About Corazon

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sex Crimes in Early America

How Gender Relations and Patriarchal
Dominance Established Criminal Precedent

Being that early colonial America is my favorite era to study, and law enforcement has been my primary career path, I have always been interested in the role that crime and law enforcement had during this period. As a result, I occasionally enjoy reading a book on the topic from time to time.

One of the most recent works that I have read on the history of crime in early America is Sharon Block’s Rape & Sexual Power in Early America, which was published in 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. In the book, Block discusses the origins, evolution and perception of sex and gender relationships during the earliest years of American colonization and revolution. Naturally, the ideas and motivations behind sexual activity in the 17th and 18th centuries were greatly influenced by the religious beliefs of those eras, which is why they are often so hard to research. Yet despite these difficulties, Block presents a thorough overview of this often ignored topic.

As is the case with all sexual crime, power and control lay at the heart of the matter. In the early years of American society, however, sexual crimes such as rape and incest were routinely seen as crimes of unbridled lust and passion, in which the perpetrator was unable to bridle his desires. To make matters worse, women were regularly labeled as being the instigators of these vile acts while the men were seen as the helpless bystanders, unable to withstand the seduction of their victims. As Block states:
Although Americans wrote surprisingly frequently about rape, it remained a difficult crime to charge and to successfully prove. Early Americans often saw the violence of forced sex as an unfortunate result of sexual desire rather than the original intent of the sexual act. Passions – understood as strong feelings or emotions – remained an explanation for sexual desires into the nineteenth century, as their meaning moved from a primarily religious focus to one that combined religious and secular concerns. As a result of passions, sexual coercion was less an aberrant act of violent sexual force than an extension of normative sexual practices. A rape might begin with voluntary social or sexual offers and end with the aggressor attempting to continue normal social relations after the rape. Contrary to modern expectations, physical force did not provide a clear dividing line between coercion and consent. Consensual sex could be physically forceful (17).
Or in other words, instead of the modern understanding that "no means no," in colonial America it actually meant, “pursue even harder.”

One of the central themes to Block’s work, which is essential to understanding sexual activity in early America, is the issue of gender relations. As Block points out, gender relations of the 17th and 18th centuries were directly tied to the patriarchal nature of religion and government. The church, which castigated women as being frivolous and undomesticated in their sexuality, placed the “evils” of sexual relations primarily on the shoulders of women. As a result, victims of rape were regularly chastised by church authorities for being too flamboyant and inviting with their sexuality. Or in other words, the women were simply “asking for it.” In addition, men were seen as the “custodians” of sex, since they could be trusted with exercising it in an "appropriate" manner. As a result, this type of “authority” became the ideal breeding ground for manipulation and domination that enticed even the most reserved predator:
Some men used an array of social interactions as a springboard for sexual relations. Those forms of sexual coercion differed greatly from the archetypal stranger rape committed through brute force and grave bodily threat. Neighbors in small communities might use their everyday social relations to create opportunities for sexual force or read inappropriate socializing as evidence of a woman’s consent to subsequent sexual relations. (77).
As can be imagined, this type of gender relationship gave way to patriarchal dominance that permeated virtually every social encounter between man and woman. Whether in friendship, courtship or marriage, men could find a justification for their sexual desires.

Ethical and moral issues, like the ones brought up by Block, are difficult to discuss to say the least, but they are imperative if we hope to better understand the history of whatever era we hope to study. Understanding the criminal aspects of a society, along with what that particular society deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior, can help historians take a moral “pulse” on the past. In addition, it helps us to sift through the abundance of moral rhetoric to uncover the fragments of ethical behavior that past societies actually cherished and exhaled as being protected by God and the law. For these reasons, Sharon Block’s Rape & Sexual Power in Early America receives an A in my grade book.

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