward effects and emotions such as crying, shaking, rage, tenseness, ironic and uncomfortable laughter (part of their denial), and restlessness. The controlled way occurs when the victim appears to be quite calm and rational about the situation, even if facing severe inner turmoil. There is no single response to rape; every individual deals with their intensely traumatic emotions differently.

After the acute phase, the Reorganization Phase begins and the survivor attempts to recreate the world that they once knew. This stage may last for months or even years following the assault and despite their best efforts this phase is often riddled with feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety. Emotions such as anger, anxiety, denial, and loss (of security) surface. Development of an inability to trust is a frequent consequence of sexual assault. This loss of the fundamental need for security can wreak havoc on the survivor’s life, causing them to feel powerless and not in control of their body. They may feel unsafe, which can cause a heightened state of anxiety as well as difficulty with intimate relationships. Victims may attempt to return to normal social interaction (such as go out to social engagements) and find themselves unable to do so and their attempts to re-establish themselves in relationships may be hindered by a lack of trust.

Survivors often isolate themselves from their support network either physically or emotionally. The survivor may feel disconnected from peers as a result of the perceived personal experience. The shattering of trust can adversely affect intimate relationships, as survivors may have a heightened suspicion of others' motives and feelings.

Sexual assault can affect an individual forever, changing them into someone living in a constant state of turmoil. In extreme cases the outcome may be suicide.[17]

Loss of Control and Privacy

Rape has been regarded as "a crime of violence and control" since the 1970s. Control has been identified as a key component in most definitions of privacy:

  • "Privacy is not the absence of other people from one's presence, but the control over the contact one has with them."[18]
  • "Selective control of access to the self."[19]

Control is important in providing:

  • what we need for normal psychological functioning;
  • stable interpersonal relationships; and
  • personal development.

Violation of privacy or "control" comes in many forms, with sexual assault and the resulting psychological traumas being one of the most explicit forms. Many victims of sexual assault suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which also center around control issues. Therefore, some argue that it makes more sense to look at the issue of sexual assault as an invasion of privacy. Approaching rape through the concept of privacy also helps bypass certain social stigmas.

Rape in Contemporary Society

Rape has come to be universally reviled as an unspeakable offense, at least in theory. It is still sanctioned in many societies as a husband's right or as a weapon of war, though it is not necessarily identified as rape in these situations.

Many reports suggest that rape statistics are not reliable because some kinds of rape are excluded from official reports, (the FBI's definition for example excludes all rapes except forcible rapes of adult females by males), because a significant number of rapes go unreported even when they are included as reportable rapes, and also because a significant number of rapes reported to the police cannot be verified and possibly did not occur.[20]

In the United States, the adjusted per-capita victimization rate of rape has declined from about 2.4 per 1,000 people (age 12 and above) in 1980 to about 0.4 per 1,000 people, a decline of about 85 percent.[21] This decline in rape can be attributed to increased awareness of the effects of rape, further development of women's rights, and improved police tactics such as the use of DNA, which makes apprehending rapists easier, thereby removing the threat to society.

Controversial issues still exist regarding the definition of rape, particularly the inclusion of male rape victims of both male and female rapists, female-female rape and parental-rape incest victims, LGBT domestic violence and rape victims, marital rape victims and child sexual abuse victims. Other emerging issues are the concept of victim blame and its causes, male rape survivors, male-male rape, female sexual aggression, new theories of rape and gender, date rape drugs and their effects as well as the psychological effects of rape trauma syndrome. In addition, rape by women is a barely understood phenomenon that is widely denied in most societies and one that usually causes surprise, shock, or utter revulsion.[22]

Rape and Religion

The meaning of rape in holy texts has been debated vigorously, popular religions, too, have condemned rape as a sin. Controversy surrounding Christianity's stance on rape centers on a particular passage of Deuteronomy:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.(Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV)

Analysts argue that those who read this passage as condoning rape do so as a result of a misinterpretation of the Bible's original Greek.[23] Islam also condemns rape as a violation of both the victim and the victim's family.[24] A controversial aspect of both the Islamic and Christian condemnation is that some do so because they look at rape as an act of infidelity, which undervalues the effect on the victim.

In line with views on abortion, conservative religionists advocate that any child resultant from rape not be aborted, but raised by the victim of the rape (assuming the victim is female). Though the child may face a stigma throughout its life, the traditional religious argument is that the child should not suffer for the crimes of their rapist parent.[25] Though historically it was advised that victims of rape commit suicide because of the disgrace brought to their families, the argument in favor of preserving life comes into play here and the suggestion of suicide discarded.


  1. Rule 93. Rape and Other forms of Sexual Violence. ICRC. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  2. Catherine Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (Basic Books, 2002, ISBN 0465041256), 36
  3. National Organization for Women (NOW) Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  4. Mission Statement DC Rape Crisis Center. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  5. When Rape Becomes Genocide. The New York Times, September 5, 1998. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  6. Achievements. United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  7. United Nations General Assemby, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (December 1993).
  8. J. C. Barden, Marital rape: Drive for tougher laws is pressed, The New York Times (May 13, 1987). Retrieved April 12, 2011.
  9. The National Center for Victims of Crime, Spousal Rape Laws: 20 Years Later. 2004. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  10. Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, 1992
  11. David G. Curtis, Perspectives on Acquaintance Rape 1997 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  12. P. A. Gowaty and N. Buschhaus, "Functions of aggressive and forced copulations in birds: female resistance and the CODE hypothesis," American Zoologist (1997)
  13. R. Thornhill and C. T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (MIT Press, 2000 ISBN 978-0262201254).
  14. R. Thornhill and N. W. Thornhill, "Human rape: an evolutionary analysis," Ethology and Sociobiology (1983).
  15. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 9780300091274).
  16. A. Burgess and L. Holmstrom, "Rape Trauma Syndrome," American Journal of Psychiatry (1974).
  17. Rape Trauma Syndrome Gift From Within. Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  18. D. Pedersen, "Psychological functions of privacy," Journal of Environmental Psychology 17 (1997): 147-156.
  19. S. Margulis, "Privacy as a social issue and behavioral concept," Journal of Social Issues 59 (2003).
  20. Dick Haws, "The Elusive Numbers on False Rape," Columbia Journalism Review (November/December 1997).
  21. Anthony D'Amato, Porn Up, Rape Down. Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 913013. Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  22. Myriam S. Denov, Perspectives on Female Sex Offending: A Culture of Denial (Ashgate Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0754635651)
  23. The Old Testament and Rape Answering Islam. Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  24. Mark Walia, A Tale of Two Cultures: Islam and the West (Design Publishing, 2012).
  25. What does the Bible say about Rape? Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. Retrieved January 30, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Buchwald, Emilie. Transforming a Rape Culture, Milkweed Editions, 2005. ISBN 1571312692
  • Denov, Myriam S. Perspectives on Female Sex Offending: A Culture of Denial. Ashgate Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0754635651
  • Groth, A. Nicholas. Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0738206245
  • Lauer, Teresa. The Truth About Rape, Rape Recovery, 2002. ISBN 0966207815
  • Ledray, Linda. Recovering From Rape, Owl Books, 1994. ISBN 0805029281
  • Orenstein, Catherine. Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, Basic Books, 2002. ISBN 0465041256
  • Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780300091274
  • Scarce, Michael. Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame, Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0738206237
  • Sanday, Peggy. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, NYU Press, 2007. ISBN 0814740383
  • Thornhill, R., and C.T. Palmer. A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion MIT Press, 2000. ISBN 9780262201254
  • Walia, Mark. A Tale of Two Cultures: Islam and the West. Design Publishing, 2012. ASIN B009M5F4YG
  • Warshaw, Robin. I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape, Harper Paperbacks, 1994. ISBN 0060925728

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.


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