“Inspired” by Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 Novel
“Inspired by Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 novel, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, U.S. women’s history and feminist studies scholar, Estelle B. Freedman published Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation in 2013. Based on a synthesis of secondary literature, such as newspapers, legal cases, and new research, the book has an intersectionality approach detailing the politicization of sexual violence and the legal definitions of rape. Rape has never been a universally accepted definition as it is a word that remains in flux due to changing social perceptions of race, gender, and power (ex. FBI definition of rape). Over the course of the twentieth century, the definition of rape changed to fit societal expectations at the time, but it ultimately grew to encompass statutory rape, marital rape, incest, same-sex rape, and date rape. The scope of the novel is wide as Freedman begins in the colonial era by discussing the meaning of rape and empowering white women and ends in the twentieth century by examining notable rape cases, their political consequences, and policy implications of rape. Throughout the fourteen chapters, the book chronicles the history of rape by examining age of consent/seduction laws, slavery, social movements for racial and gender justice, among others.
Freedman’s central argument is society has upheld white male privilege, by maintaining the construction of rape while oppressing others by denying their citizenship rights. Beginning in the late 1800s, during the progressive era, the myth of the black male rapist was invented by southern white men. This racialized narrative of rape often described a hypersexual African American perpetrator and a white female victim. In addition, black women were seen as sexually available. These popular misconceptions were used to justify lynching and disenfranchisement. As a result, the black press and activists alike challenged this widely accepted stereotype and a movement to protect both females and males from rape soon emerged.
Beginning in the twentieth century, states began to raise their age of consent laws, but it did not prevent girls from being viewed as the seducer in rape cases. Based on paranoia, movements eventually rose to protect boys from sexual violence from older homosexual predators, in fear they might infect and turn them into homosexuals. During this time, there was a growing number of immigrants arriving in the United States, so foreign men particularly the Chinese, eastern European, and Mediterranean, were seen as a threat to young women and men. In the final chapters, Freedman analyzes the post-suffrage era by discussing the term mashers, male flirts who verbally and sexually harass women. This chapter highlighted women’s struggle for political rights and the expression of their sexuality. The book ends with the groundbreaking Scottsboro case, which marked a critical turning point in the history of rape as it demonstrated racial injustice and highlighted class and gender, raising the ultimate challenge of how to legally protect African American men to the same extent as we do for Caucasians regarding due process in court and trial proceedings. As these historical complexities are intertwined, Freedman claimed: “”rape often surfaced as a subsidiary concern to achieve instrumental goals, whether white supremacy, woman suffrage, or an end to lynching”” (2013, p. 271).
Freedman’s work differs from other studies of the history of rape because of its broad coverage and its focus on sexual privilege that is dependent on the social and legal constructions of rape (Smith, 2014, p. 1215). The information Freedman provides in Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation is a valuable resource for general readers interested in the history of rape, women’s issues, and sexual politics. It synthesizes the research of others, but it also draws upon Freedman’s own work on sexuality and sexual violence. While the book is insightful, there are some weaknesses that accompany its strengths.
In the book, Freedman chose breadth over depth by analyzing the characteristics of an identity, such as gender, age, race, and class. Although the discussion is extensive, it is hard for the audience to follow along and connect identity to the construction of sexual violence. For example, some chapters dedicated to the age of consent and seduction laws are not thoroughly discussed as it feels rushed because some of these topics are only given several paragraphs worth of analysis. Additionally, Freedman could have explained why she chose to discuss the identities she did and how they intersected or clashed with other identities. For example, she mentions the role of immigrants and how it influenced concerns of homosexuality. However, she fails to acknowledge other significant relationships, such as female on female rape. Lastly, Freedman does not adequately suggest any policy implications to improve how society may address rape in the United States as she solely focuses on gender and racial inequalities.
Despite some shortcomings, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation is an insightful read for any social justice activist interested in gender studies, human rights issues, sociology, and communications studies. Freedman’s work is exhaustive in demonstrating the intersections and implications of important identities across hundreds of years in a society continuously shaped and controlled by white male supremacy and a political-legal establishment that has failed to adequately raise awareness to the issue of sexual violence (Hernandez, 2015, p. 338). Her book comes at a pivotal moment in American history when sexual assault cases continue to make news headlines and spark national debate on appropriate legal procedures and repercussions for those who commit violent sex crimes.”