US History of Rape
Portions of a publication of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. By Morgan J Curtis and Tim Love
Sexual violence is a part of the history of humankind. It has often been used as a tool of male
domination and female subjugation. There is also a long history of resisting violence against
women, and specifically sexual violence. This resistance to sexual violence grew out of early efforts by groups of people, primarily women, who were fighting against the social norms, policies and practices that degraded, dehumanized and commodified women and made them victims of various forms of violence. It is important to learn this history and to understand the connection that our work has today to the efforts of the past. We can find our way forward in our prevention work by examining the mistakes and successes of the past. This section is intended to give a snapshot view of the history of unjust norms, policies and practices in the United States and the movements that formed to address them.
Early U.S. History
Sexual violence is woven throughout the early history of the United States. Europeans
“settling” the New World were guilty of the systematic rape and murder of women and children
from native populations. During the time of slavery, slave owners frequently raped slave
women. In addition, slave women were viewed as reproductive slaves whose function was to
replenish the slave workforce through childbirth, a view which became even more prevalent
and more violently adhered to with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 (Brewer, Katz-
Fishman, Kuumba, Rousseau, 2007).
In the 1850s, immigration policies placed severe restrictions on the number of European and
Asian women who were allowed to enter the country. This often meant that European and
Asian men moving to the US to get jobs were not allowed to bring their families. As these men
were often treated unfairly and placed in poor work environments, attempts were made to keep
them happy and working hard. One response was a sharp increase in the trafficking of Chinese
women to work as prostitutes, a trend that has continued with the mail-order bride industry
and the sex trafficking of Asian women (Brewer et al., 2007).
During the early history of this country, women were legally considered property, and they still
are in many countries across the world. Rape was not conceived of as a crime against an individual, but rather as a crime against the property of a female victim’s father or husband
Colonization – European invasion rape of Native women and children
Slavery– slave women are systematically raped by slave holders
Abolition of the slave trade slave women viewed as reproductive slaves
Immigration laws lead to an increase in sex traffickingstory6
Resistance and Response
When looking at the history of resistance to sexual violence, it is difficult to pinpoint a beginning.
There has probably been resistance for as long as there has been rape. Some of the earliest
efforts to move the conversation about sexual violence into the public consciousness occurred in 1866, when a group of African American women testified at a congressional hearing. They told stories of their own gang rapes at the hands of white men who were part of mobs targeting
women, children and men of color with violence during a Memphis race riot. Then, in the 1870s, Ida B. Wells and a number of other women of color led anti-lynching campaigns. Rape was considered a capital offense only if a black man were to rape a white woman, and it was common practice to use false charges of rape against black men to lynch them (Greensite, n.d.). The anti-lynching work done by these women was carried on by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in the South in the 1930s (Ford, n.d.). In the 1890s, Black Women’s Clubs formed. Their members challenged inequality based on race and gender, and worked to provide women and families with their basic needs, a model that was replicated by the movement to address interpersonal violence in the 1970s (Greensite, n.d.).
The movement against sexual violence in the US moved back into the public consciousness as
an organized effort in the late 1960s and 1970s. Early activists in the movement focused on
changing the attitudes, beliefs and systems that denied political and personal power to women
and cultivated violence toward them. In the late 1960s, the women’s health movement helped
women take control of their own bodies and health. In 1969, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies; Ourselves, a book that has been updated and is still an important resource for women today (Brewer et al., 2007).
As women began to create spaces for other women to talk about these issues, they began to hear more and more stories from women about the physical and sexual violence they were facing. They continued their social change objectives and also began to open crisis centers, often in their own homes, to provide basic safety and support to victims. Then, in 1971, feminists organized one of the first speak outs against rape in New York, and in 1972 the first rape crisis centers opened in Berkley, California, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C (Office for Victims of Crime: Training and Technical Assistance Center, OVCTTAC, 2007). In 1973, the National Organization for Women formed its National Task Force on Rape (Martin & Schmitt, 2006), and the publication of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape in 1975 by Susan Brownmiller advanced the conversation about sexual violence and moved it to a more public realm. Also in 1975, the formation of The National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape and the National Institute on Mental Health led to an explosion in research regarding sexual violence and its effects (OVCTTAC, 2007). In 1978, the first “Take Back the Night” march occurred in San Francisco, with its participants demanding safety for women in their own communities (Greensite, n.d.).
A Shift in the Movement
In the early 1980s, the dialogue about sexual violence became more public, and a shift occurred in the movement. By the late 1980s, rape crisis centers began to transform from volunteer driven, feminist organizations to professionalized, service-driven organizations. They began to focus more on education level and professional licenses (LPC, LMSW, etc.) and less on experience and social justice mindset in the hiring of employees, and began to adopt for-profit business models. By the mid to late 1990s, rape crisis centers began hiring people from other fields (such as business) as executive directors. A major force behind this shift was funders who preferred to support service provision over social change initiatives.
In 1990, the first federal legislation addressing the issue of violence against women was introduced. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) I was passed, providing federal money to address the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Also in 1994, the CDC first funded its Rape Prevention and Education (RPE) program meant to help lower the rates of sexual violence through prevention education (Garske & Hoffman, 2007). Many private foundations have also shifted to provide funding, both for prevention and service-provision, primarily to private 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, which are often less politicized and less focused on social change work than some more radical and less formal, community- based organizations. Overall, more funding has been focused on supporting service provision (such as shelters and hotlines) and awareness-based education, and less on large-scale social change work – which is needed to prevent sexual violence. Without doubt, social change work focused on ending sexual violence has continued. As in the beginning, these efforts are often localized, grassroots, volunteer-driven and unfunded. However, little is known about these efforts because they have been marginalized, even within our movement, as idealistic, unsupported by research and too informal and unprofessional. Now, in order to prevent sexual violence, rape crisis centers must find and support these grassroots violence prevention efforts in their own communities or start new ones if they don’t exist.
1969 – Publication of Our Bodies: -Ourselves and beginning of women’s health movement.
1972 – First rape crisis centers open in Chicago, Boston, Berkley, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
1971 – First speak out against sexual assault in New York.
1973 – NOW forms first National Task Force on Rape.
1975 – Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape is published.
1975 – A sharp increase in research regarding sexual violence and its effects.
1978 – First “take back the night” march in San Francisco.
1982 – The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) is formed.
1990 – First comprehensive federal legislation responding to violence against women is introduced.
1994 – VAWA I passes and CDC funds RPE program; marital rape becomes against the law
1995 – National Alliance to End Sexual Violence forms.
1996 – World Health Organization (WHO) – declares violence against women and sexual violence global public health issues.
2001- CDC shifts focus of funding to prevention of sexual violence.