Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990

Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990

Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990

Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990

Synopsis

Reading Rape examines how American culture talks about sexual violence and explains why, in the latter twentieth century, rape achieved such significance as a trope of power relations.Through attentive readings of a wide range of literary and cultural representations of sexual assault--from antebellum seduction narratives and "realist" representations of rape in nineteenth-century novels to Deliverance, American Psycho, and contemporary feminist accounts--Sabine Sielke traces the evolution of a specifically American rhetoric of rape. She considers the kinds of cultural work that this rhetoric has performed and finds that rape has been an insistent figure for a range of social, political, and economic issues.Sielke argues that the representation of rape has been a major force in the cultural construction of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, class, and indeed national identity. At the same time, her acute analyses of both canonical and lesser-known texts explore the complex anxieties that motivate such constructions and their function within the wider cultural imagination. Provoked in part by contemporary feminist criticism, Reading Rape also challenges feminist positions on sexual violence by interrogating them as part of the history in which rape has been a convenient and conventional albeit troubling trope for other concerns and conflicts.This book teaches us what we talk about when we talk about rape. And what we're talking about is often something else entirely: power, money, social change, difference, and identity.

Excerpt

Reading Rape is an exploration of representations of rape, of what I have come to call the rhetoric of rape, not an analysis of rape as a social fact. Since I do hold, though, that we experience the real by way of its various representations, I want to begin by calling back to mind a prominent case of “real rape.” On April 20, 1989, a twenty-nine-year-old white female jogger—an investment banker, as it turned out, at Salomon Brothers in downtown Manhattan—was found in Central Park, near 102d Street, her clothes torn, her skull crushed, her left eyeball pushed back through its socket, the characteristic surface wrinkles of her brain flattened, her blood reduced by 75 percent, her vagina filled with dirt and twigs: the victim of a beating and gang rape of utmost brutality by six black and Hispanic teenagers. Crucial in this context is not the incident itself. There were thousands of rapes reported that year, some of which lacked nothing in brutality, including one, a week later, “involving the near decapitation of a black woman in Fort Tryon Park”(Didion 255). What's more: the sociology of real rape is not my trade. Instead, what is significant for me about the Central Park case is the prominence to which it advanced and the discourse it generated, a rhetoric aptly exemplified by news headlines such as “The Jogger and the Wolf Pack”or “Central Park Horror” (qtd. in Didion 255).

“[C]rimes are universally understood to be news,”Joan Didion writes in “Sentimental Journeys,”her brilliant reading of the case, “to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept”(255–56). The story offered by the Jogger Rape Case is an old and well-established one: rape, we are assured, is an encounter of total strangers in public parks. Accordingly, media coverage did not center upon the (gender) issues involved in the sexual violation but, as Didion emphasizes, interpreted the case as a conflict between two parties clearly distinguished by race, ethnicity, and class: on the one hand, whites, affluent enough to keep the city's realities at a safe distance, to whom the violation of the young urban professional signified the loss of sacrosanct territory; on the other, African Americans who considered the treatment of the violators as yet another lynching campaign, a kind of rape. The discursive scene of the crime thus draws upon a whole cultural register generated in the course of late-nineteenth-century interracial conflicts and national identity formation. Specifically, it invokes what W. J. Cash in the early 1940s labeled the “Southern rape complex,” according to which the presumed sexual . . .

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