Recognition, response, and resolution: Historical responses to rape and child molestation

by D.S. Prescott, C. Plummer, & G. Davis

in K.L. Kaufman (Ed.)
The prevention of sexual violence: A practitioner's sourcebook
(pp. 1-18).
Holyoke, MA: NEARI Press, 2010.

Chapter Introduction:

Women have discussed their lives with one another for as long as they have gathered together. At times, their personal stories have unveiled unspeakable atrocities of sexual aggression against their children and themselves. Much of this abuse has occurred in the context of financial and emotional dependence upon the abuser, making it no surprise that it has only recently become the topic of broader public discussion. Public disclosure of victimization was nearly unthinkable less than 40 years ago, hindered by both the potentially devastating effects on the survivor and the fact that men possessed the lion’s share of access to the media, legislation, and other forms of open discourse.

Knowledge of the existence of sexual abuse is nothing new, although the absence of societal responses to it is striking. There is reference to sexual aggression in the Bible. Genesis 34:1-31 describes the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and subsequent revenge by her brothers, while Deuteronomy 22:28-29, outlines a punishment for rape of a virgin. Additionally, Genesis 19:31-38 refers to the “seduction” of Lot by both of his daughters. This passage is particularly interesting because it appears to provide both an early example of child sexual abuse and a common cognitive distortion employed by child molesters (i.e., seduction by a child). Elsewhere, the First Nations’ folklore of Canada’s Hudson Bay district includes a story of how a brother’s trickery and incestuous advances toward his sister result in the origin of the sun, moon, and stars (Turner, 2001, p. 266). In an exhaustive review of what is known about sexual aggression in preliterate societies, Lalumiere, Harris, Quinsey, and Rice (2005) note that rape appears more common in some cultures than others, and “is associated with male fraternal interest groups, warfare, gender antagonism, constraints on women’s sexuality, and generally low status of women” (p. 13).

The first organized public responses to sexual violence grew out of the public debate regarding abortion and the emerging pro-choice movement in the 1960s (Bevacqua, 2000). Not only was sexual assault a reason that women sought reproductive care, but many noted the common themes of women’s loss of control over their own bodies, as both victims and patients (Kaplan, 1997). Further, the broader advance of feminism led to events such as the “speak outs” in New York and elsewhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Prior to the widespread establishment of rape crisis centers, the first rape relief hotlines resulted from efforts such as the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Collective and similar efforts in the late 1960s. By 1972, the DC Rape Crisis program and Seattle Rape Relief became among the first programs with a physical location to which survivors of sexual assault could turn to for support. Other organizations followed, such as the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (founded in 1975), the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (founded in 1978), and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (founded in 1980).

Although rape crisis centers would not receive major funding until after 1995 with the Violence Against Women Act, women branched out to create non-profit organizations where abuse survivors could come for support across the country. Examples include Bay Area Women Against Rape; the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN; founded in 1994 and providing referrals to local hotlines); and the Community Violence Solutions and Rape Crisis Center of Marin and Contra Costa Counties in 1974. Over time, many of these organizations worked in collaboration with others interested in reducing the harm of sexual violence.

Common assumptions regarding the sexual assault of a woman by a stranger included that women could stop any sex act if they really wanted to and that many secretly enjoyed rape but were too embarrassed to admit it. There was no shortage of influential books (e.g., Brownmiller, 1975; Buchwald, Fletcher, & Roth, 1993; Millett, 1970) and events addressing these myths (such as Andrea Dworkin’s speech at the Midwest Regional Conference of the National Organization for Changing Men in 1983 in which she called for “a 24 hour truce where there is no rape"). Beyond the work of service organizations such as rape crisis centers, there was also a robust development of rape law reform clinics (Bevacqua, 2000). Despite the advent of women speaking out against these myths, the development of support organizations such as the National Organization for Women (in 1966) and the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (in 1995), evidence of these misconceptions remains to the present.

With the advent of the modern rape crisis movement, it was not long before sexual violence perpetrated against children came to the forefront, as these women told the stories of their childhood. Prevention programs addressing rape identified younger and younger victims, resulting in speak outs that brought incest and child molestation into the public spotlight.