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  • Trauma, Body, and Mind: Forensic Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Dutch Rape Cases
  • Willemijn Ruberg (bio)

Research on the history of trauma has been limited to the history of scientists discovering the concept of trauma as a psychic wound. This perspective, however, obscures previous notions of mental suffering in nonscientific settings. As several historians have stated, a history of trauma before and beyond the advent of scientific, psychological discourse has not been written yet.1 This article, therefore, investigates alternative discourses to the notion of trauma in a period before psychologists coined the term by considering nineteenth-century Dutch rape cases.

Historians of rape have traced several founding moments in which the selfhood of the victim was accentuated. First, early modernists have argued that from the late sixteenth century rape came to be seen as a sexual crime against an individual woman rather than one against male property where the sexual element was secondary.2 Nonetheless, the most important changes in regard to individuality have also been located in the nineteenth century. [End Page 85] Georges Vigarello has shown how in the nineteenth century rape came to be seen as an attack on an individual’s body, in contrast to the early modern age, when both perpetrators and victims were regarded as tainted by sin after a rape. Similarly, issues like free will and consent were discussed at great length among legal scholars and doctors during this period: the idea acquired support that a victim could be forced into sexual intercourse by mental threats rather than only by physical violence. Even fainting and hypnosis as contributing factors were debated in professional forums if not in actual court cases. This focus on the mind, however, did not entail references to trauma. Although experts started to pay attention to the emotional damage suffered by raped women at the end of the nineteenth century, Vigarello points out that a discourse on trauma did not exist until the twentieth century. Doctors noted the impact of rape on morals, especially the loss of virginity and the risk of corruption, but did not fear the effect of a woman’s distress on her mental life.3

Joanna Bourke, in her recent study of rape, agrees with Vigarello that rape was not considered a traumatic experience before the twentieth century; only then did it come to be regarded as an attack upon a woman’s sexual identity and a violation of the self: “This intense focus on the body as marker of identity and as a locus of truth is a profoundly modern conception.” Bourke extends her analysis to the language available to victims of sexual abuse, not only professionals: “For many working-class women in nineteenth-century Britain and America . . . the harm of sexual abuse was located less in her psychological ‘self’ and more in her social and economic standing. . . . This is obviously not to deny that female rape victims in the earlier period experienced intense psychological distress. However, the languages of the time made them express their agony more easily in terms of physical and economic ruin as opposed to psychic damage.”4 In Bourke’s view, the absence of psychology as a scientific discourse meant the lack of any language to articulate psychic hurt. Yet her emphasis on the availability of scientific languages neglects the presence of other, more common, languages, like humoral discourse, that could convert psychic wounds into words.

The emphasis on an increasing, perhaps even progressive, importance of the self in rape cases has strongly been influenced by Michel Foucault, who drew attention to nineteenth-century medical discourses on sexuality, their connection to an inner identity, and their power to define normal and abnormal persons.5 Following Foucault, several historians have studied the arrival of new scientific discourses on sexuality and identity in the late nineteenth century. [End Page 86]

Studying victims and the role of forensic medicine in nineteenth-century Dutch rape cases, I aim to show that the “rise of the self” in regard to rape and trauma is more complicated than historians have indicated, sketching multiple (both lay and medical) discourses on rape and trauma.6 In these different discourses, body-mind dichotomies were vital to a conceptualization...


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pp. 85-104
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