4 minute read

Feminism: Legal Aspects

The Second Wave Critique Of Rape Law

By the 1980s, feminist theory had brought to bear upon rape law two significant and influential critiques—those of Catharine MacKinnon and Susan Estrich. MacKinnon argued that rape was part of a larger problem of female subordination. Rape law was not fundamentally about punishing forceful sexual acquisition, MacKinnon argued, but instead was intended to perpetuate male dominance by achieving female subordination. Since rape law did not prohibit much that was coercive sex, it legitimized male sexual aggression, thus encouraged women to seek male protection, and thereby reinforced the dominant position of men in society generally. Rape law defined rape for men, creating "rapists," and thus leaving men free to achieve sexual acquisition by other coercive means. MacKinnon's critique created substantial controversy by appearing to equate much that society viewed as consensual with coercive sex and, thus, rape. Ultimately, and despite this controversy, MacKinnon's work would breed not only a new generation of feminist criticism of rape law but would also help to push legislators and others to consider rape law as emblematic of the ways in which the state might perpetuate women's inequality even as it purported to reject that same inequality.

The second critique, by Susan Estrich, relied on more traditional ways of talking about the problems of rape law within the context of criminal law doctrine. Estrich's immediate point was that rape law envisioned a particular kind of violence that made the only kind of "real rape" to be rape by strangers. In contrast, Estrich offered an account of the "simple rape," a rape accomplished without "extra" violence and often by intimates, as "real rape." Estrich's account helped to focus substantial public attention on the problem of acquaintance rape, forcing students and scholars to question whether the criminal law had chosen to focus on a stereotyped version of the knife-wielding rapist to the exclusion of the more common and troubling cases of intercourse accomplished against the victim's wishes. Although this debate raised serious questions about the meaning of force in the law of rape, much of the debate centered on questions of consent. Soon, criminal law scholars began to focus on questions of mental state and whether and what the defendant needed to know about the victim's consent to constitute rape. Estrich took the position that the defendant could be held liable for rape based on a negligent mistake about consent, a proposition considered controversial from a traditional criminal law standpoint as inconsistent with a liability regime based on the defendant's consciousness of wrongdoing.

The Estrich and MacKinnon critiques changed the way that rape law was taught in classrooms across America. But their influence was not without sustained criticism. Indeed, the entire feminist focus on rape came under significant attack. Popular skeptics urged that, by equating rape with consensual sex, the feminist critique was prudery in disguise. Other critics charged that feminists were simply exaggerating the problem and engaged in a highly publicized debate about the precise number of rapes in the country. Some legal critics put forth reform proposals that sought to separate "truly" coercive rapes from "sexual misunderstandings." Even feminists' traditional allies began to urge that the feminist account was partial. Critical race theorist Angela Harris and criminal law scholar Dorothy Roberts argued that white feminists had occluded rape as a means of racial domination, obscuring the ways in which black women experienced rape as the oppression of the "master's" free sexual access.

Partly in response to these developments, feminist scholarship turned more explicitly to consider questions of coercion and autonomy. Lynne Henderson reminded students and scholars that rape law's idea of force and consent was built upon social understandings of coercion that amounted to "scripts" of male innocence and female guilt. From here, new questions were asked about whether a policy of laissez-faire reform, popular in 1970s reform efforts, truly served women or, instead, left them to "bargain" for sex from a position of weakness (Hirshman and Larson). Views of statutory rape laws shifted dramatically because of this new emphasis. In the 1970s, many feminists supported the deregulation of sex between minors. By the 1990s, critics charged that statutory rape reforms had failed to recognize the degree to which, in the name of sexual "freedom" for minors, the law actually sanctioned forceful and exploitative encounters (Oberman; Olsen).

The quest for equality in rape law continues. Periodically, questions arise as to whether rape reform has really accomplished as much as it promised. It has been argued, for example, that feminists have been too quick to believe in the success of their critique. Some have maintained that despite ancient reforms the law remains too much the same. Elimination of the resistance requirement in theory, for example, has not eliminated resistance in fact because courts typically require a showing of something more than lack of consent to find rape (Schulhofer). Similarly, it has been argued that, despite apparent elimination of the spousal exception to rape rules, there is still no parity between rape by a stranger and rape by an intimate (West; Nourse, 2000). Finally, controversy remains about the true nature of consent in a world where norms about sexual relations are changing (Schulhofer).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFeminism: Legal Aspects - Early Efforts To Reform The Law Of Rape And Battering, The Second Wave Critique Of Rape Law