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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002) 197-216

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"He Said, She Said":
Rape and Gender Discourse in Early Modern Russia

Daniel H. Kaiser

Does it matter who is speaking when rape is reported or described? Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver argue that it "may be all that matters. Whether in the courts or the media, whether in art or criticism, who gets to tell the story and whose story counts as 'truth' determine the definition of what rape is." 1 Applying social science strategies to modern societies, Colleen Ward has found evidence to confirm that the gender of the reporter is crucial to identifying and punishing rape. Survey data disclosed that, compared to women, "men are more accepting of rape myths, have less supportive attitudes toward rape victims, are more tolerant of rape, have less empathy toward victims, ... and are more blaming and denigrating of sexual assault victims." 2 Echoing an argument made most powerfully by Susan Brownmiller, Ward connected the gender-differentiated understanding of rape to political and social cultural constructions.

[R]ape myths in patriarchal societies underpin sexual violence and are responsible for the unjust treatment of women who have been victims of sexual assault. Men, as oppressors of women, are more likely to cling to rape myths and are more likely to blame and denigrate victims of sexual abuse. This allows men to retain authority and control and constrains women to positions of powerlessness in society. 3

Ward depended for the most part upon modern industrial societies, but might the same analysis hold for the preindustrial world? Figures from early modern Europe and colonial New England suggest that rape and sexual assaults were relatively rare in this era - something like one to three percent of all [End Page 197] indictments. 4 Manon van der Heijden reports that during the entire 17th century in Delft and Rotterdam only 14 men were accused of assault and rape, and just six of those were sentenced for rape. 5 Miranda Chaytor noted that in the second half of the 17th century in the English Northern Circuit assizes "a rape case would be heard roughly every two years." 6

Roy Porter has used evidence like this to argue that rape was not especially common in the preindustrial world, nor was it symptomatic of institutional oppression. Porter contends that in patriarchal early modern European society, in which women were even more subject to male authority than were their descendants centuries later, sexual assault was less an expression of systemic patriarchal oppression than an incidental "diseased excrescence" of societies that genuinely abhorred and severely punished rape. 7

Porter is certainly correct to say that statutory law often prescribed severe punishment for rape. In the early modern German states, for example, rape was one of several offenses that might earn offenders execution, and in colonial New England, too, rape was a capital crime throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. But the severity of the penalty might have operated at cross-purposes to the legislation's intent, discouraging victims from filing charges against men whom they knew and whom they were reluctant to see executed. 8 Alternatively, as Lyndal Roper has argued in her work on Reformation Augsburg, the low rates of [End Page 198] prosecution might also have been a function of revised legislation on rape that made it easier for men to impugn the testimony of women, with the result that women were less likely to report rapes. 9

Nazife Bashar embraces Roper's conclusion. Her study of rape in early modern England found that "[m]ost of the small number of men charged with rape were acquitted, 'not guilty,' reprieved, not captured and described as 'at large,' or released without trial." Bashar concludes, therefore, that the penalty mattered less than the frequency of conviction. Because failed or reluctant prosecution dissuaded victims from filing rape charges, Bashar saw the problem as systemic: "rape was a crime by men against women, and the law as an intrinsic and powerful part of...


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