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by Joanna Bourke
Counterpoint, 2009
Review by Sue Bond on Jul 13th 2010


I read this impressive and intensively researched book from the point of view of an educated general reader, a woman and a feminist, but not an expert on rape or sex crimes in general. It is highly controlled, well argued and scholarly, but with little jargon, and she does occasionally interject her own feelings. In fact, she states in the preface that her reason for writing the book was fear, followed by anger at a statistic: 'I read a Home Office report that revealed that only 5 per cent of rapes reported to the police in the UK ever end in a conviction' (vii). This anger does not drive the text, but it indicates the passion that ignited the task, and the book is better because of it. And each section has an epigraph, verses from Cecil Day Lewis' poem 'Sex-Crime', which balances the facts with poetic representation of the injustice of rape and its aftermath.

Rape is an emotional subject, and though I was interested to read the book, I was also rather daunted. And there are sections that repulse and infuriate, such as on rape myths (when the excuses for men raping women reach the ludicrous), rape in prison and in wartime.

There are seven sections, including an introduction, plus extensive notes, a bibliography and index. Her expressed intention is to focus on the rapist not the 'victim': 'Who are these violent people?' (vii). In the Introduction, Bourke defines what she means by rape: 'sexual abuse is any act called such by a participant or third party' (9). She also expands on the aim of the book, which is to explore rape and sexual abuse narratives and how they have changed over time. In 'Lies' she addresses those rape myths as well as the eternal question of what 'no' means; next is 'Identities', involving definition of 'the rapist', possible causes of rape, and therapeutic approaches. 'Case Studies' goes into the territory of female perpetrators and male victims, exhibitionism, and sexual psychopathy. This is followed by 'Violent Institutions', covering the home, the prison environment, and the military and wartime; 'Law' speaks for itself. The last section, 'Resistance', becomes particularly muscular in its approach to the importance of women's resilience.

When I first read Bourke's definition of rape, it seemed vague, but what she is trying to do is to emphasize the complexity of rape, and its myriad political, cultural, social, and legal meanings and interconnections. As the reader progresses through the book, the implications of the author's broad definition become clearer and make sense.

Rape is a charged subject. Women in particular have been denied justice all the way along, and continue to be denied justice, for many reasons, which are discussed and argued convincingly. At each turn, women have been told that they 'asked for it', that their frigidity led their husbands to rape them, that it wasn't really rape, that they didn't fight hard enough or fought too hard, that they lied, that their 'no' means 'yes', and so forth. Bourke takes each of these and other myths and demolishes them.

She also reminds the reader that men can be raped, and that women can rape, too, but that the percentage of women who rape is small compared to men. She reiterates that stranger rape is not as common as rape and sexual abuse committed within the family, or by people known to the person so attacked. Importantly, she argues against the slogan that rape is about power not sex, which was the statement of feminists in the 1970s and 80s. A historical change has occurred, so that rape is increasingly sexualized compared to the nineteenth century and before, according to Bourke. More importantly still,

From the standpoint of modern subjectivities--strongly tied into notions of sexual identity--the separation of 'sex' from 'rape' would constitute a denial of the lived experience of many victims and perpetrators. As always, I have no sympathy for any definition of rape that ignores the experience of its victims: so long as rape victims continue to experience rape as different from non-sexual assault, it must be seen as such. (408)

This is not an easy book to read, but a very important one, and Joanna Bourke has given it a magisterial treatment that is accessible for the educated general reader as well as the academic.


© 2010 Sue Bond




Sue Bond is a writer, reviewer and editor with degrees in literature, creative writing and medicine. She lives in Queensland, Australia


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