Ownership & Honor: The Rights and Rape of Women

By Brittany S.

femme fatale

Prior to the 1550s, the term “rape” referred to theft. While sexual assault was included under this title, the concerns surrounding sexual violence dealt with infringement on the rights of property owners, not on the trauma experienced by the victim. Those females categorized as femme covert were the property of their male relatives. As such, these women were legally dead and unable to levy charges against their rapists (Finn 704-705). Men were the only individuals able to file charges and testify in court (Baines 70). As a result of these legal structures, rape cases that were brought to court often resulted in acquittal because of the debate regarding feminine consent. However, the rape of a proven virgin typically had consequences for the rapist because the chaste female body was of such value commercially . Male relatives were more apt to avenge the wrong, not for the female’s sake, but to gain recompense for the ruination of a valuable trade commodity and reproductive vessel. The loss of virginity devalued the female and threatened the power of her male owners.

Regardless of virgin status, having a female become a “victim” of rape brought inescapable shame on the family name for the failure to adequately control her movements. When rape, or unapproved sexual behavior, was acknowledged, punishing the female and finding the perpetrator was a means of affirming male dominance. If the rapist was found, the female could be forced to wed her victimizer in an effort to ward off social stigma. This was especially true if the victim’s claim of rape was called into question. A rapist could answer a charge of sexual assault by vowing his victim had willingly given herself and consented to the act. This further complicated issues surrounding female agency and human status because of the acknowledgement that a woman could make choices without male support or direction.

Today, rape is still a common form of asserting male dominance. In the Bosnian-Herzegovinian conflict, “rape [was…] a policy of men posturing to gain advantage and ground over other men” (MacKinnon 187). In the United States alone, 300,000 women report instances of rape each year, more than half of which occur before the female’s 18th birthday (Parrot & Cummings 103). However, it is estimated that only one in five women actually report rape to law enforcement (Parrot & Cummings 103). This is largely based on an idea perpetuated during the Renaissance and persisting today that women who are raped “ask for it,” consent to the act, or otherwise motivate their victimization. This leads to
stigmatization of the individual, which results in lower instances of actual reporting of crime. In still other cases, becoming the victim of a rape can mean a death sentence. Women and girls are encouraged to commit suicide or are killed by family members to restore the family honor (Parrot & Cummings 174). These violent responses are encouraged because the female is seen as the property of male family members. The ability to control her movements is considered evidence of masculinity. Though the Renaissance has long been over, today’s society still grapples with and perpetuates negative ideas regarding women’s place in the world. Throughout each news story, debate, and statistic, the question still remains, are women human?


Image: Snyder, Brittany. Femme Fatale. 2012.

Baines, Barbara J. “Effacing Rape in Early Modern Representation.” ELH 65.1 (1998): 69-98.

Finn, Margot. “Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760-1860.” The Historical Journal 39.3 (1996): 703-722.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are women human? and other international dialogues. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Parrot, Andrea and Nina Cummings. Forsaken Females: Global Brutalization of Women . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2006.




About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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