restricted access Introduction: “An Accusation Easily to Be Made”
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Introduction “An Accusation Easily to Be Made” Rape. The word itself grips the public imagination with a sense of horror, fear, and perhaps even morbid fascination. Familiar responses include sympathy and support for the victims, outrage at the perpetrators, and an understandable concern for personal safety. But sometimes other thoughts sneak in as well: what was she doing walking by herself at night? Why did she get so drunk at that party? If she had avoided those things, then thoughts likely shift onto a different terrain: he’s so creepy he must have done it, just look at the way he ogles and insults women every day. And if the sexual violence is interracial, although statistics prove this is less common than crime among individuals of the same race, the more uncomfortable response is perhaps to expect, but not to excuse, it. These are some of the hidden thoughts about rape that no one likes to admit that they might think, but which include questions historically shaped by a public adherence to rape myths in American culture: myths that routinely define the boundaries of believable victims and likely suspects. To begin any discussion of sexual violence, rape trials, or criminal jurisprudence in an Anglo context is to acknowledge the oft-cited statement of seventeenth-century British jurist Matthew Hale, who categorized rape as “an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved and harder to be defended against by the party accused, tho [sic] never so innocent.”1 Hale was concerned with what he believed were too many false prosecutions of robbery and rape under past monarchs, and he cautioned authorities against allowing public concerns about sexual violence to mistakenly shape the application of (then) present-day common law. Hale may have been the first to articulate this belief, but his words are regularly brought up in rape trials 2 introduction in the United States even today, and they capture myriad assumptions about sex and gender relations in modern society. Hale’s characterization, however, misses an important exception rooted in the distinct history of American race relations: a belief that African American men have an inherently criminal sexual nature and that, if accused of rape by any white woman, they must be guilty. These assumptions are the straw men of the modern American judicial system when it comes to prosecuting sexual violence—but straw men that have proved difficult to knock over. This book reevaluates the ways in which individuals negotiated the extraordinary challenges of being victimized by or accused of sexual violence in modern Chicago, with an eye toward unpacking rape myths and criminal prosecutions. Central to this analysis are the ways in which racial status intertwined with gender and class privilege, or the lack thereof, and how ideas about appropriate or unacceptable sexual behaviors shaped the narratives told in the modern courtroom. Underlying Hale’s cautionary definition of sexual violence is the idea that women lie about it. An ideology of rape throughout history is that such an accusation “easily made” was also likely made up. It was from this early legal interpretation that dominant rape myths scrutinizing women, and privileging the words of men, emerged. State authorities—including the police, hospital workers, attorneys, and courtroom officials—have been previously cast as especially reluctant to trust women who accused men of sexual violence. Instead, they believed that women who really wanted to resist rape could effectively do so. Other rape myths include the belief that the crime only occurs in the “ghetto”; that all rapists are unusually depraved or sex-starved; that rape is a crime of sexual passion; and that women make false accusations out of spite or revenge.2 The exception to beliefs about lying women constitutes a different kind of American rape myth, emerging out of a hegemonic society desperate to keep control of a multiracial, free population. Since the nineteenth century, most whites believed that the only possible true victim of rape was a sexually chaste, white woman attacked by a black stranger in a public space she could not avoid during normal, daytime activities. Convictions of black men so accused were virtually guaranteed, especially in Southern courts, even while criminal prosecutions were also shaped by social factors such as class status, family connections, or a victim’s personal reputation.3 These latter factors routinely affected rape prosecutions in Anglo courts since the time of Hale, resulting in a wide variety of punishments, acquittals, and legal compromises that reflect the profound impact...


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Subject Headings

  • Rape -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History.
  • Rape -- Public opinion -- History.
  • Rape victims -- Illinois -- Chicago.
  • African Americans -- Sexual behavior -- Illinois -- Chicago.
  • Discrimination in criminal justice administration -- Illinois -- Chicago.
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